The Revolution stripped bare

By taking off her clothes, did a young Cairo blogger prove that the Egyptian revolution was also nak

About a month ago Alia Magda Elmahdy, a 20 year old student from Cairo, posted a photo of herself online. In the full-length black and white image she appears naked apart from a pair of stockings. Her shoes and a bow in her hair are highlighted in red. In the context of the internet, a medium notoriously replete with naked female flesh, there's nothing especially remarkable about the image, even allowing for her nationality. But Elmahdy chose to display her body as an avowedly political gesture. She has described her action as a protest against sexism in Egyptian society and a demand for artistic and sexual freedom. Here's what she wrote on the blog:

Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

According to the New York Times, "it is hard to overstate the shock at an Egyptian woman's posting nude photographs of herself on the Internet in a conservative religious country where a vast majority of Muslim women are veiled and even men seldom bare their knees in public."

That may be an exaggeration. But certainly everything about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy seems calculated to annoy Egypt's increasingly powerful Islamists -- and embarrass moderate secularists. Not only is she unafraid to break taboos by posing naked, she describes herself as an atheist and lives openly with a boyfriend who himself was imprisoned for writing things critical of both Islam and the former president, Hosni Mubarak. In an interview with CNN this weekend she defended gay rights, spoke openly about her sex life and called for a "social revolution", declaring that "women under Islam will always be objects to use at home."

If provocation was her aim then she has succeeded, though at considerable personal cost. Her blog post -- which also displays several other images, including a full-frontal shot of a naked man -- has received well over three million hits. While many comments have been supportive, others accused her of confusing freedom with "degradation and prostitution". A group of Islamic law graduates have launched a legal action against Elmahdy and her boyfriend, accusing the pair of "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam."

She hasn't had much support from liberals, either, many of whom fear that actions like hers play into the hands of Islamist social conservatives who favour the imposition of Saudi-style restrictions on women in the country. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied reports that she a member by asserting that "We are conservative youths, and we always encourage our members to be role models as far as ethics are concerned . . . How can we have accepted the membership of a girl who behaves like this?"

"Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world?" was Elmahdy's response to that remark. "They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions."

By exposing herself, Aliaa Elmahy may also have exposed the shortcomings of a political revolution that is certainly unfinished and may turn out to be stillborn. In the CNN interview she described sexism in Egypt as "unreal" and suggested that many women wore the veil "just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets." There's little evidence that events since January have improved that situation. The alliance of convenience between secular liberals and Islamists seen in both Egypt and Tunisia has temporarily masked deeper tensions about the nature of society. And it is on the bodies of women that these debates so often seem to play out.

Her gesture also poses a challenge to Western liberals. Her very existence as a young, sexually-active, atheist feminist questions widely-held assumptions about the fundamentally conservative nature of Islamic societies. Perhaps, for that very reason, she is likely to provoke more embarrassed shuffling of feet than open support. And some may consider her methods questionable, not merely because she thereby puts herself in danger.

For there's something curiously old-fashioned about Elmahy's action. It seems like a harking back to that brief moment (approximately between the Lady Chatterley and the Oz trials in the UK) when sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics. We've moved on from that. Today, displays of naked (especially female) flesh no longer look politically radical. Instead they tend to be deplored on the Left as sexualising and objectifying, symptoms on the one hand of crass commercialism and, on the other, as merely the exploitation of vulnerable women for male delectation. It's a view that (for different reasons) our own religious conservatives are happy to endorse.

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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.