Fighting again in Tahrir

A stencil of the martyr Mustafa Al Sawy. The 25-year-old lab technician was shot in the chest by police on Kasr El Nil bridge on January 28

Violent clashes between protesters (including families of martyrs) and the police broke last night in and around Tahrir Square and have continued into this morning, leaving dozens injured. 

The spark appears to have been a memorial service for the families of martyr's at the Baloon Theatre in Agouza. People disrupted the ceremony (either the relatives of other martyrs, or people posing as them); a group marched to Tahrir, where they were met by riot police, tear gas and rubber bullets. Word spread, and activists and others joined the clashes with the police. 

This violence is the inevitable result of the lack of transparency and of momentum in the judicial proceedings against former regime figures and especially the police (something we talked about on the last Arabist podcast). The families of martyrs' were shut out of the last session of the Habib Al Adly (the former Minister of Interior) trial; they went wild when the trial was postponed again. Everyday I read and hear stories about police officers who are on trial (or should be) going back to work at their old posts; and about families being bribed or threatened ("We'll arrest your other son on drug charges") if they don't drop their cases. 

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Column: It's the process

My latest piece for al-Masri al-Youm is up — I opine on the "constitution first" debate:

The "Constitution First" debate would never have emerged had the referendum and its aftermath not been sloppily handled, most notably with the establishment of a constitutional declaration (rather than an amended constitution) that went way beyond the nine articles the public had approved. To be quite frank, I find it unbelievable that the constitutional committee headed by Tareq al-Bishri and in which many senior judges participated backed such a sloppy process, even in extraordinary times. The initiatives by ElBaradei and Sheikh al-Azhar are in many respects now repairing the damage created by their unnecessary, avoidable mess.

The U.S.-Saudi “Special Relationship” and the Arab Spring

The following long piece was contributed by Arabist reader Paul Mutter.

Recently, the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies announced the engagement of a Saudi princess to a Bahraini prince. A substantial bridal party has preceded her, though: 4,000 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have arrived in Bahrain since March 14th, 2011. Some 1,600 Saudi soldiers will remain in the country indefinitely to safeguard the regime there from further “disturbances,” i.e., pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s government will be seeking accommodations for these soldiers in the form of new, permanent GCC bases. This process will be helped along by the billions of dollars in aid that Bahrain is set to receive from the GCC.

The GCC presence has freed up the hard-pressed Bahraini security forces to take more “proactive” actions such as these. The U.S. has called on all parties to exercise restraint – though this has fallen on deaf ears with respect to Bahraini security forces.

Some dowry. 

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Why did Egypt reject IMF/WB loans?

This post has been updated below — now with feedback from the World Bank.

It's a question whose answer escapes me. Egypt is facing an economic crisis in the year ahead, even if there are some signs of recovery from the dire months immediately during and after the revolution, and has a long-running fiscal deficit problem that's only getting worse. Why is it not taking money that comes fairly cheaply (in the sense of low interest rates and not many strings attached) and that it could use for some stimulus spending to accelerate the recovery?

Reuters reported:

Egypt will not borrow from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund after revising its budget and cutting the forecast deficit, even though a loan had been agreed, Finance Minister Samir Radwan said Saturday.

The 2011/12 deficit in the first draft budget was forecast at 11 percent of gross domestic product, but was revised to 8.6 percent because of a national dialogue and the ruling army council's concerns about debt levels, the minister told Reuters.

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Adam Curtis on Syria

From the fabulous British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis' blog:

What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad's archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.

That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that "the Syrian people are naturally democratic" and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites - and a new world of "peace and progress" would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

I thought I would tell that story.

A great story well told — read it all. And you should also watch Curtis' latest documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

A gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield

 (J. Hammond)

We blogged before about the man who wanted to fight a lion. Unfortunately, he went ahead with his plan and our correspondent J. Hammond was there to witness it all.

Update: Now with images.

Al-Sayed al-Essawy claims to have dreamed of facing a lion since age thirteen. This weekend al-Essawy finally got his chance. The 25 year old resident of Mansoura proved to be one of Egypt’s most able showmen in creating international attention for his match. Despite arrests by the Egyptian government and international campaigns to stop the fight, al-Essawy faced the lion and in doing so fulfilled his dream.

Journalists and well-wishers were driven to a secret location on the edge of an open field a few hours north of Mansoura for the fight. After much hype, al-Essawy finally entered the cage in front of a hundred or so cheering onlookers. Al-Essawy bristled with melee weapons: a two pronged spear to keep the lion at bay, a machete strapped to one leg and a shield made from an old satellite TV dish. He yelled at the crowd to be quiet so he could focus on the lion. Al-Essawy’s facial expressions alternated between fear and bravado, even when taunting his feline opponent. He yelled at it, stuck his tongue out, and at one point poked at it with his trident. Al-Essawy’s provocations were all completed from a safe distance and at one point he sat on a green lawn chair brought into the cage for his comfort.

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Podcast: The Manchurian Candidate

In this week's podcast, we discuss the "Constitution First" vs. "Elections First" debate in Egypt and Sheikh al-Azhar's proposal, the silence surrounding Syria and Bahrain, the ADC's attempt to prevent Syrian artist Malek Jandani from playing a pro-uprising song and review the autobiography of Egyptian ex-Muslim Brother and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and wonder if he's really been kicked out of the group.

We're still working on getting iTunes to update the podcast, but remember you can always subscribe with iTunes (and other podcatcher software) by using this link. In iTunes just go to "Advanced / Subscribe to a podcast" and paste in the link.

Thanks for the feedback we've gotten (podcast[at]arabist.net), and please keep it coming! This is still a work in progress and we learn a lot from your input.

Links for this week's episode:

Right-click and save the link below to download [27MB] or click the play button to stream: 

The Arabist Podcast #4 - The Manchurian Candidate

Now what? Senusso-Fascists?

It’s always fun to watch the leaps which the American ideological right will make in trying to cast Muslims as radicals. To whit, this new allegation by John Rosenthal in the National Review about the supposed jihadi nature of Libya's rebels...

There is a clear overlap between the [Libyan jihadist] Islamists and the monarchists, inasmuch as the deposed King Idris I was himself the head of the Senussi brotherhood, which the authors [of a French report] describe as "an anti-Western Muslim sect that practices an austere and conservative form of Islam." The monarchists are thus, more precisely, "monarchists-fundamentalists."

Uh, "anti-Western" in the sense that Mussolini was Western. The Senussis fought against the Italian colonization of Libya, but King Idris sided with the Allies during WW2, formed a kingdom under their patronage, and throughout his reign was arguably one of the more pro-Western monarchs in the Arab world. That was one reason why Qaddafi was able to overthrow him.

The American rightwing media does this kind of thing fairly regularly in its coverage of the Middle East and Islam.

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Unsung heroes

Someone pointed out this LA Times story about the thousands of Egyptians injured in the revolution who today languish in hospitals, unaided by the government. It's one of the most depressing pieces I've read lately.

Since Jan. 28, when security forces beat him and ran him over during the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Mohamed has been unable to speak, walk, eat or use the bathroom on his own. His head is a tapestry of scars and bandages, tubes sprout from his neck, and his palsied hands are clasped in front of a now-bony chest.

He was trying to protect two friends. His mother says both were shot to death by security forces.

Images of Mohamed's former self stare back at him from beside his bed at Kasr El Aini Hospital: flush with youth, embracing a blushing fiancee who has since abandoned him. Behind them rests a framed certificate from fellow protesters pronouncing him a "hero of the revolution."

But like thousands of other Egyptians seriously injured during the protests, Mohamed is a forgotten hero, his family caught in a medical limbo, feeling betrayed by the government he fought to change.

Some of these people were bystanders injured accidentally. Many put themselves bravely in harm's way--and if they hadn't, the revolution wouldn't have succeeded. Meanwhile, the police responsible for maiming them for life have yet to be held accountable.

If anyone knows the contacts of organizations (like the one mentioned in this article, which I haven't been able to find online) that are helping these families please share in the comments section. We will do some information gathering of our own and hopefully have a post up soon for those interested in helping. 

The moral imperative of revolution

This piece in Foreign Policy, titled Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong is a great read to put the Arab revolutions in context. In the last few years of observing the Egyptian scene, I had become convinced that most of all Egypt was going through a moment of moral crisis and the moral collapse of the Mubarak regime's legitimacy. I still believe it was the key factor that made the January 25 possible. This passage in the FP piece, by Leon Aron, comes after an explanation of how the Soviet Union appeared solid in most respects, and is very instructive in that regard:

For though economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state's relationship with civil society be?

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Podcast: Lunch With The Arabist

Last week, we (re)launched the Arabist podcast with a first episode that looked at Egyptian politics, Israeli spies and Saudi women fighting for the right to drive. If you haven't listened to that yet, go here or our new podcast page, and if you have do send us questions and suggestions at podcast[at]arabist.net. 

We'll be back on Friday with another edition of the Arabist Podcast, but in the meantime we want to introduce another new irregular podcast featuring people we get to meet as they travel through the region — often over a nice meal or bottle of Sakara beer. We're calling it Lunch with the Arabist, and it's starting this week with a couple with a long experience in Middle East focused academia, government service and activism: Helena Cobban of the Just World News blog and William B. Quandt, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose is one of the select few to have been around the negotiation table during the Camp David talks, when he served in the Carter administration.  We talk to them about their recent trip to Gaza, the future of the Camp David accords, and what Mubarak was like back then in the 1970s.

You can listen below — right-click and save to download the MP3 file [7MB] or click the play button [14:32].

Lunch With Arabist: Helena Cobban and Bill Quandt, 2011-06-21

Morocco's new constitution: Larbi's take

Morocco's King Muhammad VI recently presented the text of the country's new constitution, which will be put up for referendum in July. The new text has been rejected by the February 20 movement which had moved the king to implement this "reform" last March, although the new constitution is still widely expected to be approved. I translated the (mostly French-language) blogger Larbi's reaction to the king's speech last Saturday, for two reasons. First, Larbi is one of the most thoughtful and influential Moroccan bloggers and thought English-language readers would benefit . Secondly, I largely agree with his analysis that the new text does not deliver a real change to the political structure of the country; i.e. that the king's powers remain largely untouched and the ability of political parties to influence state policy largely constrained.

Before the text of Larbi's post, a few other links:

And now here's Larbi's take:

Why I reject Muhammad VI’s constitution

By Larbi

While bringing some improvements, the proposed new constitution unveiled today takes us back to a the same institutional structure for the country. It matches neither Moroccans’ aspirations nor the new regional context.

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What strikes me most about Assad's third speech

Bashar al-Assad just delivered his third public address since the uprising began in Syria. The previous speeches were cocky and confident, arrogant even. In this one he seemed uncomfortable and nervous, gone was the joking and swagger of a month ago. He even appeared to have lost some weight.

Assad offered a bunch of technocratic reforms: a new electoral law, a commitment to root out corruption, media reform, reform of municipal government, and the launch of a national dialogue for reform that will include 100 personalities. It was a technocrat's speech, not a leader or politician's speech, and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak. Its contents were vague, and simply did not address the very serious crisis between the Syrian people and their state.

It's hard to interpret what this all means, because it was difficult to understand what Assad was pitching. He just didn't sell it, and we don't know who is supposed to big part of this national dialogue (although I've heard that longtime dissident Michel Kilo might be a part of it.) But it still feels too half-hearted, there was no grand gesture such as calling back security forces or addressing the refugee situation in Turkey (for instance by offering an amnesty and guarantees that they will be unharmed if they return and that the incidents that led to their flight will be investigated.)

It's very hard to judge from the outside where Syria is headed. This speech further muddles the picture, with Assad making a half-hearted conciliatory gesture that simply does not convince.