A New Generation of Arab Innovation

I have managed what seemed nearly impossible to me these days and written a positive story from the middle east. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, I take a look at Arab researchers who -- quite against the odds -- have made discoveries or managed to bring inventive products to the market. The article is behind a pay wall but here is a bit of the section on American University in Cairo chemist Hassan Azzazy, who has developed a better test for Hepatitis C (one that is based on verifiable science, unlike some other recently announced inventions). 

The new test, which relies on gold nanoparticles that change color on contact with the virus, could be on the market in a year. It should cost about $8, a tenth of the cost of the two-step test currently available.

Establishing a start-up company to commercialize his breakthrough has been "a big, long journey," says Mr. Azzazy. He had to persuade his university’s administration to create the infrastructure to support his project. It took the American University in Cairo nearly two years to figure out the legal and logistical framework to create the spinoff, something no one at the university—and, its administration says, no one anywhere else in Egypt—had done before.

In 2013, Mr. Azzazy finally incorporated his company, D-Kimia, and raised about $500,000 from private investors. D-Kimia now is developing tests for other diseases, including tuberculosis and bladder cancer.

The American University in Cairo’s technology-transfer office, which was created in 2010, requests 50 percent of royalties on any product developed by professors and has filed eight patents based on Mr. Azzazy’s work; D-Kimia is developing three of them, he says.

Aside from improving Egyptians’ health, Mr. Azzazy views job creation as the other main purpose of his research. He gets visibly agitated at the thought of all the students who emerge from universities in Egypt every year with a diploma and no job prospects. 

"As an educator, I owe it to my students to empower them to earn a living," he says.  

From Minya

Imma Vitelli went to Minya and -- unable to speak to the judge who recently handed out a death sentence to 528 men in the murder of one police officer -- tracked down the young public prosecutor who put together the case. He showed her cell phone footage he had used as evidence and told her: "All 528 [accused] worked together to carry out this act of terrorism, responding to the call of Brotherhood leaders." (In Italian). 

 

The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

Interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the limitations and blind spots of so-called liberal Islam and proponents such as Tariq Ramadan. 

Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.

 

Dennis Ross and the Saudis

Dennis Ross' call for Obama to "soothe the Saudis" is hardly surprising for this pre-eminent supporter of the status-quo in US Middle East policy since the 1990s, with of course the usual focus on Iran (i.e. against the nuclear talks). But the bit about Egypt is telling too: 

Egypt and Syria will be harder nuts to crack. But focusing on our common strategic objectives is a starting point: preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, ensuring that jihadis cannot gain footholds in Egypt or Syria, and stopping the genocide in Syria. Perhaps, on Egypt -- where the Saudis cannot afford to be Egypt's ATM forever -- the president could offer to lift the hold on key weapons in return for the Saudis using their influence to get Egypt to finalize an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

If you think what's most important to achieve in Egypt these days is an IMF agreement, you're not just cynical, you're delusional. Ross is as toxic on Saudi Arabia as he is on Israel.

A Palestinian Bantustan won’t end the conflict

Daniel Levy, writing in Haaretz:

The logic of the current U.S.-led effort is apparently predicated on the assumption that by offering Israel unprecedented security deliverables within a two-state deal (under a package put together by U.S. General John Allen), together with front-loading recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that Netanyahu would then be unable to dodge a serious negotiation on territory. That logic, combined with the ever-present American unwillingness to deploy any leverage viz its Israeli ally. Predictably enough, the Israeli leadership has pocketed the American concessions, demanded that the Palestinians follow suit, and asked for more.

Read the whole thing for details and insights on the negotiations.

Egypt's Judges Strike Back: The New Yorker

My take on the sentencing of over 500 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to death in a single case tried in the southern town of Minya. (The same court is set to hear similar mass cases with over 900 defendants in the coming month). 

It was alarming, at the end of the largest mass sentencing in Egypt’s modern history, to see five hundred men held responsible, so expeditiously and so severely, for one murder, when there have been no convictions—in fact, there has not been a criminal investigation—related to the deaths of the twelve hundred civilians killed in August. More than eight hundred protesters died during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in 2011; not a single police officer has been convicted for their killings. (Mubarak himself was convicted only of failing to prevent their deaths, and has won the right to a retrial on that charge.) Although cases against senior officials of the Mubarak regime have meandered through postponements and appeals for years now, the verdict in Minya was handed down after two brief sessions. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations that monitored the proceedings, “Witnesses were not called, evidence was not presented in court, and the accused were unable to defend themselves.”

 

It is unlikely that the sentence will be carried out. A majority of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia; the defendants who were in custody, and their lawyers, were not even present when the verdict was delivered. If the conviction is not overturned on appeal, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a government-appointed cleric, must ratify the decision to put the prisoners to death. But his assent does not guarantee that the penalty will be imposed: during the nineteen-nineties, when the state waged a brutal campaign against Islamist militants, some were held for years in prison, with death sentences hanging over their heads, as a kind of leverage. The judgment in Minya may be a similar deadly warning, but it represents something even more significant: it is a sign of how deeply Egypt’s judiciary has been compromised by the government’s onslaught against the Brotherhood.

Read the rest here

Egypt's unprecedented instability by the numbers

Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson write for Carnegie:

Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi. The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks.

This is based on data from WikiThawra, reinterpreted below in graphic format:

They conclude:

Egypt’s rulers have already earned two dubious distinctions in less than a year: since 1952, no Egyptian regime has been more repressive, and no regime in more than a generation has confronted a more intense terrorism challenge.

UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

The US and the UK have made it onto RSF's "enemies of internet freedom" annual list for the first time:

United States: This is the first time the US has made it onto RSF’s list.  While the US government doesn’t censor online content, and pours money into promoting Internet freedom worldwide, the National Security Agency’s unapologetic dragnet surveillance and the government’s treatment of whistleblowers have earned it a spot on the index.

United Kingdom: The European nation has been dubbed by RSF as the “world champion of surveillance” for its recently-revealed depraved strategies for spying on individuals worldwide.  The UK also joins countries like Ethiopia and Morocco in using terrorism laws to go after journalists.  Not noted by RSF, but also important, is the fact that the UK is also cracking down on legal pornography, forcing Internet users to opt-in with their ISP if they wish to view it and creating a slippery slope toward overblocking.  This is in addition to the government’s use of an opaque, shadowy NGO to identify child sexual abuse images, sometimes resulting instead in censorship of legitimate speech.

I have lost count of the ways what these two countries do with one hand completely undermines what they do with the other – and that applies to a whole range of policies aside from internet freedom.

Syria in Free Fall

The NYT's Anne Barnard delivers a tragic snapshot of the Syrian conflict that tells us a lot about the region's, and the world's, inability to resolve conflicts like these:

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.
The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

Rare, grim, first-hand reporting from Sinai by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Egypt's army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region's villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world's biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants - a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth - have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.

"The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter," said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

"Even when the army's armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks."

Many residents say that the authorities' military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004-2006 debate about regular military vs. counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq.

Lunch with the FT: Prince Turki al-Faisal

On America:

“For the Kingdom, it is a matter of putting our foot down, where in the past we did not. It is a matter of accepting reality. You have to acknowledge the world has changed. Obama’s speech to the UN last September made it clear that America will be concentrating exclusively on Palestine and Iran, and for everywhere else – Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Mali, Iraq, Egypt, and so on – you will have to fend for yourself. So whether it is collecting your [Saudi Arabia’s] own resources to do that, or reaching out to others in the area to help you overcome these challenges, we are adjusting to the reality of a retreating America.”

Also reminded me that he stepped down after 24 years as head of intelligence only 10 days before 9/11.

Everybody knows

I wish that rather than "everyone knows", the title and refrain of Alaa Abdelfattah's latest, most explosive, prison missive had been translated as "everybody knows". Because then it would have fit perfectly with the Leonard Cohen song. An excerpt from its end is below, but read the whole thing:

Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them. 

Everyone knows that there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except through you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do?

Obama's three Egypt policies

The FT's Edward Luce, in a piece on the challenges to the US that the Ukrainian crisis represents, has this side note on Obama's Egypt policy – or policies:

Too often, Mr Obama’s stance has been to say the right thing but with little follow- through. Just ask the people of Egypt, who remain confused about whether Mr Obama supports democracy or not. His administration has three policies on Egypt – the Pentagon, which wants to maintain US-Egypt ties come what may; the Department of State under John Kerry, which backed last year’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; and the White House, which condemned the coup but has left day-to-day decisions to the first two. On Egypt, Mr Obama has been absent even inside Washington.

As if the protesters killed each other

Mada Masr's Naira Antoun reports on the National Human Rights Council's report on the deaths in Rabaa last summer. Unsurprisingly, the report skirts condemning the overwhelming state violence that took place that day (one of the bloodiest in Egypt's history). 

The council also criticized security forces for not giving protesters sufficient time after warnings to evacuate and for preventing injured protesters from receiving treatment.

 

No mention was made of the army, however. When asked about this, Amin said that military forces secured the area but did not participate in the dispersal itself, and as such, “it is not relevant to mention the army.”

In the council’s account, the presence of armed individuals was the primary cause of the bloodshed that occurred on August 14.

“It was if the protesters killed each other,” one journalist said — to applause from other attendees.

While the council repeatedly emphasized its impartiality and integrity, and its commitment to documenting violence on all sides, journalists demanded to hear about the violations of the security forces. When Amin responded that it was all in the videos, journalists called for videos of the police.

 

 

Civilian-military relations in Egypt

This quote from an AP story on the reshuffling of SCAF (because some of its members have become ministers) and the creating of the National Defense Council (a body combining civilian ministers and generals) is very telling of the state of civilian-military relations in Egypt:

Retired Maj. Gen. Abdel-Rafia Darwish, a military analyst, said the reshuffling of the council prevents the president from interfering in military affairs.
"What if the president is a civilian?" he asked. "He might take a decision that is wrong and that could harm the military." However, other experts described the changes as no surprise and in line with the new constitution.

In most other places, of course, the conversation is more about protecting the civilians from the military.

Egypt's generals: It gets ever sillier | The Economist

On the latest impossible-to-satirize news story in Egypt: The claims by a an army general that the military's research program has invented devices that detect (at a distance of 500 meters) and cure Hepatitis C and AIDS. 

The story has unravelled amid a welter of protest from independent scientists and medical professionals that neither invention has been publicly tested, published, patented or peer-reviewed. A top scientific adviser to Egypt’s president declared the claims to be a “scandal” and a potential embarrassment to the Egyptian military. Investigations by local reporters appear to show that Mr Abdel Atti received his general’s rank not through military service, but as an honorary title. As recently as last year he appeared as a faith healer on religious satellite channels and had previously made an income as a private consultant in herbal medicine. An article in a Saudi newspaper in 2009 mentions him in connection with charges of sorcery.

 

Predictably, given Egypt’s highly polarised and envenomed political atmosphere, the affair generated controversy on Egyptian social media. Much commentary took the form of ridicule, particularly of Mr Abdel Atti bragging that he could now feed someone "AIDS kebab" and then cure the patient in a snap. Alluding to the reputed use of torture by Egyptian security services, one Twitter message parodied an army scientist reporting to his commander: “Yessir, we’ve tested the device. Straight away every patient confesses to feeling better!”

Others leapt to the army's defence. Anyone who made fun of the invention should be denied the miracle cure, insisted one television announcer. On Facebook, another defender demanded that the president’s doubting scientific adviser should resign. All critics of the invention were, he said, complicit in a giant plot by multinational corporations and Zionists whose fiendish aim was to maintain a Western monopoly of medical know-how.

 

Female party head doubts Egypt path

Hala Shukrallah, the new leader of the Destour Party (and the first Coptic woman to head a political party in Egypt) gave AP a great quote on the path of the current regime:

"It is not only pulling us back to before Jan 25, (referring to the anti-Mubarak uprising) it also brings us back to Morsi's rule, when critics were described as infidels."

Update: she also gave an interview to Mada Masr, saying on the presidency: "We won't support someone representing a state institution and making use of its resources for his candidacy."

Pharaohs, Caliphs and Field Marshals

Eminent human rights activist Bahay eldine Hassan in the pages of the New York Times: 

Egypt has never ceased being a police state. Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister, says it “is run by the security bodies,” which control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary. Interrogations and court sessions take place in prisons, security directorates or police compounds. Eyewitnesses are no longer required to identify defendants. Warrants are issued by prosecutors after arrests. Brotherhood members are arrested based on their ranks in the organization rather than their involvement in crimes. When detainees ask to see a warrant, they may be hit over the head with the butt of a gun, as in the case of a leftist blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and his wife, Manal. When a prominent international judge reviewed Manal’s account of the arrest, he described it as reminiscent of the days of apartheid in South Africa.

 

In the midst of its clampdown on the Brotherhood, the security apparatus shifted its focus and began targeting non-Islamist youth activists, under the same pretext of “fighting terrorism.” At the end of January, the Justice Ministry established special courts to accelerate trials for “suspected terrorists”; peaceful demonstrators, too, are referred to these courts.

Tarek Hussain, 20, was convicted last year of attacking the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Last month he was among dozens of young non-Islamist activists arrested as they demonstrated on the anniversary of the revolution. All were prosecuted as members of the Brotherhood.

Sayed Weza, 18, a member of the liberal April 6 movement, also took part in these demonstrations and was killed. His last Facebook post said, “Please tell the coming generation that we loved our country!”

 

On the Cairo Book Fair

Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

I wrote something for BookForum on the recently held Cairo International Book Fair -- on what books were selling well (crime thrillers and an Arabic translation of Gustave Le Bon's 1895 Psychology of Crowds among others) and what kind of talks were being given by the country's cultural establishment (I missed one entitled "The Deep State and How It Protected Egypt's Identity Under Brotherhood Rule"). 

 

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

On our way to the area housing publishers from other Arab countries, a crowd of young people flows past us, emitting a collective high-pitched fluttering sigh of excitement. A girl in a hot pink hijab and matching lipstick tells me that there’s a book signing by rapper Zap Tharwat. Later, I find some of his songs online, a mixture of the genre’s required bragging with the social awareness that many of the new “revolutionary” artists exhibit—he describes himself as “king of the oppressed.”

Saudi Arabia has its own hangar, a huge expanse of beige carpeting and identical stalls put up by the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The vast majority of the books on offer are on religious topics, and they all look similar, thick tomes with titles in intricate gilded calligraphy. Young men in sandals, socks, short pants, and long beards—the outfit of the fundamentalist—earnestly peruse the books. Giggling teenage girls take group photos in front of large pictures of the Kaaba.

Across the way, at the stall of the Lebanese publisher Dar El Saqi, Issam Abu Hamden is promoting Solo, by the Saudi novelist Nour Abdul Majid, which is set in Cairo and chronicles the affair between a doorman and the wife of one of the residents of his building. He also has an Arabic edition of a book by the Lebanese feminist and poet Joumana Haddad, Superman is an Arab, a critique of Middle East machismo. Haddad likes to provoke, and just for good measure there is a special introduction of the Arabic addition entitled, “Why I’m an Atheist.”