Farouk Hosni, the accidental martyr

Conversations at Thanksgiving dinner last night (mostly Egyptians of various religions) generally went like this: "I would have never thought I'd say this, but we need to help out Farouk Hosni." One suggestion was to circulate a petition along the lines of "Farouk Hosni is a scumbag, but..." Among this extremely liberal crowd, the attack on Hosni is seen as an attack on secular values and the ability to speak your mind out. Among a certain segment of Egyptian society (in this case it was more artists and writers rather than wealthy people) the thoughts that Farouk Hosni expressed in his honey-drizzled comments to al-Masri al-Youm ("women are like delicate flowers that must be admired," etc...) are self-evident. Egypt has gone through a surge of conservatism in the past two decades and many people from this milieu feel almost betrayed by their country. What Hosni said out loud is routinely uttered sotto voce. But I wonder if some frank dialogue might not be more useful than the delicate, elaborate scaffolding of white lies that most people generally hide being when discussing this type of issue. The turkey was delicious. (Background on the Farouk Hosni affair here.)
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Skeptic in Damascus

Check out Elijah's post from Damascus. I love Damascus, having lived there in the mid-1990s, and he gets a lot of the things about it right. Even if Syria is largely depressing, it's a fantastic country and people. And even better than Damascus is Aleppo. Both cities have a "den of spies" 1950s feel to them, which may or may not be because up to a quarter of the population informs the mukhabarat...  Wp-Content   99 303063062 701136361A See the full set of Damascus pics.
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Bastawissi at AUC

An arabist.net reader was at Judge Hisham Bastawissi's AUC lecture last night and shared impressions with me. I regret not attending. The man was brilliant, first-class public speaker. Eloquent and utterly scathing in a gentlemanly-legalistic sort of way. He was supposed to speak on Articles 76 and 77 but really focused more on issues of basic human rights and freedoms, and the kafkaesque structures of governance in Egypt. Started off with a fairly stirring defence of why judges must engage issues of concern to the people and had to defend basic freedoms because the judiciary was essentially the only independent institution left in a position to do so, and while judges could not in their capacity as judges comment on political issues, no one can take away their freedom as individuals to think and express themselves, and the taboos preventing judges from connecting with the people were finally broken in the past year and that was a good thing. He spoke about different articles in the constitution and international legal conventions that supported the independence of judges, why the Judges Club has the freedom of a syndicate and does not come under the law on societies/associations, and listed the ways in which regime efforts to deny judges the right to free association ran counter to all these norms. He didn't spare his fellow judges who had agreed to cooperate with the regime in the "supervision" of elections and be willing accomplices to large-scale fraud, and noted ironically that this was not considered a violation of judicial neutrality while speaking out on human rights and free expression issues was. On the topic of elections, he spoke at length on the importance of real, independent judicial supervision, and tore apart the regime's argument that external or foreign observers would undermine the autonomy of the Egyptian judiciary, saying in fact that he welcomed such supervision and the judges themselves agreed to it. He remarked that the parts of the electoral process that should be secret - i.e. the secret ballot - were the most open to public knowledge and interference in Egypt, and in a bizarre reversal, the process became more secretive instead of more transparent as it went up the chain of authority, with vote-counting in secret and the declaration of results in secret, and noted ironically the Minister of Justice (if I heard correctly) was the only human being who really knew the actual vote count. He insisted that Article 41 must be defended above all, and that amendments to Article 76 wouldn't have much meaning if basic individual rights continued to be violated as they have been. He listed random arrests, limits on freedom of expression and the press, and the emergency law, and sarcastically observed that the government had got so attached to its freedom to pick people up and arrest them at random that it wanted to pass laws on terrorism under which only they could decide who was a terrorist, to replace the emergency law they had promised to repeal. He spoke strongly against the use of military courts for purposes that were not strictly military, even for the trials of military personnel accused of common crime. Mentioned that the government wished to copy the Patriot Act from the US, and noted that it only worked in the US to the extent that it worked because there were other institutions to protect freedoms and a working democratic process; he ribbed the government for taking what was worst from each foreign constitution or country, including (I think - I didn't catch this entire section very well) the presidential system of government and constitutional court from France, and something else from Russia - rather than what was good, like democratic institutions. He also skewered the regime's claim to put economic reform before political reform and the common claim that it was ensuring transparency and a favourable environment for business, by noting that surely business and investors would want greater judicial independence and transparency so that their interests could be guaranteed, and would rather not be subjected to the changing whims of the regime. He also lashed out at corruption and authoritarianism (and used the word "diktatura" a fair bit, which had the scribes furiously taking notes) as barriers to progress, and asked to what extent the government was actually able to look out for the people, given widespread corruption and pollution and even the chickens were diseased, etc etc. He made a couple of interesting rhetorical moves towards the end. One was to trace the development of the Egyptian judiciary and judicial independence as part of the march of national independence and dignity, noting that the colonialist argument that Egyptians could not rule themselves was disproved and while early on (in the 1940s?) there were both foreign and Egyptian judges working in Egypt, the judiciary was soon Egyptianised and there was no excuse any more for denying it. Then he argued that the Judges Club derived its legitimacy from the fact that the people supported it, and from recognition by international institutions and agreements to which Egypt was a signatory (including the EU for institutions and some Milan convention for judicial independence), essentially telling the regime that they were not the ones who gave the judges their authority. He also remarked that even God, when he sent down his Word, accepted that people had the right to interpret it for themselves, but this regime did not want to grant people the most basic intellectual independence to interpret laws (I think he referred to a specific set of legislations, I forget which) differently from the party line. He then accused the government of acting as though they were the only ones capable of thinking, and the only ones who could be trusted with reason, and everybody else was only capable of obeying, and behaving as though only they could grant freedoms to the Egyptian people, even though freedoms came with being a human being. There was some other stuff about working with civil society, and defending the freedom of the press, and journalists getting locked up, too, I just don't remember the details. It was a long speech, over an hour. He got a good reception, lots of knowing laughter and nodding along with many of his points, and lots of applause for a few minutes at the end. I didn't stay for the Q&A because the first few questions were sort of silly, though someone did challenge him for risking losing his neutrality. I can see why the civil society folks and democratization people and activists love this man, it would be difficult to find a more eloquent champion for their cause.
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Top Jew in Kazakhstan

Top Kazakh Rabbi: In My Country There’s No Problem
In the fictional version of Kazakhstan in the hit movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the only Jews in the country are larger-than-life caricatures that get trotted out for a ceremonial “Running of the Jew.” In the real Kazakhstan, the top rabbi, Menachem Mendel Gershowitz, has never been forced to run anywhere. In fact, Gershowitz said, Kazakhs frequently treat him like royalty. “One time, I spoke with a Kazakh businessman,” Gershowitz told the Forward. “He asked me: ‘Tell me, Bush is Jewish also, yes? Clinton is Jewish?’ They think the opposite — not that Jewish is strange, but that Jewish is the whole world.”
Read on, very funny.
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PINR on Gemayel

I've been getting these PINR reports for over a year but could never figure out who they (PINR) were exactly - they never replied to my emails. Still, they often have interesting stuff, as in their take on the Gemayel assassination. Intelligence Brief: Pierre Gemayel Assassinated in Lebanon Drafted By: http://www.pinr.com On November 21, Pierre Gemayel, a prominent Christian Maronite politician, was assassinated in the Christian Beirut suburb of Jdeideh. The assassination adds a new, powerful element of instability to an already fragmented political scene characterized by increasing tension between the different political, ethnic and confessional factions in Lebanon. Several important members of the anti-Syrian coalition, such as Sunni leader Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, accuse Damascus of ordering the assassination. They accuse the Syrian leadership of seeking renewed influence in Lebanon, and they consider the killing an attempt to further weaken the pro-Western Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. Syria, however, denies any involvement in the murder. The assassination of Gemayel occurred the same day that Syria took an important foreign policy step by restoring its diplomatic relations with Iraq after 25 years. This decision was a breakthrough for Damascus' diplomatic attitude because such a step displayed Syria's will to play a new role in Iraq, which, for Washington, is a critical concern. In light of this interest, it cannot be certain whether official elements in Syria's government were responsible for the operation. The Syrians are aware that another false step in Lebanon will result in the West placing more pressure on Damascus. Therefore, at a time when both Washington and Damascus are searching for an agreement about the region's framework, ordering the killing of a Christian, anti-Syrian Lebanese minister would be a risky initiative. There is also the possibility that an internal shift within the Christian Maronite faction was responsible for the job since it was a foregone conclusion that Syria would be blamed for the incident. Also, while Gemayel's family is one of the most important of the Christian Maronite faction, it is also one of the most controversial and is unpopular in some areas of the Christian community. Moreover, those responsible for the killing could have an interest in stifling the recent rapprochement between the West and Syria. The recent steps between Washington and Damascus could lead Syria to a renewed influence in Lebanon. The new realist approach of Washington's foreign policy seems to be moving in the direction of talking with those countries considered enemies, such as Syria and Iran. Thus, the killing of a Christian Maronite, anti-Syrian minister could have the aim of pushing together the major external powers who share an important role in Middle Eastern affairs -- such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France -- so that they take action against Syria. Nevertheless, while internal strife between different Christian Maronite clans could have been responsible for Gemayel's downfall, Syria's role cannot be ruled out. Especially after the recent resignations last week of six pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah ministers, the killing of Gemayel may have been a Syrian attempt to topple Lebanon's pro-Western government. Regardless of the force behind the assassination, the killing adds more uncertainty to Lebanon's already fragile political order.
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Syria: The wannabe China of the Middle East?

There are few articles in the Western mainstream press on single Middle Eastern economies, and this one by Damascus-based freelancer Gabriella Keller on the Syrian economy for the online edition of Der Spiegel is quite well researched and sharp. She argues that while the political leadership has realized the need to open up the economy, to substitute domestic energy sources and to build up a competitive private sector, the lower levels of the administration as well as certain clans are opposing any change. Very much what can be observed in other Middle Eastern countries in their economic transition. Some excerpts (own rough translation): “At the highest level, we received a lot of support�, says Hanna [an investor that started a local production of La Vache qui rit]. “But the authorities on the lower levels have not yet made that about-turn. When we needed permissions, we had to get signatures at some 20 places. So everything took a lot of time and efforts.� Last year, President Bashar Al Assad announced a move from socialism to free market economy. „The government has realized, that the old system doesn’t work“, says consultant and former WB economist Nabil Sukkar. “The economy stagnated, the call for change became imminent.“ But in daily life, encrustations resulting from 40 years of socialism are slowing down liberalisation – the more so, as abuses can’t be criticized openly, as those in power have in mind a future based on the Chinese model: reforms are not to touch the political setting. Not only the administration slows down. Also a handful of influential families close to the regime have little interest in change. Large tenders and licences go to these clans without competition. Enormous amounts are disappearing in the administration. At the same time, the state keeps expenses low, subsidizing rice, sugar and fuel. Even at an average monthly income of €100, Syrians are able to satisfy their basic needs. Until today, oil revenues financed this system, but that source is running dry. “The reserves are almost gone“, says Ali. „In four years from now, we will have to import.“ If until then no competitive economy has been built up, collapse is near.
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Palestinian land

Some 40% of the land on which Israeli settlements are built is the private property of Palestinians (who have the papers to prove it). This info comes from data leaked by Israel's Civil Administration to the advocacy group Peace Now, and reported in, among other places, the New York Times yesterday. Some settlements are built on up to 80% privately held Palestinian land. The settlements are protected by the military and legal rulings in favour of Palestinian owners are not enforced. Also worth noting is that other than the average 40% that belongs to Palestinians, the rest by no means belongs to Israelis. It belongs to "the state," which seems a difficult category when one is in the Occupied Territories.
The maps indicate that beyond the private land, 5.8 percent is so-called survey land, meaning of unclear ownership, and 1.3 percent private Jewish land. The rest, about 54 percent, is considered “state land� or has no designation, though Palestinians say that at least some of it represents agricultural land expropriated by the state.
Many of the settlements sitting on stolen Palestinian land will be annexed to Israel in any future two-state plan, and are included by the path of the infamous Wall. Speaking of which, there are some excellent short films available on the website of the Alternative Information Center about the Wall--one about a portion of it that has been built across the yard of a school (!) and one about a Palestinian man fighting to keep his house, close to the path of the Wall, from being demolished. You can see them here (they're the top two on the page).
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Farouk Hosni won't step out of his house

The oddest controversy has been taking place in Cairo over the last few days. Last Friday, al-Masri al-Youm published an interview with Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni in which he regretted that the veil had become so popular in the country. By Friday afternoon, the Muslim Brotherhood had already issued a scathing statement condemning Hosni and accusing him of having insulted the Egyptian people. On Sunday, he did not attend the opening of parliament and Hosni Mubarak's speech there (more on that later), allegedly because of "high tension." On Monday, parliament discussed the scandal and a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood and NDP MPs - 130 altogether - put out a joint petition calling his resignation. He was attacked in parliament by top NPP figures such as Speaker Fathi Surour, presidential chief of staff Zakariya Azmi and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Chehab. At least two MPs accused Hosni of being gay, and many more wanted him to resign or be sacked. Rarely has an attack against a minister gotten so personal. Even though Hosni had issued an apology (albeit a pretty mild one), the government promised to bring him to parliament to answer MPs' questions. There are even lawsuits being prepared against him, although I'm not sure on what grounds. Yesterday, Hosni told the press he would refuse to come out of his home "until I have been rehabilitated and my honor restored by the Assembly." Farouk Hosni has been culture minister since 1986. He is known for being close to First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, and was protected by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif (read: someone higher up) last year after calls for his resignation over the Beni Suef theater fire scandal. There must be some interesting conversations taking place around the presidential dinner table these days... One thing that strikes me about all this is that religious politics have been coming back with a vengeance for the last third of this year. For the first six months, all the MB could talk about was political reform. Now they grab every opportunity to score points on the religious issues. And why is the NDP tagging along? Who in the regime wants to get rid of Hosni? To make room for another Gamal Mubarak acolyte maybe?
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Too much TV (20)

My friend Abu Ray, a journalist in Baghdad, sends regular personal dispatches from there. His latest is about something we both like a lot -- Battlestar Galactica. This season (the third) is replete with references to tawhid, the Islamic concept of monotheism or "oneness of God" that is unfortunately more famous as a jihadi terms. Not only that, but the humans engage in suicide bombing operations against the Cylon occupier and then debate the morality of it. All in all, a lot of the stuff in this season hits close to home if you're living in the Middle East. Here's Paul's take on the unsettling parallels between his job as a journalist and what he watches on his downtime.

Today two suicide bombers walked into a police commando recruitment center and blew themselves up, killing 35 recruiting hopefuls. The night before I watched a TV show where a young cadet blew himself up at the police graduation ceremony - killing, as I recall, 35 people.

That was a bit of a shock.

The moments after I leave the desk at night, after a long shift, are very special to me. I read, listen to music, decompress and drink my whiskey. Most importantly I watch the movies that I've been patiently downloading while in Egypt, or copying off friends.

The best things are television series, discrete one hour shows - they aren't too long and don't require too much brain power. Frankly after a day on the desk my attention span is pretty shot.
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About Pierre Gemayel

I've been getting emails asking why I haven't written about Pierre Gemayel. The reason is simply that I'm extremely busy until the end of the week. Still, a few points: - Obviously I am worried about what's next in Lebanon and horrified at the continued string of political assassinations. This is the last thing the country needs right now and I hope that Hizbullah sees in it an opportunity to rejoin the government, perhaps on better terms for its representation in the cabinet, but drops its opposition to international tribunals. - I think some of the media is unfair in portraying Pierre Gemayel as a warlord. While his family is responsible for some of the worst episodes of the civil war, he was too young to have been part of them. He may represent the feudal side of Lebanese politics and have been a political lightweight, but that doesn't mean his death doesn't matter. Especially if his replacement is going to be an actual old-school Phalangist. That being said, I have no particular insight into who replaces him. - This issue was a good test of the new al-Jazeera English. I thought their coverage was pretty decent and intelligent in the commentary but not so much in the pace of news reporting. CNN, in comparison, had quite a politically biased commentator from Beirut (her name escapes me) but faster-paced coverage. That's my impression from watching about an hour of TV after the event broke out. CNN really does amazing amounts of Hariri propaganda though, the other channels are more varied. No wonder CNN got the first interview with Saad Hariri - who didn't come across as badly as I expected him to, actually. In any case, Hariri, John Bolton and the media in general have set the tone: Syria did it. - In a sense I am left with the same impression as when Rafiq Hariri was killed: how stupid is it for Syria to have done this, yet who else than Syria? Are all the assassinations that have taken place since then related? Are they all by the same group? Even Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz is asking himself those questions. And if not Syria directly or indirectly via its Lebanese allies, then who? Pranay Gupte writes in the New York Sun (which I don't generally trust) that it could be another Christian faction - Michel Aoun's or Samir Geagea's. - Watching Lebanese pundits on various channels yesterday, I noticed how one word kept being avoided in the conversation about Syria, Lebanon, etc. The word was "Hizbullah." - Not being a Lebanon expert I have to rely on the opinion of those people I trust. Rami Khouri has a piece for Agence Global that gives few details but sets the (pessimistic) mood. - I share Angry Arab's distaste for the UN condemnation of the assassination of Gemayel as a breach of Lebanese sovereignty. Not only are they making assumptions prior to investigation, but where were they when over 1,200 people were assassinated by Israel bombs this summer?
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Alif no. 1

Alif, a new French-language online magazine on Egypt, has launched its first issue. Behind Alif is part the team that created the short-livedPetit Journal du Caire, as well as some of the people behind La Revue d'Egypte. Check out their content - including a weekly press review and articles on hash smoking among the Cairene intelligentsia and a profile of cyber-activist Wael Abbas.
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Abu Ghraib art

After Moorishgirl mentioned this show in New York by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, I went there this afternoon. Although I gather that Botero's art is viewed as rather overr-rated and unsophisticated by many art critics, this show was well-reviewed in the Nation and The New York Times. In fact, the show has received a lot of attention, so much so that it's been extended to November 21. My view may have been colored by the reviews I'd already read, but I found the show very affecting. Botero's signature style of rendering the human body--slightly inflated, both monumental and toy-like--doesn't make the figures less real. Rather, it somehow has the effect of making the figures more universal, more human--maybe because the lack of realism allows you to look, again, at what you've seen but not wanted to see before. I think the Nation review is right-on with the observation that the show makes viewers relate to the Iraqis being tortured rather than the Americans doing the torture (they are only present as a boot, a gloved hand at the end of a leash, a stream of piss). Your attention is focused on the details of physical suffering: the tied hands, the knee being bitten by a dog, the blood. These works are about the essence of torture, the physical humiliation and suffering of the human body, and they're very powerful. The art isn't for sale. Botero says he hopes to donate it to a museum.
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Jahaliya in Tanta

Dan Murphy goes to the Badawi moulid in Tanta after a run-in with the US Ambassador in Egypt. Al Azhar and the Brotherhood don't like it, though:
They lean their foreheads against the metal cage that surrounds the tomb, and murmur prayers for health, better financial fortune, or a child's success in school. The practice - similar to Catholic prayers to the Virgin Mary seeking intercession with God or Shiite prayers to Imam Ali - is strictly at odds with Sunni Islam, which is generally thought to prevail here. Indeed, the leaders of Al Azhar University, the arbiters of Sunni orthodoxy in Egypt, have long assailed this and other popular moulids, or saint's festivals, like the ones to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday or the death of Zeinab, his granddaughter, whom the faithful believe is buried in Cairo. To these leading Sunni imams, praying to saints or even celebrating Muhammad's birthday is akin to idolatry. But their long-standing efforts and those of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to discourage expressions of popular Egyptian Islam have gained very little traction. A senior Brotherhood official rolls his eyes when asked about the moulids. "We're against it, it's a relic of jahaliya," he says, using the Arabic term for the age of ignorance before Muhammad's time. "We would really like this to stop."
And people say the Brothers are more in touch with the people.
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Heggy on Copts and security

I really don't want to promote Tarek Heggy's delusions of grandeur (see his bio, which describes him as "being amongst the members of the first echelon of the contemporary Arab liberal thinkers"), but I find his constant references to "security services mentality" in this piece on Copts interesting.
This security-service mentality is one of the factors that contributed to the collapse of objectivity and rationality in our thinking, and which [cause this kind of thinking] to be so far removed from objective and civilized modes of analysis which are one of the achievements of human civilization. The basic issue is: 'Do the Copts in Egypt suffer from serious problems in their own country?' The only possible answer is: 'Yes'.
Perhaps he'll be sharing those views with his friend and next-door neighbor, Omar Suleiman.
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Around the web

A collection of interesting stories and sites collected in the last week or so. - Words Without Borders has a special issue on Palestine this month. - NYT: For Evangelicals, Supporting Israel Is ‘God’s Foreign Policy' How evangelicals and Elliott Abrams heart each other. The article also says that the right-wing Jerusalem Post recently started an edition for American Christians. - WaPo: Support Builds for Libyan Dissident The case of Fathi al-Jahmi, the Libyan dissident imprisoned for meeting with a US diplomat. Will the US push for his release or stay quiet because it fears losing oil business? - Carnegie: Jordan and Its Islamic Movement: The Limits of Inclusion? New report by Nathan Brown. - LRB: The Least Accountable Regime in the Middle East Survey of US spending in Iraq, misuse of funds, etc. based on US government info. - Maps of War: The Middle East Fantastic animated map of different empires control of the Middle East over time. - NYRB: How Terrible Is It? Max Rodenbeck looks at recent books and official documents on the war on terror, giving you a 12-point rundown of their major points so you don't have to read them. Nice! - CCC: The Virtual Ummah Military think tank looks at Jihadis on the internet and TV, notably al-Jazeera. - French political scientist Olivier Da Lage has a new book out: Géopolitique de l'Arabie Saoudite. - Mother Jones: Rumsfeld's Replacement: The Robert Gates File - HRW: Building Towers, Cheating Workers A report on the "Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates," is out,a s is a photo essay full of striking pictures. And an FT report on the same. - WaPo: Michael Dirda on Irwin on Said. (More about that here.) - Nation: A Civilizing Mission Review of Eqbal Ahmad's collected works. - Guardian: Luxury timeshares on offer at Islam's holiest pilgrimage site The Bin Laden Group's new luxury resort in Mecca, ZamZam Tower. - Figaro: Le pétrole conforte le pouvoir soudanais Tanguy Berthemet reports from Sudan on China's growing power there and how oil money is sheltering the regime. - Political Comics Cartoon blog does cool caricatures of people in the news. Controversial, here's the one of Sheikh Yassin (click to enlarge).  Blogger 4819 2860 1600 13
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