Wednesday, 14 September 2016


On a hot dusty day in Cairo,  General Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi   kicked out  President Morsi  and his band of  incompetent Islamic Brothers. The euphoria of Egyptians was difficult to witness: military coups always end in tears. The sun shone out of  the new Pharoah’s  arse. There was nothing  he could do wrong.  “Liar, liar pants on fire,” I said when he promised he would never  run for president.  Months later Al-Sisi had swopped his khaki for a suit and  was  ruling Egypt from an overstuffed gilt and red throne. After a promising revolution, five governments, two parliamentary elections and two presidential races, each filled with much promise, the Egyptians were too tired to see the signs.

While they happily honeymooned with their new leader,  I met X, tall, handsome, charming and with a smile  to die for. Intelligent   and gentle   he pursued me politely and earnestly.  I was flattered but  resisted, I was happy to be on my own and besides, he was far too young. He was an Sudanese  activist, who had fled to Egypt with his family to escape the Islamist dictatorship of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. He told me that as  a student he had been  imprisoned for speaking out  against  Al -Bashir and his harsh regime. As a result of imprisonment and  torture, his brother   was wheelchair bound and totally disabled. Eventually the entire  family  fled their home and settled in Cairo where  they faced racism and hostility on a daily basis.

 Just as Al-Sisi was quick to seize Egypt, X was quick to declare his love, even talked about marriage. I preferred to take things slowly but speed can be seductive.  I was like the Egyptian women who swooned over their new President. How could I resist?  I fell in love. I felt safe with him.  He was my hero. He had risked his life for peace and democracy and I admired the way he took care of his brother and family. Friends and a fiancé had been murdered, his family persecuted. He was kind,  funny, sexy.   I was hooked.

We  settled happily  into our relationship while  the the new government settled into ruling Egypt, acquiring mass surveillance equipment capable of monitoring social networks, individuals and organisations around the clock.  Infiltration of  social media sites such as  Facebook and Twitter had been  stepped up  as the regime  tightened its grip on the population  in the name of ‘security,' operating without public scrutiny and accountability.  

At around the same time, X’s Tablet was  stolen and  I gave him the password to my computer so he could check his emails etc. I trusted him implicitly, but was unaware that he  was rifling through my entire hard disk, accessing  photographs, personal messages, documents and social media, and sometimes making copies of them, to be thrown into my face later.  I only discovered this when,  in bouts of jealousy, he  referred to old private FB messages between me and an  ex. Unexplained porn sites suddenly appeared on my computer's history.
He  constantly checked my phone and iPod Touch which were never locked. I had nothing to hide, but that was not the point. He was  never as generous with his passwords.   He kept his phone on him at all times, even taking it to the toilet and sleeping with it under his pillow.  I managed to check   his phone twice.   “Only twice!”  a female friend said incredulously when I told her. But  I didn’t feel good about it.  Much later, he created a bogus Twitter account and  as someone else tried to lure me with suggestive comments into messaging him.  Creepy.  On Facebook, Al Sisi’s minions also fired friend requests from bogus people to spy on content. They were easily spotted, very irritating and sinister.

It took me some time to realise the full extent of X’s surveillance. When confronted, he clearly believed he was entitled to invade my privacy and that it was for my own good.   The   regime was no respecter of privacy either. It justified its citizen surveillance as a security precaution and rounded  up  hundreds of so called ‘terrorists’ ie  activists, who had once been heroes of the February 2011 revolution, and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood 'for the good of the country'. 

When I first  met X, he had just opened a café for Sudanese refugees. There was nothing else for them in the bleak, isolated area they had been settled in.  I admired his commitment to his people, who in Egypt, were marginalised, suffered racism and regular attacks.

One evening, X  nipped out to buy sugar and coffee. A group of masked men  rushed into the café with machetes and sticks and tried to behead people. They hacked at X’s assistant. He was left for dead. Others were injured. When X returned, his café was covered in blood. We spent the night in hospitals waiting for people to live.  From the information we gathered, the attackers had been after X. It was political,  The next day we fled our flat and stood on the edge of the  main road to Cairo with  our cat and belongings.  We went into hiding and for several weeks lived   with X’s family.  The strain and stress  and the uncertainty  affected our relationship.  I lost weight and  missed my family and friends. I  felt alone and isolated. X became increasingly insecure, and jealous, particularly of my male friends. I lost my temper easily, and we found ourselves arguing a lot.  I slapped him in a rage over what was really nothing. It was unforgiveable.  Upset and shamed I  felt I was losing myself.  The Egypt I loved was becoming a very dark place. I should have packed my bags and left but I wanted to support X through this difficult time.  

As the insidious creep of fascism continued, X’s behaviour became increasingly unpredictable. One minute he was the X I had met: loving, considerate, supportive and sweet, and  the next he was  mean, jealous, critical and punishing. I felt increasingly isolated and uneasy.  People were being arrested or disappearing from the streets, or their homes. Friends spoke  of friends who had been taken from their beds by security forces.  Loved ones searching for them were met with a governmental wall of silence.
 As these searching relatives discovered, silence is an effective form of abuse. All dictators practise it as a tool of control. It is also called 'stonewalling'  and  is used to  punish frustrate  and dominate. X’s silent treatment would last  for up to three days.  His silence was sudden, cold  and  inexplicable. He shut me out with hostile stares. When I asked what I had done, he would answer, ‘You know.”   I didn’t.

Stonewalling creates a bewildering array of emotions - shame, anger, rage, infuriation, humiliation, desperation, helplessness. I felt I was going crazy. Both X and the regime seemed to relish the humiliating efforts of their victims to be heard. Never having encountered this behaviour before, I explained it away as a symptom of X’s stress.  He never took responsibility for his stonewalling, and  stymyied any reasonable discussion by blaming me without explanation, just as Al- Sisi blamed the ‘terrorists’ in his prisons.

I launched a campaign for X and his family to be resettled elsewhere by the UNHCR. X had already started the process some time ago, but now it was urgent. Other  Sudanese activists were being targeted, homes raided, and the café had been bulldozed by the military.  I flooded the social media, got a journalist friend to write articles, wrote  to UN HQ in Geneva and New York. Finally, someone at the UNHCR in Cairo contacted me and arranged a visit to the family.   Soon after, they were told they would be  resettled in Scandinavia.

Despite being an urgent case, it took eight months before they finally left. During that time our relationship lurched between  heaven and hell. X’s sudden mood swings, jealousy and coercive control became more frequent as did my emotional outbursts. I began to feel the strain of trying to keep everything together, financially and emotionally. I worried about our safety.  I didn’t recognise myself any more.  Friends in Egypt  were being arrested and  I couldn’t cope with the continual sexual harassment of the Cairo  streets as well as a growing visible  military presence.  X grew increasingly  controlling. He resented my male friends, and didn’t like me visiting Alexandria where an ex  lived. But he thought it was OK  to invite women   to join him in  bars while I was away in the UK. He said they were old friends. That was fine,  but why had he  never mentioned them to me or introduced me to them before?  Clearly it was one rule for the boys, and another for the girls.

A few months after I met X,  Al-Sisi focused his charm on  the Egyptian women. The man who oversaw the virginity tests of arrested female protesters, made an awkward, surprise appearance at the bedside of a sexually assaulted  victim.  In a country where women, not men,  are blamed for sex crimes, his visit was a turnaround. Despite his visit, and the introduction  of gender equality in the 2014 Constitution, perpetrators of sexual harassment  continue to go free, and sexual violence carried out by security forces has surged. A report by human rights umbrella group, FIDH, details the use of sexual violence against detainees and suspected political opponents. The regime’s  aim, the report says,  is to   to eliminate public protest and legitimise the authorities as guardians of the  moral order.

Men like  Al-Sisi and X deploy the same coercive control tactics by intermitently offering enough charming carrots to their victims to give the impression that things are changing for the better.  They never are.  It’s a manipulative  ploy to get you thinking that  the  Mr Nice Guy you first met,  is back in business. It doesnt last for long, but is enough to draw you back in. You want the guy you fell in love with to come back again, so he gives you  tantalising false promises. Al-Sisi’s bedside photo-shoot had  the female population applauding. Later he would be   sanctioning  control tactics that undermine  constitutional gender equality.  For me, X was both devil and angel  in one body  The problem was, I never knew when the devil would show up .
I finally left for the UK. X and his family flew  out a week later to Scandinavia. They were settled in a  tiny remote town unprepared for the isolation and a long hard winter. Later   I flew out to visit him. He was thinner than when I last saw him, and the strain of a new country showed on his face. He was distracted and seemed lost. I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and I was sure he was suffering from the same. But we did our  best to enjoy ourselves exploring his new home. 

I returned again a few months later, this time to the capital for a week taking Christmas presents for him and his family. Needless to say, there wasn’t one for me. It was cold dark and snowing. X seemed more settled. We hit the bars and danced. It was like old times, even though he was unsure of the future. Inevitably we argued, this time over his stubborn refusal to answer questions that I felt were important. I walked out, but alone in a strange city, I returned. The familiar feelings of rejection and insecurity trickled in.

One evening he left me to see a fellow African activist we had met.  Bored and fed up watching Norwegian movies,  I phoned him a couple of times to see if I could join them -  it wasn’t much fun being alone when I had come all the way to spend time with him.  He clearly wasn’t keen.   He said he was coming back soon. I stood on the balcony watching the snow drift down. Two hours later he returned.  We chatted and  he suddenly turned to me with a strange unsettling , expression. In a voice I did not recognise he accused me of bringing a man in from the street and sleeping with him. He had found a tiny piece of paper which he said was a condom wrapper.  I thought he was joking until his fist slammed into the side of my face.  “Motherfucking bitch,” he said. I can't remember much of what followed, except that I was shaking and  shit my pants in terror. Desperate to escape, I tried to  get to my shoes, passport and bag. He pushed me down  onto the sofa. “I control you,” he shouted in his new ugly voice, his face contorted with hate and disgust.  He wagged his finger under my nose reminiscent of   Al-Sisi  when he was broadcast instructing   Egyptians to  listen only to him. He was their master. X thought he was mine. He seized my computer and tried to plug it in  to check my social media. I took my chance and made a run for it. He grabbed me and took my phone and keys. Terrified,  I realised how easy it is for a man to kill a woman. I tried to grab my phone back.. He twisted my arm. I began to shout and tried to kick him in the balls.  He twisted my leg but  handed the phone back to quieten me. I turned around and saw an emergency  number written on a notice in the hall. I dialled while he looked on  unbelievingly.  A policeman and police woman arrived. They escorted X out of the building. The policeman returned and said, “I told him, in our country you don’t hit women no matter what they do.”  

The following morning I filed a police charge and flew home, leaving behind the presents. I arrived home numb with  shock,  a  bruised swollen head and arms. I felt debased and humiliated.  For months after, I had nightmares, insomnia, and couldn’t focus.  X kept calling and texting me and when we finally spoke he fluctuated from being sorry, to insisting  I had exaggerated what had happened: he had slapped me not punched me.  In what I now know to be the bog standard response and the insane logic of  abusers, he  blamed the incident on me.   He still believed I had had sex with a stranger in our bed while he was out.  It dawned on me  that I was listening to the delusional  rantings of a disturbed mind. He refused to acknowledge the horror of his violence and tried to convince me to drop the police charge against him. I didn’t. 

Two months later the brutally tortured body of a Cambridge University student was found on the Cairo Alexander road. Giulio Regini was so badly mutilated his mother could  recognise him only by his nose.  He had been beaten and tortured over nine days  with electricity,  stabbed and  had suffered a severe brain haemorrhage.

Al-Sisi’s cops  announced that Regeni had been the victim of a traffic accident, but when cornered claimed he had been kidnapped and murdered by “a criminal gang”, and when that didn’t hang, said he had been killed in a lover’s argument.   As Italy’s anger exploded, the creepy excuses of the Egyptian government moved from ‘conspiracy to people of evil and the shortcomings of journalists who believe in social media. Like X , Al-Sisi and his cronies  refused  to be accountable for their actions. Without conscience and blaming others  they can  do it again, and they do. There are plenty more like Giulio in Egyptian torture cells, and unless X changes and seeks help, there will be more women like me.  

It is ironic, but not surprising, that a political activist like X who risked his life  speaking   out against brutality and oppression became an oppressor himself.  As a couple, we were a small scale model of a much larger system that works in remarkably similar ways. The abusive mentality is the mentality of oppression regardless of  whether it’s a political leader  or  the man, or woman, you love.  Like a terminal disease, the abuse only gets worse.

According to Lundy Bancroft, an American psychologist who has spent 15 years counselling abusive men,  objectification is a critical reason why things get worse. In his book, Why Does He Do That? Bancroft states,‘”As the abuser’s conscience develops to one level of cruelty – or violence- he builds to the next. By depersonalising his partner, the abuser protects himself from the natural human emotions of gulit and empathy so that he can sleep with a clear conscience. He distances himself so far from his victim’s  humanity that her feelings no longer count, or simply cease to exist.” Yep.

I didn’t wait for the next attack. Afraid that I would eventually end up in a body bag, I skidaddled, finally freed from the constant check-up calls and accusations. I was still  in love with the angel with the smile, but unable to live any longer with the devil. For  those whose humanity is similarly denied by leaders like   Messrs Al-Sisi and and Al-Bashir,  they have no other choice than to  revolt, or endure worsening abuse. Some, like X and his family, pack their bags, and  leave. 

Did  X’s abusive control  stem from his traumatic experiences as an activist in Sudan  and then as a refugee? Is he mentally ill? Friends who felt sorry for him said his behaviour needed nothing more  than anger management, or medication and/or psychotherapy. As Bancroft points out, they are missing the point: abusiveness has very little to do with psychological problems or uncontrollable anger, but everything to do with a system of  attitudes to power and exploitation which are shaped by values and beliefs. It's called patriarchy, and  ISIS is an extreme of it.

We are all  products of the patriarchal system we live in. We are all victims of it, and while abuse is the domain of men, it is not  restricted to them - women abuse and so do partners in same sex couples in much smaller numbers. Male patriarchy, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. The idea of patriarchy as  a male-dominated power structure throughout organized society and in individual relationships is not new.  In   The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in the 1800's, Frederich  Engels   cites ‘the historical defeat of the female sex’ by patriarchy. Life at the end of the Neolithic Era included a phenomenon - the "Exchange of Women" named by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. It  represented forms of trade where women became a commodity. Feminist historian, Gerda Lerner  states in her book, Creation of Patriarchy,  that the main strength of patriarchy is ideological and "severed the connection between women and the Divine". The arrival of supreme male gods, such as Yahweh/Allah, the controlling and  jealous god of the Abrahamic religions,  killed off the goddess.

Sudan was already a troubled  Islamist state when X was born. While  still a boy, his country experienced famine and civil war, and riots against a failed economy.  He watched as  Al-Bashir instigated a swift and effective military coup in 1989 and in  1993  appointed himself president, establishing Sudan  as an Islamic totalitarian single party state.  X spent  his youth  in a country where human rights abuses were the  norm. The public flogging and beating of women became part of  Sudan’s laws as well as amputations as punishment. Women have no legal rights to ownership, including land and are forbidden from any type of banking. Slavery is not illegal under Sharia law  and is a common practice in Northern Sudan used as a form of oppression against the  non-Muslim and  non-Arab population,  with women and children as its main victims. HIs own religion, Islam,  promoted the supremacy of the male and the submissive subordination of women. It is, according to one verse in the Quran, OK for men to beat their wives if they argue.

Most men who grow up in these cultures and traditions, do not  abuse  women consciously, but  along with everyone else, they collude with the subordination and oppression of  women. Those who arrive in Western countries often undergo classes to ‘teach’ them how to respect women and regard them as equals. The West has made progress in gender equality  because women, and some men,  have fought for each gain, but  within a continuing patriarchal system. Coercive control and violence is now a criminal offence in most European countries, and X's stalking and hacking of my computer and phone would have been considered a criminal offence in the UK. 
There are early red-alerts and we ignore them at our peril. Egypt and I ignored   ours. We both thought it couldn't get worse. But it did.  The good news is that it's not difficult to spot these abusers whether they are ruling your country,  or in your bed. They  never take responsibility for their actions, and  will do nothing to change, even though they say they love you, or have the country's  best interests at heart.  They say sorry and offer to do whatever pleases you to win you back. It means nothing.  They  blame you, even if the evidence is irefutable - and are never wrong. Remember Sadaam Hussein, Iraq's bully boy, and his defiance in front of the gallows? They lack transparency, will steal  your money, often  on the pretext of borrowing it Al-Sisi  made a call for Egyptians to donate money to the country. They did, but the way things are looking, they won't get it back.

I want to thank X for reminding me of my feminist heritage, which I had somehow pushed to one side  while I was with him. I too, was a political activist, campaigning  for women's liberation. During that time,  American feminist, Carol Hanisch,  argued that  the personal  is political. It  was used as a rallying slogan of the student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s and underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures.  If he has the courage, X may hopefully one day make a shift, and see how  futile and hypocritical it is to campaign for freedom, equality and justice, when in his intimate  life he uses the oppressive tactics of the man he opposes, against the woman he claimed to love. Men like X  and his President Al-Bashir  do not respect women, nor do they   consider them as equals.

By rooting patriarchy in historical developments, rather than in nature, human nature or biology, Gerda Lerna  opened the door for change.  If patriarchy was created by culture from the Bronze Age it can be overturned by a new culture. Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name  bell hooks, is an American author, feminist, and social activist who argues that   visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.  

“The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving."

Maybe one day, gender abuse  will be ostracised  by society in the same way paedophiles are in the UK. It will go a little way towards creating universal equality and respect. The women, and men who walk away from their abusers are doing more than saving their lives, sanity  and wellbeing They are revolutionaries, quietly taking the first steps towards creating a new culture.  If the personal is political, they are not only changing their own lives, but also challenges abusive men like Al-Sisi, Al Bashir and X and  a system that institutionalizes male hierarchy, condones entitlement  and which robs men, boys, women and girls of their humanity.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing Christine Aziz ... my congratulations as a fellow journalist, and a novelist and poet and a single mother, whose children are grown up. Wonderful to see that you travel, write, explore, work with refugees. And ran puppet workshops for refugee and Egyptian children in Cairo. As the Founder of Voices of Women Worldwide at -- one of the fastest rising global social multimedia network communities giving strong voices to the "voiceless" ... Your blog will compliment VOWW's pages !!!