On Dan Brumberg's Egypt essay

Dan Brumberg has an essay in The Atlantic about Egypt's transition. It's a good read and has some very perceptive insights. But it also has a couple of flaws I see as fundamental.

One is about his retelling of what only recently became known as the "Constitution First" camp, and which is already receding after this week's protests, where many activists with impeccable democratic credentials told me the whole Constitution First affair was now over and that revolutionary forces accepted the sequencing of the transition. He writes that story as if there was a camp calling itself constitution first back in February, which is not true, even if there were those that proposed (such as ElBaradei) the creation of a constitutional assembly before elections. Nor does he touch upon the undemocratic nature of ElBaradei (and others') proposal for a constituent assembly or even a transitional presidential council whose members would be appointed, or self-selected, rather than elected.

The second is related, in that Brumberg seems to have identified good guys (liberals) and bad guys (the military, former NDP officials, most Islamists) in his narrative of the transition. This is evident in that he gives (good) advice to what he calls the Constitution First Camp (which, again, may hardly be a relevant name anymore). But is he not too concerned about which camp Americans would like to see "win" here? If there is a clean election in the fall, and Islamists do well, why would that be undemocratic? Like it or not we are in the logic of electoral democracy here, and if the process is irreproachable one should accept the outcome. We continue to see the dangers of not taking this approach in Palestine, where the international community decided that global standards for electoral democracy did not apply to Hamas.


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.

Syrian Protesters using Russian flags?

A Russian flag in the center spotlight (click to enlarge)Early this week brazen pro-government mobs attacked the American and French embassies in Damascus. The assault left three French nationals injured and showed the increasing desperation of the Syrian regime in framing the narrative on unrest in Syria. The attacks have already drawn condemnation from the United States and the United Nations.

The attack was sparked by a visit from American Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, to the city of Hama in central Syria last Friday. There they met with anti-government protesters who warmly greeted them.

One seemingly bizarre detail from reports of the riot suggests that the Russian flags were carried by some protesters mixed in of course with the pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and of course Syrian flags. 

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Teargas poems

I loved these revolutionary poems, by Egyptian poet Kareem Abdulsalam and translated by Elliott Colla over at Jadaliyya. The first two probably deal with events that took place on January 28. The last one speaks to the longing for Midan Tahrir as a place in which everything seemed possible, and everyone felt purposeful (a longing that as we've seen has led people to return to that square and others in the past week). Enjoy. 

4. What Comes From a Cop

Armored cars
Boxes of perfected fear.
     We thought they were divine creatures come to crush us
          as native Americans first looked at horses. 
     We thought death itself sprang from them.

Armored car
     Went up in flames
     And the policeman inside struggled against the tongues of fire
          Fought against fear.

When we rescued him, 
     He joined the rebellion.

5. He Thought We Were Going to Kill Him

Central security policeman
Peasant who came straight from the village
To fire tear gas at revolutionaries. 
When we grabbed him, 
He thought we were going to kill him
And cried like a child,
     I want my brother. He’s over there
     In that burning armored car.

We took him by the hand
     To his brother—the very one from the last poem. 
He’d taken off his black vest, 
     And was sitting on the ground with the revolutionaries.

6. What Is to Be Done, Now?

What shall we do, now that freedom has dawned over Midan Tahrir?

It would be senseless to go back home,
     To tell tales of the many victories won by the people. 
We will tell the stories often, 
     And listeners will ask us and ask us to repeat them.

In our hearts we might wish that the Dictator had persisted in his stubbornness
     that we had remained in Midan Tahrir forever…
          churning out hurried placards and posters
               sharing food with one another
                    sharing slogans of freedom.

We desire, each one of us, to go on talking about ourselves without end. 
     We dream of sitting,
          all of us together,
               on the ground,
                    singing ballads about our country
                         on cold nights
                              while the tanks protect us.

Links 10 July 2011

I have two new columns out, reflecting on my recent trip to Morocco: this one in The National looks at the February 20 movement, and this one in al-Masri al-Youm at how the successes and failures of each Arab uprising influences the others. 

I also filed this piece of reporting for the FT yesterday, on the continuing protests in Egypt and the latest developments in Suez, where protestors are threatening to block the Suez Canal. Last night, visiting friends who are camping out in Tahrir Square, the talk was all about Suez and several activists are heading there today. It's one to watch, because the army will intervene forcefully to stop them from doing anything to the canal (and probably with public support, since it's one of Egypt's main source of hard currency). And do read the excellent report from Suez by McClatchy below.

And now the rest of the links:

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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.

Adam Shatz: Is Palestine next?

In the latest London Review of Books:

American disapproval would once have counted against these strategies, but America is no longer seen by the leadership to hold the keys to liberation. ‘Obama, the poor man, he got into the ring with Netanyahu and he got a bloody nose while the whole world was watching,’ Zomlot said. ‘Should we wait for America to come around? We’ve been waiting for 20 years. The depressing fact is that America is impotent.’ But the Arabs, at last, are not. ‘The region has changed irreversibly,’ Zomlot said, ‘but Israel still has the manual of 1948. The removal of the Arab regimes that stood in the way of the Palestinians is neutralising Israel’s machine. If the Israelis don’t change, they will end up as a tiny minority in a sea of Arab democracies. I hope they will come back to their senses before it’s too late.’ But it may already be too late for partition. ‘I’m afraid we’re beyond the two states,’ he said. ‘Drive to Nablus. It’s Israel – all the roads to Nablus. Look at the map: the settlements are the core, they have the highways and the infrastructure, while Palestinian cities are the periphery, connected by bypass roads.’

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What is really happening in Sudan's Nuba Mountains?

An early morning scene from Nuba Mountains, via Sudan Forum

The piece below, about the conflict brewing in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, had been contributed by Dan Morrison and Matthew LeRiche.

The ongoing fighting in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan state is not just another chapter in Sudan’s seemingly-endless history of conflict. It is the most recent flashpoint for debate over a prevailing narrative that critics say reduces news from Sudan to a simplistic, even childish, contest of good versus evil. This conversation is made no less interesting by its clean predictability.

The dominant story line coming out of Southern Kordofan is, in its broad strokes, more than familiar. It goes like this: With the secession of South Sudan just weeks away, the Sudanese Armed Forces on June 5 went on the attack, seeking to crush both ethnic Nuba fighters of the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a font of potential (and actual) armed opposition to the government in Khartoum, and supporters of the northern wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who will form an important opposition party in Sudan now that the south has seceded.

If reports by actors including fleeing civilians, the United Nations, and foreign and local humanitarian workers are to be believed (and we think they are), Khartoum’s operation in Southern Kordofan has followed a well-worn pattern, including aerial bombardment of civilians, murder of citizens based political affiliation and race, and the ongoing denial of humanitarian aid to displaced persons. The Nuba Mountains in the 1990s were the scene of a bona-fide attempted genocide by the same government that today rules Sudan -- a true and actual attempt, driven by twisted financial and cultural imperatives on the part of Kharotum’s ruling class, to annihilate a people.

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Podcast #6: It's hot out there

On this week's podcast, we discuss the July 8 protests in Egypt, the raid on the second Gaza flotilla and Morocco's recent constitutional referendum.

Links for this week's episode:

As always, click the play button below to listen, right-click and save to download MP3, or subscribe to the RSS feed (see top right sidebar). For iTunes, we're still waiting to be listed — so follow the instructions here.

The Arabist Podcast #6

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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.

Rolling Bulb

The Mask of Freedom, From the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the Sons of the Nation (now available for an unlimited period of time).

Very cool new Egyptian website -- describing itself as dedicated to "new idea journalism" -- called Rolling Bulb, run by renowned graphic and graffiti artist Ganzeer and others. The current "issue" has a proposal for polling participants in Tahrir protests on specific policy issues; an account of Ganzeer's detention and interrogation over his "Mask of Freedom" sticker (see right); and a dispatch from Tahrir, in the wee hours, during last week's clashes. 

Here's how it starts:

“Y’see that fucker?”, says someone to me as he points to a young man on a Chinese motorbike powering a horribly wired stereo. It’s 4:00 AM in Tahrir square, Thursday, July 30. After a 2-day confrontation with hordes of aggressive and provocative riot police, a group of victorious revolutionaries call for a sit-in at Tahrir square and camp out for the night. And it’s here where the revolutionaries may no longer have the upper hand.

That “fucker” on the motorbike, along with a few others like him on motorbikes, was at the front lines of the epic street-battle between revolutionaries and riot police only a few hours earlier. Together with the rest of the gang of bikers, he whizzed through the rocks, bullets, and tear gas, risking his life to collect the injured and bike back to the makeshift clinic set up by pro-revolution doctors at the center of Tahrir square. This incredible feat of close-to-sacrificial duty was performed non-stop throughout the 2-day battle royal.

No one other than That Fucker could’ve assumed the position of front-line ambulance, for That Fucker is the only person equipped with the right vehicle, one that can move fast, take sharp turns, and avoid getting hit. That Fucker also has years of experience in stunt-like maneuvers, because getting around in Cairo traffic on a motorbike everyday involves just that. That Fucker is even used to having up to four other people on that bike with him, because sometimes you just need to give your homies a lift somewhere. Without anybody knowing it, for years That Fucker has been brought up to be the stealthiest, front-line ambulance motorbiking master. 

Tahrir tomorrow

The July 8 demo is looking like it could be big. Originally scheduled to deliver a "constitution first" message, tomorrow's demo is now as much about demands for justice, outrage over recent acquittals of Mubarak-era ministers and the mistreatment of martyrs' families (with officers accused of shooting protesters let out on bail and their cases postponed recently). 

The Muslim Brotherhood -- which has avoided recent protests, even going so far as to call protesters "traitors" -- has apparently had to fall in line with the popular mood (and its younger cadres' demands, most probably), and announced it will officially be participating. So will a lot of others, despite the tension and anxiety in the air these days. On twitter, at the fokakmenahlak ("split from your family") tag, young revolutionaries are sharing advice on how to get around over-protective parents and make it to Tahrir. 

Five Books interview

I was recently interviewed by the great website Five Books, about the Arab world and books worth reading about it. I decided to give some broad (and somewhat idiosyncratic) recommendations. It was very difficult to choose what books to talk about, so in the end I went partly with books that give context to the current situation, and partly with very personal choices (and yes I fully expect to be branded an Orientalist for picking the Arabian Nights as my fifth choice, and I don't care — it's my favorite book.)

It made me think that I need to get around to making a longer list about what to read about the Arab world. I'd be interested to hear what readers believe should be included, and in what category (for instance, fiction, politics, history, religion, etc.) Putting together of 100 books might be a fun summer project.  


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.

Revolution and art

Since I cover culture in the Arab world, I've been curious how literature and the arts will be affected by the upheavals of the last months. The focus of so many novels and films of the past years has been stagnation and stasis--now there is a whole new reality to grapple with.

Some forms seem to be more "revolutionary" than others--translator and Arabic literature professor Elliott Colla has pointed out how poems are better at capturing revolutionary fervour, and novels at depicting post-revolutionary disillusionment. I would say that photography, street art, graffiti and graphic art -- which lend themselves to immediate, contextual commentary -- also thrive in these times. 

The excellent Jadaliyya website has a short interview with cartoonist Ahmad Nady (who also edits the great new graphic magazine Toktok) and a selection of his cartoons.


Meanwhile, the online literary magazine Words Without Borders has an issue dedicated to the Arab revolutions. I particularly enjoyed this letter to Mohamad Bouazizi, first printed in Le Monde newspaper, by Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal:

Dear Brother:

I write these few lines to let you know we’re doing well, on the whole, though it varies from day to day: sometimes the wind changes, it rains lead, life bleeds from every pore. To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure where we stand; when you’re up to your neck in war, you can’t tell till the end whether to celebrate or mourn. And there it is, the crucial question: whether to follow or precede the others. The consequences aren’t the same. Some victories can fall short, while some defeats are the beginnings of truly great victories. In this game where death always takes you by surprise, there is the time before and the time after, but only one extraordinarily fleeting moment to make up your mind.

The case against Egypt selling gas to Israel

For what must be the third or fourth time since the Egyptian revolution began on January 25, the Sinai gas pipeline that takes Egyptian gas to Israel has been attacked. These attacks are not particularly dramatic, but are enough of a bother that it takes several weeks to restore the flow of gas to Israel — and often Jordan, which is affected by the pipeline. The people behind the attacks are thought to be Sinai-based Islamists who oppose the sale of gas to Israel, but we don't really know for sure. The attack took place only 60km east of the Suez Canal, and it could very well be people from the Nile Valley carrying out the attacks — and they don't have to be Islamists, either, since plenty of other people oppose the gas deal.

Since the revolution, the interim government has reviewed gas prices but thus far everything indicates that the sale of gas will continue. From what I've been able to gather (and I'd like to write something longer on this one day), Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG), the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company, at around $3 per mbtu (that's million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas (which is not as fungible as oil since it tends to rely on pipeline infrastructure unless shipped as LNG) is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own (I'll leave the issue of whether EMG sold the gas to Israel at a fair price aside.)

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Another good video, also produced by Egypt's new online journalism. This is a series of interviews with protesters (many of them well-known activists) who all identify themselves as beltagiya ("thugs"), then go on to give their real professions (university professor, dentist, journalist) and the demands for which they have come to the square -- mocking the many who dismiss most protests and all clashes with the police as the work of the ubiquitous, infamous "thugs." (Reports suggest that the only verifiable thugs involved were plain-clothes reinforcement on the Ministry of Interior's side). 

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How it all started

There has been much confused speculation about how the violence between families of martyrs, demonstrators and police started last Tuesday night (even as that violence takes on new twists and turns). The interview below (in Arabic) carried out with Magdy Iskander Saad, the father of a martyr, by the online independent journalism site huqook dot com, tells an extraordinary story that I haven't heard elsewhere in such detail. The families of martyrs, the man says, were summoned to a theatre in Giza on Tuesday--because the army wanted to hear why they were protesting all the time. When they got there, army officers said they wanted to honor them and their dead children. (Now I'm paraphrasing what he says..) A mother of a martyr said, politely: "What do you mean a party? We don't care about parties. We want justice for our children's blood. And that justice is the death penalty for Habib Al Adli and his officers and Mubarak who told him: take care of things." The woman got into an argument with an army officer; it escalated; and he hit her in the face. Her son intervened -- and has already been condemned to three years in jail by a military court. The martyrs' families ran off (tearing down a picture of Mubarak they noticed on the way) and it all took off from there. At least according to this testimony. 


Podcast #5: Justice deferred

From wild_atheart's Flickr stream. The words (I don't know the source) read: "Does my blood turn to water in your eyes? Did you forget my garment stained in tears?"

Issandr is in Morocco, but Ashraf Khalil and I found time (just barely) to record this week's podcast--in a car between Cairo and Alexandria, on our way (and then, suddenly, our way back) from the postponed Khaled Said trial. Also discussed in this podcast: the bloody clashes in Tahrir this week, and women's political participation, post-revolution. Hope you enjoy, and apologies for background engine noise.  

The Arabist Podcast #5: Justice deferred

Links 30 June - 1 July 2011

  • Morocco Tomorrow
    The site put together by some US PR firm to sell the constitutional reform.
  • The New York Times
    RT @NickKristof: Syria faces perhaps the biggest protests so far, in Hama - Bye, bye, Assad?
  • Al-Azhar Document: A Promising Step in Need of Clearer Safeguards | Human Rights First
  • Occasion manquée
    Boubakr Jamai's take on Morocco's new constitution.
  • Disparate Factions From Streets Fuel New Opposition in Syria - NYTimes.com
    On "Local Coordination Committees"
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    Referendum day in Morocco

    I spent the day today in the small town of Benslimane, about 70km from Rabat, and in the capital itself visiting polling stations, talking to officials and activists as Morocco held a referendum for a new constitution. I can't say I learnt anything new: it was clear the referendum was going to result in a resounding yes (we'll get preliminary results tonight or tomorrow) and what will be more important is the turnout. 
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    Podcast: Lunch with Ibn Kafka

    I arrived early this morning in Morocco and have spent a busy day with political activists, party leaders, journalists and others discussing tomorrow's constitutional referendum, which will no doubt see the new constitution proposed by King Muhammad VI easily adopted. The February 20 movement that opposes the new text as a farce (because it does not really change the power of the king) is calling for a boycott, and a test of how much resonance this call has had will be tomorrow's turnout. In the meantime, as they demonstrate in cities across Morocco, I saw the sorry sight of pro-monarchy protestors in Rabat attacking the activists, even hounding a leader of the human rights movement, Khadija Riyadi, into hiding in a petrol station to escape the attacks. 

    There will more about this later. In the meantime, here's another edition of our occasional podcast, Lunch With The Arabist. This episode was recorded a few days ago in Egypt, but is about Morocco and the new constitution. We ask the prominent French-language blogger Ibn Kafka what he thinks of the new constitution. Ibn Kafka is associated with the Mamfakinch ("We Won't Budge" in Moroccan dialect) website, which is close to the February 20 movement.

    For a pre-referendum story, check out Paul Schemm's story at AP.

    To listen to the podcast, click the play button below.

    Lunch with the Arabist #2: Ibn Kafka


    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.