Arrests, demonstrations in Sudan will coincide with coup anniversary

Amnesty International reports that ahead of a new round of protests against the government in Khartoum, activist Magdi Aqasha, the head of Sharara (Youth for Change), was arrested on the pretext of causing a traffic accident. Sudanese security agents, who used the accident as a pretext to take him in before Friday’s demonstrations begun, were reportedly tailing Aqasha.

Additionally, internet users in Sudan reported that Zain Mobile, one of Sudan’s largest cell phone provides, went down for two hours early on Friday morning, though state-owned media and other private outlets were apparently not affected. Though Zain Sudan’s services are now functioning, the blackout – and the censure of the Arabic-language news outlet Hurriyat Sudan plus three independent dailies – unnerved Sudanese activists and reporters, who expect the next few days to see further crackdowns on demonstrators protesting government austerity measures. There are also rumors that classes at the University of Khartoum and other schools will again be suspended, as they were last winter, as a result of the protests.

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Muslim Brotherhood Tallies and Keeping Egypt Honest

Last week's anxiety-ridden wait for the winner of the Egyptian presidential election to be declared was perceived by many as a game of shadow boxing between SCAF and the MB — whereby the former put pressure on the latter or gave itself the option of rigging the election for Ahmed Shafiq. As many have noted, only the MB could have had the national organization to collect the tallies of votes polling station by polling station, raising the question of whether the regime could have gotten away with rigging the elections if Aboul Fotouh or Sabahi had been in the runoff against Shafiq. Contributor Bilal Ahmed sent in his thoughts on the matter.

My initial skepticism regarding the Morsi presidency has faded in light of his announced victory. I was wondering if the nearly 800,000 votes that were voided would change the election results, but the commission reiterated the Muslim Brotherhood’s announcement last week. Egypt’s first president after the revolution is Mohamed Morsi.

The most striking thing about these elections, and probably one of its most important lasting effects, is the accuracy of the independent tallies conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political faction the Freedom and Justice Party. There is no other organized political force in Egypt with the resources to accurately conduct polling at all of Egypt’s 16 000 polling stations, and the MB has not squandered its opportunity to occupy this role.

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President Morsi (for sure this time.)

I was in the train between Brussels and Paris when, twitching like a maniac as I pressed refresh on the Twitter app on my iPad and grumbled about the endless speech by Presidential Election Commission head Farouq Sultan, Mohammed Morsi's victory was announced. The celebration in Tahrir and elsewhere shows many Egyptians are delighted at the news, or at least for some at Ahmed Shafiq's defeat. They are right to be enthusiastic: a Shafiq victory would have been a disaster for most Egyptians, a signal for the resurrection of the police state, and considering that the victory would have been considered stolen by many, probably the cause of much bloodshed.

But what of a Morsi victory? At the symbolic level, it is important: Morsi is the first democratically elected Islamist president of the Arab world, and also Egypt's first civilian president. His victory signals the defeat, for now, of the felool and the patronage networks of the Mubarak regime.

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The protests in Sudan

A friend in Khartoum writes:

In case you missed it in the Egypt fray, things are heating up in Khartoum as well. Rumor has it they may shut down the internet tomorrow. Enjoy the coup, they might follow suit here.

The basic story is one that's been the horizon for a while. Reductions in oil income are forcing the government to cut off subsidies, which the opposition is now using to agitate against the regime. In early 2011 I thought Sudan was very vulnerable to an uprising, but while there were some protests at the time the Bashir regime repressed them quickly. Now they're back.

From Reuters:

(Reuters) - Anti-government protests erupted across Khartoum as Sudanese took to the streets after Friday prayers in the most widespread demonstrations yet against spending cuts unveiled this week.

The demonstrations, now in their sixth day, expanded beyond the core of student activists and spread into several neighborhoods that had been quiet.

The smell of teargas hung in the air and broken rocks covered streets as riot police and demonstrators faced off throughout the city, witnesses said. Demonstrators burned tires and security forces used batons to disperse them.

Large demonstrations have been relatively rare in Sudan, which avoided the "Arab Spring" protest movements which swept through neighboring Egypt and Libya. Security forces usually quickly disperse protests.

But government measures to cut spending to plug a budget gap - including the highly unpopular move of scaling back fuel subsidies - unleashed the protests.

The country has faced soaring inflation since South Sudan seceded a year ago - taking with it about three quarters of the country's oil production - and activists have been trying to use public frustration to build a movement to topple the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Things are messy as ever down south too, which isn't helping.

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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.

In Translation: Wael Qandil on uniting Tahrir

Wael Qandil, the managing editor of al-Shorouk, penned a powerful op-ed after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011. He’s been re-running it after the constitutional coup made by SCAF on June 17. We are seeing some signs of the unity he called for in the last few days, but no doubt around a different man that he had hoped.

Our In Translation feature is brought to you by the most excellent Industry Arabic. Please help them help us to continue bringing you insightful articles from the Arabic press by hiring them for any translation needs you or your company may have — they come highly recommended.

Hope Not Lost for Tahrir Square

Wael Qandil, al-Shorouk, 19 June 2012

The lines below were published in the early morning of Saturday, 19 February 2011, only one week after the fall of ousted President [Hosni Mubarak]. I hope the reader will allow me to republish this article because the events we are living through now resemble those very moments that followed the maturation of the first fruits from the tree of the revolution.

No matter how hard they may try to contain it, splinter it, or bring it under control there is no need to worry about the revolution as long as there is Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Square of Forty in the Suez, and al-Manshiyya Square in Alexandria, and others like these in all of Egypt’s governorates.

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Egypt's Quantum Entanglement

I'm contributing to the IHT's global opinion blog, Latitude. Here's the first piece:

CAIRO — In the famous thought experiment by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a cat that is placed in a box, alongside a radioactive element whose decay will trigger the release of a deadly poison, is said to be at once alive and dead. According to the laws of quantum physics there is an equal chance that the radioactive element will decay and that it won’t. Thus Schrodinger posited that until the box is opened and the cat’s state observed, the animal is theoretically in a state where both possibilities co-exist.

Egypt’s seemingly endless transition appears to have entered a similarly bizarre quantum state, where things both are and are not. The deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was supposed to be dying, then to have been clinically dead, and then merely to be in a coma. Finally he was said to be fine, just injured from a slip in the shower. For about 24 hours, like Schrodinger’s cat, Mubarak was both dead and alive.

Read the rest here.

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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.

Podcast #33: Egypt's quantum politics, or Schrodinger's transition

It's never a dull day in Egypt. Your exhausted podcasters explain the week that turned Egypt's flailing transition into a full-blown military coup, breaking down the steps: the Supreme Constitutional Court verdicts, SCAF's new constitutional declaration, the dual claims for the presidency, Mubarak's night of the living dead, and more. It's as if Egypt's politics have entered a quantum state, where every possibility is true and false at the same time. Fasten your seatbelts, turbulence ahead.

Show notes: 

From the blog:

Podcast #33:

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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.

Twitter down, but not just in Egypt this time

They're having outages everywhere, apparently. But for those few minutes I wondered if it had been banned in Egypt, so that all those rumors (in which are hidden kernels of truth) could stop spreading.

Once bitten, twice shy.

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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.

Welcome to the desert of the real

Voila Capture14

The above pic from a gallery by Julien Chatelin at Guernica:

The images of a crowded and riotous Tahrir Square are the most recent portraits of Egypt burnished in the public imagination. They offer a glimpse into a constantly evolving narrative of a nation whose political upheaval has transformed our understanding and perceptions of politics in the Arab world.

Far from Cairo’s tumultuous center, however, lies a world trapped in time, cities littered with the remains of real-estate promoters’ pharaonic projects. It is an abandoned landscape where a solitary figure wandering the empty streets seems to endlessly linger, and the half-built apartment buildings scattered on the sides of the road give the impression not only of defeat, but a cruel absurdity.

These images are wonderful, and really do capture the surreal nature of scenes on Egypt's desert roads. To me they evoke something quite specific, as many of the structures in the pictures are of abandoned military installations and a lot of that desert land once belonged or was controlled by the military. Military installations that serve no purpose, military land that was sold for profit — all symbols of a military whose greatest success has been snatching domestic political victories from multiple defeats on the battlefield, which exiled or put under house arrest its few heroes, whose own grasp on power is more brittle than it has ever been, even if it retains terrible repressive powers. In this sense the surrealism of Egyptian politics is a reflection of the cognitive dissonance between the military's claim to being the last great institution left standing and its sheer mediocrity.

Mediocrity can still crush bones and crack skulls, of course. Egypt is divided, political factions are cowardly and mistrustful of each other, and there is little appetite for further unrest. The country has reached a fork in the road, yet two years ago who could even guess that there was a choice ahead?

Voila Capture15 

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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.

The clock is ticking... for Washington

I took this photo on January 29, 2011 in Tahrir Square. Back to the same issue.

Readers of this blog know that I am against US military aid to Egypt. I was against it under Mubarak and am against it under SCAF. I am partly against aid because I'm not a big fan of any of the big Middle Eastern aid packages, because of the specifics of the Egyptian situation, although I am not against it under any circumstances. The national security waiver exercised by the Obama administration in March was premature and unwarranted, and now they have egg on their face. Washington can buy itself a few days to figure out what's going to happen in Egypt this week — this is what the recent statements frm the State Dept. being "troubled" by the recent developments amount to but the clock is ticking: they will either have to suspend the aid or be openly in favor of SCAF's constitutional coup if they continue it.

It's a situation as black-and-white as the one we see in Egypt today, despite all attempts to fudge the issue. Sara Khorshid puts it well in this NYT op-ed, The Betrayal of Egypt's Revolution:

Given the military’s consistent disregard for basic democratic norms over the past 16 months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s comment last week that “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people” sounded ridiculous.

Despite the army’s blatant power grabs, the Obama administration has had no qualms about restoring American military aid, waiving a Congressional requirement that links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms, so as to preserve the United States’ longtime alliance with Egypt’s rulers.

America could have sided with the Egyptian people if it had wanted to. But the question is whether the American government really has the will to see Egypt become a democracy.

If the Obama administration genuinely supports the Egyptian people in their pursuit of freedom, then it should realize that democracy will take root only through the revolutionary path that started on the streets in January 2011 — not through the dubious ways of the Mubarak-appointed military council.

Shadi Hamid (with whom I cordially disagree on many issues) also put it well yesterday on Twitter:

These two are Egyptians (Shadi is Egyptian-American), which is important — I think more Egyptians are willing to publicly take this stance. More Americans need to care about this, too. I'm not Egyptian, and care mostly about this for American reasons. It's not just that I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize the US defense industry and pampered generals in Cairo. It's also that I don't want the blowback when Egyptians turn to Americans and say, "you supported our dictators".  The time has come: the US may not be able to influence developments in Egypt, but at least it can stop underwriting them.

No matter which way you look at it, trouble ahead

As I warned on Twitter, there should be caution about rushing to think Mohammed Morsi is Egypt's next president. From my understanding from this morning's figures, the difference between he and Shafiq is about 900,000 votes with over 3,000,000 votes uncounted. The Presidential Election Commission says it will not give the final results until Wednesday or Thursday and there is likely to be some contestation by both sides, and perhaps even partial recounts. Ultimately what the PEC says will hold, since you cannot appeal their decision.

So one real possibility is that Shafiq will be declared president and the MB, having already announced its victory, will go ballistic. Or that Shafiq will lose and his supporters will go ballistic.

And then there's the question of parliament. It's still expected that tomorrow MPs (at least Islamist ones) will march to parliament to hold a session on which they will decide parliament's response to the court verdict. Except that parliament is surrounded by army troops who have orders not to let anyone in.

Likewise there is confusion about the state of the constituent assembly — notably whether the one appointed by parliament last week (which has already had walkouts by secular members because of a dispute on its composition) is still valid. When the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved parliament, it specified that its actions were still valid. There was a law on the formation of the constituent assembly passed last week, but SCAF did not sign it. So it's probably not valid. And SCAF clearly seems to intend to form its own constituent assembly with its own rules, different than those agreed upon in the negotiations of the past two weeks (one sign if the requirement of an 80% approval of the draft text, as opposed to 67%).

Finally last night the Muslim Brotherhood (to its credit) said it does not recognize the new constitutional declaration issued by SCAF as legal or valid. So that's another fight.

So to recap, you have a possible fight on the result of the presidential election, an almost certain fight on the fate of parliament and the constitutional declaration, and a longer-term fight on the drafting of the future constitution. If you're not worried already, start worrying now.

Update: Another way to look at this is that the MB is being forced to pick its fights. It can't challenge on all front, so what will it choose to focus on, the presidency, the parliament, or the constitution? Especially as it has no major allies and very few political actors, including the MB, has a history of acting on principle. 

Update 2: I am reminded by Ed Webb that there is case to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood that will begin tomorrow, adding another threat to the Brothers should they contest the above.

SCAF to Egypt: Relax

Above, popular Egyptian dance-pop band SCAF sings their hit song "Relax".

From the Twitter timeline of reporter Samer al-Atrush, who attended SCAF's event on the release of their new album "Supplemental Constitutional Declaration" this morning:

The response from SCAF uber-rivals in the pop charts, Brozzer Muslimhood, is below.

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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.

President Morsi?

Mohamed Morsi’s apparent win is the latest conventional-wisdom-defying turnabout in Egyptian post-uprising politics. Pronounced dead by some after the June 14 parliament-dissolving court verdict and the presumption that Shafiq would win the presidency, the transition has just got out of its sarcophagus for a few more lurches around the burial chamber.

In looking at what brought the victory and what it will produce, I going to assume that the most detailed figures I’ve seen — those released by the Morsi campaign — are substantially correct. That’s a big “if”, but there is some corroboration. Also, the numbers should soon be verifiable. Even if you don’t trust the elections commission, both international observers and candidates’ representatives were allowed much more access to the adding up of votes from different stations than in May, from what I understand.

First, the turnout. Morsi’s numbers say that a supposedly dispirited electorate actually went to the polls in numbers about 10 percent higher than in the first round. Maybe it’s because the choices are now clear, and fear is a more potent motivator than hope. But if you look where the turnout is highest, this suggests rural machine politics on both sides.

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In Translation: The SCC's verdicts

We've had the linguistic gnomes at Industry Arabic working overtime this weekend to translate the verdicts dissolving parliament and declaring the Political Exclusion Law unconstitutional issued by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court this weekend. They plowed through the legalese and given us this  —a full translation of the verdicts, available in PDF [334kb, original Arabic version here.]. They even highlighted in yellow some of more significant passages.

Below I am excerpting the reasoning of disbanding parliament because members of political parties were allowed to run for the individual candidacy (aka simple majority of first-past-the-post) seats:

There is no doubt that establishing this competition had a definite impact and reciprocal effect on the two-thirds allocated for closed party lists, since if political parties were not competing with independents over that other portion, then a rearrangement would have taken place within the party lists, taking into account the priorites within each party. Furthermore, political party members had the choice between two ways to run for the People's Assembly, the closed party-list system and the individual candidacy system. Independents were deprived of one of these ways, and their rights were limited to the portion allotted for the individual candidacy system, in which political party members also competed.

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An instant analysis of Egypt's new constitution

Nathan Brown — a professor at GWU and Carnegie Scholar whose fantastic writings on Egypt’s transition you can find at Foreign Policy and Carnegie among other places — has hastily jotted down some very quick observations on the supplementary constitutional declaration just issued by SCAF (here's a scan of the constitution [PDF] Update: English text.). Here they are:

The supplementary constitutional declaration really does complete the coup in many obvious ways–basically returning martial law (in its more original sense rather than the “state of emergency” that just expired), making the military unaccountable, and grabbing back oversight of the political system for the military just weeks before the scheduled end of military rule. Most of this is clear on the surface and does not need much analysis.

Two more detailed notes I would add that may otherwise be missed:

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Notes from the field on the presidential elections

Dr. Omar Ashour emails in with his notes from the field:

Dear all,

Some thoughts form the field:

  1. The general feeling among youth movements and many pro-change voters is that Shafiq is coming for revenge. This feeling intensified after the arrest of April 6th members and what the police officers told them (“revolution is dead” “we are back to hang you on lampposts” etc…)
  2. The major irregularity in this election is playing with the voters database. It is held only by the presidential elections committee (who refuse to give it up). After many complaints in the first round, the committee removed 115k names (including the name of my dead grandma, who apparently voted in the first round!). This number is based on their review and there is no other way to re-check it. The names of the dead, expats, police and army personnel can be much higher on the database than 115,000.
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The sadness of Egypt's presidential election

IMG_2133 

Above, a picture of a voter by Nehal ElSherif, on Flickr — via Elijah Zarwan who comments "He looks like you just caught him selling out his conscience."

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros writes:

As I was crashing to make the deadline for my elections piece on the first day of voting, I trawled through the raw pictures the cameraman had collected from various polling stations looking for that classic woman-holding-up-purple-finger-and-smiling shot.

I didn't find it. There were lots of purple fingers (the ink stain you get showing you've voted) but nobody held theirs up to the cameraman with pride, the hallmark shot of previous election days.

There is a distinct lack of energy or enthusiasm surrounding this vote. It's safe to predict that most of those eligible to vote will not cast their ballots this time around - a mixture of apathy, confusion and active boycott.

There are of course those who tell me they are voting Mohamed Morsi or Ahmed Shafik out of conviction but ask a few more questions and you'll find the conviction is more about the other not winning than belief in the candidate they are voting for.

For many others, the deep seated depression surrounding the vote comes from the realization that whoever wins, it's the military rulers or SCAF that will end up running the country.

February 12th was not the start of a transition to democracy, it was a military takeover.

Yes, it was a military takeover. One many hoped would end the chaos mostly promoted by the security services in their panic, and that could provide a safe transition back to civilian rule. The mistake was to trust them. In this election, SCAF gets to define the powers of the president depending on which candidate wins.

On another note, I am rather tired (and know many others who also are) of the purple-finger chasing craze that started with the Iraqi election. There's no need to go to polling stations. The fraud, if there is any, will be way too subtle to be detected by wandering through. The fraud in this election is not necessarily in the electoral process, it's in the electoral context and the meta-politics of this "transition."

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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.

On Obama's foreign policy

Via Andrew Sullivan, some interesting posts on judging Obama’s foreign policy by Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison. The latter writes:

Among post-WWII Presidents, Obama’s foreign policy record has been competent enough that it shouldn’t be ranked anywhere near the real failures (e.g., LBJ, Bush II, Kennedy, etc.), but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the very best records, either. It’s true that Obama’s record seems much better than it is when compared with George W. Bush’s, but then that is the relevant comparison for political purposes. Even when Obama blunders, he doesn’t suffer as much political damage because we still remember how badly Bush performed and we are regularly reminded of what the terrifying practical alternative to Obama was every time McCain sounds off on an international crisis. Judged by those admittedly low standards, Obama’s record looks a lot better than if we assessed his overall record simply on the merits. Bush’s foreign policy failures helped make Obama President, and they continue to make his own record look better by comparison, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for people who lived through the Bush years to avoid making that comparison when judging Obama’s record.

It all depends on the standards you apply. By GWB standards he’s fantastic. By US post-WW2 standards he’s alright — especially, he is cautious and pragmatic. By mainstream human rights standards he’s pretty awful, mostly because of the continued use of rendition, Guantanamo Bay, assassinations and drones — in which he continues GWB policies. One of the more recurrent criticism of Obama is his lack of overarching doctrine, precisely because of his pragmatic case-by-case approach. The bottom line, compared with most other presidents, he’s OK and performed well in some instances, such as the Libyan intervention (in the sense that he did it in a manner that minimized possibility for US overreach, which was the stated goal), and pretty embarrassingly in other cases (Israel).

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