Weddady's Free Arabs, American Islamic Congress and the pro-Israel funders who helped them rise

Max Blumenthal has this investigative piece on the American Islamic Congress in Electronic Intifada. I was shocked to read about the funding behind AIC that Max uncovers, I had simply no idea, having thought AIC was funded by Muslim Americans or, perhaps, Gulf countries. It turns out the most fanatic wing of the Israel lobby has a big role in it:

According to Internal Revenue Service 990 information filings, the AIC is funded largely by a pool of right-wing donors responsible for bankrolling key players in America’s Islamophobia industry, from Charles Jacobs to Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum. These same donors have pumped millions into major pro-Israel organizations, including groups involved in settlement activity and the Friends of the IDF, which provides assistance to the Israeli army.
Among the AIC’s most reliable supporters is the Donors Capital Fund, which has provided at least $85,000 in funding since 2008. Donors Capital was among the seven foundations identified in the Center for American Progress’s 2011 report Fear Inc. as “the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America.” Another foundation singled out in the report, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, has donated $325,000 to the AIC between 2005 and 2011.

There's a lot more there.

Knowing both Max and Nasser Weddady, I am a bit uneasy with his attack on Nasser, who after all is not a top dog at AIC. And I think the swipe at Stanford's Program on Arab Reform is a little weak, especially compared to what he reveals about AIC. Much of the last part of the piece focuses on the Free Arabs website, which Nasser co-edits. As far as I know it is more of a personal project for Nasser that secured funding from Stanford and elsewhere by co-editor Ahmed Benchemsi. So the AIC-Free Arabs connection, apart of Weddady, remains unclear. I was critical like many others of Free Arabs's "Horrible 4" feature and the quite scandalous article cited in Max's article about Mizrahi Israelis being the freest Arabs. But there is also good content elsewhere there.

There is a real problem in the funding of secular liberal Arab publishing. Often sources are from neo-con, pro-Israel sources that tend to minimize criticism of Israel (in my view is the only logical position to take on Israel as a liberal is critical, otherwise one is buying into the exceptionalism of "liberal Zionism" and thus into the racial/religious supremacism inherent in Zionism, which is hardly liberal.) In Arabic, they are often from conservative Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, whose princes finance such "liberal" sites as Elaph. This represents almost none of the mainstream, center-left to center-right, liberal/social-democratic thinking in the Arab world. To have institutions like AIC created to supposedly represent "mainstream Muslims" and have them be largely financed by extremists is deeply disturbing.

Update: Free Arabs' Ahmed Benchemsi has a reply to Max Blumenthal.

America's hidden agenda in Syria's war

From Phil Sands' report in The National, on meetings between US intelligence officials and Syrian rebel commanders to urge them to go after Jabha al-Nusra:

The commander - a moderate Sunni and an influential rebel leader from Damascus who said he has met intelligence operatives from Western and Arab states - said the US officials were especially keen to obtain information about the identities of Al Nusra insurgents and the locations of their bases.

Then, by the rebel commander's account, the discussion took an unexpected turn.

The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents.

"The US intelligence officer said, 'We can train 30 of your fighters a month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra'," the rebel commander recalled.

Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad's more powerful and better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt.

"I'm not going to lie to you. We'd prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad's army. You should kill these Nusra people. We'll do it if you don't," the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.

On Egypt's cabinet shuffle

There has been plenty of commentary on Egypt's recent cabinet shuffle around, as well as profiles of the incoming ministers. Much of the takeaway on this shuffle is that it represents a modest expansion for the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood's presence in the cabinet, and a refusal by the Brothers to reach out to the opposition by including some more neutral figures. While this analysis is correct, I think it misses the broader point of this cabinet shuffle.

When word of an impending cabinet shuffle started spreading a few months ago, it was in the context of the fallout of the crisis over the November 22 2012 constitutional decree (aka "Morsi's power grab" for the opposition) and of the IMF's clear messaging that a) the current cabinet's proposed reforms fell far short of IMF requirements for a loan package and b) more political consensus on these reforms would be required. Along with the evolution of the positions/demands of the National Salvation Front (increasingly centered on setting the right stage for upcoming elections by reviewing the electoral law and ensuring that ministries that have the potential of influential elections are not in the hands of partisans) and the political diplomacy of the Nour Party to resolve the crisis, the outline of a solution was proposed that would involve a compromise pathway to new elections, after which an entirely new cabinet would be formed and a full parliament would have full legitimacy to pass legislation. By that point, elections held before Ramadan were a possibility — but this has not been the case for a few weeks. 

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Two takes on Egypt's NGO law

Here's the Egyptian government's, through its foreign policy blog – clearly highlighting that the NGO law, about domestic regulation of society, is perceived as a foreign policy issues (indeed, I would say bargaining chips) by the Morsi administration because it makes Americans and Europeans (and so many Egyptians too of course) so anxious: 

The NGO draft law proposed by the Presidency affirms the basic concepts of access, empowerment, and supporting various forms of civil work upon which the law is based, while taking into account the principles of transparency, respect for the constitution and law, and openness to different experiences around the world in the field of civil society work.  The bill also activates the role of Egyptians abroad and aims to restore Egypt’s soft powers internally and externally.
. . .
The Presidency believes that the new NGO bill will encourage civil society work, facilitate its procedures and expand its sphere, away from any bureaucratic and monitoring constraints other than the general follow-up of the responsible body to ensure transparency and protect the rights of all Egyptians in conformance with the constitution and law.
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Further reading on Salafi attitudes to greetings on non-Muslim holidays

Since we recently discussed the phenomenon of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi preachers warning their followers against wishing Coptic Christians a happy Easter, ​some reading I did yesterday may shed some light on the matter. It's from a book of essays called Global Salafism edited by Roel Meijer that contains contributions by many leading experts on the subject — Stephane Lacroix and Bernard Heykal on the Saudi variant to name but a few. The introduction refers to four "tensions" of Salafism as currently understood (that is, in its heavily Wahabbi-influenced dominant contemporary). These tensions, the author argues, have transformed a revivalist / puritan movement into one that is more politically problematic and often intolerant. Here's some screen grabs from the Kindle edition, since Amazon's Cloud Reader does not allow for even limited cut-and-paste:

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On the Ultras Nahdawi

Kelby Olson, writing for Muftah: 

Ultras Nahdawi was formed in April 2012 by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to rally support both for the party’s platform, the Nahda Project, and President Morsi’s presidential campaign last year.
Like the original Ultras, Ultras Nahdawi use high energy, coordinated chants to convey their message. They also produce videos featuring pro-Muslim Brotherhood songs, modeled on older Ultras’ songs. Their shorthand name ‘UN12’ copies the Ultras Ahlawi’s ‘UA07’ formula, abbreviating the name of the group and the year in which it was founded.
The Ultras Nahdawi has also mimicked Ultras-style violence. On April 19, 2013, the group’s members were responsible for much of the violence between protestors and Muslim Brotherhood supporters outside the High Court in downtown Cairo and in nearby Abd al-Mounim Riyyad Square.

It's interesting how the MB has a tendency to appropriate the forms of contestation of its opponents, which it often decries. It has been critical of football groups and other types of youth activist groups like the "Black Bloc" yet forms its own form its own Ultras. And it continuously denounces the National Front for Salvation and has formed a parallel, largely MB, National Front for Conscience as an answer. In both cases, these groups provide distance between the organization but amount to not much more than a remote-controlled political arm of the Brotherhood.

New sectarian fault lines drawn in Egypt

Don't get this logic from the Brotherhood:

The Salafist Front asked President Morsi to consult with Muslim scholars before attending the Easter mass, and banned its own officials from acknowledging the Coptic Easter holiday. Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office member Mufti Abdel Raham al-Barr, who is also a professor in the Al-Azhar University, said that congratulating the Copts on the Orthodox Easter is “religious haram [taboo],” adding in a statement that “it is illegitimate to offer greetings for something that blatantly contradicts our creed….Our creed, as Muslims, is unequivocal: Christ – peace be upon him – was neither killed nor crucified, as Allah protected him from the Jews and elevated him to His presence. [Prophet] Isa – peace be upon him – was not crucified to be resurrected. Accordingly, there is no need to congratulate someone on something we know to be a falsehood, even though we do not deny our partners in the nation the right to believe or act as they please.”  
Al-Barr, who is an influential Muslim Brotherhood member, went on to distinguish between offering acknowledgment of other Christian holidays (like Christmas) and doing so for Easter: “Congratulating our Christian partners in the nation on their various occasions and holidays is an expression of charity ordered by Allah and of righteousness from which He has not banned us as long as it is not at the expense of our religion, and does not pronounce… any religious slogans or expressions that contravene the principles of Islam, and does not constitute any admission or acceptation of their religion or participation in their prayers. Rather, these would merely be words of courtesy common among people and would not entail any religious contraventions. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, in greeting [Copts] on Christmas, as we believe that Isa – peace be upon him – is one of the primary prophets, that he is human and that his birth was one of Allah’s miracles.”

Surely if you can greet them at Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the son of God (in Islam Jesus is a simple mortal prophet), you can also greet them at Easter. The lack of logic in the differentiation between the two suggests that al-Barr is either doctrinally a Salafi or that he does no want to offend Salafis. Like President Morsi's decision not to attend the mass, it is a striking lack of understanding of the symbolic value of having even an Islamist president pay respects to the church and the Christian community, which can only be explained by intolerance.

The Death of Egypt Independent

Of all the homages to Egypt Independent, this one by former staff member Jenna Krajeski in the New Yorker spoke the most to me — especially this bit:

To say that I was lucky to work at the newspaper when I did is vastly inadequate; I was lucky in a way that makes me think I may have used up all my life’s good charm in that one instance, and I’m fine with that. It’s not just that I got to witness a revolution or work among friends, it’s that those friends had maintained such an enviable idealism and commitment to journalism that some rubbed off on me. I came to understand the value of local journalism, and I got to know Cairo in a way I hadn’t before and couldn’t have at a desk job. A local newspaper is a magnifying glass, and no one has better insight on a city than a reporter assigned a few meager square blocks.

I could say exactly the same thing (minus the revolution) about my time at the Cairo Times in 2000-2003 and Cairo in 2005. When I think of the people I worked with there, I can think of a dozen of very talented people who went on to great things (one of them even married me). Some of the Egyptians that I worked with and for whom I think the magazine was as formative an experience as it was for me did particularly well. My former colleagues Hossam Bahgat and Hossam El-Hamalawy, for instance, went on to be respectively among their country's leading human rights and labor activists. And Lina Attallah, a young intern I hired in 2001 as she was going through journalism school, was particularly promising. She went on to become the editor of Egypt Independent.

France draws the military consequences of US disengagement from the Middle East

From Le Figaro's report on a "white paper" on France's military doctrine for the years ahead:

«C'est un fait majeur, lourd de conséquences, aussi important selon moi que les printemps arabes, car il signifie que l'on ne pourra plus désormais compter sur les États-Unis comme on le fit jusque-là», commente Étienne de Durand, le directeur du Centre des études de sécurité de l'Ifri, qui a suivi de près les travaux du livre blanc. Les deux dernières guerres livrées par la France, en Libye et au Mali, organisées autour de coalitions verticales, représentent selon lui «l'avenir». «Le fait que les États-Unis ne veuillent plus être en première ligne est un changement fondamental qu'il nous faut intégrer», poursuit cet expert.

The report also stresses the need to maintain France's African bases as a consequence of Operation Serval in Mali, describes the "vertical" coalitions used in Mali and Libya as "the future" and stresses that "the fact that the United States no longer want to be on the front line is a fundamental change that we must integrate". 

Hizbullah & Iran coordinate on Syria

Nick Noe from Mideastwire says he believes this report from al-Rai on what was discussed between Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and top Iranian leaders recently:

“- The Syrian opposition was deemed a tool in the hand of the higher interests and the neighboring countries and an echo of the American politics. According to the Iranian sources, the participants agreed on dealing with the opposition by using force…by enabling the regime to achieve victories on the ground.

“- The parties that took part in the meetings in Tehran agreed on moving from a state of defense to a state of offense in Syria in response to the British, French, American,Turkish and Gulf support for the opposition

“These sources quoted prominent Iranian generals who said that “…Iran can send hundreds of thousands of troops to Syria in order to defend the Al-Assad regime and to protect its part in the Reluctance (sic - that's the Western side, surely?) Axis in the event that the West was to proceed with supporting the armed men…” The highly informed Iranian sources revealed that “the participants praised Iraq’s role in preventing the Takfiris from using the Iraqi lands…” 

"If we don't go to war on Syria, we'll have to on Iran"

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham:

“If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Graham said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”

Mr. Graham added, “There’s nothing you can do in Syria without risk, but the greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists, and they’re pouring into Syria.”

Amazing how quickly the Syrian conflict is being redefined — with the risk now being presented as that the guys the US and its allies have armed and empowered might get Assad's weapons.

Tahrir has lead to...

Alaa Abdelfattah writes:

Tahrir has lead to an explosion of activism and community engagement. But Tahrir has also exposed the weaknesses in the current model of organizing. Relying too much on a small, highly connected network of activists who work on all causes at once has led to a revolution where 'the people' were not later represented in the political process. It has mobilized masses with no community memory of the long struggles that led to the uprising. Legions of citizen hungry for change and looking for ways to help change happen are failing because they lack the proper networks and experiences.

What next? That's been the question for two years.

Sukuks and not very halal Islamists

The Economist's Pomegranate blog writes about the travails of Egypt's sukuk law, championed by the MB but blocked by al-Azhar in one of the many unintended consequences of the shoddy constitution:

Egypt’s finance minister, Al-Mursi Al-Sayed Hegazy, says sukuk issuance could generate $10 billion a year for the country. That is highly unlikely any time soon, considering the current junk status accorded by ratings agencies to Egypt’s ordinary bond issues. But given the severity of the country’s economic situation, the protracted IMF negotiations over a possible $4.8 billion loan (which Salafists have also attacked despite a proposed interest of only 2%), and growing global demand for Islamic banking, the scholars of Al Azhar might be wise to spare the hair-splitting. Egypt right now needs every piastre of money it can find.

Sukuks are a fine investment vehicle, but I differ on the view that al-Azhar is hair-splitting. The issue al-Azhar has taken up is that sukuks, by their very nature, involved the lender taking as collateral the investment project itself. Azhar opposes their use in state projects (as opposed to private ones) because public goods would risk falling into lenders' hands. Since this is precisely the kind of situation that led to Egypt coming under British overlordship, Azhar's position is not surprising — especially considering that considering the state of Egypt's finances, a default on sukuks is not unlikely. The real problem here is that the Muslim Brothers want to change the terms of sukuks so that such collaterals are avoided in the case of public projects. Except if that's the case, in Sharia terms this is not a sukuk anymore. It's something else. The Brothers cannot have their cake and eat it too, by claiming to implement Sharianomics and then bending these supposedly holy rules.

Disinformation and Egypt's multiple realities

I used to joke that Egyptians have their own reality distortion field, which once entered can lead you to believe that their country is center of the universe and where black is white, the patently untrue is brandied as incontrovertible fact, ​and a person will assure you of one thing when its opposite is plain to see in front of your very eyes. 

In the current media scene, the Egyptian reality distortion field has multiplied into (at least) two views of reality: one in which the Muslim Brotherhood is a savior that will guide the country to a Renaissance and Mohammed Morsi is geopolitical genius; another in which an Iranian-Israeli-American plot to install the Brotherhood threatens to unravel the country. The latter discourse is more shrill and insane, perhaps due to the fact that Islamists control a small minority of the print media in the country, that their numerous satellite channels have less compelling non-religious programming, and that their normal discourse is bizarre and nasty enough for the propaganda to be relatively tame. The two worlds co-exist and occasionally collide, a bit like the sci-fi show Fringe​.

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Perfection itself assaulted by vile, envious Baradites

Some hilarious language in this Brotherhood defense of Egyptian Ministry of Supply Bassem Ouda — which the opposition would like to see replaced by a neutral figure to prevent the MB from getting an electoral advantage through control of the ministry, particularly after allegations that state property was being distributed by the MB in electoral campaigning in January — but that is being spun here as an attack on a stalwart and heroic figure. Like all propaganda pieces, it sounds very silly, particularly when it claims Mr Ouda "invented" popular committees, to have "solved" the problem of flour smuggling, etc.

Does Anti-Ikhwanism Really Matter?

Really good commentary by Khalil al-Anani:

After the revolution, the MB's leaders replaced Mubarak's repression with the opposition's conspiracy against their rule as a rallying point. It is one of many tactics that are employed by these leaders in order to maintain members' loyalty and sustain the unity and coherence of the movement particularly during hard times or crises. Therefore, although they are in power, they continue to perceive themselves as "victims" of the opposition which turned to be the "external enemy" that attempts to undermine the "Islamic project" regardless of what the latter means. Ironically, the most powerful opposition to the MB's rule now comes from Salafis and other Islamist forces not from liberal and secular forces. More importantly, by treating the opposition as an uncompromising "foe" the MB leadership could ensure members' adherence and maintain their control over the organization. Indeed, the attacks on the MB's headquarters in Mokattam in March was a golden chance for leadership to feed this narrative and internalize within members' mindset. "Now the entire tanzim (organization) is under the control of the conservatives and all members would unwaveringly support President Morsi to the end of his tenure," a senior member of the MB told me. Clearly, the more the opposition presses the MB, the more solid and coherent the movement becomes.

Hence the importance of constantly exaggerating the role of the opposition — and particularly the NSF — in fomenting unrest, even though there's scant evidence that ElBaradei and friends are putting thousands on the street. The MB does not know how to maintain coherence among its diverse members without fighting culture wars.

Stability in Algeria, or is "reform" even possible?

Today's reports that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered what is being called a "minor stroke" and is hospitalized in France, and the ongoing debate about a new constitution being drafted ahead of new presidential elections (which might very well now be rushed) next year, are a good time to issue a report on Algeria. Which is what Carnegie's Lahcen Achy has just done, in The Price of Stability in Algeria. He argues, among other things:

If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability. The government must begin enacting managed political reform or face the possibility of collapse.

There's a lot more there, but post-Arab uprisings one has to wonder: is "managed reform" ever a possibility, and if so what is its aim? Managed reform was what was being advocated in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere before 2011. It invariably was carried out only superficially — but was nonetheless part of the rhetoric of these regimes. They were always on the road to reform, and often did implement some sort of changes, especially in economic policy, but never democratized. If anything, appearing to be engaged in a process of reform considerably increased the political risk for these regimes, creating a gap between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of autocratic rule. Autocratic regimes that never claimed to reform, like Saudi Arabia (indeed most monarchies) or Sudan, turned out to be safer.

The lesson for autocrats from the Arab Spring, indeed, may be "whatever you do, don't reform." Do not initiate a process that promises more than you can deliver. If, like me, you believe the central cause of the uprisings was not strictly political or economic, but moral — that the regimes had exhausted their capital of legitimacy and were proving unable to renew it — it's not clear that Algeria has reached that point of collapse. The regime continues to have legitimacy, after all.

The reforms advocated in the Carnegie report are all fine if somewhat vague — e.g. "Enact deep political and economic reforms conducive to sustainable and equitable economic expansion, increased public participation in politics, and effective accountability of political leaders" — but can they be carried out by the current regime leadership? Isn't the story elsewhere, at the heart of how power and legitimacy is constituted and understood in Algeria, and what will happen to the real power structures of Le Pouvoir once dominant personalities leave the scene?

Fahmy Howeidy on Egypt's political crisis

I have in recent weeks neglected the blog, including the regular In Translation ​feature provided by the wonderful people at Industry Arabic, your go-to place on quick and quality translations from or to the language of the ض. I'll be posting some delayed pieces over the next few days. The first one is by the man generally regarded as Egypt's, and one of the Arab world's, most influential columnists, Fahmy Howeidy. It dates from a few weeks ago but the themes it raises are still relevant.

Howeidy is generally seen as an Islamist intellectual, but has not been an all-out partisan of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he is sympathetic to them. ​In the piece below, his critique of the opposition mirrors that of many Islamists, and he also offers a critique of the Morsi administration striking lack of political deftness in handling a country still in transition. And he offers some suggestions for handling the coming time period leading to new parliamentary elections, including that the Brotherhood should steer clear of ministries involved in elections (thus echoing NSF demands). It's an interesting balancing act.

Read on.

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Podcast #42: An opposition strategy

Our latest podcast went up yesterday after a too-long absence. Ursula, Ashraf and I talked about the Dubai art scene and censorship in the Gulf, the UAE and Qatar's soft power, how Islamist governments are doing in Tunisia and Egypt, and then we zero in for a long discussion of the Egyptian opposition's strategy, or absence thereof, and what might need to be changed.

Remember you can always get the podcast first on iTunes.

The Arabist Podcast

Podcast #42: