Only room for one general

 

There has been much media focus lately on the ongoing, growing campaign to get defense minister and commander of the armed forces Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to run for president -- a bandwagon on which we can expect see many more flatterers and opportunists jump. El-Sisi's candid discussion with other officers on how Egyptian need to get used to paying more for services and talk on the phone less, how the army can get the media to practice some self-censorhip, and how military personnel will never be held responsible for killing protesters were recently leaked, and seen as evidence of his nefarious dictatorial tendencies by Islamists and of his economic genius and straight-talking by army supporters. 

 It is also instructive to see the reaction to another possible military contender. Nour Youssef has this report. 

While it is generally good to be a soldier rather than another weakling civilian in Egypt, it has not been so for former Chief of Staff General, Sami Anan.

After news of Anan’s announcement of his run for president spread, and despite it being followed by a quick denial, the pro-military media began airing his dirty laundry and then tried to suffocate him with the clotheslineSo far Anan, aka  The Bringer of the Brotherhood (or at the very least:  Key Person Who Helped Make Mistakes That Lead To MB Rule), has been accused of having an under-qualified son as head of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, wasting state land (200 acres of it by Cairo-Alexandria desert road on himself and his wife), having grandchildren born in the US for the citizenship, buying a whole floor in a fancy hotel, among other things.

Although many, like Mahmoud Saad, perfunctorily expressed their respect for Anan's constitutional right to run before all but telling him not to, much of the talk about Anan has been focused on his newly published memoirs and his past.

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A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles. 

 

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.

 

Another blow to independent Moroccan journalism

In late September, the Moroccan police arrested Ali Anouzla, the editor of the independent online Arabic-language site Lakome. His crime? Publishing a story that linked to a story in the Spanish paper El Pais that featured a jihadist video in which members of Al Qaida in the Maghreb threatened the Moroccan king, Mohamed the VI. Even though the Lakome story condemned the video, Anouzla may be charged with encouraging terrorism. 

This is from an Amnesty International statement:  

“We fear Ali Anouzla is being punished for Lakome’s editorial independence and criticism of government policies, in what signals a worrying setback for freedom of expression in Morocco. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

No kidding. Lakome is one of the only voices of serious critical journalism in Morocco. The  authorities of this supposedly liberal monarchy have systematically harassed the country's small independent press (the editors of the two best independent magazines of the last decade -- Le Journal and Tel Quel -- both live outside the country now, after being the targets of endless litigations, and Le Journal closed down).

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.

 

Bye Bye Brothers?

Last week a Cairo court issued an injunction that seems to pave the way for a new ban on all the Muslim Brotherhood's activities. Meanwhile, the new constituent assembly is discussing banning all political parties based on religion. 

In my latest contribution to the NYTimes' Latitude blog, I argue that banning the Brothers -- rather than really addressing the question of the relationship of politics and religion in Egypt, and of the appeal and contradictions of political Islam -- is hypocritical and short-sighted.  

The Brotherhood — and other Islamist parties — should have been required to open their activities to outside scrutiny and to commit to basic democratic principles over two years ago, just after Mubarak was brought down. But back then, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was afraid of how far the revolutionary fervor might go and turned to the Islamists to help it stabilize the country.
The current legal cases against the Brothers are selective and politically motivated. Serious violence has taken place at the hands of Islamists in recent months — police officers and military conscripts have been killed, churches attacked — but the direct responsibility of the Brotherhood’s leadership for that violence has yet to be proved in court. And while the organization is being tried for inciting violence, in case after case police officers are being acquitted of shooting protesters.
Why is the judiciary only examining the organization’s legal status now? What of other Islamist groups, some of which have more violent pasts than the Brotherhood and hold more odious positions on women or Christians?
The Islamist organization needs to be held accountable, but as part of a broader process of transitional justice. Instead, the goal of Egypt’s interim authorities now seems to be to punish the Brotherhood for getting into power and ensure it never does again. Egypt’s non-Islamist political parties have uniformly welcomed the idea of banning the group, even though that would in effect disenfranchise its hundreds of thousands of members and its millions of supporters.

 

A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 

Dictionary_Image2-3.jpg

From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”

 

'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.

 

Syria's chemical weapons

Brian Whitaker continues to follow the strange case of a widely circulated article alleging chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels -- one of whose alleged authors has been vainly trying to remove her byline.  

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications"). 
The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work drew a blank.
Yesterday, however, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Meanwhile the Sunday Telegraph publishes an interview with a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army:

Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.

He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.

Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.

 


 

 

An overnight project

A friend recently quoted the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila (An overnight Project) and then I read this profle in the Guardian and belatedly discovered them. It's a nice article, but I wish the focus was less on the lead singer's sexual orientation and more on the fact that they rock. Which they absolutely do. 

Living as I do at the moment under the psychic bombardment of full-throttle Egyptian nationalism, I just love the way the song and video Lel Watan ("For the Homeland") punctures everything fake, grandiloquent and sinister about the way the supposed good of a nation is used against the actual good of its people. 

Here is my very awkward translation (please share corrections and suggestions for improvement in the comments): 

Others domesticate hurricanes to govern destiny

We fly off with the breeze and return to destruction

Dare to ask about the worsening situation

And they silence you with talk of all the conspiracies

The herd accuses you of betrayal, if you call for the homeland to change

They make you despair till you sell your freedom, as the homeland is lost

They tell you

Come on smile, come on, dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

They taught you the anthem, they said your struggle is good for the homeland

They numbed your veins, they said your sedation is good for the homeland

They tell you

Come on smile, come dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

 

 

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.

 

What this terrible article in the Atlantic Monthly means: nothing

I don't generally have the time or inclination to go after bad writing on the middle east, but this absurd "analysis" on the Atlantic Monthly's site is just too much, starting with the first paragraph, which states: 

Astute observers of recent pro-Morsi protests in Egypt will note a new symbol cropping up in photos of the protesting crowds: Demonstrators are now holding four fingers in the air. Many carry yellow posters emblazoned with the same gesture.

How "astute" do you have to be to notice a hand gesture that is directed at every camera in the vicinity, and as the author says "emblazoned" on bright yellow posters? 

The gesture that is here referred to as "the Rabaa" apparently "signals both a conscious shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus from a global audience to an Arabic one and a rejection of the ideals of the Arab Spring." Unlike, the author argues, the V for victory that was used by earlier demonstrators and that "allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination."

Where to begin? The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that bid Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi an un-fond adieu used a panoply of slogans and symbols. The most common, meaningful and trans-national chant associated with the Arab Spring has to have been the Arabic chant "The People Want the Fall of the Regime." Not only is the argument that the V sign epitomized the Arab Spring extremely debatable; the comparison between the huge heterogenous masses in Tahrir and elsewhere almost three years ago and the mostly Brotherhood supporters protesting today doesn't make sense. They're different groups of people, in different circumstances, saying different things. 

 

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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.