Farewell to Syria, for a while

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who after two years in hiding in Damascus fled to his hometown of Raqqa only to find it under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham group. He has now left the country. 

In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.

 

The Fallacy of Crushing The Brotherhood

Couldn't agree more with this analysis by Amro Ali: 

The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule: the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.

 

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.

 

What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?

Very nice, nuanced analysis of the different and shifting positions towards the Brotherhood, the army and civil liberties of Egypt's various non-Islamist groups and parties by Sharif Abdel Kouddous in The Nation: 

Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”

The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.

The biggest surprise for me was to read this account of what rabidly pro-military Tamarrod leader Mahmoud Badr said five weeks before Morsi's ouster:  

In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod’s founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—which directly ruled the country following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. “We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics,” he said emphatically. 

Badr supports a Sisi presidency now (and generally giving the army whatever it wants). One of the most frustrating things about following and analyzing politics in Egypt is how utterly irresponsible and inconsistent political actors are, how often they go back on previous positions and statements and break their commitments. 

 

Slaves of Babylon

Frequent contributor to this blog Paul Mutter follows up on the recent Guardian report on the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar with a detailed account of migrant labour in the Gulf.   

A third of the Gulf’s total population today consists of guest workers. Primarily South and Southeast Asian in origin, they have replaced the Arab guest workers of the 1980s who departed – or in the case of 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, were expelled – during the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf states increasingly opted for non-Muslim and non-Arab workers in the years that followed. Two million guest workers are present in just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, out of six million altogether. South and Southeast Asian migrants actually outnumber the native populations of several Gulf states: 70% of the UAE’s population, and 69% of Kuwait’s population, consists of guest workers nowadays. Saudi Arabia hosts tens of thousands of workers – it issued 700,000 new visas for maids alone in 2013 – and now fines or shut downs employers in the Kingdom who employ more migrant than domestic workers.

Qatar is even more heavily dependent on migrant workers than Saudi Arabia. 87% of the population consists of migrants, and 94% of the entire labor force is from overseas – which means that only 6% of the workforce, as native Qataris, can legally form a union or leave a job without their employer’s permission. Qatar is planning a major expansion of its guest worker population in order to build twelve stadiums, along with subway lines, hotels, and causeways, to support the planned city of Lusail that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

 

Historical perspective on Egypt's army

From Bernard Lewis' autobiography, Notes on a century , a vignette about Nasser requesting Pakistan's help to restructure the Egyptian military in 1960: 

The government of Pakistan was willing, but on condition that it be permitted to send a small feasibility mission to examine the situation and then advise on what, if anything, Pakistan could do. It told Nasser that the mission must be allowed to go wherever it wanted, and its questions must be answered truthfully and honestly. Nasser agreed, saying that there would be no point otherwise.
A small group of Pakistan officers was then sent to Egypt. they toured the country, spoke to many people and reported that they were not told the truth. The reason that they were not told the truth is that nobody knew the truth. In the Egyptian armed forces, they said, "The corporal lies to the sergeant, the sergeant lies to the lieutenant, the lieutenant lies to the captain, the captain lies to the major and so on all the way up the chain of command. By the time it reaches the high command or the Ministry of Defense, they haven't a clue what is going on." The Pakistan general heading the mission concluded that the high command in Cairo was sitting on top of a pyramid of lies. The Pakistan government therefore declined and said it was sorry but could not help.  

 

Egypt and the Gaza tunnels

Jared Malsin, reporting for Mada Masr: 

“On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side,” says Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist, describing the scene in Palestinian Rafah. “There is quite tight control. The Egyptian military are controlling across the borderline, which means they [the smugglers] cannot really operate, even if they can operate freely from the Gaza side,” he says.

On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s current operation has paralyzed the vast majority of the tunnel system. Of an estimated 300 tunnels operating before June 2013, approximately 10 were operating on September 21, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs. The quantity of goods moving through the tunnels is 15 percent of what it was in June.

Under Morsi, Red Lines Gone Gray

Jonathan Guyer, in Jadaliyya, looks at political cartooning under Mubarak, Morsi and the military. His very interesting article (based on a year's worth of Fulbright research) confirms my sense that there was more freedom of expression under Morsi than before or after -- not because the Brother's weren't authoritarian, but because they weren't able to impose their control. All those cases brought against journalists and others for insulting the presidency were also the result of the fact that the presidency was getting mocked and criticized as never before. 

The most significant change in Egyptian caricature since 2011 is the implicit permissibility of satirizing the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohamed Morsi’s year in office, the same penal code article maintained that “whoever insults the president… shall be imprisoned.” Yet, according to Judge Yussef Auf, it does not clearly stipulate what insulting the president means or what the precise penalty should be.[3] Additionally, nearly seventy other articles limit freedom of expression. These range from prohibitions against “insults” to the parliament, army, courts, and other public authorities, to injunctions against the reporting of false news. Nonetheless, mocking these institutions became a core part of cartooning even in government-run newspapers, in spite of—or because of—these regulations.  

 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

Qatar's World Cup 'slaves'

The Guardian conducted an investigation into working conditions at construction projects -- some of them related to the 2022 World Cup -- in Qatar. And what they found is deeply disturbing but not surprising if one is familiar with the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf. 

According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between 4 June and 8 August. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents.

The investigation also reveals:

• Evidence of forced labour on a huge World Cup infrastructure project.

• Some Nepalese men have alleged that they have not been paid for months and have had their salaries retained to stop them running away.

• Some workers on other sites say employers routinely confiscate passports and refuse to issue ID cards, in effect reducing them to the status of illegal aliens.

• Some labourers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat.

• About 30 Nepalese sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal conditions of their employment.

 

'Sexual Jihad' in Syria

Sana Saeed tries to trace the "Tunisian women are going on sex jihad in Syria" story to its roots -- which turn out to be tangled and possibly non-existent. As Saeed notes, any story with the words "sex" and "jihad" in the title is going to be catnip to the international press. And making an accusation like this (which Tunisia's Minister of Interior did recently) may be an easy way to embarrass/discredit Islamists. 

Despite the story having gained traction of the viral variety, and despite the concerns and facts expressed by Tunisian officials, there seems to be actually very little evidence to suggest that the so-called sexual Jihad is actually a thing (and Jihad al-Nikkah is not a thing in Islamic jurisprudence).

The story of Tunisian women returning from waging sex on holy warriors (thanks RT) in Syria impregnated with future warrior babies itself is, at best, just incredibly questionable and many, from the onset of the story’s break into the English press, expressed deep skepticism. In a civil war that has had many ideological fronts, the most pernicious in is salience has perhaps been that of information. Syria has been a cluster of misinformation, misattribution and propaganda. O’Bagygate and Mint Press-gate are two of the most recent headlines to highlight the problems in not only reporting on the conflict but also how easily questionable, untrue, unverified information is gobbled up to serve ideological biases and wishful thinking.

 

The Lost Land of Egypt

An important article by Maria Golia on land in Egypt, covering the loss of agricultural land to real estate speculation; the dearth of affordable housing; and the looting of heritage sites.  

In Egypt, land is power. The military is the largest landowner, and the Mubarak regime’s undoing was partly owed to sweetheart deals for choice locations, particularly on Egypt’s coasts. Large tracts of land that might have been developed as new towns or institutions serving the public instead enriched a handful of real estate investors interested primarily in upscale tourism or residential compounds. The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ESCR), an NGO, reports that a minority elite, around 250,000 families, typically owns several residences including a seaside villa or two, while 18 percent of Egypt’s lesser privileged families share a single room.[4]

 

Why I quit my job as an editor in Egypt

Very interesting interview by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with Hisham Allam, a former editor at El Watan newspaper.  

The situation in Egypt is very complicated, and the Western media sees the scene as a military coup against a democratically elected president who did not complete his presidential term. Meanwhile, the view within Egypt is completely different. The citizens do not care about the process of democracy as much as they care about how it will be implemented.

The president they voted for a year ago had committed numerous errors which created feuds between him and most of the state institutions. Consequently, both state owned and private local media volunteered to defend the new regime against the former.

In such a complicated situation, most of the local media have become unprofessional. They are biased against the ousted president and his supporters. They are deliberately avoiding the publication of any reports or news which condemn the ministries of interior and defense who led the coup.

It has become compulsory that events get covered from one angle, which condemns the ousted president's supporters and make them appear criminals, while local media ignore completely all the brutal killings and arbitrary arrests committed against the former regime supporters.Most respected journalists have decided to leave their media institutions temporarily for the fear of being exposed to pressure or being obligated to deceive the readers and audiences.

I quit my job as an investigation editor for this reason.

Apparently Allam is one of the reporters who covered Hamas' role in the prison break-outs (including of Mohammed Morsi) during the uprising against Mubarak. I always thought that story wasn't serious. But Allam also reported on other important stories, like the fatalities in a terrible train crash under Mubarak (and apparently faced harassment for it). He has good advice for young journalists in Egypt:

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Don’t follow the mainstream. It is safe to follow, but it takes courage to lead.
What advice would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Doubt what you hear, analyze and respect the intelligence of your opponents. Last advice: don’t trust anybody.

 

Constitutional Disorder

In my latest column for the New York Times' Latitude blog I look at the writing of Egypt's new new constitution -- a process that despite offering some promise of improvement, is rather dispiritingly familiar.   

The last assembly was drawn overwhelmingly from Islamist parties that had just performed well at the polls. Non-Islamists didn’t have the numbers to exercise veto power and complained about their marginalization; eventually almost all of them withdrew. The new drafting committee looks like a photo negative of the old one: It contains a single delegate from an Islamist party, and he has already walked out in protest over being ignored.

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable to beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

 

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.