Salafis in Tahrir

A few notes on yesterday's demonstration in Tahrir, generally viewed as an Islamist show of force. First, the numbers. Based on visual cues (beards, galabiyas), signs and slogans I'm guessing at least 90 percent of those in Tahrir were affiliated with the Islamists, and at least half of those were Salafi. I'm guessing also that this was one of the half dozen largest Tahrir "million" rallies since January. The square wasn't elbow-to-elbow all the way through, but it was elbow-to-elbow in some spots, and a lot of people stayed camped out on downtown streets where they had gone to pray. I understand why the numbers have alarmed revolutionaries who had come to think of the square as their own space.

There have been some reports that Salafis tried to forcefully take control of a speakers' stage, but the parts of the demonstration which I witnessed were peaceful. I saw no instances of bullying. Islamists and non-Islamists mingled and argued. I saw one angry anti-Islamist marching up Qasr al-Aini between ranks of weary demonstrators shouting "Egypt, my kind mother/I'm not leaving you to the Brothers!", yet she did not get much of a reaction.

The Salafis' slogans were provocative.

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Libya Dispatch: Lies, Damn Lies and Government-sponsored Trips (3)

Abu Ray reports from Tripoli as the NATO airstrikes and rebel insurgency loom ever closer. See his previous dispatches here.

As the bus pulled up to what was described as the site of a NATO airstrike, we could see the burly cameraman from Libyan state TV hurriedly stashing khaki military uniforms onto the roof of a nearby shed ahead of our arrival. It was the culmination of a truly farcical day.

Perhaps the collapsed building was just, as they said, an office and some apartments hit by a NATO missile, killing… one person? At least two people, said a bystander trotted out for the visiting journalists, others were not so sure. Maybe it was, but then why did someone have to run ahead and hide a bunch of tattered military uniforms and, as we later discovered, a helmet. Was it perhaps actually a military target?

We were in the town of Zlitan on another government organized trip, in what should have been a fascinating journey to a front line town facing an assault of rebels who had broken out of the besieged city of Misrata and were headed towards Tripoli with vengeance on their minds.

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UAE Activists on trial

The piece below has been contributed by Jenifer Fenton, a freelance journalist based in the UAE, formerly with CNN.

Five activists charged with opposing the government and insulting the country’s leadership returned to court on Monday in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, and four others - who face up to five years in prison if convicted - have pleaded not guilty.

Behind closed doors in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court the prosecution called two more witnesses who testified about the activists’ internet articles and blogs. There was a gathering of about 50 pro-government demonstrators outside the courthouse who protesting against the five: Emiratis Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk and Hassan Ali Al Khamis; and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who does not carry identification papers.

Earlier this year, Mansoor was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates asking for the country to have direct elections.  The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers; the body is only an advisory one.

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Bringing Tahrir to Upper Egypt

I've written down some notes from my brief trip last week to the Akhmim district of Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt, also referenced in this week's Arabist podcast. I accompanied a Cairo-based party activist back to his family village to see how revolutionaries from the capital were reaching out to the 50+ percent of Egypt's voters who live in rural areas, in advance of parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for November.

Elections in the countryside have traditionally been very hotly contested, without being ideological. Politicians frequently say that the decisive factors are "asabiya" (family solidarity) and "services," meaning government-funded projects. Voters try to candidates into office who have some sort of personal connection to them, be it family or regional or both, who also have the clout to ensure that their village or neighborhood gets a good share of state funds. The candidates who have traditionally performed best are "NDP independents" -- local ruling-party politicians who ran against and defeated the official candidates, but then were welcomed back into the official fold soon after their victory. Now that there was no longer a ruling party, I wanted to get a sense of how other political forces might try to fill the vacuum.

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The Arabist Podcast #8: What's up in Sohag?

In this week's podcast, we give an update on the Tahrir Square sit-in, wonder if the never-ending cabinet shuffle will ever happen, talk about the politics in Upper Egypt with our guest Steve Negus, remember the movies that defined the late Mubarak era, and review the new Arabic comic Tok-Tok.

Sorry for the exclusive focus on Egypt lately — we want to talk about things we can bring added value to, and these days we're pretty Egypt focused. Please do let us know what you think at

We'll be taking a break for the next few weeks, so both blog posting and podcasting will be light. But we should be back up to speed in mid-August.

Links for this episode: 

The Arabist Podcast #8

The big picture for Egypt's future

Maria Golia's latest al-Masri al-Youm column, on developmental choices Egypt faces, makes a case for prioritizing environmental considerations. It's a sobering reminder that there are so much more important things at stake that the micro-debates over elections or constitution first and how much Sharia law there should be in the constitution:

Egypt’s scientific community has finally jump-started the debate over the country’s post-Mubarak developmental direction. Several high-profile figures have proposed large-scale projects -- Farouk al-Baz’s “Corridor of Development”, Mostafa Amer’s “Map of Hope” and Ahmed Zewail’s “Science City” – each with its features and drawbacks.  The ensuing critique of these projects has raised issues whose importance cannot be overestimated, including land and water use, energy production and education. Significant arguments have been raised; some are reaching the ears of the public and transitional government.  

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Libya Dispatch: The Cage (2)

The lobby of the Rixos.Our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, once covering Libya's East, is now covering the West. This week he makes it to Tripoli's Rixos hotel. (See past dispatches.) 

The billboard in the lobby shows a smiling child waving pictures of other cute smiling children, topped by the slogan, "Stop the Bleeding!" Bleeding? What bleeding? What now?

Welcome to the Rixos Hotel, Tripoli's finest and a gleaming, inlaid marble cage for Western journalists.

I'd heard a lot about this place over the last five months, about being trapped inside, about the mind games and the midnight summons, the hallways prowled by semi-feral minders and the press conferences by the smooth-tongued Moussa Ibrahim.

I wasn't prepared for the opulence. In my mind's eye, as I traveled along the coastal road from the border with a BBC reporter who'd stayed here before, I saw a tacky hotel built during the mad oil rush of the late 70s, now gone to seed, all flaking plastic and chipped gilt Barberella finery.

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Egypt's new finance minister and the rentier state

Egypt's new finance minister is the respected economist Hazem al-Biblawy. I am not sure why he was appointed (or why his equally respected predecessor, Samir Radwan, left) but it's interesting to note that one of his academic specializations is the rentier state. He even edited a book about the rentier state in the Arab world in the 1980s, with Giacomo Luciani. An excerpt:

Good theoretical grounding to have as Egypt tries to finance its fiscal deficit by leveraging its strategic rent-value in the Gulf and the West — a policy I like to call Mubarakonomics.

Does April 6 really have a PR firm in the US?

Steve Cook writes, in Flacking The Revolution, that April 6 now has a PR company in the US:

Yesterday afternoon I became aware that a Beverly Hills-based public relations firm is representing Egypt’s April 6th Movement. In a small way, the movement’s ties to Levine Communications Office (LCO) reveals many of the incongruities and paradoxes that make Washington’s relations with the Arab world so fraught. To be fair, on a practical level, it makes a lot of sense: The firm is working for April 6th on a pro bono basis, it is sure to have a better list of press contacts than any Egyptian firm, the U.S. media market is the biggest in the world, and speaking to American reporters provides the movement a good way to try to influence the Obama administration.

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Podcast #7: No Satisfaction

In this week’s podcast, Ashraf Khalil is given time off and we host the not-street-artist Ganzeer, one of the brains behind Rolling Bulb and a series of murals honoring the martyrs of the revolution across Cairo. We discuss the current standoff between protestors camping in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and review David Wolman’s The Instigators.

Link for this week’s episode:

The Arabist Podcast #7

The history of Egypt's revolution

Jack Shenker has a fine piece in the Guardian on The struggle to document Egypt's revolution:

On any given evening Cairo's Tahrir Square creaks under the weight of its own recent history: trinket-sellers flog martyrs' pendants, veterans of the uprising hold up spent police bullets recovered from the ground, and an ad hoc street cinema screens YouTube compilations of demonstrators and security forces clashing under clouds of teargas. This is collective memory by the people, for the people – with no state functionaries around to curate what is remembered or forgotten.

"Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events," says Khaled Fahmy, one of the country's leading historians. "When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time. That's exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid."

Fahmy knows only too well about the inherent tension between acts of mass popular participation and official attempts to catalogue and record them. Less than a week after the fall of Mubarak, the professor received a phone call from the head of Egypt's national archives asking him to oversee a unique new project that would document the country's dramatic political and social upheaval this year and make it available for generations of Egyptians to come.

"I was initially very reluctant," says Fahmy. "I didn't want people to think we were producing one definitive narrative of the revolution. But then I started thinking about the possibilities, and suddenly I got excited."

Khaled Fahmy, who is quoted above, is a noted historian of Ottoman Egypt (at AUC, formerly at NYU) and I've had the occasion to talk to him about the project. In a few months we intend to interview him about it, perhaps for the podcast.

Importantly the story includes links to websites documenting the revolution, which are reproduced after the jump.  

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Syria dispatch: The road to Qardaha

Hafez al-Assad's tomb at Qardaha

A British reader of this website who until recently lived in Syria sent in this dispatch, about his last few weeks in Damascus. 

The broad-shouldered middle-aged figure walked into the internet café and sat down in front of the manager. The black leather jacket and olive trousers – de rigueur in those circles – marked him out as a member of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s feared “secret” police. He wanted to know if anybody had been looking at opposition websites critical of the government.

“Not at all”, my friend said in Arabic, “we always look out for that kind of behaviour; in fact, on my screen here I can see everybody else’s computer so know straight away if they are doing something illicit,” at the same time closing the incriminating websites on his desktop. The policemen nodded approvingly and picked up the list – held by all Syrian internet cafes - that records the name, identity number and entry time of customers.

Before he left however, the operative had just one more question: he wanted to know how it was that young Syrians were able to find these websites in the first place? My friend began to apprise him of Google and its use as a search engine, this was clearly the first time he’d heard of this wondro

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More on police firings in Egypt

A reader writes in:

I'll share a personal experience. A member of my family was let go by the police force, a few days ago. He was promoted to the rank of General then let go. (No, he wasn't involved with any of the protests. His work with the police force was actually a different kind of role that wouldn't have had him on the streets or in any of those orders.)

As an honest police officer - I promise you there are several, though they might be a rarity - his letting go came as a surprise. Upon checking, it was found out that more honest police officers (though all close to retirement age) were similarly let go. The fact that the Ministry of Interior isn't divulging any details on who they let go is also particularly irking. It seems that if the number is close to 500, only about 50 were not close to retirement age and let go for other reasons, which of course would be too low of a number anyways.

The evidence makes it seem like this firing is largely a sham. Most of the murderers are still out there with eagles on their shoulders, masquerading as officers of the law. The Ministry of the Interior is unchanged, but what can you honestly expect when the Minister himself is a member of that corrupt club?

Bottom line: the details of who is being let go, and why, should be publicly available. The minister of interior said that there were several people charged with murder among those let go. But that doesn’t amount to more than around 60 people. How about the 500+ others? What criteria was used for their early retirement, besides age?

Podcast: Lunch with the Arabist #3

A few weeks ago, I met up with the Council of Foreign Relations resident Egypt expert, Steve Cook (who blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates) and his colleague Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. After downing a few plates of calamari and bottles of Stellas at the Greek Club, we talked about the future of the US-Egypt relationship and how the Arab Spring has changed foreign policy thinking in Washington.

On a technical note: I am changing the server hosting the feeds and files for the podcasts. The new feed for MP3 is here and the new feed for M4A is here. (This has also been updated in the sidebar). Please update your podcatcher software accordingly — the old feed will continue to work for a while and will eventually redirect you to the new one.

As always, click the play button to stream or right-click to download.

Lunch with the Arabist #3

Police firings

The announcement by Minister of Interior El Essawy that he will fire over 600 police generals and officers has gotten quite a bit of attention. I did a piece about it for the radio show The World (featuring our good friend, activist Hossam el-Hamalawy) that you can listen to here. While the announcement is a positive step in the sense that it's an obvious response to the pressure of the protests, it begs the question: Who are these officers? Were they on their way to retirement anyway? Are they the ones accused of shooting protesters and of torture? 

I have a better idea for starting a purge of the Ministry of Interior. Every officer who, as happened earlier this week, doesn't show up to work -- to protest the total unfairness of demands that police officers actually be tried, and that those accused of murder be suspended from work -- should be sacked. That way you don't even need to spend a lot of time figuring out who the most dangerous psychopaths and troublesome assholes in the police force are -- they identify themselves. And anyway, as we keep being told, isn't striking illegal? 

Libya dispatch: Borders (1)

The Tunisia-Libya border

Today we inaugurate a new series of dispatches from Libya by our intrepid war correspondent Abu Ray, who is headed to Tripoli where bored journalists await the final battle.

Coming into Libya again, once again I was greeted by graffiti, but this time it was "God, Gadhafi, Libya and that's it." And in fact that was pretty much it for the spray painted slogans for the whole trip from the Tunisian border to Tripoli. As the Palestinian TV producer I was traveling with pointed out, it was somewhat heartening that God at least came before Gadhafi in this instance.

It was certainly a contrast to the jubiliant, riot of "Libya is free" graffiti on the eastern side that I saw four months ago when I came to cover a nationwide rebellion that has since turned into a stalemated civil war and a cautionary tale for any would be Arab democracy activists.

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