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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.