Arabs Without God

I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.

In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:

The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.

One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.

There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Charles Glass on the CIA's Arabists

Charles Glass reviews a new book on the history of the CIA's Arabists for the TLS:

In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as "me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America". The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie's cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency' s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.

. . .

When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army's chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the "young effendis" and Copeland the "right kind of leaders" to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was "only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy", pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, "with the whip".

Worth a read. This story has been told many times, and in this book from Glass' description it is told through the lens of CIA operatives being pro-democracy romantics. Dubious proposition to say the least...

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

Expert Roundup: Egypt After the Election

I have contributed a short take on the political challenges facing Sisi once elected as he tries to handle the disastrous state of Egypt's economy. It's up on the Council of Foreign Relations' site, along with the views of other Egypt-watchers.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The Carter Cables

Wikileaks has released the now declassified record of State Dept. dating from President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, which were obtained through FOIA requests. The Carter Library had also released earlier this year a range of administration documents, but Wikileaks makes them searchable through its (much-improved) database. The cables cover 1977, including the January bread riots in Cairo and Alexandria. One early take on the protests sounds strikingly similar to the protests seen in 2011-2013:

3 - OUR IMPRESSION IS THAT VIOLENT ELEMENTS WHICH LAST EVENING THREW ROCKS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AND ROAMED IN SMALL GANGS THROUGHOUT CENTRAL CAIRO WERE ALMOST ENTIRELY COMPOSED OF YOUNG BOYS OF HIGH SCHOOL AGE. SIGNIFICANTLY, OLDER PEOPLE DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO MOST OF VIOLENCE. WE UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER, THAT OLDER WORKERS CONTRIBUTED TO VIOLENCE WHICH ERUPTED IN WORKING CLASS SUBURBS, ESPECIALLY SHUBRA.

4 - SITUATION AT 1030 LOCAL (0830Z) JANUARY 19: WHILE TAHRIR SQUARE STILL CLEAR, THOUSANDS HAVE BEGUN DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH AND EAST, ESPECIALLY NEAR CENTRAL BANK. ROCK THROWING AND PROVOCA- TION OF POLICE ARE PRIMARILY BY MOST YOUTHFUL OF RIOTERS. POLICE CHARGING CROWDS USING TEAR GAS. MOST SHOPS ARE CLOSED AND PRIVATE CARS ARE BEING KEPT OFF STREETS. POLICE HAVE SEALED OFF MOST OF DOWNTOWN CAIRO. ALL UNIVERSITIES AND SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. MOST BUSES AND TAXIS ARE OFF STREETS. FOR FIRST TIME SINCE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, ARMY UNITS WITH RIFLES ARE SPOTTED THROUGHOUT METROPOLITAN CAIRO AND WE HAVE HEARD LOUD REPORTS WHICH MIGHT BE RIFLE SHOTS. WE HAVE NOT, HOWEVER, SO FAR SEEN CRACK SECURITY RESERVE FORCES.

There are also some amusingly laconic Cold War artifacts, such as the following:

1 - CAIRO PRESS REPORTS THAT KHALID MUHI AL-DIN, LEADER OF EGYPT'S NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY (MARXIST), HAS LEFT FOR MOSCOW TO ATTEND PEACE COUNCILS MEETING AS HEAD OF EGYPTIAN COUNCIL.

2 - AS NOTED PARA 2 REFTEL, KHALID HAS BEEN DOING WHAT HE CAN BOTH TO BURNISH SOVIET IMAGE HERE AND TO PRESS FOR IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS. AS EGYPT'S "RESPECTABLE" COMMUNIST HE HAS KEPT HIS COMMENTS IN CHARACTERISTICALLY LOW KEY. MATTHEWS

Probably worth digging through if you have a specific enquiry about events taking place in 1977. Of course I chose Egypt as a search term but the cables are worldwide. Can't wait till they get to 1979 and those on the Iranian revolution, hostage crisis and siege of Mecca are released.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Dickinson on Bahrain: "Who shot Ahmed?"

Friend of the blog Elisabeth Dickinson, a correspondent for The National , has a Kindle Single out today about the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and its subsequent repression. From the blurb: 

Who Shot Ahmed? recounts the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolution. On a small island Kingdom swirling with political, economic, and sectarian tensions, Ahmed’s murder epitomized everything that had gone wrong since 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in droves. Drawing on dozens of testimonies, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson traces the tale of Ahmed’s death and his family’s fearless quest for justice. Darting between narratives and delving into characters, it is a tale of a life lost and the great powers—from Washington to London, and Riyadh to Manama—that did nothing to stop the crisis. Dickinson has a deep knowledge of the region, but she brings a story from a foreign land straight back home: Ahmed could be any of our sons.

You can find out more about the book on the publisher’s page, its Facebook page or on Twitter at @WhoShotAhmed. I just bought my copy, get yours by clicking on the cover above!

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Changes coming to this site

When I created this blog 10 years ago, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I had no idea it would become so well-trafficked or that it would last so long. It was an experiment, one that had its up and downs, a range of contributors, the occasional hiatus and periods of prolific production. It has never been a major (or frankly even minor) source of income for me, but having been self-employed for most of that decade, I had complete freedom to put as little or as much work into the blog as I wanted.

For me, the current version of The Arabist is 4.0 — it is a mature product, with many idiosyncrasies built up over time and a personality its readers have come to expect. Some of that is going to change in the year ahead as we move towards a 5.0 iteration of the website. Some recent changes were behind the scene, in terms of the engine that drives the site and making it more mobile-accessible. The coming changes will be more editorial.

First of all, my own role in the blog will be reduced for a while at least. The editor role is passing on to Ursula Lindsey, and she is likely to become the most frequent poster. I will post occasionally but, at least initially, much less frequently.

The main reason is that I am starting a new job as the North Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group, the conflict prevention organization. My new job requires me to publicly represent them, and I want to avoid confusion with the range of views and contributors on this site. For this reason the Twitter handle I have been using, @arabist, will now mostly be used to publicize site content and links. I will be moving to @boumilo – please follow!

The Egyptian crisis, Libya's increasing chaos, and the transition in Tunisia are going to be my main focus for the next few months. This will all require a lot of my attention, and I want to dedicate myself entirely to this task, which will mean a hiatus in blogging. I'm sure that Ursula, Steve Negus, Nour Youssef, Paul Mutter and other regular contributors to the site will do a great job. Things readers have indicated they like, such as links lists, will remain – although we want to find a better way to present them and attract your attention to great articles about the Middle East, which is one of this site's main missions. And we want to act some more static content alongside the blog. So stay tuned and thanks for reading.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Egypt links 15-18 August 2013

The most important piece of the last few days about Egypt, in my view, in this great reporting by David Kirkpatrick, Peter Baker and Michael Gordon in the New York Times. It's worth reading carefully because it represents the most detailed public account of efforts at defusing the post-July 3 crisis, negotiations between the army and the MB and how hardliners in the government nixed them, and gives some indication of key personalities around Sisi. It also provides details, such as that Mohammed ElBaradei meant to resign in late July after the second massacre of pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo but was convinced to remain by John Kerry. It's really sterling work.

One impression I came away reading this was that, while dynamics inside the Egyptian leadership were the most important factor, the interventions of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham may have prevented (because of their perceived arrogance from an Egyptian point of view) a breakthrough in efforts to avoid further violence. 

Update:  A source familiar with the negotiations / mediation efforts (not a journalist and not an American) confirms the NYT account is, small errors aside, largely correct but that the deal had already collapsed when McCain and Graham came to Cairo. Their swagger, at most, helped the Egyptian government in providing a pretext for nationalist backlash, but the decision had already been made to close the talks and move to a crackdown.  

Below are links collated in the last few days, from different perspectives. I may come back to a few later. 

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Statement by the Coptic Church

A translation of a statement issued by the Coptic Orthodox Church, chiefly blaming international media for its depiction of events and warning against "foreign interference."  Translated by Osman Osman.

Statement of the Coptic Church
The Egyptian Coptic Church follows the regrettable development of events on the lands of our motherland Egypt. It affirms that it strongly supports the Egyptian Police and Armed Forces as well as all the institutions of the Egyptian nation in confronting the groups of armed violence and dark terrorism operating from inside and outside Egypt, the attacks against the State’s entities and the peaceful churches and the terrorization of Muslim and Christian Egyptians in full contradiction with the values of religions, moralities and humanity. 
Whereas we appreciate the stances taken by states and countries that understand the reality of such developments, we strongly condemn the misleading media coverage in the Western countries, and we call upon the media representatives to objectively look into the reality of events, and to refrain from providing an international or political cover for such terrorist blood-thirsty groups and all those who belong to them, as such groups intend to unfold devastation and destruction in our beloved country.
We call upon the Western and international media to reflect the real image of what is happening, in a truthful genuine manner and with due integrity.
While we present our condolences to the families of the victims and those who lost their lives in service, we wish the injured a speedy recovery.
We adhere to the strong national unity, and we fully reject all endeavours to drag the country into sectarian animosity. We consider that any foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt is totally rejected.
While the hands of evil are involved in burning, killing, and destroying, the hands of God are close to us: protecting, fostering and building. We have confidence in God’s assistance that will help our Egyptian people in overcoming such a difficult chapter of our history towards a better and brighter future, where justice, peace and democracy will prevail, exactly what the people of the noble River Nile valley deserves.
Long live Egypt, free and dignified

 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Hulsman on attacks on police stations and churches

From the Arab West Report's newsletter, by its editor Cornelis Hulsman, a veteran advocate of better Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt who has extensive contacts on both sides:

The Kerdassa police station (Giza) has been attacked using an RPG after elsewhere in the city sit-ins of demonstrators were broken up. This resulted in the death of the local police chief and several police officers whose bodies have then be mutilated. Twenty other police stations were attacked, often with weapons that they were not prepared for. Demonstrators who claimed to be with the Muslim Brotherhood threw a police car with 5 policemen from a bridge killing all of them. Those images are spread all over and have created a shock-wave. It is thus no wonder that policemen seek safer locations to operate from. It also makes the mutual hate between police and Muslim Brothers and militant groups much deeper. The mutual hate is many decades old. Between 1992 and 1997 militant Muslims engaged in attacks on police and civilians. Militant Muslims and political Islamists were targeted by police, many of them ended up for years in prison, also if they had no involvement with any violence. The police did not have a good reputation. Officers were often accused of torture. It is thus no wonder that the police are most hated by Islamists and now, just as on January 28, 2011 and following weeks, are targeted.
The patterns of systematic attack on Egyptian security resemble those of January 28, 2011. People have again come from villages and popular areas to massively destroy government property. But unlike 2011, people now also targeted churches and Christian shops. AWR called priests, friends of ours, in Beni Suef, Fayoum, Maghagha, and Minya. The police have disappeared from all these cities and other cities because they became targets themselves and fled. That is no wonder if one sees on videos how policemen have been brutally slaughtered in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The consequence is that the police are withdrawing to centers where they feel safe and can defend themselves better. The consequence, however, is that thugs have had more opportunities to engage in violence and destruction. The police in Assiut disappeared on the 14th from the street, but returned again on the 15th.
Violence is widespread, but AWR has also spoken with priests who told us that there had been no violence in their village or town. Much of this also, but not only, depends on local relations. Fear is widespread in all parts of Egypt. If particular areas have not yet been targeted they later may or may not become targets.
It all appears that General al-Sisi has made a miscalculation when he, in cooperation with other authorities, decided to end the demonstrations around the Rābaʽah al-‘Adawīyyah mosque and al-Nahda square. Protesters spread and throughout the country militant groups are seen. It is obvious that these groups are organized. It is not possible to explain how otherwise they suddenly appear all over Egypt. AWR has asked friends in various cities to explain why they believe that these were Muslim Brothers. Some friends said that the people marching with weapons in the streets scream, “Islamiya, Islamiya.” Many of them are young. They were surprised to see also small children among them. Priests we spoke to said they believed them to be a mix of Brothers joined by many thugs, people seeing an opportunity to loot.
Emad Aouni lives in Assiut and has seen Muslim Brothers he knows from the sit-in in Assiut participating in attacking churches. They were, however, not alone but in the company of members of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, Salafīs, and thugs. “They usually would not do this alone but in a group with other Islamists they would go along.”

AWR's website has been hacked, so the full piece is not up there. I am pasting it here for those who are curious – it also includes a full list of churches that have come under attack. 

It only gets worse from here

You could ask a thousand questions about the violence that has shaken Egypt, from why police decided to move now against Islamist sit-ins and with such brutality after making so much of its careful planning in the last week, to whether the attacks on churches and Christians more generally that erupted in reaction are part of a pre-planned reaction or the uncontrollable sectarian direction political tensions take in moments of crisis. But the question that really bothers me is whether this escalation is planned to create a situation that will inevitably trigger more violence – that this is the desired goal.

The fundamental flaw of the July 3 coup, and the reason those demonstrators that came out on June 30 against the Morsi administration were wrong to welcome it, is that it was based on an illusion. That illusion, at least among the liberal camp which is getting so much flak these days, was that even a partial return of the old army-led order could offer a chance to reboot the transition that took such a wrong turn after the fall of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. This camp believed that gradual reform, even of a much less ambitious nature than they desired in 2011, would be more likely to come by accommodating the old order than by allowing what they perceived as an arrangement between the military and the Islamists to continue. Better to focus on fixing the country, notably its economy, and preventing Morsi from sinking it altogether, and take the risk that part of the old order could come back.

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All about Sisi

A few days ago, amidst a flurry of articles about General al-Sisi (see below), someone on Twitter asked me if I would weigh in. I thought I might just begin to write more about what's been taking place over the last month, which I haven't done because I've been on holiday, have not been in Egypt since May, and rather wait till the shrill, hysterical atmosphere in Egypt died down (more on that later).

Sisi's speech calling for a "popular procuration" to tackle terrorism has made the curiosity about the general justified. By any standards, Sisi – despite having tried hard to emphasize the civilian face of the July 3 coup early on – has taken leadership of the country and President Adly Mansour is an obvious, clearly powerless, fig leaf. Questions about his political ambitions are normal, whether the current media frenzy in his support – including calls for him to run for president – is at his behest or simply the gesticulations of what masquerades as the press in Egypt these days.

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In Translation: How Egypt's constitution will be amended 2/2

This is the second of two translated articles selected from the Egyptian press on the process of amending Egypt's 2012 constitution, which according to Interim President Adly Mansour's Constitutional Declaration (CD) of July 8 will be amended and put to a referendum before new elections are held. This first article is an interview with Mansour's constitutional advisor, the second article contains possible amendments being considered. Both are translated by our long-standing partner, the most excellent Industry Arabic. Please give them translation jobs, you won't be sorry and you'll help them help us continue to provide this free service.

As explained, a committee of 10 scholars and judicial figures is now tasked with drafting amendments to Egypt's 2012 constitution. The dominant group backing the July 3 coup, composed of secular political forces, is likely to push for the reversal of the Islamization of the country's constitution carried out in 2012 by an alliance of Muslim Brothers and Salafists that dominated the Constituent Assembly then in charge of the process of drafting a new constitution. The lack of agreement between Islamists and secularists on a constitution, indeed, was a major catalyst for the current crisis. The tricky part is that the only major Islamist force that backed the coup, the Nour Party, was even more attached to the Islamist provisions in the constitution than the Brotherhood. Its rejection of the new amendments could undermine its support for Morsi's overthrow, and more generally push Islamists of all stripes into the Brotherhood camp in the name of saving Islam's role in the constitution.

This is why the article below – only a speculation, mind you, into what is being envisaged, published in the rather taboid and anti-Islamist Youm 7 newspaper – is interesting. As might be expected from a judicial source (in Egypt the judiciary, while conservative, has generally defended the modernist idea of judicial review and much leeway for judicial interpretation of Sharia, rather than its strict codification as  the 2012 constitution tended to lean towards, with a major role for theologians to, in effect, veto legislation)  it tends towards the stripping of many of the parts of the 2012 constitution Islamists were most attached to. Most notably those that introduced notions such as formal oversight by theologians, notions that Salafis embrace such as the "enjoining of good and prevention of vice", and stress on the state's role in regulating public morality. If it is representative of the changes to come, one can expect a major Islamist backlash in the weeks ahead.

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The delegitimization of Mohamed Morsi

I have a piece in The National   looking the three battling types of legitimacy in Egypt — revolutionary, electoral and institutional — and how they have played out in the last two years. The piece offers no predictions on the outcome of June 30, as there are too many variables and unknowns, but I do feel grimly confident of the following: 

  • The army will wait it out to the last minute (possibly disastrously so as early intervention might be better in cases of large-scale violence) and may be internally divided about how to proceed (hence the hesitation).
  • Should Morsi be toppled, it will create an enormous problem with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists for years to come. They will feel cheated of legitimately gained power and Egyptian politics will only grow more divisive and violent. 
  • Whatever alliance came together behind the Tamarrod protests will fall apart the day after its successful, because its components are as incompatible as the alliance that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
  • The leadership around the NSF (ElBaradei, Moussa, Sabahi etc.) has followed rather than led Tamarrod and will not be able to provide effective leadership in the coming days. Only the army can. 
  • If Morsi remains and the protests are repressed or simply die out, the country will nonetheless remain as difficult to govern considering Morsi's lack of engagement with the opposition. 

I'd like, time permitting, to do a series of short posts on the current crisis over the next day or two. I have not been in Egypt since late May as I'm spending the summer in Morocco, but do want to note some of the more long-term trends that led to this moment.  

What is most striking about June 30 is how effectively Mohamed Morsi has been delegitimized despite his election, a year ago, having been largely considered free and fair by the public. Part of that is his own fault, of course: his November 27, 2012, constitutional declaration was probably illegal and ended any benefit of the doubt the opposition was ready to give to him. The rushing of the constitution was likewise a slap in the face that created the opportunity of the current moment, with revolutionaries, liberals and old regime members temporarily collaborating against what they perceive as the greater evil of the Muslim Brotherhood. And he has made at least one disastrous decision, in the context of last December's crisis, that has significantly worsened the economic outlook of the country by postponing reforms that had been planned as part of the IMF rescue package. I do not think it is fair, however, to blame Morsi for the more general economic situation (he inherited massive debt, an electricity crisis, a subsidies crisis, etc.) but it is true that save from raising loans from Qatar and elsewhere he has done little to stem it — and indeed his profligate spending on civil service salaries has worsened things to some extent.

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Solving the Rubik's Cube of Egypt's court verdicts

Solving the Rubik's Cube of Egypt's court verdicts

​Nathan Brown has read the recent, controversial verdicts of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (official text here) and has kindly sent this initial take — helping us common mortals make sense of the world's most constitutionally complicated political transition. My own basic take is this: legal victory for the Brotherhood and its allies, but much to use for the opposition for its campaign of delegitimization.  

On 2 June, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) issued three rulings—one on the constitutionality of the Maglis al-Shura election law; one on the Constituent Assembly law; and one on a provision of the Emergency Law. It struck down all three, but the implications confused many observers. That is not urprising--the legal questions are so complicated (with constitutions, constitutional declarations flying through the air, cancelling, contradicting, and clarifying each other) that the Court had to spend a lot of time figuring out what the relevant constitutional text was and how to apply its rulings.  The judgment on the Constituent Assembly in particular reads a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. 

What follows are some brief notes based on an initial reading of the verdicts. This is a very quick set of reactions based on a first reading of the decisions.  I hope readers will forgive any resulting errors of emphasis or interpretation.

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There goes Ed Husain again...

Remember how Council of Foreign Relations' Ed Husain had a series of deranged tweets about Bahrain last year? And the apologia he wrote for the NYT about the dictatorship there?

He's at it again, this time about the protests on Istanbul. First, yesterday he suggested that the protestors in Istanbul are not normal citizens because they may be overwhelmingly secularists. Because that would make the protests any less significant.

And then today he had this gem, tarring the protestors with this broad brush:

I think I know what speaks volumes about Ed Husain's powers of analysis: his own tweets.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Hugh Pope on the "Istanbul Gas Festival"

Last time I was in Istanbul, a year or two ago, I had a chance to have a lovely fish dinner at Hugh Pope's — he writes about Turkey for the International Crisis Group — at his Istiklal Cadesi apartment. It's a great location to monitor the ongoing protests against Erdogan, and Hugh has a long post up on his blog detailing the events on the day. Here's his take:

So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.

On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.

There is a little over-enthusiasm in some circles about the scope of these anti-Erdogan protests. Erdogan is no Mubarak or Ben Ali, he was legitimately elected after all and can credibly claim to have effectively tackled Turkey's economic problems and countered Turkey's once coup-happy generals. But it's not all rosy, apart from his political longevity, there is a relatively poor human rights record (especially on the media and the Kurdish question), an economic growth story that is not without its cronyism, rising cost of living and economic inequality, and a cult of personality that is foundering on (among other things) a foreign policy humbled by the Syria question. The parallels to draw are not with the Arab uprisings, and not quite with recent European unrest such as Greece. This appears to be a very Turkish wave of discontent, perhaps the bursting of the much-inflated Erdogan bubble that thrived pretty much unchallenged for the last decade.

Hugh concludes with some commentary on the scandalous media handling (by state TV but also elsewhere):

There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in  traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.

But do read it all.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Should the Egyptian army and police get to vote?

That is the question that has riled Egypt over the past week, as the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), in its latest bout of judicial jujitsu, has decreed that – in accordance with the new constitution – since the electoral franchise is supposed to be universal, the previous ban on uniformed services from voting should be lifted. This has triggered howls of outrage by Islamists, who see the judiciary giving the police and army the right to vote as tantamount to vote-rigging, and has been welcomed (to various degrees, and not by all means unanimously) by their opponents.

​The recommendation came as part of the SCC's review of a new elections law and a law on parliament – a review that itself is mandated by the new constitution. The SCC's ruling appears correct: since the new constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens, and makes no mention of an exemption from voting for employees for conscripts, officers, and/or policemen, it stands to reason that they should not be denied the right to vote. Of course, there were no provisions preventing the military and police from voting under the previous constitution, so the SCC appears to have, in this case, made a recommendation that went against longstanding practice – or perhaps more simply it had never had the occasion to rule on this issue before, since it did not get to review legislation under the previous constitution.

​A first take to this decision is that it shows, yet again, how foolish the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were to rush ahead with a constitution that has already come back to bite them in many respects. And their reaction is proving yet more foolish, notably in the shape of calls for the SCC to be abolished altogether because it is seen (despite having been purged by the new constitution of many of its most anti-Islamist components) that are escalating the crisis between the government and the judiciary (judges are now threatening a national strike in response to a draft judicial reform law).

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In Translation: Sinai has been kidnapped

I often choose Fahmy Howeidy's articles to translate in this series not because they are particularly brilliant, but because they are widely read, generally pretty cogent and quite influential on elite opinion. The kidnapping (and subsequent release) of six policemen and one soldier in Sinai last week is one occasion for Howeidy to do what he does well: provide a bigger framework on an issue, analyzing in passing the way the media has handled a crisis while providing some long-term perspective. In the piece below, he looks at the situation in Sinai in the context of Egypt's lingering political crisis, its unresolved strategic approach to the Sinai (and therefore the Israel) question, and more. While elements of the column show his usual moderately pro-Islamist bias (he rightly raises the conspiracy theories and Morsi-bashing of the press, but does not mention that just has some saw a MB-Hamas hand behind the kidnapping, senior MB leaders chose to blame Muhammad Dahlan), what's more significant is his take on the need to restore full Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai and thus revise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. As he puts it:

the only way to deal with such issues in Sinai is to restore Egypt's complete sovereignty over its territory, while the only way to do that is to re-examine the peace treaty to make it serve Egypt’s security interests, and not just Israel’s. 

​That, of course, would suggest a renegotiation between the two states. Which means an explicit endorsement of the treaty by the current president, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and presumably an Islamist-led parliament. 

Our In Translation​ series is made possible with the support of the industrious Arabists over at Industry Arabic. Do try them out.

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