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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt