The civil state: an Egyptian infomercial

I love this short informercial on what a civil state is. It airs on Qabila TV, which I hadn't heard about, and advocates the creation of a civil state. In the cute cartoon, the state is compared to a bride and there are three choices: the theocratic bride, the military bride, and the civil bride. The first two have little tolerance for disagreements, whereas the civil bride-state does. It's well done, the music is good, and the message simple (if of course a secular one.) Personally I'm glad to see it's out there.

[Hat tip: Sarah Carr.]

Podcast #12: We regret to inform you that the revolution is cancelled

This week, Ashraf Khalil is back and we talk about the worrying turn Egypt's transition has taken, between the reinstatement of the Emergency Law, restrictions on media, threats against strikers and more. We also discuss Turkish PM Recep Erdogan's visit to Cairo, his reception by the army and Islamists, and which Turkish model is applicable in Egypt — if any.

Links for this week's episode:

The Arabist Podcast #12

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,

Israel/Palestine: Washington is the problem

Please take 15m of your time and watch this excruciating video of last Thursday's State Dept. briefing. It shows journalists ask the tough questions about the coming fiasco of a US veto at the UN when Mahmoud Abbas asks for recognition of Palestine as a state. My favorite bit is when the AP's Matt Lee asks (in bold):

QUESTION: But do you see going to the UN as anathema to an approach in getting them – why can’t it be embraced as part of an approach to get them back to the table instead of being viewed as an enemy of getting them back to the table?

MR. TONER: Well, Matt, again, what we’ve tried to be clear all along here is that our focus, and we believe the parties’ focus, should be in direct negotiations because it’s only by dealing with these issues through direct negotiations that they’re going to reach a settlement. So one-off actions in New York don’t accomplish anything at the end of the day.

QUESTION: But why can’t you --

MR. TONER: We’re going to continue to work today, tomorrow, through New York to get the parties back to the negotiating table. But our position all along – I don’t know how it could be more clear – is that we think these --

QUESTION: It can’t be any more clear. I’m not asking you what your position is.

MR. TONER: We think these --

QUESTION: I’m asking why you lack the creativity to use this as leverage to get them back to the negotiating table, instead of trying to fight a losing battle in which you’re going to be the only – you’re going to be isolated, the Israelis are going to be isolated, because if they go to the General Assembly, they’re going to win.

MR. TONER: Precisely because --

QUESTION: So why don’t --

MR. TONER: -- because we think it’s --

QUESTION: Why isn’t there anyone in this Administration that has the brainpower, the creativity, to use this as a positive thing to build momentum instead of regarding it as completely a negative thing?

MR. TONER: Because it’s counterproductive.

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Wael Ghonim's letter to Tantawi

It speaks for itself, was posted on Facebook (where else — although perhaps he should have used Google+), and is reproduced below to save you time.

Here are some reports on it:

I write to you after seven months have passed since the initial spark of the January 25th revolution. I write after I sought inspiration from the company of history books for the past few weeks to learn about our previous revolutions. I wanted to understand the real dynamics behind them and attempted to liberate myself from the influence of school curricula that imposed a single perspective; that of the decades-long rulers of our nation.

Without deliberation on my part, God has willed that my name became one of the many associated in people’s minds with the revolution. The association was formed when I was released from detainment where I had spent a brief period – brief, compared to the thousands who spent years and months in lockup or even lost their lives for the sole reason that they demanded an end to the agonies of our nation. I write as I picture my son reading this letter in 30 years. It makes me feel overwhelmed by the historical responsibility that I was forced to bear.

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Breaking the US-Egypt-Israel triangle

It may be time to reflect a little on US Middle East policy post-Arab Spring, and towards Egypt in particular. I've just taken part in a seminar where I presented a paper on the issue, and I'll be expanding some of my main points in the next few weeks here. The main gist of it, however, is that US policy in the region has not been a great success for the last 20 years of American hegemony, is seen as tremendously destructive by local populations, and that the US should refrain from trying to shape the outcome of the ongoing transformations the region is experiencing. It should first re-assess what its priorities are and take stocks of its limitations, particularly considering the current imperial overstretch and budgetary tightening.

Nor do I think Washington needs to interfere in the internal developments of individual countries, but rather reassess its strategic posture region-wide and try to create the multilateral mechanism to handle the crises that will no doubt come up as the transformations continue. For me, this means something modelled on the Concert of Europe, which would rely on regional powers to offer solutions and mediation. I'll say more on that later.

One of the major issues the US will have to contemplate is Egyptian-Israeli relations, and the ongoing collapse of the Camp David framework that created a trilateral relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the US. Washington should not resist this: it will only make situation more brittle, and instead show the flexibility to reimagine its role in a post-Camp David Middle East.

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How Egyptian-Israeli border incidents used to be handled

In the coverage of the current state of Egyptian-Israeli relations, there is often a lack of historical memory of previous border incidents involving Israelis shooting Egyptian border guards. By some accounts, there are have been over 50 deaths of Egyptian guards or soldiers at the hands of Israelis (as well as a much smaller number at the hands of Palestinians) since the Camp David treaty was signed. Under Mubarak, these were most often swept under the carpet, so it's not altogether surprising that anger over the latest shootings was intense when Mubarak was no longer there: it's as if Egyptians were making up for lost time.
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In Italy, Eulogies for Qadhafi's Wealth Mismanagement Fund

"Want to bunga-bunga or should we just zenga-zenga?"

An item in the Wall Street Journal reminds us that the ties between Libya and Italy's elites are very, very deep, and, as benefiting the lives of the rich and famous, sometimes produce strange little stories that illustrate much larger forces at work - in this case, the economic future of Libya following the National Transitional Council (NTC) and NATO's military successes: 

ANTRODOCO, Italy - Maurizio Faina, mayor of this small Italian town, has for three years been planning the construction of a lavish spa here thanks to one deep-pocketed financial backer: Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Now that Col. Gadhafi is being ousted from power by his own people, "the whole plan is over, and it's sad," says the mayor, who had hoped to employ hundreds of people thanks to the €16 million ($22 million) resort.

Antrodroco's longing for Col. Gadhafi's largesse is a small, but significant, window into the vast economic ties between Italy and its former colony - a network that generated about $17 billion in annual trade before the conflict broke out.

Significantly, the spa deal began with a personal effort by Colonel Qadhafi (conduced alongside the Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi, who has cultivated close ties with the deposed leader) and was, according to Italian sources, being managed by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), whose multibillion dollar assets were frozen several months ago. These assets include stakes in UniCredit, Italy’s largest bank (who largest foreign owner was, until recently, the Libyan government); Eni, the state energy company that produces the lion’s share (60%) of Libya’s oil exports; and Finmeccanica, a partly government-owned conglomerate with interests in Libya ranging from infrastructure to defense. The regime also had smaller stakes in various Italian sports, automotive, media and telecom interests – and was reported to be eying another, even larger, resort project in the Italian spa town of Fiuggi (so the Colonel would have a choice of resorts, presumably).

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Erdogan vs. Egyptian Islamists

Among the interesting things that came out of Recep Erdogan's visit to Egypt (a topic on which I'm writing a longer piece) was the furore he caused among Egyptian Islamists when he endorsed secularism. Erdogan had a busy schedule, and did spend some of it meeting with religious figures such as Pope Shenouda and Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, as well as Islamist politicians, including MB General Guide Mohamed Badie, former MB and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (for some, the MB's stealth candidate). I think that's a first for any foreign head of government.

In his keynote speech at the Opera House, he reportedly made a statement in favor of a secular state as the only basis for social progress and economic development. I don't have a transcript of the speech to verify (and besides don't understand Turkish), but this bit in Erdogan's speech is causing quite a stir. The Muslim Brothers slammed Erdogan for "foreign intervention" — the classic infantile Egyptian reaction to any foreign leaders' statement on their country, as if saying something meant interfering — and the new Salafist party al-Fadila attacked him for favoring secularists over Islamists. Other Islamist leaders said  that the Turkish model is not reproducible in Egypt, but some talking heads think Erdogan's statement boosted the secularists' chances in the current debate over "Egypt's identity" and the future constitution.

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The Emergency Law needs to go

"No To Emergency"

Tomorrow is is set to be the "Friday of Deafening Silence," the latest in "million-man" protests to take place since Hosni Mubarak was deposed on February 11. Yes, it's a silly name. But this could be one of the more important protests that has taken place in a while.

Unfortunately, the picture has been muddied by last week's break-in at the Israeli embassy and the raids on interior ministry facilities, which are in part reported to have been attempts at destroying criminal records, etc. Considering the rather surprising reaction to the embassy incident — almost unanimous condemnation by political parties, activist groups, media figures, etc. including many Islamists of the embassy break-in and the other events of the day —  the current atmosphere is somewhat confused. On the one hand, last week's incidents have really driven home the need (and perhaps even more importantly, the public's desire) for greater order, and the difficult task of simultaneously empowering the ministry of interior to do its job and reforming it. 

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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Arab Spring


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,

More on the counter-revolution

This is going to be a bleak post, taking stock of some of the worrying developments of the last week:

- The re-invocation of Emergency Law, plus redundant, extra-repressive bells and whistles (see Issandr's post) clearly aimed at anybody (the media, unions, NGOs) who might be thinking about challenging the SCAF

- The crack-down on Al Jazeera's live Egypt channel and the general intimidation of the media 

- Rumours that the SCAF will appoint members of the constitutional assembly (rather than have parliament select them), going back on the agreed-to process sanctioned by last March's referendum -- and a dawning realization that presidential elections may not take place till mid-2012

- A judicial and political transition process that remains deeply (deliberately?) muddled, with almost all political parties criticizing the (as yet to be finalized) new electoral law, the new districting plan, the lack of a clear time-table -- to little avail. 

- A security apparatus that remains resistant to all change -- except for a name change -- and incapable of facing the country's quite real crime wave

- An opposition and protest movement that is more fragmented than ever, still stuck playing Tahrir politics 

Of course the activists who have been skeptical of the army from day one will say: Why are you surprised?

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Podcast #11: The embassy and the trial

In this week's podcast, AFP reporter Samer Al Atrush and journalist Steve Negus join Ursula Lindsey. We discuss the clashes of Friday 9 September, in which protester defaced the Ministry of Interior, broke into the Israeli embassy and fought the police, and ask: why did the army and police seem to stand back? And has the protest movement let itself in for a crackdown?

We also discuss Mubarak's trial (for ordering police to shoot at demonstrators, and for corruption) which so far has offered little in the way of a smoking gun and has been marred by chaos. Samer gives eye-witness accounts of the clashes around the Israeli embassy and of courtroom shenanigans.  

Links for this week's episode:

 (P.S.: we apologize to the poor sound quality of this week's podcast, due to technical problems and a broken microphone these were unavoidable.)

The Arabist Podcast #11

Links 9-12 September 2011

Links are a couple of days old as I was on the road. Back to regular activity soon.

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An apology to readers

This morning I posted an item by occasional contributor Paul Mutter that was based on a misdated Haaretz report, suggesting that the Israeli "loyalty law" discussed over the last year or two might soon pass. An alert reader pointed out the report was dated from last year, and a few Google searches confirmed that the law appears not to be slated for consideration at the Knesset for now. The Knesset is about to reopen from summer recess and the law may be submitted once again, but this morning's post was based on old information.

The post has been removed while I check out the facts. I should have edited the entry more thoroughly, but as I am traveling and very busy with other commitments, it slipped under me. This should not reflect negatively on Paul Mutter's work, which has been a solid contribution to this site.

Although this is not a professional news site (there is no funding, staff, etc.) I try to ensure the facts are always there to back up the opinion. This one slipped under the radar, and for that I'm sorry.


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,

More on Ultras, the Embassy, and the Friday of Not-Exactly-Putting-the-Revolution-Back-on-Track

The only surprising thing about the breach of the Israeli embassy in Cairo is that it never happened any time before in the past 30 years. In a city that abounds in isolated walled desert compounds, someone decided to put the most often marched-upon facility in Egypt in a quite ordinary apartment building in the heart of the city, whose defenses basically consist of however much force the security services choose to deploy on the street that particular day. Throughout the 1990s, at least once a year, students from nearby Cairo University staged a half-hearted attempt to storm the place. The hardcore "Ultra" football club fans who seemed to be a major contingent of yesterday's crowd may simply have been more persistant than your usual Cairo demonstrators -- partially because the self-styled "commandos of the revolution" (whose subculture is described by Ursula below) are used to fighting with police, and partially because they claimed to have one of their own dead to avenge, supposedly killed on Tuesday night post-match battle between Ahly club fans and police on Saleh Salem Road.

So, rather than being satisfied with a few hours of melee with the police, they kept up the battle until late into the night,

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On the Israeli embassy incident

I don't have much time but can't resist a quick comment on the attack on the Israeli embassy last night, which is already the subject of much Twitter debate.

First, what happened: yesterday there were multiple protests in Cairo, starting with one of several tens of thousands who called for an end to military tribunals, greater judicial independence, a better electoral law and other measures. The protest also was against Israel, for the recent killing of six Egyptian border guards. Some of these protestors went to the Israeli embassy, and this ended with a confrontation with police and military and, for the first time in the history of protests against the Israeli embassy, a break-in in what was probably the non-secure portion of its offices.

A few points:

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Ultras & the revolution

Yesterday was a long, hot, busy day in Cairo. As darkness fell, protests were taking place in Tahrir (against the proposed election law and suspected collusion/incompetence in Mubarak's trial) and in front of the High Court (in favour of judicial independence). Young, energetic, overwhelmingly male crowds were also busy knocking down the recently erected protective wall around the Israeli Embassy and reportedly removing the large eagle motif and most of the letters from the wall of the Ministry of Interior, leaving anti-army and anti-police graffiti in its place. 

A lot of these young men were reportedly football ultras. These obsessive and aggressive fans -- who have experience clashing with the police -- were also at the vanguard of a lot of the revolution's fighting. In fact, I heard so much about them that I sat down with one, a Zamalek White Knight, a few months back.

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