DC court ruling suggests Snowden was right

 

The NYT reports on a case in which the NSA snooping program is savaged, indicating it will probably end up in the Supreme Court:

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Leon wrote in a 68-page ruling. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

Egypt's army chief: Will he? Won't he?

From The Economist's Pomegranate blog:

Mr Sisi has so far been coy, shying from the limelight. His reticence has made other potential candidates hesitate to step forward, though two former presidential hopefuls, Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a centrist Islamist, have both lately aired pointed 'advice' that it might be better for the minister to stick to military affairs. So it was with a mix of fascination and sarcastic glee that Egyptians have responded to what is alleged to be a leaked, not-for-publication portion of an interview with a sympathetic newspaper editor, in which Mr Sisi seems to suggest he may be pre-destined for the highest office.

On the tape the general, or a very skilled mimic, confesses to having often experienced peculiarly prescient dreams. In one of these he, like a Muslim hero of old, raised a sword emblazoned in red with the words "There is no God but God". In another he wore a portentously magnificent Omega watch, etched with a large green star that seemed to him a symbol of mysterious power. And he dreamed of a conversation with Anwar Sadat in which Egypt’s president from 1970-1981 declared that he had known in advance that he was destined for greatness, to which Mr Sisi responded, "I, too, know that I will be president of the Republic".

A couple of things to note here:

  1. There is a cultivated ambience of uncertainty regarding Sisi's candidacy, which increasingly appears likely. This is either deliberate manipulation to create an artificial sense of suspense and build up candidacy until it hits a crescendo when it's made official (while intimidating other potential candidates), or it reflects some level of pushback within the regime about the prospect of his candidacy (hence the focus on Amr Moussa, Sami Enan and other potential establishment candidates). 
  2. The whole dream thing may appear slightly loony to observers, but it's not that loony. There is a rich Islamic tradition of interpretation of dreams (and premonitory dreams) that is perfectly legitimate (it's a major feature of some Sufi practices) in Muslim terms. Some of this will echo with ordinary people, and it serves to increase Sisi's appeal and the myth around him more than discredit him.

Update: AP picks up on the dream thing, too.

Learning from Cairo | Mada Masr

Mada Masr has just published my review of two new books about Cairo that focus on the relationship between political upheaval and the urban environment. CLUSTER's book Archiving The City in Flux is an excellent, eloquent introduction to informality -- the many ways that Cairenes use public spaces despite, or outside, government regulation -- in the city. 
Nagati and Stryker argue that what happened in January 2011 was the result of “decades of the urbanization of injustice.” What happened after the uprising was the temporary breakdown of the state’s heavy-handed presence, for better and for worse. One informal neighborhood took the unprecedented step of connecting itself to Cairo’s ring road by building its own access ramp. Others have taken advantage of the chaos to engage in less civic behavior, from petty crime to riding motorcycles on sidewalks. 

The proliferation of street vendors in downtown Cairo — where they occupy growing swaths of the sidewalk and the street, poach business from shops and blast music from speakers — is one of the case studies included in “Archiving the City in Flux.” It is a hugely contentious issue and a litmus test for people’s political attitudes and their class prejudices. For some, street vendors represent a much-dreaded lower-class chaos (interestingly, they attract a level of disapprobation that triple-parked Mercedes don’t seem to). For others, they are “the people,” struggling to make a living and challenging the authority of the state.

The CLUSTER team’s work exposes the unfair stigmatization of lower-class informality while not romanticizing every example of people laying claim to a bit of this crowded, competitive city as an act of admirable political subversion. Their approach is empathetic yet empirical. They measured what percentage of sidewalk in downtown Cairo is occupied by street vendors (64 percent). They created a map showing where marches to Tahrir originated from, and they catalogued the changing products sold there (from cotton candy to gas masks to, during extended sit-ins, pillows). They used time-lapse photography to document how sidewalk stalls evolve throughout the day. They drove along the ring road charting where microbus stops, tea stalls, mechanics and staircases have been created by the local communities that were originally encircled but not served by the freeway.

You can see the full text of both Archiving the City in Flux and Learning from Cairo online here

 

Saudi expulsions crisis by Brian Whitaker

Briant Whitaker has been doing an extraordinary job covering the story of hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers expelled from Saudi Arabia due to a change in labour laws there. You can check out all his posts here. Recently he explained why he thinks this is such an important story:
For the last month or so, as regular readers will know, I have been following the story of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrants. I have spent hours gathering information from open sources in an effort to get a clear picture of what is happening – and this is my fourteenth blog post on the subject in the space of four weeks.

To some this might seem excessive or even obsessive but it's an important story that international media – and especially western media – have largely failed to notice.

It's a story that deeply affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the world's poorer countries, who have been living and working in the kingdom – as well as countless relatives back home who have been depending on their remittances.

It's a story that heralds fundamental social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia itself, possibly leading to political changes too.

It's a story that also affects other Arab Gulf states, since they have all become heavily dependent on foreign labour – basically relying on those they regard as inferior beings to do dirty, menial or dangerous tasks from constructing their buildings, driving their cars, cooking their meals, cleaning up their mess and preparing their dead for burial. Many of these people work in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery.

 

Egypt's Jon Stewart on Comedy and Politics

Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog: 
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?

A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.

 

Zogby says Egypt "split down the middle" on coup [PDF]

From a Zogby poll of public opinion in Egypt, from this September:

A plurality (46%) of all Egyptians believe that the situation in their country has become worse, not better, since the Morsi government was deposed. Eighty percent (80%) of FJP supporters express this view. But only about one-half of the rest of the country feels that Egypt is better off, with nearly one in five saying that the situation is the same as it was before the military intervened.

The military remains the institution in which Egyptians have the greatest confidence, but their positive rating has declined to 70%, owing to a sharp drop in support from those who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP and a slight decline in support among liberals and those Egyptians who associate with none of the country’s parties.

The country is split down the middle in its view of the military’s July 3rd deposing of the Morsi government. The FJP, of course, is unanimous in finding the military’s action incorrect, while almost two-thirds of the rest of Egyptians support the deposing of Morsi.

With the caveat that polls in Egypt can be unreliable, this suggests that coup-skeptics are more numerous than imagined – but perhaps too intimidated by pro-coup propaganda and the ongoing crackdown to go out and demonstrate about it. And it's not about being pro-MB, either, or anti-military. 

The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis: A Death in Jenin

Juliano was the founder of the Freedom Theatre. He was an Israeli citizen, the son of a Jewish mother and therefore a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish state. But his father was a Palestinian from Nazareth, and Juliano was a passionate believer in the Palestinian cause. He would often say he was ‘100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish’, but in Israel he was seldom allowed to forget he was the son of an Arab, and in Jenin he was seen as an Israeli, a Jew, no matter how much he did for the camp. Among the artists and intellectuals of Ramallah, however, he was admired for having left Israel to work in one of the toughest parts of the West Bank, and was accepted as an ally. Since its founding in 2006, the Freedom Theatre had been under constant fire: local conservatives saw it as a corrupting influence, even a Zionist conspiracy; the Palestinian Authority resented what Juliano said about its ‘co-operation’ with Israel; and Israel saw him as a troublemaker, if not a traitor. 

In a must-read piece in the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz portrays a complicated, compelling man and artist, and delves into the mystery of his murder. 

Assets of the Ayatollah

Fantastic investigative piece by Reuters describing a secret fund entirely under Ayatollah Khamenei's control. Originally created to temporarily administer seized properties and redistribute the wealth through charity, Setad has grown over the years, continuing to seize real estate and accumulating into a secret slush fund entirely at Khamenei's disposal.   

All told, Reuters was able to identify about $95 billion in property and corporate assets controlled by Setad. That amount is roughly 40 percent bigger than the country's total oil exports last year. It also surpasses independent historians' estimates of the late shah's wealth.

And:  

A complete picture of Setad's spending and income isn't possible. Its books are off limits even to Iran's legislative branch. In 2008, the Iranian Parliament voted to prohibit itself from monitoring organizations that the supreme leader controls, except with his permission.

 

 

Who was James Henry Lunn?

The blog War in Context has unearthed the most information I've seen anywhere about the middle-aged American man who allegedly killed himself in Egyptian police custody. It's a strange, sad story.  According to someone who says he knew him in Malaysia:

Jim Lund was a retired truck driver from San Diego, living in Malaysia. Some years ago Jim was in a bad car wreck and suffered organic brain damage. For years he has pretended that he is an ‘undercover’ US Army general and had written his name in his passport as ‘Gen. James Lunn’. For some years he has had delusions that he would save the world. Two years ago Jim ‘invented’ a hundred-mile-long seagoing device that could transport water to dry climates. In August he left for Egypt with a small model of the device to ‘give to the Palestinians’. That was the ‘unknown electronic device’ he was carrying. A harmless nut but one who loved to be thought of as a secret agent.

 

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.