Times and Times again

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

Abou Bakr Jamai, editor of Morocco's only truly independent publication, Le Journal Hebdo, has an interesting post on his WaPo blog about the biggest political controversy of the moment in Morocco: polls that indicate the Islamist PJD party is set to come about 30% ahead of the next party in next year's parliamentary election.
When first asked about the party they would vote for, Moroccans chose the socialist party with 13% in support. The Islamist PJD party ranked third with 9%. But more than 55% of the citizens polled claimed to be undecided. When those 55% were asked to make up their mind one way or the other, more than 66% chose the Islamist party. That gives the PJD a tremendous lead over the other parties. These figures are interesting in that they show that the portion of the electorate that gives the PJD such overwhelming support are not diehard PJD followers. When asked about what qualities a political party should have to be effective, Moroccans cite honesty, fighting corruption, and responsiveness to citizens' needs as the main attributes. These are attributes that a secular party could perfectly claim.
So true of many other Arab countries. There was a profile of Bou Bakr in the New Yorker [scanned 7.2MB PDF, it's not available online] in October, and I highly recommend it. It captures Bou Bakr quite well, including the incredible stubbornness that is his greatest strength and greatest flaw. The Arab world needs more people like him.
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Slaughter House Iraq

Trust Patrick Cockburn to see the big pictures that papers like the Post and the Times don't seem to want to admit.
Civil war is raging across central Iraq, home to a third of the country's 27 million people. As Shia and Sunni flee each other's neighbourhoods, Iraq is turning into a country of refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that 1.6 million are displaced within the country and a further 1.8 million have fled abroad. In Baghdad, neighbouring Sunni and Shia districts have started to fire mortars at each other. On the day Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, I phoned a friend in a Sunni area of the capital to ask what he thought of the verdict. He answered impatiently that "I was woken up this morning by the explosion of a mortar bomb on the roof of my next-door neighbour's house. I am more worried about staying alive myself than what happens to Saddam." Iraqi friends used to reassure me that there would be no civil war because so many Shia and Sunni were married to each other. These mixed couples are now being compelled to divorce by their families. "I love my husband but my family has forced me to divorce him because we are Shia and he is Sunni," said Hiba Sami, a mother, to a UN official. "My family say they [the husband's family] are insurgents ... and that living with him is an offence to God." Members of mixed marriages had set up an association to protect each other called the Union for Peace in Iraq but they were soon compelled to dissolve it when several founding members were murdered.
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Saudis want to 'protect' Iraqi Sunnis

The craziest and most dangerous article I have seen in a long time. If the Saudis really started massively arming and financing Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq, we'd probably have a 20-year Persian Gulf war.
Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region. Because King Abdullah has been working to minimize sectarian tensions in Iraq and reconcile Sunni and Shiite communities, because he gave President Bush his word that he wouldn't meddle in Iraq (and because it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops), these requests have all been refused. They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world's Sunni community (which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims), Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene.
On the upside, this would probably bring down the al-Sauds in the long term. But probably even then, it's not worth it. One also wonders whether its publication (alongside with that leaked Hadley memo) isn't meant to scare Maliki for his meeting with Bush.
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Nutjob on al-Jazeera English

Always good to be reminded that there are many anti-free speech idiots writing libelous stuff out there:
If Al-Jazeera English had wanted to impress people with its first week or so of programming, including a David Frost interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it failed. The channel was very quick out of the chute in airing a terrorist video, featuring an “inside” look at the Islamic Army of Iraq, and it misrepresented the Blair interview in order to create the impression that U.S. policy in Iraq—and not Al-Jazeera’s terrorist friends—was producing a bloodbath. Simply stated, Al-Jazeera English looks a lot like Al-Jazeera Arabic, known for its pro-terrorist and anti-American programming. Frankly, we thought that it would keep the radical stories in the closet for weeks or months until the channel got carriage in the U.S. media market. Those U.S. cable and satellite systems which decided not to air the channel have been vindicated. The American people thank them.
My note on al-Jazeera English: more news, less soft-focus featurettes please. In other words, more like al-Jazeera Arabic.
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Gang of beggars kills homeless children

Very disturbing:
Cairo - Egyptian police have uncovered a gang of beggars that raped and killed several homeless children, the official al- Akhbar newspaper reported on Tuesday. The suspects have admitted to murders in several governorates. So far the police have found two bodies and are looking for more. The investigation began when a group of homeless children filed a complaint that one of their colleagues, a 15-year-old, had disappeared. A search team was formed and his body was found in a desolate area in Tanta, north of Cairo. One suspect was arrested. The suspect admitted that he was a member of a gang of beggars who lured homeless children, raped them and then killed them. Four members of the gang were subsequently arrested. The gang confessed that one year ago they lured a child on the Alexandria train to a tunnel in the suburb of Shoubra al-Kheima, raped him and then killed him. Police checked the tunnel and found the remains of a boy. The gang also confessed to throwing a teenager in front of a train. The number of victims remains unclear and police are still searching for other suspects.
While this kind of stuff probably happens everywhere, I'm always surprised when it happens in Egypt.
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EIU democracy index

The Economist Intelligence Unit has released an index of democracies [PDF] in which it ranks full democracies, flawed democracies, "hybrid systems" and authoritarian regimes. Egypt and Morocco are both at the same rank (115) in the last category -- here's Moroccan blogger Larbi's take on it -- while the US, UK, France or Japan don't even make it to the top 10 or top 15. As a Moroccan who lives in Egypt, I'm often interested in comparing the two countries. I am generally speaking more optimistic about Morocco than I am about Egypt, but then again I am also harsher on Morocco because I don't think it can afford not to move forward. Politically, it is a much more unstable place than Egypt and some of the social problems there are much more acute than those here. My overall impression, though, is that Morocco would deserve to be further up ahead than Egypt if it wasn't for the fact that King Muhammad VI continues to retain political, constitutional, moral and economic power over Moroccans than Hosni Mubarak could only dream of.
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The budget

Yesterday Hossam quoted al-Destour for some interesting figures about how much the interior ministry is spending. It's worth highlighting that, in fact, a lot more than that is available. For several years now the Egyptian government has been improving its statistics gathering and dissemination, and a lot of these figures come from what is probably the most complete, transparent budget published in the history of Egypt, or at least in the history of Republican Egypt. It's been done with USAID and other donor money and under guidance from the IMF, with the support, obviously, of the economic reformist in the cabinet. All of these people deserve kudos because this move towards transparency is part of democratic accountability. In this budget, which is available here, lists all kinds of goodies. I didn't get time to get to the nitty-gritty, but just on the first few pages you get some interesting figures about the presidency. On page two, it says the presidency got LE98m in FY04/05, LE121m in 05/06, and LE140m in 06/07. Considering how much traveling gets done by the president, these figures -- around $22-25m -- seem quite small. Maybe there's another budget elsewhere, but it seems to me there are going to be some figures that are simply not reliable. Probably because the Ministry of Finance itself doesn't have access to the real data. There's a lot of interest statistics in there, and someone savvy could really do something interesting with them. Let us know if you spot any other dodgy figure.
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Dear America..

Ahmadinejad writes another letter. This time, he writes directly to the American people. I'm sure this will make the rounds of late-night comedy shows, but however much you may mistrust the Iranian regime, the letter's interesting to read and hardly insane (the only quirky touch is calling us "Noble Americans"). (P.S. I posted this and then found, through wonkette,  that Fox viewers have already been writing Ahmadinejad lots of replies.)
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Carlyle Group coming to Egypt

Bloomberg is reporting that the Carlyle Group -- the biggest buyout firm in the US, famous for having allegedly held a meeting on 11 September 2001 that included both a representative of the Bin Laden clan and George H.W. Bush -- will shortly be opening offices in Cairo and seeking to buy out Egyptian companies, probably in financial services.
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Garbage protest

Kefaya is calling up on civil society and environmental activists to join the movement's anti-corruption demo, Sunday 3 December, 1pm, in Matarriya Square to protest the unfair garbage collection fees.
دعوة عامة الى كل القوى الوطنية الشري�ة واحزاب المعارضة ومؤسسات المجتمع المدنى والجمعيات الاهلية وجمعيات حماية البيئةتدعوكم الحركة المصرية من اجل التغيير ك�اية وبمشاركة لجنة الاحياء بالمطرية للمشاركة �ى التظاهرة السلميةالصامتة مظاهرة من اجل عدم د�ع الجباية تحت شعار (الزبالة يامسؤلين زبالة__ لن نسدد �واتير اللصوص) وذلك بميدان المطرية القاهرة يوم الاحد الموا�ق 12/3 الساعة الواحدة ظهرا، اعتراضاً على الزيادة التى �رضتها الدولة على المواطنين البسطاء، ألا وهى مبالغ الاتاوة على �اتورة الكهرباء. ونحن نحترم القانون الذى لايحترمة اللصوص سارقى اموال الشعب المكا�ح البسيط من ابناء الشعب المصرى ولسنا اقل من محا�ظة الجيزة التى حصلت اللجنة الشعبية لحماية المستهلك من الجباية وال�ساد ، والتى استطاعت �ى السابق وبمازرة جماهير الجيزة �ى الحصول على الحكم النهائى بالغاء رسوم النظا�ة المضا�ة على �اتورة الكهرباءونحن نعلن عدم د�ع الاتاوة الى سارقى اموال الشعب العنوان: لوهتركب مترو المتجة الى المرج تنزل �ى محطة مترو حلمية الزيتون وتخرج من ن�س الاتجاة التى الشارع وبجانب كوبرى الحلمية وصولا الى ميدان المطرية لو هتركب اى اتوبيس من اى ميدان العتبة او التحرير او الجيزةاو رمسيس الى ميدان المطرية مباشرة الحركة المصرية من اجل التغيير ك�اية (لجنة حى المطرية ) الاستعلام ت 0104037475
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University professors protest thuggery against students

I received news that leftist academics are holding a protest tomorrow Wednesday, from 11am to 12 noon, at Ain Shams University to protest the state-sponsored thuggery against activist students over the past couple of weeks. The professors will assemble in front of Qasr el-Za'afarana, the university's administration building.
Click to view slideshow of clashes
In recent weeks, Ain Shams University campus has been the scene of bloody clashes between the Free Student Union activists and the security-appointed official Student Union members. The latter brought into campus thugs armed with knives, swords, daggers, molotov cocktails in a terror campign to disrupt the FSU elections and intimidate the activists.
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Are Egyptians being swindled of their gas?

The ECES has an interesting paper by Robert Mabro on a question that's been bugging me for a long time: why is Egypt sticking (and hiding the facts and figures) about its bad LNG export deal with the Spanish firm Union Fenosa, which is causing it to lose money on the gas it exports?
There are EGPC supply contracts to Union Fenosa and Jordan. The prices are not published. It is said that the price to Union Fenosa is low. The highest number mentioned by observers of the Egyptian gas scene is $0.90 MBtu. Lower numbers, such as $0.65 MBtu are sometimes quoted. This is the price at the point of entry to the LNG plant. If these numbers are gross underestimates EGPC/EGAS would be wise to publish the true figures in order to set the record straight. It is true that in compensation for the low selling price EGPC/EGAS has provided some advantages such as delayed paying of their equity share in the LNG plant and the right to use up to 50 percent of the facility for their own exports under a tolling agreement. But what is the value of these advantages compared to the assumed loss on every Btu sold? The sale price to Jordan is said to be set at $1.50 MBtu which is a more reasonable number. Yet one needs to keep in mind that Egypt purchases gas at the margin from foreign investors at $2.50/2.65 MBtu. To say that it gets 60-70 percent profit oil at zero price and that the average cost of acquisition is therefore much lower than $2.65 is the wrong argument. As discussed previously, in the case of oil the equity oil is a rent for the state not necessarily a fund to subsidize domestic consumption or exports. It is interesting to note a peculiarity in the agreement with BG for the development of gas fields dedicated to exports. There is a clause stating that if the netback revenue falls below the price at which the gas would be sold to EGPC for domestic use, EGPC would compensate the investor for the difference. Given that the investor was keen on the export option, the notion that he should be compensated whenever the domestic market becomes more attractive simply means that, as the English saying puts it, ‘he wants to have his cake and eat it too.’ . . . We also have to allow for the factors that may have influenced the negotiations of the initial contracts—a multiplicity of objectives which were to be achieved all at the same time. Hence, perhaps, certain concessions on prices were made which may not have been the case given other circumstances. Circumstances have changed. The information available suggests that all the contracts relating to the export of gas should be now re-opened and re-negotiated. This is possible whatever the precise re-opening clauses state. The fact that Egypt sells at a much lower price than that at which it purchases gas is sufficiently explosive to justify re-negotiation. The foreign companies involved in the contracts would be unwise to oppose a re-opening. Contracts are a formal framework for a relationship. It is the relationship that matters, and it will only work to the benefit of both parties if it is continually perceived as fair by both of them.
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Baheyya on Ismail Sabri Abdallah

It's about two weeks old, but Baheyya has written a beautiful portrait of the recently deceased Marxist intellectual and public servant (in the best sense of the term) Ismail Sabri Abdullah. I wish Baheyya would write more these days, but then again things are so much more depressing than they were last year. I can't blame her for hibernating. Update: Al Ahram Weekly also has pieces on Abdullah here and here.
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Mountains and plains (21)

November 24, 2006

It was just such a classic Baghdad return. The sky was hazy and overcast as we drove back from the airport. The traffic was bad, a convoy of SUVs featuring guys with assault rifles hanging out of the window came blaring past. And then back at the office a bombing that killed 25 people in a Shiite neighborhood soon mushroomed into stunning death toll of over 200.

Soon I was scribbling away, updating stories, answering calls from radio stations describing the latest "brutal" attack in Baghdad and the ongoing "civil war" or was it just a "sectarian conflict" as bombs "rip apart" the neighborhood in a city "convulsed" by violence as the "fabric of society frays" or whatever other cliché I've gotten so used to using to describe the nasty situation here.
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