The Jews-Only State

All par for the course in "the only democracy in the Middle East" (from The Guardian):

A controversial bill that officially defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been approved by cabinet despite warnings that the move risks undermining the country’s democratic character.

Opponents, including some cabinet ministers, said the new legislation defined reserved “national rights” for Jews only and not for its minorities, and rights groups condemned it as racist.

The bill, which is intended to become part of Israel’s basic laws, would recognise Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalise Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and delist Arabic as a second official language.

Price tag of Erdogan’s new palace revealed: $600m - FT

A decade ago it could easily be argued that Erdogan did a lot of good for his country. With every passing day he looks more and more like a crude mafiosi dictator:

The controversy over a new 1,000 room palace for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has deepened with a government acknowledgment that the complex costs more than $600m, nearly double previous estimates.

Mehmet Simsek, finance minister, said the complex, which dwarfs the White House, the Elysee and Buckingham Palace, would cost a total of TL1.37bn, ($616m) of which TL964m had been spent so far from the budget of the prime minister’s office. This compared with previous reports estimating the cost at $350m.

Mr Erdogan sees the palace, built in protected forest land in contravention of a court decision, as a symbol of a new, more vigorous Turkey. But his critics denounce it as the excess of an ever more authoritarian and powerful leader.

“The so-called sultan has built this for himself in a country where 3m people are without work,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican Peoples party, in a speech on Tuesday, citing court of accounts figures suggesting contractors were overpaid. “You cut down hundreds of trees to build yourself this palace.”

The complex, opened last month, incorporates Turkey’s traditional Seljuk and Ottoman architectural styles, and features a majestic tree lined interior hallway, an underground bunker and a park.

Egyptian media: a shameless parallel dimension

Unbelievable. This sentence (among others) in a  New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick about Sisi's speech to the UN:

What viewers back in Egypt could not see was that during the General Assembly, almost all of the diplomats present watched in amused silence as Mr. Sisi’s small entourage did the clapping in response to his chant.
becomes this assertion in Al Ahram newspaper:
Kirkpatrick pointed out that all the diplomats were in a state of silence and enjoyment throughout al-Sisi’s speech.

Saving lives in Aleppo

If you only read one thing today (hell, this week) make it this incredible article about members of a Civil Defense team in Aleppo. Day after day, in a city being turned to dust by Assad's barrel bombs, these young men rush to the sites of bombings to try to rescue survivors. (Or used to rush: they've left too now, as this postscript explains). 

To be hit by an explosion at close range is to experience light and sound as darkness and silence; silence as your ears ring louder than any sound, darkness as dust and smoke envelop you. The air filled with flying chunks of cinder block, and the men were pitched forward onto their hands, the floor suddenly gritty with debris. Khaled leaped to his feet and rushed with the rest of the team out into the pitch-black lot. The station had half-collapsed, and the power had gone out. One of the guys, Omar, had been hurt and a group led by Khaled threw him into the cab of the truck and peeled out. The rest of the team ran across the road and crouched in a narrow space between two houses — they could hear the planes coming back in, and could see red anti-aircraft tracers arc up from the rebel positions to meet them. Another blast sounded close by; the door to one of the houses opened and a young couple, the man cradling an infant in his arms, came out and hurried off into the night.
After about 20 minutes, the bombing subsided, and they dared to smoke again. Annas and Surkhai came out and stood by the road. The moon had risen in a yellow half-circle above the station; no one wanted to go back in, for fear the planes would return. An ambulance screeched up, and the driver got out, gaping at them in astonishment. “When I saw the bomb drop here, I came as fast as I could,” he said. You could see the whites of his eyes. “God has saved you because he wants you to save others.”
The firetruck returned, and Khaled got out. “Omar’s okay,” he told the group. “He just cut his foot.” He stood for a moment and surveyed the grim-faced half circle. The guys were badly rattled. But the Hanano team had never run from the site of a blast. He quickly made a decision. “We’re going to stay here tonight and guard the station,” he announced. “And in the morning, we’ll go somewhere new.”
Nodding their assent, the guys lit up fresh smokes and started joking to break the tension.
“I hope we move to a nice big school,” said Annas.
“They always bomb schools,” responded Surkhai.
They sat in a line on the curb, leaning their shoulders against each other and listening to the shelling, their cigarette embers blinking in red procession, until the sun rose in place of the moon.

Lunch with the FT: Sir John Sawers

Says the man who relentlessly cozied up to Mubarak wih his chum Tony:

Sir John, who was British ambassador in Cairo between 2001 and 2003, says the Arab spring shows that revolutionary change is impossible to manage and will normally end up worse for western interests and values. “We saw it in Tehran in 1979, and we’ve seen it in Egypt over the past few years.”

Buying books in Cairo

 Do read this great essay by Elliot Colla on buying (and reading, and discussing) books in Cairo, over the span of many decades. 

When you go into Dar Merit, you will be asked whether you would drink coffee or tea. If you stay long enough two things will happen. First, Muhammad will roll a fat joint and pass it to you. Second, back in those days, the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Negm would probably come over around nightfall for an impromptu literary salon. I count myself very fortunate that those two things happened to me as often as I wanted that summer.
In January 2011, Dar Merit became something of a forward base of operations for young revolutionaries. Any poet or critic or artist or singer or stagehand who needed tea and a place to rest would find it at Dar Merit. Were it not for Dar Merit, we might not have any serious literary accounts of the 2011 uprising. In recent months, Mohammad Hashem has spoken about moving away from Egypt for good.

I have similar fond memories of Dar Merit, where I was always seemingly welcome to drop in. (Which was all the more gracious as often when Ustez Mohammad arrived there in the late afternoon I had the distinct impression that this was the beginning of his day. He once called a friend and writer I was meeting at his office and told him: "Hurry up! There's a khawaga here you wants to give you tons of money!" Followed by a wild cackle). As for the Cairo Book Fair, I visited last year for the first time in a long time and wrote this.  

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An excellent essay by Max Rodenbeck on recent writing about Iraq. 

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

[…]

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy.

Max mentions the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which I wrote about earlier here

When Arab regimes confront terrorism

From Abu Aardvark:

The U.S. is currently in the process of lining up a regional coalition to confront ISIS. Depending on how this coalition is formed and the goals to which it is devoted, it could be extremely useful for shutting down the flow of funds, guns, and fighters to jihadist groups in Syria. I'll have a lot more to say about that in another venue.

But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy.

"Palestinians Live What Israelis Fear"

The emails filling my box about Israel function as a remarkable document. They are a record of seemingly reasonable people who have completely lost track of basic moral reasoning. And that represents itself nowhere more consistently or powerfully than here: treating what could possibly happen to Israelis as more important than what already is happening to Palestinians. It’s such a profoundly bizarre way to think, that only this maddening issue could bring it about.

“Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist!”

Indeed– and Israel not only denies Palestine’s right to exist, it has achieved the denial of a Palestinian state in fact. What kind of broken moral calculus could cause someone to think that being told your existing state should not exist is the same as not having a state of your own?
— The Daily Dish

Links 1-30 July 2014

A long overdue link dump. From the first link:

“In all the suffering and death,” wrote a friend from Gaza, “there are so many expressions of tenderness and kindness. People are taking care of one another, comforting one another. Especially children who are searching for the best way to support their parents. I saw many children no older than 10 years old who are hugging, comforting their younger siblings, trying to distract them from the horror. So young and already the caretakers of someone else. I did not meet a single child who did not lose someone – a parent, grandmother, friend, aunt or neighbor. And I thought: If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

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Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."

The baltaga state

Andrea Teti, writing for the indispensable MERIP, gets it – this is precisely how I see the Egyptian state and its actions:

The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.

. . .

Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do.

Egyptian nationalists don't like to hear it, but the leadership of their beloved military – whatever the merits it once had – has devolved into a mafia, no more, no less. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding what is happening in Egypt, and the risks it entails considering the region's other mafia states were the Assads' Syria and the Husseins' Iraq. And look where they are now.

Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

Finkelstein: The US and Egypt one year after the coup

Norman Finkelstein his usual acerbic self:

The first thing to note is the oddity of a democratic transition that begins with an anti-democratic coup. It’s not every day that the overthrow of a democratically elected government, the jailing of the democratically elected president, and the mass slaughter of the unarmed supporters of the democratically elected governing party constitute stepping stones to democracy.

. . .

To assess Egypt’s recent election, it might be useful to conduct a simple thought experiment. As is well known, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted among the American people. A majority do not approve of the job he’s doing, and many among them positively detest him. Let’s imagine if the Republican party, capitalizing on this popular discontent, orchestrated an army coup to remove Obama from office, slaughtered his unarmed supporters in a series of bloodbaths, declared the Democratic party a terrorist organization, banned it and jailed its leading members, then arrested the other opposition leaders and prohibited any and all public dissent. Finally, to appease international opinion, Republicans held an “election” in which the only other candidate was Jesse Jackson. 

Jesse Jackson? Surely one would choose a unelectable Republican rather than an unelectable Democrat – Ron Paul perhaps?

It's a pretty shallow piece but US policy certain gets the skewering it deserves. 

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 Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.