Morsi cuts the Gordian knot

To break the deadlock, Morsi wields a clumsy hammer - The National

My piece on Morsi's decree and the aftermath — here's the conclusion:

Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse. And he made this decision at a time of unprecedented polarisation - over the constitution and religion's role within it, over the performance of the cabinet, and indeed over the poor excuse for a transitional framework to democracy that the country inherited from 16 months of disastrous military rule. Mr Morsi's political capital is simply not as plentiful as he seems to believe, as the furious reaction by opposition leaders and protesters on Friday showed.

The question now is what next. Mr Morsi and his supporters say the move is necessary, and the opposition is being irresponsible, bent on sabotaging anything he does out of anti-Islamist spite. That is partly true: there are many, from conservatives nostalgic of the Mubarak era to angry revolutionaries, who simply cannot stomach that Mr Morsi is president and his Muslim Brotherhood are the dominant political power. Opposition groups, the revolutionary movement and civil society feel cheated by the Islamists' majoritarian view of democracy, and they are also right to be worried about the Islamists' views on the application of Sharia and their lack of enthusiasm for civil liberties.

The central problem in Egyptian politics today is trust, or the absence thereof - and Mr Morsi has not invested much time in creating more of it since elected. This new wave of protests is the price he is paying for his negligence.

Cutting the Gordian knot, ultimately, is cheating. Getting away with it depends on being perceived as either wise or powerful. The next few weeks will test Mr Morsi on both counts.

✚ In Latitude: Shortening the Workday is No Way to Regulate Cairo

✚ In Latitude:  Shortening the Workday is No Way to Regulate Cairo

This week, my Latitude post looks at the recent decision by Egyptian authorities to impose earlier closing times. I am against this — not in the absolute, but because the decision has been hastily prepared, Here's the crux of my reasoning:

This is why the government’s recent decision — made without public consultation or forewarning — to impose closing times on shops, cafés and restaurants nationwide came as such a shock. The authorities argue that forcing stores to close early will save electricity, something of a necessity because Egypt is constantly on the brink of brownouts. (This summer there were even prolonged blackouts when the national grid collapsed because of air-conditioner use). The curfew, it is hoped, will also improve traffic by sending people home early, and impose order on residential areas that are otherwise kept awake at night by street noise.

At least that’s the theory. Shopkeepers, chambers of commerce, business associations and much of the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government say the decision will hurt an already struggling economy. Many also fear that enforcing strict closing times will only exacerbate the traffic problem, at least at certain times — especially since the government intends to impose the new rule without preparation. Metro and bus service has not been increased, for instance, and no special provisions have been made to accommodate shorter working days, like increased parking space.

After the government’s original deadline for closing most shops at 10 p.m. and restaurants at midnight — Nov. 1 — came and went with nary a change in behavior, it relented. It pushed back the curfew for shops to midnight and the deadline for implementation to next week. Some restaurants and bars will also get to stay open till 2 a.m.

Read the whole thing, of course.

In Latitude: Cairo's Walls of Shame

In Cairo, Mixed Feelings About 'Innocence of Muslims' -

I have a short comment on the IHT blog Latitude. Here's the conclusion:

But the protests also highlighted more important problems. Such as why the police were not able to contain the rioters, or what impact the protests might have on sectarian relations in Egypt: the film’s alleged producer is a Coptic émigré from Egypt. He and several other exiled Egyptians — as well as Terry Jones, the Florida fundamentalist said to have been consulted in the making of the film — face arrest should they come here. (One poor soul, Albier Saber, a Copt, was taken into custody merely for linking to the YouTube trailer on his Facebook account.)

And there’s the matter of the double standard that is created when a sheikh who burned a Bible — rather perplexingly, since Muslims consider it a holy book — is free whereas Christians who insult Islam face immediate backlash.

Even as the anger against America dies down, the underlying tension stirred up by this affair may have ongoing consequences in Egypt — not least because it will boost the case of the Islamists who want to put a ban on blasphemy at the heart of the constitution currently being drafted.

What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

This is a review piece I did for the Cairo Review, looking at three different books on the "Arab Spring" by Marc Lynch, Tarek Ramadan, and Marwan Bishara. I actually have read or at least leafed through about 6-7 books on the Arab spring. As historical books, I find them all wanting — they do not offer a clearer picture of what happened than what an attentive observer who followed the media can garner. I am still waiting for a Ten Days That Shook The World on any single uprising. 

Lynch's book is most useful, because he has thought more about the area where he can contribute an original analysis, on the question of media and the "Arab public sphere." Ramadan's book is at times fascinating and at other infuriating, he appears to not quite know what to make of what happened and a conspiratorial tone is present throughout the book. Bishara's book was disappointing, because I liked his book on Palestine, but mostly because it's quite messy. But there is worse, I read Hamid Dabashi's book and while it will please the academic left is offers far too many grand narrative about the Arab Spring as a challenge to capitalism and break with the neocolonial order. I debated Dabashi at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last year, a very lefty place, and I thought his take on Libya (imperial intervention) was simplistic, ignoring that many Libyans called for just such an intervention simply because it doesn't sit well with his political convictions. 

I recommend you read another review, this time of six "Arab Spring" books, by our friend Maria Golia in the TLS; she offers different takes than mine. 

Also, if you're interested in reading these books, please order them through the links below to support this site.

On Egypt's new government

✚  Cairo's new Cabinet proves how little has really changed

My column on the new cabinet of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil:

The new government of Mr Qandil has been described as the uninspiring result of a compromise between the military and the president (and behind him the Muslim Brotherhood). And yet, this is not the whole picture: the Brotherhood and the generals do have some power, but far more significant is their lack of power and legitimacy in imposing themselves against each another, and upon society.

What is happening in Egypt is not the triumph of Islamists or the military, or even an alliance of both, but the beginning of a shake-up of the manner in which politics have been codified for the past 60 years, with myriad actors trying to adapt to this change - and salvage what they can from the old power structure at the same time.

In Latitude: Kritarchy in Cairo

My latest piece for the IHT's blog Latitude is up. It deals with the, in my view, scandalous behavior of Egyptian judges in the last few weeks and their increased politicization. I am particular incensed at the lack of mea culpa from the judiciary, for years a good part of the problem of the Mubarak era. Just think how many judges sentenced people to years of prison in political cases. And it appears that their idea of judicial independence is that judges should entirely decide how to administer themselves without any oversight. It smacks of the corporatist thinking that plagues Egypt, and lies at the core of the problems of reforming the judiciary, the police and other state institutions. The judges, for now, appear to be more part of the problem than the solution.

Takes on the Mubarak verdict

My column at the National develops a theme I developed on Twitter: In Egypt, a pharaoh falls and the mameluks march on - The National

It is as if the regime's figureheads were sacrificed to save the caste of security officials who still run the country - perhaps reassuring their many colleagues who remain in positions of influence that they are safe and that there will only be token accounting for past crimes.

Egypt may be mostly associated with its pharaonic past and god-kings, but in this case the appropriate historical analogy is more recent: a pharaoh is taking the fall for the military class, the mameluks.

These mameluks, the vast caste of officers and officials (uniformed or not) who continue to rule Egypt, have taken it upon themselves to redefine the revolution. This is taking place amid a larger battle in Egyptian society to define post-Mubarak Egypt.

The young revolutionaries who led the protests last year want, above all, a rupture with the past and to construct a more open society. The Islamists who were late backers of the uprising want to build a more just society by making both society and government more Islamic.

And the generals who now govern, for their part, are trying to redefine "revolution" as simply the removal of Mubarak and a handful of his cronies. As Ahmed Shafiq, the presidential candidate and former air force general who stands a good chance of being Egypt's next president allegedly put it last week: "The revolution is over."

For him it ended with the removal of Mubarak. For others, however, it has just begun.

Also check out this in The Economist, taking a look at the political/electoral impact: A verdict in Egypt: Back to the square | The Economist.

Further thoughts on ElBaradei

I have an op-ed on Mohammed ElBaradei's decision not to contest the presidency in Egypt up at The National. I look aat how this fits with ElBaradei's trajectory since his return to Egypt in 2010. An excerpt:

When Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt after the end of his tenure at the International Atomic Energy Agency, he had a simple mission: tell truth to power. Despite a campaign to draft him to run against President Hosni Mubarak, he refused to participate in any election under the undemocratic conditions that prevailed. On Saturday, he chose to take the same path, citing the lack of a democratic framework in military-run Egypt.

In a statement to the press and a YouTube video put up by his campaign, he explained that as much as he has held high hopes for the revolution that overthrew Mr Mubarak, he cannot participate in elections held under the military-run transition process. "To achieve complete freedom, we must work outside the formal channels," Mr ElBaradei said, looking sad but nonetheless determined.

Mr ElBaradei's statement will be interpreted by his detractors as an ungraceful acknowledgement that his presidential campaign is going nowhere, and that an Egypt that overwhelmingly voted for Islamists is unlikely to elect a mild-mannered social democrat. Some might even accuse him of bad faith, using the excuse of the military's excesses and a haphazard transition to cover up for the poor political prospects of Egyptian liberals like himself.

Even so, the moment is reminiscent of how, in 2010, he had shattered a taboo. Back then, he was almost alone among Egypt's establishment grandees to dare criticise Mr Mubarak. By preferring to launch a national campaign for change rather than compete against the deposed president in a rigged system, he refused to legitimise the regime and was one of several factors that contributed to the country being ripe for an uprising. And back then, of course, that worked - even if Mr ElBaradei had never advocated such an uprising.

There is now talk of ElBaradei launching a political party or some kind of movement (or perhaps just doing more with his existing National Coalition for Change). There are certainly a lot of people who feel that while his critique of the transition may be valid, he has not been clear on what the alternative is.

Column: A memo on national security

My latest column for al-Masri al-Youm is out. To commemorate Thomas Friedman's visit to Cairo this week, I've decided to write a Friedmanesque "memo from..." in which I imagine myself as a senior official in the Egyptian ministry of interior welcoming the new minister, Mohamed Ibrahim. The version up on AMAY is not formatted properly, so I am reproducing it below.

To: Mohamed Ibrahim, incoming minister of interior

From: A senior ministry official

Your Excellency,

I believe I speak for the entire ministry in extending you a warm welcome in your new position at the head of our august ministry. Your precedessor was a respectable man, a little too respectable perhaps, and perhaps not altogether attuned to the bitterness that has taken over our ministry since the regretted events of late January 2011. But, nevermind, he will now go to a well-deserved retirement and make room for the right person for this new era, which all of us at the top floors at Lazoughly1 agree is your own esteemed self.

With your leadership, Sir, we will complete the restauration of this ministry to its former glories, burnishing once again its glorious image so unfairly tarnished by its enemies. It is to inform you of the state of mind of those of us at the ministry who have gone through these difficult times that I am writing to you.

Read More

Column: Is it Islamists vs. the military?

My latest Masri al-Youm column is out, on the debate over Egypt's constitutional principles:

The constitutional principles were not supposed to be a litmus test about either Islamist or military rule. They were supposed to be a fairly straightforward guarantee that, in religious matters, the next constitution would retain the same recognition of Egypt's majority Muslim identity that has existed for decades, the same protection for religious minorities (including family law according to sect), but with a greater emphasis on human rights and safeguards against an imbalance of power between the branches of government. Aside from the Salafists who like the idea of an explicitly Islamic state, none of this is controversial. The real debate was about the process through which the principles would be drafted, and whether the SCAF would take advantage of the secular-Islamist divide to impose its own agenda on what was supposed to be a strictly civilian debate.

On Libya in Internazionale

My blog post from a couple of weeks on the fall of Tripoli to rebel hands has been published in Internazionale, the Italian international affairs magazine. Italian readers can read it here [PDF, 10MB].

Incidentally, I will be speaking at Internazionale's journalism festival in Ferrara, held on 30 September - 2 October. Our friend Hossam El-Hamalawy should also be there.

Out of Arabia

I have a piece in this week's roundtable in Bitterlemons International, on US foreign policy in the Middle East after the Arab spring. In it I make a radical argument (at least within foreign policy circles, outside of Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich anyway) that America needs to end its imperial posture in the Middle East, that the Arab spring provided an opportunity to articulate this and that Obama failed to do so clearly in his speech.

I call this argument "Out of Arabia" and the piece is here. The other contributions are by Dan Kurtzer, Joel Beinin and Chuck Freilich, and all but Kurtzer's are fairly critical of the Obama administration. Kurtzer's piece argues that Obama introduced a new idea of individual self-determination in his recent speech, with possible far-reaching consequences. All are worth a gander.

What Obama will not say

My new column in al-Masri al-Youm, on Obama's forthcoming speech, is here. I make the safe bet that Obama's speech won't blow anyone's socks off. An excerpt:

To be sure, Obama's speech will include an homage to the Tunisians and Egyptians and Libyans and Syrians and others who rose up or are still rising up against their dictators. It will include a pious call for a return to negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It will promise American support for democracy in the region. But I doubt it will include a frank apology for having been part of the problem of the Arab world's enduring autocracy.

It will not acknowledge that America's Middle Eastern empire, with its ensuing focus on stability (with the occasional dash of creative destruction), is one important reason for regional dysfunction. The US cannot and should not be expected to intervene in every one of the region's uprisings, but Obama will not pledge to at least do no evil. He will not announce plans for the withdrawal of the US Navy Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, whose al-Khalifa dynasty now make for an embarrassing ally. Instead, he will probably choose to concentrate on Syria, a more convenient example of bloody repression. He will not recognize that America's closest Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, now seeks to put out the flame of revolution he will no doubt praise.

Obama will certainly not acknowledge that, in the absence of any viable peace process, the best course would be to at least respect international law and the legitimacy of the principle of national self-determination. But that would mean backing the Palestinian Authority's efforts at the United Nations to gain recognition of its right to sovereignty. It might also mean beginning to ask what, if the two-state solution is unattainable, the alternative might be.

Column: The khawaga's lament

My latest piece is al-Masri al-Youm is up, on the rather self-indulgent topic of being a foreigner in revolutionary Egypt and the anti-cosmopolitian undercurrent in Egyptian politics.

As Al-Masry Al-Youm’s only non-Egyptian regular columnist, I have the painful but necessary task to highlight how foreigners residing in Egypt have lived through this revolution. This is, admittedly, a matter of tertiary importance: Egyptians are in the process of deciding their fate, and, hopefully, taking a leap towards building a real democracy. Nonetheless, one of the indicators of democracy is how governments and the societies they represent treat not only their citizens, but also the aliens among them.

Read the rest here.

Egypt and Tunisia's unfinished revolutions

My column in Time magazine:

It's been just seven weeks since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and just over three weeks since Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dumped from the presidency by the Egyptian military — but both countries have already unseated their interim prime ministers. Egypt's Ahmed Shafiq on Wednesday followed last week's decision by Tunisia's Mohammed Ghannouchi to step down, heeding the will of those who had taken to the streets to oust the autocrats who had appointed them. The two countries have chosen different models for their transition to democracy: Tunisia has a civilian government supported by the military; in Egypt, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken charge and has suspended the constitution. But in both countries, the interim rulers face a crisis of legitimacy, with controversy surrounding some of the personalities now in charge and their transition plans contested by many of the same forces that took to the streets to demand political change. And at the same time, they must deal with the mountain of problems left behind by the dictators, from corruption and cronyism to collapsing state authority and anemic economic performance.

I suggest there are four key issues to bear in mind: 

  1. Winning the confidence of the street
  2. The media matters
  3. Islamists stand to gain, but so does the left
  4. There needs to be a balance between justice and economic recovery

Read the whole thing here.

A soft bigotry of lowered expectations

I have this commentary in today's Guardian (page 30) — it discusses Libya and Morocco for the most part, but the principle applies elsewhere: that both outsiders and many Arabs have set too low an expectation of the desire for democracy in the region. Here I'm not excusing real anti-democratic movements and sentiments that exist in the region (as they do even in democracies) or accuse an uncaring West, the point is more to respond to something that has been troubling me ever since the beginning of the Tunisian uprising. This is the idea that a people can be "mature" for democracy — which suggests that they can also be immature and unready for it. This idea or some variant of it, such as fear of Islamists, has been too dominant for the last few decades. Anyway, here it goes (and needless to say — as some commenters on the Guardian website suggested — I am not making a comparison by Libya and Morocco, they are incomparable. I am showing the two extremes of the contemporary Arab world, and that desire for change in both of them is legitimate.)

There is a phrase coined in 2004 by Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for George W Bush best-known for having come up with "axis of evil", that I've always liked. In a speech about education, he bemoaned "the soft bigotry of lowered expectations" that he believed existed against disadvantaged children.

For several decades, there has been a soft bigotry of lowered expectations in the west and among Arab elites about the Arab world. The prevalent thinking about this region of over 300 million souls is that it offered no fertile ground for democracy, either because democracy risked bringing political forces hostile to western interests or because democracy is not a value that has much currency in the region. Many regimes understood this, and played a double game of decrying their societies' "immaturity" while encouraging anti-democratic tendencies such as populism and, at times, a reactionary social conservatism. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, no one will buy this any more – and nor should they about two more north African countries: Libya and Morocco.

Here's the rest.

Why Tunis, Why Cairo?

I have a long piece in the London Review of Books on the recent events in Egypt (and touching upon Tunisia, where I was until Friday 28 January). It summarizes my view of events, and the criminal response of the regime still in place to the protest movement.

Make sure you also read Adam Shatz's companion piece on the international dimension of the Egyptian crisis.

And since the LRB is providing these freely, consider subscribing — it's a great publication that deserves support!

Media appearances

I've been doing more media appearances and briefings that I can keep track of. Some recent ones are here:

No Longer A Candidate, Mubarak Gains Support : NPR


Tomorrow I should be on BBC Radio 4's Today Show at around 08:20am UK time (10:20am Cairo time), among others.

Some long-form essays I've been working on should be out in the next couple of days, stay tuned.

The year of spontaneous combustion

My new al-Masri al-Youm column is up. This week, I wanted to do something else than the obvious (write about Tunisia or its impact on Egypt), so I decided to be a little more adventurous. Like many people I was aghast at the wave of self-immolations over the last few days, and imagined what might happen if they continue (let's hope they don't). It's written from the perspective of January 1, 2012.

At first, when it began nearly a year ago, many people thought it was just a copycat fad that would soon disappear. Inspired by the events of the Tunisian uprising, people--mainly young men--began to set themselves on fire.

Read the rest.