Podcast #34: Morsi's Night of Power

We interrupt our break from the podcast to discuss the latest in Egyptian politics: Morsi asserting his presidential powers on August 12, the changes in the Egyptian military and the new generation of officers now in charge, where Egypt's foreign policy might go from here, Sinai and Israel. And domestically, we look at early worrrying signs about press freedom in Morsi's Egypt, and whether the opposition can counter-balance to the Muslim Brothers' strength — if it is even capable of agreeing on anything in the first place — ahead of tomorrow's planned protests.

Show notes: 

Podcast 34:

How the Syrian uprising turned violent

La révolution syrienne, entre piège de la violence… et manœuvres du régime

From Un Oeil Sur La Syrie, Le Monde's great blog on Syria, a long post on how the anti-Assad movement waited to take up violence:

Il aura fallu plusieurs mois avant que les soldats et officiers qui avaient déserté, parce qu’ils ne pouvaient se plier aux ordres de "tirer pour tuer" qui leur étaient donnés, commencent à s'organiser, se fixent pour mission d’assurer la protection des quartiers d’où ils étaient originaires, et lancent les bases de ce qui est devenu l’ASL. Même pour se défendre, le recours aux armes n’a été pour les révolutionnaires ni spontané, ni naturel. Ils espéraient, par leur patience et leur courage, dissuader leurs jeunes compatriotes, appelés ou engagés, de participer à la répression ordonnée par le régime. Ils imaginaient que leur persévérance suffirait à convaincre des sous-officiers et des officiers que la vérité, la dignité et la justice étaient du côté de ceux sur lesquels on leur demandait d’ouvrir le feu, et non dans la défense d’un système prédateur prêt au pire pour assurer sa survie. Ils pensaient parvenir à rassurer les membres des communautés minoritaires, dont ils comprenaient l’hésitation à s'engager dans une aventure dont l’issue était pour tous incertaine. Ils croyaient qu'en surmontant leur propre peur et en persistant, semaine après semaine, à affronter la mort dans les rues, ils aideraient leurs compatriotes à dominer leur angoisse. Ils entendaient leur démontrer que le régime mentait lorsqu'il agitait devant eux le spectre des affrontement interconfessionnels. Ce qu'ils voulaient, c'était la vie et non la mort : ils ne mettaient pas en jeu leur existence aujourd'hui pour le plaisir insensé de pouvoir, demain, supprimer ceux qui ne les avaient pas accompagnés ou soutenus dans leur combat.

Google translation into English here.

They also feature this great poster — which plays on the slight difference in spelling, in Arabic, between the word "peaceful" ("silmiyya", which was chanted in the early protests) and "salafist" ("salafiya"), with the note at the corner saying "Open your eyes, there is no dot" while pointing to a "m" that could easily be turned into an "f".

Peaceful not Salafist

Rebel: 70% of Aleppo with the regime

Syrian rebels fight on for Aleppo despite local wariness

Martin Chulov reporting for The Guardian:

More than a month into the battle for Aleppo, the rebels who seized control of much of the city sense that its residents do not yet fully support them. Opposition fighters – around 3,000 of them – are almost the only people moving around the eastern half that the Free Syrian Army now controls. The small numbers of non-fighters who remain seem to pay them little heed. Few seem openly welcoming.

"Yes it's true," said Sheikh Tawfik Abu Sleiman, a rebel commander sitting on the ground floor of his fourth new headquarters – the other three were bombed. "Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want."

I'm sure a lot is going to be made of that quote, because it raises some very legitimate questions. Aleppo is not Benghazi, where there was massive local support. The rebels are not mostly locals, an indeed may include many foreigners. Residents, which include many minorities that are the most worried about a long civil war, are understandably not happy their city has been turned into a war zone. Aleppo is a strategic point to control the north, that is why the battle has been brought there. The countryside vs. urban sentiment the rebel brings up leads on to many other questions. One doesn't want to extrapolate from a single quote, but therein lies the dilemma of the Syrian civil war: there still is not substantial evidence that there is an overwhelming sentiment among the Syrian population for it — not that many support the regime, but simply that many may not think it's worth it. In wars, though, the undecided and the reluctant rarely decide.

Embedded in Syria

We've had at least a decade of debate about the merits of embedding with military forces while covering conflicts — certainly  a major debate during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, or perhaps since the 1990 Gulf War. The practice certainly has its drawbacks, but also offers an opportunity to do reporting from the front lines and on the combatant forces. In Syria, it offers the opportunity to get a clearer picture of who the insurgents are. These are all fine pieces and photos that would have been impossible otherwise, although I wish I could trust Fisk's reporting — who here has the merit of embedding with the Syrian army, which no doubt has attracted much misplaced criticism — after so many past disappointments. 


Links 17-22 August 2012


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Brotherhood Guidance Bureau proposes new governors

Brotherhood Guidance Bureau proposes new governors | Egypt Independent

The Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau has proposed a list of 50 new governors to President Mohamed Morsy, a source within the group told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity Tuesday.

Different sources close to the president told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Morsy would appoint eight new governors from the Freedom and Justice Party and five from the Salafi Nour Party.

This is hugely important in several respects.

  • First, this appears to break with past practice of chiefly recruiting governors from the senior ranks of the military and police (although I suspect some of these will still be there, particularly for border governorates).
  • Secondly, it's not clear what formal ties the MB's Guidance Bureau has to the president (aside from him being a former member of the Bureau and current member of the Brotherhood) and unusual in Egyptian history for a political party — even the ruling party — to be involved in these decisions.
  • Thirdly, the proportions described above, if you accept that a MB president will obviously choose some of his own, appear to either take the Nour Party's parliamentary elections resuits as a guide to their representation in governorates (even though that parliament was disbanded and the proportions might very well change by the next election) or arbitrarily assign them major rewards, which would be a sign of a (renewed) political alliance.
  • Finally, it's important to note that the governor positions are incredibly important in Egypt's administration and security governance. Control of these positions would give those parties that have them a significant advantage  in future elections, notably the ability to mobilize the administration and local police, as was carried out under the NDP.

I'm also struck that these appointments are taking place before the conclusion of a new constitution, which could (and should) shift the system towards the direct election of governors. It would hint at a continuation of the presidential appointment of governors, a system that considerably adds to the power of the presidency.

Oil fields in the West Bank

Oil. Religion. Occupation. ... A Combustible Mix.

There may be oil field in the West Bank that could make, along with the ones offshore Gaza, an independent Palestine self-sufficient. Of course Israel is already tapping them — in a settlement. From al-Shabaka:

Under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, the FCO released seven documents to the author after a lengthy eight-month process of repeated requests. The documents had been carefully vetted and the names of the individuals who sent and received the emails were redacted. Four of the emails released were between the FCO in London and the British Consulate General in Jerusalem. Two e-grams were released from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv (including one from Matthew Gould, the British Ambassador to Israel) to the FCO in London, and a parliamentary letter from Ivan Lewis MP.
As some of the frank email exchanges released by the FCO admit, an independent Palestinian state could be economically self-sufficient and less reliant on aid once freed of Israeli control over Palestinian natural resources. Beyond the proceeds from taxation, a free and sovereign Palestine could raise money from a plethora of other economic activities from tourism to exporting natural gas, and if the documents released from the FCO are to be believed, from oil fields located in the West Bank.

On terrorism in Libya

The car bombs that hit Tripoli on August 19 and following clashes with those believed responsible for them have highlighted the recurrent nature of such attacks in the new Libya — just yesterday, for instance, the car of an Egyptian diplomat in Benghazi was also bombed (no one was hurt). The government has blamed Qadhafi loyalists but it's unclear whether this is the case; there are other possible culprits. Having not followed this closely, I gained some clarity yesterday by reading an email sent by Geoff Porter, a North Africa specialist who frequently visits Libya, on the issue. He kindly agreed to let me post it here.

The three car bombs in Tripoli on Sunday 19 August merit a quick Libya update.

Although there were three bombs, the attacks in effect represent a single data point, so it is difficult to extrapolate a trend from them or plot a trajectory for security in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya. However, when placed in the broader context of security risks throughout the country, something in fact can be gleaned from them – namely that security threats in Libya are evolving away from utilitarian violence to terrorism, violence that is ideological and idealistic. This evolution presents new problems for the General National Congress (GNC) in its efforts to get Libya under control.

Libyan officials attributed the attacks to a group of men loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi. After the attacks, security sources reportedly arrested 32 members of the group, which they said is intent upon sowing discord in the country and is determined to discredit the GNC that was sworn in on 8 August.

The Tripoli bombings were preceded over the last several weeks by a string of assassinations in Benghazi. The assassinations targeted former members of Qadhafi’s intelligence services, all of whom were allegedly on a hit list that includes between 109 and 900 names. It is not known who carried out the attacks. Some speculate that an unspecified Islamist group was responsible. Others think that a local militia with particular grievances against the Qadhafi regime is behind the murders.

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Guide: The Challenges Egypt and the Morsi Aministration Must Face

Guide: The Challenges Egypt and the Morsi Aministration Must Face

This is a seriously through overview of what faces the Morsi administration by Bassem Sabry for al-Ahram — nearly 10,000 words. I have quibbles with a few things and the selection of issues (what are the priorities?) but this is a great place to start looking at, in an organized fashion, at some of the issues facing Egypt in the next year and more.

In fact I thought it was so useful I wanted an easier way to read it (right now al-Ahram links to each section separately), so I made it into a long form doc with a hyperlinked table of contents — available in PDF, RTF, HTML and, for true geeks, Markdown. I might use it as a base document to make my own running notes on the evolution of things.

Egyptian government attempts to suppress the media

Egyptian government attempts to suppress the media

From the Committee to Protect Journalists:

New York, August 16, 2012--President Mohamed Morsi's government and allies are pushing back against critical news coverage, suppressing critical journalists and state-run newspapers, putting a journalist on trial, and attacking three journalists on the street, according to news reports.

"This is a troubling backward step that Egypt's newly elected President Mohamed Morsi should not be taking," said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. "We urge President Morsi to reverse this course immediately and demonstrate his commitment to press freedom."

Several journalists have reported suppression at the state-run newspaper Al-Akhbar. The newspaper was among a number of prominent state-run dailies at which new editors-in-chief had been appointed by the Egyptian upper house of parliament, also known as the Shura Council, on August 7, according to news reports. The Shura Council's move was seen as a way for Morsi's government, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, to place regime sympathizers in powerful positions to control media coverage. Several private newspapers ran blank columns on August 9 in protest of the appointments, news reports said.

Still getting used to seeing the word "regime" be used about the Morsi administration… Has a good overview of the recent media clampdowns. It's too soon to tell whether this is the beginning of a new pattern of repression or isolated events related to the current atmosphere in Egypt (rumors of coup plots, bad old habits of editors trying to ingratiate themselves to the new regime, etc.) or a more consistent and deliberate policy. I doubt that Egypt's fairly vibrant media and its very active Journalists' Syndicate is going to take this lying down, however — indeed it may spur sharper action to change regulations on the media.

One particularly worrying thing ahead: there have been reports that the Constituent Assembly, which is still going ahead with the process of drafting a new constitution despite much uncertainty about its status, is said to have drafted a new version of Article 178 of the previous constitution, which it is using as a base model. A friend emailed the text, which could include prison penalties for publishing "information that damages Egypt's reputation": 

"either by faslifying the truth or providing an innacurate/untruthful description or by highlighting inapropriate sights (?) or by any other means"

سواء اكان ذلك بمخالفة الحقيقة او اعطاء وصف غير صحيح او بابراز مظاهر غير لائقة او باية طريقة اخرى

This is very much Mubarak-era mentality. 

What Stratfor's Fred Burton thought of Mubarak

✚  What Stratfor's Fred Burton thought of Mubarak

From the Wikileaks trove, here's their VP for intelligence's take, on February 11 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down:

The real kicker in all this is that the only reason we don't have a 9/11 type incident happening every week in this country is because of dictators like Mubarak. He's kept his boot on the throat of the Brotherhood and every other radical Islamic group for some time now. Yes, he has probably thrown many people in prison for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he's been one of our staunchest allies in the GWOT and we'll start paying the price (with more attacks on US facilities) when he's gone. If I were him, I'd take my millions, head to Tahiti and  giggle at Obama as he struggles with the flood of attacks that are sure to  come.

You see what I mean when I wrote that Wikileaks' over-hyping of what Stratfor is is ridiculous?

[Thanks, other J.]

From the ruins of empire

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

This book by Pankaj Mishra sounds fascinating. From the blurb:

Tagore, Gandhi, and later Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire—are seen as outriders from the main anticolonial tradition. But Pankaj Mishra shows that it was otherwise in this stereotype-shattering book. His enthralling group portrait of like minds scattered across a vast continent makes clear that modern Asia’s revolt against the West is not the one led by faith-fired terrorists and thwarted peasants but one with deep roots in the work of thinkers who devised a view of life that was neither modern nor antimodern, neither colonialist nor anticolonialist. In broad, deep, dramatic chapters, Mishra tells the stories of these figures, unpacks their philosophies, and reveals their shared goal of a greater Asia.

Climate change and the Syrian uprising

Climate change and the Syrian uprising | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fascinating piece on climate change and drought as a cause of the Syrian uprising by Shahrzad Mohtadi:

From 1900 until 2005, there were six droughts of significance in Syria; the average monthly level of winter precipitation during these dry periods was approximately one-third of normal. All but one of these droughts lasted only one season; the exception lasted two. Farming communities were thus able to withstand dry periods by falling back on government subsidies and secondary water resources. This most recent, the seventh drought, however, lasted from 2006 to 2010, an astounding four seasons -- a true anomaly in the past century. Furthermore, the average level of precipitation in these four years was the lowest of any drought-ridden period in the last century.

While impossible to deem one instance of drought as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change, a 2011 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regarding this recent Syrian drought states: "Climate change from greenhouse gases explained roughly half the increased dryness of 1902-2010." Martin Hoerling, the lead researcher of the study, explains: "The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone. This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region's climate to normal." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will induce droughts even more severe in this region in the coming decades.

It is estimated that the Syrian drought has displaced more than 1.5 million people; entire families of agricultural workers and small-scale farmers moved from the country's breadbasket region in the northeast to urban peripheries of the south. The drought tipped the scale of an unbalanced agricultural system that was already feeling the weight of policy mismanagement and unsustainable environmental practices. Further, lack of contingency planning contributed to the inability of the system to cope with the aftermath of the drought. Decades of poorly planned agricultural policies now haunt Syria's al-Assad regime.

[Thanks, J.]

No-Fly Zone over Syria: Wrong Policy at the Wrong Time

No-Fly Zone over Syria: Wrong Policy at the Wrong Time

From the Heritage Foundation, surprisingly (or maybe not, I don't follow them closely but remember they were major backers of the Iraq war, aka the greatest disaster ever to befall US foreign policy):

In the aftermath of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Turkey last weekend, there has been speculation that the U.S. might support the idea of establishing a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria. Under the current conditions, an establishment of an NFZ would be a costly and risky action that would do little to stop the killing on the ground while entangling the U.S. in an intensifying civil war.

In the conclusion they end with the zinger, "The U.S. Air Force is not for hire every time there is a popular uprising somewhere in the world."  

They have other recommendations that are more along the lines along what might one expect, i.e. creating of coalition of powers "interested in a post-Assad government that does not export terrorism and pander to Iran", providing "non-lethal aid" and "providing covert weaponry only after it has identified reliable, effective, and non-Islamist local commanders who can provide ironclad guarantees that the arms will not fall into the hands of terrorists." Sounds easy, right?

[via Agonist]

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Michael Hanna is completely right in this Foreign Policy piece:

As a matter of democratic principle, the concentration of political power represented by President Morsi's constitutional decree is wholly objectionable. These actions are even more objectionable coming as they do in the midst of a transition that will define the parameters and fundamentals of a new political and constitutional order. As a result of the self-granted authority to appoint a new constituent assembly if the current body fails to produce a constitutional draft for ratification, President Morsi will have vast coercive authority to influence the drafting of the constitution. In light of the decisive role of his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues and other Islamist allies on the assembly, the work of the current assembly could be intentionally undermined in the hopes of a more compliant body selected by the president. While political constraints might curtail the practicability of this threat, it nonetheless might influence the contours of discourse and debate within the assembly.

Furthermore, the domineering approach of the Muslim Brotherhood to the transitional period and their exercise of political power should give pause to those beguiled by assurances of inclusion and broad-based political consensus. The track record of the Brothers during this period is characterized by promises broken and silence in the face of SCAF abuses, such as military trials for civilians and the application of the emergency law for most of the SCAF's tenure. The Brothers, in tandem with the SCAF, also sought to tarnish those intent on continuing the protest movement through mass mobilization and public actions. Their tenure in parliament was marked by unilateralism, lack of consultation, and consistent efforts to dominate all facets of the political process. While giving rhetorical credence to notions of inclusivity and consensus, their attempts to dictate the constitutional-drafting process belied any such assurances. With institutional aggrandizement as their lodestar, the Brothers managed to alienate nearly the entire Egyptian political class. With this recent history in mind, it is unreasonable to accord them unlimited faith and trust -- faith and trust that would be misplaced if accorded to the most enlightened of philosopher kings.

And he even offers some options:

As such, a constitutional decree could embed checks and balances on executive authority. This is complicated by the absence of a parliament after it was dissolved by the SCAF in accordance with a judgment by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), but there are imaginative alternatives if there is a will and interest in political balance. One such approach would be to vest temporary legislative authority in the currently-functioning constituent assembly. Another alternative would be to construct a broad-based council composed of diverse representatives of the political class whose ratification of legislation would be necessary for promulgation. The president could also issue a transitional decree enshrining individual rights to blunt concerns that this government will now consolidate power by silencing critics and muzzling expression. None of these options are ideal, but they are a qualitative improvement over dictatorial power.

I made a similar argument in my National column yesterday:

It might be argued that in the absence of a parliament, Mr Morsi had no choice but to assume these responsibilities - someone had to other than the military. But, considering the legal and constitutional limbo he is operating in, it might have been wiser to ensure power is shared or at least to engage other political forces.

The appointment of the new vice president, Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge said to have Brotherhood sympathies who was a leader of the fight for judicial independence under Mubarak, reinforced the perception that Mr Morsi is not reaching out. Christians, women and personalities of diverse political backgrounds have not been promoted despite Mr Morsi's pledge to be a uniter.

In Mr Morsi's defence, he is not alone in bearing responsibility for this. Over the past month and a half, many personalities - from young revolutionaries to secular politicians - turned down offers from the Morsi administration, preferring to remain in opposition.

The calculus then may have been that, as long as Mr Morsi and Scaf were at loggerheads, it was better to be on the outside - or even simply that participating in an administration that lacked formal power was pointless. Well, the situation has changed. Being in government in today's Egypt is an ungrateful proposition, but one cannot simultaneously complain of a Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and reject offers of power-sharing without even testing if they are genuine.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi should have called for a national conference to hammer out a compromise on the constituent assembly. He can still do so, and perhaps even delegate legislative power to that assembly or give it some kind of veto over new legislation.

I think it's very important to stress that there is no reason to expect magnanimity from the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. They appear to have a clear idea of what they want and how to implement it. Their opponents should also have a clear idea of what they want, be willing to get their hands dirty and take up opportunities to have a seat at the table. The various parties should now make their demands, and the conditions of their participation clear — personally, I think they need to demand that Morsi amend his recent changes to the constitution by withdrawing his power to appoint a constituent assembly and delegate legislative power to a new assembly. They better articulate that demand clearly and show a strong consensus.

The Left, the Jews and Defenders of Israel

The Left, the Jews and Defenders of Israel

Great new review piece by Joel Beinin on Beinart, Ben-Ami and Wistrich (authors of recent books on the relationship between American Jews and Israel) — and a killer opening:

When Menachem Begin first visited the United States in December 1948, a host of Jewish notables including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Irma Lindheim (former president of Hadassah), Seymour Melman (former president of the Student Zionist Federation) and the biblical scholar Harry Orlinsky wrote to the New York Times to issue a warning about the Herut (Freedom) Party that Begin led. Herut, they wrote, was “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.” 

This opinion was not on the fringe. When the Irgun set off a bomb in a Haifa market killing dozens of Arabs in 1938, the future prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, could not believe that Jews would commit such a heinous act. He believed Nazi agents were responsible.

That was then. Now, both American Jews and Israel are far more secure and powerful than they were in 1948. But influential American Jewish community leaders, in alliance with prominent neo-conservatives (William Kristol, Rachel Abrams and the Emergency Committee for Israel), evangelical Protestants (Gary Bauer, John Hagee and Christians United for Israel), academics in Jewish studies (Edward Alexander, Alvin Rosenfeld, Ruth Wisse) and their Israeli partners, believe that global anti-Semitism is rampant and that Israel is in existential danger. And it is unlikely that prominent American Zionists would so sharply and publicly condemn the leader of Israel’s Likud party -- the organizational and spiritual heir of Herut and the Irgun -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


One of the great initiatives to come out of the Egyptian uprising — here's their latest news.
The Mosireen Collective - a group of revolutionary film-makers and activists in Cairo - currently hosts the world's most extensive archive of footage of the Egyptian Revolution. With over 1000 hours of footage filmed by 115 film-makers, activists and revolutionaries every major event is covered. Mosireen's coverage of the revolution has amassed 3.5 million views on YouTube and is regularly featured on national and international news channels. 
We are pleased to announce today the appointment of a part-time staff member to further systematise the archive and to assist news organizations with footage requests. 
We work to link citizen journalists with major news oulets they would not otherwise have access to. All footage we handle has a licensing arrangement in place with the rightsholder. 
Footage is sold on a sliding scale depending on it's final usage. Footage is often available free of charge to artists and activists. 
It's not just great that this footage is available and being inventoried to document the abuses of the era of SCAF (direct) rule, but also to see this kind of content-sharing initiative taking ground. Good luck to them.

Sedky Sobhy's thesis makes the rounds

Glad to see that a bunch of news outlets picked up the thesis by Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces Sedky Sobhy I highlighted a few days ago. Some wanted to interview me but unfortunately I was not available, but here's a couple of links. 

Research paper offers insight into Egypt's new armed forces chief (McClatchy)

Professor Douglas Lovelace, the director of the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute and Sobhy's adviser, remembered him as a "bold thinker," charming and a "very impressive officer" who often offered thoughts counter to the conventional thinking at the time.

"I do recall he was provocative and an original thinker," Lovelace said. "It was not surprising that he would either fail completely or rise to the top."

Egypt general's paper offers insight into thinking (Reuters)

Do leave links to any others in the comments.