Egypt and its patrons

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony

In a long piece on the New York Review of Books's site, Yasmine El Rashidi gives a painstaking account of the escalating intransigence and violence that led to Rabaa and concludes: 

Although I have heard well-informed people insist that Egyptians will no longer accept a state that monopolizes power or abuses them, at this moment, the primitive calculation is one of relative safety—which is far from being assured. Faced with the choice between armed militants and armed men in uniform, Egyptians, by a large margin, are choosing the latter. And yet it was these same forces of state that were responsible for the discontent that led to the uprising against Mubarak; many of those forces have remained intact since his reign. The real coup in Egypt was the one of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak left office, and one wonders when the real revolution might come.

 

More on Syria

Damascenes were clearly taking the threat of U.S. bombardment seriously this past week. As the UN CW investigators were leaving for Lebanon, Syrian state television replaced its usual diet of fashion and food puff pieces with talk show coverage on whether or not the U.S. would strike, as well as emergency broadcasting information (such as whether or not bakeries would be kept open). 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

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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.

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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."  

 

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. 

 

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. 

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Statement by the Coptic Church

A translation of a statement issued by the Coptic Orthodox Church, chiefly blaming international media for its depiction of events and warning against "foreign interference."  Translated by Osman Osman.

Statement of the Coptic Church
The Egyptian Coptic Church follows the regrettable development of events on the lands of our motherland Egypt. It affirms that it strongly supports the Egyptian Police and Armed Forces as well as all the institutions of the Egyptian nation in confronting the groups of armed violence and dark terrorism operating from inside and outside Egypt, the attacks against the State’s entities and the peaceful churches and the terrorization of Muslim and Christian Egyptians in full contradiction with the values of religions, moralities and humanity. 
Whereas we appreciate the stances taken by states and countries that understand the reality of such developments, we strongly condemn the misleading media coverage in the Western countries, and we call upon the media representatives to objectively look into the reality of events, and to refrain from providing an international or political cover for such terrorist blood-thirsty groups and all those who belong to them, as such groups intend to unfold devastation and destruction in our beloved country.
We call upon the Western and international media to reflect the real image of what is happening, in a truthful genuine manner and with due integrity.
While we present our condolences to the families of the victims and those who lost their lives in service, we wish the injured a speedy recovery.
We adhere to the strong national unity, and we fully reject all endeavours to drag the country into sectarian animosity. We consider that any foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt is totally rejected.
While the hands of evil are involved in burning, killing, and destroying, the hands of God are close to us: protecting, fostering and building. We have confidence in God’s assistance that will help our Egyptian people in overcoming such a difficult chapter of our history towards a better and brighter future, where justice, peace and democracy will prevail, exactly what the people of the noble River Nile valley deserves.
Long live Egypt, free and dignified

 

Driving about with the Islamists

Sixth of October Bridge is missing parts of its railing. Although only one armored vehicle was fell off it. 

With one eye on the railing rather than the road and another on his phone, my cousin searched for a scandalous picture on his phone. “I found it! Look at actress Elham Shaheen sleeping naked next to Mahmoud Abdel Aziz!” he said, showing us a blurry picture of a clothed Menna Shalabi and Kareem Abdul Aziz cuddling under a blanket that’s only a few inches short of their neck.  

“And then she gets mad when Abdullah Badr calls her a whore,” my father said, shaking his head, and passed the phone to my uncle to see. 

“Oh, it’s art! It has a message within the dramatic context; it’s purposeful!” my uncle quoted the common intellectual defense of nudity in films in a singsong manner. 

“The message is: I am a whore,” my cousin replied. They guffawed.

The laughter died once the Ministry of Finance finally came into view, it was reportedly attacked by MB supporters on Wednesday night with Molotov cocktails. 24 hours later, parts of the building were on fire again. On the seventh floor, bright yellow and orange flames were dancing unfettered by the three fire trucks parked in front of the building. The firefighters, distracted by their sandwiches, had pointed their hoses a tad too low, accidentally watering the shrubbery in front of the ministry instead of putting out the fire.

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August 14 in Egypt in numbers

Dead (according to Ministry of Health, and still counting): 525

Wounded: 3,500

Churches, monasteries, Christians schools and libraries attacked (Source) : 56

Days that Mohamed ElBaradei lasted as a civilian figure-head of the army-run "second revolution" before resigning in protest: 28

Other resignations: 0 

Justifications presented by Egypt's non-Islamist media and political parties for the gratuitous murder of hundreds of their fellow citizens, and commendations of the security forces for their "steadfastness" and "restraint": too many to count

It only gets worse from here

You could ask a thousand questions about the violence that has shaken Egypt, from why police decided to move now against Islamist sit-ins and with such brutality after making so much of its careful planning in the last week, to whether the attacks on churches and Christians more generally that erupted in reaction are part of a pre-planned reaction or the uncontrollable sectarian direction political tensions take in moments of crisis. But the question that really bothers me is whether this escalation is planned to create a situation that will inevitably trigger more violence – that this is the desired goal.

The fundamental flaw of the July 3 coup, and the reason those demonstrators that came out on June 30 against the Morsi administration were wrong to welcome it, is that it was based on an illusion. That illusion, at least among the liberal camp which is getting so much flak these days, was that even a partial return of the old army-led order could offer a chance to reboot the transition that took such a wrong turn after the fall of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. This camp believed that gradual reform, even of a much less ambitious nature than they desired in 2011, would be more likely to come by accommodating the old order than by allowing what they perceived as an arrangement between the military and the Islamists to continue. Better to focus on fixing the country, notably its economy, and preventing Morsi from sinking it altogether, and take the risk that part of the old order could come back.

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ConspiracyLand

With the media frenzy and the MOI’s warnings on the radio and news tickers asking citizen to beware anything that looks strange and report it (bad time to be Somaya El Khashab in Cairo), more and more people are subscribing to the belief that the lack of evidence for a theory, only proves the conspiracy.

And it’s not just Egyptians. Recently, I have met a number of Syrians who were convinced that some Alawites joined the Raba’a sit-in to make it look as if the Sunni Syrian refugees in Egypt support Morsi to turn the media and the public against them.

“(Alawite Syrians) probably thought (Sunni Syrians) got too comfortable here and thought: Let’s stir strife,” bemoaned Ahmed Khalil, who has noticed an increase in stares and snide comments ever since Morsi’s removal. Needless to say, this theory would be extremely difficult to document, yet alone proven to be true, which to Khalil only goes to show that it is true. "No one will admit and no traces will be found...exactly what you would expect from a well-executed plan." Or from an imaginary one.

In order for any theory to flourish, it needs only be mentioned once, preferably in a question format [ex: Why does group X drink a lot of milk? Could they be paid by Juhayna?], in an article or on late night TV. The viewers/readers and their friends will spread the word faster than fellow channels and newspapers on Facebook and Twitter. By the time it reaches a third and fourth parties, it’s fact and questions implying that one is not readily accepting it as such, or is not sufficiently frightened by it, mostly results in sighs and sidelong glances.

The following are the fresh and reheated conspiracy theories in Egypt in no particular order:

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All about Sisi

A few days ago, amidst a flurry of articles about General al-Sisi (see below), someone on Twitter asked me if I would weigh in. I thought I might just begin to write more about what's been taking place over the last month, which I haven't done because I've been on holiday, have not been in Egypt since May, and rather wait till the shrill, hysterical atmosphere in Egypt died down (more on that later).

Sisi's speech calling for a "popular procuration" to tackle terrorism has made the curiosity about the general justified. By any standards, Sisi – despite having tried hard to emphasize the civilian face of the July 3 coup early on – has taken leadership of the country and President Adly Mansour is an obvious, clearly powerless, fig leaf. Questions about his political ambitions are normal, whether the current media frenzy in his support – including calls for him to run for president – is at his behest or simply the gesticulations of what masquerades as the press in Egypt these days.

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