From the high skies, or: the lie of the land – a view from the edge

By: Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo.

Egypt has witnessed a somewhat sarcastic debate these days about her ability to secure her skies – after Yāsir ʿAlī, spokesman of the Presidency, tried to deny reports that Egypt’s air defence had failed to spot Israeli planes crossing Egyptian air space on their way south to bomb the Yarmūk ammunition plant in Khartoum, Sudan, on October 24 (with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the US). These reports were published by al-Bidāya (a liberal Egyptian news site just over a month old), based on a Sunday Times article of Oct. 28. During a press conference, the President’s spokesman had stated that these claims were based on “inaccurate translation, as we found out when going back to the original text”. Al-Bidāya jeeringly retorted that the President’s spokesman must have been too stingy to fork out 2 £St to unlock the full Sunday Times article in which details of the operation (seen by many as a trial run for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities), as leaked by Western defence sources, were laid out. For the benefit of those not willing to pay, al-Bidāya then published the full English text of the relevant passages, accompanied by a (quite accurate) Arabic translation. Perhaps this generous donation will help the new rulers of Egypt to spend a little more on the defence of its national airspace? 😉

Inspired by this impishness, I want to remember Felix. Remember #Felix? The guy who jumped from the edge of space? On Oct. 14, the live transmission of Red Bull Stratos on YouTube was watched concurrently by 8 million people worldwide, a media event on a scale Joseph Kittinger (with 31 km the previous record holder from 1960) could never have dreamt of. And sure enough, Egypt proved to be part of this global media world (if a little envious). As Felix in his capsule gained height, he also overtook Egypt’s Twittersphere, temporarily displacing attention for issues normally closer to home, like the debates around the constitution and the constitution of the constitutional assembly; or the violent clashes on Tahrir Square on Friday, Oct. 12, which to many analysts were an omen not boding well for the Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness to accept oppositional protest; or the 88 cases of torture and 34 cases of extra-judicial killings at the hands of Egyptian police that the reputable El Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture has documented for Morsi’s famous first 100 days in power that were to serve as a yardstick for measuring post-revolutionary progress with the Ikhwan at the helm.


But even the most ardent political activists took a break when for an hour or so the Egyptian Twittersphere was almost exclusively taken over by #Felix, #قفزة_فيليكس, and related hashtags. Among so much political tension and uncertainty, this was – commercialisation notwithstanding – fun to watch. And the Egyptian tweeps had fun, too. “Half of the world are in front of their TV’s now and we’re probably the only ones cracking jokes about Felix.. Oh Egyptians. ❤“. Some of these jokes did, of course, play on the situation on the ground. “If he’d jump in Egypt, a microbus would hit & kill him!“. “If he was a real hero he’d take the public prosecutor with him! Is he up to the challenge?” Others thought he should take the head of the Egyptian Judges’ Club down with him as well (they had backed the public prosecutor against Mursī’s ill-fated attempt to sack him). Uber-blogger Wael Abbas used this occasion, like every other, to curse everyone and the parliament of pimps. And he was not alone in thinking low: “Jump, Felix – Egypt is opening her legs for you.” Others, however, kept a more factual tone. A tweep as prominent as Gigi Ibrahim detected “Gravity at work“. This is after AUC professor and internet expert Rasha Abdulla had confirmed: “Felix opens door“.

The insights of these secular intellectuals were much surpassed, however, by the most popular of all tweets on the matter (189 retweets): “They say that Felix was the first person to reach this altitude. But Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) has reached the Lote Tree of the Extremity in the Seventh Heaven!” At the climax, however, even the seculars became religious (Gigi Ibrahim: “Oh GOD HE JUMPED“; Zeinobia: “Allah Akbar he jumped it ya mama“), or traditional (Sandmonkey: “yalallahhwwyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy“), or increasingly primary (Sandmonkey: “wohoooooooooooooooo“; Zeinobia: “Oooooooooo” (not to imply that religious, traditional, and primary are anthropological similitudes… ;-).[1]

The bottom line? If you are still wondering what all of this has to do on a blog about Egyptian politics, here’s the insider’s insight, informed by daily exposure to Egyptian political discourse: “A7a, Felix! You’re gonna jump now to distract us from the Morsi scandal! Fuck the Ikhwan conspiracies!”[2]


Update Dec. 2013: Google Zeitgeist Egypt statistics for 2012 show “Felix Baumgartner” ahead of celebrities such as Bāsim Yūsuf and ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī in the category “Trending People“…

(1) Tweeps also commented on the linguistic aspects of the event. Thus, Zeinobia was reprimanded for her Oooooooooo and told to “speak Arabic“, while Sandmonkey got a thumbs up for actually using his mother tongue for once…

(2) On ‘a7a’, see “Egypt’s deafening three-letter yell“, Egypt Independent, 17/7/2012. There’s also a popular Facebook page by the name, say.a7a, bearing the motto: “أحا – انا حقا اعترض كل شيء يرفضه عقلي. بقول احا وقاصد العالم يسمعها” (a7a – I’m in my full right to object against anything that my reason refuses. I say a7a, and that’s for the world to hear).