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Revolution: Game Over

At least 120 are dead in Cairo in a pre-dawn massacre.

    “The massacre took place in the small hours of Saturday morning, at a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya, east Cairo, where tens of thousands of pro-Morsi supporters have camped since Morsi was deposed on 3 July.
    “Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said the shooting started shortly before pre-dawn morning prayers on the fringes of a round-the-clock vigil being staged by backers of Morsi, who was toppled by the army more than three weeks ago.
    “‘They are not shooting to wound, they are shooting to kill,’ Haddad said, adding that the death toll might be much higher. …
    “The deaths come just two weeks after military and police officers massacred 51 Morsi supporters at a nearby protest in east Cairo.
    “They also happened less than 24 hours after hundreds of thousands of anti-Morsi protesters gathered in Egyptian streets to give General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Morsi, their assent to crack down on what he had on Wednesday called ‘terrorism’.
    “Sceptics say this is a euphemism for a violent campaign on largely peaceful Morsi supporters….”

Mohamed ElBaradei, how does it feel now to be seated in this government? Here’s what you said yesterday, before the killings:

    “It is time that we end this miserable state of polarisation using rational means. We have to be tolerant so that we can build Egypt.
    “Non-violence, rule of law…and reconciliation based on inclusiveness are key principles to adhere to during this difficult time.”

So will you resign in protest today? Call for an aggressive investigation? Or will we hear more mealy-mouthed words?

The tragedy of Egypt is that both “sides” in this struggle, the military and the Brotherhood, seem to be treating it as a zero-sum game, meaning there is no room for those who feel caught in the middle and can’t bring themselves to identify with either (authoritarian) camp. By rights, this should include nearly all the revolutionary forces who brought down the Mubarak regime in the first place.

I’ve never been to Egypt, but I do try to evaluate the news out of Egypt as if I were an Egyptian citizen, faced with the choices they are faced with, and I’ll say this: throughout the whole post-revolutionary process until now, with all its ups and downs, I’ve never once felt the urge to boycott an election or a referendum. However flawed the choices may have been, it always felt better to validate the concept of citizen participation. But if there were elections under this new regime in a few weeks or months, even if there were candidates who matched my political views exactly, it would be nearly impossible to persuade me to go to the polls, because I would feel like I was validating the very massacres we’ve just seen. Cold-blooded, premeditated, state-sponsored killing. In my eyes, the process is irrevocably tainted in a way that it hasn’t been until now, even at its worst moments.

The Egyptian revolution is over, it seems, and it failed. I hope I’m wrong.

UPDATE: Abdel-Rahman Daour, a spokesman for the pro-Morsi sit-in:

    “No one’s going anywhere. We either have freedom or we die. We’re not going to live in a country without freedom.”

Islam Taher, a pro-Morsi protester whose childhood friend was killed:

    “If this was animals being killed, people would care. But because it’s us, they don’t.”

A Universe Predisposed for Us

In his New Yorker blog post Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real, Richard Brody lays out the arguments of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

    “People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that…everything is physical. … Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists — namely, mental stuff. The vast flow of perceptions, ideas, and emotions that arise in each human mind is something that, in his view, actually exists as something other than merely the electrical firings in the brain that gives rise to them….
    “His argument is that, if the mental things arising from the minds of living things are a distinct realm of existence, then strictly physical theories about the origins of life, such as Darwinian theory, cannot be entirely correct. Life cannot have arisen solely from a primordial chemical reaction, and the process of natural selection cannot account for the creation of the realm of mind. …
    “Since neither physics nor Darwinian biology — the concept of evolution — can account for the emergence of a mental world from a physical one, Nagel contends that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. But then he goes further, into strange and visionary territory. … He suggests that any theory of the universe, any comprehensive mesh of physics and biology, will need to succeed in ‘showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.’
    “And this, he argues, would be a theory of teleology — a preprogrammed or built-in tendency in the universe toward the particular goal of fulfilling the possibilities of mentality. In a splendid image, Nagel writes, ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.’

In other words, according to Nagel, the universe is predisposed to favor an outcome in which intelligence like ours exists.

Meanwhile, Scientific American has published an article which touches on similar themes, Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.

    “Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of force fields. … But this view sweeps a little-known fact under the rug: the particle interpretation of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation, stretches our conventional notions of ‘particle’ and ‘field’ to such an extent that ever more people think the world might be made of something else entirely. …
    “Many physicists think that particles are not things at all but excitations in a quantum field, the modern successor of classical fields such as the magnetic field. But fields, too, are paradoxical.
    “If neither particles nor fields are fundamental, then what is? Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin.”

Unfortunately, this is just a “teaser” — the article itself is behind a paywall. But it prompted me to do further research. As a former computer programmer, the mention of “properties such as mass, charge and spin” reminded me of the properties assigned to an object in programming. I soon learned that in 1990, John Archibald Wheeler, one of the preeminent physicists of his time, introduced the concept of “it from bit,” in which the building blocks of the universe are neither particles nor fields, but bits of information.

    “It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’ — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions …in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

The concept of the universe as information is seconded by Anton Zeilinger, a contemporary physicist reknowned for his demonstrations of “quantum teleportation” — the instantaneous transfer of properties through space from one entangled particle to another, which means that the particle (or its information) has traveled faster than the speed of light. The following comments come from a 2006 interview.

    “For me the concept of ‘information’ is at the basis of everything we call ‘nature.’ The moon, the chair, the equation of states, anything and everything, because we can’t talk about anything without de facto speaking about the information we have of these things. In this sense the information is the basic building block of our world. …
    “We’ve learnt in the natural sciences that the key to understanding can often be found if we lift certain dividing lines in our minds. Newton showed that the apple falls to the ground according to the same laws that govern the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. And with this he made the old differentiation between earthly and heavenly phenomena obsolete. Darwin showed that there is no dividing line between man and animal. And Einstein lifted the line dividing space and time. But in our heads, we still draw a dividing line between ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge about reality,’ in other words between reality and information. And you cannot draw this line. There is no recipe, no process for distinguishing between reality and information. All this thinking and talking about reality is about information, which is why one should not make a distinction in the formulation of laws of nature. Quantum theory, correctly interpreted, is information theory.”

This article from 2001, The Mystery of Quantum Mechanics by Hans Christian von Baeyer, has much more to say about Zeilinger’s ideas on information as the building blocks of the universe.

    “Zeilinger thinks that before we can truly understand quantum theory, it must be connected in some way to what we know and feel. The problem, he says, is the lack of a simple underlying principle…. All the other major theories of physics are based on such principles — pithy, comprehensible maxims that anchor the formulae in the everyday world. … Now Zeilinger proposes to rebuild quantum mechanics on a similar basis, to put it in terms that need no debatable philosophy.
    “Perhaps it is no surprise that the terms he uses are those of information. We live in the age of information. We depend increasingly on information technology, our schools teach information processing and information science, and our industry and commerce are information based. But until now, the concept of information has only hovered on the edge of physics.
    “About a decade ago, John Archibald Wheeler urged that information should take centre stage. What we call reality, he thinks, arises from the questions we ask about it and the responses we receive. ‘Tomorrow, we will have learned to understand and express all of physics in the language of information,’ he said.
    “The atom of information is the bit…. If experiments are questions we ask of nature, then the simplest of them have yes or no answers: ‘Did the photon arrive here, or not?’ ‘Did the counter click, or not?’ We can also ask more complex questions, but they can always be built up from simpler yes or no questions like these.
    “Zeilinger’s conceptual leap is to associate bits with the building blocks of the material world. In quantum mechanics, these building blocks are called elementary systems, and the archetypal elementary system is the spin of an electron. The only possible outcomes of measuring an electron’s spin are ‘up’ and ‘down.’ … These outcomes could just as well be labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ or, in the fashion of digital computers, ‘1’ and ‘0.’ …
    “Zeilinger’s single, simple principle leads to these three cornerstones of quantum mechanics: quantisation, uncertainty and entanglement. What, then, of the more formal elements of quantum mechanics such as wave functions and Schrödinger’s equation — the bread and butter of atomic physicists? The road promises to be long and steep, but Zeilinger and his student Caslav Brukner, have now begun the ascent.”

This article from last year, The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet by Amir Aczel, is also definitely worth a look, if you have any interest in what cutting-edge physics is thinking about. In it, Aczel tackles a thought problem, the Boltzmann Brain, which is currently making the rounds in quantum theory.

    “The second law of thermodynamics implies that the entropy — the degree of randomness, or disorder — of any closed system never decreases (and generally increases). … Investing energy can bring back order to the system and thus reduce its entropy. So a high-entropy [disordered] state is ‘normal,’ while creating order is something that requires concentrated, directed energy. This is an important observation. …
    “Boltzmann wondered why our observed universe seems so orderly rather than completely random, as one might expect as the ‘natural’ state of the universe. … And he hypothesized that perhaps our portion of the universe is just a statistical fluke: an aberration within a wider universe in which randomness reigns supreme. So a Boltzmann brain, named after him, is a brain — a conscious observer — that materializes out of the disorderly universe purely by chance (a very, very small chance, I must emphasize) in the same way that, as Boltzmann had suggested, our entire universe may have emerged out of a wider chaotic multiverse purely through a random event. As Andrei Linde of Stanford put it in an interview with the New York Times: ‘It’s cheaper’ to create just a disembodied brain than it is to make a universe.”

So according to the second law of thermodynamics, our universe should not exist, since it is extremely ordered and complex — a high-energy state — whereas the “natural” state would be a universe that is all noise and no signal, a dead universe of chaotic, disordered events. Aczel continues:

    “But if you travel forever in the multiverse, will you encounter a single Boltzmann brain?
    The argument made by Linde…as well as by other proponents of the infinite multiverse and its Boltzmann brains is that the probability of producing — purely by chance, through quantum fluctuations, in infinite space and time — a disembodied brain is higher than the probability of producing an entire universe.
    “But this is not true. A brain requires a body to support it, and a world to feed it and house it and protect it, and — from everything we know so far from science — it needs 13.7 billion years of an expanding universe, galaxy and star formation, including many millions of years of fusion in stars to create and spread around the iron and carbon and oxygen and other essentials needed to start and maintain life on a hospitable planet, and to set evolution in motion, in order to create a conscious, thinking, self-aware brain. …
    “Wait to infinity and these ingredients will all just materialize in the right way through a ‘quantum fluctuation’? I think not. The case of a Boltzmann brain is unmeasurably more complicated, and astronomically more demanding probabilistically, than that of a simple sequence of 150,000 characters to be typed in the right order [“a monkey typing Shakespeare”]. It is, in fact — because of the requirements of something like our world to support a human or a computer brain — an event of probability zero. It cannot happen by itself even ‘at infinity.'”

So to have intelligent life like our own, a universe must first evolve in such a way as to support life. And as Boltzmann pointed out a century ago, there is something highly “unnatural” (according to the second law of thermodynamics) about a universe ordered enough, and complex enough, and durable enough, to do this. The probability of this happening on its own, through a quantum fluctuation, is vanishingly small — and yet here we are.

This brings us back to Nagel, and the notion that our universe must be predisposed in some way to seek complexity and self-awareness. There must be some other principle at work here to counter the drift towards entropy. If the universe is really made of information as Anderson and Zeilinger believe, maybe that predisposition is built into the programming. Maybe we live in a universe which, through random events playing out over time according to natural law, is pre-programmed with a high likelihood of becoming conscious.

So who or what did the programming? Was there a programmer? I have some thoughts on the subject that I’ll share below. The following pieces were written in the last few months of 2012. I was reflecting then on what I knew of current theories in physics, but I’m not a student of physics, and I was really coming at this from another angle. My real interest is the study of the world’s religions, particularly the Eastern traditions, and religious philosophy. What struck me is that if you squint at science and religion in just the right way, scientific and religious views of the universe seem to be returning to harmony.

— • —

Earth is a fine planet. Enjoy your time here.

What is a planet? It’s a place where intelligence comes to settle for a while. It’s a place where, out of all the infinite universes, galaxies, and stars unsuited to life, a harmonious balance of gravity, temperature, and chemicals exists to make life work.

My current theory is that wherever intelligence can be, it will be. It is everywhere, seeking the right receptacle. It will inhabit the receptacle to the extent that the receptacle is able to carry it. At times intelligence will even guide the receptacle to improve its capacities, as when a complex molecule striving to become life makes the leap with some kind of innate intelligence.

We seem to know what we’re going to become before we get there. We have a precognitive intuition that recognizes new discoveries as obvious and says, “I told you so.” It remains in the background but prods us to knowledge wherever new knowledge is possible, and then breaks through to reveal itself as the thing we knew all along.

Why doesn’t it simply tell us all we need to know in advance? Because we ourselves must make the discovery. The complex molecule must go through a billion permutations before it becomes a cell. The tadpole must evolve over millions of years into a bird, an elephant, a dog. The scientist must labor for years over his equations before finally grasping the concept in its simplicity. Intelligence guides us, but we must do the work.

It’s the process that counts — the result is just a side effect. By putting itself to work in the world through physical laws, natural selection, or the workings of the mind, intelligence finds progressively more worthy receptacles and is itself improved. The ultimate project of intelligence is the universe itself, with evolution as its sign.

— • —

I’m arguing that events in the universe are pre-programmed both for randomness — to produce sufficient variety — and for what I’ll call “useful complexity,” meaning a preference for results that achieve a more advanced state. In this way, simply by “running the clock” and allowing randomness to happen, according to rules that prefer more advanced states, evolution will inevitably take place, leading to life bearing planets, intelligent life on those planets, and beyond. While the process is completely random (though constrained by rules), the result is, roughly speaking, foreoredained. The universe was designed to evolve to a higher state.

“Spontaneous programming,” as a friend of mine calls it, is coupled with a “learning curve” so the most successful variations take priority over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows how this learning curve works, not just in the biological world, but in the physical world as well (solar systems, organic compounds) and even on the level of cosmology (universe formation, natural laws). Some natural laws and universes were “discarded” simply because they didn’t work. They didn’t produce a stable equilibrium able to hold itself together and build yet further complexity.

So “spontaneous programming” plus the “learning curve” (which is natural selection, or the tendency to preserve a successful model) equals complexity.

— • —

We should be operating under the premise that God doesn’t “intervene” and our universe has been running under the same rules from the beginning. That those rules produced all this complexity, including us, is built into the programming, or the design, or the original intent of the model in which we are living. Thus, through a principle of guided randomness, which is to say randomness filtered through, constrained by, or selected according to certain parameters which favor complexity, we got from random stardust to where we are now without divine intervention.

— • —


This is simple. God is what we call the unknown. Since the first humans knew nothing at all, even about the natural forces that acted on them directly, they called those forces God. The natural world, with its winds and rivers, animals and forests, was seen as sacred, and we walked within that sacred space. Later, when humans began to understand these natural forces rationally and reduce them to patterns, God retreated to the heavens, and became associated with the sun and moon, planets and stars. In a yet further abstraction, the dawn of monotheism invited us to perceive God as the “unmoved mover,” the unseen, unknowable, yet omnipresent force behind the known universe. And today, for those who feel that physical laws explain everything, scientific inquiry has so far pushed back the boundaries of the unknown that there is no longer any room for God.


It seems obvious to me that no matter how much humans eventually come to understand about ourselves and the universe in which we live, there will always be infinitely more that we don’t know. This is partly because our perceptions and mental capacities are limited, no matter how much we abstract them or acquire additional tools — and partly because each time we manage to solve an intellectual problem such as the structure of DNA or the expanding nature of the universe, this only leads to more questions about how these things actually work. So if God is what we call the unknown, as I claim above, then God will be with us forever, one step out of reach.

Let me give two examples. Darwin gave us a working model of evolution and how the various forms of life arose that we see around us today. We can map the DNA of these life forms, and confirm that humans are much closer to monkeys than we are to lizards or birds. Scientists can trace back, in theory, all the current forms of life to a single source, simple one-celled organisms that existed in the earth’s primeval oceans a billion years ago. We understand how the existence of certain elements like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in certain combinations at certain temperatures, made the formation of complex hydrocarbons possible, which are the building blocks of life. What we don’t know is why it happened, or how these static compounds, however complex, “learned” to move around, acquire energy from their environment in a systematic way, and above all reproduce their complex structure in subsequent generations. Does it make sense that such an exceptional “qualitative leap” could occur entirely by chance, through random combination of molecules over billions of years? Perhaps, but we can easily imagine a trillion planets like ours where the same material conditions existed and the same complex hydrocarbons formed, but where the leap to a self-reproducing new form, which we call life, never occurred. So at least, we must admit that we are very lucky.

My other example involves the universe itself. Less than a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding from a single point in time and space, known as the Big Bang. Indeed, time and space are themselves products of the Big Bang, and only have meaning within the confines of our universe, which is vast but not infinite. The expulsion of matter and energy from that single point produced all the forms we now perceive — galaxies and nebulas, planets and stars. For life as we know it to exist in the universe, stars are necessary as a source of heat, and planets like the earth are also necessary, to serve as an “incubator” for life. Fortunately, our universe seems to contain a vast quantity of planets and suns. But what the latest theories now tell us is that if the Big Bang had occurred in a slightly different way, no planets or suns would have arisen. If the physics of the Big Bang were tweaked even slightly, either the universe would have collapsed almost instantly, or it would have expanded too fast and dispersed all its energy, or the separation of matter and energy into discrete masses would never have happened, and we would have an undifferentiated field of plasma, rather than planets and suns. Indeed, the parameters for a “suitable” universe are so exact that the chances of one forming from a random Big Bang are vanishingly small. Now, apparently scientists believe that new universes are being formed all the time — not that we can see them, because their Big Bangs occur beyond the bounds of our own universe — in more than sufficient quantities to produce a universe like our own, once in a while. But while random events may have caused us to be where we are, once again we can say we are extremely lucky.

Therefore, at the very frontiers of modern science — the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth — are two “miracles” which, though they can be explained by physical laws and random events, are so unlikely as to raise the question, “Why?” Why did it happen, when obviously it didn’t have to happen, and indeed has not happened far more often — so much so that it boggles the imagination? For one universe like ours with the conditions to support life, ten to the trillionth power universes had to form where the physical laws were a tiny bit off; and for life to arise on earth, who knows how many random combinations had to occur before one molecule arose that proved to be self perpetuating. If God is what we call the unknown, then clearly God played a role here, for the simple reason that we can’t answer the question, “Why?” How we managed to be so lucky is unknown.

Of course, this is all just sophistry, simply a game of defining God in such a way that I can later bring her back into the picture under the guise of clever wordplay. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken as a proof that God exists, simply an example of how much about our existence, even for a rationalist, necessarily remains mysterious and unexplained. Indeed, for a rationalist there is no “miracle” at all, because all the universes that came into being without being able to support life, and all the chemical reactions that came close to generating life on our planet but fell short, are simply irrelevant to the fact that it eventually worked. Had it failed, we wouldn’t be here to gripe about it, so of course we live in a universe able to support life, and on a planet that produced life, however rare that may be. A rationalist may allow herself to wonder at the seemingly infinite blind alleys necessary to produce one random rationalist — but there is nothing miraculous about it, or anything unknown. It’s simply the product of chance, just as you can be sure that enough monkeys, or enough raindrops, at enough keyboards will eventually write Shakespeare.

But Hamlet produced by rain falling on an infinity of keyboards would be just as meaningless as all the garbage words produced on those same keyboards beforehand, because there is no intent. Fundamentally, instinctively, we sense that there is an essential difference between Hamlet written by meaningless raindrops, and Hamlet written by Shakespeare with intent. These events are of an entirely different order. So the real question here is, did life emerge on this planet, in this universe, through intent? Were we helped in some way? Were the rules written so that the series of random events that occurred would make our emergence more probable, even likely? It makes all the difference, and it speaks to our future as well. Raindrops producing Hamlet will go on to produce a nearly infinite series of garbage words before producing Hamlet once again, or Plato’s Republic. But if there is intent, perhaps both our past and our future have meaning. Perhaps we’re headed somewhere, somewhere unknown. And since God is what we call the unknown, maybe God is the future we’re headed to — in a universe that is far from meaningless, because it is governed by intent.

Links 23 July 2013

Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post, Egypt’s “Democrats” Abandon Democracy:

    “What happened to Egypt’s young liberals? Five years ago, they were the most promising movement in an Arab world dominated by strongmen like Mubarak. Now the vast majority of them are cheering another general, coup leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi….
    “This dizzying turnaround is unprecedented in the history of popular pro-democracy movements. Poland’s Solidarity or the anti-Pinochet movement in Chile would never have dreamed of embracing their former oppressors. …
    Once proud of their networked, leaderless structure, the liberals eventually embraced former U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei as their figurehead. It was a disastrous choice: Arrogant, vain and more comfortable in a Viennese salon than a Cairo slum, ElBaradei was polling in the single digits when he withdrew from last year’s presidential race. …
    “The liberals could have waited and organized for parliamentary elections, due in a few months; polls showed the Muslim Brotherhood sinking fast. Instead, they took the easy way out and switched sides. As the Wall Street Journal reported, in the months before the coup, secular opposition leaders met regularly with Egypt’s top generals, who promised that they would respond to large street demonstrations by ousting Morsi. …
    “Meanwhile, as vice president, ElBaradei sits in a government that is holding hundreds of political prisoners incommunicado; that has shut down al-Jazeera and Islamist media; and that has gunned down scores of unarmed street protesters. It’s an outcome that Esraa Abdel Fattah and her idealistic young friends never would have wished for five years ago.”

Khaled Fahmy in Ahram Online, On Fascism and Fascists:

    “I believe that the Brotherhood’s record in power clarifies how… their inability to control the army and the police, rendered their leaders paranoid and anxious. In light of the ongoing revolution and daily protests against their policies, the Brotherhood felt a need to reach an understanding with these two institutions. And indeed, in every incident of street confrontations between protestors and the police, the Brotherhood sided against the people. …
    “And after they thought that they had succeeded in neutralising these two key institutions, the Brotherhood dedicatedly sought to control the public domain. Thus, they drafted laws to control civil society organisations; to control demonstrations; to gerrymander electoral districts in favour of their candidates; and to control the judiciary, all in the shadows of a constitution that they drafted in an exclusionary and flawed manner.
    “Due to all that…the people finally rose in one large uprising on 30 June. In this revolution, Egyptians strongly expressed their rejection of the Brotherhood’s project, a project that was seen as…clamping down on the people’s hard-won liberty. … And yet do we not, by focusing on these demands, ignore the elephant in the room? Are we not ignoring the army and its blatant intervention in the political process since 3 July? …
    “The public, which throughout SCAF’s rule chanted against the military, is now flaunting General El-Sisi’s photos and is taking him to be their prophet and saviour. The people forgot, or decided to forget that the army, whose jets they now dance under in Tahrir Square, is the same army that conducted virginity tests on female protestors, trampled the ‘blue-bra girl,’ abducted and tortured protesters in the Egyptian Museum and the Cabinet headquarters, performed surgical operations on protesters in military hospitals without anesthesia or sterilisation, and above all, has run, and continues to run, an economic empire that is estimated to be equal to a quarter of the country’s GDP.”

Baheyya, The Middling Muslim Brothers:

    “The Muslim Brothers have always been an essentially middling movement, not in the sense of ‘mediocre’ but in the sense of straddling two worlds. Their base is rooted in the middle and lower classes, with a real interest in transformative socio-economic change. But their leadership has always had its eye on joining, not destroying, the system.
    “Over the years, the MB leadership crystallized into a counter-elite of well-to-do, urban, upwardly-mobile professionals and businessmen eager to enter the exclusive ranks of the establishment. … But as with all large organizations, the leadership has developed interests of its own, principally self-preservation. …
    “Morsi’s performance [as president] oscillated between acting with resolve to push back against obstruction and going slow so as not to antagonize powerful entrenched fiefdoms. … In ordinary times and places, a dual strategy of confrontation and appeasement is the stuff of presidential politics. In the power struggle of post-revolutionary Egypt, presidential politics is an existential gamble. Morsi became trapped in a cycle where he was accused of dictatorship if he moved aggressively and accused of betrayal if he pursued accommodation. …
    “Had Morsi pursued a different tack and built a robust popular front to help him take on the Mubarakist ruling caste, would he still be president today? … My argument suggests that even if he wanted to, Morsi wouldn’t have been able to build firm bridges. He was too imprisoned by the MB leadership’s strategic decision to go it alone.”

McClatchy, Mood Shifting, Congress May Move to Limit NSA Spying:

    “Skepticism has been slowly building since last month’s disclosures that the super-secret NSA conducted programs that collected Americans’ telephone data. … Most in Congress remain reluctant to tinker with any program that could compromise security, but lawmakers are growing frustrated. ‘I think the administration and the NSA has had six weeks to answer questions and haven’t done a good job at it. They’ve been given their chances, but they have not taken those chances,’ said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.
    “The House of Representatives could debate one of the first major bids for change soon. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., is trying to add a provision to the defense spending bill…that would end the NSA’s mass collection of Americans’ telephone records. It’s unclear whether House leaders will allow the measure to be considered. …
    Other bipartisan efforts are in the works. Thirty-two House members, led by Amash and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., are backing a plan to restrict Washington’s ability to collect data under the Patriot Act on people not connected to an ongoing investigation. Also active is a push to require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which rules on government surveillance requests, to be more transparent. …
    “‘It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to have a full and frank discussion about this balance when the public is unable to review and analyze what the executive branch and the courts believe the law means,’ said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has asked the administration to make the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court public.”

Politico, Elizabeth Warren, Hard-Liner:

    “Earlier last week at the White House, President Barack Obama tried to use his powers of persuasion on Elizabeth Warren, privately urging the consumer watchdog-turned-Massachusetts senator to back the student loan deal he was reaching with Senate leaders.
    “It didn’t work. On Thursday, she went to the Senate floor to attack the plan, saying it would hurt students and benefit big banks. ‘I think this whole system stinks. We should not go along with any plan that continues to produce profits for the government. It is wrong,’ Warren said. …
    “Warren and several other liberal Democrats…opposed the deal because it continues a government program they think is based more on revenue than on helping students. They contend the program creates profits of $184 billion over the next 10 years.
    “On the floor of the Senate, she described Republicans’ position on student loans as ‘whatever you do, make sure that the government makes $184 billion off the backs of students.'”

CBS News, Violence Continues in France over Islamic Veil Ban:

    “Some 20 cars have been torched and four people detained in a second night of violence in suburbs west of Paris, a result of tensions linked to authorities’ handling of France’s ban on Muslim face veils. …
    “The Friday night violence came after a gathering of about 200–250 people to protest the arrest of a man whose wife was ticketed Thursday for wearing a face veil. The husband tried to strangle an officer who was doing the ticketing, the prosecutor said. …
    “The law affects only a very small proportion of France’s millions of Muslims who wear the niqab, with a slit for the eyes, or the burqa, with a mesh screen for the eyes. But some Muslim groups argue the law stigmatizes moderate Muslims, too. France also bans headscarves in schools and public buildings. …
    “The Collective Against Islamophobia in France…said in a statement that it was contacted by the veiled woman ticketed in Trappes on Thursday, and that she said the police officer yanked her by the veil and pushed her mother.
    “Police argue they are doing their jobs and that veiled women are breaking a well-known law.”

Machines Like Us, Purple Sunlight Eaters:

    “A protein found in the membranes of ancient microorganisms that live in desert salt flats could offer a new way of using sunlight to generate environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel, according to a new study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.
    “This bio-assisted hybrid photocatalyst outperforms many other similar systems in hydrogen generation and could be a good candidate for fabrication of green energy devices that consume virtually infinite sources — salt water and sunlight.”

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, My Game of Thrones Problem:

    “I’m normally not victimized, particularly not by pop culture. But I’m feeling more than a bit victimized by Game of Thrones….
    “I am disturbed by how the series, which was already pretty dark, seems to be getting even more lurid. [Author George R. R.] Martin depicts how violence becomes routine as parts of the population sink into near starvation, brigands prowl the countryside, and dispossessed townspeople (‘sparrows’) flock to churches, the bigger cities, and castles seeking what little security and food they might offer. …
    Game of Thrones also resonates a bit too closely for comfort to what I see in my day job [as an economics pundit]: how people who are simply power-hungry can prevail over those who constrain themselves by trying to do the right thing (however difficult that might be to define), how lousy leaders can do a remarkable amount of damage in a short time, how the noble classes can insulate themselves from economic and physical wreckage and let ordinary people endure hunger, destruction of dwellings and towns, and pillage by wandering bandits. We don’t get much of a picture of Westeros [the imaginary kingdom where Game of Thrones is set] before the wars among the king wannabes broke out, but we get lots of vignettes of the havoc of war: burning of the countryside, stolen livestock, townspeople tortured in case they know where gold is hidden, churches torn down, and plenty of rapes, murders, and mutilations. It was a once well-ordered, fairly well functioning society, and now that it’s been broken, it looks like it would take a long time to restore anything like the former order. …
    “If you’ve stuck with Game of Thrones despite the pain factor, to what do you attribute the personal and cultural appeal?”

John Lancaster in London Review of Books, When Did You Get Hooked?

    “[Game of Thrones tells its story] by hopping about from person to person across the wide geography of Westeros and beyond, with the point of view moving around a large rep company of principal characters, most of them, most of the time, afraid for their lives. The Wars of the Roses, in this reimagining, are — as they surely were in real life — a blood-soaked, treacherous, unstable world, saturated in political rivalries, in which nobody is safe. The violence in this milieu…is long on murder of the innocent, poisoning and rape. It’s not a world any sane person would want to live in, not for a moment…. This sense of unsafety and instability is at the heart of the books. …
    “That, I think, is the first reason for the immense popularity and success of Game of Thrones. This sense of instability, of not knowing what’s about to happen, speaks to the moment. We all feel anxious and uncertain about the future, none of us knows quite how firmly our feet are planted. It’s hard to dramatise economic uncertainty, so why not convey this feeling through a made-up version of the Wars of the Roses? Add the depth and texture and profoundly satisfying thoroughness with which Martin has imagined this world, and the range of his imaginative sympathy with its large company of characters, and it’s a wonder it’s taken the world so long to fall in love with the books.
    “The second big reason for the success of the series may be adjacent to the point about instability. … In Westeros, seasons last not for months but for years, and are not predictable in duration. Nobody knows when — to borrow the minatory motto of the Starks [a family from the north who are key protagonists] — ‘winter is coming.’ At the start of Game of Thrones, summer has been going on for years, and the younger generation has no memory of anything else…. The first signs of autumn are at hand, however, and the maesters — they’re the caste of priest/doctor/scientists — have made an official announcement that winter is indeed on its way. A winter that is always notoriously hard, and can last not just years but a decade or more. … Westeros is like our own world, in which hard times have arrived, and no one feels immune from their consequences, and no one knows how long the freeze will last. Our freeze is economic, but still. Put these two components together, and even the fantasy-averse, surely, can start to see the contemporary appeal of this story, this world. It’s a universe in which nobody is secure, and the climate is getting steadily harder, and no one knows when the good weather will return.”

New Scientist, Shiny, Happy Earth Photobombs Saturn Snapshot:

Links 20 July 2013

Wall Street Journal, In Egypt, the “Deep State” Rises Again:

    “In the months before the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s top generals met regularly with senior aides to opposition leaders, often at the Navy Officers’ Club nestled on the Nile.
    “The message: If the opposition could put enough protesters in the streets, the military would step in — and forcibly remove the president.
    “‘It was a simple question the opposition put to the military,’ said Ahmed Samih, who is close to several opposition attendees. ‘Will you be with us again?’ The military said it would. …
    “The two sides needed each other. Opposition parties had popular credibility, unlike Mubarak-era officials. Mubarak figures brought deep pockets and influence over the powerful state bureaucracy. …
    “As Mr. Morsi’s ouster neared, there were increasing meetings between the military and opposition. They included senior aides to [National Salvation Front leader Mohammed] ElBaradei, former presidential candidate and Arab League chief [Amr] Moussa, and another presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy, according to Mr. Samih, and other people close to top NSF members. …
    “The generals said that if enough Egyptians joined public protests, the military would have little choice but to intervene, according to several activists close to Mr. ElBaradei and U.S. officials. ‘The military’s answer was, if enough people come out into the streets, then it will be exactly like Mubarak,’ Mr. Samih said.”
    [NOTE: To get past the subscriber paywall, search for the text of the first paragraph using Google and click on the link there.]

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones, Here’s How the Coup in Egypt Went Down:

    “The military, representing the ‘deep state,’ negotiated a deal with Morsi’s secular opponents…. The deep state’s job was to keep public services in shambles as a way of stoking public anger. The secularists provided the populist cover and the shock troops for widespread protests. The military provided the muscle to oust Morsi and take over the government. After the deed was done, public services were quickly restored, the secularists were given a share of political power, and the military regained much of its old influence and independence. All nice and neat.”

Associated Press, Disputes Between Morsi, Military Led to Egypt Coup:

    “The degree of [the] differences [between President Mohammed Morsi and armed forces chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi] suggests that the military had been planning for months to take greater control of the political reins in Egypt. When an activist group named Tamarod began a campaign to oust Morsi, building up to protests by millions nationwide that began June 30, it appears to have provided a golden opportunity for el-Sissi to get rid of the president. The military helped Tamarod from early on, communicating with it through third parties, according to the officials.
    “The reason, the officials said, was because of profound policy differences with Morsi. El-Sissi saw him as dangerously mismanaging a wave of protests early in the year that saw dozens killed by security forces. More significantly, however, the military also worried that Morsi was giving a free hand to Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, ordering el-Sissi to stop crackdowns on jihadis who had killed Egyptian soldiers and were escalating a campaign of violence. …
    “In April, the youth activists of Tamarod, Arabic for ‘Rebel,’ began collecting signatures on a petition for Morsi to step down. When it said it had 2 million signatures in mid-May, the military took an interest and worked through third parties that connected the group with liberal and opposition-linked businessmen who would bank it, said two high-ranking Interior Ministry officials.
    “The campaign claimed in June to have more than 20 million signatures — though the number has never been independently confirmed — and called for mass rallies against Morsi to start June 30, the anniversary of his inauguration. El-Sissi issued a statement saying the armed forces would intervene to stop any violence at the protests, particularly to stop Morsi supporters from attacking the rallies. He gave the two sides a week to resolve their differences — with the deadline being June 30.”

Max Blumenthal in Al Jazeera English, People, Power, or Propaganda? Unraveling the Egyptian Opposition:

    “Among the first major Egyptian public figures to marvel at the historic size of the June 30 demonstrations was the billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris. On June 30, Sawiris informed his nearly one million Twitter followers that the BBC had just reported, ‘The number of people protesting today is the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind.’ …
    “Sawiris was not exactly a disinterested party. He had boasted of his support for Tamarod, lavishing the group with funding and providing them with office space. He also happened to be a stalwart of the old regime who had thrown his full weight behind the secular opposition to Morsi.
    “Two days after Sawiris’ remarkable statement, BBC Arabic’s lead anchor, Nour-Eddine Zorgui, responded to a query about it on Twitter by stating, “seen nothing to this effect, beware, only report on this from Egypt itself.” Sawiris seemed to have fabricated the riveting BBC dispatch from whole cloth. …
    “Some Egyptian opponents to Morsi appear to have fabricated Western media reports to validate the crowd estimates. Jihan Mansour, a presenter for Dream TV, a private Egyptian network owned by the longtime Mubarak business associate Ahmad Bahgat, announced, ‘CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history.’
    “There is no record of CNN or BBC reporting any such figure.”

Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian, Killing in Cairo: The Full Story of the Republican Guards’ Club Shootings:

    “In the early hours of 8 July 2013, 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters camped outside the Republican Guards’ club in Cairo were killed by security forces. The Egyptian military claimed the demonstrators had attempted to break into the building with the aid of armed motorcyclists. …
    “The military has said that the assault on the protesters was provoked by a terrorist attack. At about 4 a.m., according to the army’s account, 15 armed motorcyclists approached the Republican Guards’ club compound. The army said that the motorcyclists fired shots, that people attempted to break into the compound, and that the soldiers then had no choice but to defend their property.
    “However, a week-long investigation — including interviews with 31 witnesses, local people and medics, as well as analysis of video evidence — found no evidence of the motorcyclist attack and points to a very different narrative, in which the security forces launched a co-ordinated assault on a group of largely peaceful and unarmed civilians.”

Reuters, Egypt’s Brotherhood Proposes Crisis Talk Framework via EU Envoy:

    “The Muslim Brotherhood said on Thursday it had proposed through an EU go-between a framework for talks to resolve Egypt’s political crisis, its first formal announcement of an offer for negotiations since President Mohamed Morsy was toppled.
    “Brotherhood official Gehad el-Haddad, who represented the movement in previous EU-facilitated talks, told Reuters…[that] the Brotherhood would be willing to negotiate over any political issue, including new elections to replace Morsy as president, but insisted that the army would first have to reverse its decree that unilaterally removed Morsy.
    “‘First they have to reverse the coup,’ he said. ‘You can’t come on a tank and remove an elected leader…. It is a stand-off, it is either a military coup or a democratic choice.”

Egypt Independent, Tamarod Calls for Protest Against Constitutional Declaration:

    “The Tamarod campaign and the 30 June Front have both said that they have strong misgivings concerning the roadmap announced by the Army, stressing that they want the constitution to be rewritten entirely. They have announced their dissatisfaction with the current Constitutional Declaration, and have called on the Egyptian people to participate in rallies in Tahrir Square and at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace on Friday to make those demands.”

The Telegraph, Chinese Museum Found with 40,000 Fake Exhibits Forced to Close:

    “The museum’s public humiliation began earlier this month when Ma Boyong, a Chinese writer, noticed a series of inexplicable discrepancies during a visit and posted his findings online.
    “Among the most striking errors were artifacts engraved with writing purportedly showing that they dated back more than 4,000 years…. However, according to a report in the Shanghai Daily the writing appeared in simplified Chinese characters, which only came into widespread use in the 20th century. …
    “Wei Yingjun, the museum’s chief consultant…said he was ‘quite positive’ that at least 80 of the museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic. …
    “Mr. Wei said that objects of ‘dubious’ origin had been ‘marked very clearly’ so as not to mislead visitors and vowed to sue Mr. Ma, the whistle-blowing writer, for blackening the museum’s name.”

The Guardian, Dutch Art Heist Paintings May Have Been Burned by Suspect’s Mother:

    “Ash from an oven owned by a woman whose son is charged with stealing seven multimillion-pound paintings, including works by Matisse, Picasso and Monet, contained paint, canvas and nails, a Romanian museum official said on Wednesday.
    “The discovery could be evidence that Olga Dogaru was telling the truth when she claimed to have burned the paintings, which were taken from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal gallery last year in a daylight heist.
    “Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, told the Associated Press that museum forensic specialists had found small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint, and copper and steel nails, some of which pre-dated the 20th century.”

From “Superchill” to Boston Bomber

A major controversy, apparently, has been stirred up by Rolling Stone’s decision to put accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, using a photo that portrays him as a dreamy-eyed teenager — even though he is a dreamy-eyed teenager, and the cover story the photo illustrates is about him.

Some people seem to think the photo is too rock-star-like or heroic, and are upset, apparently, that no photos are available that make Tsarnaev look more menacing and deranged. (The photo is a self-portrait he used on his Twitter account.) Others criticize the idea of profiling Tsarnaev at all, arguing that Rolling Stone should have reported on the bombing’s victims or first responders instead. In response to their criticism, major retailers like CVS and Walgreens are refusing to put this issue on their newsstands.

But anger at the article or its packaging ignores the fact that the story itself deserves to be told. How did a seemingly well-adjusted kid — an immigrant success story, one might say — go from being a wrestling team captain, model student, and laid-back stoner to alleged terrorist in two short years? Viewed purely in terms of dramatic potential, doesn’t this story contain far more human interest than the stories of the victims — who are, after all, only part of the story by tragic accident, rather than through choices they themselves made?

If you are fascinated by stories of how bad people get to be the way they are — and I admit that I am, having previously read about folks like Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrew Cunanan, and Jared Loughner — then by all means read the original article, excellently reported by Janet Reitman. If the media controversy is more your thing, then check out this story in The New Yorker, this one in The Atlantic, or this one in Slate.

Moment of Rupture

Italian cabinet minister Cecile Kyenge, an orangutan, Senator Roberto Calderoli.

At a rally of his suppporters on July 13, Italian Senator Roberto Calderoli said this about Immigration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first cabinet minister of African origin:

    “I love animals — bears and wolves, as everyone knows — but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan.”

“I’m not saying she is one” — classy!

Also, bears and wolves are acceptable, but orangutans not?

Following a storm of criticism and demands that he resign, Calderoli called Kyenge to apologize to her personally. He even offered to send her flowers. She accepted the apology, but advised him to “reflect deeply.” In a later interview with the BBC, she added:

    “What kind of politics do they want to be doing — politics based on insults or politics based on concrete issues? … That’s why what he kicked off can’t stay between us but has to transcend my personal case. … It’s a moment of rupture for the country. Italy is trying to change at the moment and to take into account the fact that there is another Italy here too.”

Calderoli seems to have a history of problems with that “other Italy.” In 2006 he had to resign from a cabinet post under Silvio Berlusconi, after his appearance on a TV program wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed helped to ignite protests at the Italian consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in ten deaths.

Links 15 July 2013

Rami G. Khouri in The Daily Star, Spare Us Your Intellectual Disneylands:

    “Arab citizens, who now can express their identities and mobilize in the millions for mass political action, represent the agency of the individual citizen that remains, in my mind, the single most important development in the country since January 2011. …
    “Egyptians are not mobs who must choose only between democracy and army rule; rather they comprise thousands of citizen groups that rise and fall according to the times and conditions. Some go to public squares, some give to local charities, some stay home and watch television and vote when they are given that opportunity, and many millions do some or all of these things. This historic assertion of citizen agency in the past 30 months has resulted in indigenous political movements whose fortunes rise and fall. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolutionary youth, Salafist Islamists, the National Salvation Front…all have only one thing in common: They are accountable ultimately to the will of the Egyptians, and cannot try to impose a system of rule or national policies that the citizenry does not accept.”

Baheyya, Fashioning a Coup:

    “It’s soothing to believe that a popular uprising ejected an incompetent Islamist president. It’s not comforting to point out that a popular uprising was on the cusp of doing so, until the generals stepped in, aborted a vital political process, arrested the president, and proclaimed their own ‘roadmap’ for how things will be from now on. …
    “With their July 3 coup, Egypt’s new military overlords and their staunch American backers are playing an age-old game, the game of turning the public against the ineluctable bickering, inefficiency, gridlock, and intense conflict that is part and parcel of a free political life, so that a disillusioned, fatigued people will pine for the stability and order that the military then swoops in to provide. …
    “As the recently self-designated ’eminence grise’ Mohamed ElBaradie summed it up, ‘Without Morsi’s removal from office, we would have been headed toward a fascist state, or there would have been a civil war.’
    “And that is the essence of the anti-political doctrine that worships order, fears political struggle, mistrusts popular striving, and kowtows to force majeure.”

Associated Press, Edward Snowden Has “Blueprints” to NSA:

    “Edward Snowden has highly sensitive documents on how the National Security Agency is structured and operates that could harm the U.S. government, but has insisted that they not be made public, a journalist close to the NSA leaker said.
    “Glenn Greenwald, a columnist with The Guardian newspaper who first reported on the intelligence leaks, told The Associated Press that disclosure of the information in the documents ‘would allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them to evade that surveillance or replicate it.’
    “He said the ‘literally thousands of documents’ taken by Snowden constitute ‘basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built.'”

The Hill, Greenwald Warns Snowden Holds NSA “Blueprints”:

    “Greenwald’s latest comments come days after he warned that Snowden would release damaging information if he was not granted safe passage to asylum in a third country or if harm came to him.
    “‘Snowden has enough information to cause more damage to the U.S. government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States,’ Greenwald told an Argentine newspaper last week.
    “‘The U.S. government should be on your knees every day praying that nothing happens to Snowden because if something happens, all information will be revealed and that would be their worst nightmare,’ he added.”

Washington’s Blog, The Government Is Spying On ALL Americans’ Digital and Old-Fashioned Communications.

James Fallows in The Atlantic (quoting a reader), The Impending Senate Vote on Confirming Nominees:

    “‘On the procedural level that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly gridlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s…. As a consequence, Obama cannot get anything done; he cannot even get the most innocuous appointees in office.
    “‘Yet he can assassinate American citizens without due processes…can detain prisoners indefinitely without charge; conduct surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant; and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called insider threat program). At home, this it is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal law enforcement agencies and their willing handmaidens at the state and local level. Abroad, Obama can start wars at will and pretty much engage in any other activity whatever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, to include just recently forcing down a plane containing a head of state. And not a peep from congressional Republicans, with the exception of an ineffectual gadfly like Rand Paul. Democrats, with the exception of a few like Ron Wyden, are not troubled, either….
    “‘Clearly there is government, and then there is government. The former is the tip of the iceberg…which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part is the Deep State, which operates on its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. The Deep State is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies, key nodes of the judiciary…cleared contractors, Silicon Valley (whose cooperation is critical), and Wall Street.
    “‘This combination of procedural impotence on the one hand and unaccountable government by fiat on the other is clearly paradoxical, but any honest observer of the American state must attempt to come to grips with it.'”

MJ Rosenberg, I Can’t Imagine Being the Parent of a Young Black Man:

    “In addition to all the other random dangers teens face, black kids have to worry about the cops too or pseudo cops like George Zimmerman.
    “This verdict only confirms what black parents already knew: it is not safe out there for their boys. The good thing: maybe now their sons understand what their parents are so anxious about. Black parents aren’t paranoid. They know that their boys are at risk. Everywhere. …
    “I am glad I’m not black. I just don’t have the courage for it.”

George Dvorsky in io9, 10 Mindnumbingly Futuristic Technologies That Will Appear by the 2030s.

Erroll Morris in Slate, The Murders of Gonzago:

    “Josh Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing…is an examination of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66, in which between 500,000 and 1 million people died. The Act of Killing is truly unlike any other documentary film. … One of the extraordinary things about documentary is that you get to continually reinvent the form, reinvent what it means to make a documentary — and Oppenheimer did just that. He identified several of the killers from 1965 and convinced them to make a movie about the killings. But the film is even weirder than that. Oppenheimer convinced these killers to act in a movie about the making of a movie about the killings. There would be re-enactments of the murders by the actual perpetrators. There would be singing, and there would be dancing. A perverted hall of mirrors.
    “But there is method to Oppenheimer’s madness — the idea that by re-enacting the murders, he, the viewers of the movie, and the various perpetrators recruited to participate could become reconnected to a history that had nearly vanished into a crepuscular past. Oppenheimer has the optimistic thought that the past is inside us and can be brought back to life.”

The Paradoxes of the Egyptian Moment

Did deposing Morsi serve the interests of “the revolution”?

We have a situation in which the elected president of Egypt was unable, and apparently unwilling (or even clueless about) advancing the key goals of “the revolution” that brought him to power. Rather, he sought to advance the interests and entrench the power of the narrow faction from which he came. So the “forces of revolution” which had seemed outnumbered during elections (for parliament, for president, and during the constitutional referendum) reemereged and demanded a “reset” in which a new president be found to advance their interests.

Those interests include challenging the dominance of the army in the public sphere (politics and the economy) — but paradoxically, the “revolutionaries” called on the army for help in deposing Morsi because he was not the right man to lead the charge against the army and the deep state! So now we have a situation where the army and even the police are, provisionally, the sponsors and backers of a movement (“the revolution” led by Egyptian youth) which by its very logic of its intentions, will turn against them at some point down the road!

As a friend reminded me yesterday, the Muslim Brothers were by no means the leaders of the February 2011 revolution against Mubarak. However, they were the best-organized political force left standing once Mubarak’s old guard was defeated, so they were the main beneficiaries of the elections that the Febuary 2011 revolution made possible. The February 2011 revolutionaries then found themselves in the unenviable position of having achieved a key demand — free and fair elections — which nevertheless set Egypt on a course that was in direct conflict with the rest of their demands — namely for an open, inclusive, and participatory society based on human dignity and social reform. This deeper transformation, which the revolution had really been all about to begin with, simmered under the surface over the past year and a half, largely frustrated by the Muslim Brothers who had seized power, and lacking an organized, institutional voice.

Finding that voice and building those institutions (through political parties, NGOs, the media, and elements of the new state) are the unfinished business of “the revolution.” The recent army-sponsored “reset” has once again opened the space for that to happen, but the “revolutionaries” will have to continue their transformative struggle, both through elections and culturally, socially — and of course realize that the army that helped them today is in a marriage of convenience only, and can’t be counted on to share their vision of an open society over the long term.

Links 09 July 2013

New York Times, Army Kills 51, Deepening Crisis in Egypt:

    “The mass shooting of Islamist protesters by security forces on Monday at a sit-in for Mohamed Morsi, the ousted president, injected new outrage into the standoff over his removal by Egypt’s top generals….
    “Leaders of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group and best-organized political force, said the generals had now shown their authoritarian colors, using lethal weapons to crush dissent while holding the freely elected president captive. They called for a national ‘uprising’ against the return of a military dictatorship. …
    “Sit-in participants said gunmen had fired on them from atop the military buildings surrounding their camp. Video footage captured by the Islamists showed a soldier firing down from a roof while another calmly filmed the mayhem below.
    “Sandbagged gun turrets were still visible hours later on some rooftops, and the angles of scores of bullet holes in cars, lampposts and the Islamists’ makeshift metal barriers indicated that gunfire hit at an angle from above.
    “Many witnesses said the fighting lasted for hours, with hundreds of heavily armed soldiers chasing mostly unarmed protesters through the streets for blocks while continuing to shoot. Bullet holes, bullet casings and pools of blood dotted the ground hundreds of yards from the presidential guardhouse where the fighting had begun.”

Juan Cole, Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Calls for “Uprising” as Plan for Elections is Announced:

    [Dr. Cole cites an eyewitness account by a man named Omar Ahmed who is “known to Egyptian friends whom I trust.”]
    “He says that the army [used] a microphone to demand that the crowd near the Republican Guards Barracks disperse, and that the Brotherhood used their microphones to announce that martyrdom so near Ramadan would be a great thing. The army fired tear gas.
    “Then Omar heard firing at the troops and screams from the military side. The sniping was coming from al-Mustafa Mosque. The troops were also being hit with molotov cocktails. Then the microphone of the mosque threatened the troops, saying they are baby-killers.
    “Then a Brother began firing wildly with an automatic weapon. The troops returned fire and after that there were just bodies falling and men being taken into custody by the army. At 5 am, an hour into the clashes, reinforcements of more police and military showed up, and the Brotherhood militants withdrew to the Rabia al-Adawiya square or found refuge with local families in their apartments….
    “The dead include at least three military, and some 51 others, most of them likely non-combatants in the wrong place at the wrong time. …
    “On Monday evening, interim president Mansour tried to change the conversation by setting out a timetable for return to elected government. He said that within 15 days, a council of jurists must be appointed that would have two months to revise the 2012 constitution…. Parliamentary elections must be held by the end of the year or very early in Jan. 2014. The date for presidential elections hasn’t been set yet.”

Sarah Carr in Jadaliyya, On Sheep and Infidels:

    “There is a visceral hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi associates amongst some Egyptians. This hatred spans all social classes and predates current events. It is born out of an arguably justified mistrust and fear of the group, who have lied, put their own interests first, excluded other groups, ramrodded through an excuse for a constitution, attempted to give Morsi dictator powers, flirted with the military and dallied in sectarianism politics in a frightening way. It failed to understand that it was running a country, and it missed the point that for public relations purposes if you are an Arab president who desires to quash dissent through an organized group you better make sure that that group is in uniform.
    “Perhaps most importantly, they were feeble as hell at governing Egypt at a time when amateurs really just would not do.
    “When Morsi supporters attempt to put their case forward their arguments bounce back off a wall of hate, but — deep breath — in my opinion these arguments were not without merit — up until 30 June. … Mendacity, poor governance, self-interest, and sidelining of other political powers are pretty much the watch-words of all political groups and are not, in isolation, enough to justify a president’s removal by the military. …
    “So my position on events pre-30 June has not been changed by events since: the Muslim Brotherhood should have been left to fail as they had not (yet) committed an act justifying Morsi’s removal by the military. The price Egypt has paid and will pay for the consequences of this decision are too high. It has created a generation of Islamists who genuinely believe that democracy does not include them. The post-30 June fallout reaffirms this belief, especially with Islamist channels and newspapers closed down as well as leaders detained and held incommunicado…. It is Egyptian society that will pay the price of the grievances this causes, and the fact that, with a silenced media and no coverage from independent outlets they have been left with virtually no channels to get their voice heard. …
    “Nothing has changed. The real revolution will happen when army involvement in politics is a distant relic of history.”

Nikolas K. Gvosdev in The National Interest, U.S. Values and Interests Clash in Egypt:

    “Of course, one of the main problems was that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were classic “illiberal democrats”—prepared to accept the necessity of elections and to have some policies put to the voters for validation but in no way inclined to endorse the full panoply of civil and political rights and ready to impose limits on freedom of speech and assembly. They were, in other words, prepared to accept opposition—but only on their terms. …
    “This creates a new dilemma for Washington. Certainly American interests are served by having the Egyptian military—much more of a known quantity, compared with the Brotherhood, ‘back in the saddle,’ but it also means accepting the armed forces as a clear counterweight to the possible excesses of the popular majority or of political leaders like the Brotherhood—and allowing the army to set ‘red lines’ for politics and to enforce them. … To some extent, what has happened in Egypt resembles the ‘soft coups’ that used to occur in Turkey, where the military would intervene and where such intervention usually coincided with U.S. interests, even if it offended U.S. values.”

Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Judge Government on Respect for People’s Rights (from July 4):

    “Egypt’s new government should break decisively from a pattern of serious abuses that has prevailed since the January 2011 uprising, and make a commitment to respect the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. Authorities should protect and promote the rights of all Egyptians, and halt arbitrary arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. …
    “‘Egyptians suffered enormously under the generals and then under President Morsy’s government, which shoved human rights to the sidelines,’ said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘One test of whether Egypt can return to a path of democratic development will rest on whether the Freedom and Justice Party can operate without political reprisals against its members.’ …
    “Egypt’s new interim president and the military leadership should immediately end reprisals against Muslim Brotherhood political leaders, including arrests or travel bans, and should allow the Freedom and Justice Party to fully exercise freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
    “The new government needs to make it clear immediately that it and all state bodies, including the armed forces, will respect all basic rights that apply within Egypt at all times.”

Agence France Presse, Morsy Ouster in Egypt Crushes Hamas Dreams: Analysts.

BBC News Magazine, Hikikomori: Why Are So Many Japanese Men Refusing to Leave Their Rooms?, Homosexuality: Tariq Ramadan Drops a Bomb in Dakar (in French).

    “In a country with a 95% Muslim population who are radical with regard to any recognition of homosexual status, one must be brave, yes, very brave to dare to integrate gays into the ranks of ‘followers of Islam.’ And that’s what the Swiss citizen of Egyptian origin did in confiding that ‘it isn’t because one is homosexual that one isn’t Muslim.’ A remark that continues to provoke controversy in the country. Tariq Ramadan didn’t stop there. … ‘All scholars are unanimous on the question. Islam forbids homosexuality, as do all the monotheistic religions. But, being homosexual doesn’t mean that one isn’t Muslim. There is no witch hunt,’ noted Tariq Ramadan, who went further. ‘We need to promote a discourse of responsibility and avoid judging.”

Model Women

Manhattan, 2003.

Fez, 2013.