Men in Black: the black bloc causes trouble in Egypt

Masked men seed fear and confusion.

Arrest warrants were issued on Tuesday General Prosecutor Talaat Abdullah for members of the  “terrorist” Black Bloc group. Although very little is known about the group, reportedly dedicated to fighting Islamists, in the chaotic world of Egyptian politics it has caused hysteria.

President Mohamed Morsi's assistant for foreign affairs, Essam el-Haddad, wrote on his Facebook page that the Black Bloc was guilty of "systematic violence and organized crimes across the country."  The Muslim Brotherhood website Ikhwan Online added its voice, accusing the Black Bloc of being a Christian radical militia.

As reported in an article titled “The Black Bloc must die,” Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiyya have also issued threats.  Jama'a al-Islamiya Mufti Abdel Akhar Hammad is quoted as saying “God orders us to kill, crucify or cut off the hands and feet of those who spread mischief on earth… The president must give that order.” Videos by so-called "Islamist militias" have threatened to attack these “enemies of Islam.”

The “revolutionary” media however has come to the Bloc’s defence. Al-Watan newspaper warned the the Muslim Brotherhood may hire thugs to attack mosques and then blame it on the Bloc.

The Iranian-run FARS news agency, meanwhile, has waded in in an attempt to act as the voice of reason. It claims the Black Bloc is the result of a conspiracy to cause chaos in Egypt,  formed in collusion with Mossad and the Dubai police chief.

This is all despite the fact that there is no clear evidence the bloc is not just anyone who owns a black mask. The group first made its appearance in a YouTube video on Thursday, where it claimed "We are… seeking people's liberation, the fall of corruption and the toppling of the tyrant."

Confusingly, although the group claims it does not deal with the media, social media accounts have sprung up here, here and here, and people claiming to be from the group have appeared in Al Watan newspaper.

According to Ursula Lindsey on the Arabist:

Two (If I had to guess, 16-year-old) members also went on the private, "revolutionary" Tahrir TV channel and explained that their enemies are the Ministry of Interior and the Muslim Brotherhood, but that acts of violence and arson had been carried out by infiltrators not belonging to the group. The Facebook group itself immediately denied that the two masked teenagers on TV were members, and accused the station of staging the appearance to boost their audience.

All this has inspired weary cynicism from some Egyptian commentators. Lindsey adds:

The whole Black Bloc phenomenon is pretty silly. It's a symptom of the immaturity, lack of foresight and drift from peaceful (and seemingly fruitless) protesting to glamorized, indiscriminate, anti-authoritarian violence.

Mahmoud Salem in the Daily News Egypt has called the group a “glorified media invention”:

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about the Black Bloc‘s negative effect for long. Since anyone can be a Blockhead by virtue of having three friends who will join him in wearing black masks or their mum’s black nylon stockings, and since there are no real rules or structure to the group, offshoots and splinter groups will start forming immediately.

I personally cannot wait for the emergence of the Grey Bloc, their political arm that they will immediately disavow, or the green bloc, their fundamental Islamist offshoot, or the Pink Bloc, their radical feminist wing.

Blogger Zenobia wondered in Egyptian Chronicles:

Suddenly the anarchic group is spread like fire across the country through out the governorates. Since when anarchism is popular in Egypt let alone how a group like that to plan and organize itself in this way!!

With sales of black masks now on the up in Tahrir Square we could be seeing a lot more of this group.

Egyptian protesters, said to be members of Egypt's Black Bloc Anarchic group, burn tyres in central Cairo near Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle