Uncertainty in Tunisia

Yesterday my column on Tunisia at al-Masri al-Youm went up, news about a curfew in Tunis had just surfaced, rumors of grumbling in the military and the firing of General Rachid ben Ammar, the head of the army, were spreading and there were reports that much of the Ben Ali family was either in Canada or heading to Argentina.

No wonder that by late Tuesday / early Wednesday there were rumors of a coup. And right now, as I write this, news is trickling that Ben Ali has fired his interior minister and prime minister, and released all those arrested (aside from those charged as criminals). This is the response Ben Ali should have had two days ago in his speech to calm the situation — it's a peace offering. He may have missed that opportunity, though, with general strikes scheduled for the next few days.

All of this highlights the paucity of reliable information about what's happening in a dictatorship, and the heroic efforts (and occasional mistakes) of the people spreading the news on Twitter and elsewhere. I'll be talking about this and more on al-Jazeera International today at around 5pm Cairo time.  

POMED brief on Egypt

A report I wrote in the aftermath of last month's parliamentary elections in Egypt for the Project on Middle East Democracy is out. You can get it here.

Written for a US policymaker audience, it takes the recent elections as an alarm signal for Egypt's future, reviews some of the Bush and Obama administrations' approaches to democracy promotion in Egypt and the limited support for more vigorous pressure on Egypt in Washington. Nothing that the latter is not about to change, it makes a few suggestions for steps the US could take in the aftermath of the elections, including downgrading relations with an unrepresentative People's Assembly and more forceful engagement with the Egyptian opposition, including endorsing widely shared goals such as the National Association for Change's six points for reform, and engaging with political actors even if they are outside parliament. In the wake of the Alexandria bombing, it also urges continued American support to address grievances of the Coptic community, such as restrictions on church-building.

While policymakers will look to the recommendations (which I hope are humble and realistic enough to be taken under consideration), there were two further points I was interested in making.

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Column: Out of tragedy, opportunity

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm, on the opportunities arising of the Alexandria church bombing, is up. An excerpt:

If there is a silver living to this horrible act, it is that we’ve seen a genuine outpouring of grief and indignation about the bombing, and a real willingness to break with taboos and platitudes from many ordinary Egyptians. There appears to be a growing realization that even if there is often little to be done against terrorists’ determination to carry out acts of murders, there is much to be done to defuse the tension of an environment in which many Copts consider the bombing the latest indignity they must endure.

Out of this terrible tragedy, therefore, is an opportunity for political and civil society actors. It is no coincidence that many of the Muslims who joined with Copts in the last few days’ protests were doing so not merely in solidarity, but also against a generalized failure of the state to build a positive vision for what it means to be an Egyptian citizen in the twenty-first century.

Note that a coalition of Egyptian NGOs has called for the state to act now to correct its own contributions to sectarian tensions.

Mubarak jokes, and more

I have an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy that is entirely about Egyptian political jokes in the Mubarak era (with a few thrown in about other Egyptian rulers for good measures). May it bring some levity to these dark times...

What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?

Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.

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Where do the Brothers go from here?

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm is out, wondering what Egypt's Muslim Brothers will do now that they have no longer any presence in parliament. An excerpt:

These results are a challenge for the regime, in whose interest it was to maintain the illusion of gradual progress on political reform and plurality in Egyptian political life. This has, after all, been the message promoted by Gamal Mubarak and other NDP leaders since 2002, including the idea (borrowed from ex-President Anwar al-Sadat) that Egypt needs three strong parties: a centrist one (the NDP), a leftist one (presumably the Tagammu) and a rightist one (presumably the Wafd). The role that the Muslim Brotherhood played in this configuration was always ambiguous, since the regime has never wanted to concede to them the right to have a formal political role.

In practice, a different three-party configuration emerged, which included a hegemonic party (the NDP), an Islamist one (the Muslim Brotherhood) that supposedly represented a dangerous alternative but could easily be kept in check by repression, and a loose front of secular parties and individuals that could mostly be intimidated and controlled, in part because it shared the NDP’s fear of Islamists, and represented no credible alternative at all.

Read the rest here.

An Egyptian test for Obama

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm: An Egyptian test for Obama | Al-Masry Al-Youm. It's on the recent meeting on promoting democracy in Egypt at the National Security Council. You might also check out this piece by my fellow columnist Bahey el-din Hassan, a veteran human rights activist, and Steve Cook with a more cautious take.

The whole issue of US pressure on Egypt is pretty complicated, involving many variables and much that is unknown — most notably what Hosni Mubarak is thinking. Over the next few weeks, time permitting (I'm swamped right now), I'd like to go into more depth on this issue that is not just important, but a recurrent feature of bilateral relations.

The coming Cairo autumn


My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm, touching on the Ibrahim Eissa affair, is now up. It looks back at the political opening of 2005, its subsequent reversal, and wonders whether the most lasting gain of the "Cairo spring" — media freedom — is now under threat.

David Kenner talked to Eissa over at Foreign Policy.

Bonus post theme song: David Bowie — Five Years

Responding to Tarek Masoud

Yesterday my latest column in Masri al-Youm was put up: the case against the case for Gamal Mubarak. It's in response to Tarek Masoud's recent article in Foreign Policy suggesting that Gamal Mubarak's is Egypt's best hope for democracy. I don't know Masoud, but have read some of his work on the Muslim Brothers and elections and found it richly detailed. I think he's approached this issue from a provocative angle, and what the basic premise he raises — that Gamal as president could have unexpected consequences — may be worth considering. Nonetheless, the arguments he puts forward are pretty weak. But make up your own mind.

Column: The Rabble-rousers

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm is up, on funding of the anti-Park51 movement by extremist elements of the US pro-Israel lobby.

The connection between the core of the Park51 movement — the people who have provided leadership, organization and funding to the campaign — is simply too big to ignore. So is the increasing overlap of a segment of the "professional" pro-Israel lobby in America, from think tanks to magazines, and the incitement of Islamophobia. This is bad news for Americans of all persuasions, bad news for Jews, bad news for Muslims, and bad news for the Middle East. It needs to be stopped before it gets too far, and the first step is to call out the likes of David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Pamela Geller (and their far-flung associates) for what they are. 

Reading Tony Judt in Cairo

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm is up. It's about the late Tony Judt, whose book Ill Fares The Land I was reading when I heard the news of his death, and how the crisis of Western democracy he writes about has parallels in the Arab world. A crisis of Eastern autocracy, if you will.

The phenomena that Judt describes are, for many, only beginning to be recognized in the West, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and the threat of permanently high unemployment. Political apathy among the young is one phenomenon that has been perceptible for some time--despite the short-lived enthusiasm generated by the candidacy of a quite conventional (aside from his race) American politician, Barack Obama. Another is the striking irrelevance (and just as often, connivance) of weak parliaments in the face of strong executives.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The trends Judt describes appear to have an all-too-familiar trajectory for those living in the Middle East. After decolonization, Arab states--particularly the “revolutionary” ones--underwent a period of undemocratic rule with considerable social progress, with regimes benefiting from mass support by improving the lot of the majority of the population. Yet today, perhaps in Egypt more than other Arab states, any semblance of a social contract appears to have evaporated and these once partly progressive autocracies have foundered. With this, a deep individual mistrust of both state and society has settled in.

I can highly recommend Ill Fares The Land and Judt's more recent NYRB writings.

Lebanon and the prospect of war

My new column in Masri al-Youm is out, about Lebanon and the prospects of war there, and outlines the rather twisted road of the past decade to get to the present situation.

But of course this is Lebanon, it's already superseded by the rather dramatic news of the clash between the Lebanese Army and the Israeli one yesterday, which claimed the lives of three Lebanese soldiers, a journalist from al-Akhbar, and a senior Israeli officer. Lebanon appears to have been in the wrong according to the UN, but of course it's all hotly contested.

I recently finished reading David Hirst's Beware of Small States (more about the book and Hirst later this week), one of whose central points is that Lebanon has been where the Arab-Israeli conflict has perdured since the last time an Arab army (rather than guerrilla) fought Israel: 1973. Well yesterday that (almost) 27 year break had ended, with Lebanese uniformed men confronting Israel's.

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Too big to fail

My new al-Masri al-Youm column, on the Mubarak health rumors and speculation about the future of Egypt, is here. An excerpt:

A more curious phenomenon stemming from the recent rumors is the intense (but vague) speculation about the future of the country. There is, it seems, a collective failure of imagination about what Egypt after Mubarak might look like. Most, focusing on the mechanism of succession, find a future shrouded in dense fog--as Mubarak wants it--and shrug over the uncertainty of what is to come. Others predict inner-regime strife to secure control of the presidency, and not an insignificant number warn of impending chaos, either because of widening social chasms or a power vacuum at the top. The more outlandish predict an alliance of the Muslim Brothers and Mohamed ElBaradei bringing about a new Iran-like rogue state. Yet, chances are nothing so dramatic will happen.

The reason for this is that Egypt, just like the banks that were rescued by governments in the US and Europe, is too big to fail. Its systemic importance to the conduct of international relations in the Middle East is just too great to let it become a “rogue state” or spiral into chaos--even assuming that this badly run but closely controlled country is anywhere close to implosion.

New column

This comes a little bit late, as I've been in the mountains of Northern Morocco for the last few days, in a tiny village where there is no mobile phone reception or internet.

I have started writing a weekly column for al-Masri al-Youm English (which will hopefully also soon start to be picked up in the Arabic edition). The column, out every Tuesday, will cover a very wide variety of issues, both Egyptian and regional. I'm sure it will cover some of the big themes and crises of the region, but one thing I want to focus on from time to time are issues not often discussed elsewhere in the Middle Eastern media or indeed in the blogosphere: the intersection of politics, business and science and the environment.

My first column is about something I've been thinking about ever since last April: the wide-ranging ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the oil industry, and what it means for countries like Egypt where deepwater fields are the next frontier (many such fields will go online in the next decade) after the exhaustion of traditional shallow water fields in the Gulf of Suez. One aspect of this issue is that there is a brewing energy crisis in Egypt; the other is that one cannot help but think of the consequences of an accident like Deepwater off Egypt's coast, where the government is much less prepared than the US and much less able to put pressure on companies. I finished writing it on Sunday, and by coincidence two news items put the column in a new perspective: one is that the first rig to leave the Gulf of Mexico because of the ban on deepwater drilling started to head to Egypt, and the second is that BP announced a $9 billion deal to develop gas fields off Egypt's Mediterranean coast. So my column was quite prescient!

You can read the column here.

Review: A Mosque in Munich


My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler’s movement. The Brothers’ anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group’s top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson’s understanding of Islamism – which he defines early on as “not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism.” Just as Central Asian refugees’ nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna’s rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa’eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit “moderate” Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa’eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa’eda’s Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the “Crusaders”. But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe – where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience – he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.