Sandmonkey: “Too Stupid to Govern Us”

The easiest Egyptian revolutionaries for a non-Arabic speaking American to find are the young bloggers, wielders of camera-phones, YouTube uploaders, and social-network activists—”shabab al-Facebook,” as they are sometimes known, the Facebook youth credited with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. They are tech-savvy, cosmopolitan, often from elite origins, well-educated, and tend to speak excellent English—learned sometimes at school, sometimes from watching subtitled movies over the Internet.

One of the best-known bloggers in Egypt today is Mahmoud Salem, twenty-seven, who for several years blogged anonymously under the heading “Rantings of a Sandmonkey” and had accumulated 35,000 Twitter followers by February of 2011. He transmitted in English, partly to avoid the gaze of the security forces. He describes himself on Twitter as “Micro-celebrity, Blogger, activist, New Media douchebag, Pain in the ass!” His story illustrates how a young, educated elite lost confidence in Hosni Mubarak; how technological adeptness evolved into political dissent; and how dictatorial heavy-handedness backfired.

It’s beyond my competence, probably beyond anyone’s competence, to assemble fragmentary stories into a gestalt account, a description, either thick or thin, of the Egyptian uprising in its totality. There is such a thing as the fog of insurgency. It is especially thick in a society where estimates of illiteracy range from 28 percent upward.
Even in well-documented societies, decades after the events, doubt may remain about who did what, and in what sequence, during pivotal periods. In the case of the Chicago streets during the Democratic convention of August 1968, for example, the role of agents provocateurs remains opaque. In Egypt, one intriguing element involves bloggers who several years ago made contact with nonviolent activists in Belgrade—veterans of the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic—and through them made use of the highly sophisticated how-to-do-it manual written by a veteran American activist, Gene Sharp.

Still, judging from my limited experience, the least one can say is that the story of Mahmoud Salem is part of the story of what happened in Egypt, and it is not unique.

Toward the end of March, I met Salem in a Cairo bar. He is heavyset, talks fast, a storyteller, often unrestrained and ebullient. He was just back from Brussels, where he had gone to lobby for European pressure to compel an early trial for Mubarak and his family. His smartphone clamored every few minutes as he told me his story.

He graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied business (“of course,” he adds, the alternatives being medicine and engineering). After graduating, he returned to Egypt, worked in investment banking and marketing, and, at twenty-three, started to blog. Why? “It was all about, ‘Someone on the Internet is wrong, and I must correct it.’” H...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.