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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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.