"The Black Bloc is the new black," blogger Zeinobia has said. These masked young anarchist (?) militias (?) had everyone intrigued and scratching their heads last weekend. The group, inspired by international protest tactics, said their mission was to protect protesters from Muslim Brotherhood attacks (such as those that took place in December outside the Presidential Palace). But -- as exemplified by the menacing motto on their Facebook page ("Retribution or Chaos"), and their methods (bringing tires to burn to block traffic) -- their posture is more than defensive.
Quite a few activists were immediately skeptical of the group, noting that: 1) they will be easy to infiltrate 2) they will be cat-nip to the Islamist media 3) they will be disturbing to the general public. All three propositions are already seemingly been proven right.
The supposedly anti-media Bloc has made several media appearances. In this interview, members describe methods that are very similar to those of hard-core soccer fans, or ultras, and say their one goal is to obtain justice for the martyrs of the last 2 years' violence.
We've used every peaceful means since January 25 2011, to obtain retribution for the martyrs, but we were surprised by acquittals and postponements [of the court cases againt police officers], so this pushed us to escalate, because for every action there must be an equivalent reaction.
Two (If I had to guess, 16-year-old) members also went on the private, "revolutionary" Tahrir TV channel and explained that their enemies are the Ministry of Interior and the Muslim Brotherhood, but that acts of violence and arson had been carried out by infiltrators not belonging to the group. The Facebook group itself immediately denied that the two masked teenagers on TV were members, and accused the station of staging the appearance to boost their audience.
Of course, a sheikh has already given an inspiring example of religous scholarship and reportedly issued a fatwa saying it is a "legitimate duty" to kill members of the Bloc. And now Al Ahram is reporting that the prosecutor general -- as always prioritizing the greatest threats to the rule of law -- has ordered members of the group to be detained and questioned, and not-at-all hyperbolically described them as a "terrorist" organization.
The whole Black Bloc phenomenon is pretty silly. It's a symptom of the immaturity, lack of foresight and drift from peaceful (and seemingly fruitless) protesting to glamorized, indiscriminate, anti-authoritarian violence that has characterized a wing of the protest movement. And I fear these kids could end up paying a high price for their bravado.
On today's podcast, we talked about the disturbing lawlessness that is the result of Egypt's political polarization and of the erosion of trust in state institutions. We didn't discuss the escalating sexual violence against women that has become a regular phenomenon at protests in Egypt.
I think I know, for myself, why I haven't brought this topic up much. It's because I find it too awful. Read this article, if you can bear to, by Egypt Independent's (as often, daring to speak of a subject skirted by most of the media) news editor Tom Dale. I've read too many similar accounts in the past. They make me heartsick. And I would rather not write, and not think, of these incidents because I am frightened and confused by them. And ashamed for Egypt, a country I've lived in 10 years now. These acts -- let's just call them what they are, these gang-rapes -- do not fit with my experience of Egypt, where the constant harassment, the plentiful misogyny have always been balanced by a sense of being, fundamentally, in safety, capable of calling on those around me to enforce a shared code of decency, to stop anything truly terrible from happening.
I'm in awe of Egyptian women -- and fellow female journalists -- who continue to expose themselves to pain and danger and humiliation to participate in and witness this country's history. I commend the groups that are trying to fight this. I myself no longer feel safe in Tahrir. I don't cover daily news these days, and I don't go there.
I hesitated before titling this post, because it puts a knot in my stomach to place those words together. Because I worry that this post will be used to smear the opposition, to make hateful generalizations about Muslim countries. But it is the correct term (the assaults in Tahrir, although they don't generally seem to involve full sexual intercourse, definitely meet the WHO definition of rape). And for the women who are victims of these attacks...I can't think of a worse betrayal of their trust in their fellow-citizens and in the promise of the revolution, of their belief that they can safely join a peaceful protest in a major square in their capital city.
This is not a reflection on the revolution that took place two years ago -- it is evidence of how far, and into what a dark thicket, we have traveled since then. Who are the men doing this? It almost doesn't matter, because where and how these attacks are taking place -- amidst thousands of bystanders, in the heart of Cairo, in the open -- indicts everyone.
Yasmine's latest, on the November-December crisis:
When Morsi took office last summer, the big question on people’s minds was whether he would be able to separate himself from the Brotherhood, the group that had authorized, guided, and financed his presidential campaign. Aside from his symbolic act of resignation from his post in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could a longtime member of a secret fraternity distance himself from the control of the Guidance Bureau without being kicked out or defamed in the way that Morsi’s Islamic rival Aboul Fotouh had been the summer before?
By this winter, the public seemed to accept the fact that there was no alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood running the show. As a source close to the Brotherhood’s leaders told me, “Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger.” For many, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for all its defects, seemed to be the lesser of two evils. In the lead-up to the referendum, as political tensions were high and protests continued, talk of a civil war seemed to be everywhere. I kept hearing, repeatedly, people “pray” for an intervention by the army.
On December 11, I went to a local sporting club where retired ministers and officials are often found around the pool. A former Interior Ministry chief warned a circle of keen listeners—of whom my father was one—that the Interior Ministry could no longer contain the situation and that the army would be forced to intervene. I was told later that the interior minister had met with the defense minister and told him as much. That afternoon, the army made its appearance, putting out a call and invitation on Facebook to hold a meeting for a “national dialogue” the following day. The president’s office reacted, saying the invitation was a rumor. The army responded that the president would be attending. The president’s office said he wouldn’t. The army responded by changing the wording—they were inviting Morsi to a “humanitarian dialogue” and “luncheon.” Eventually the president’s office said Morsi would be attending “given that the invitation had come upon counsel from him.” Politics would not be discussed, and lunch would be served.
The next afternoon, the meeting was canceled. The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood had intervened. For him, it was not tolerable that the armed forces should be seen as capable of gathering together all factions, including the president, in a national dialogue, while the president himself had utterly failed to do the same. At the state TV and radio building that day, a reporter told me that the media’s hands were increasingly tied:
It’s no different from when Mubarak was in power. The red lines of what we can say and can’t say are being redrawn. Instead of Mubarak, now it’s Morsi. We know that it was the Supreme Guide who gave orders for the lunch to be canceled. We know there is a tension between the army and Brotherhood, but we can’t say that.
Read the whole thing.
Solid, interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor about Egypt's sinking school system. I knew things were bad, but we are talking Titanic:
According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012-13, Egypt ranked 139th out of 144 countries in the quality of its educational system and 129th in staff training.
Of the 15 countries considered to be in the same development stage as Egypt, only Libya ranked lower for the educational system's quality. Mongolia and Honduras were a few spots ahead at Nos. 136 and 135, respectively.
The Ministry of Education has a budget of £50 billion (Egyptian; US$7.8 billion) to educate some 18 million students, according to Nesr Eldin Shahad, an education professor at Helwan University on the outskirts of Cairo and an adviser to the education committee of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Some 85 percent of that goes to salaries – the education sector is the largest government employer in Egypt – leaving only a fraction of the funds available for other student needs.
According to Mr. Abou Serie, the budget needs to at least double to deal with all the problems facing the system.
Even just focusing on what Mr. Shahad views as the most critical problem – bringing class sizes down from as large as 100 students to under 40 – will require somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 new schools, as well as more teachers to staff them, at a cost of more than £10 billion ($1.6 billion) by Shahad's estimate.
The article also discusses the greater openness of teachers and students after the revolution, but I wish they had also touched on the ongoing problem of rampant corporal punishment, and on instances of teachers abusing their powers.
Update: Here is the full WEF report.
I have a hard time believing this but Gamal Eid is a serious guy:
There were four times as many 'insulting the president' lawsuits during President Mohamed Morsi's first 200 days in office than during the entire 30-year reign of former president Hosni Mubarak. This is the claim made by Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
Moreover, the number of such lawsuits during the Morsi era is more than during the entire period dating back to 1909 when the law was introduced (originally for 'insulting the king'), Eid said via Twitter.
They will have a full report on it tomorrow with the list of names.
The nomination of Ahmed Mekki, former vice president, to head Egypt’s diplomatic mission in the Vatican this week might be a precedent by which the president would use his legal prerogative to appoint selected non-career diplomats to head some of Egypt’s key diplomatic missions overseas.
The diplomatic corps law grants the president a maximum of 10 head of mission postings to be appointed from outside the diplomatic corps each time nominations requests for heads of missions are issued by the state.
According to sources at the presidency, the foreign ministry, and the Muslim Brotherhood, topping the list of aspiring ambassadors is leading figure of the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam El-Erian.
El-Erian is eyeing the head of Egypt’s mission in Ankara, a key capital for Egypt under Brotherhood rule. The tenure of current Ambassador to Turkey Abdel-Rahman Salah should come to an end this summer.
Other posts that the Brotherhood appear to be eyeing are also countries with “special rapport” with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Qatar, to which Egypt sent an ambassador a year ago.
Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s ambassador to Doha (he shares the same name as the Egyptian president) sent a written complaint to the foreign ministry in Cairo complaining that he is “mostly uninformed about the ongoings" of bilateral relations between Egypt and Qatar.
The complaint was written following a recent visit to Cairo by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Ben Jassim of which the Egyptian ambassador knew nothing.
Interesting report. Some will no doubt cry Brotherhoodization but it's normal in many countries for a president to appoint political allies as ambassadors. Except in those cases they tend to have quiet postings to charming seaside countries like the Bahamas. Not appointments to key allies where you need an experienced hand.
P.S. In the case of Essam al-Erian, it might simply be an attempt to get rid of him inside of Egypt.
David Kirkpatrick writes:
Mr. Morsi still appears to exercise little day-to-day authority over the judiciary, the police, the military and the state-run news media.
“If you think of the main pillars of the bureaucracy, the Brotherhood has not gotten control of them yet, and I don’t think they will completely,” said Hani Shukrallah, 62, the left-leaning editor of an English-language state news Web site who was recently was asked to retire by its new management. “There are so many people who are very difficult to bring to heel,” he said. “I think we are in for several years of turbulence where state power is diffused.”
Although Mr. Morsi has the legitimacy of a democratic election, he has inherited the still-intact remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian state, built on fear, loyalty and patronage, and much of it permeated by a deep distrust of the Islamists.
It is very true and important to highlight the difficulties the Morsi administration has had to get effective control of the bureaucracy — that part of government that implements decisions taken by the presidency, parliament, and the courts. Some parts of the state bureaucracy are in a state of passive aggressive rebellion, like the police. Others, like the military and the intelligence services, can act semi-independently because that is the nature of the deal that Morsi has negotiated.
But it is odd to lament that the president of a country that is supposedly trying to democratize exercises "little day to day authority" over the judiciary and the state media. He's simply not supposed to, yet has tried to intimidate the judiciary and is putting his yes-men in the media rather than either dissolving state media (i.e. privatizing it) or reforming it to make it independent. We don't wonder aloud why David Cameron can't control the BBC or the Lords Justices, after all.
The quote he has there from Supreme Court Justice Maher El-Beheiry is apt in this regard:
The president of the court sneered with disdain at a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood trying to address the reconfigured bench, stripped of 7 of its 18 members. “As if you left a court to be spoken of like this!” Judge Maher el-Beheiry snapped. He had already declared that the court, perceived as an enemy of the Islamists, “can never forget” the Brotherhood’s protests against it during the constitutional debate.
Like it or not, the challenge of post-Mubarak Egypt is not so much Mubarak holdovers who are plotting (what are they plotting, exactly, bringing him back?) as the centrifugal forces that are pushing state institutions towards corporatism and an obsession with autonomy. It's not an altogether unhealthy thing, but often goes too far. And the challenge for Egypt's first post-Mubarak president is managing these forces and institutions in a manner that asserts his constitutional authority without antagonizing them. That kind of skill in a politician is usually called statesmanship, and thus far Morsi has not shown much of it.
Do read the piece, which has glimpses of a wide range of the state machine that is in semi-rebellion against Morsi and the Brotherhood, sometimes for bad and sometimes for good reasons.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself crossing the increasingly bedraggled expanse of Tahrir Square (where a permanent encampment of protesters has lived since last month's confrontation with Morsi and where a mild Mad Max vibe now prevails) to go hear about how the Egyptian ecomony is doomed.
At a media roundtable on the Egyptian economy at the American Univerity in Cairo's downtown campus, professors from the university predicted that the pound will fall to 7LE to the dollar; that growth will be no more than 2% of GDP; that foreign and domestic investment will remain low (private investment is currently 16% of GDP, whereas to promote growth it should be at 20-25%) and that inflation and social tension will rise.
The economic policies of the current government were treated with ridicule -- starting with a recent announcement that they will create 800,000 jobs this year (most jobs "created" since the revolution by the government have meant giving permanent posts to functionaries on temporary contracts -- and we all know how the Egyptian bureaucracy needs to be strenghtened) and ending with their promise that new Sharia-compliant Islamic bonds will raise $200 million. Economics professor and disgruntled social observer Galal Amin, in particular, eschewed economic jargon and tore into the situation with refreshing candor and avuncular charm. "I don't see why we even need to have conferences to discuss fixing the economy, guys" he said, "when they can raise $200 million by creating a new kind of bond."
According to Amin -- although the economy wasn' t great before the revolution -- the basis of Egypt's economic crisis is political, caused by "a lack of security and a lack of trust," which the prevailing political discourse does not help. Investors, Christians, tourists -- none of them are confident in Egypt anymore. And the Islamist government obfuscates. "They don't just not tell the truth," about the economy, he said. "They say the opposite of the truth."
I just came back from a press conference by a delegation from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It was interesting because of the context: the furore over Morsi's 2010 comments about Jews, the economic crisis Egypt is facing, the recent debacle over the constitution and the future of Egypt's fledging democracy. My basic takeaway from the press conference is this. The main concerns expressed by the senators are:
- Security and Sinai
- Egypt's relationship with Israel
- Amending the recently approved constitution
- Signing a deal with the IMF
The background to this in the US is a pending $489m aid package (update: reports differ, others are saying $189m as part of a $450m total but I swear I heard $489m), in the form of direct budget support, the Obama adminsitration would like to fast-track and more generally acute concern about the state of the Egyptian economy and a desire to see an IMF deal that would unblock US and other aid but also commit Egypt to eonomic reforms. Perhaps the clearest indication of this was when Senator Graham said:
The Egyptian economy is going to collapse if something is not done quickly. ... It's difficult for US taxpayers to invest in this country if the IMF does not approval a loan [to Egypt].
American politicians, especially compared to the Obama administration, are pretty tone-deaf to Egyptian sensibilities. One shuddered when Graham told the Egyptian journalists present "you're going to have to showcase your best behavior" to get US support.
What the senators want seems pretty clear. Aside from an IMF agreement and all it entails, they want stronger security operations in Sinai — not jut to control the terrorism issue there but also end weapons smuggling to Gaza. They also want — and they want pretty far in saying this short of spelling it out — President Morsi to make amends, publicly, for his remarks on Jews being "the descendants of apes and pigs." They also made it pretty clear they'd like to see amendments to the constitution to ensure greater respect for human rights, empowerment of women, protection of minorities and a more clearly defined (or delimited) role for religion. And similar stuff in the electoral law being currently finalized. At least you can't say they are not addressing issues of democratic governance and human rights.
Is this a joke?
State and private media showed special interest in a carrier pigeon carrying paper and microfilm that was found on Sunday.
According to the state owned news agency MENA, the pigeon was found by a security guard in Shubra al-Kheima, north of Cairo, who reported it to the police.
The pigeon as well as both the paper and the microfilm were sent, amid high security, to the Crime Laboratory. Written on the paper was “Islam Egypt 2012.”
State TV quoted a senior official at the Qalyubiya Security Directorate as saying that they are checking the contents of the microfilm. The directorate assigned two senior officers, General Mohamed al-Qusairy and Brigadier General Usama Ayesh, to conduct the investigations on the pigeon
Carrier pigeons were used in ancient times as a messengers, as well as during the First World War. One French pigeon received a medal for doing its job despite being injured.
Two new publications entirely devoted to Egypt this month:
1. MERIP has a special special issue on Egypt two years after the uprising. It features a particularly nice long essay on accountability for the police in Imbaba from our friend Matt Hall, among many other good articles. Josh Stacher gives this assessment of President Mohammed Morsi:
Mursi’s tenure to date, indeed, reinforces the thesis that Mubarak’s ouster was “half-revolution, half-coup.” An incumbent was ejected and selected cronies -- such as Gamal Mubarak’s neoliberal reformers and ex-Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli -- were thrown to the wolves. But changes at the top have not translated into structural change; the largest and best-organized opposition force, the Muslim Brothers, has largely been integrated into the ancien regime. The protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are a wild card. But barring a shift in the balance of power between the reconstituted elites and revolutionary forces, the Brother-status quo coalition is poised to dominate Egypt, irrespective of who the president is, whence he hails or what his stated plans for national rebirth may be.
2. POMEPS, the academic organization that is part of Abu Aardvark's sprawling empire, also has a special issue on Egypt, called "The Battle for Egypt's Constitution." Marc Lynch gives the details here. It gathers articles published on Foreign Policy in recent months.
Nervana Mahmoud's take on the Egyptian economy:
Morsi’s rush to secure political power has cost him a lot on the economic front. However, he doesn't have to save the economy to survive as president. He just has to manage its decline well enough to prevent an acute dip toward bankruptcy and default. That is why his buzzwords for 2013 will probably be “appeasement,” “loyalties,” and “subsidy cards.” It would not be a step forward for Egypt’s economy; neither easy nor pretty. Sadly, the real game is survival, and not “renaissance."
Mubarak was arguably ousted not because thousands poured into Tahrir Square, but because most elements in society were united against him. If Morsi succeeds in managing a declining economy and securing loyalties, he can avoid the same fate. That is what autocrats in Iran and Sudan have been doing successfully for decades. It is not what many brave youth aspired to achieve, but it is the ugly new reality (with a retro-’70s flavor) that they have to accept if the opposition leaders continue to be divided, elitist, and disengaged from the rural regions of Egypt.
My latest piece for the IHT's Latitude, looking at Morsi's recent handling of the economy and the cost of his rushed decision-making on the constitution and economic policy.
Too bad it's behind a paywall, because Peter Hessler's Letter from Cairo in the latest issue of the New Yorker is the best piece on Egypt the magazine has had in a long time. I've met Peter once (he came to interview me over a year ago when he arrived in Cairo) and I've been eagerly waiting to see his reporting. I knew his China reporting was excellent and that he spoke Chinese very well. I was impressed that he took the time to learn Arabic before starting to write about Egypt, as well as taking the time to get to know the country. It's a luxury few journalists have nowadays.
The piece is reported over the last month in particular, with scenes from the protests at Ettihadia and other events. It's pretty brutal on the Brotherhood's behavior, largely rightly — it has not fallen for the false "balance" that some other outlets have in their coverage of the most recent crisis. Tracking the Brotherhood's claims and acts, he lists many instances of dubious or duplicitous behavior while not taking the hysterical anti-MB version of events either.
Here's an excerpt lifted from the iPad edition:
Good piece by Yezid Sayigh on Egypt's military and the deal it made with Morsi on the constitution, which grants it unprecedented autonomy:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s detractors have repeatedly accused it of concluding a secret deal with the EAF to allow it to assume office. But Egypt is nothing like Sudan, for example, where a tight-knit alliance between the National Islamic Front and Gen. Omar al-Bashir reshaped state power as well as the legal and constitutional frameworks, and moreover purged non-Islamists from the military from 1989 onward.
In any case, the deal in Egypt is anything but comfortable. The Brotherhood and Morsi may interpret the constitutional provisions relating to the EAF as demarcating and separating the military and civilian spheres, as a precursor to asserting civilians’ political preeminence. But the formal autonomy granted to the EAF extends well beyond its own “professional” affairs — such as doctrine and arms procurement, or even the defense budget — and will be very hard to roll back in future.
This is not a challenge for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood alone, nor is it a problem only of their making. The transfer of power from military rulers to civilians always involves compromises backed by explicit and implicit understandings: whoever won last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections was going to have to grapple with the EAF’s privileged position. And with the exception of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries and Constitution Party head Mohamed ElBaradei, none of the principal political parties or presidential candidates since the ouster of Mubarak proposed curtailing the EAF’s prerogatives and immunities any further than Egypt’s new rulers have done.
One point of disagreement I have is with another passage:
Unlike other parts of the state apparatus, the EAF sees itself as an autonomous institutional actor with a privileged political role. This was made evident on Dec. 11, when Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi invited Morsi, cabinet ministers and a wide spectrum of “political parties and forces” and public figures to what he called a “social dialogue.” Although El-Sisi’s spokesperson insisted that this was not a “national political dialogue,” issuing the invitation was an unmistakably political act, undertaken unilaterally and without prior consultation with either the president or the head of the cabinet of which the defense minister is a part.
Actually I think other parts of the state apparatus — the Interior Ministry, the judiciary, the ministry of foreign affairs, the intelligence services — see themselves as deserving of similar autonomy, they're just less able to get their way. And al-Sisi's invitation for dialogue was as much about the army's interference as the sense, at the time, that the crisis and division was unnecessary and dangerous.
Enlightening piece by Joel Beinin on Decree 97, discreetly passed by President Morsi a few days after his November 22 legal coup — with the intent to lock out the independent unions born in the years just prior and just after the 2011 uprising and take control of the old state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation:
This is characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent political practice. Rather than reform institutions and power centers of the Mubarak regime, it has sought to extend its control over them. But as in other spheres, they do not have a concrete program or enough trained personnel to manage ETUF. Therefore, they are dividing control of the organization with Mubarak era figures. Their common interest is first and foremost bureaucratic—to maintain their positions. The Brothers also seek to limit the extent of independent trade unionism, as it constitutes a potential opposition to their free market ideology.
Very much worth reading.
Qatar swoops in to buffer against the impact of Morsi's economic mismanagement:
Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, Qatari prime minister, said his country had given Egypt a $500m grant and another $2bn loan to help control the currency and support the dwindling foreign reserves, a day after Cairo resumed talks for a crucial $4.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“That is a decent amount of money. It will stabilise the foreign exchange market a little bit,’’ said Mohamed Abu Basha, Egypt economist at EFG-Hermes.
“It will allow the government a breathing space where they do not have to worry a lot about the currency during the IMF negotiations.’’
The Qataris — who have pledged at least $10bn to Egypt and have now delivered some $2bn before this — mostly as deposits in the Central Bank. One day they will cash in on all of this aid.
I'm burying most of this post after the jump considering its rather dry subject-matter.
In my post on Egypt's recent cabinet shuffle, I noted the importance of nominating Mohammed Bishr, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure who had previously been governor of Menufiya governorate (one of the FJP's biggest electoral challenge) to the Local Development portfolio. I see (via Beltone's newsletter) that he will have expanded powers in this post, notably the selection process of new governors — most or all of which will come from the ranks of Islamists: