Rice on Egypt, regional democracy

Condoleeza Rice gave a roundtable interview to Arab journalists before leavng on her tour of the region. Most of it was about Hamas and Iran, but I thought her response on Egypt's cancellation of municipal elections and the critique of the Bush administration's "Arab democratization" policy were interesting:
On Egypt, well, of course, we were disappointed that the elections were -- that municipal elections were postponed. And what -- the message that I will take to Egypt is that Egypt needs to stay on democratic course. It needs to keep pushing ahead on the democratic course, because it is a great civilization and a great people and it can lead the democratic progress in the Arab world and I would hope that it will do that. I will note that an awful lot has happened in Egypt in the last year too. Multi-candidate elections and the parliamentary elections have forever changed the character of Egyptian politics, the face of Egyptian politics. The debate, the holding of government officials accountable, the requirement that people actually go out and campaign for the vote of the people, you're not going to ever put that back (inaudible). And so, a lot has changed in Egypt as a result of decisions that the government took. The parliament itself has changed dramatically as a result and so, while we expected -- while we will continue to press for further change and for further reform, I think we will want to note and acknowledge that a lot has changed in Egypt and to keep pushing for those reforms to continue. I will meet with civil society and opposition groups while I'm in Egypt and look forward to doing that and to hearing their assessment of how to move forward. This is also a time when I hope that there is more that is going on in the way of the formation of political parties, parties that are non-sectarian, and that can cut across political groupings. Let me take this opportunity to say something about what we've just been through, because I'm reading a lot in the papers these days about how -- "Well, you know, you made this mistake, you thought democracy could take hold in the Middle East, you supported elections and what have you done? You've supported elections that brought to power Islamists or extremists or in the case of Hamas, a group that you consider a terrorist group. Aren't you sorry that you supported these democratic processes?" Absolutely not. It was the only thing to do. It was -- first of all, from the point of view of the United States, the only moral thing to do. The idea that somehow, it is better for people to lack the means and the chance to express themselves, that it's better to support that and to, therefore, support dictatorship or oppression or authoritarianism where people don't have a voice -- it's, I think, morally reprehensible. People have to have a way to express themselves or, if they don't have a legitimate way to express themselves, they express themselves through extremism. Secondly, there is an assumption, somehow, that the Middle East was somehow a stable paradise; that the United States' policies disturbed, and if we had just not insisted on the overthrow of dictatorship in Iraq or that Syrian forces leave Lebanon or that the Palestinian people have an opportunity to express themselves, everything would have been fine. But of course, that's not the Middle East as it existed three or four years ago. The Middle East was a place that you had such a great freedom deficit that people were expressing themselves by flying airplanes into buildings. That was a lesson we had to learn, that the 60 years of turning our backs on democracy in the Middle East and favoring "stability" in the Middle East had given us neither stability nor democracy. And the problem is that after 60 years, it's perhaps not surprising that civil society is not very strong. It's not surprising that parties that express the need for compromise, the need for overcoming differences are weak. Those parties have to be built and it's going to take a while to build them. And perhaps it's true that the most organized parties, in some cases -- they're the most organized entities, in some cases, were more extreme. But I firmly believe that this is a transitional matter, because in politics, you have to deliver for the people, particularly if you have to stand for election by the people, particularly if you have to stand for the people to reaffirm you in elections. So, what the world community should do is not turn back from democracy in the Middle East; not say, "Oh, my goodness, we got a glimpse of democracy and it's rather scary what can happen with it." That's not the right approach. The right approach is to continue to encourage reform and democracy and openness, to work to establish parties that are moderate in their views, to work to establish civil society, to work to establish the institutions, to say to any who have been elected in these processes and comes from the extremes, "You now have a obligation, however, a responsibility, to work for the aspirations of your people. And your people, as far as we can see, don't want to turn their children into suicide bombers. They don't want to spend their lives trying to destroy Israel and therefore, living in circumstances as the Palestinians do." And so, the international community has to stand firm for the principle that however you came to power by election, you have responsibilities and one of the responsibilities of democracy is that you cannot have one foot in terrorism and one foot in politics. And it has to be the international community that has to insist on that standard. Now, for anybody who gets into power through election, that's a standard we have to insist upon. So, while we are building institutions of democracy, we can't let those who have been elected through democratic processes govern undemocratically. We cannot let those who have been elected to processes through democracy keep one foot in terror and one foot in politics. But it would be a tragedy if we turned back from the insistence that people ought to have a right to choose their leaders. That would be a tragedy and it would be -- for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in countries where we have that right, I think it would be morally reprehensible for us to turn our backs on those who don't yet have that right.
Two things come to mind: one, is that although the US feels it needs to comment negatively on the cancellation of municipal elections, it is not dissatisfied with the decision. Why? Well, first of all because the response thus far has really been pretty weak -- probably mostly for PR reasons and to signal that the pressure is still on. But secondly, probably because Rice and her colleagues feel that enough already happened in 2005 and there's no reason to rush towards another Muslim Brotherhood electoral victory. The process they see happening in Egypt is probably more medium to long term and, peripherally, they probably hope that a delay could give opposition parties more time to prepare. I understand where this reasoning comes from, but I don't think the postponement of the municipal elections will actually make much difference either in the success Islamists will probably enjoy (now that the MB is clearly determined to contest them) or in the level of preparation opposition parties will be able to achieve. The problem is bigger than that, and without a major change to the current political culture it's hard to see anything happening. The second thing is that despite many recent critiques, notably from inside the US, against the pro-democracy policies of the Bush administration, it is more or less staying on the same course, although maybe at a slower pace. The emphasis on civil society needed more growth is probably the focus of this policy for the moment (rather than elections). The same problem remains, though: how do you ensure that there is room for this growth?
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Sayyed Darwish in the NYT

I want to flag this NYT article on a new recording of Sayyed Darwish compositions. Darwish is the founder of modern Egyptian music and an important artistic commentator on social issues in Egypt for the first half of the 20th century, as the article explains. His music can be hard to find, particularly in the West, so it's neat that a new recording and tour in underway.
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Dissident judges questioned over voting fraud

I have just received a message saying that four Egyptian judges, including the noted judges Hesham Bastawissi and Ahmed Mekky, were taken in for police questioning this evening, apparently because they had accused other judges of taking part in election fraud during the parliamentary elections. As many readers will remember, it became apparent during the parliamentary elections that there was massive fraud in some locales. Some judge courageously stepped out to denounce this, implicating some of their colleagues (or in most cases, probably public prosecutors who were much more beholden to the state). This is all taking place in the background of a new judicial independence bill (presented by the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently) being discussed in parliament, the landslide reelection of Zakariya Abdel Aziz's "rebel faction" at the Judge's Club, and signs that the regime is back to its old tricks (did it ever stop, one might ask?) This Al Ahram Weekly story shows how much the judges achieved in 2005, and contains this prophetic Bastawessi quote:
"The state wants to silence us. Judges who reveal the truth will be prosecuted or fired."
Now, if this turns out to be what it looks like -- an attempt to intimidate and punish the most respectable opponents of the regime and make them pay for their actions in 2005 -- a big deal should be made out of this. Readers in influential places and the media, take note. Egyptian rights groups are now working on it and should have a statement tomorrow. And Baheyya, this is your turf!
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Israeli anti-Semitic cartoon contest

This is pretty funny:
Amitai Sandy (29), graphic artist and publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing, from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has followed the unfolding of the “Muhammad cartoon-gate” events in amazement, until finally he came up with the right answer to all this insanity - and so he announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest - this time drawn by Jews themselves! “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”
The contest has been announced today on the www.boomka.org website, and the initiator accept submissions of cartoons, caricatures and short comic strips from people all over the world. The deadline is Sunday March 5, and the best works will be displayed in an Exhibition in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Sandy is now in the process of arranging sponsorships of large organizations, and promises lucrative prizes for the winners, including of course the famous Matzo-bread baked with the blood of Christian children.
Incidentally, I liked the cover of this week's Tel Quel, the liberal French-language Moroccan news-magazine:
Couv 212
The headline says "The (sensitive) image of the prophets" while the text in the blacked-out Mohammed says "Why Jesus and Moses but not Mohammed? And why violent demonstrations because of idiotic cartoons?"
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Two versions of Egypt

These two stories popped up next to each other on an Egypt news search:
EGYPT: Poverty rampant in rural areas, says new report CAIRO, 13 February (IRIN) - The rich-poor divide in Egypt remains significant, especially in rural areas, according to the UN and government ministries. "Improvements in the gap between rich and poor are marginal," noted Khaled Abdel Kader of the Cairo Institute for National Planning, speaking at the release of the UNDP's latest human development report on Sunday. "Poverty, especially in the rural areas, remains rampant," he added. In the new development classification, Egypt ranks 119th out of 173 countries. According to the report, while 61 percent of people living in the southern governorate of Assiut are still classified as "poor", the rate for urban governorates lies at only 6.2 percent.
And:
Egypt's goal: To be the land of offshoring Egypt is making a pitch to be the next offshore outsourcing hot-spot, claiming that its foreign language skills and low labor costs put the country in a strong position to compete with India and Eastern Europe. AT Kearney recently ranked Egypt number 12 in a list of top offshore outsourcing destinations and while the country's share of the offshore call-center market is still very small, analyst Datamonitor predicts it will grow by 52 percent over the next 12 months.
There are plenty of good business ideas around, but they focus on the services industry. I rarely see any kind of initiative for those who are left behind, trapped by poverty, illiteracy, and rural life.
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How to engineer a Palestinian coup

Hey, Israel and America are coming up with a way to make Palestinians luv Hamas 4ever!
JERUSALEM, Feb. 13 — The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats. The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement. The officials also argue that a close look at the election results shows that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood. The officials and diplomats, who said this approach was being discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and the Israeli government, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. They say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements — as called for by the United Nations and the West — or face isolation and collapse. Opinion polls show that Hamas's promise to better the lives of the Palestinian people was the main reason it won. But the United States and Israel say Palestinian life will only get harder if Hamas does not meet those three demands. They say Hamas plans to build up its militias and increase violence and must be starved out of power. The officials drafting the plan know that Hamas leaders have repeatedly rejected demands to change and do not expect Hamas to meet them. "The point is to put this choice on Hamas's shoulders," a senior Western diplomat said. "If they make the wrong choice, all the options lead in a bad direction."
And of course, this would not be an internationally-sanctioned coup at all:
If a Hamas government is unable to pay workers, import goods, transfer money and receive significant amounts of outside aid, Mr. Abbas, the president, would have the authority to dissolve parliament and call new elections, the officials say, even though that power is not explicit in the Palestinian basic law.
Not explicit, hmm? It must be implied. The other interesting thing is that suddenly a landslide election is being described as close, even with hints of unfair:
The United States and Fatah believe that the Hamas victory was far less sweeping than the seat total makes it appear, said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. In an interview in Ramallah, Mr. Shikaki said that if Fatah had forced members to withdraw their independent candidacies in constituencies where they split the votes with official Fatah candidates, it might have won the election. Half of the 132 seats were decided by a vote for a party list, and the other half by a separate vote for a local candidate. Hamas won 44 percent of the popular vote but 56 percent of the seats, while Fatah won 42 percent of the popular vote but only 34 percent of the seats. The reason? "Fatah ran a lousy campaign," Mr. Shikaki said, and Mr. Abbas "did not force enough Fatah independents to pull out." If only 76 "independent" Fatah candidates had not run, Mr. Shikaki said, Fatah would have won 33 seats and Hamas 33. In the districts, Hamas won an average of only 39 percent of the vote while winning 68 percent of the seats, Mr. Shikaki said. "Fatah now is obsessed with undoing this election as soon as possible," he said. "Israel and Washington want to do it over too. The Palestinian Authority could collapse in six months."
So basically, like the NDP in Egypt, Fatah can't exercise discipline. It's obviously really unfair to them that there were other candidates. And then they say Arabs are prone to irrational conspiracy theories...
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Watch it slip

That momentum for reform, that is:
CAIRO: Egypt’s consultative council yesterday approved the two-year postponement of municipal polls that had been due within two months, in a move slammed by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. The Shura council, the country’s upper chamber of parliament, approved a proposal by President Hosni Mubarak that the elections be delayed by two years and the mandate of the current municipal elections extended. “The postponement was necessary to draft a new law on municipal administration which would conform to the constitutional amendment proposed by President Mubarak in his programme,” said Shura speaker and ruling National Democratic Party Secretary General Safwat el-Sherif. The mandate of Egypt’s municipal officials was due to expire on April 15 and elections were to have been organised within a two-month period before that date. The postponement has still to go through the NDP-dominated lower chamber, or People’s Assembly, in the coming days before taking effect.
The move has been condemned by all of the opposition, but it doesn't matter. The municipal elections could have been the test to see whether the Muslim Brotherhood would continue its advance, or whether other parties could make inroads, or indeed whether the regime would interfere with as heavy a hand as it did in November and December parliamentary elections. But instead, full speed ahead with fake reforms! Update: Here's what the Ikhwan has to say about it:
By enacting this bill, the government is aiming to provide the ruling National Democratic Party with sufficient time to rearrange itself in preparation for the elections. Currently, the NDP is undergoing restructuring to be able to face its strongest rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, which outperformed it in the parliamentary vote. In fact, the Brotherhood picked up 88 seats despite the coercive government measures applied in both second and third rounds of ballots leaving 27 deaths. The government proposed to put off the elections two years, instead of one, to focus on the elections of Shorah Council in the middle of the next year. For it would be difficult to both security and judiciary bodies to monitor two elections at the same time.
Update 2: Good of Michael Slackman of the NYT to have picked this up. He has more detail than I've seen in the Arabic press! This what is being used to justify the move:
Mr. Mubarak's allies in the upper house of Parliament and in his party said the planned postponement was, in fact, a step toward greater democracy because it would allow time to put in place a new law for greater decentralization. "According to the current constitution, the local governments have no power and depend fully on the central government," said Muhammad Kamal, a leading member of the governing party's secretariat and a member of the upper house. "The concept is to move local councils more toward becoming local governments, rather than local administration. We want to empower decentralization."
'ashan shatrak...
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Chahine's hell

An excerpt from an interview with legendary Egyptian director Youssef Chahine in a German magazine, translated on copts-united.com:
SZ: Is it difficult to find actors? Chahine: No. I find them in Parliament. When they meet there is great applause. If I need a crowd for an opera scene, I will wait until Parliament is off so that I can get these professional applauders. SZ: What are you working on now? Chahine: I am currently working on a film and trying to censor myself. It is a Faustus theme, a comedy, that takes place in hell. SZ: What does hell look like? Chahine: More or less like Egypt.
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BHL... l'effroyable imposteur

It's only been out a few days, but the American intelligentsia is ripping apart Bernard Henry Levy's book on modern America. A well-deserved put-down, which colleagues back in France should take note of. This review by Garrison Keillor is a fantastic send-up. If you're not familiar with him, BHL is France's most media-savvy public intellectual and a film-maker. Although he describes himself as a philosopher, he's an essayist at best and occasionally dabbles in current affairs and cinema. (His wife Arielle Dombasle, a kind of French Angelina Jolie, is an actress.) There are many reasons BHL is deserving of scorn--his pandering to the media, his apparent humorlessness when he appeared on the Daily Show recently, his intellectual shallowness, or his automatically pro-Zionist stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But two occasions stands out in particular: in 1998, BHL visited Algeria to report on the civil war there. He produced a four-page article for Le Monde and appeared on TV countless times after that. But it turned out that not only there were a lot of factual errors in his reporting, but the entire time he was accompanied with government minders and basically bought the government's line about an Islamist insurgency hook, line and sinker. He has done the same kind of of dubious journalism with his investigation into the murder of Daniel Pearl and other issues.
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Amr Khaled to the rescue

This just in: a friend just got off the phone with Amr Khaled, the superstar Muslim televangelist, who said that he will be making a live announcement on the Islamic channel Iqraa on Saturday evening with a proposal to resolve the the current fracas over the Danish cartoons. It will involve a interfaith youth conference in Copenhagen... Shameless publicity stunt or the work of a powerful new moderate voice in Islam? You decide.
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Roy on "the geopolitics of outrage"

Famed French specialist on Islamist movements Olivier Roy has a caustic op-ed in Le Monde today titled "The Geopolitics of Outrage." Here's the link (subscriber-only, I believe) and the text is after the jump. I can translate the intro for now, but have no time for more:
The conflict over the Danish cartoons is often presented as the manifestation of a clash of civilizations between a liberal West and an Islam against freedom of expression. Believing in this thesis requires a lot of ignorance and even more hypocrisy. Freedom of expression in Western countries is already limited by two things: the law and social consensus. Anti-semitism is legally banned, but attacks on other communities too: in 2005, the French Catholic Church managed to have an ad featuring scantily clad women as the apostles withdrawn. This is exactly the same action that Muslim organizations are trying to carry out today. What newspapers published the banned ad back then in the name of freedom of expression?
His basic point: religious conservatives are not only concerned about blasphemy, but a whole range of issues such as bioethics, gay marriage or abortion -- human freedoms that they want to limit in the name of moral values. This is the biggest debate of our times. It does not oppose West and Islam, but exists inside the West itself. He says that the current storm draws strength in the West partly from hostility to Islam, which is really a hostility to immigration. In the Middle East, the violence that took place was largely organized by regimes that do not care about religion (he mentions Syria and the 1982 Hama massacre of thousands of Islamists.) But Arab governments want to use the large diasporas living in Europe in their diplomatic tactics. Here Europe is paying the price of greater diplomatic activism, a shift away from the non-interventionist "old Europe" that existed before the Iraq war to a Europe that is leading the charge against Iran and Syria. But this change in foreign policy is not publicly debated.
Jeudi 09 février 2006 Point de vue Caricatures : géopolitique de l'indignation, par Olivier Roy LE MONDE | 08.02.06 | 14h03 • Mis à jour le 08.02.06 | 14h03 Le conflit sur les caricatures danoises est souvent présenté comme l'expression d'un "clash" des civilisations entre un Occident libéral et un islam qui refuserait la liberté d'expression. Il faut beaucoup d'ignorance et encore plus d'hypocrisie pour s'en tenir à cette thèse. La liberté d'expression est dans tous les pays occidentaux d'ores et déjà limitée, et par deux choses : la loi et un certain consensus social. L'antisémitisme est réprimé légalement. Mais l'atteinte à d'autres communautés aussi : en 2005, l'Eglise catholique de France a obtenu le retrait d'une publicité utilisant la Cène, mais remplaçant les apôtres par des femmes court vêtues. Cela relève exactement de la même démarche qu'entreprennent les associations musulmanes aujourd'hui. Quels journaux ont alors publié la publicité incriminée en défense de la liberté d'expression ? Il y a également un seuil de tolérance très variable dans l'opinion publique : aucun journal respectable ne publierait aujourd'hui une interview de Dieudonné, alors qu'il n'a pas (encore) été condamné en justice pour antisémitisme. Aucun grand journal ne publierait des caricatures se moquant des aveugles, des nains, des homosexuels ou des Tziganes, plus par peur du mauvais goût que de poursuites judiciaires. Mais le mauvais goût passe pour l'islam, parce que l'opinion publique est plus perméable à l'islamophobie (qui très souvent recouvre en fait un rejet de l'immigration). Ce qui choque le musulman moyen, ce n'est pas la représentation du Prophète, mais qu'il y ait deux poids et deux mesures. Les protestations des musulmans en Europe, à part quelques excités qui en font leur fonds de commerce, sont en fait plutôt modérées et relèvent aussi de la liberté d'expression. Mais plus généralement elles s'inscrivent aussi dans ce qui est sans doute le grand débat en Occident aujourd'hui : dans quelle mesure la loi doit-elle défendre un espace du sacré, qu'il s'agisse de blasphème, de négationnisme, de mémoire ou du respect d'autrui ? Ce qui rentre dans un débat plus général : qu'est-ce qui relève de la liberté de l'homme d'un côté et de l'ordre naturel ou divin de l'autre ? Rien d'étonnant à ce que les religieux conservateurs, chrétiens, juifs ou musulmans se retrouvent de plus en plus souvent ensemble pour réclamer des limites à la liberté de l'homme, que ce soit sur les questions d'avortement, de mariage homosexuel, de bioéthique ou de blasphème. Rien d'étonnant à ce que la conférence épiscopale, le grand rabbinat et le consistoire protestant aient fait savoir qu'ils comprenaient l'indignation des musulmans. Ce débat sur les valeurs n'oppose pas l'Occident à l'islam, il est à l'intérieur même de l'Occident. D'où vient alors la violence dans le cas des caricatures ? Ici, il ne faut pas se voiler la face. La carte des émeutes montre que les pays touchés par la violence sont ceux où le régime et certaines forces politiques ont des comptes à régler avec les Européens. La violence a été instrumentalisée par des Etats et des mouvements politiques qui rejettent la présence des Européens dans un certain nombre de crises au Moyen-Orient. Nous payons un activisme diplomatique croissant, mais qui ne fait pas l'objet d'un débat public. Que le régime syrien se présente en défenseur de l'islam ferait sourire si les conséquences n'avaient pas été tragiques. Un régime qui a exterminé des dizaines de milliers de Frères musulmans se trouverait à la pointe de la défense du Prophète ! Ici, il s'agit d'une manoeuvre purement politique pour reprendre la main au Liban en s'alliant avec tous ceux qui se sentent menacés ou ignorés par la politique européenne. La crise révèle donc aussi une évolution importante de la politique européenne. Au moment de l'intervention américaine en Irak, il était de bon ton d'opposer à la coalition anglo-saxonne une "vieille Europe" continentale, hostile à l'intervention américaine, plutôt propalestinienne, insistant sur la souveraineté des Etats au détriment parfois de la démocratisation. La France était ainsi créditée d'une tradition gaullienne d'indépendance par rapport aux Etats-Unis. Or, en trois ans, les choses ont bien changé. Les Européens se sont lancés tout seuls dans un bras de fer avec l'Iran au sujet du nucléaire et se retrouvent en première ligne dans la mise en accusation de Téhéran devant le Conseil de sécurité, alors que les Etats-Unis s'en tiennent à une prudente rhétorique. Faut-il s'étonner que le Hezbollah et Téhéran jettent de l'huile sur le feu des caricatures ? En Afghanistan, les forces de l'OTAN, c'est-à-dire les troupes européennes, sont en train de remplacer les soldats américains et vont se retrouver en première ligne contre les talibans et Al-Qaida : la coalition des partis pakistanais qui manifeste aujourd'hui pour protester contre les caricatures danoises est précisément celle qui soutient les talibans et Al-Qaida. Au Liban, la France — et donc aussi l'Europe — a pris soudainement une position très dure sur la présence syrienne, qui a exaspéré le régime de Bachar Al-Assad : il se venge aujourd'hui en organisant en sous-main les attaques contre les ambassades (qui peut imaginer qu'une manifestation spontanée et incontrôlée puisse se dérouler à Damas aujourd'hui ?). Mais c'est peut-être sur la Palestine que le changement, sinon de fond, du moins de forme, est le plus criant : l'Europe, en ordre groupé cette fois, a imposé des conditions draconiennes pour la continuation de son aide après la victoire du Hamas, ce qui a été mal compris par de nombreux Palestiniens, qui s'attendaient à une plus grande neutralité ; d'où les débordements de Gaza contre les représentations de l'Union. Loin d'être neutre ou absente, l'Europe depuis trois ans a pris une posture beaucoup plus visible et interventionniste au Moyen-Orient, tout en se rapprochant des Etats-Unis. Contrairement à ce qui se passait il y a trois ans, Washington souhaite désormais une plus grande présence européenne, surtout dans la perspective d'un retrait progressif d'Irak. Cette plus grande exposition de l'Europe entraîne donc des tensions avec une coalition hétéroclite de régimes et de mouvements, qui ont alors pris en otage les musulmans européens. En fait, cette stratégie offensive était inscrite dès la démarche que les ambassadeurs arabes ont effectuée auprès des autorités danoises. Les régimes arabes, en effet, se sont toujours efforcés de maintenir l'immigration en Europe comme une diaspora, mobilisable pour les causes nationales. Les pays du Maghreb considèrent la deuxième génération née en France comme retenant automatiquement la nationalité des parents. Les consulats se présentent toujours comme des intermédiaires pour gérer les tensions autour de questions d'islam, et se sont livrés à une intense campagne pour contrôler les élections au CFCM. L'université Al-Azhar, au Caire, se présente comme un recours pour former les imams et donner des fatwas, rejetant par exemple le Conseil européen de la Fatwa, basé à Londres et qui défend l'idée d'un droit spécifique à l'islam minoritaire. Bref, Etats comme organisations font tout pour maintenir les musulmans d'Europe dans une mouvance moyen-orientale, et c'est de bonne guerre. Mais ce parrainage pesant est de plus en plus mal vécu par la majorité des musulmans d'Europe : il est intéressant de voir que les grandes organisations prennent en fait leurs distances par rapport à la polémique sur les caricatures (il suffit de regarder sur le site de l'UOIF ou bien sur oumma.com). C'est dans le sens de cette déconnection entre islam d'Europe et crises du Moyen-Orient qu'il faut chercher la clé de la gestion de ces inévitables tensions et traiter les musulmans d'Europe comme des citoyens, comme on le fait avec chrétiens et juifs, même s'il faut rappeler régulièrement à tous les principes de la liberté d'expression et de la laïcité. Mais il faut aussi que l'opinion publique européenne prenne conscience de cette implication beaucoup plus importante de l'Europe dans les affaires du Grand Moyen-Orient, de la Palestine à l'Afghanistan, car elle entraînera une plus grande exposition tant de ses représentations diplomatiques que de ses ONG ou de ses simples citoyens. On peut approuver un plus grand rôle de l'Europe en Afghanistan ou au Liban, mais il faut en assumer les conséquences. Une fois de plus, ce qui manque à l'Europe, c'est un espace de vrai débat politique. Olivier Roy, chercheur, est directeur de recherche au CNRS. Il a publié récemment La Laïcité face à l'islam, Stock, 2005.
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Star Academy banned in Algeria

P2 Sofia Algeria's national TV channel has decided to take Star Academy, the Lebanese remake of France's show of the same name and the equivalent to American Idol, off the air. According the newspaper El Watan, this effort at banning the show was led by the president of the Islamist party MSP, Bouguerra Soltani, but ultimately was the initiative of President Bouteflika. The reason: the show was deemed "offensive to national identity and the values of our society."
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VOA and the new US budget

There a bunch of stories out there today highlighting US budget increases on defense spending and cutbacks on other initiatives, particularly ones that have to do with spreading democratization or simply information. We've written of the demise of VOA at the expense of Al Hurra and Radio Sawa before, but now it seems they put the final nail in the coffin:
At a time when al Jazeera and China Radio International are adding English programming, the United States is going the other way. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting agencies, announced increases of 13 percent for funds for Middle East broadcasting networks and 5.3 percent for the overall VOA. Then, "faced with the increased costs of expanding critically needed television and radio programming to the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, the Board has had to make some painful choices," the broadcasting board's announcement went on to say. As a result, it said, the English-language radio programs on VOA News Now will be eliminated. (Funding will continue only for VOA English radio beamed to Africa, and a special program for beginning English-language users that features a very limited 1,500-word vocabulary, spoken very slowly. The VOA's English Web site will also continue.) The board went on to unintentionally prove its own misjudgment, saying: "The budget reflects the board's commitment to English-language programming in the medium of the future, the Internet, and for excellence in Special English programming. Research shows that millions more are benefiting from Internet programming than from shortwave transmission, which VOA News Now relies on." It is correct: Shortwave broadcasting is old-tech (yet still widely used, especially in rural impoverished areas). And the Internet is not just the medium of the future, in many places that future is now. Moreover, there is also a medium of the future within the Internet - streaming audio and video. Millions will soon be listening to or viewing programs not just on home computers or laptops, but on their cell phones - which are becoming the communications instrument of choice in poor countries. So, if millions of English-speaking people in Muslim countries and other places in the emerging world are watching the Internet, what English-language programming will there be for them to watch? Precious little - if it is all being scrapped in a shortsighted (see also: short-listened) effort to save a few bucks ($9 million) in the interim. They will not be able to see the living demonstration of what democracy in action is all about - brought to them by a government that is in power, but not above listening to the views of its critics on all matters of war and peace.
Incidentally, while on the issue of military spending trumping all else, I watched the BBC documentary Why We Fight last night. I recommend you don't bother unless you want to hear well-known facts about neo-cons, Cheney, Halliburton etc... It's amazing that the producers of the documentary don't make the effort to secure any new or little-known information and does not do any statistical digging into the role of the armaments industry in politics. And then there's the slightly offensive images of obese Americans eating at diners whenever clueless "Middle America" is mentioned. Its one saving grace is a pretty decent soundtrack. I had hoped for something of the caliber of the flawed but fascinating The Powers of Nightmares (download it legally here), and was sorely disappointed.
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New "moderate Islamist" paper in Jordan

News from the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom:
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - A new Islamist weekly was launched in Jordan on Wednesday aimed at promoting moderation and countering militant "takfiri" ideology, which brands other Muslims as infidels, the chief editor said. The weekly Fact International emerges at a time when Jordan's King Abdullah II has called for a stand against Islamic radicalism, particularly in the wake of a triple suicide attack on Amman hotels in November that killed 60 people. Fact International is an independent weekly, and its chief editor, Hilmi al-Asmar, is a backer of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist opposition movement. The paper aims to "to fight the culture of destruction and militant denunciations of other Muslims as infidels ... to promote a culture of critical thought and awareness opposed to the ideology of 'takfir,'" al-Asmar told The Associated Press. The weekly, whose name is Arabic is Al-Haqeqa Al-Duwalia, has a "modernized Islamic stamp but it does not represent any specific ideology or any political party," said al-Asmar, who is also a well-known columnist for the independent newspaper Ad-Dustour, Jordan's second largest. He said it will "provide alternative and analytical media from an Islamic and Arab perspective." Besides a 20-page weekly in Arabic _ costing about 50 US cents (0.41 Euros), the paper will put out an eight-page English version.
The paper's site is www.factjo.com. A quick glance at the English articles (had problem with the Arabic on browser) showed a paean to King Abdullah and an interview with "sources close to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi" that revealed that he does not like Shias.
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More on that Danish thing

In the last few years we've seen massive terrorist attacks, wars, uprisings, assassinations, worldwide torture programs, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, but of course the most-important-event-of-all-time-to-get-indignant-about are those Danish cartoons. For some reason, there is something very compelling about the argument surrounding their publication -- the freedom of expression vs. respect for religion debate -- combined of course with goading by extremists on both sides, particularly the Muslim one. Obviously this is a debate people have been wanting to have, as it encapsulates a lot of pre-conceived ideas: that Muslims are intolerant and violent, that Europeans are racist and anti-Islam in particular, or that Europe is in great danger from a sinister plan for Islamization and that must be courageously resisted at all costs. It's very depressing to think that this is the great debate of our times, and if that's what the rest of the 21st century is going to be like, I want out. There are a few things worth highlighting about how this came to start. The cartoons could have just as easily been ignored (I remember reading a great French cartoon from the 1970s that had Mohammed, Jesus, Jehovah and Zeus attend an orgy), but there was from the start an attempt to fan the flames. This has not been very satisfactorily explained anywhere as far as I can, but this WSJ story published yesterday has some of the details:
In this volatile environment, a group of Danish Islamic clerics angered by the cartoons succeeded in enlisting help from Egypt's secular government, which has been struggling to contain a potent Islamist opposition. Secular forces in the Arab world, eager to burnish their image as defenders of Islam, provided an important initial impetus for the protests, but now are scrambling to control the fury. From his office at the Islamic Faith Society in Copenhagen, Ahmed Abu-Laban, a fundamentalist Palestinian cleric, has been at the forefront of a campaign to force an apology from the paper. "This was the last drop in a cup of resentment, disappointment and exploitation," he says. ... After a few days, Mr. Rose thought the worst was over. Then clerics in Copenhagen and elsewhere used their sermons to denounce the paper. Ambassadors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and nine other Islamic countries requested a meeting with Denmark's center-right prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Mr. Rasmussen declined, saying the state had no right to interfere with the country's free press. Angry local Muslim leaders organized protest rallies, demanding an apology. The paper refused. In Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city, a radical cleric gave an interview denouncing Mr. Rose and reminding him of "what happened" to Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 by a Dutchman of Moroccan descent. Mr. Rose got a security briefing from police and had his telephone number and address de-listed. Under pressure from young radicals for results, Mr. Abu-Laban, the Copenhagen cleric at the forefront of the campaign, and several others formed the "European Committee for Honoring the Prophet," an umbrella group that now claims to represent 27 organizations across a wide spectrum of the Islamic community. (Moderate Muslims dispute this and say the group has been hijacked by radicals.) Frustrated by the Danish government's response, the committee decided after a series of meetings in October and November that "our only option was take our case outside Denmark," Mr. Abu-Laban says. There was growing interest from Muslim ambassadors in Copenhagen and their home governments, including Egypt. Mr. Abu-Laban, who grew up in Egypt and was arrested there in the early 1980s after being expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his preaching, took charge of writing statements for the group and communicating with Muslim ambassadors. He denies holding extremist views, but acknowledges hosting visits to Denmark by Omar Abdel Rahman, before his arrest in New York, where the blind sheik now is serving a life sentence in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Abu-Laban began working closely with Cairo's embassy in Copenhagen, holding several meetings with Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar Attia. "Egypt's embassy played a fundamental role," he says. Egypt and other Arab regimes saw the furor as a good opportunity "to counteract pressure from the West" and "to show people they are good Muslims," he says. Ms. Attia, the ambassador, says she wasn't motivated by political concerns but by personal outrage. "I was very angry. I was very upset," she says, describing the cartoons as an unacceptable insult to all Muslims. She acknowledges meeting with the Danish clerics several times but denies coordinating strategy with them. Keen to "globalize" the crisis to pressure the Danish government, Mr. Abu-Laban and his colleagues decided to send delegations to the Middle East. They prepared a dossier to distribute during the travels. The document, which exceeded 30 pages, featured copies of the published cartoons and Arabic media reports about the controversy. It also contained a group of highly offensive pictures that had never been published by the newspaper, including a photograph of a man dressed as a pig, with the caption: "this is the real picture of Muhammad." Ahmed Akarri, a 28-year-old Islamist activist involved in the committee, says the photographs had been sent to Danish Muslims anonymously and were included as examples of Denmark's anti-Muslim sentiment. He denies any attempt to mislead the Arab public about what had been published in Jyllands-Posten. Mr. Rose, the editor, describes it as a clear attempt at "disinformation." The first delegation left for Cairo in early December. As that nation was about to hold the final round of the first democratic election in modern Egyptian history, the government was battling accusations from some quarters of insufficient piety. Ms. Attia, the ambassador, denies that authorities tried to manipulate the cartoon issue as an electoral ploy. One member of the Danish delegation, Ahmed Harby, an Egyptian who runs a cleaning business in Copenhagen, says the trip wasn't designed to stir hatred against Denmark. It was intended, he says, to appease hotheads in Copenhagen and elsewhere who might take violent action if Jyllands-Posten wasn't forced to apologize. He says he didn't realize the dossier contained pictures the newspaper had never published. The delegation met with a special assistant to the foreign minister, with the head of al-Azhar, the Muslim world's oldest university, and with the Egyptian head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. During a meeting with Cairo's senior Muslim cleric, Mr. Harby says, a fatwa, or religious opinion, was drafted calling for a boycott of Danish goods. The order was never formally released, he says. Later in December, a second delegation traveled to Lebanon to meet with religious leaders and appeared on television. Mr. Akarri, the Copenhagen activist, later traveled alone to Syria to deliver the dossier to Syria's senior Sunni cleric. Back in Denmark, the pressure on Mr. Rose mounted. He was warned that a security-service informant had reported that some Muslim radicals were spreading word that killing him was halal, meaning sanctioned by Islam. "It was the only time I felt cold running down my spine," he says. Denmark's government began to reach out to Muslim ambassadors and others it had earlier rebuffed. In a New Year's speech, the prime minister retreated slightly from previously strong support for Jyllands-Posten. Egypt promptly claimed credit for the modest shift and suggested in a foreign ministry statement it was ready to drop the matter. Protests elsewhere were intensifying, fanned by both Islamists and secular forces eager to prove their Islamic credentials. In Jordan, a pro-Western monarchy, Parliament condemned the cartoons as "racist and evil." Tunisia and Libya, where police regularly arrest Islamist activists and block protests, also denounced them. Late last month, influential clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere called for a boycott of Danish goods. Arab consumers began to shun Danish products en masse.
Hassan Fattah of the NYT has more today, specifically on how the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was used to spread outrage about the cartoons:
At first, the agitation was limited to Denmark. Ahmed Akkari, 28, a Lebanese-born Dane, acts as spokesman for the European Committee for Honoring the Prophet, an umbrella group of 27 Danish Muslim organizations to press the Danish government into action over the cartoons. Mr. Akkari said the group had worked for more than two months in Denmark without eliciting any response. "We collected 17,000 signatures and delivered them to the office of the prime minister, we saw the minister of culture, we talked to the editor of the Jyllands-Posten, we took many steps within Denmark, but could get no action," Mr. Akkari said, referring to the newspaper that published the cartoons. He added that the prime minister's office had not even responded to the petition. Frustrated, he said, the group turned to the ambassadors of Muslim countries in Denmark and asked them to speak to the prime minister on their behalf. He refused them too. "Then the case moved to a new stage," Mr. Akkari recalled. "We decided then that to be heard, it must come from influential people in the Muslim world." The group put together a 43-page dossier, including the offending cartoons and three more shocking images that had been sent to Danish Muslims who had spoken out against the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Mr. Akkari denied that the three other offending images had contributed to the violent reaction, saying the images, received in the mail by Muslims who had complained about the cartoons, were included to show the response that Muslims got when they spoke out in Denmark. In early December, the group's first delegation of Danish Muslims flew to Cairo, where they met with the grand mufti, Muhammad Sayid Tantawy, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League. "After that, there was a certain response," Mr. Akkari said, adding that the Cairo government and the Arab League both summoned the Danish ambassador to Egypt for talks. Mr. Akkari denies that the group had meant to misinform, but concedes that there were misunderstandings along the way. In Cairo, for example, the group also met with journalists from Egypt's media. During a news conference, they spoke about a proposal from the far-right Danish People's Party to ban the Koran in Denmark because of some 200 verses that are alleged to encourage violence. Several newspapers then ran articles claiming that Denmark planned to issue a censored version of the Koran. The delegation returned to Denmark, but the dossier continued to make waves in the Middle East. Egypt's foreign minister had taken the dossier with him to the Mecca meeting, where he showed it around. The Danish group also sent a second delegation to Lebanon to meet religious and political leaders there. Mr. Akkari went on that trip. The delegation met with the grand mufti in Lebanon, Muhammad Rashid Kabbani, and the spiritual head of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, as well as the patriarch of the Maronite Church, Nasrallah Sfeir. The group also appeared on Hezbollah's satellite station Al Manar TV, which is seen throughout the Arab world. Mr. Akkari also made a side trip to Damascus, Syria, to deliver a copy of the dossier to that country's grand mufti, Sheik Ahmed Badr-Eddine Hassoun. Lebanon's foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, says he agreed to meet in mid-December with Egypt's ambassador to Lebanon, who presented him with a letter from his foreign minister, Aboul Gheit, urging him to get involved in the issue. Attached to the letter were copies of some of the drawings. At the end of December, the pace picked up as talk of a boycott became more prominent. The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, comprising more than 50 states, published on its Web site a statement condemning "the aggressive campaign waged against Islam and its Prophet" by Jyllands-Posten, and officials of the organization said member nations should impose a boycott on Denmark until an apology was offered for the drawings. "We encourage the organization's members to boycott Denmark both economically and politically until Denmark presents an official apology for the drawings that have offended the world's Muslims," said Abdulaziz Othman al-Twaijri, the organization's secretary general. In a few weeks, the Jordanian Parliament condemned the cartoons, as had several other Arab governments. On Jan. 10, as anti-Danish pressure built, a Norwegian newspaper republished the caricatures in an act of solidarity with the Danes, leading many Muslims to believe that a real campaign against them had begun. On Jan. 26, in a key move, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark, and Libya followed suit. Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves. "The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists," said Mr. Said, the Cairo political scientist. "Syria made an even worse miscalculation," he added, alluding to the sense that the protest had gotten out of hand. The issue of the cartoons came at a critical time in the Muslim world because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and a sense that Muslims were under siege. Strong showings by Islamists in elections in Egypt and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections had given new momentum to Islamic movements in the region, and many economies, especially those in the Persian Gulf, realized their economic power as it pertained to Denmark. "The cartoons were a fuse that lit a bigger fire," said Rami Khouri, editor at large at the English-language Daily Star of Beirut. "It is this deepening sense of vulnerability combines with a sense that the Islamists were on a roll that made it happen." The wave swept many in the region. Sheik Muhammad Abu Zaid, an imam from the Lebanese town of Saida, said he began hearing of the caricatures from several Palestinian friends visiting from Denmark in December but made little of it. "For me, honestly, this didn't seem so important," Sheik Abu Zaid said, comparing the drawings to those made of Jesus in Christian countries. "I thought, I know that this is something typical in such countries." Then, he started to hear that ambassadors of Arab countries had tried to meet with the prime minister of Denmark and had been snubbed, and he began to feel differently. "It started to seem that this way of thinking was an insult to us," he said. "It is fine to say, 'This is our freedom, this is our way of thinking.' But we began to believe that their freedom was something that hurts us."
The overall picture is one in which Arab officials (notably Egyptian ones) really promoted this on the agenda. Although this is legitimate since some of the cartoons were truly offensive, one wonders what political motivation there was. Is the regime trying to out-religion the Islamists, as has been done many times in the past? In any case, it seems that Arab government officials did their best to bring attention to the issue. -- and it was not those that Condi Rice is accusing of fomenting trouble, but US allies. It is also evident that Danish officials completely bungled the diplomacy element. Incidentally, there are also some wild rumors running around about the political motivation to start this uproar. One story going around Cairo is that it was all started in Saudi Arabia by a businessman who tried, and failed, to take the right to distribute Danish food products from a competitor. As revenge, he decided to pull strings and get high-ranking officials to pay more attention to the issue. Unlikely, but amusing. The other thing that is clear emerging is that Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish paper that started the whole thing, is a major-league idiot. Via Haaretz:
The Danish editor behind the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that ignited deadly riots in the Muslim world said Wednesday he's trying to coordinate with an Iranian paper soliciting cartoons on the Holocaust. "My newspaper is trying to establish a contact with the Iranian newspaper, and we would run the cartoons the same day as they publish them," Flemming Rose said Wednesday in an interview on CNN's "American Morning." The Iranian newspaper Hamshahri said Tuesday it would hold the competition to test whether the West extends the principle of freedom of expression to the Nazi genocide as it did to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Really mature. Update: The Danish newspaper now says that the interview that aired on CNN "over-interpreted" Rose's statements and that no Holocaust cartoons will run:
Citing CNN as source various media have stated that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten intends to publish Holocaust cartoons from an Iranian newspaper. This information is based on an over-interpretation of a statement made by Culture Editor Flemming Rose, and Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten's Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste emphasizes that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in no circumstances will publish Holocaust cartoons from an Iranian newspaper. Culture Editor Flemming Rose had informed CNN that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten would consider publishing the cartoons, but that this would not happen until Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten had seen the cartoons and until the newspaper had had the opportunity to take a decision on their standard. Under any circumstances, such a possible publication would solely serve as journalistic documentation in the same way as Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten recently published a page with cartoons from the Arab press.
I guess they still don't get that some of the Muhammed cartoons were as offensive to Muslims as anti-Semitic cartoons would be to Jews.
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Another French paper reprints cartoons

Charlie-Hebdo The French weekly Charlie-Hebdo, with a long tradition of iconoclastic and satirical reporting, has republished the infamous Danish cartoons today, Le Monde reports. Its cover, showed above, features Prophet Mohammed weeping under the headline "Mohammed overwhelmed by fanatics" as the prophet himself mutters "It's hard to be loved by assholes." It's drawn by legendary French political cartoonist Cabu. The paper usually prints about 100,000 issues, but most were gone by mid-morning so they decided to print an additional 60,000 to be distributed tomorrow. The issue carries 11 pages of content of the issue, including the 12 original cartoons, new cartoons about Mohammed, Islam and other religions by French cartoonists, as well as reporting and opinion articles. In the lead editorial, editor-in-chief Gerard Biard says:
We must not hurt the feelings of believers, reasonable people and yoghurt salesmen tell us. We are open to debate. However, for this debate to take place, the believers must first cease physically hurting those who do not have the exact same beliefs as they do, or answer pen and pencil with dagger and bomb belt.
Included in the package is an editorial defending freedom of expression by Tewfik Allal, from a group of secular Muslims. Religious Muslim associations in France have threatened to sue the paper and accused Charlie Hebdo of fanning the flames. President Jacques Chirac had condemned the publication of the cartoons:
Anything that could slur the beliefs of others, particularly religious beliefs, must be avoided. Freedom of expression must take place in a spirit of responsibility. While freedom of expression is a foundation of the republic, the latter is also based on values of tolerance and the respect of all faiths.
He also repeated a previous condemnation of violence and said governments were responsible for the protection of foreign embassies and people in their territories.
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To boycott or not to boycott?

From last night's Egypt-Senegal game, which Egypt won (yea!): Pic 20750.5-1 There was also an ad on the side of the pitch saying, "Be Fair Play - No To Racism," but I'm not sure whether it was about the Danish thing. Do you really want to give up these things? Lawrence Olivier in Hamlet A Great Dane Soren Kierkegaard Vigo Morgentsen as Aragorn Danish Butter Cookies Danish pastry Helena Christensen Danish cheese Aqua Come to think of it, maybe they can keep Aqua. For the serious debate, check out the comments thread on my last Danish post.
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Gresh on Saudi Arabia

Last week at the Al Jazeera conference in Doha I had the opportunity to have a chat with Alain Gresh, the French Arab world specialist and editor of the respected left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. I was asking him how the paper was doing after its financial difficulties in recent years, and he said things were going well in their international partnerships in which they bundle translated excerpts of Le Monde Diplomatique with local newspapers -- for instance, and rather surprisingly, the very staid Al Akhbar in Egypt. He had just negotiated the launch of a Saudi edition, something he was quite surprised about, and said he had an article on Saudi Arabia coming out in the forthcoming issue. It's now online, and is an interesting overview of emerging moderate dissident voices in the kingdom, ranging from former Salafist types to shiny new televangelists and Shia community leaders:
Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar wears the white turban of Shia dignitaries. Though youthful in appearance he can look back on a long career as an activist. He fled in 1980, after the Shia insurrection that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution. He only came home in 1995 after signing an agreement with the monarchy. His freedom of movement has improved but he is still subject to changes in the political climate. Some of his books are published in Saudi Arabia, others only in Lebanon. AL-SAFFAR emphasised his concern at the discrimination the Shia community still suffers. “It must end. The national dialogue certainly removed some barriers between Sunni and Shia but we went no further than debate. There is a lot of pressure from conservatives in the religious institution to oppose such meetings. Sometimes on our side too. I have met important Sunni sheikhs, such as Salman al-Awdah. He has adopted a positive attitude and I think he has changed. But he is under pressure from the conservatives and he does not want to lose the influence he enjoys. We need joint initiatives to facilitate change, both among the Sunni and Shia.” He concluded: “We are not advocating rapid change. We have no desire to turn the country into another Algeria. But the authorities must allow the groups to voice their concerns, creating a situation more conducive to reform. They must establish rules for political life and let in any forces that wish to take part, which in turn will make them act more responsibly. For the time being there is no definite project and the few positive signals we have seen are no more than ink marks on paper.” Many intellectuals and militants share this gloomy outlook. At the end of 2003 a largely Islamist group published an appeal for constitutional reform. Professor Abdullah al-Hamed, one of the group’s spokesmen, acknowledges that the aim was to assert their existence as an independent movement. He said: “We were asking for a shift from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The Riyadh appeal was a call for tolerance, unity and humanitarian values. It was mainly the work of people inspired by Islam, because I thought it was important that a religious group in favour of democracy should state its case. The aim was to pull the rug out from under the feet of those calling for the overthrow of the regime and to quell the violence. We consider that a state cannot be Islamic unless it is democratic and governed by a constitution.”
Gresh wondered whether the Saudis would reprint it. I doubt it.
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