Human rights NGO raided in Egypt

From the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: 

EGYPT SECURITY FORCES RAID LEADING HUMAN RIGHT ORGANIZATION, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS ARRESTED AND HELD INCOMMUNICADO

More than 60 security and police officers stormed the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) at approximately midnight on 18 December, 2013. According to eye witnesses some of the officers belonged to Azbakeya and Abdin police stations and some belonged to the Homeland Security Agency (formerly known as the National Security Agency).

The officers were heavily armed and held non-armed human rights defenders working at the ECESR at gunpoint using automatic machine guns. When the ECESR’s lawyer asked the police officers to provide them with a search/arrest warrant one of the officers, believed to belong to homeland security slapped him.  Another police officer tried to stop the homeland security officer from beating the ECESR employee at which point the homeland security officer also beat the police officer and tore his clothes.

The police confiscated three laptops and a computer monitor within the office.  They then arrested and blindfolded the ECESR lawyer, another ECESR employee and four volunteers.  They were then put into a car and taken to an unidentified location. They were forced to stay blindfolded for the duration of their detention. While being dragged to the car all six defenders were beaten and slapped despite not resisting. 

[...]

Lawyers from Egyptian human rights NGOs requested information on the whereabouts of the six defenders throughout the night, including at the Azbakeya and Abdin police stations, as well as at the Cairo Security Directorate. The whereabouts of the detainees were not revealed. Informal channels of information confirmed that the arrested human rights defenders were detained in an unknown Homeland Security detention facility.

The next morning (19 December) at approximately 10am, five of the six detainees were driven blindfolded again to the Abdeen police station.  The police returned the laptops and the monitor back to the arrested defenders and they were released at approximately 11 am.

Mohamed Adel, a well known member of the April 6th youth movement and a volunteer with the ESCER,  remains detained in an unknown location.

When the five other detainees were released they were told that they were arrested by mistake and that the main purpose of the raid was the arrest of Mohamed Adel.  Adel is standing trial along with Ahmed Maher, another prominent leader of the April 6thmovement and well-known activist Ahmed Douma.

However, CIHRS believes that the intent of the government was to intimidate independent rights groups in Egypt.   Moreover, the ECESR also believes the attack may be in response to the recent engagement of the ECESR on the review of Egypt at the United Nations (UN) treaty body on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as its ongoing engagement on the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Egypt, and as such constitutes a reprisal for engagement with the UN. 

It is important to note that Adel surrendered himself to the court on the day that Maher and Douma’s detention was being renewed, and the court at this time ordered his release on grounds that he did not have a standing in the case.

The last time I saw Mohamed Adel he was depositing a request with the Kasr El Nil police station to stage a protest against the new protest law . He and his colleagues at ECESR were about to release a documentary about the ongoing Iron and Steel Workers strike in Helwan. 

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.

 

30,000 trafficked in Sinai

30,000 trafficked in Sinai

A guest post from contributor Parastou Hassouri, who lives in Cairo, works in the field of international refugee law, and specializes in issues of gender and migration.

On Wednesday night, the report The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, was launched in Cairo (it was launched simultaneously in several other cities including Tel Aviv, Brussels, and Lampedusa). The 238-page report is based on interviews with 230 trafficking survivors:  persons who survived the hellish ordeal of being kidnapped, held hostage and tortured brutally in the Sinai. It is a follow-up to a 2012 reportHuman Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death

I was first alerted to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking in the Sinai around 2007.  At the time, I was working at the NGO Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).  The issue most often came up when we had to assist those who had been apprehended trying to reach the Sinai (and would be detained by Egyptian authorities, even if they were registered with the UNHCR as refugees). Back then, most of the cases we dealt with involved refugees who were voluntarily crossing the Sinai in hopes of reaching Israel, where they expected to find more work opportunities and perhaps an easier way of reaching Europe. Our biggest concern was the fact that Egyptian authorities in the Sinai were using lethal force to stop this “irregular migration,” which had resulted in numerous fatalities. There was a belief, at the time, that the Egyptian authorities were only responding to pressure being placed upon them by Israelis to stem the flow of migrants. I remember spending a lot of time advising clients against making the journey, telling them the risks were not worth it (especially as so many of them faced detention once in Israel anyway).

Over the course of months, we started to hear about situations involving hostage taking: that the smugglers who had promised to take the refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants to the Sinai would inform them mid-trip that they were being kept hostage until they could pay them more money than initially demanded.  However, the situation was one that still started out “voluntarily”:  the migrants were choosing to undertake the journey, despite the risks. The numbers choosing this route seemed to increase as the number of refugees being resettled to third countries (i.e. the U.S. and Canada) declined (this started during a period when the resettlement of Iraqis had taken priority for political reasons).The people going were from different countries:  Sudan, Ethiopia, and often Eritrea. I once assisted two men from the Ivory Coast who had been detained after being abandoned by their smuggler, when he realized he had no chance of getting more money out of them. Looking at the turn things have taken, those men are lucky they lived. 

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Last week in Egypt in TV

A semi-regular features from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.

It is now generally inadvisable to involve religion in politics in Egypt, unless you limit it to condemning involving religion in politics. This is especially true if you are just looking for a hadith that recommends the murder of your political opponents.

But ONtv presenter Youssef el-Husseiny has too much testosterone to care. Earlier this week, in an effort to see how much the Brothers like Sharia now, Husseiny told us a story about the Prophet and the Jews of Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa, which he argued gives the authorities the religious right to kill all Brothers that hit puberty.

Those Jews, Husseiny tells us, used to gloat over the misfortunes of the Muslims (just like the MB celebrated their fellow Egyptian Muslims' embarrassing football defeat) and broke the medina charter by collaborating with Quraysh, if only in spirit, against the Muslims in their unsuccessful siege of el-Medina during the Battle of the Trench. After the Muslims won, the Prophet, he says, asked his wounded companion Sa’d ibn Mo’ez what to do with the treacherous Jews, and Sa’d suggested the mass murder of all the post-pubescent males of the said tribes, or at least everyone capable of fighting. Given that it was a time of war, the Prophet followed Sa’d’s advice.

Moral of the story is: The Brothers are like the Jews of Nadir, we are in a time of war and they want Sharia, right? [Smile] They do realize Sharia would see them killed? Perhaps they want to disagree with Sharia and -- God forbid -- claim to know better than Sa’d, the Prophet [pause and smile some more] and Allah!

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In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

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But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly  welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks. 

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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.

 

How to recognize an Egyptian activist

A taste of the kind of venomous, scurrilous attacks being launched all over the Egyptian media against the young people who made January 25, 2011 happen. This latest installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the excellent translation service Industry Arabic. 

Characteristics of an Egyptian Activist, by Dandrawy Elhawary, November 23, El Youm El Sabaa

Political activists in Egypt vary according to gender. The male activist is unemployed, soft and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled,  and he wears a bracelet and a Palestinian keffiyeh. He has a Twitter account, a Facebok page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions. He repeats slogans calling for a non-religious state, attacking heavenly religions and accusing them of being backwards and reactionary, and he defends the rights of sexual deviants.

On the other hand, the female activist takes on the male role -- she "mans up." She listens to the songs of Sheikh Imam and the lewd poetry of Fouad Haggag and Naguib Sorour. She "likes" all the pages that use foul language and puts pictures of the great revolutionary Che Guevara on her Facebook and Twitter profiles.

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That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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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. 

On Mohamed Mahmoud Street

From a piece just published on the LRB blog

The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.

On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’

On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.

Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers. 

Go see "Rags and Tatters" (if you're in Cairo)

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Ahmad Abdalla’s third feature film, “Rags and Tatters,” follows an unnamed convict who escapes from prison sometime during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak -- or rather is allowed to escape from prison: Some jails were allegedly opened at that time by the Ministry of Interior itself, in an attempt to foment chaos. 

The man, played by Asser Yassin, is a sympathetic everyman, with dark and feeling eyes. He needs to be someone we like to look at, because his quiet, registering face is the focus of the film. As if tired of all the talk of the last two and half years -- of all the words that have been worn thin -- Abdalla has written a film with almost no dialogue. Actors’ conversations are often inaudible, no higher then a mumble. What exchanges we do hear are the most basic everyday stuff: “Cup of tea,” “God bless you.” When a young would-be revolutionary harangues his friends in the neighborhood about the need to go to Tahrir, a nearby motorcycle engine drowns out his words. The only music are some beautiful Sufi songs: unaccompanied male voices singing of holy love and yearning. 

The movie is also unusual for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. It never portrays the protests in Tahrir. Instead, it is set in the streets and homes of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. It does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme deprivation, on their crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker. 

Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” was a study of stasis, a day in the life of characters who go nowhere: a police conscript stranded in his guard post; and engaged couple stuck in traffic; a young man who dreams idly of emigrating. His follow-up, “Microphone,” which focused on the underground music scene in Alexandria, was seemingly quite different, full of kinetic energy. But all the eager young voices in the film still faced the stagnation and repression of Mubarak’s Egypt, and couldn't figure out how to make themselves heard. 

This movie is Abdalla’s darkest and most powerful. It shares with his previous work a penchant for naturalistic acting; an under-stated social and political engagement; and an ambitious, creatively uncompromising vision. 

This movie is like an inoculation against official propaganda and romanticization of the January 25 uprising. In the Q&A after the film Abdalla corrected someone who introduced “Rags and Tatters” as a “revolutionary” film.  “This film isn’t about the revolution,” he said. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under.” It will only be showing in Cairo for one week, starting today.

Podcast #44: Just how bad is it exactly?

On this podcast, journalists Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil speak to Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson about the greatest threats to human rights across the region, and about how to defend human rights in the midst of Egypt's "war on terrorism" and its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Show notes: 

Qatar's ambitions and American universities

I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro: 

Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.

Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.

As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.

Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.

Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.

As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?