Syria as seen in Egypt

While Emad Adeeb was trying to  jolt his guest out of his stupor to tell us whether or not a US attack on Syria is in Egypt’s best interests and whether those interests are aligned with American interests, the overwhelming majority had already decided they were not.

Some for the reasons Amr Hamzawy offered Adeeb, which were, to be brief: It is dangerous to allow the  US to fashion itself as an international “Rambo” conducting military operations without international consent - again; there are no happy post-military intervention examples in living memory to cite in order to make the case for Syria, which needs a political solution, regionally and internationally, and; one of the main goals of Jan 25 was to end Egypt’s subordination to the US, which should afford it the right to oppose the US when it disagrees with it.

But not everyone was as Syria-focused about Syria as Hamzawy. Hamdeen Sabahi, for example, tweeted that history teaches us that an attack on Egypt always began with an attack on Syria, hence the need to oppose this barbarism. Identically, Kardy Saeed thought the main reason why Egypt shouldn’t condone an attack on Syria was because it would open the door for an attack on Egypt. Amr Adeeb screamed at a colorful map of a divided Syria and then moved on to compare between our Qatari and Emirati brothers,  while others saw the attack as a US consolation prize to the MB for  failing to tame Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Read More

"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"

In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

In the Washington Post, Mokhtar Awad puts the Rabaa sit-in and massacre in context, telling the story of Nasser City, the neighborhood where it took place. In Awad's telling it is one of Cairo's many unsuccessful attempts to "start over" with a new planned city in the desert, and it epitomizes both the aspirations of the military and Islamist middle-class and the shortcomings of the state. 

Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
[...] 

Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

 

The people, the church and the state | Mada Masr

Another good account of the sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt, and their interplay with national politics. 

It all started when a group of Christians in the village built a speed bump near their home to decrease car accidents. When a Muslim man hit it, not knowing it was there, he started swearing at them and insulting their mothers and fathers. On August 10, a Muslim man known to be radical came in person to threaten the village church. The following day, as Christians went to Sunday mass, Muslims were already sending calls via mosques to attack them, Nasrallah recounts.

 

The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 

 

Brotherhood protests

The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for further protests tomorrow, and a campaign of civil disobedience. But the organization hasn't been able to mobilize successfully so far, and faces public resentment, as Nour the Intern, who attended some Islamist protests earlier this week, reports. 

The man in the blue galabeya was at loss. In one hand, he held a large poster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and in the other an icy cold bottle of water. He stood in the baking heat torn between setting down the poster to uncap his bottle for some much-needed hydration, or awkwardly holding it between his knees. He scanned his environment a clean surface to place the delicate poster. When he found none, he prayed for patience and put it between his knees. Behind him, the bearded men were growing restless.

The protesters' squabbles were interrupted by a sudden bang from above. An adolescent was beating a pot with a spatula in her balcony, proclaiming el-Sisi to be her president, drawing laughs and claps from the loitering passersby, and frowns and prayers for retribution from the protesters. An old woman excitedly poked her head out of her window, opposite to the balcony, to praise the girl and suggest she boil some water in that pot to clean the street.

As they stood there squinting their eyes at the balcony, frozen in anger and anticipation, waiting for the rain to fall so they could bring the building down, four men  shoved a middle-aged protester and his son for giving them a headache and ruining the country. With impressive speed and coordination, four large buckets of water were emptied from different buildings. The water was accompanied by insults, saliva and three slippers.

Shoppers came out of shops, mechanics out from under cars, and women out of their windows; teenage boys let their female counterparts walk without receiving a detailed description of their bodies, to join the fight, or sigh at it. Facepalms outnumbered kicks three to one.

Read More

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

 

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

Egypt linkdump 23-25 August 2013

Et Tu Sonallah?

On the New Yorker's blog, Robyn Creswell lauds Sonallah Ibrahim (whose first novel That Smell he recently translated, to glowing reviews) as Egypt's "oracular novelist," arguing that his skepticism over the January 25 revolution's impact (he has preferred to call it an intifada, an uprising, rather than a thawra, a revolution) marks him as a "soothsayer." Creswell argues that Ibrahim's doubts echo his early skepticism of the Nasser regime, which "was seen as a harbinger of its collapse."

I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's sharp, troubling, original work -- and I was charmed by the man himself. But I think the argument above is more pertinent to his straight-forward opposition to the Sadat and the Mubarak regimes, whose shortcomings he satirized in his tour-de-force novel Zaat  and denounced publicly. Ibrahim has had a much more complicated and contradictory relationship to Nasser, like many Egyptian Communists (who voluntarily dissolved themselves in the 1960s to support the national cause) -- one in which anti-imperialism trumps anti-authorianism, and ideology overrides self-interest and otherwise excellent analytical powers. 

I say this in light of a recent interview in which Ibrahim, commenting on the current situation, says that "the military power is working on behalf of the people," and describes Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as "a gain for political life in Egypt," a "patriotic personality" and someone who "for the first time since Gamal Abdel Nasser challenged America and the West." 

 (He also argues that "In the first place we have to understand that there is a plan, developed in research centers in Germany and the US after studying our political and social situation, to maintain their control over us. And this plan is executed by spreading a number of public figures among us to work in its interest, and one of these figures in Mohamed ElBaradei.")

I don't know when this interview was done and I don't know how reliable it is (El Youm El Sabaa isn't always a pinnacle of professionalism). Ibrahim is hardly alone among Egyptian  writers to be celebrating and defending the army after Morsi's ouster. 

But it suggests much less comforting thoughts, not about a lifetime of skepticism and prescience, but about the recurrence of a certain gullibility or delusion. 

In That Smell Ibrahim portrays a country that has turned into a prison, a place where people can't connect or tell the truth. Yet in the interview he describes Nasser as a "great leader." As Creswell himself notes in his introduction to That Smell, when Ibrahim and other Communists were jailed by Nasser in 1959, "The consistent support his faction had given Nasser ended up counting for nothing."  

 

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...

Back to Cairo

The man across the aisle was reading an article headlined: “No Turning Back and No Surrender Before the Forces of Darkness.” As our plane descended over night-time Cairo, the streets were blurry in the weak city lights, and eerily empty because of a military curfew.

The Arabist household just returned, with some trepidation, to Cairo. Here is something I wrote about my own feelings on re-enty for the NYT Latitudes blog. 

 

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.

The Way Out

I prefer to see what happened as a great fire, which many shared in starting, some out of negligence and stupidity, some out of revenge, some of out greed and some out of inattention. Everyone thought his own actions explained the fire’s outbreak, but the truth, God knows, is they all joined in starting it… And what matters is that they started it, and the army came to power claiming to put it out.

This is a passage from Ezzedine Choukri Fischere's Bab El Khoroug ("The Way Out") which I took with me this summer while traveling outside Egypt. I just wrote about in for the LRB blog.   

 

The tale of Kerdasa's police chief

Thugs are thugs. They attack because they can. It makes little difference whether they are from the MB or not. Those were Kerdasa's police chief Mohamed Gabr's thoughts on his unfriendly neighborhood thugs, according to his relative Mohamed Khalil, which he conveyed a month before his brutal murder became a default example of the violence carried out by some Islamists.

Khalil and his friend Amr (an acquaintance) met chief Gabr the night they got into car accident and were taken to the Kerdasa police station for driving without a license on the Mehwar. The man offered the tea and coffee while they waited for the unlawful released the car without due process. Mostly done as a favor for his relative, partly because parts of the vehicle were going to “get misplaced” in police custody anyway. 

There Khalil and Amr encountered two signs of police weakness. The first came as a suggestion by chief Gabr himself to pay a neighborhood thug some money to let their car be and the second stood as a reminder outside the station. 

Read More

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.

 

Egypt links 15-18 August 2013

The most important piece of the last few days about Egypt, in my view, in this great reporting by David Kirkpatrick, Peter Baker and Michael Gordon in the New York Times. It's worth reading carefully because it represents the most detailed public account of efforts at defusing the post-July 3 crisis, negotiations between the army and the MB and how hardliners in the government nixed them, and gives some indication of key personalities around Sisi. It also provides details, such as that Mohammed ElBaradei meant to resign in late July after the second massacre of pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo but was convinced to remain by John Kerry. It's really sterling work.

One impression I came away reading this was that, while dynamics inside the Egyptian leadership were the most important factor, the interventions of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham may have prevented (because of their perceived arrogance from an Egyptian point of view) a breakthrough in efforts to avoid further violence. 

Update:  A source familiar with the negotiations / mediation efforts (not a journalist and not an American) confirms the NYT account is, small errors aside, largely correct but that the deal had already collapsed when McCain and Graham came to Cairo. Their swagger, at most, helped the Egyptian government in providing a pretext for nationalist backlash, but the decision had already been made to close the talks and move to a crackdown.  

Below are links collated in the last few days, from different perspectives. I may come back to a few later. 

Read More