Podcast #15: After Maspero

In this week’s podcast, we turn to the tragic events on October 9 in Downtown Cairo, when at least 25 people (mostly Coptic protestors) were killed at the Maspero state TV building. Ashraf, Ursula and I host New York Review of Books contributor Yasmine El Rashidi, an eyewitness to the massacre, and talk about what happened and its consequences.

Links for this week’s episode:

Arabist Podcast #15

The Economist debates the Middle East Peace Process

The Economist is hosting one its week-long online debates this week, on the following question:

This house believes that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not currently a viable way to reach a two-state solution. 

On one side of the debate is David Makovsky, an Israeli-American and a major figure of the Israel lobby writ large in Washington and director of the leading Zionist think tank WINEP.

On the other side is Daniel Levy, who is Israeli-British, the co-director of the left-leaning New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, and former peace-processor in the government of Ehud Barak. Levy has written some great things generally and is taking the lead on skepticism about resuming negotiations now. 

Two Israelis. Two commonly seen talking heads about the nitty-gritty of the 20-year peace process. I like Daniel Levy and his work, so at least there is a real difference between the sides, but still: there are so much fewer opportunities for Palestinian (or other Arab) analysts to put their views on this topic to a public of the kind The Economist can muster. 

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POMED's Guide to Tunisia's elections

Tunisia's elections for a constituent assembly will take place on 23 October, and Ursula and I are headed over to Tunis tomorrow (along with half the Cairo press corps, analysts and election monitors) for a week. The video above is a get-out-the-vote initiative by Tunisian up-and-coming artists, and to read up on the elections themselves, check out POMED's Guide to the Tunisian Elections.

Mariz Tadros on Maspero

This part of her excellent MERIP article highlights the state media complicity in the violence:

The second action was to announce on state-run television that “Copts” had put the army itself in peril. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen read: “Urgent: The Army Is Under Attack by Copts.” The presenter called upon all “honorable citizens” to go to Maspero to help defend the soldiers. Around this time, a report was also circulated that that two officers had been martyred at Coptic hands. Viewers at home were not unmoved. Indeed, that evening, many residents of Bulaq and other nearby working-class districts armed themselves with clubs and other weapons, before heading off to Maspero to assist the army in beating up and even killing protesters. One corpse had its head split in two, clearly by a sword or another sharp instrument, not an army-issue weapon.

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Nir Rosen on Syria's Alawites

Fascinating long-form reporting, part one and part two, by the intrepid Nir Rosen. An excerpt:

With an identity based on Assad's rule, they have adopted slogans such as "Assad for ever", unable to separate themselves from the regime or imagine a Syria without Assad. Alawites who dare to oppose the regime believe they will face extra punishment for their "betrayal".

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Living with the enemy in the Gaza Strip

Yousef Bashir, 22, lives with a bullet lodged near his spine.  “When I imagine myself without the bullet in my back I ask myself would I be the same?” he said. “That bullet talks to me and I talk to it everyday. It is a very personal thing that I go through,” he continued. “I know that it was put there to destroy my life. I look at it and I say I am not destroyed yet.”

Bashir has very personal ties to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He grew up in the Gaza Strip next to the Israeli settlement Kfar Darom, which was evacuated in 2005. The battle lines ran right through his house. When the second Palestinian Intifada broke out, Israeli soldiers moved into his home. Bashir was 11 years old at the time. His father, Khalil Bashir, refused to leave the house and so the family - Yousef Bashir, his grandmother, parents and his siblings - spent five years living with the soldiers, who occupied the top two floors.

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How many SCAF generals does it take to screw on a lightbulb?

(This post is motivated by today's performance by General Adel Emara, in the press conference today in which he explained that the military did not shoot or run over anyone on October 9, among other things.)

Possible answers:

  • The screwing-on of lightbulbs is a sacred national duty that will be carried out with due haste with by appropriate number of generals according to a set but secret timetable.
  • The inability to restore the lighbulb to its rightful function is the work of infiltrators and saboteurs!
  • A foreign hand has stolen the lightbulb, but its plots will be foiled.
  • No foreign agenda can dictate to us what to do with the lightbulb!
  • Despite reports and video evidence to the contrary, we assure you that the lightbulb is fully functioning.
  • Together, the SCAF and the people will ensure that all lightbulbs everywhere are screwed on with one hand!
  • We refuse the lightbulb's resignation and order it to return to its socket immediately!
  • How do you know about the lightbulb, spy?

I urge you to contribute your own in the comments.

In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

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Crack-down in Bahrain

We talked about Bahrain in our last podcast. I have been in touch with students and professors there for a story on the how the crackdown on the country's Shia protest movement has affected universities for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The incredible verdicts against doctors have gotten the most attention, but students and professor have also been targeted: 

On October 3, six university students were sentenced to 15-year jail terms and another student to an 18-year term by a special military court. They were accused of attempted murder, arson, and vandalism in connection with clashes that took place on the campus of the University of Bahrain, the main national university, on March 13. The students and their supporters say the violence that day was carried out by Bahrain security forces and government supporters, none of whom have been charged.

Other students and professors are facing charges of illegal assembly, incitement, and disturbing the peace. At least 100 professors and university administrators have been fired, and about 60 students have been denied the right to continue their studies.

After the jump I'm attaching an interview with an (anonymous, by necessity) fired Bahraini university professor that didn't make it into the piece. 

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On Egypt’s supposed odious debt

The other day I linked to an article by Saifedean Ammous, a lecturer in economics at AUB, titled Egypt’s Odious Debts. It argued:

A glance at Egypt’s public finances reveals a disturbing fact: the interest that the country pays on its foreign loans is larger than its budget for education, healthcare, and housing combined. Indeed, these debt-service costs alone account for 22% of the Egyptian government’s total expenditures.

I mentioned in passing that this is wrong, Egypt’s biggest problem is domestic, not foreign, debt. Just take a look at the budget: it pretty clearly shows that Foreign interest expense was EGP2.8 billion in FY2009/10 (less than 1% of budget sector expenditures) and an estimated EGP3.4 billion (again less than 1%) in the year just ended. Whereas domestic interest expense was EGP69.5 billion in FY2009/10 (19% of spending) and EGP77.7 billion (20% of spending) last year.

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Bullets from Maspero


These bullets were shown to me by relatives of the victims of the October 9 massacre at Maspero. Anyone have any insight on the type of ammunition used or the markings on the casings? Click on the pics for a larger size.

Notes from a shell-shocked Egypt

Here are links to pieces I read yesterday about the massacre at Maspero on October 9, in no particular order, while above is Rawya Rageh's report for al-Jazeera English last night. A longer post is forthcoming, but the mood in Egypt is one of mourning and suspended life (Cairo felt eerily empty yesterday), with the political outcome unclear. There has been some focus on whether elections will be postponed (SCAF says no), but I think this is besides the point: the real question is whether political parties and civil society will push for genuine accountability (for the military and the state media), and more generally whether the parties and revolutionary movements have the appetite to take on SCAF. More on all this later.

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More on yesterday's violence in Cairo

A piece of mine just went up on the Daily Beast about yesterday's clashes and deaths. Visited the Coptic Hospital this morning, and were told that while the bodies of 17 dead protesters lay inside, it was attacked by gangs last night and Christian men in the neighborhood had to defend it for hours. The footage below is of those clashes, from Al Masry Al Youm. 

And now I am hearing that State TV is admitting that no soldiers were killed. Can we confirm this? If this is true it is absolutely unbelievable. The automatic goverment agit-prop on this is almost as bad as the deaths. Every single (Arabic language) Egyptian newspaper with the exception of Tahrir newspaper led with stories and images today that emphasized the violence on the part of the demonstrators, not the army. Al Ahram's disingenuous headine reads: "Twenty-Four Soldiers and Demonstrators Dead.." It really is a full return to the days of the revolution. 

Maspero and sectarianism in Egypt

The clashes that broke out a few hours ago at Maspero, the large Downtown Cairo building near Tahrir Square that houses the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (basically, state TV and radio), are a deeply worrisome turn in Egypt’s fledging transition.

Worrisome because they started off at a protest of Christians (joined by some Muslims) over restrictions on church-building and have taken on a more sectarian overtone than anything we’ve seen so far.

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Podcast #14: The Ones That Didn't Make It (Yet)

This week we discuss those Arab revolutions that are still in progress or are being stopped dead in their tracks: Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Links referenced in this week's podcast:

Podcast #14