Savage Online Videos Fuel Syria’s Descent Into Madness

Aryn Baker reports for Time in Syria, where things are going Apocalypse Now:

The video starts out like so many of the dozens coming out of the war in Syria every day, with the camera hovering over the body of a dead Syrian soldier. But the next frame makes it clear why this video, smuggled out of the city of Homs and into Lebanon with a rebel fighter, and obtained by TIME in April, is particularly shocking. In the video a man who is believed to be a rebel commander named Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, bends over the government soldier, knife in hand. He has sliced through the soldier’s fatigues and is working the knife though the pale skin of the soldier’s torso. He has already cut out the man’s heart. The man then cuts another organ free and stands to face the camera, holding an organ in each hand. “I swear we will eat from your hearts and livers, you dogs of Bashar,” he says, referring to supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Off camera, a small crowd can be heard calling out “Allahu Akbar” — God is great. Then the man raises one of the bloodied organs to his lips and starts to tear off a chunk with his teeth.

Assad forces gaining ground in Syria

Liz Sly in WaPo:

BEIRUT — Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are beginning to turn the tide of the country’s war, bolstered by a new strategy, the support of Iran and Russia and the assistance of fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

A series of modest, scattered gains by government forces in recent weeks has produced no decisive breakthrough. But the advances have been made in strategically important locations and point to a new level of direction and energy previously unseen in the army’s performance, military analysts, rebels and Syrians close to the government say.

Meanwhile, death toll reaches 80,000

The Future of Egypt's Opposition

Bassem Sabry writes, in long piece on NSF travails, that Salafi-NSF made increasingly likely by shared hostility to MB:

Moreover, expanding the common ground with Al-Nour, the largest Salafi party, is a surprisingly possible undertaking at the moment, and the ground is fertile for that matter on nearly everything except the most profound: the amendment of the constitution. The opposition also needs to experiment with new strategies for exercising legitimate political pressure, with the target of bringing Morsi and the Brotherhood as realistically as possible back into a more inclusive democratic process. 

 

The Egypt-Israel Peace Test

Brooking's Tamara Coffman-Wittes and former senior Israeli diplomat Itamar Rabinovich write that for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty to survive it should be renegotiated:

In order to sustain the peace treaty, Egypt and Israel should renegotiate its military annex to allow Egypt to deploy forces in previously restricted zones and re-establish full sovereignty over the Sinai. Such a move would strengthen bilateral relations, generate goodwill in Egypt, and increase Israel’s confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to peace.
During such a renegotiation, the two countries would discuss in detail the most effective approach to tackling their shared challenges related to terrorism and transnational crime, in order to ensure that Egypt’s increased military presence in the Sinai also enhances Israel’s security. Egypt’s newly democratic government would be more strictly accountable for fulfilling the treaty’s terms if it played an active role in establishing them. At the same time, the agreement would boost domestic support for Egypt’s government and enhance its regional standing.

This is the option I've heard many Israelis officials and pundits argue as a possible silver lining to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: getting Islamists to directly re-affirm their approval of the treaty in exchange for regaining full sovereignty. Between the lines is that such a negotiation would have to be carried out by elected civilian officials and approved by the president (and perhaps parliament), rather than conducted through the only existing channels of the Egypt-Israel relationship at the moment, the military, intelligence and lower rungs of the ministry of foreign affairs.

I'm not sure the Brothers would bite (although they could certainly be incentivized by "sweeteners" such as more US aid.) They are more likely to push for an arrangement that would gradually impose the regaining of sovereignty in eastern Sinai as a fait accompli, leveraging Western concern about the security situation there. Or, should direct talks be unavoidable, they would be much more likely to take place in the case of a major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would provide some cover.

 

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.

Prison break

One of the many annoying things about following Egyptian politics these days is the sheer amount of disinformation and ridiculous stories out there. The compounded result of the state of the Egyptian media these days is to create a daze in which nothing appears true, and everything appears suspicious. It's psychological warfare based on information overdose, designed to soften minds and ​heighten the general sense of hysteria. Nour The Intern, whom I frequently reproach for spending way too much time reading sensational stories, has dug up this implausible gem below from al-Watan newspaper — to be read in the context of allegations that Hamas broke Mohammed Morsi and other senior MBs out of jail during the uprising against Mubarak. This is her summary.

Testimony of truck driver, Ayoub Othman, who supposedly saw Morsi and friends escape from prison. 

He was transporting 50 tonnes of sugar on Jan 28, when he got a flat tire and had to spend the night by the truck waiting for his aid, who left to fix the tire, to come back. He was right by the Natrun Prison. On Jan 29, around 3:30 am, he saw four microbuses with their number plates partly covered with duct tape. Two of them stopped behind him and two before him. No one came out of them and he started to worry. A while later, 27 other microbuses without number plates showed up.

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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.

A day at the gun market

Nour the intrepid intern writes in:

Lately, I have been taking a lot of taxis. Naturally, that means hearing unsolicited political opinions, life lessons, and impromptu stories about women who match my exact physical description and share my sense of style (and, sometimes, my name) getting mugged, raped or murdered, in the hope of scaring me into begging them to my full-time driver and shield of protection. 

Last week, one managed to convince me. Instead of suggesting I promptly take his phone number and call him whenever I need to venture out into the jungle that is Cairo, Reda, my new driver, casually offered me a shotgun for a reasonable LE600.

Being the picky shopper that I am, I refused to simply buy the first gun I hear of and asked for options. Obligingly, Reda decided to call a guy, who knows a guy, to get me a beginner's collection. "Something small for a small lady," he told him.

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Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.

In Translation: The road to fascism

This is the final catchup in our In Translation series, in collaboration with Industry Arabic.

In the last few months as the rhetoric has heated up in Egypt’s political landscape, there’s been much talk of fascism. Mostly, the word has been bandied against the Muslim Brotherhood, and sometimes the reverse to accuse secularists of favoring the return of the military to power. As is almost always the case, it is used rather carelessly.

In the article below, Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a respected physician and the head of the Social Democratic Party, gives his take on the Brotherhood’s mode of operation, which he labels as “fascist”. It was part of wider discussion of the “fascism” of the group early last month, in the context of attacks on freedom of expression.

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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.