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Novak Djokovic and Global Pandemic Morality

SYDNEY, Australia — What began as a power struggle between a defiantly unvaccinated tennis star and a prime minister seeking a distraction from his own pre-election missteps has turned into something far weightier: a public stand for pandemic rules and the collective good.

And the sinner of the moment is Novak Djokovic.

Australia — a proud “sporting nation” where the year’s first tennis Grand Slam begins on Monday — hemmed and hawed about Mr. Djokovic for more than a week. Australians didn’t much like how their government had summarily canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa at the airport. After all their lockdown obedience and vaccine drives, they were also unhappy about the celebrity athlete’s effort to glide into the country while skirting a Covid vaccination mandate.

“As Meryl Streep might say, it’s complicated,” said Peter FitzSimons, an author and former professional rugby player.

But then came a stretch of extraordinary revelations that all but erased any popular ambivalence. Mr. Djokovic admitted that he had not isolated himself last month while he apparently suspected, and later confirmed, a Covid infection. And he blamed his agent for a false statement on an immigration document that warned of harsh penalties for any errors.

With that, Australia’s leaders decided they had seen enough. On Friday, the country’s immigration minister canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa for a second time, putting his bid to win a record 21st Grand Slam title in grave doubt. If Mr. Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player, does not successfully challenge the decision in court, he could be deported before competing.

In the final tally, a country far from the epicenters of Covid suffering, where sport is a revered forum for right and wrong, has become an enforcer of the collectivist values that the entire world has been struggling to maintain during the pandemic.

Mr. Djokovic sought to play by his own rules. First, he admitted submitting an entry form at the airport that falsely said he had not traveled internationally in the 14 days before he arrived in Melbourne. He had in fact been flying during that time between his native Serbia and Spain. (The misstatement was a “human error,” he said, made by his agent.)

And then there was everything he did during the time he believed he might have been exposed to Covid and eventually, in his telling, tested positive — the Covid diagnosis that enabled his vaccine exemption in the first place.

Five days in December, more or less, sank his chances of winning an unmatched 10th Australian Open, as the world saw what his many critics have described as his selfish and reckless disregard for the health of others.

The tale begins on Dec. 14, when, as a photograph attests, he went to a basketball game in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, with someone who later tested positive for Covid. On Dec. 16, according to an affidavit his lawyers filed in Australian federal court after his first visa was canceled, he took a P.C.R. test that came back positive at 8 that night.

The next day, before he had received the result, he said, he took a rapid antigen test that came back negative. He then attended a junior tennis ceremony in Belgrade, where photographs show him posing without a mask near children.

Later that day, Dec. 17, Mr. Djokovic said he learned about his positive P.C.R. test result. But he did not then go into 14 days of isolation, as the Serbian government requires. The following day, Dec. 18, he did a media interview and a photo shoot at his tennis center in Belgrade. He later said he knew he was Covid-positive, calling it an “error of judgment” to follow through with the interview but saying he had felt “obliged” to.

The journalists involved said they were never told Mr. Djokovic was positive.

Of all his actions, which include a history of other dismissive stances toward the pandemic and sometimes petulant outbursts on the court, his behavior after receiving a positive test seems to be what set the world on edge over his moral compass.

Refusing to get vaccinated was one thing. But withholding the fact that he was infectious?

“For him to do that photo shoot because he didn’t want to disappoint somebody — are you kidding me?” Martina Navratilova said on Australian morning television this week.

“I would be staying home, and you couldn’t pull me out of the house for anything.”

Many Australians saw in Mr. Djokovic’s actions both dishonesty and a disregard for others. Some questioned whether he had really tested positive in the first place, given the convenient timing for his vaccination exemption. They could almost smell the arrogance in his behavior, and they found it rank, especially at this stage of the pandemic.

The community spirit that has defined the country’s virus response — with people grinding through lockdowns and longing for family as borders slammed shut, only to then rush out for vaccines — is in an uncertain place at the moment.

Omicron is surging, and Australians are seeing more deaths daily than at any time since Covid hit. They want the wave to pass. They crave continued solidarity.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought to exploit that urge when he pounced on Mr. Djokovic’s first visa cancellation, tweeting barely an hour after it happened on Jan. 6 that “rules are rules.”

He made the point again on Friday evening after the second visa cancellation was announced, four days after a judge had restored it on procedural grounds.

“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” he said.

Although the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, cited what he called a risk to public health in canceling Mr. Djokovic’s visa, doctors were less convinced that health was the issue. With tens of thousands of new Covid cases every day in Australia, and sky-high vaccination rates among the vulnerable, one athlete does not pose much of a threat.

“From a medical perspective, you can say, well, what’s the problem?” said Dr. Peter Collignon, a physician and microbiology professor at the Australian National University.

But the “Djokovic affair” is no longer — and maybe never was — just about science.

Dr. Collignon said that in the third year of the pandemic, it raised the question of moral judgment. “When do we stop punishing people for making bad decisions?” he asked.

In Australia, the answer is “not yet.”

Now, as before, the decent man is the one who doesn’t infect anyone, as Albert Camus wrote in his 1947 novel “The Plague,” and if the prime minister hadn’t jumped on the cause, someone else probably would have. Mr. Djokovic, 34, placed himself center stage in the arena where Australia often defines what it wants to be as a nation.

Sport is life to many Australians. Participation rates are high, and even watching others compete has been described, for generations, as an activity that builds character.

Character is also what Australia’s Migration Act demands of all migrants. A “character test” sits at the center of a provision that gives the immigration minister the right to deny or cancel a visa for a wide range of reasons, though in this case, he relied on another section that lets the minister reject a visa if it’s “in the public interest.”

The law’s wide scope has often been abused. More than two dozen refugees are still in the same hotel where Mr. Djokovic stayed while waiting for the hearing on his first visa cancellation. Some, like Mehdi Ali, a musician who fled Iran when he was 15, have been held by Australia for many years.

But for Mr. Djokovic, Australia’s tough stance on border security seems to have delivered a result that many people can support, even if it means a less interesting Australian Open.

At Melbourne Park on Friday, where Mr. Djokovic had been scheduled to practice after being named the No. 1 seed, fans seemed resigned to the loss of a player who was fun to watch and hard to admire.

“He has a way of rubbing the Australian public the wrong way,” said Damien Saunder, 44, a cartographer who is the president of a tennis club near Melbourne. “No disrespect for him or his tennis ability and that, but there’s something about him that just doesn’t quite sit with the Australian public.”

Christopher Clarey contributed reporting from Melbourne, Australia.

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A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power

CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.

But then the lyrics take a radical turn.

“If you leave me,” blasts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”

The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.

The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.

The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as mahraganat, of normalizing, and thus encouraging, decadent behavior, of misrepresenting Egypt and of spoiling public taste.

“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the syndicate, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform onstage and that while technically not an arm of the state, is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we’re confronting right now is the face of depravity and regression.”

The barred singers have been iced out of clubs, concerts and weddings. Some have continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but they have had to say no to advertising deals and other income opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also cast a pall over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still toe restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outmoded entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture that is smashing against an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.

“They can’t get themselves to be convinced that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say someone like Shakosh misrepresents Egypt when his songs are being heard and shared by the entire country?”

Fans were incensed. One meme depicted the leader of the syndicate, a pop singer of love classics from the 1970s, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.

The battle mirrors cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.

But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.

Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.

Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.

The raw, straight-talking genre — with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty — mirrors the experience and culture of a broad section of the disenfranchised youth who live in those districts set to a danceable, throbbing beat.

But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly went mainstream and now echo from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in directing our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper called “Alkahera” issued by the Ministry of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does it mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”

They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.

“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishing or beautifying, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.

Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior on the internet.

The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.

And government authorities have reinforced the message.

In 2017, a special division of the police that targets moral crimes arrested the makers of a mahraganat song, and promised to continue searching for work that “presents offensive content for the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual insinuations.”

In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” spread of songs that incite “bad behavior.”

A short time later, the minister of youth and sports vowed to “combat depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.

The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a late-night television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”

So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the fight.

“We have in fact stopped them because they can’t get onstage in Egypt,” said Mr. Mortada, the organization’s spokesman, adding that it went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.

But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.

The syndicate’s very structure smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform onstage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.

While the syndicate’s efforts may be keeping mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.

Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have exceeded two billion views on YouTube.

He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.

“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”

Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.

They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.

Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.

Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.

“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”

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In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War

“He did say something about the wedding,” Volodymyr said. “But we didn’t talk about finishing our service.”

“Well, he spoke of it just with us,” Yaroslav’s father said. “He didn’t talk about it with the guys yet. He’d bought a house, renovated it. All with his own hands, all how they wanted it. He said, ‘My contract will finish, and we’ll live like humans.’ If anyone would have told us. …”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

By that point, Yaroslav had been buried, in his hometown, Pidlypne, three hours northwest of Kyiv. In the morning, mourners began gathering outside Yaroslav’s house, its wood siding freshly painted a vibrant green. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, fellow soldiers and local veterans carried flowers, many of them in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, all of them held upside down, a local custom. Some, like Yaroslav’s commander, had traveled from across the country to attend. By midday there was a crowd of several hundred.

At noon, a police car, siren flashing, pulled in front of the house, and the crowd parted to let it through. Behind it was a Humvee with an open rear. A coffin was draped in blue-and-yellow wreaths. An honor guard of cadets carried the coffin into the garden. A quartet of priests and army chaplains in olive drab surplices sang hymns. Yaroslav’s fiancée fainted and was carried into the house. As the coffin was carried back out to the Humvee, a cadet yelled, “Heroes never die!” The other cadets echoed, “Heroes never die!” A brass band struck up a dirge and started toward the church, the Humvee and crowd following behind.

I fell in with a man in his 60s walking with a single crutch. He was wearing an old telnyashka, the traditional striped undershirt of the Russian military, beneath a great coat. The medals hanging from it clattered.

He had been a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan, he told me, and was proud of it. But he was also a Ukrainian, from Donetsk, and when the war in Donbas started, he helped organize the volunteers from Pidlypne. He had been going to funerals like this one ever since. If this had been a few years ago, he said, the whole city would have turned out. There would have been thousands of mourners, not hundreds.

“Now everyone is tired of the war,” he said.

Though Ukrainian, he, too, longed for the days of the Soviet Union, he confided. Life was dependable then. The leaders might have been cruel, but they were honest. Now it was a mess. He didn’t know what to expect.

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Netanyahu’s Lawyers Discuss a Plea Bargain to End His Graft Trial

JERUSALEM — The lawyers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli former prime minister, are in negotiations with state prosecutors to reach a plea bargain in his long-running corruption case, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry and two people involved in the negotiations.

The talks are expected to finish by the end of the month and, if successful, would help conclude a legal process that contributed to years of political instability in Israel and, ultimately, to the end last June of Mr. Netanyahu’s record tenure as prime minister.

The proposed bargain includes Mr. Netanyahu’s admitting to some of the charges, all of which he still formally denies in court, in exchange for the prosecution’s downgrading the seriousness of one charge, dropping another entirely and allowing Mr. Netanyahu to avoid serving a jail sentence by instead performing community service, the two negotiators said.

The talks are currently stuck, however, because Mr. Netanyahu does not want to accept the charge of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s biggest right-wing party, from public office for seven years, the negotiators said.

The details, first reported in Maariv, a centrist Israeli newspaper, were confirmed to The New York Times by one of the main mediators, Aharon Barak, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and a second person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations openly. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry confirmed that talks were taking place, but declined to confirm any further details. The office of Boaz Ben Tzur, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.

The talks are the latest twist in a legal process that began in 2016 with a police inquiry into claims that Mr. Netanyahu had accepted gifts from benefactors in exchange for political favors.

The investigation expanded after Mr. Netanyahu was accused of offering the owners of two media companies inducements in exchange for positive news coverage. The charges quickly divided Israelis between those who believed that Mr. Netanyahu should step down to avoid tainting the office of the prime minister, and those who thought that he was the victim of a judicial conspiracy.

The argument deepened a longstanding national debate about the power of the judiciary, and drew comparisons with the furor surrounding American efforts to impeach President Donald J. Trump.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu framed himself as the victim of a biased justice system, describing the process as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted administrative coup” when his trial began in 2020.

Both Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to engage in negotiations and his engagement with Mr. Barak, a former judge considered a doyen of the Israeli legal establishment, have therefore surprised some Israelis.

Mr. Barak said that he had agreed to play a role because Mr. Netanyahu, in cases that did not affect him personally, had historically helped to protect judicial independence and because a partial confession by Mr. Netanyahu might help heal social divisions and restore trust in the judiciary.

“It’s of national importance that this thing should result in the accused himself saying, ‘I admit that I have done it,’” Mr. Barak said in a phone interview.

The case caused two years of political stagnation, largely because it splintered Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as well as his right-wing allies in the Israeli Parliament — a fissure that led to four inconclusive elections from 2019 to 2021. After the first three votes, Mr. Netanyahu’s remaining allies won enough seats to stay in power, but not enough to form a stable coalition government or pass key legislation like a national budget.

The impasse ended after a fourth election last year, when three small right-wing parties agreed to form a grand coalition with ideological opponents from leftist, centrist and Islamist parties to create a parliamentary majority large enough to force Mr. Netanyahu to leave office.

If Mr. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, does agree to the deal and leave politics, analysts said that the decision would destabilize, though not necessarily completely collapse, the fragile current coalition government. The logic that glues the alliance together would weaken if he were forced to abandon representative politics because it might tempt right-wing members of the current government to form a different coalition with the new leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.

But Likud will take time to elect a chairman. And once elected, the new leader might still be too closely tied to Mr. Netanyahu to be a viable partner for his right-wing opponents, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.

“Likud will remain Bibi’s tribute band until they have a strong new leader, and I can’t see any candidate for that job,” Mr. Pfeffer said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.

The office of the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads a right-wing faction, declined to comment. But in a speech to the cabinet on Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett said that the government was continuing to work as normal.

“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” Mr. Bennett said. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”

Most analysts believe that if a plea bargain is to happen, it will need to be agreed to by the end of January. The state official overseeing the case, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, is retiring in early February and his successor is unlikely to focus on such a divisive issue early on.

Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu protested outside Mr. Mandelblit’s home on Saturday evening, urging him to allow the case to be decided in court.

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