Egypt's raids on NGOs

Note: this post was written yesterday. I understand the US NGOs have had their property returned after the intervention of the US government.

I'm away from Cairo at the moment, so apart from a few panicked SMSs from friends and the coverage on Twitter I have not really followed yesterday's raids on six NGOs by the Egyptian police. Links for reported stories on what happened are at the bottom of the post. I want here only to give my own interpretation of what's happening.

Such a course of action was a possibility, of course, since last September or so when investigations into NGOs that receive foreign funding were initiated by SCAF, Minister of State for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga and the ministry of justice. The fight over NGOs, and the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be mostly drawing attention to Western-funded NGOs rather than Gulf-funded Islamic charities, is a manufactured crisis created to use as a card against Western, and more specifically US, pressure on the Egyptian government.

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Egypt, Pakistan, the US and the "right side of history"

Congress is going ahead with plans to make aid to Egypt, including military aid, contingent on Egypt’s relations with Israel and a successful transition:

Reflecting concerns about uncertainty within the Egyptian government, the bill would restrict $1.3 billion in security assistance to Cairo and $250 million in economic assistance until the secretary of state certifies to Congress that Egypt is abiding by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, military rulers are supporting the transition to civilian government with free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.” 

These and other restrictions — notably on the Palestinan Authority and Pakistan — carry “national security wavers” — meaning the Secretary of State can easily lift them. ( Read more: Congress moves to restrict aid to Egypt, Pakistan )

Meanwhile Mamoun Fendi says Egypt could be come worse than Pakistan and underlines Tantawi’s experience in that country during the abominable reign of Zia al-Haq:

The past experience of three major players on the Egyptian political scene ― the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the US Embassy and Islamists ― suggests that Egypt may soon come to resemble Pakistan.

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The Return to "Normalcy" in the Gulf

The U.S. is not so much ignoring the Arab Spring (since it cannot be ignored), but viewing it in the larger context — i.e., our Cold-Hot War with the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1979 to the present. As one U.S. official told the WSJ when asked how arms sales to the U.S.'s Arab allies were being impacted by domestic unrest, the response was "We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy," i.e., arms sales that send a clear message to Iran (ironically, when Warren G. Harding first used that word in 1920, it was followed up by a major reduction of the U.S. armed forces' strength). 

From Reuters:

"The Pentagon is considering a significant sale of [4,900] Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAMs] made by Boeing Co, adding to other recent arms deals with the UAE. These include the sale of 500 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles about which U.S. lawmakers were notified in September."

"The sale of Boeing-built "bunker-buster" bombs and other munitions to UAE, a key Gulf ally, is part of an ongoing U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran."

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The Economist says US should give Middle East a nuclear umbrella against Iran

I could not disagree further with this (the bold bit):

If Iran does not halt its nuclear programme, its rulers should expect their country to be treated as an international pariah. That means not just pushing for more serious sanctions, but also stepping up the covert campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear facilities. It also means preparing for the day when Iran deploys nuclear weapons. To that end, America must demonstrate to its allies who feel threatened by Iran—not just Israel, but Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states too—that its commitment to extending nuclear deterrence to them is as firm as it was to Europe at the height of the cold war. America must also be willing to make available to its allies advanced ballistic missile defences.

Iran must be made to understand that owning nuclear weapons is a curse for it rather than a blessing. And Israel must be persuaded that striking Iran would be far more dangerous than living with its nuclear ambitions.

Overall this leader strikes the right tone, although it inverses the seriousness of the crimes: a nuclear Iran would be a breach of the NPT, but a strike on Iran is an act of war that strikes at the very foundation of the international legal system. In any case, the suggestion that the US should extend a Cold War style nuclear umbrella over the Middle East is pure folly, the exact opposite of the disengagement from the region by the US that is now necessary. Iran's nuclear program does not represent a threat in itself (few think Iran would use the bomb) but rather an increase of Iran's regional prestige and influence. It is also a reaction to a long threat of regime change against it (and the case of Libya must not be giving it confidence that giving up nuclear weapons is the right choice.)

This idea of a US nuclear umbrella, though, strikes me as deeply flawed. Who is going to pay for this nuclear umbrella? What risks will it expose the US to? What kind of overstretch will it be getting into? What does it mean in terms of the number of ships, submarines, bases, aircraft, etc. affected to the region? There were dozens of US bases across Europe providing a nuclear umbrella there. Do we really need more in the Middle East?

Should the US cut its aid to Egypt?

With the Maspero massacre, the widespread use of military tribunals, high-profile detentions like that of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mikael Nabil, and its apparent attempts to rig the next constitution, Egypt's current military junta isw not looking good to anyone, inside Egypt or outside. But to both, it also looks like the only choice, the devil you have to deal with. This ambivalence has now revived that old problem of US-Egypt relations in the Mubarak era, Washington's acute clientitis problem: you're stuck with a client regime you don't like, but have little alternative but to continue because of a set of related policy questions.

This was the reason that for years aid continued to flow to Egypt, despite some congressional opposition, even at the nadir of the relationship between the Bush administration and the Mubarak regime. Oddly, both the criticism of aid to Egypt in Congress and support for it in the administration has largely been about Israel. On the one hand, congresspeople wanted to pressure Egypt to do more on the Gaza/Hamas issue, and on the other the administration did not want to sever military aid it views as underwriting the trilateral relationship created by Camp David. A secondary concern was the late Mubarak regime's autocratic turn and, now, SCAF's increasingly autocratic and incompetent leadership.

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Making a mess of Iraq

Hugh Pope, author of "Dining with al-Qaeda", reviews Peter van Buren's "We Meant Well", the memoir of a State Dept. provincial governor in Iraq, on his blog. I had the pleasure of having dinner at Hugh's beautiful Istanbul home last week (fantastic fish!) and he was raving about this book:

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

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The Moroccan initiative

This is one hell of a story from the AP, uncovering CIA collaboration with the NYPD to do obsessive spying on Muslim communities in New York — and in particular shops owned by Moroccan immigrants. A few excerpts:

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD's claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

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The Rio Grande, the Jordan and the Hudson

Hoo boy. It's going to be a real a Zionist lovefest in NYC today as the GOP, members of the Israel lobby and Likud convene at 10am on Tuesday, September 20th in the W Hotel in Manhattan. Their rally/press conference will be led by GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry and KM Danny Danon. From JPost:

"Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry will hold a press conference with American and Israeli-Jewish leaders in New York on Tuesday in which he is expected to address the upcoming deliberations at the United Nations, MK Danny Danon (Likud), said on Saturday night."

"Danon, who will participate at the press conference, said he would ask Perry ahead of the conference to adopt the initiative the MK is advancing to annex Judea and Samaria in response to the unilateral Palestinian moves at the UN."

Danon, already in the U.S. to speak at nationwide Zionist fundraisers and rallies prior to the UN vote, has proposed an "Annexation for Declaration Initiative," which would "establish full sovereignty over the Jewish communities of the West Bank . . . our historic homeland of Judea and Samaria:"

"Under [my] three-state solution, Arab-Israelis residing within Israel would be welcome to join the official new State of Israel. The remaining enclaves of Palestinian towns and villages in Judea and Samaria would become part of either Egypt or Jordan, and the Egyptian and Jordanian borders would extend accordingly to these designated towns."

[Snip]

"Both Jordan and Egypt have expressed strong support and concern for Palestinians living in the West Bank. If they truly care so much, then they should readily agree to a three-state solution and incorporate the Palestinian towns located adjacent to their current borders."

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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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Saudi to US: Give us Predator drones to use in Yemen

This is a guest post by Paul Mutter.

U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen (which I reported on for The Arabist a few months ago) have not been without controversy. While the U.S. conducts it own drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al Qaeda targets and provides extensive funding, intelligence and training to government forces, it also provides satellite imagery to the Saudis, who conduct airstrikes and ground offensives against suspected al Qaeda targets and anti-government Shia militias. Given that much of the U.S.-Saudi joint effort has come in the form of airstrikes, many of the same objections regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been raised over the air campaigns in Yemen. In February 2010, according to diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh recently released by Wikileaks, the U.S. raised such objections with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, but was satisfied with their response to the matter and has continued supplying them with satellite data.

The Saudi military, never ones to pass up an opportunity to expand their capabilities, used the opportunity of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to suggest that "if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem [of killing Yemeni civilians].”

“Obviously, some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen," Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled concluded, when the U.S. presented him with evidence that Saudi airstrikes were inaccurate and caused collateral damage to civilian facilities, such as medical clinics. 

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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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The old Egypt-US aid fandango

Jaroslav Trofimov of the WSJ has a piece highlighting linguering opposition to USAID funding of NGOs and recognition of the democracy promotion outfits NDI and IRI in Egypt:

CAIRO—A U.S. plan to fund the democratic transition in Egypt has led to a confrontation with the country's new rulers, who are suspicious of American aims and what they see as political interference in the aftermath of President Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Senior Egyptian officials have warned nongovernment organizations that taking U.S. funding would damage the country's security. The Egyptian government has also complained directly to the U.S.

"I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us—or worse, to force it on us," Fayza Aboul Naga, who has been Egypt's minister for planning and international cooperation since before the revolution, told The Wall Street Journal.

Ah, that old chestnut. Why not make it more simple and just cut off all economic and military aid altogether? A lot of people in DC think that would be rather weird — backing an autocratic Mubarak regime but not its successor. But these things should not be thought of in terms of Egypt, they should be thought of in terms of the US. Money could be better spend at home, and aid to Egypt and Israel has for decades used to a large extent to maintain autocratic regime (the one in Egypt and the one that rules the Occupied Territories.) Cut them both off and let's stop listening to their complaints. 

Of course, that's not the way these things work out. It looks like we're set for more passive-aggressive drama as the US goes ahead with disbursing the aid anyway and the Egyptian government whines about it. At least it's better than accepting restrictions on some aid distribution the way the Bush administration did for years

And one more thing: why does Fayza Aboul Naga, who is widely seen within the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a loose cannon, still have a job?

Donald of Arabia

I just came back from a few days in New York. As always when in the US, I watch Fox News in the hotel room (not because I think it's representative, but because it's so jaw-droppingly fascinating). On Fox and other channels, Donald Trump is very much the flavor of the moment, as well as an unlikely early leader for the Republican presidential primary. It's a good indication of how weird the Republicans have become, and how the Tea Party crowd has turned it upside down. 

In the video above, the Donald makes some quite insane comments about the Arab world. Some are refreshingly honest, like when he says he would only go to Libya "if we get the oil", and then some very ignorant ones, like how without the US, the Arab countries "wouldn't exist". (My favorite piece of Moroccan-American trivia: the Sultanate of Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the United States in 1777). I tend to think that Trump's bizarre candidacy is a good thing, hoping that it will weaken the Republicans, but then again who knows if the alternative is that much better...

[Via Zeinobia]

Aswani: Does the world want a democratic Egypt?

Alaa al-Aswany in al-Masri al-Youm:

Unfortunately, Egypt’s history is replete with lost opportunities for democratization. We now have another opportunity, which I hope will not be lost. The 25 January revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to step down. Hundreds of Egyptians sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Since its inception, however, the revolution was confronted with a vicious counter-revolution — both inside and outside of Egypt.  

A few days ago, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar reported that Egyptian authorities are under massive pressure from Arab rulers, especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to ensure that Mubarak is not tried. The report asserted that these Arab states had directly threatened to freeze all relations with Cairo, cut all financial assistance, and withdraw their investments from Egypt. They even went as far as threatening to dismiss the 5 million Egyptians working in those countries, if Mubarak were to be tried.

For its part, Israel always defended Hosni Mubarak, one of its best allies. The Israeli press does not conceal its concerns about meaningful democratic change in Egypt. The US administration has a similar position. Both American and Israeli officials recognize Egypt’s potential and know it will become a powerful regional force in a matter of years, if it becomes a democracy.

He's right — unfortunately, both regional players and the West have little interest in an Egyptian democracy if that means real debate about foreign and economic policy of the kind we've seen in Turkey. Just look how some think-tankers in Washington have sought to encourage US support of the Turkish military on the basis that it is secularist (as opposed to the AKP) even as it was revealed that it attempted to stage a coup.

Let's buy democracy

A high-powered delegation of U.S. officials visited Cairo last month to find ways to support the revolution. They, along with diplomatic and development officials, have been working quietly, meeting with residents, activists and the leadership, and asking how best to spend the $150 million that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said would soon be available to help shore up the economy and provide technical assistance in the move toward democracy.

By the time the U.S. delegation departed, no Egyptian pro-democracy organizations had asked for assistance.

No doubt in due time they'll find the usual opportunistic organizations that only exist because aid has been earmarked to suck at their teat. But I find nothing more sordid than the idea of "political party development" — if a political movement is not organized enough to launch a party, of which there have been plenty in Egypt's history, then it does not deserve to be a party. Let it fail, others will succeed. If any aid has to be accepted, I'd much rather see it go to a NGO dedicated to collecting, assessing and conserving State Security documents (and linking them with US ones through Freedom of Information requests.)

In the meantime aid money is much better spent on restoring the world's support in the economies of Egypt and Tunisia — guaranteeing loans, working on improving risk ratings, etc.

US statement on events in Egypt

Again, just putting up this statement to make it easy for people to find. I liked Obama's mention of Sudan and Tunisia in the SOTU. I don't expect much more than this from State. It's now up to the Egyptian people to show take to the streets again and make their voice heard. People in the comments think I'm too positive about these US statements, but perhaps you don't understand my perspective: I have low expectations, which is only normal when the US (and every other major Western country) has supported dictators in the Middle East for fifty years.
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Lobby of Sin

This AIPAC vs. Steve Rosen story just keeps getting better and better. First there was all the admission that viewing porn is routine in AIPAC's office, one of the most surreal passages of the long deposition now available in PDF [8MB, cache]. It all starts at page 68, but some genius has made the passage into a cartoon with cute cartoon characters and put it on YouTube.

Unfortunately it's not viewable outside the US, but click on the image below for another version.

Then there was the admission Steve Rosen, five times married, used AIPAC offices for gay hookups. Well not exactly gay actually:

The Israel lobby gone wild - Israel - Salon.com

The putative purpose of the porn line of questioning was to establish that Rosen had not comported by AIPAC's standards for employees. Less clear is why AIPAC's attorney asked the married Rosen about his sexual encounters with men found on Craigslist. From Page 68:

Q If you had browsed the web for sexual encounters with gay men while at AIPAC , would that in your opinion be a violation of the computer usage policy at AIPAC?

A First, a technical correction. I actually sought married men like myself, not gay men, or I don't know what you mean by the word "gay men," but not men who were primarily living the life that's referred to as the gay community and so on.

We also find out about Rosen's reaction when he found out he would be charged with espionage:

From: AIPAC On The Brink: And Not One Word In MSM | TPMCafe

Beyond the smut, the most shocking revelation in the court documents is when Rosen reveals that immediately upon being told by the FBI that he was in serious trouble, and being warned by AIPAC's counsel to come immediately to his office and talk to no one in advance, he immediately ran to meet with the #2 at the Israeli embassy!

And also about the generosity of major donors to AIPAC and other pro-Israel and/or Jewish organizations decided they would back the man accused of espionage (and who has pretty much admitted to passing on classified information to Israeli diplomats). 

From: AIPAC Gets Down and Dirty in Pushback vs. Defamation Suit - Forward.com:

The court documents also shed light on Rosen's attempts to support himself and his family after being fired from AIPAC. The former lobbyist, as the depositions indicate, received cash gifts from several prominent Jewish philanthropists, among them some who are also major donors to AIPAC. The list includes Hollywood mogul Haim Saban, one of AIPAC's key funders, who gave Rosen a total of $100,000; Daniel Abraham, founder of the Center for Middle East Peace, who gave Rosen, his wife and three children gifts of $5,000 to $10,000; and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, who paid off a college loan for Rosen's daughter. The list includes several other backers, including two described as "bundlers" who raised up to $200,000 for Rosen from other donors.

But of course the real scandal is how much this reveals about the way AIPAC works. The embarassment from the sexual content of the testimony is not much compared to AIPAC avoiding a full FBI investigation into the way it does business and its established practice of passing on confidential or classified information to spin for Israel. As Grant Smith writes:

As Rosen and AIPAC tussle in court over the organization’s long history of using classified national defense and economic information for the benefit of their foreign principal, Americans must begin to ask some very serious governance questions. Why won’t the mainstream media cover any aspect of the defamation suit? Shouldn’t this matter have been resolved in a bona fide criminal setting in 2009 rather than being surrendered by prosecutors under the watchful eye of Obama political appointees? Why wasn’t AIPAC itself indicted for espionage? And most important of all, why isn’t AIPAC properly registered as a foreign agent of the government with which it breaks bread (and chocolate) on Fridays?