Why I no longer believe in Revolution

 

Back in the summer of 2013 when Turkey’s Taksim square protests were at their height, I recall watching a reporter interviewing a protestor to the background of teargas smoke and fervent chanting against the government. The protestor unflinchingly and passionately declared that they are all here demanding their freedom from the dictatorial state. The effect of this whole scene on me was no less than visceral: I felt sick in that way you do when a cliché of massive proportions is unleashed upon you or, even better, when your interlocutor’s moral high-ground is so high – and so delusional – that your natural response, were you not mildly disposed, would be to punch him in the face. Revolution. I no longer believe in Revolution. In fact, I am positively opposed to it, to that irrational impulse to ‘occupy’ the Square and engage in fake unity over idealistic demands with people who in any other context you would normally reject the very idea of spending a minute with, and not only because you find them morally reprehensible. How did this happen; how have I become so anti-Revolution?

 

It wasn’t always like this. On the 26th of January 2011, a day after the Egyptian Revolution had started in earnest and Tahrir Square was definitely ‘occupied by the People’, I booked a flight from my London abode and flew to Cairo to take part in what I described at the time as “the most significant moment in my life so far”. Together with my ‘fellow’ Egyptians we occupied the Square, our chants developing from the usual concoction of Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice to the comically simply and reductive howwa yemshi mesh hanemshi: He (Mubarak) must go, we won’t go. And he went. On the 11th of February 2011, in what we would later understand to have been a sort of internal Coup against Mubarak, a thirty second announcement was delivered by the late General Omar Suleiman – then head of the Secret Service – declaring that Mubarak had waived his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

 

Right after returning to London I wrote in an intense state my account of eleven days in Tahrir Square and published it in Anthropology Today. The article was a success: it became one of the most read articles in that journal for 2011 . I was contacted by a South American – Nicaraguan – Revolutionary journal for permission to have it translated into Spanish and in June of the same year it was published in Envio. The South Americans, of course, being for people of my generation the quintessential Revolutionaries. Yet on reading my account now I have the exact visceral response I had to the Taksim Square protestors: I feel sick – and embarrassed. There is an unmistakable sense of innocence, passion – and delusion – that jumps at you from the page when you read my account of the occupation of Tahrir Square. We were all One. You would see Westernised Egyptian girls, their hair flowing, conversing and agreeing with bearded Salafi men in their white robes. Rich Egyptians sharing a spot and a glass of tea with the destitute inhabitants of Cairo’s slums on the by now eroded grass of the Square. Egyptians, famous for being organisationally and aesthetically challenged, forming neat queues and cleaning the Square to prove to the State that we can do it. We were all united and on our best behaviour. The corrupt state – Mubarak and his henchmen – were the enemy and we were, unquestionably to us, worthy occupiers of the moral high ground. If they would just go, we the People will set it right. And this was and remains the crux of the problem with Tahrir Square and with Revolution in general.

 

What happened next is well known and extensively analysed. In a number of perceptive articles, Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha eloquently documented and devastated the charade that is the Egyptian Revolution. By October 2011, when tens of Coptic protestors were murdered at Maspiro by security forces, and in the ensuing fabrications constructed by certain ‘fellow’ Egyptians to blame the Copts, I became acutely aware that the unity of Tahrir square was nothing but a temporary delusion: we were never One. We were always divided by class, education, belief, ideology, gender, geography, by our capacity for reason and our integrity: how did I ever think otherwise? Throughout the months in which SCAF were the explicit rulers of the country, they methodically destroyed the possibility of a reasonable transition to a reasonable government. Presidential elections conducted in June 2012 brought to power Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who after a series of political blunders, mismanagement, and opposition by key state institutions was overthrown, having spent only twelve months in office, in what can only be described as a CoupVolution: it was not merely a Coup, and it certainly wasn’t a pure outcome of People Power. A few months after that and we were back pretty much to where it all started: an army general as our new president, having resigned from his position as head of SCAF. With the media resuming their familiar role of leader-worship and the country bitterly divided; with the space for expressing opinion severely restricted, and the political discourse reduced to name-calling and falsehood; with two presidents on trial and thousands of political prisoners; with intolerance, religious dogma, and harassment right there on the surface of society, it’s no wonder that I and many people like me are painfully disillusioned. From those heady days of the Square to the situation we are in today: now that’s quite a fall.

 

What is wrong with Revolution? One of the more obvious criticisms is that Revolution can only be destructive. The collective uprising that is Revolution occurs because there is no political process capable of responding to peoples’ grievances and needs. The People rise and forcefully articulate what they do not want, but, naturally, they have nothing else to replace it with, nothing substantial or meaningful that is. And this is not a coincidence. What is required for there to be a political vision by which alternatives to the existing system can be conceived, is a political process capable of generating this vision. But Revolution is an outcome of the absence of such a process, it therefore can offer no serious alternative to replace the machinery of the State it is so intent on bringing down. A quickly cobbled together system of ‘government’ that is in actuality a disguised sectarian ideology or, in other words, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not qualify for a viable political system. In fact, in the case of Egypt, it almost brought the country to the brink of total collapse. Further, the demand for Bread, Freedom and Social Justice may appear, contra to my claim, a positive rather than a destructive demand. But how can this demand ever be realised in the absence of the State? If the People want material equality, freedom and respect, their hope of realising any of this is within the confines of a functioning State. The State may fail miserably on all these dimensions, but the very demand for equality, freedom and respect presupposes an existing structure of which such demands can be made. Things, then, seem much more serious than the average Placard Holding, Tear-Gas Fighting, Square Occupying, Freedom Demanding protestor seems to appreciate. And to realise that I, by virtue of participating in the Revolution, am also guilty of this phenomenal and dangerous naivety.

 

I might be accused of being too pessimistic and short-sighted. Revolution, the thought may proceed, can only be judged like other major events of this kind with the benefit of hindsight once seen as part of broader historical changes. The long-term consequences of Revolution will only be palpable several decades down the line. Might it not have been the case that certain French individuals at the height of the French Revolution in the late 18th century were also, like me, disillusioned with the idea of Revolution? And weren’t they too myopic and ill disposed to see that the French Revolution was a first step on a long road to Democracy, the system of government now generally considered infinitely preferable to absolute Monarchy? Now this is an important argument and I concede that it is not possible to be cognizant of the future desirable consequences of such social upheaval. But that’s precisely the problem. We consider Democracy desirable because our values and perspectives have changed from those of the 18th century. From where we stand now, for many of us at least, it is difficult to desire a form of government that is entirely undemocratic. But the point of interrogating the rightness of an act, in this case of Revolution, is to interrogate it with what I have at my disposal now; with what I know now and not what I would know given the resources available through some hypothetical future. Revolution is a powerful social phenomenon with consequences beyond our capacity now to fathom, but the point is to know how we should position ourselves in relation to it as moral agents living in this age and place, right now, right here. And it is my contention that Revolution should be resisted because, paradoxically, it is a mechanism which guarantees that no change will actually happen where it matters.

 

Revolution is premised on a fundamental lack of integrity. Even more, Revolution is essentially defined by a worldview which is so morally unambiguous and transparent only because it traffics in one of the more extreme acts of self-deception a person can commit, short of outright insanity. Revolution is not morally discerning or subtle: there is ‘us’ and we are good; and there is ‘them’ and they are evil. A worldview so simple and reductive that in any other situation we would severely reprimand its holder – if not feel pity for him – whereas with Revolution we actively embrace it, shedding with it our cognitive and moral integrity. In apportioning all blame to a circumscribed entity – variously the State, Mubarak, the National Democratic Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood – the Revolutionary is thus free to plumb the depths of victimhood, shielding himself from all possibilities for self-examination. And that would have been bad enough if no serious consequences followed from this collective act of self-deception. But it is precisely this self-deception that makes it appear to the Revolutionary that one thing must happen, and must happen now, which is for the identified guilty political entity to be dismantled. And what happens next? Having no alternative system to replace the outgoing one, what gradually but inevitably occurs is for that outgoing system to return, only rearranged and cosmetically altered. This is not due to some underlying conspiracy, or even due to the failure of the Revolution; this is precisely the purpose of Revolution: a sort of rearrangement of the same political and social structure which existed before. Revolution is a trick, the purpose of which is to recycle society rather than genuinely change it. Revolution is conservative; Tradition in spectacular garb.

 

Joseph de Maistre famously wrote that “every nation gets the government it deserves”. While he was referring to the choices people make within a democracy, his epigram can equally be applied to autocracies where people apparently have no choice in who governs. Now that may sound counter-intuitive, after all how can I deserve that which I have not chosen? How can anyone, to be more specific, deserve a Gaddafi or an Assad? But tyrants don’t just descend upon us from nowhere. We create tyrants as much as we create democrats and both have to be ultimately accounted for in terms of the people whom they govern. In order to stop getting ‘what we deserve’, we must stop projecting the worst that is in us and receiving it back in the form of a Mubarak or a Sisi, then rising against them in an impotent act – Revolution – only to find, when the dust has settled, that nothing has changed. By reflecting, each one of us, on his and her place in the social fabric, we can begin to perceive the part we play in that ugly and fractured society we are so keen to change yet are unwilling to take responsibility for. It is not so much a case of the unashamedly romantic “be the change you want to see in the world”, rather, it is the more sober: if you want to see change in the world then you better start by looking at yourself.

 

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed  

August 2014

PDF file of this essay

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Desmund Tutu in Haartez Op-Ed: My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in an exclusive article for Haaretz, calls for a global boycott of Israel and urges Israelis and Palestinians to look beyond their leaders for a sustainable solution to the crisis in the Holy Land.

Excerpt: ” The withdrawal of trade with South Africa by multinational corporations with a conscience in the 1980s was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees. Those corporations understood that by contributing to South Africa’s economy, they were contributing to the retention of an unjust status quo. Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. Those who contribute to Israel’s temporary isolation are saying that Israelis and Palestinians are equally entitled to dignity and peace.”

Read whole piece here: Click

Political Protest, Social Change and Bare Breasts

(Inspired by a recent conversation with Nina Mankin and Tatiane Feres)

 

In the midst of the Femen-inspired current where women and girls in North Africa (Egypt and now Tunisia) pose naked in the name of freedom from societal oppression and patriarchy, I feel compelled to make a few remarks. I am aware that this is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic for everyone and I am keen not to be misunderstood. Therefore I will very carefully specify what I think the issues are.

 

  1. There is no doubt that there is societal prejudice against and relatively excessive control of the behaviour of women in Egypt and, I assume, in Tunisia.
  2. This is consciously problematic for some (and not all) women. This is an important point because many women will vehemently deny that they are under any oppression – which brings us to point 3.
  3. This control is society-wide in the sense that it is not just the prerogative of men, but also of women who believe that their place is defined by the space men have created for them.
  4. Some women and some men strongly believe that something should be done about this.
  5. Aliaa el-Mahdy and (more recently) Amina believed they were doing something about this by posing naked (Amina had the slogan ‘my body is mine and not the source of anyone’s honour’ written on her chest- see the photo attached). They believe they are challenging patriarchy and social/moral norms.
  6. There is no doubt that such actions, by definition, constitute a challenge to patriarchy and norms, but are they addressing women’s broader problems of achieving equal rights and recognition in these societies?
  7. One answer is yes: through being subversive you launch debate and discussion on those issues, issues which otherwise remain dormant.
  8. An alternative answer would be that such actions are counter-productive since in being so radical they will cause serious offence in those communities, and people will not see beyond the offence and grasp the message conveyed by this subversive act.
  9. There is truth in both answers. In the case of Egypt some felt that what Aliaa el-Mahdy did will be pivotal for women’s liberation movements, while some women activists felt it was counterproductive as it tainted women civil rights movement in the eyes of a conservative society waiting for any chance to accuse such movements of immorality.
  10. Again there might be some truth in both claims.
  11. So I don’t particularly feel I can confidently say such actions are productive or not, as this really will depend on the nature of the goal you want such actions to achieve. If you want to shock, and you perceive some long-term value in shock – through introducing new elements into collective consciousness for example – then they are productive. If you are concerned with slow, gradual, social change then you will perceive such actions as counterproductive, if not downright harmful to the cause.
  12. Both points of view have something going for them. I am left, then, with the message conveyed by women who bare nude in protest. This message at the core of it is quite simple: My body belongs to me.
  13. The simplicity of this message is what makes it so powerful and divisive.
  14. Basically you can either agree with this message or reject it. This is the source of the perennial misunderstanding between those with a religious outlook and those without, or between the majority of Egyptians, say, and the majority of North Europeans in relation to the question of the meaning of acts of nudity (excuse my generalisation but the point is to identify two positions rather than groups).
  15. The first position (P1) rejects this statement as false: your body does not belong to you, there are so many other caretakers such as God and Society.
  16. The second position (P2) finds this hugely insulting and demeaning. My body is mine, it’s the most ‘mine’ of all things, like my private thoughts. No one has any claim on my body.
  17. And so for P2, those who adhere to P1 appear to disrespect individuality at its most basic – the notion that you have sole autonomy over your body. This disrespect is further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Arabs/Muslims/etc) are backward and belong to the dark-ages.
  18. Alternatively, for P1, those who adhere to P2 represent the worst excesses of individualism: unhinging the body from the sphere of morality as a meaningless physical substance. This may be further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Europeans/Westerners/etc) are mired in immorality and disgusting in the way they have forsaken God.
  19. And so there is a stalemate and we can all part without an ounce of shared understanding and with both sets of prejudices confirmed. Great. Just another day of life as we know it.
  20. But there is a solution. And as with all good solutions it involves some kind of synthesis of P1 and P2, as both contain some truths, and the challenge is to articulate this synthesis .. to be continued ..

 

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The Gradual Isolation of Israel and the Inevitable Move of Israeli Voters to the Extreme Right

For those who have been following the news, you must have noticed a relatively new tide in international politics: Barring the USA (and a handful of other geopolitically insignificant countries) there is a real tide of international opinion that is increasingly critical of Israel’s colonialist policies, actions and general violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The most recent evidence for this are two overwhelming votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations. In the first (29 Nov 2012), Palestine was given ‘observer member status’; only nine countries voted against: Israel, the USA, Canada, Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. The second resolution (4 Dec 2012) ordered Israel to open up its nuclear facilities for inspection; only six countries voted against – the usual suspects: Israel, the USA, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

In addition to this, two days ago several key European countries – Germany, England, Spain – and many others threatened to withdraw their ambassadors – a serious diplomatic move – after Israel began constructing settlements on occupied land in the West Bank. In particular, there was outrage at plans to build on an area called E1, which would separate East Jerusalem (universally agreed upon as the capital of the future Palestinian State) from the West Bank. This move was seen as retaliation for Palestine’s symbolic move at the United Nations.

How will Israel respond to this tide of international condemnation and support of the Palestinian cause? Israel, for a few years now, has been moving steadily to the right. For example, Liberman, a far right politician who only recently would not have dreamed of it, is now in main-stream politics. The Israeli people are voting for more extreme and right wing governments who engage in war and extend the occupation. It is fair to say that the average Israeli voter is experiencing a state of paranoia. Israeli voters who go for the Netenyahu/ Liberman coalition and shun right-of-centre and centrist parties believe that the whole world is against them and that they need to bring in war-mongers like Netenyahu and Liberman to save Israel. The problem is that the actions of these politicians is only turning international opinion against Israel and making it lose support. In response to this, in response to international isolation, the Israeli voters will become even more paranoid and insular, imagining a threat at every corner and feeling that the whole world is against them. The logical conclusion to this will be an extreme right government that wages active war against its neighbours. This is not farfetched: we have seen Netenyahu’s warmongering about Iran. If the Israeli government wages war on its neighbours to appease its paranoid and insular Israeli voters then a broader middle-east war will no doubt be set in motion. At that point the Israeli psyche will be deeply paranoid and the Israeli populace isolated (with only America and perhaps Micronesia and Canada for support), to the extent that the voices of reason within Israel will be completely lost, even if now they are not heard.

This broader middle-east war will result in tens of thousands of death, if not more, and will lead to a true re-ordering of geopolitics in the region, including the very definition and structure of Israel and Palestine. Then, maybe, just maybe, we will finally see a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

THE DOGMA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE DOGMA!

Ideas, like their bearers, pass through several stages unto death. They start life as solutions to practical problems and, if they endure, sediment as inviolable truths about the world. These truths may take on an ethical significance and the ideas become binding moral imperatives. Ideas are born pragmatic, their coming-of-age is positivist, and their maturity lies in a mysteriously compelling normativity. Perpetually and surely, ideas progress towards death, a death that we call ‘reality’. We do not allow ideas to die, we resurrect them by keeping them part of that most concrete of things: reality, the archaeological sediment of centuries of ideas; what our great relatives and their ancestors have thought up to control the world and each other. An idea is most relevant and immediate when it is born, when it still has an intimate relationship to the practical circumstances it arose to address. In time, the material and social conditions change and ideas must change with them. But many ideas persist and we, seemingly oblivious to their death, allow them to remain in our cognition much like mummified relics or, in a word, dogma.

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To be free of dogma is to realise when an idea has died. Dogma is death, the death of ideas. For an idea only rises to the status of dogma when it presents itself as that which it is not: as ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ or the ‘good’ as opposed to that which it was: a solution to a problem somewhere in the past, a problem that no longer exists but for which the idea continues to present a ‘solution’. Dogma recreates the original problem, in order to present itself as the only solution.

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Religion in the 21st century is pure dogma. The ideas that constitute organised, prescriptive, a-spiritual religion have served their purpose. Religion has nothing to offer but a limitation on thought and a constraint on morality. It tells us what we cannot think; it delineates the limits of thought. Religion tells us what we should do in a world that is different to the one where its precepts were first formulated. A sceptic questions a grand ideology that purports to explain everything without ever doubting itself. Religious dogma tells us that a woman’s body is sinful, it needs to be hidden and covered, and this is presented to us as an entirely natural and self-evident truth; a real and genuine problem. Religious dogma recreates a problem – the woman’s body – in order to offer a solution: a host of limitations on women’s freedom. And it doesn’t matter if women endorse the dogma willingly or if they believe that by covering themselves they will go to heaven. It doesn’t matter because they too are allowing the dead ideas of religion to persist among us: they too are guilty of this perpetual resurrection.

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Scepticism is the mirror that confronts the idea with the image of its own death. Scepticism frees us of dogma, and allows us to align ideas with the social and material world surrounding us.  A sceptic questions the basis of an idea, its raison d’être. A sceptic is not scared by an idea’s claim to truth or goodness; he can see beyond this, he can see that it is dead: a sediment.

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For many decades now and we have had the foundations to live without an eternal guarantor. Unlike Descartes for whom the world was unimaginable, unthinkable without a mighty Agent overseeing its Truth. We no longer need God. It is not that we have, necessarily, ceased to believe in Him (even if some of us think admitting this is crucial), nor that we feel compelled to prove His non-existence – as atheists are inclined to do, no: we just no longer need him; much like a toddler no longer needs a walking-brace once his legs can carry him. We can tolerate a sense of ‘fundamental insecurity’, we can tolerate ‘existential angst’ – in short, we can tolerate life without God. And none of this is new: this is the legacy of the enlightenment, and has been with us, with a particular laity that is, for centuries. It is no longer unusual – let alone heroic – to forsake God.

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Throughout the enlightenment, the idea that religion is a necessary condition of meaning-fullness gradually declined, and a slowly emerging humanism began to fill its place. This was not easy. Descartes, the first of the modern, radical sceptics, went as far as the cogito. But he ended up preserving God, the guarantor against falsehood and the protector from nihilism. Nietzsche’s madman roamed the streets declaring the death of God, only for the philosopher himself to die, in the most ironic of predicaments, in the midst of syphilitic insanity. In time, the conditions for a genuine secularity were laid down and human beings were able to seek fullness and meaning without the need for God.

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Religious political parties are agents of death; they traffic in the dead ideas of religion. And they are only able to do so because we, the People, have allowed these ideas to persist among us; we have continually resurrected them. By capitulating on our failure to eradicate dogma, Religious parties secure power and wield it upon us the willing and thankful people.

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Have we, Heirs of the Enlightenment, rid ourselves of dogma? Have we trained ourselves to see ideas through the lens of pragmatism? Liberty, Equal Opportunities, Human Rights, Individualism, Freedom of Speech. These are just a few of the ideas that have become our lingua-franca. They are, or have become, self-evident truths. While John Stuart Mill might have had to argue for Liberty, we no longer need to. Evidently, it seems, these ideas represent a massive leap over religious dogma: they reflect a more inclusive society and broader possibilities for human flourishing. But are these ideas beginning to exert a hold on us that exceeds the hold of expediency? Are they, that is, progressing slowly towards death?

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It’s a story we are all familiar with now: we live in the midst of an aggressive Individualism. Our value system is struggling to define itself independently of the ethos of consumption. We struggle against this but are always driven back by sheer momentum but also by bottomless greed. And then we are faced with fundamental inequalities, and many tell us that that is fine; that is the way it should be. We all have Equal Opportunities, the dogma goes, so you have only yourself to blame when your share of the material world doesn’t match your expectation or your needs: each to his own. And not only do we no longer need to justify the primacy of Liberty, no, some of us are prepared to kill others to bequeath upon them that most precious of our discoveries: Freedom. And you can talk, you can denigrate others, you can burn books like they did in the Middle-Ages and we will call it Free Speech. The rot at the core of enlightenment ideology is rapidly spreading and the stench is becoming unbearable.

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Freedom of Speech, Individualism, Liberty, Equal Opportunities: dogmas rapidly approaching death. To free itself of thousands of years of Pharaohs, Sultans, Kings and Lords humanity had to discover the individual. It had to enshrine the rights of each and every person, not in order to worship them, but by way of expediency: a solution to the problem of absolute power. Now, these ideas have lost their pragmatic value: they are no longer responding to a practical need. Absolute power is no longer in the hands of the Monarchs; power is in our hands. But we squander it willingly to those gigantic entities that manufacture our desires while also selling us their satisfaction. Individual rights and Liberty have become the justification for the status quo: they have become ideals that no longer limit absolute power but create it.

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Some of us can see that the dogma of the enlightenment and the status quo which it now creates are not sustainable. We are told that we are using up the planet’s resources; melting the poles; raising the temperatures. And if we do not do something about it, many of us will die not so far from now. And this indeed might appear as a highly pragmatic set of ideas. There is a problem, we need to address it, and this is how we do so. But… already, we can hear those who want to raise those ideas to the status of ethical imperatives. They are not content with the issue being a pragmatic issue which should be addressed, they want to transform the ideas into dogma, and thereby move them faster along the path of their inevitable destruction; towards their death. And we must resist this; we must insist that the connection between an idea and the practical need it arose to address is not lost. Because if we do not do so we will join the chorus of humanity in that famous call that echoes from the dark ages and has not yet left us: The dogma is dead! Long live the dogma!

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed   2012