playing catch up

The beating that John McCain continues to take over his assertion that Petraeus goes out everyday in an “unarmed Humvee� and that Americans can stroll about downtown Baghdad in shirt sleeves might be old news now, but it still has entertainment value. “I think you ought to catch up� McCain told Wolf Blitzer when he got home. These days it looks like it's McCain, trailing two unelectable competitors for the Republican nomination, who needs to do some catching up. Michael Ware is denying, sort of, the Drudgereport story that he laughed at McCain and heckled him during the Green Zone press conference in which he made the original comments. CNN hasn’t released the tape of the conference yet, but note two things. First, that a CNN story later mentioned that McCain "became testy when pressed." And secondly, that Ware only denies misbehaviour during the conference, and neatly rules out speaking about what happened after the conference "abruptly ended." There’s also an video here of McCain getting smacked around on CNN the day after he talked to Blitzer, though, and a transcript here of CBS’s Allen Pizzey referring to his comments as “utter rubbish� (and the rest of the interview is worth a scan as well).
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looking in

Interesting to be on the outside looking back into Egypt at the moment. BBC is still airing that great Egypt tourism ad—the one with the scantily clad babes emerging from the pristine sea and the romantic (I suspect CGI) shots of Cairo, while at the same time the news is of another rigged referendum and more of the usual quasi-anonymous violence. A bit depressing to hear that the demonstrations of discontent have been relatively minor. Looks like the vast majority are going to lay back and take it. Supine, apathetic, depoliticized and broke, they still deserve better than the steadily darkening political horizon promises to bring them. Gamal Mubarak’s smug little press conferences and earnest evocations of "reform" and "progress" may have the same reality value as ever (about as much as that tourism ad) but are somehow harder to laugh off when you’re in a country where the words have coinage. Yesterday I went for a haircut and the hairdresser asked me if Egypt is dangerous. I gave her my standard answer: the only people you have to be afraid of in Egypt are the police. I thought for a moment of trying a new answer. Something about that shifty grasping little shit with his wheedling lickspittle sycophancy to Big Dick Cheney, his bully’s sense of when to put the boot in, his receding hairline and blonde beard, his pilot’s license and his polyester clad demo-breakers. But that would have take taken longer than the haircut.
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the Ides of March

000019_vl.jpg Coming up on the anniversary of the liveliest expression of popular dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime in recent memory--the March 2003 demos--it seems like the moment to wheel out some old photos. I've scanned a (rathered battered) roll of negatives, and strung them together with some captions here. I think the moral of the story is this: if there's a dozen guys dressed up like little Darth Vaders chasing you, run like hell.
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When it rains...

Rain in Damascus
Syria—well, Damascus—doesn’t feel like a place ready to come apart at the seams just yet. The mess of swish new cafes and expensive clothing stores, the shiny new cars and a general air of confidence belie the rumors of fraying domestic security and an unhappy economy. Maybe the feeling is deceptive. The flash is largely restricted to Abu Roumani and Shalaan and is mostly fueled, they say, by an influx of unclean money from Lebanon and Iraq. It was raining yesterday when I went out to Jaramana, where many of the million or so Iraqi refugees have ended up. Taxies splashing through the pothole-lakes and vegetable dealers huddled unhappily on the sidewalk. A few big 4X4 taxies with Iraqi plates, piled high with plastic wrapped bags. Nobody had heard of Hajji Hussein’s, which was apparently Zarqaoui’s favorite kebab stop in Falluja until the Americans flattened it and it’s proprietor relocated to somewhere in Damascus. Not that I spent a hell of a lot of time asking after it. Between the rain and the serious looking men in cheap leather jackets and white socks, my sense of adventure was damped. So back to the very civil pleasures of Bab Touma and Abu George. I’ve posted a few pics on my flickr site.
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cheap dig

nose-guard.jpg Ok ok. My apologies to the fine boys who come out to make sure that law and order are maintained during these demos. Sometimes you just can't resist though. Today's Kefaya demo at Sayeda Zeinab mosque, marking the thirty-year anniversary of the Bread Riots, was more energetic than usual, and the crowd seemed more diverse. At the same time security seemed more at ease, though the tactics followed routine practise: squish the protestors into the smallest possible space and keep a troupe of beltagaya posted around the corner just in case. I've posted a couple of other shots of the proceedings on my flickr site. Also see Hossam Hamalway's report here or check out a contemporary account of the events by Henry E. Mattox, economic reporting officer at the US Embassy at the time. He seems to have observed the events from the vantage point of his office, but he did offer this:
The root cause of the recent unpleasantness was what we in the economics racket call in technical terms an effort to extract blood from the corpus of a turnip.
And then he went on to describe how the government has "painted itself into an uncomfortable corner" with "this subsidy lashup." Worth noting that Sadat's government got itself out of the corner not by easing off subsidies while doing something about the repressive and corrupt mode of economic "management" that they enabled, but by a cheap sleight of hand: keeping the price of bread the same while reducing the size of the loaves (oh yeah, and bashing a lot of heads). So the working class today finds itself in the same position as 1977: dependent for their daily bread on a regime that acts like a violent dead-beat dad, at once stifling the ability of those without the capital to buy up state assets at knock-down prices to support themselves, and unable to provide an alternative. Mattox's conclusion also says much about the nature of US-Egyptian state-level relations, though perhaps unintentionally. After bemoaning the billions of dollars that the subsidies are costing the Egyptian government, referring to cutting out the subsidies as "bringing sanity" and hiding under his well-polished desk for several days, Maddox reports that "the natives are quiet again." What a relief.
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natural bedfellows

It'll be interesting to see whether the IHT hits Cairo newstands (has hit the newsstands? when does the print edition come out?) with a Michael Slackman piece intact. The article is more than a little critical of the Egyptian regime and of Condi's support for it, and, while it is posted on the IHT and NYT websites, it will give the boys down at the Ministry of Info no great pleasure if they are told they have to let it through here.
Cairo: In the days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with officials in Egypt, the news media here were filled with stories detailing charges of corruption, cronyism, torture and political repression.
And Slackman then fills out his lead: police torture on video, contaminated blood being distributed, journalists getting arrested. He gives Ibrahim Eissa space for a quote on regime duplicity and political tensions, lets Hafez Abou Saada say the usual, and runs through a short list of the kind of reforms instituted since 2005 (back when Condi was making those huffy puffy noises that sounded to some like criticism of beating protestors and fixing elections):
Since then, Egypt's government has piled up a long list of repressive actions, including ordering the police to block people from voting in parliamentary elections; delaying local elections by two years; imprisoning an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, on charges widely seen as politically motivated; battling with judges who have demanded oversight of elections; and imprisoning Talaat el-Sadat, a member of Parliament and the nephew of President Anwar el-Sadat, for a year in a military jail after he criticized the armed forces on television.
And he twists it closed nicely at the end, juxtaposing the experience of some Wafd members who tried to do something about sewage in their village (you guessed it, friendly visits from security) and Condi's latest public message to Egyptians:
"I especially want to thank President Mubarak for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle East," Ms. Rice said. "Obviously the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship — one that we value greatly."
Thanks for clearing that up Condi. The depressing part, however, is the point that Slackman raises in the middle of his article. Shalit's still walled up in little cell under Gaza somewhere and Fatah and Hamas are going at it like a bunch of well-armed soccer hooligans. So what does Washington have to gain these days in exchange for its complicity in the very public human rights violations of the Mubarak regime? Are they anticipating an imminent need to outsource the questioning of Gitmo releasees to the Lazoughly Interrogation Company? Ultimately, Condi's stance looks at best like knee-jerk retrenchment in the face of the utter failure, and at worst like somebody taking comfort in the arms of like-minded friends. Politics doesn't always make strange bedfellows, it seems.
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color coded

tunnel.jpg The odd but occasionally amusing Nation of Pearls blogzine has dug up a cartoon that shows bright red Palestinians undermining nice green IDF troops along the Gaza border. No prizes for guessing who the baddies are here. Mind you, one wonders how the truck on the left, the one marked with the huge skull and cross bones, is managing to avoid detection, or for that matter falling in the massive hole that has been dug a meter and a half from the border fence. Make what you will of the commentary.
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on the safe side

mostafa1.jpg A State Security Major told me this evening that sometimes these demonstrations get violent, which explains why the park in front of Mustafa Mahmoud mosque had to be sealed off with three truckloads of riot police and a couple of gangs of stick toting beltagaya tonight. "The Muslim Brotherhood sometimes comes," he told me and gave me a knowing look. While the two dozen mostly-familiar faces who showed up to stand for an hour and commemorate the first anniversary of the night that similar troops beat to death 28 people, including seven children, in the park didn't get too rowdy, it was good to know that reinforcements were close by just in case.
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miserable and wet

ghad-demo2.jpg Nasty weather for demonstrating tonight, but around seven o'clock this evening there were half a dozen Ayman Nour supporters stamping their feet and yelling nasty things about State Security in Midan Talat Harb. Three trucks full of soldiers watched from the other side of the street and the usual array of nice young men in government issued polyester casuals were tucked into the shadows around Groppi's in case there were any women who needed to be beaten.
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serve and protect

Reuters piece up at the moment on the police-sodomy video that did the rounds a few weeks back. Elijah Zarwan gets in some good quotes on behalf of the human rights community, and Hisham Kassem pops in at the end to point out that, surprise surprise, apathy reigns. However, the piece, which appears with a December 11 dateline, ignores a number of blog postings, including Hossam Hamalawy's, that suggest that not only has the victim been identified, but so have the perpetrators. Time for Reuters to update this story.
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under the boardwalk

Bidoun magazine editor Negar Azimi has a good piece in the NYT magazine today on homosexuality and repression in Egypt. Maybe I just liked it because yellow press shill-artist Mustafa Bakry comes off badly in the lead, but Negar also deals in some refreshingly unjournalistic nuance. Whether she gets it right or not I don’t know, but her characterization of homosexuality and gay sex as an “unremarkable aspect of daily life, articulated in different ways in each country, city and village in the region,� sounds a little more plausible than that "we don't have those guys here" line that I've now heard once too often. In fact, that's what much of the piece is about: the politically motivated rebranding of gay sex as a western perversion deserving of potentially lethal repression by security forces. Makes one think that it's a pity that there aren't any gay politicians, no one at a senior level (say ministerial), who could speak out on behalf of a culture of personal rights and against the culture of crass politicking that surrounds the issue. Of course, that person would have to be well connected and virtually impossible to remove no matter what he said or did. Yep, pity there's no one like that around. Three nice photos with Negar's article by one Ziyah Gafic.
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Times and Times again

Here we go again. Another attempt at local English-language news reporting, this time in Palestine, according to AP. The Palestine Times, available on the internet in crude but workable PDF format, is on issue no. 4 as of today. If, as the editor claims, the Palestine Times isn't going to be beholden to any particular political or commercial interest, then this could a good thing. Palestine, as much as Egypt, needs a way of laying out local events from a local perspective in a way that is comprehensible and credible to a western audience.
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muesli madness

angry-hippie.jpg Authorities are warning this morning of a new threat to the safety of Cairene motorists—angry hippies. “We think they’re coming from California,� confided Mohamed El Jalaad of the Traffic Safety Division of State Security. “It’s the sandals that tip us off. But do not worry. We will crush them beneath the wheels of our Jeeps.� While rumors of steadily rising face-mask sales continue to circulate, pedestrians are being advised to take care in crossing the road. “These angry hippies can be dangerous,� says taxi driver Ahmed al Soua pointing to mark on the side of his cab. While he says he wasn’t really watching, he thinks the mark may have been caused when he sideswiped a Deadhead on a mountain bike. Meanwhile Shabaan Abdel Rahim has announced that he will be releasing a song next week entitled “Squash the bearded freak under the wheels of your Lada.�
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concrete solutions

The New York Times, which, despite its manifold faults, has at least remained reasonably critical of the trough-feeding manner in which the Iraqi “reconstruction� business has been funded, is retailing a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Construction that criticizes contractors for spending too much on “overhead.� There seem to have been a bunch of issues involved in padding out the cost of doing business in Iraq (my favorite is “egregiously poor building practices.� Who saw that one coming?), but this story emphasizes “inactivity.� Bad coordination meant that (according to a spokesman for the office that released the report) contractors “…billed for sometimes nine months before work began.� Presumably that whole thing about having snipers trying to take your head off as you drive to the site in the morning plays in there somehow as well, and the whole piece tip toes very quiet through the tulips when it comes to anything less mundane. KBR (when did they change the name from Kellog Brown & Root?), apparently managed to skim off around half of their $300 million to “overhead.� Does Cheney see any of that directly as cash, or at his level does it accrue as strictly political capital? Best comes last though, where Maj. Gen. William H. McCoy of the Army Corps of Engineers points out testily that “waiting for concrete to cure� is work too. Tell it to Jimmie Hoffa. Meanwhile, on the same note, if you can find a copy of this month’s Harper’s, don’t bother to read the piece by George McGovern and William Polk on getting out of Iraq. On the one hand, a rethink about how the $250 million a day that the States is spending to stay in Iraq could better be spent getting out, is welcome. Add up the numbers and look at the cost of staying even another year, and billion dollar payoffs make good financial sense. Clearly McGovern and Polk are right in saying that US forces are making things worse at this point and that they have “no useful role to play� in the domestic stabilization of Iraq. However, their assertion that, should US forces withdraw, the insurgency is going to wither away into something that could be mopped up by a force of 15,000 troops from Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, makes you wonder whether these guys shouldn’t have stayed in bed with a soft boiled egg and a nice cup of decaf, rather than pulling out the old Dictaphones and recalling their secretaries from retirement. “Tribal home guards� will be restricted to “their communities� in this new, America-free, Iraq, by a “central government police� who will operate in a country free of the “disrupting� influence of a heavily armed national army. Sounds nice. Sounds like a cartoon show I used to watch.
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