Al Raqqa: military brigades, the city administration and the revolutions to come

A detailed, fascinating read on the various brigades (their funders, relations to each other, and relations to civilians) operating in the liberated Syrian city of Al Raqqa in July and August. Also, very well written:

Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.

The author is Mohammed El Attar, writing for a site that describes itself as a volunteer, non-partisan effort on the part of Syrian researchers and writers to document and analyze the revolution.  

 

The cruel optimist

A lovely portrait of labour activist Haytham Mohamedeen (whose recent detention caused a stir) by Sarah Carr at Mada Masr. Like many other activists of his generation, his life story is also an account of every major protest movement of the last decade. 

The factors that ignited the January 25 revolution — “social injustice, the narrowing of political freedoms, Interior Ministry repression” — still exist, and Mohamadeen thinks this will create a “new anger.” But the danger to the revolution now comes from groups that have allowed themselves to be fooled by the “smokescreen of war on terrorism,” he cautions.

“All the leftist forces that have been fooled by this slogan are, in my opinion, involved in a disaster and stupidity of historical proportions. [The Revolutionary Socialists] have as much enmity as other groups towards the Brotherhood, but we are not allowing ourselves to be fooled by a smokescreen called the war on terrorism, behind which Mubarak’s state is reinstating itself and revolutionary gains swept away,” he argues.

“Today, Brotherhood members are being locked up arbitrarily; sooner or later, that will spread to other political forces.”

At the end of the interview, I ask him to clarify whether he was in a microbus when he was arrested in Suez, or in a private car as had been reported — a very un-Haytham-like mode of transport.

“Of course I was in a microbus,” he responds with a wink. “Do you think I would be doing this job if I could afford to buy a car?”

 

Reach of Turmoil in Egypt Extends Into Countryside

Great reporting in the NYTimes on the tensions and the harassment of MB families outside Cairo. On the funeral of one MB member:  

In this small, close-knit and rural Nile Delta town, it is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets — someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

Meanwhile, another Times article gives a more complex picture of the recent operation to "liberate"Dalga, a town near Minya where Christians have been terrorized by local Islamists (and opportunistic thugs). 

But the security forces did not bring such heavy weapons to protect Christian residents. Interior ministry officials said the expedition was an attempt to capture a single fugitive Islamist, and it may depart soon. The overwhelming force, they said, was merely for self-protection: the surrounding province of Minya is still considered a bastion of Islamist support for Mr. Morsi.

 

On the Coptic diaspora

Michael Wahid Hanna has a long essay on American copts and their political influence in MERIP, in which he examines the sometimes radical (or outright fanficul) positions the diaspora has taken, its interplay with the government and others in the "old country." He concludes:

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

A good piece to read along this post by Magdi Atiya on the always worth reading blog Salama Moussa.

 

Egypt: Nothing was inevitable

At Ahram Online, Ibrahim El Houdaiby analyzes the poor political choices on the Brotherhood's part that led to the alienation of revolutionary forces, the opportunity for a return of the ancien regime and the MB's downfall. Whether you believe the MB could have charted a different course or you think its very structure and belief system made its mistakes inevitable, this kind of analysis -- rather than the unsubstantiated accusations of terrorism, the class prejudice, the wholesale demonization one hears so often -- helps explain June 30th. (The English translation is not always smooth; the original Arabic article is here). 

The Muslim Brotherhood appointed the first Cabinet with many ministers who were Mubarak’s men because the president did not want to make concessions to his political opponents so they could participate in purging and reforming state agencies. He chose to share power with those already in power, including the military and remnants of the former regime, and also because of the limited abilities of the Cabinet members he brought in.

All of this made him gradually lose the support of revolutionary forces. No popular support could have stood up to the interest networks in state agencies that sought to thwart him (even before his election, I and more knowledgeable writers than myself often wrote that the president would face challenges in electricity, services, national security and social peace that would be instigated by those who wanted to restore former conditions. The only way to overcome these challenges was to build a popular alliance based on genuine concessions by Morsi that realise the gravity of these challenges. The only way was to rely on general grassroots support, not the Muslim Brotherhood group’s base).

 

Understanding Cairo

Lovely piece by Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplomatique on how Morsi and other Egyptian presidents did not understand Cairo, unlike Nasser who made it the centerpiece of his modernist societal project: 

Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.

Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.

Islamists Seize Town in Southern Egypt and Attack Christians

An account from Dalga, in Upper Egypt, where things seem to be totally out of control.  

“The fire in the monastery burned intermittently for three days,” Father Yoannis said. “The looting continued for a week. At the end, not a wire or an electric switch is left.”

The monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel was stripped of ancient icons, and the ground was dug up in the belief that a treasure was buried there. “Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around,” Father Yoannis said.

 

In Translation: Belal Fadl chats with a general

This translation of a column by Belal Fadl in El Shorouk newspaper is courtesy the professional translation service Industry Arabic

Chat with a Modern Major General

Belal Fadl

Sir Major General -- rather, sir Lieutenant General -- that is, sir General of the Army sir! [1] You majestic pillar of strength, you Colonel of distinction, Our Father, who art in all sorts of investigations and secret services… you really don’t realize what you’ve done to the country, do you?

To make a long story short -- and just in case you forgot, in your ecstasy over what you imagine to be a landslide victory --  there once was a failing gang who came into power [2]. They betrayed their promises, allied themselves with you, and I thought they would buy your satisfaction by leaving your special privileges just the way they are. This gang bit off more than they could chew, and acted like a man who hasn’t seen meat in a year - they took one look at power, and made a fool of themselves. So of course, they failed spectacularly. They went down in flames and the people rose up against them, demanding that the gang leave and early presidential elections be held, so they could choose someone more respectable and appoint him as president instead. But of course, you’ve conveniently forgotten the part about those early elections, and instead imposed a roadmap that guarantees your immediate control of the country. And you’ve brilliantly taken advantage of the Brotherhood’s appalling foolishness - all of it. First they offered you their necks - and they didn’t wake up until it was too late; meanwhile, you’re reaping the benefits of their crimes: their loathsome sectarian discourse; allowing armed men in their sit-ins; shouting words that they can't back up; and depending on people like Safwat Hegazi and Essam Abdel Maged, men who would cause civilization to sink entirely.

Read More

Dennis Ross' tortuous logic

Dennis Ross writes on the Room for Debate blog of the NYT, on the question Saudi support for Egypt:

For the Saudis, there are two strategic threats in the region: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis back certain opposition forces in Syria to weaken Iran and they support the Egyptian military to undermine the Brotherhood. We will not persuade the Saudis by arguing that the military is overplaying its hand.
If we want to move the Saudis on Egypt, we must address their strategic concerns; meaning, for example, that we must convince them that we are prepared either to change the balance of power in Syria or that we will, in fact, prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

That sounds more like what Dennis Ross wants the US to do (i.e. more hawkish positions on Iran and Syria) than something that the Saudis would genuinely take into consideration. For if they are concerned about the MB, why would they adjust that concern based on the Iran question? And why should the US decide to shift its positions on Iran simply because of the Egypt question?

Saudi thinking on Egypt

Saudi Arabia has taken a very strong stance in support of the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. The piece below, published in Saudi's al-Watan, has some glimpses on the al-Saud regime's thinking on this, and especially the role of the US. An experienced Saudi-watcher tell us that the interview, ostensibly with an analyst, actually conveys the views of very high-level officials, most notably their tiff with Washington over the handling of Egyptian crisis.

(I'm not sure who did the translation, though.)  

Saudi Expert Reveals to Elwatannews: King Abdullah to Obama: If Providing Aid to Egypt Burdens You, We Will Provide Double Your Aid”

Ahmed Al Ibrahim: Obama demands suspending aid to Egypt and the King refuses

By Mohamed Hassan Amer

“Obama dealt with the demands of Egypt as if they were demands of his hometown Chicago. He disregarded the interests of Egypt. It would be the Kingdom’s turn next should Egypt fall”. In these words, Ahmad Al Ibrahim, Saudi expert in Saudi-US relations described the Kingdom’s position on the events in Egypt and the pressure exercised by the US Administration following the dispersal of Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda sit-ins.

According to Al Ibrahim, KSA and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recognised that the “US fierce defence of the Brotherhood confirmed that they had made outrageous promises to the US against the interests of the region. It is therefore urgent to put an end to thisconspiracy.” Al Ibrahim reiterated that the Obama administration proved to be a failure and unworthy of the Kingdom’s trust. But having a wise man like al-Sisi in Egypt ushers in a huge, Arab political cooperation.

Read More

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

Egypt linkdump 23-25 August 2013

We have always been at war with Eastasia, Egypt version

From Bradley Hope's account of the increasingly widespread belief that Morsi and friends were broken out of prison by Hamas and Hizbullah, and other re-writings of the 2011 uprising: 

This view is now being taken further by some Egyptians as they seek to explain their country's zigzag course back to a state of emergency, one of the most reviled pillars of Mubarak's rule. The role of foreign influences, including United States funding for civil society groups in Egypt, looms ever larger in their attempts to explain and justify it.

To many former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, it seems increasingly plausible to suggest that foreign Islamists, with the aid of the Brotherhood, infiltrated the protests and hijacked the revolution, setting Egypt on a path that culminated with the military's intervention on July 3.

This "second revolution", as the coup against Mr Morsi is sometimes referred to, is more meaningful and legitimate than the first, he said.

It is, Mr Dessouki said, the first "exclusively internal Egyptian uprising."

Asked why the Mubarak regime collapsed so quickly, he said it was too soon to know for certain. But he pointed to many signs of foreign intervention, including the prison break and foreign funding of non-government organisations.

"The situation was much more complicated then," he said.

The headline does not do the story justice; read it as a documentation of how the idea that Morsi – in late January a freshly arrested political prisoner – has been recast as the center of international jailbreak conspiracy. This is just one of the mind-f**ks that the battle to define what reality is in Egypt has created. He who controls the past...

Mrs. Lincoln’s Egyptian Constitution

Nathan Brown, in FP, asks: 

Can a constitution written in 2012 largely by people now decried as terrorists really be amended to serve Egypt in 2013? Isn't the new regime's "road map" to restore constitutional rule and elections superseded by recent events? 

No it is not. The process is likely to continue and the political logic behind the road map remains quite robust. The reason is that it offers a way to concretize and institutionalize the current political arrangements. Worrisome as they might be, those arrangements remain ones that the dominant military, security, and civilian actors have every interest in entrenching. Egypt will have a constitution again, to be sure -- but it is one that will be a codification of the will of the current regime, like all of Egypt's past constitutions. And Egypt's international partners are therefore likely to be confronted soon with a regime that looks very much like the present one but can present a formal democratic face.

We translated some of the measures proposed for the new constitution recently, here and here. Some of what has been announced largely reverses Islamist provisions in the 2012 constitution, but some surprising elements have also been introduced, such as a return to the Mubarak-era individual seat electoral system.

Meanwhile in Tunisia

Allegations of a deal between the country's two top political leaders: 

Not much reliable information about the meeting in Paris between former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been leaked. However, it is known that the two have reached an agreement in principle, which foreign partners — namely the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans — have imposed. The two enemy brothers need to agree in order to achieve a democratic transition in Tunisia and to avoid an Egyptian-style bloody scenario, even if that would anger the popular bases of the two camps.
The deal includes keeping Ali Laarayedh at the head of the government and Mustapha Ben Jaafar at the head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), while replacing Moncef Marzouki with Essebsi as president of the republic. As for the government, it will consist of technocrats and politicians with the addition of two new posts of deputy prime minister; one for security affairs and the other for economic affairs. These two posts will be “offered” to the democratic opposition.

If true, it's exactly the kind of elite back-room dealing that appears to be the key to fragile political transitions. 

From Citizen To Problem: The New Coptic Tokenism

Paul Sedra, in Jadaliyya: 

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement this past Thursday that was entirely without precedent, and yet it received practically no media attention amidst the political turmoil the country is currently experiencing. According to the statement, “Beyond overlooking the violent and dangerous reality of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins, a number of foreign governments and international media outlets have also chosen to overlook the recent increase in killings and attacks that are once again targeting Egypt’s Christian community.”

Observers of Egypt’s Coptic community could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief upon reading this pronouncement by the Egyptian government. What is so remarkable and, indeed, bewildering about the statement, is that the Egyptian government has repeatedly and forcefully denied the existence of sectarianism on Egyptian soil for decades. For an arm of the government to reference Copts as a target of violence—much less reference the Copts as a distinct community at all—is a stark departure from a long-standing policy of refusing the acknowledgment of sectarian divisions within Egyptian society.

Worth reading.

With or against us

Sarah Carr on the new regime's vision of the media.  

It looks like we are heading towards media oppression that will be worse than under 2011. There is a public appetite for it and the security bodies have apparently been given a green light to do as they please. Wars on terrorism rely on crude binaries: you are either with us or against us, and this is the constant message being relayed to us (Hegazy even said during the presser yesterday that Egypt is "taking note of who is with it and who is against it"). Attempting to steer through the choppy mess that is Egypt at the moment with such a simplistic approach is disastrous and is intended to reinforce the fiction that there are only two camps in Egypt. This is about bolstering the military regime's strength, and its strength is dependent on the creation of an equal and opposing force against which it must pit itself. The Brotherhood has become its raison d'etre: There is no other reason to justify its current position and current actions.