Tantawi, eating his words

From the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, in a report on Wikileaks US Embassy cable reports on Pakistan: 

The dismissive attitude towards Pakistan is, however, not limited to Western governments. In a cable dated December 21, 2009, Egyptian Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi told US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair that Egypt encountered the same suspicions from Pakistan as the US did. Pakistanis, he said, “don’t trust Egyptians either.” He went on to say that “while the Pakistanis were ‘difficult’… Egypt was still trying to ‘work with them.’” According to the cable, Mr Tantawi, who has previously served as the Egyptian Defence Attache to Pakistan, also pointedly noted that “any country where the military became engaged in ‘internal affairs’ was ‘doomed to have lots of problems.’”


Tantawi's history as Egyptian Defense Attaché in Pakistan in the 1980s — probably as a major conduit in the Saudi and US-led effort to send mujaheddin to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — deserves a closer investigation. The relationships Tantawi must have developed with key actors in that semi-covert war (which Egypt backed, with even al-Ahram carrying advertisements to "join the jihad" in Afghanistan) such as Prince Bandar. Hence the long-held rumor that not only Tantawi has close relations with the al-Sauds, but also that he is a religious conservative whose views would not be out of sync with the Muslim Brothers. 

Egypt: The media and the military

From CPJ:

Substantial setback for press freedom in Egypt
New York, April 13 2011- A new requirement by the Egyptian military that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication is the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.  
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Tahrir's rebel officers

A former army officer gathers crowds with slogans against army leaders Hussein Tantawi and Sami Enan on morning after army crackdown on Tahrir Square protest that left at least two dead.

(I shot this on April 9, around 11am). Obviously not all former officers have been arrested, activists say some managed to change out of their uniforms and run away before the army attacked.

If you want to see videos of the April 8 protests, see here.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

An account of the army crackdown on Tahrir

I received this email about last night's events in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when army and security forces crackdown down on protestors who had set up camp in the square. There is still a lot of confusion about what happened, with the army claiming that thugs from the NDP had attacked the square and claiming it intervened to disband them. Activists say this is untrue. Reuters reported (and here's an updated version of that same article) that the army intervened against the protestors after curfew, firing shots in the air. The videos at the bottom of this post have the sound of a lot of gunfire, but there have been no reports of wounded or casualties to my knowledge (Update: Reuters says 2 dead, 15 wounded @11am). David Dietz also has an eyewitness account of the night, including brutality, in this post.

Another night of army brutality, nearly 1500 protesters were spending the night in Tahrir square tonight including 30 army officers that joined the demonstrations today and remained with the demonstrators throughout the night.

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Pics from Tahrir anti-corruption march

I don't have time to write up the details, save to say I was impressed at both the turnout and the readiness with which people were criticizing the army. Here's the NYT's take and Jano Charbel's more militant account.

CAIRO — Thousands of demonstrators filled Tahrir Square on Friday for the largest protest in weeks, demanding that the ruling military council move faster to dismantle lingering aspects of the old regime.

Disenchantment with the military was the focus of many speeches and chants, and participants milling about were all too ready to grumble about the generals.

And Jano:

Thousands of protesters chanted for the immediate resignation of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, chief of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Serving as Mubarak's defense minister for the past 20 years, Tantawi is currently shielding the dictator and his henchmen from justice, while ordering the trials of countless civilians before military tribunals. 

I heard some of this but it was not the dominant demand. I struck by a poster asking Tantawi to be more like Mandela and carry out a real transition. Jano has nice pics too.

Finally, here's a short movie clip that shows the mood:

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Obama and R2P

Via POMED, the conservative Heritage Foundation raises the alarm that Obama may be committing the US to the Responsability to Protect doctrine after the Libya intervention:

Therefore it would appear that the Obama Administration has adopted both the basic philosophy and the operational characteristics of R2P. This should come as no surprise when the key decision makers regarding Libya included Samantha Power, who authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised during her presidential campaign to “operationalize” the R2P doctrine and “adopt a policy that recognizes the prevention of mass atrocities as an important national security interest of the United States, not just a humanitarian goal” and “develop a government-wide strategy to support this policy, including a strategy for working with other leading democracies, the United Nations, and regional organizations.”[5]

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All of Mubarak's Men

The above video, by the activist and video artist once known as Ahmed Sherif, takes Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to task for the behavior of the military since it took over from Mubarak on February 10. If you've been following this blog and others you'll know that activists have documented torture at the hands of military police at the Egyptian Museum, the violent breakup of protests at Cairo University, and a recent decision to ban protests and strikes.  Last night there was a demonstration at Tahrir Square against this decision, in which protestors called for the trial of Tantawi alongside Mubarak. According to various sources, Egyptian media have been given instructions against criticizing the army and its senior leaders — an indeed no Egyptian newspaper has mentioned the allegations of torture at the Egyptian Museum, despite reports by Human Rights Watch and local NGOs.

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Human rights and Egypt's transition

One of the big questions for the future of Egypt is how to change the culture of police enforcement, security agencies and the army when it comes to accountability, respect of the rule of law, human rights practice and more generally attitudes towards public freedoms. It was always unrealistic to expect to change this overnight, and there are several problems to tackle — to start with: 

  • deeply ingrained institutional practices (sometimes codified in laws, regulations and procedures that have their origins in the days of British rule in Egypt, as well as the security state established by Nasser);  
  • the need for a shift away from a culture of entitlement, paternalism, sexism, and authoritarianism;
  • a structural adjustment to end a micro-economy of corruption that made police officers, for instance, resort to accepting bribes because their basic salaries are low and they were practically encouraged to be on the take to compensate. This of course benefited more senior officers who were engaged in more serious corruption (and were paid adequately) and shielded them from criticism, since everyone was on the take. 
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Egypt's Military Council in a diagram

Here's another diagram, composed from public sources (this Zeinobia post proved particularly useful), of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces currently ruling Egypt. Again, any additional info would be appreciated.

Here's the large PDF version.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Egypt: the military's gambit

As most of you know by now, the Egyptian army beat up protestors on Friday night, with some apparently donning masks to hide their identity and using electric cattle prods. The army subsequently apologized, and then once again stressed the need for everyone to go home, and then spoke of the usual foreign dangers against the sanctity of the Egyptian people, etc.

Sarah Carr as always has an account that captures the mood, read it in full:

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Ursurprising surprises

Thanassis Cambanis has an essay in the Boston Globe called How wrong we were, in which he outlines five surprises stemming from the Arab revolutions. The surprising thing is that he's really wrong in picking those five surprises. Let's go through the ones he chose (update: I am told these subheadings were the editor's choice, not the author's — it makes a difference since the text is more nuanced):

Surprise #1: Military aid might be the best way to promote democracy.

Err... it didn't really work that well for the last 30 years in Egypt, did it? This idea rests on the conceit that the Egyptian army did not fire on protestors because of US pressure. I doubt this is the case; firing on the protestors would have been a grave escalation of matters putting the population against the army, risking civil war and insurbordination by younger officers. Continued military aid to the Egyptian military now only serves US interests, these are quite distinct from democracy or its promotion. And despite some $35bn in aid delivered since 1975, the US continues to have little understanding of the Egyptian military and military-civilian relations.

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More on intervention in Libya

Helena Cobban responds to my post on choices for intervention in Libya, advocating "incapacitation" rather than my "decapitation." But then again she is a Quaker and therefore a pacifist, I am an Arab and therefore prone to irrational bouts of violence and strong-horse worship (if I understand my Lee Smith correctly). To tell the truth, I am not bothered by the idea of killing Qadhafi, I just prefer that Libyans do it.

I guess I would just tweak his proposal by changing "decapitation mission" to "incapacitation mission." I think it's both wrong and unwise to plan outright to kill anyone, even someone who's done such heinous things as Muammar Qadhafi. But incapacitating him-- and also, crucially, the command-and-control networks through which he exercises his power-- is another matter completely.

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Qaddaffi paying a fortune for soldiers of fortune

A recent piece in The Guardian reports that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has ferreted away billions in oil revenues. Some of which the writer argues has ended up in the hands of the mercenaries now fighting for Qaddaffi's survival in Libya. While on Twitter, Martin Chulov a correspondent also with The Guardian is reporting that an Air Force officer in eastern Libya has reported that 4,000 mercenaries have arrived into the country since February 14th. Additionally Qaddafi’s tribal allies in the south maybe bringing in additional mercenaries from Chad, The Bangkok Post quoted an unnamed analyst who said Qaddafi’s tribal allies in the south have been bringing in mercenaries as well. Additionally, the Facebook group “Dear Mr. President,” organized by anti-government activists alleges that Bangladeshi and Koreans are serving as mercenaries. 
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Germany trained Libyan forces, provided jamming equipment

Looks like the Germans provided the jamming equipment used by the Qadhafi regime in recent days, as well as special forces training. Not a nice way for the German military to regain importance.
No sooner was the embargo lifted, than German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder landed in Tripoli with an entourage of 25 businessmen. In passing he praised what he called the 'political change' in Libya. But his main reason for visiting was the promotion of German business. Openly so, and with the support of much of the German political spectrum, from his own center-left SPD, through the pro-business FPD to the conservative CDU. So he shook hands, made introductions, closed deals. He was photographed in an elaborate tent, and at an oil well, looking equally out-of place in both locations.
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A different take on foreign intervention in Libya

Following up on Steve's excellent post considering pros and cons of foreign military intervention in Libya, I want to add my two cents. For me, Iraq had made me a die-hard opponent of foreign military intervention of any kind. I like neither the muscular interventionism of the neo-conservatives nor the very similar humanitarian interventionism of liberals. I have a little more respect for the Responsibility to Protect concept currently adopted by the UN, which has surprisingly not been invoked in the Libyan case and at least sets out some communal rules about intervention. Moreover, I am specifically againt US intervention: the US is overstretched as it is, and it does not need the inherit the mess in Libya.
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If the tide turns: some pros and cons of military intervention in Libya

In the last few days there have been a number of calls for international intervention to try to stem the atrocities that the Qaddafi regime is carrying out against Libyan civilians, including military measures such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. (Sanctions and other steps have also been proposed, but I doubt that they would have much impact on a regime fighting for its life).

We might be past the point where the declaration of a no-fly zone would make a major difference -- the Libyan air force (that part which has not defected) does not appear to be terribly effective and airlifted mercenary forces in the east seem to be contained. The city of Tripoli and several other towns on the west coast do appear to be at the mercy of loyalist mercenaries and militias, and are suffering terribly, but there is probably little that could be done militarily, short of a massive and prohibitively problematic amphibious invasion, to rescue them. Rebels in Benghazi are reportedly beginning to mobilize to move west, so it's quite likely that Libyans will be able to complete the overthrow of Qaddafi without outside help.

However, dictators have come back from the brink before: Saddam in 1991, for example, although his hold on the country was probably never as tenuous as Qaddafi's is right now. If there is any chance Qaddafi were to stage a major turnaround, and bring major rebel-held cities like Benghazi or Misrata under siege, then the United States and other powers capable of intervention in Libya should consider what might be done to prevent a terrible humanitarian disaster.

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The Facebook kids meet the generals

Over at the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook group, there  is a fascinating summary of the meeting between some of the young protest organizers and the military. The meeting included Ahmad Maher, Asmaa' Mahfouz (both from 6 April) Wael Ghonim, Khaled El Sayyid, Mohammed Abbas, Amr Salama and Abdul Rahman Samir, a Baradei supporter (not sure why all the members of the revolutionary youth council weren't there) and the post expresses the views of Ghonim and Salama. 

I'm not going to translate the whole thing but here are some highlights:

The meeting is described in very positive terms: "We noticed an absence of paternalism in the conversation ('You don't know your own interest, son.') For the first time we sat with an Egyptian official who listened more than he spoke." Although the young participants did tell the military they should have a better media communications strategy (please! enough with these cryptic SMS messages). 

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This isn't 1952, but Egyptian democrats should still be wary

A despised autocrat is forced to abdicate, a military junta takes power, jubilation in the streets of Cairo -- maybe we've seen it all before, 60 years ago, and it didn't work out so well.

"Whereas some predicted as recently as Thursday that Egypt was moving forward, with the rise of the Military Command Council, Egypt seems to have reverted to 1952," writes Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the Washington Post. He argues that the military's coup will take away the protest movement's momentum, and allow the forces of the status quo to control the transitional process.

There is certainly a danger that the military will attempt to pull a Leopard, creating the illusion of change so that things stay the same -- and reports that the military is warning against strikes are frighteningly reminiscent of the Free Officers' brutal crackdown on workers in Kafr al-Dewar in August of 1952. However, there are also a number of key differences between the situation now and the situation sixty years ago, which I think will make it very difficult for the military to simply ditch Mubarak and keep the system in place.

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The tide is changing for the army

When the uprising began in Egypt and tanks deployed on the streets on January 28, the military was initially welcomed. Perhaps many thought it had carried out a coup against Mubarak (in fact it probably partially has), and many more still cherished the myth of the Egyptian army triumphant in 1973 after the defeat of 1967. Things began to turn last week when the army stood and did nothing while pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the crowd in Tahrir. The protestors issued an ultimatum to the army to pick its side: with them, or with Mubarak. The army has still done nothing. Then, over the weekend, military police (and probably military intelligence) were deployed to beef up security on the streets. It then came out that they have been arresting dozens if not hundreds of people, and began raiding the offices of human rights activists and visiting the homes of people asking to poke around their computers.
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What Lynch said

Egypt Endgame | Marc Lynch:

The administration has already condemned and deplored yesterday's violence. It must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United Staes can continue to partner. The Egyptian military must receive the message loudly, directly and clearly that the price of a continuing relationship with America is Mubarak's departure and a meaningful transition to a more democratic and inclusive political system. It must understand that if it doesn't do this, then the price will not just be words or public shaming but rather financial and political. If Mubarak remains in place, Egypt faces a future as an international pariah without an international patron and with no place in international organizations or forums.  If he departs, and a meaningful transition begins, then Egypt can avoid that fate.

The rationale for Washington to nurture the Egyptian military is multi-fold. Among these reasons:

  1. Trying to split the military (for instance by encouraging a coup) would lead to uncertain results and may be more deadly than the repression taking place in Cairo.
  2. The military could simply refuse and the US would lose a valuable channel of communications with the regime.
  3. US weapons manufacturers and their lobby do not want to lose $1.3 billion in annual military aid which mostly subsidizes the domestic industry. Lawmakers do not want to be accused of sacrificing US jobs in the current economy.
  4. Cutting ties with the Egyptian military could radicalize or destabilize the regime, giving way to a strategic shift away from the US with no discernible gain.
  5. Israel and its lobby want the regime to remain in place and have effective control of most of Congress.

While some of these may have some validity, there is a bigger point to be made that is not about the welfare and interests of Egyptians or Israelis. It is about what kind of country the US wants to be.

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