Mubarak's decision plays out in the press

As would be expected the new election law was front and center in today's press. Al Ahram ran a special cover page with a rather amusing photo of the President during the conference extending his arms out to the crowd like a gift bearing messiah. There were no less than nine pictures of Mubarak in the first six pages of Al Ahram. The opinion page was filled with praise for the President's decision. The most notable name present was that of Hala Mustafa, the leading liberal from the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. She tempered her praise in the final paragraphs of her column:
It wasn’t a coincidence that, in his historical speech, the President concentrated on the importance of activating the political parties, and on translating that in a practical way by lifting many of the restrictions that have restricted their activities in the past. And this has led to new parties being created with difficulty, being licensed in an unnatural way, by court order. The creation of a new political parties law which the NDP began a few days ago remains an important initiative on the same path of establishing a new soul for Egyptian political life, a soul which was missing for a time, but which now returns and with a force that bids farewell to the old era of unilateral politics of one color and one voice, and opens new horizons to the future. Tomorrow will necessarily be better, more welcoming, and more hopeful, as it is certain now that those steps are the beginning of a new era.
Alright, her praise is only tempered so much, but she hits at what I think will be the most interesting result of this decision. That is, what affect will it have on the opposition in Egypt? Several opposition figures were quoted at length in the press today predicting that the decision will reenergize the impotent political parties in Egypt. The Vice President of the Wafd, Mahmoud Abaza, told Nahdat Misr:
This step has big importance for the future of political parties, as they will now work hard to activate their programs and policies especially since they now have the right to compete for power and the responsibility to rule. The constitutional amendment has gotten rid of the parties concern about their ability to carry out their role in the political street. The citizens had lost their trust in the parties in recent periods, because of the feeling that (the opposition parties) don’t have anything new to offer. The parties hadn’t been working hard to activate their programs considering that the presidency represents the big goal for all the parties and this was a right they hadn’t possessed. This step will have a big impact on the parliamentary elections as well, since the parties will now compete in the elections with a concrete program, and not depending solely on individual personalities.
Abaza's logic, which was echoed by the head of the Nasserist Party, Dia Eddin Dawood, may be sound. However, the opposition in Egypt in recent months has been as united as I remember it being in my time in Egypt. That may be largely because civil society, and not the political parties, have been at the helm. For decades one of the most oft-lamented weaknesses of the Egyptian opposition has been there tendency to weaken each other by squabbling amongst themselves, rather than uniting to take on the larger task at hand. I fear that as the various parties begin to name candidates, and try to rally the Egyptian street, you're going to see the various parties begin to go after each other's candidates-- no longer the picture of unity focused on political reform and the NDP that has characterized the opposition in the past months. What will happen to the Kafaya movement, the civil society bloc which has been driving the opposition recently? If the stipulation remains that presidential candidates will have to have either the backing of a political party or the support of Parliament, then the Kafaya movement, which currently has quite a bit of momentum, may be left out in the cold. Although, Nahdat Misr reported today that:
It is expected that the coming days will witness a broad discussion and a state of emergency inside the political parties, the national forces, and the civil society groups to present their vision for the constitutional changes that the President announced. And the Egyptian organization for change, Kafaya, announced their intentions to present a candidate for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency during the coming days.
The Nasserist weekly, Al Araby, which comes out on Sundays, appears to have stopped the presses to get in coverage of the President's announcement in today's issue. They ran an above the fold screamer which proclaimed that the President’s decision represented “The First victory in the battle for democracy.� Of course it then went on to take much of the credit for the President’s decision, humbly pointing out that, truth be told, Al Araby had led the campaign to change the constitution. (In fairness to Al Araby, it’s not much of an exaggeration). The ever-bold Al Araby then went on to report in a small news blurb on page six that the University of Manufiya, where Mubarak gave the historic speech, had cancelled classes for five days because of the president’s visit. It's an action not entirely compatible with the fifth point of Mubarak’s 10-point reform plan, which stipulates the government's intention to “provide the mechanisms for scientific and technological progress to increase the human investment.� The Al Araby article went on to report that when students showed up demanding to attend classes they clashed with security forces:
Students requested that the gates to the university be opened. And at around 12 in the afternoon security forces clashed violently with the students, and arrested more than 20 students at the university... Ahmed Mahmoud a student in the literature faculty said, 'This doesn’t happen anywhere but in Egypt, since in all the countries of the world the presidents protect the people.' ... Samir Ismail said, 'These procedures are a guarantee of explosive events in light of the political suppression and the persecution that the people are living in, in addition to the current economic crisis.'
Meanwhile Nahdat Misr, quoted the reaction of the Governor of Manufiya to the President's speech:
The President’s visit to Manufiya was a historical opportunity for all the masses and the different segments from among the sons of Manufiya to gather around him, and declare their loyalty to him in front of the whole world.
An interesting side note to this whole story was picked up by Al Misry Al Yom. A cynic might say it indicates the extent of Mubarak’s concern for the Egyptian constitution. Mubarak wrote a letter to Speaker of the Parliament Fathi Surour, in which he informed Surour of his decision to change the election law and instructed him to take up the matter in Parliament. In the letter Mubarak cited Article 198 of the constitution, which he said gives him the right to unilaterally ask parliament to amend the constitution. It's an odd assertion given that the Egyptian constitution contains only 192 articles. Turns out Mubarak meant to cite Article 189. This mistake was confirmed by the full text of the letter as reprinted by Nahdat Misr. Here are some reactions from various Egyptian personalities to the decision, as quoted in today's press. Refaat Said, President of the Tegammu Party: “The decision represents a positive step on the path of resistance towards realizing democracy, but it needs more developments and changes to other sections of the constitution to guarantee the realization of reform.� Mahdi Akef, head of the MB: “The Brotherhood welcomes the decision and considers it a natural start for achieving reform... but the continuation of the emergency law and not abolishing the political parties law, in addition to the arrest and imprisonment of political prisoners will remain an obstacle to reform." Saad Eddin Ibrahim suggested: “A national public dialog, not lasting more than two months, before the Parliament votes on the new amendments, and including all the Egyptian political parties and civil society organizations. In addition to not restricting Presidential candidates to party leaders, or requiring the approval of Parliament to run for the presidency. To ensure the seriousness of candidates, they should be required to have the support of a certain number of citizens, not less than, for example, 100,000." Writer Mahmoud Amin Al Alam makes a good point which was echoed by several activists: "The Egyptian television today has become monopolized by the President. So will the presidential candidates be allowed to use the media, just as President Mubarak does? Will the public spaces be opened to them? He stressed that the problem is not in the content of the law, but rather in the way it is executed.� Doctor Boutros Ghali, head of the National Council for Human Rights said: “This is an important step towards supporting the march of democracy and embodies a good faith response from (the President) to the demands and heartbeat of the Egyptian street. Doctor Ismail Serag Eddin, Director of the Alexandria Library: “The decision reflects the President's concern to realize democracy and his desire for reform."
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Reflections on constitutional reform

There is no doubt in my mind that today's announcement was a historically important one in Egypt's history. When you change a country's way of electing its topmost leader in such a fundamental way, the immediate effect does not matter, it's the principle that is important. What Hosni Mubarak has done is to significantly loosen the stranglehold that the ruling party had on who could even be a candidate in elections, and introduce the concept of contested presidential elections for the first time. Perhaps not as big a step as some might want or expect, but still an important step. Now, that being said, is it enough? Probably not. First of all, the reform introduced today only deals with Article 76 of the 1971 constitution -- a constitution that many reformists have called to be scrapped altogether. It does not weaken the power of the institution of the presidency, nor does it meet the fairly radical standards demanded by parties such as Al Ghad. Until now it still remains unclear what is actually being proposed, but from what I've found out it would include the following:
  • The system will be changed from the current referendum on a single candidate nominated by parliament to a multi-candidate direct election by all eligible voters.
  • Candidates will have to undergo screening by parliament, as before. Each political party (there are 15 in Egypt, only about five of which can be considered serious, active parties) will be able to present its candidate.
  • In addition, independent candidates will be able to present themselves if they are endorsed by enough parliamentarians and local councilmen (there is still some confusion as to whether they would have to be endorsed by a party or not, but that does not make sense to me.) The precise number needed has not been discussed yet, but one can assume it will be greater than 16 -- the number of currently sitting "independent" MPs who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The justification is that the candidate's "respectability" has to be ensured.
  • The amendment will be drafted by the general committee of the People's Assembly on Monday and Tuesday, which will prepare an interim report that will be presented to the rest of parliament on March 12. The People's Assembly's legislative and constitutional committees will then discuss the issue and prepare an additional report, and the People's Assembly will then vote on it on May 12. Following that, there will be a national referendum to approve the amendment. The entire legislative process seems to be directed by Speaker of the Assembly Fathi Surour, who while an old regime hand is also a noted constitutional scholar.
  • The proposed amendment would also create a "higher committee" that would oversee the whole election process (presumably parliamentary as well as presidential, although I am not certain.)
  • Well that's it for the procedural aspect of it -- and I'm not a lawyer and this book, while often handy, is in this case less helpful than I thought it might be. But it did tell me that Egypt introduced its first constitution that was actually described as such (using the word "dostour") in 1923 -- before that there had only been a series of "organic laws." The 1923 constitution was suspended in 1930, when a rather totalitarian new constitution was introduced to much resistance. It was scrapped by royal decree in 1934, and the old 1923 constitution came back into effect. That one lasted until 1952, when the Free Officers abrogated it. A constitution was drafted in 1954 but was never made public after Nasser essentially led a coup against Egypt's first president, Muhammad Naguib. The first constitution of republican Egypt came into being in 1956, and was quickly followed by a new constitution in 1958 when the United Arab Republic came into effect bringing Syria and Egypt under a single government. After Syria withdrew, a temporary constitutional declaration came into effect (in 1962) and then in 1964 a new constitution was promulgated. It was replaced by the current 1971 constitution, which grants much power to the presidency, which has only been amended twice, in 1977 and 1980 (corrected.) All republican constitutions adopted a mixed presidential-parliamentary system. Now for the politics of it. People are interpreting this very differently on the ground here in Cairo. The official opposition seems to have embraced it unequivocally, often praising Mubarak in the process. The reaction from activists from movement such as Kefaya seem to be saying that a) it's not enough and b) reject that it comes from American pressure. Political scientists such Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies Director Abdel Moneim Said, who is close to Gamal Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party, say it was planned all along as part of the NDP's new platform (if so, they never mentioned anything about it.) Independent political analysts are being cautious, welcoming the step but saying that it will take more than constitutional reform to make Egypt democratic. They are also suspicious of the restrictions on independent candidates. I haven't heard of any reaction from the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Akef. Pro-American liberals say it's all thanks to Bush and the cancellation of Condoleeza Rice's trip. On that last point, there is something rather confusing. If Mubarak knew he was going to do this, why did he cancel the G8 meeting on democracy in Cairo that was going to take place next week and why did he not convince Rice to come anyway? Also, some people are saying he planned this in advance and this is why the only potentially serious rival candidate, Ayman Nour, was jailed. I think that US pressure definitely had a role in this, although I think the rising chorus of voices against Mubarak inside the country also had something to do with it. The truth is that no matter how much I dislike Bush, some of his Middle East policy does have positive effects in the region. (Actually I am much more opposed to Bush on his domestic policy than his foreign policy, but that's another matter.) This is one positive effect at first sight, but the question remains as to whether it's just yet another safety valve that will ensure regime survival. I haven't seen any statements yet, but it's likely the Bush administration will welcome this and perhaps might reward it (although the Nour issue will still have to be resolved.) This move gives Mubarak considerable international prestige as the first Arab leader to ever reduce his own power (correct me if I am wrong) but without giving up anything in reality if the political context remains the same. The question now is, if you are against Mubarak's re-election, what constitutes a serious candidate? So far we have Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Muhammad Farid Hassanein and Nawal Saadawi (and three others who are essentialyl nobodies). None of them are electable. I have an idea of who might be, but that's for another post.
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    Mubarak introduces multiple candidate elections

    I am eating my words. This morning, in a speech broadcast on TV, President Hosni Mubarak asked the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, to change article 76 of the constitution to allow for multiple candidate elections. If you've been reading this site for a while, you'll know that I never thought it would happen, especially as Mubarak has asked that this be done before the September presidential elections. Here's the AP (updated AP, updated AFP) and BBC stories:
    CAIRO, Egypt - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday ordered a review and amendment of the country's presidential election law, paving the way for multi-candidate polls in September.
    "This morning I have asked the parliament and the Shura Council to amend Article 76 of the constitution, which deals with the election of the president to discuss it and suggest the appropriate amendment to be in line with this stage of our nation's history," Mubarak said in a speech broadcast live on Egyptian television.
    He said the amendment would be put to a general public referendum before the presidential polls, scheduled for September.
    The surprise announcement follows increasing opposition calls for political reforms, including multi-candidate presidential elections.
    Currently, Egypt holds presidential referendums in which people vote "yes" or "no" for a single candidate who has been approved by parliament. The legislature has been dominated by Mubarak's ruling party since political parties were restored in the 1970s.
    I will be working on the details of this today, but here is my instant analysis:
  • This is an extremely important step provided the changes do not excessively limit who can be a candidate.
  • There was absolutely no forewarning except an item in Al Ahram last night that Mubarak would be giving a major speech in the morning.
  • If US pressure is involved, this could be linked to a visit earlier this week by the Assistant Trade Representative for Europe and the Mediterranean. Although it was the highest level trade meeting since 2002, the Egyptians were very disappointed again that FTA negotiations seem still far off.
  • There was also President Bush's reiteration on Monday of his demand that Egypt "lead the way for reform." And the Washington Post's campaign against Mubarak.
  • This may explain why the Kefaya movement has been allow to grow in the past few weeks, with at least two newspapers more or less endorsing it.
  • This could mean Ayman Nour will soon be released. Also, the six candidates who presented themselves in the past few months could now be joined by others, more serious political operatives.
  • In the end, though, this does not alter my prediction that Mubarak will be re-elected by a very comfortable margin. In fact, this might strengthen him. They guy has a history of one step forward, two steps back.
  • Update: Here is the story from the official MENA agency:
    09:22:00 (GMT) 26-02-05
    MENA 37
    Egypt-Mubarak-Constitution Mubarak wants article 76 of constitution amended
    SHIBIN EL-KOM, Egypt, Feb 26 (MENA) - President Hosni Mubarak said he submitted a request this morning to the People's Assembly and Shura Council to have article 76 of the Egyptian constitution, pertaining to the way a president of the republic is selected, amended.
    Mubarak, during a speech he delivered Saturday at a popular rally at the University of Menoufiya Conference Centre, said the parliament will start debating it and offer the proper amendment in line with the requirements of this stage of our nation's history .
    He said this historic amendment in Egypt's constitutional march offers for the first time a chance for whoever is able and wishes to serve the nation to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the country's gains.
    The president said whoever wants to run for presidency must come within a parliamentary and popular framework for direct presidential elections.
    Just a few more thoughts: Menoufiya is where Mubarak was born and probably was of the places where he is most genuinely popular. The crowds being shown on TV looked unusually jubilant; that might be why. I also wonder what is meant by "whoever wants to run for presidency must come within a parliamentary and popular framework." Update II: Here is the Reuters story. It brings this news quote on Mubarak's justification for the amendment:
    "to give the opportunity to political parties to enter the presidential elections and provide guarantees that allow more than one candidate to be put forward to the presidency for people to choose among them freely."
    Combined with the above-mentioned "parliamentary framework" this could mean candidates will either have to be MPs or party members (or leaders.)
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    The Convenient "Confessions"

    This morning a very small and toubling story appeared on the BBC. It details how Iraqi rebels confessed to being directed and sent from Syria. As US pressure increases on Bashar & Co. in the wake of the Hariri assassination, in which no evidence has been marshalled of Syrian involvement, it appears certain interests are preparing a multi-layered smear campaign against the Syrian government. To quote:
    A US-funded Iraqi television station has aired what it says are confessions by Iraqi insurgents who claim to have been backed by Syrian intelligence. Appearing on al-Iraqiya TV, the men say they were trained and financed by Syrian intelligence. The claims could not be independently verified. The US accuses Syria of sheltering Saddam Hussein loyalists and allowing insurgents to cross borders. Pressure has also mounted on Syria over an assassination in Beirut last week. While the US has stopped short of blaming Syria for the bomb attack which killed Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri, calls have intensified for Damascus to pull its troops out of Lebanon. 'Cause chaos' The allegations made by the apparent rebels on al-Iraqiya TV would, if verified, back US and Iraqi claims of Syrian meddling in Iraq's affairs. A man who was identified as Syrian intelligence officer Lt Anas Ahmed al-Essa said he and his group had been recruited to "cause chaos in Iraq... to bar America from reaching Syria," the Associated Press reported. "We received all the instructions from Syrian intelligence," he said in the video broadcast. He claimed he infiltrated Iraq two years before the US-led invasion, because Syrian intelligence were convinced the US would invade.
    This is just all too convenient. I can see that US citizen, servant of neo-con power, and wanna-be Chalabi - Farid Ghadry - sitting in Washington smiling. Saddly, those willing to use any excuse to ideologically and strategically marginalize Syria in the region and in future peace talks will employ this Khara to prove their points. We know....WMDs, uranium from Niger, and a capability to launch an attack in 45 minutes. And failing that its all about democracy.
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    Ayman Nour hospitalized

    Imprisoned Al ghad leader Ayman Nour was admitted to hospital last night after he became ill while being interrogated:
    Nour's wife, Gamila Ismail, told Reuters Nour had fallen ill during questioning at a State Security Prosecution office in the early hours of Tuesday.
    "He was sweating, vomiting and holding his left arm," Ismail told Reuters, adding that Nour has a history of diabetes and heart problems.
    She said Nour began feeling pain at 1.00 a.m. and his personal doctor advised he be taken to a nearby hospital.
    Ismail said officials made no decision until three hours later, when they decided Nour could go to the prison hospital. But initially he declined to go, she added.
    Ask yourselves: what kind of a prosecutor interrogates people at 1am? The WaPo has responded swiftly, continuing its Egypt campaign with these strong words:
    ON MONDAY President Bush again called on Egypt to "lead the way" toward democratic change in the Middle East. Apparently Hosni Mubarak, the country's leader for the past 24 years, wasn't listening. Later that same day, Mr. Mubarak's agents renewed their "interrogation" of Ayman Nour, the imprisoned head of the liberal Tomorrow Party. Six hours later -- at 1 a.m. -- Mr. Nour, a diabetic with a history of heart trouble, was "sweating, vomiting and holding his left arm," his wife told the Reuters news agency. Authorities refused his doctor's request that he be hospitalized; instead, he was taken Tuesday to a prison clinic. The Egyptian Human Rights Organization has issued a statement warning that Mr. Nour's life is in danger. Mr. Mubarak's relationship with the United States, and the U.S. aid that props up his regime, should be in danger too.
    I'd like to take the WaPo to task on a few issues. First, the line below is rather over-dramatic:
    In truth, he is in jail because, like Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated last week, he offered a fresh democratic alternative in a Middle East stirred by the votes of Iraqis and Palestinians.
    Comparing Ayman Nour to Rafiq Hariri is to say the least a stretch. I understand they're trying to rally people to the cause, but come on. This also irked me:
    Mr. Mubarak is no longer testing Mr. Bush; he is spitting in his face. It's a daring, maybe desperate act for a 76-year-old despot who would not survive without billions in U.S. subsidies. Egypt's future -- and Ayman Nour's life -- may depend on Mr. Bush's response.
    Many Americans keep bringing on the aid issue with regards to Egypt. First, if you think about it, the importance of aid is overstated. Between regime survival and aid, Mubarak knows what to choose. The economy might suffer, but he can always reallocate resources to make sure the people that count for him still get the cash. Secondly, US aid to Egypt is mostly tied to Camp David -- the US is obligated to give it by treaty if it wants to maintain Camp David. Proponents of a more muscular policy in promoting human rights and democracy in Egypt are going to have to find alternatives, or start arguing for the cancellation of Camp David. A much better place to start would be a serious look at military aid policy under Camp David, bilateral military relations, weapon deals and so on. There is a complete lack of transparency on that aspect of the relationship on both sides, yet it's the most important thing that has sustained the regime for over a quarter-century. Remember, many torturers in the Arab world are being trained by the US and equipped by the US. Why not start there? Update: There are rumors floating around that Nour may not be in hospital anymore and that he may have started a hunger strike, as he threatened to do two weeks ago. I do not know any more than this but will post when I do, which probably won't be until tomorrow. Today's press only reported what I wrote above.
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    Patrick Seale's weighs in on the Hariri Assassination

    Seasoned Syria analyst and author Patrick Seale weighed in on the debate over the Hariri assassination, Lebanon, and Syria. His article appeared in today's Guardian. Seale argues that he does not know who killed Rafiq Hariri but he is sure the Syrians did not do it. This has been my position since the assassination. I still do not have a clue who committed this crime but I remain firm that Syrian involvement is highly unlikely. I am sure Seale will be attacked by a section of the blogging community. Nothing about this debate has been neutral or logical. In fact, the debate has become so reactionary and ideological as various segments of Lebanon and the US unite with the common goal of clubbing Syria that few have been allowed to voice an alternative analysis. While many factions are joining the fray against a common perceived enemy, each group has specific and separate reasons for its dislike and aims of limiting Syria's regional reach. This has all the makings of a big miscommunication down the road. I completely understand and empathize with the united Lebanese feeling of national unity and support their right to live outside the spectrum of the Syrian presence, but all domestic, regional, and international parties involved need to be explicitly clear about their motives, intentions, and the end goal if this is conclude reasonably. This is, at least, what I understood from Seale's piece and it is a contribution to what will likely be an unsolved case. UPDATE: The article that Sam suggests in his comment is Dyab Abou Jah Jah's piece from the Arab-European League. It can be found on this on this page - it is the second article:
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    Iran attack in June?

    According to Electronic Iraq, Scott Ritter is dropping hits that Seymour Hersh will reveal a plan to bomb Iran's nuclear plant in June. Meanwhile, the pro-Israel Washington Times is reporting that Israel is lobbying the US to take out the plant:
    Israel has been privately pressing Washington to solve the Iran nuclear problem in a hint that Tel Aviv may be left with no choice but to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, defense officials say.
    Military analysts say the United States "would have no problem" taking out Iran's major nuclear facilities should it decide to launch a pre-emptive strike. The defense officials say Israel isn't putting its concerns about Iran in the form of a "you attack or we do" ultimatum to the United States. But they said senior Israeli officials often have raised the Iran problem during visits to Washington in the past 18 months.
    Tel Aviv's concerns are one reason the Bush administration in the past year has ratcheted up its rhetoric and its intelligence collection on Iran's clandestine program to build nuclear weapons, including surveillance flights by unmanned U.S. planes.
    The officials said they think President Bush, who has adopted a policy of pre-emption to prevent terrorists from obtaining atomic arms, is on a course to take military action before he leaves office in 2009.
    Yes, neither of these are class A sources, but still interesting to follow these developments. Let's wait for what Hersh has to say, if anything. Update: This lede from the WaPo is funny:
    BRUSSELS, Feb. 22 -- President Bush said Tuesday that concern about possible U.S. military action against Iran "is simply ridiculous," but he added at a news conference that "all options are on the table" in dealing with suspected Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.
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    The story behind Cairo

    As Josh posted a few days ago, a new Egyptian English-language weekly is out. It is called Cairo and its first issue will come out on 3 March. For the past several months, I have been a member of the team that has been working to put it together. Although the first issue isn't out (a limited edition zero-issue is currently floating around the city), Cairo has a website and we're putting up stories already. For now, the site, like the magazine, is still not complete, but over the next few weeks we hope it will become an important source of information about Egypt and about Umm Al Dounia, the mother of the world, the only city that really never sleeps: Cairo. Many of those involved in Cairo are, like myself, veterans of the Cairo Times. Cairo will even look a bit like the Cairo Times. But as it grows, we hope to make it into something different, something exciting and worthy of a city that is changing fast. It will be a guide to what's going on around town as well as a guide to politics and business. It will be a local magazine, but one whose ambitions will reflect that of the city that hosts it. Most importantly, it will be an independent voice chronicling the very important months and years ahead for Egypt and the region. Stay tuned.
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    Human Rights Watch Press Conference in Cairo

    Today's event that was used as an excuse not to write-up the remaining chapter and a half of my thesis was the Human Rights Watch press conference at the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center in downtown Cairo. The press conference was convened on the occasion of HRW releasing its latest report regading the ongoing detention and torture of the citizens of Northern Sinai governate, particularly the city of al-Arish. This story broke in the beginning of December before I began blogging here at the Arabist.net. At the time, I had written this, which now serves as background information for those unaware:
    1 December 2004:
    The story of the week is the detention and torture of somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people by Egyptian Security Services in the Sinai cities of al-Arish and al-Shaykh Zwaid.
    The story was reported by three Egyptian human rights groups - The Egyptian Association against Torture, Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. These groups traveled to north Sinai governate and carried out research. The testimonies of victims is available online (these testimonies are no longer online but there are testimonies in the HRW report - if you absolutely want the original information, let me know and I will get them on the blog somehow).
    The story has been commented on by other domestic human rights groups such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Their statement was published here.
    The international media has been slow to pick up this story. After Amnesty International issued its statement, more attention has followed.
    A straight-forward article was published in today's Financial Times. A slightly more nuanced piece is Paul Schemm's "Trouble in Sinai" in the bi-weekly Middle East International (3 December 2004).
    As far as the Cairo press goes, al-`Arabi (the Nasserist Party paper) printed an investigative piece yesterday entitled, "City under Siege". The rest of the Egyptian press is remaining reserved until the security services and/or government comment.
    Unfortunately the state's use of collective punishment and torture is a frequent occurrence in the past 15 years. Whether it involves Islamists in Cairo's Imbaba section (1992), sectarian violence in Sohag governate (village of al-Kosh) in August 1998 and January 2000, or problems with drug runners in Nakhila (Assuit governate) in February/March 2004, the state's trend response is the mass arrest and torture of men, women, and children.
    Today's press conference was headed by HRW's MENA director, Joe Stork. It also included the head of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, Ahmad Saif al-Islam, and the head of El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, `Aida Saif al-Dawla. It seemed like the Cairo activist and journalistic world was there. Organizations such as al-Jazeera, al-`Arabiya, al-Ahali, al-Wafd, Cairo Mag, AP, LA Times were there to name a few. I will not go into the report - that is online and linked above. Instead, I would like to share some of my impressions and some of the press conference's asides. First off, female family members of those detained in al-Arish were present. I would guess about eight women were there in the front rows. After Stork, Saif al-Islam, and Saif al-Dawla spoke, one of these women spoke. Her story was moving to be sure. She had five male immediate relatives (ages 17-30) taken off to Amn al-Dawla (State Security in al-Arish). Apparently, Amn al-Dawla entered from the windows, balcony, and doors. This woman's four-month year old baby was sleeping and got stepped on. The baby suffered broken ribs. They went to the hospital and the hospital treated her but refused to issue a report on the injury because of who was involved. The women in the house, at the time, were told that the men were being taken to see the "Basha" (head of Amn al-Dawla in al-Arish) and that they would be back in 5 minutes. Some of them remain in prison without being charged. The woman who testified was threatened and told not to come to Cairo to this press conference but she said that through the encouragement of one of her released brothers that this was something that needed done for the sake of freedom and so that her other relatives would not be forgotten. As an aside, the woman noted that women were having their naqabs taken off their faces forcefully by security and that men were dragged from mosques while they were praying during the security sting between mid-October and mid-November. Stork outlined HRW's report and noted that last night he received a phone call at 12am saying the after repeated denials and unresponsiveness that he could have meetings with senior figures in the prosecutor's office and at the ministry of the interior. This, as a friend noted, is a new development. We will have to wait and see what comes out of it. Stork mentioned that they believe 2400 people remain in detention and torture is endemic. He mentioned his boss, Ken Roth, informally raised the issue in Washington at a meeting with senior US government figures who told them that this was to be expected after an act such as the Taba bombing. Stork also mentioned that he had contacts with the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights. As of December, the NCHR had not had any communication with the government concerning al-Arish. He was told that the NCHR preferred to handle it in a "quiet" manner. From his understanding and a meeting with NCHR members yesterday, the council is discussing the issue. They have, yet, to issue a public statement though. `Aida Saif al-Dawla commended members of the Popular Committee for Citizens Rights in North Sinai for bringing the issue to Cairo last November. Without this, chances the al-Arish detentions would not have received any attention. `Aida's main call was for the Egyptian press to keep a record and report the story and the HRW's finding so that further government retribution can be minimized by spotlighting the abuse. She also noted that al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies deputy director, Dr. Mohamad al-Sayyid Said, publicly asked president Mubarak to clarify the ongoing detention and arrests of nearly 3,000 people in al-Arish. The president apparently noted that "The whole of al-Arish does not have 3,000 inhabitants." Al-Arish has a population of 125,000. Stork interjected and felt that Mubarak's arrogance and dismissive attitude of the situation would probably be better off kept to himself. Lastly, Ahmed Saif spoke about his recent experiences with the Security Services. While he and the other contributing NGOs were preparing the reports with HRW, his apartment in Boulak al-Dakrur was broken into and his laptop was stolen as well as some of his personal files. He understood the break-in to be the work of petty thieves. Yet, yesterday after 1230 pm, his apartment was broken into again and his new laptop was stolen and papers taken. Outraged, he went to the Boulak al-Dakrur police station and filed complaints against president Mubarak, the head of public intelligence, and state security. This is not the first time Saif al-Islam has filed charges against the president of the republic. In March 2003, he filed charges in the prosecutor general's office citing that Mubarak and his minister of Interior, Habib al-Adli, committed crimes against the rights of demonstrators during the protests after the Iraq war began. The P-G never acted on the charges filed preferring to bury them. In response to the latest round of harassment, Saif al-Islam had a prepared written statement in English and Arabic. I will reproduce the English version but note that the Arabic version is very harshly worded (its meaning and connotations are even harsher than the English statement despite being the same in content):
    Your message was clear
    My response is: I shall not be silenced
    Let my blood contribute to the redness of the rose of freedom
    Tyrants, pharaohs of Egypt,
    I have received your message when you violated the privacy of my home in midday on the 21st of February 2005. This time your message was clear and obvious in its meaning and intent, no longer obscure like earlier ones which could have tolerated several interpretations.
    My answer is simply and humane and is not directed to you, but to my fellow Egyptians.
    Let it be clear:
    Yes, I refuse the oppression and dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
    Yes, I refuse a renewal of his mandate as president.
    Yes, I refuse being passed as a piece of heritage to his son.
    Yes, I shall not stop criticizing the president, no matter who he is.
    Yes, I want a democratic constitution that grants all human rights, without exception to all citizens with no discrimination on any ground, which provides an effective role of the legislative and judiciary authorities, restricts the malignant infiltration and spread of the executive authorities, and grants the right to elect the president of the republic from among more than one candidate and for no longer than two terms.
    Yes, I shall continue to expose human rights violations in this country, foremost torture and arbitrary detentions, persistence of emergency state and all forms of discrimination between citizens especially those based on religion and gender.
    Yes, I shall continue to struggle with all involved to liberate civil society organizations from the many restrictions that control them and limit their freedom of organization.
    Yes, I shall continue to struggle with all those who believe that foreign occupation is itself a flagrant violation of human rights.
    I shall not be intimidated or silenced by the red lines of tyrants, no matter who draws them.
    I shall not submit to silence imposed on us by the power of oppression or even by the power of the law.
    Do not believe them when you read in their newspapers or watch or listen in their mass media that we are charged of criminal charges (debauchery, drugs, rigging) in an attempt to defame the reputation of the opposition. Do not believe them no matter how grave the charges.
    They say the fish starts rotting from its head. Don't you smell the rot of our fish?!
    Lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam Hamad
    22 February 2005
    I do not share this statement to get Ahmed in trouble. The statement is in the public domain already and he has forwarded it to the authorities. Besides, Ahmed is well-known to them. I bring this to your attention in the hope that awareness will win out. Please share this account with other interested and uninterested parties. There you go. That is what I saw. Notably, and with the qualification that Saif al-Islam and Saif al-Dawla neither want nor welcome US support, what I did not see today was a representative of the US Embassy in Cairo at today's press conference. They must be off somewhere finishing their dissertations about freedom, liberties, and democracy... UPDATE: According to the BBC this morning, Joe Stork has commented on his meeting with the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The ministry is claiming that they only have two-hundred (200, not 2400 as HRW claims) in custody. Stork said, "I find that non-credible." So they gave him a meeting instead of not responding but did not bother to provide an interesting addendums or counter-points. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry released a rebuttal to the HRW report, which Arabist.net has but is yet to translate. We will give it a read over and make a decision if its counter-arguments are worth our time. Quickly though, the FA says that any trasgressions by the state conecering HR in al-Arish that are proven will be prosecuted. I guess we will see.....
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    Protest Follow-up & Egyptian Press Review

    There is a debate concerning the amount of people that participated in yesterday's protest. My colleagues and I that attended noted that there were approximately 200 people. We gathered this by guessing. Reuters and BBC both said that this was the largest of the three anti-President protests with protesters reaching in the hundreds or over a thousand. I spoke with one of the Kifaya organizers this morning and was told that two protests were taking place. The was the one outside Cairo Universities main gates (which is the one I photographed). The organizer did not speculate on how many people were outside. Reviewing the situation today with several foreign journalists that were there with me - the new number of outside protesters was as high as 250 (apparently after I departed, one correspondent says that around 60 Cairo U students joined. The same source said the protest went on until 3pm). My organizing friend explained that she was inside the gates of the university. There, she claims, there were at least 1500 people demonstrating. The security clearly were not allowing the two protest groups to gather together. Amn Markazi (CSF) was also so dominant in its numbers that it was impossible for us, as observers, to see inside the gate. They were blocking our entry to the gate. I don't know if this second number is right or not....it is just what I hear. But if that was the case, then the major news organs were correct to say that this was the largest demonstration yet against the president. So that is that. _______ Now...How was this protest covered in the Egyptian press? Poorly to say the least. I did not bother scanning al-Ahram because I simply doubted anything significant being done on the Kifaya protest. Not that al-Hyatt is Egyptian, but there was nothing in its pages. Al-Masri al-Youm's coverage was fairly weak. In today's edition, which is obsessed with the information ministerial change and personnel movement going on there, there was a small article re the demonstration on page three. Instead of headlining it as Kifaya movement protests at Cairo U, they opted for the safer and more downplayed headline - " 'Kifaya' criticizes the opposition parties' position in the national dialogue". Reading through the piece, it reports that there were some people protesting at Cairo University from the Egyptian movement for Change that criticized the parties decision to postpone talking about constitutional and political reform until after the presidential referendum. Hence, it was more or less a fait accompli that Mubarak will remain president (and his mandate will extend his reign to 30 years). The article also pointed out Kifaya is against the idea of American and foreign interference in Egyptian domestic political reform. Towards the end of the article, it finally mentions that the Kifaya protesters were against renewing the president's mandate and the inheritance of power in Egypt as they demanded constitutional amendments. The Wafd had an even smaller piece in its paper. Nevertheless, it positioned the story in the top left corner with a picture. Its headline dare not mention that the protest was an anti-Mubarak affair, but it did play the numbers estimate game generously. The headline reads, "2000 intellectuals and students protest in front of Cairo U: Demands for speeding up the realization of political reform and warnings against the inheritance of power." The article mentions the heavy security presence, that 20,000 people remain political prisoners, and 7 million people are unemployed. The article also explains the protesters want constitutional amendments in a way that the president is selected. The protesters prefer for free and multi-candidacy direct elections. It mentions the protesters called for canceling the emergency laws for political reasons. The protesters also warned that postponing political reform was leads to a failing government.
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    The Latest Anti-Mubarak Demonstration

    This afternoon at Cairo University the Popular Campaign for Change held the third Anti-Mubarak demonstration in two and a half months. The Popular Campaign for Change, aka Kifaya (or Enough), gathered at Cairo U's main gate a little before 1pm. Several journalist friends and I decided that a fair estimate of protesters to be in the neighborhood of 200 people. Hence, this is considerably smaller than Kifaya hoped would turn out today. It is also smaller than the previous two demonstrations. As my colleague mentioned, "this is not even big enough to close down traffic" as we snapped photos and compared it to other protests we had previously witnessed. We noted that the Economist, BBC, Reuters, and Cairo magazine were there as well as a number of the Arabic satellite channels and reporters. Also, it was noted that the same demonstrators that are always there were present. Today's demo included some Nasserists, Socialist, and Islamists (from Hizb al-`Amal). The Muslim Brotherhood was absent (from our spot accounting). Yet, it is sort of a misnomer to discuss the protesters in such terms because I think it takes away from what they are doing by boxing in them with a particular trend. It seemed a cross-section of society were there even if the numbers were not large. A few times, the encircled protesters tried to say things about Abu Mazen and Dahlan but quickly quieted to refocus on the Mubarak family, corruption, and inheritance of power. The most common slogans chanted were "Usqut Mubarak" (Down with Mubarak), and "La lil-Mubarak, La lil-Gamal" (No to Mubarak, No to Gamal). My colleague also said they sang the Egyptian national anthem with the words of Kifaya although that was before I arrived. Around 145pm, the protest began to thin. Five minutes later, it seemed to pick-up again. The only semi-confrontational moment was when one protester demanded space and had a heated exchange with an Amn Markazi (Central Security) soldier. He asked the soldier, "Why do you defend these thieves? Mubarak is a thief, Gamal is a thief, and your director is a thief." The higher ups in security moved in and removed the soldier and seemed to allow the protester space. This small victory for the protester ended the incident. Overall, the CSF were calm and visibly on orders not to start trouble. They just stood there in the sun in their helmets with their bamboo sticks watching almost half-bored and unaware of what exactly they were doing. Naturally, they know it was about crowd-control but it was not clear they were even clued into why this crowd needed encircled. Perhaps, they were acting. Away from the center of the demo, I saw different things. As I stood off to the side, one Cairo U student asked another, "What is this noise all about?" The other one said, "They don't want Hosni." In a shocked voice, the first one responded, "All my Goodness!" (ya Khabir Abeyod). It was when I was off to the side that a lot of the plain-clothes security types were respectfully moving the gathered onlookers further away from the demo's epicenter. They were saying "Ya Basha, yella. Itfadilu" as they shooed us away. It was pretty pointless though as we were out of earshot of the slogans anyways. My sense was that most of the onlookers were looking out of curiosity rather than sympathy. I returned to the front where I noticed that three students came out of the main gate and tried to join. The CSF tried to intimidate them until the protesters started yelling "Come Come Come". The security relaxed and one of the three joined in the encircled pillar. As the demo took place at the main gate, the road is essentially a T-shape. The roads were lined with security trucks of back-up. I am guessing that there were well over 2500 soldiers in addition to all the plain-clothes people running around organizing onlookers, taking names, and photos of individual demonstrators. As noted, traffic moved in its normal slow pace given the time of day. Around 215pm, the foreign journalists were gone and it did not look as if there would be any other developments. To view some pictures I took, go to this site. Arabist.net will continue to follow the developments and check with the organizers to see if any injuries or scuffles broke out. But, as noted, it was well-organized and well-disciplined even if under-attended. On the taxi ride home, the cabbie was asking me about the protest. He thought the idea of protesting was pointless (Mafish faada yanni). I asked him if Gamal would take power, and he got more serious. He said, "Of course not...this is a republic, not a monarchy." My feeling was that something has to give for there to be a popular, public rejection of that if the regime is going to take real note.
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    New English-Language Publication in Cairo

    Just a heads-up to the Arabist's readers. A lot of longerish Cairo-based journalists and former staff from the Cairo Times are starting up a new English-language publication called "Cairo". It will be a weekly publication - slated for Thursday street releases - and will cover Egyptian (and regional) news, business, and leisure topics. The print magazine has not been released yet but I spoke with one of the editor's today, who informed me that the zero-issue is in circulation and some stories are on the Web. I also attended a meeting for the new publication a few weeks back and the mag has a lot of positive energy. "Cairo"can be found at http://www.cairomagazine.com I am sure the staff will appreciate the traffic and thoughts on the new venture. Alf Mabrouk and best of luck to the CM - I am sure it will quickly reclaim the CT's place in the market as it sets new standards of quality and news coverage about Masr. To many productive years...
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    G-8 Democracy/Reform Conference Cancelled

    The G-8 sponsored conference that was to be held at the Arab League HQ in Cairo's Tahrir square has been delayed indefinitely, announced Egyptian FM Ahmed Abul-Ghait yesterday. The conference was scheduled for the first week in March. According to an AP story, it was postponed because of the Egyptian government's unwillingness to backdown over Ayman Nor's detention. US Sec of State Condi Rice more or less hinted she was considering not coming to Cairo for the conference if Nor remained in detention. He is currently being held for for forty-five days while the government insists criminal charges over forging al-Ghad party application papers are investigated. While the US seems to be sticking to its guns so as not to appear out of step with its 'freedom' rhetoric, delaying the conference may actually indicate that some US-Egyptian agreement has been reached despite the difference of opinion. The Egyptian government has too much invested domestically to call off the case. Also, election season is fast approaching and Nor's arrest will hurt al-Ghad's showing in those parliamantary elections. Meanwhile, the Bush admin has been taken a beating in the US press over its dealings with Egypt (via the Nor arrest). So perhaps this was the most amicable solution between the countries. I don't suspect this will lead to a larger rift. Mubarak's annual trip to visit the US president is scheduled for April. If Bush keeps the appointment and welcomes Mubarak then the conclusion that can be drawn is that Nor will likely spend a fair amount of time infront of the courts in the near-future, Egyptian-Israeli-US cooperation will continue, and US proposals for democratization will take a backseat to other regional developments. Either way, this latest twist will have little effect on the continuing oppositon and protests by the Kafaya movement.
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    More Protests Planned in Egypt

    I was out last evening and speaking to a dear activist friend, who also is a key organizer for the Egyptian Popular Committee for Change. We were talking about what was coming up on the Committee's schedule. On Monday (21st February), The Popular Committee, Movement for Change, and the defunct/frozen Hizb al-Amal (Labor Party) are having a protest/demonstration at Cairo University. This is the third anti-Mubarak protest following the 12 December 04 (Highest Appeals Court, Downtown) and 4 February 05 (Cairo International Book Fair, Madinit Nasr). Also, there is something planned for when the G-8 meeting convenes in the beginning of March to discuss the "non-foreign interference" version of the Broader Middle East Initiative and Arab Reform. I jokingly explained that I heard and read that US Sec of State Condi Rice was talking about not attending the Cairo proceedings given the ongoing case against Ayman Nor. In a moment filled with disappointment and anger directed at AFP, I was rhetorically asked, "So they think this is just about Ayman, what about the other 20,000 political prisioners?" I also asked if the coming protests would be organized along the anti-Mubarak theme. I was told that "from here on out, it's all directed at Mubarak." Things plan to heat up in Cairo. Stay tuned.....
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    Ayman Nour & the struggle inside the NDP

    Sorry for my erratic presence of late. I was in the US for a stretch and was a bit overwhelmed upon my return to Egypt, thus had little time to post. Anyway, I missed out on much of the Hizb al Ghad fun, so I'd like to chime in, if a bit late. When Hizb al Ghad was approved by the political parties committee there was much speculation about why it had succeeded where so many others had failed, including Al Ghad itself on a number of occasions. Why had Safwat al-Sherif, head of the Political Parties Committee and hardly a proponent of multi-party democracy in Egypt, suddenly warmed to Nour's venture? One of the more widely circulated, though not very convincing, theories was that there was a deal between Ayman Nour and the regime, wherein Nour agreed not to oppose another term for Mubarak in exchange for a license for his political party. Nour's arrest, the theory goes, was a result of Nour's backtracking on this deal. Other's have portrayed Nour's arrest as the beginning of a clampdown on, and a warning to, an increasingly bold opposition. Accordingly, his arrest has been portrayed as a victory for the NDP old-guard, the aging anti-reform lions embodied by the likes of Safwat al-Sherif and Kamal al-Shazli, and a blow to the progressive, reformists of the Gamal Mubarak wing. Or is just the opposite true? Another theory worth chewing on has been making the rounds, though I have yet to see it written about in the press here. A handful of astute observers with long experience in the ranks of the opposition here are convinced that the rise and fall of Ayman Nour is a result of the internal struggle occurring inside the NDP. However, it’s argued, Nour threatens Safwat al-Sherif far less than he threatens the Gamal Mubarak wing of the NDP, which is playing to position itself as the only viable alternative to succeed Hosni Mubarak. So Safwat al-Sherif approves Hizb al-Ghad, a liberal, pragmatic, reasonably pro-US party with a plan, thus dealing a blow to Gamal Mubarak and gang by providing the very thing they fear the most: an alternative (Remember, Madeleine Albright, during her recent visit here, said that the US would gladly support Egypt’s opposition were there a credible opposition.). Nour's arrest on trumped up charges, they argue, has been the response from Team Gamal. As a sidenote, such reasoning has implications on why we have witnessed a relative increase in political freedoms of late-- anti-Mubarak protests, new political parties, self-declared presidential candidates, etc. The conventional wisdom is that this is because Egypt is caught between pincers, increasing internal discontent and opposition spurred by deteriorating economic circumstances on one side, and post-9/11 US-led foreign pressure to democratize on the other. If we are inclined to accept the above mentioned theory, however, then we should consider a third factor: that the political opening is a product of a measure of instability inside the regime as two factions compete for control. The opposition is allowed greater space because each NDP faction hopes to use the opposition to weaken the other. Perhaps a historical parallel could be drawn with the political tolerance shown by Sadat in his first couple years after succeeding Nasser, before he consolidated power.
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    Turkey, Israel, Cyprus on Syrian alert

    An interesting tidbit from MENA, the Egyptian official news agency (sorry, no link):
    KUWAIT, Feb 17 (MENA) - Israel and Turkey have put their air forces and airstrips near the border with Syria at maximum alert Wednesday dawn following European and US notifications over possibile Western military intervention in Syria and Lebanon to topple their regimes in the fashion of Iraq's Saddam, according to a Kuwaiti paper.
    Al-Siyasa's Thursday issue quoted security reports from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) command in Brussels as saying that the British government has opened its two key airstrips in the Greek part of Cyprus for US, French and European air forces.
    The reports added decisions are expected to be taken very soon to send the troops there to be on their marks for military intervention in Syria and Lebanon.
    All Western parties, including the United States and France, have asked the Ariel Sharon government in Tel Aviv not to take part in any direct military operations against Syria and Lebanon, according to the NATO reports. (MENA)
    This is probably routine increasing of alert because of the current situation, but see how it is being portrayed in the press.
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    What next for Syria and Lebanon?

    Joshua Landis posts that Syria will have to withdraw. He's absolutely right. As Juan Cole points out, it no longer matters whether Syria was behind the attack or not. Most of the Lebanese factions seem to believe it was, or at least their leadership is seizing the opportunity to push for a pullout -- as they should. I have a hard time imagining Syria resisting the pressure to pull out. They're probably just trying to find a way to save a little face, probably with the help of the Arab League (cue in Mubarak finding a way to make himself useful.) If the Syrians did carry out the attack (and, say, that is proven by a UN investigation), then the regime is either finished or will become isolated in the same way that Iraq was in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait. (In a sense, I think sanctions are worse than an attack -- as we saw in Iraq.) Kofi Annan has joined the US and France in asking Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. What will happen if, or rather when, they do so? Will there be retributions against those Lebanese who enthusiastically cooperated with the Syrians? Will the web of business relationships that link many prominent Lebanese businesspeople with Syrian ones (usually regime cronies) fall apart, and if so will it damage the country's economy? Will the international community renegotiate Lebanese debt at the Paris Club to help out? (They should, but with extremely stringent political conditions.) Will Syria implode as scapegoats are found for this mess and a major source of regime income dries up? A lot of questions, a lot of potential danger, but also a possible way out of dictatorship for Syrians. I'm not sure whether there are forces inside the country that could pull off a coup (presumably the safest option for the general population) against Assad, though. Perhaps the Islamists? This site says that Maariv, the Israeli Hebrew-language daily, has an article saying Israeli intelligence thinks Hizbullah did it. I'd appreciate if someone can confirm that (or articles elsewhere in the Hebrew press) as Haaretz only seems to have this analysis piece, which is interesting for the following tidbit:
    One of the first people to understand the new situation, not surprisingly, was Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who called for "unity in the ranks" in Lebanon and for the first time revealed that he held a weekly meeting with Hariri, including a meeting a week before the assassination.
    Israel also said today that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapons in six months. In the meantime, Hizbullah's main backer, Iran, says Israel was probably behind the attack. Here in Cairo, most people are quite shocked (I include here some senior government officials I've been meeting over the past few days, which is why I've been busy) and sad for the Lebanese. The Middle East Quarterly, the gazette of a Likudnik think tank in Washington, put out a piece by Farid Ghadry, who advocates the following:
    How can the U.S. government promote change in Syria? Funding of dissident groups is essential to pressure the Syrian regime. If Hezbollah gets ample supplies of money from Iran, why are democratic countries so stingy about funding democratic movements? Behind the Bush administration's democratic advocacy are few programs and even fewer organizations. Only 3.2 percent of Middle East Partnership Initiative funds have been provided to indigenous nongovernmental organizations.[33]
    The U.S. government should create a fund to empower democracy advocates across the Middle East. This money should not be distributed to any groups or trade unions affiliated with oppressive regimes. Both Assad's regime in Damascus and other dictators throughout the Middle East are savvy enough to set up front groups to channel funds away from legitimate civil society. Already, the Syrian Baath party has embraced reforms to co-opt the movement and ensure that reforms never threaten Assad's autocratic rule. In June 2004, an anonymous Syrian opposition leader claimed that the Baath party has infiltrated all internal opposition groups.[34]
    The war against Saddam Hussein breathed new life into reform movements in the Middle East. Three years ago, the words reform, democracy, and freedom of expression were relegated to the lexicon of a very small group of Arab intellectuals. In September 2000, an Arabic-language Google search of the word "reform" (islah) yielded less than 2,000 mentions; in October 2004 these increased to 25,000. There still is a long way to go, though; the word jihad gets almost 90,000 mentions.
    While the Western democracies may ignore the nascent reform movements, dictatorial regimes across the Middle East are increasingly worried about their own growing democracy movements. Nowhere is this truer than in my homeland, Syria. Short of sending troops into Syria, however—an outcome neither Americans nor Syrians want—democracy will be an elusive dream unless the U.S. government is willing to support reformists publicly and fund them properly. A meeting in the White House with a Syrian democratic leader will send clear signals to Syria and beyond that change is on its way, thereby encouraging faster reforms.
    Hmm, I wonder which Syrian democratic leader he could have in mind? Surely not himself? Ghadry, the leader of the Reform Party of Syria, has been the subject of a number of articles recently about his quest to be the Syrian Ahmed Chalabi, except less arrogant. You can also read Ghadry's articles at the National Review. Naji Najjar, another exiled liberator, writes in Arutz Sheva, the once-banned Israeli settler radio station, begging for military help from Israel and America to get rid of the Syrians. His site has more. Reuters has a piece with some reaction in Syria, which is saying Lebanon is ungrateful because Syria kept it from war:
    "There is a feeling that they want to turn anything into a pretext," said analyst Ahmad Samir al-Taqi of the latest U.S. move. "The recalling of the ambassador is a form of escalation in the direction of resolution 1559," he added.
    Lebanese opposition figures such as Druze politician Walid Jumblatt and exiled Christian general Michel Aoun swiftly accused Damascus after Hariri's death, provoking anger in Syria.
    "They are shameless, absolutely shameless," raged Um Said, an elderly woman shopper waving a lettuce.
    "Now we are no good? Now Syrians are their enemy? Don't they remember our sons who ran to help them?" she asked.
    Sad in so many ways.
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    Ministerial maneuvers

    While everyone was talking about the Hariri assassination, the big story in Cairo yesterday was that Minister of Information Mahmoud Beltagui swapped jobs with Minister of Youth Anas Al Fiqi. This is a big demotion for a man who has been in the cabinet for over a decade. Beltagui cut his teeth among other things as an informant on Egyptian exiles while being a student in Paris (according to one anecdote, he pretended to be a communist around other Egyptian students in the 1960s, until one day they found out he had an office at the embassy) and had a career in the intelligence services until he became head of the State Information Service, Egypt's main interface with the foreign press. That position should have led to the post of information minister, but he was beaten by a mukhabarat officer who while less educated, was more ruthless. Safwat Al Sherif (at information until last July's cabinet reshuffle, now head of the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council) was a fearsome enemy, notably because one of his jobs in the late 1970s was framing Egyptian and foreign dignitaries by setting them up with women and filming them. He was, in other words, something of a cross between a blackmailer and a pimp. Instead of information, Beltagui got tourism. Beltagui finally bested Al Sherif last summer, after the latter started refusing to give his rival airtime on national TV, which wasn't the smartest move in a country that relies on tourism revenues. He was kicked upstairs and Beltagui finally got the post. Once there, Beltagui began a reform project of the notoriously corrupt, bloated and inefficient ministry of information -- which along with defense and interior is one of the most important control institutions in the country. This Al Jazeera piece seems to suggest that he was sacked because he was unable to control the flood of negative information about President Mubarak, including (in more oblique ways) in state-run bodies. The story is more complicated than that. Over the past few weeks, as Beltagui tried to implement his reform plan, there was an insurrection among ministry employees and the various public servants (including journalists, technicians, admin people...) who work in media institutions. Beltagui had tried to impose changes that would create further control on what state TV could show -- this at a time when Arab satellite television is booming and diversifying way beyond Al Jazeera. Notably, as we had noted here before, he wanted to introduce a review of soap operas by Al Azhar and the Coptic Church. “The media cannot be transformed into instruments to distill poison under the pretext of artistic licence,” he said at the time to justify the move. He had also imposed a shortlist of 34 tele-evangelists who were allowed to appear on TV, infuriating those that had been excluded. In the press, though, it was the first move that caused an uproar. One Egypt's greatest living scriptwriters, Osama Anwar Okasha, slammed into the "Higher Committee for Dramatic Works" (the censorship office) and its head, Al Ahram columnist (and French-language weekly Al Ahram Hebdo editor) Muhammad Salmawy. Okasha said he refused to be censored by an arbitrary board of writers and ministry officials. Salmawy replied with a long letter to Okasha basically asking him what he was afraid of, ending on a sardonic note by telling him he was looking forward to reading his next work at the commmittee. He might now have to eat his words. Beltagui, 67, now finds himself at the head of the Youth Ministry (old ministers never retire, they simply get less powerful jobs), while Al Fiqi (apparently close to Gamal Mubarak) grabs a crucial post where he could potentially do a lot of good, if he is so inclined. Egypt's richest man, Naguib Sawiris (of Orascom Telecom, which for instance owns the Iraqna mobile network) has been telling journalists that he wants to start a private terrestrial TV station in Egypt. The liberalization of broadcast media has long been overdue, and perhaps Al Fiqi will take a step in the right direction. I've never met him and know little about him, but having met Beltagui I think it's difficult not to improve.
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    "A low-hanging fruit"

    The backlash has begun:
    In Hariri's hometown of Sidon on southern Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, dozens of demonstrators attacked Syrian workers Tuesday, slightly wounding five before police intervened. Hundreds of others marched in the streets. Black banners and pictures of the slain leader covered the streets as the country began three days of official mourning.
    On Monday night, a mob attacked the offices of the Lebanese chapter of Syria's ruling Baath Party in Beirut with stones and set fire to shacks used to exchange money and sell cigarettes in front of it.
    If someone wanted to get the ball moving on inspiring the Lebanese against Syria, this is working perfectly. In the next few days we're going to see four major players fight this out: the Lebanese, the Syrians, the French and the Americans. Of course, within the Lebanese there will be conflicting tendencies. This is when coalitions are formed, and I'm sure there will be some hesitation as to what should be done. It may be time for those who backed Syria to reconsider. Whatever happens and no matter did it, the Syrians are going to be the losers. Below is an unorganized, quick run through some of the things I read today -- unfortunately I have no time to elaborate at the moment. The Bush administration is rushing to blame Syria, and sends the signal by withdrawing the ambassador to Damascus. The NYT editorial board urges that the opportunity is taken to move against Syria. Iyad Allawi says that it will affect the situation in Iraq. Adel Darwish wrote an interesting obituary in the Independent. Le Figaro reminds us that Terje Rod-Larsen, the UN's special envoy to the Middle East and one of the architects of the Oslo peace process, had made considerable progress in the past few months with Bashar Al Assad and was to present a report to the UN on Resolution 1559. The French conservative daily also notes that this is really "an attempt to radically influence the peace process in the region." Joshua Landis looks at the Syrian reaction. Naharnet, as Praktike noted, is the place to go for news, including: the army taking over Beirut, which is being shut down for three days, and other cities; Saudi Arabia rejecting Jacques Chirac's call for an international investigation (so has Lebanon) that the UN is preparing to announce; Baha'uldin Hariri, Rafik's son, is being urged to take his father's place; Syrian Vice-President Khaddam, a close friend of Hariri, did not shake hands with the French and American ambassadors when they came to pay their condolences at the wake.
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