03/11/11

What the Army thinks of Wednesday’s protesters.

I am totally disgusted by what happened to the peaceful protesters last Wednesday. Today in Tahrir I had a chat with some army officers and conscripts to see their take on things, here is what they said:
1. They genuinely think that those sitting-in were up to immoral acts. (not too surprising given their rural background where girls staying outside of their homes at late hours is strictly taboo).
2. They cited physical evidance of large quantities of condoms that were found in and around the sit-in site (impossible to believe, but it would not surprise me if someone planted them)
3. They also said some of the girls looked a bit funny and they couldn’t think they were decent (obviously not very used to unveiled women from an upper middle class background).
4. During the week, when they chatted up many who sitting-in they seemed to hold no coherent political demand.
5. They drew the conclusion that those were not “genuine” protesters, but a bunch of mindless rabble that are being controlled by “dark and evil” forces.
6. The “dark and evil” forces are working to split the country up along sectarian lines and also to cause the people to clash with the army.
7. Their policy with regards to the thugs is the put them in the “freezer”, i.e. given them a serious roughing up and beating.
8. They acknowledged that mistakes could be made and that they could inadvertently incarcerate innocent protesters in their pursuit of thugs.
9. They shared with me their frustration that those who are sitting-in in Tahrir are causing them undue pain and stress. They suffer from sleep deprivation and are very tense that something really nasty could happen as a result of the sit-in.
10. They mention the even of there were some honorable protesters in Tahrir, but they attracted many “unsavory” elements in their midst. They mentioned that the protesters handed over them a drug pusher at some point.
11. After several “battles” between the thugs and the protesters, they came to the conclusion that “enough is enough” and that they could on put with all the disturbance that is caused by those sitting-in and since they are primarily a mindless rabble, they should be forcibly removed.

I am not writing this to be an apologist for the army or to justify their action and methods in any way. I genuinely abhor torture of any kind. It is however very important for us to understand their motives. Some might see that their actions as part of a pattern of greater conspiracy against the revolution, I honestly can not tell. But one thing is for sure, we can not afford to antagonize the rank and file of the army. It was their sympathy for our cause that saved us during some of the darkest days of the revolution. I am not calling for an end for sit-ins or demonstrations, but we really have to think of ways of winning them over, their leadership and their conspiracies be damned.

02/3/11

Revolution in Egypt !!!

Recent events that have been going on Egypt have thrown many experts of-guard. People are still struggling to understand what is really happening. Even those how are now participating in it have difficulty articulating what this Revolution is about. What I endeavor to do here is but a humble attempt to shed some light on what it means and the events surrounding it. One thing for sure, this revolution can not be summed up as being about the Muslim brotherhood, economic justice, or political freedom. Something far more profound is going on. Something that I dare to say is wholly unprecedented in the history of Egypt and perhaps the history of the world.

It all started started few weeks prior to the 25th of January, when I received a facebook event invitation from my younger cousin for a day of “revolution”. I though it silly and that those are organizing such events have no clue what revolutions are about. Little did I know.

In their deceleration of demands the “revolutionaries” asked for: setting up and implementing standards for minimum wage (they even declared that is should be EGP 1200 [about $210] per month), revoking the emergency law (Egypt has been in state of emergency for the past 30 years, and under that law anyone can be incarcerated without cause), and firing the police chief (a man notorious for his brutality and ultimately responsible for torture, injustice, and cover-ups). Although I full heartily agreed with the last two demands, I found there first demand as very revealing of their naiveté. To my mind such minimum levels of income should be first studied by able economist, who would gauge their impact on the economy and see if such a level is feasible. I dismissed it as plan silly, and warned my cousin not to attend. I lectured him on the difference between a revolution and a demonstration and warned that large gatherings are potentially dangerous. My biggest fear at the time was that the Muslim brotherhood might exploit to it to do something very damaging to stability and security of the country and that violence may ensue. I was very fearful for their safety.

A miracle happened on the January 25th that shook me very profoundly. Coming from an upper class background with plenty of “connections” to the rich and powerful, being well traveled with many friends Europe and United Sates, and with a relatively secular outlook, I was living in one of many cultural bubbles that have come to characterize Egyptian society in recent year. That social and culture fragmentation has been picking up pace recently and seemed congruent with economic growth. Suddenly all of these bubbles were burst and the barriers were removed. A certain bond was realized, a bound that must have been always there but we didn’t know it. We were experiencing ourselves for first time as Egyptians. That nature of that bond can not be put in rational terms, whatever I say now it is but a poor attempt to describe the feeling that I had. There was a birth of new realization that Egypt is much more than our country of residence, or a national soccer team that we cheer for in international events. Egypt is being resurrected again through us, Egypt is now experienced as a living being, and we are but elements in it’s living consciousness. The spirit of Egypt lives and we are part of it. This is something that I felt through what my cousins relayed to me and many others who took part in the demonstration. That spirit wants to be free, it wants to grow and break the shackles of tyranny. For the first time people from all walks of life were discovering profound sympathy and love for each other. The Marxist was feeling a strong bond with the Islamist, the intellectual with the poor illiterate, and the millionaire to the pauper. There were no culture wars, the fragmentation and distance was no more. That spirit was making its presence felt and the consciousness was still struggling with a language to express itself. What started out as a “revolution” on facebook turned out to be a Revolution of the spirit of the land, with no ideology or definite leadership.

Having felt glimpses of that, I wanted to taste and experience it first hand and I went out on the January 28 demonstration. I saw people from all walks of life and different age groups marching together. I saw whole families walk together in a festive atmosphere. That was until we encountered the vicious security forces, who were adamant on dispersing the rally. We braved a barrage of rubber bullets under a cloud of tear gas, the police didn’t show the slightest hint of concern for our safety. Although the demonstrators would cry out “selmia” (meaning we are “peaceful”), the security forces would fire rubber bullets on the protesters. I have saw many youth and even an old lady with ghastly head wounds. I witnessed fear and panic, but for the most part the protesters kept driving forward. That courage was a thing of beauty, they are crying out for freedom from tyranny, they were reaching out to hope and their determination was solid.

Much later on that day one of the largest state security apparatus in the middle east and Africa disappeared. People were left to fend for themselves and as if by magic or coincidences thousands of hardened criminals managed to escape prison. With an internet blackout and the absence of security, fear and panic was palpable in every home. At that point it was well know that economy has come to a grinding halt. The government then started a vicious campaign in government run media that portrayed the anti-government protesters as responsible for their hardship. That campaign at some point shied from calling the protesters criminals but it was giving many hints that there actions were destroying the country. This was combined with fuel shortages and food shortages. There was mass looting going on and that was also blamed on the protesters. My impression is that it was the national Democratic party thugs who were responsible… it is no secrete that there are many thousands of those, but up to this point they were put to use to intimidate government opposition.

Things were getting desperate in the next few days and many were gripped with fear and a desire to return to normalcy. Many people were bleary eyed and tired from having to do neighborhood watch. Everybody felt that they could not go on like that much longer. This situation was even more critical for the many Egyptians who earn their living through daily wage. Those have no reserves or savings and their children must have been starting to grow hungry. Dread and fear was thick in the air, and for many that sense of isolation was growing. Not just isolation from the outside world due an Internet blackout, but also from each other. Whole neighborhoods were locked down and only neighborhood residence were not allowed passage during curfew hours, which ran daily from 3pm to 8am. Fragmentation was on the rise again.

Word spread that on the first of February there will be a million person march to Tahrir square. The government orchestrated a campaign of fear and fragmentation did not deter the protester from showing on that day. That is despite the fact that many were still fearful for their family and property. Many criminals are still out of the loose. Yet after a massive show up and cries for “the people want bring down the president” rocked the whole of Tahrir square, that voice seemed unheard to Mubark and his coterie. Later in the day he made that announcement that he will not be running for another term, that was too little and too late for the protesters. Mubarak had at this point due to the security vacuum and slow action proven untrustworthy and not fit to rule if one were to describe it in generously. The consensus however amongst those in Tahrir is that he is criminal thug of the worst kind. My view was that this man is determined to maintain his grip on power, even if it mean the total destruction of his country. However, many Egyptians who had not witnessed first hand the spirit and events on the 25th and 28th of January were at that point in time scared and starved into submission, for them the return to “normalcy” was paramount. Moreover, some of those who were not directly involved felt that this was a significant achievement and we should just stop here and deal with the rest through other political methods. Their fear made them lose sight of the fact that it was Mubark who ordered a telecommunication black out, it was Mubarak or his police chief who was responsible for the security breakout and the loss of life and limb during the demonstration. It was his tyrannical arrogance and gross inhumanity to the death of many of Egypt’s finest youth that outraged the protesters the most. He made no apology, not even a hint, and not a promises that those responsible will be held accountable. He had proven completely untrustworthy to the protesters, and we were determined to stay in Tahrir until Mubarak leaves. The Egyptian government media and even most privately owned ones started to present the view that the protesters had achieved a great deal of what they had wanted and that further protest at Tahrir would only send the country into chaos. They blamed all the hunger and fear they have been experiencing on the protesters. Furthermore Mubark made a statement that brought several Egyptians to tears. Here was an elderly president reminding Egyptian of his services to the country through times of war and peace and telling that he intends to die in his country and never flee it. Mubark has for many years maintained a father figure status amongst many Egyptians and few would doubt that he has indeed done good things for the country, and there was a complex love-fear-hate relationship that he had with his people. A feeling grew amongst many Egyptians that such a man was worthy of more dignified exit than the president of Tunisia. That feeling was not shared by those who experience first hand the demonstration on the 28th and saw many of their “brothers” maimed or killed for freedom. Freedom to us is none negotiable, Mubark has shown his true face as a tyrant and there was no doubting his phony democracy.

We held our ground at Tahrir and we were adamant that our demands must be met. When I joined them on the following day, it was clear that their numbers have dwindled. Many, it seemed could not stomach further disruption to normalcy. Many had to go out and work to feed their families. It was a very sad sight with a great deal of tension in the air. The national democratic party started to slip in agents into Tahrir to play on the protester fears. Many had a sad countenance, fearing the loss of the spirit that they managed to bring about. The protester had heard the Mubarak’s people are organizing a demonstration to support him that will be marching to Tahrir square, we were determined to hold our Revolution to the highest ideals and no let any weapon into Tahrir. We were often chanting “selmia” in reference to our desire to keep it peaceful. Around noon we were attacked from several sides by the pro-Mubarak protesters. It was a vicious and organized attack, something that was cleary planned. In the beginning we tried to simply push the pro-Mubarak protesters away and then many fell under a hail of rocks. It is clear that the pro-Mubarak protesters were going the way of violence. That noble flame and spirit of the revolution was fading away. The dream was almost dying. Just when all seemed lost, the noble posters had to resort to violence for self defense. It was sad to see a peaceful and innocent protest turn very violent in the face of thuggery. We held strong against armies of payed thugs and members of Mubark’s police force in plain clothes.

This Revolution is NOT about politics. It does not have an agenda or an ideology. It is about the awakening of a new spirit in Egypt. For it to grow it must breath the clean and fresh air of freedom. When it is born it was gasping for air and had hence to almost instinctively, as a baby would, try to remove the dirty old rag of pseudo-democracy and tyranny from its face. I pray that the beautiful spirit will survive with minimum scars after the violence on the 2nd and 3rd of February.

Mohammed El-Beltagy

The writer is a professor of Operations Research at Cairo University and co-founder of Peerialism, a Stockholm based Software company

12/23/10

Skype Outage and Google Talk

Today I was surprised to see that skype is not working. Recent updates to the skype client has killed skype’s supernodes. Making it hard to sign in and relay VOIP traffic. That forced me to investigate alternatives.

I have heard good things about google talk, but never bothered using it. I thought it might be a good time to try it out. Being a linux-KDE user, I was initially dismayed to see that google does not have a talk client of my platform. After a bit of googling, I learned that I could have google chat running on Kopote. I followed the instructions, but was disappointed that I could not do voice on it. I also learned that on KDE 4.5 Kopote supports voice on google talk. Also learned the Gnome guys have it easy with the Empathy chat client.

Further investigations led me to what is probably the easiest way of using the google talk service. If one fiddles about with the chat option in gmail on the browser, you will find you can do voice and chat. But, you have to install the a plug-in. I just did that, tried it out and the quality is quit decent. Not as good a skype though and I occasional get a funny chirp sound while talking.