Podcast #46: "His program is the crisis"

Issandr El Amrani and Steve Negus are back with Ursula Lindsey to geek out on Egyptian politics. Does the presidential election matter? Are Sisi and Sabahi just two variants of Nasserism? Does anyone know what's going on anymore? These and other questions are considered, and Steve tell us about his trips to deep Upper Egypt, where sectarianism is never very far below the surface, echoes of the 1980s and 1990s are pondered and the shockwave of the counter-revolution crashes on some much deeper problems.

The title of this episode, “His program is the crisis,” comes from former Nasser advisor Mohammed Hassanein Heykal’s recent comment on that Sisi does not need an electoral program.

Show notes:

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Too soon to embrace Sisi

Some wise words from the FT's Roula Khalaf about the rush to embrace Sisi:

Mr Sisi’s election will give western governments a necessary justification to turn the page on the July coup and all the bloodshed and repression that followed. Since the military intervention that the US could not bring itself to call a coup, western policy towards Egypt has been on hold. Essentially it was outsourced to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which loathe the Muslim Brotherhood and have deployed their petrodollars to keep Cairo financially afloat.
In western capitals we have heard very little public criticism of the Egyptian authorities, even if officials privately acknowledge the country is headed on the wrong path. The most notable reaction in recent weeks has been in the UK where, to the delight of the Egyptian regime, the government in London announced an inquiry into Muslim Brotherhood activities in Britain. The EU, meanwhile, is sending observers to monitor the presidential vote, as if it were a real contest.
True, Egypt is too important to be ignored and, for western governments, the return of the old order after three years of confusion carries a certain appeal. Democracy in the Arab world has proved too messy. That autocracy provided only a veneer of stability that eventually shattered under the weight of festering grievances has already been forgotten.
Mr Sisi might have staying power because the military and security state that helped to eliminate Mr Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist president, are firmly on his side. His oil-rich backers, too, are determined to see him succeed. But a word of caution against a rush to embrace him: over the past three years Egypt has proved unpredictable, its popular mood fickle and its people unforgiving. Egyptians have turned against everyone who has tried to rule them.
With time, the limits of Mr Sisi’s ability to improve Egypt’s faltering economy will become apparent. As will the flaws in his policy of eradication of Islamists. Political Islam can be countered only with a combination of inclusion of mainstream Islamists and promotion of more liberal-leaning political alternatives – a pluralism that Mr Sisi has been unwilling to countenance. Nothing suggests that, once “elected”, he will transform into a democrat.

That message should be hammered in, particularly with some ambassadors in Egypt who are already talking of Sisi as a promising democrat. 

Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker, in the New York Review of Books, reminds us of the growing violence, corruption and authoritarianism that is unraveling Iraq. The damage that the US invasion of that country -- based on fraud and arrogance -- has done, to them and to us (strategically, morally, financially, and of course in terms of a damaged and blighted generation of Iraqis) can still stagger sometimes. 

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.

 

Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation ‘unprecedented in living memory,’ U.N. says

Starvation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Damascus. Enough to make you hate the world and yourself. 

And then, 12 days ago, after the Syrian authorities cut off food shipments into the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, everything became more dire. More than 48 hours have now passed since the United Nations says food ran out for nearly 20,000 people dependent on aid in Yarmouk, which has suffered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war. Today the community, which sits on the outskirts of Damascus, is little more than a warren of bombed-out buildings long on rubble and short on everything else.

 

What to do about Syria

This thought-provoking, morally challenging piece by Scott Long -- on what the Western left can actually do about Syria -- is worth reading it is entirety. 

It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

Links 28 March - 21 April 2014

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Ahmed Mansour interviews Youssef Nada

MB-watchers may be interested in Al Jazeera's Ahmed Mansour interviewing, in two parts, Muslim Brotherhood financier Youssef Nada. Not exactly a hostile interview considering Mansour's pro-MB leanings, but some interesting tidbits including on Nada's role in the MB, his views of Saudi Arabia ("how can entire people be named after one family?") and Sisi (his followers are "slaves").

Part two of the interview here.

In Egypt, a corruption watchdog hit by backlash

Detailed article about the corruption investigations that Hesham Genena, head of the Central Auditing Office, has been trying to pursue -- and the judicial and media backlash against him.

In one case, Genena told AP, investigations revealed that some $3 billion dollars was misappropriated in land deals by officials from the police, intelligence agencies, the judiciary and prosecutors.

In another, he reopened a 3-year-old case over allegations that members of an advisory board for the state national communications regulator - which included the justice minister at the time - had received some $14 million in financial compensation.

What is unprecedented in Genena's move is his willingness to investigate so-called "sovereign agencies," the term referring to the most important and unquestionable arms of the state, such as the police, intelligence, judiciary and the presidency. He has been empowered by the constitution passed this year, which encourages the fight against corruption and supervision of state bodies.

There may be limits, however.

Notably, Genena has not made allegations against the most powerful state body of all, the military. The military took the unheard-of step of allowing the CAO under Genena to review the accounts of its extensive business holdings. Speaking to the AP, Genena said that his review had found no violations in the military's books.

His other moves have brought a heavy backlash. The former justice minister, who left office in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, accused Genena of insulting him, prompting prosecutors in February to refer Genena to trial.

After Genena publicly criticized the Judges Club, an association of judges, for not allowing its employees to be inspected, the head of the club accused him of insulting the judiciary, prompting another trial for Genena, which holds its next session next week.

If convicted in either case, it could fuel a drive by his opponents to impeach him.

In the media, a chorus of government supporters accuse him of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, which was branded by the government as a terrorist organization since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer.

Prominent pro-military journalist and former lawmaker Mostafa Bakry said Genena was spreading "lies" tantamount to "blatant incitement against state institutions for the benefit of the Brotherhood."

Ahmed Moussa, a TV presenter known with strong ties to security establishment, said Genena's allegations "sabotaged the economy."

 

Last week in Egypt in TV

This is a sporadic column by Arabist contributor Nour Youssef. 

Lately, a rekindled hate for repetition has prevented me from watching television and not fighting with taxi drivers. Little has changed in the media scene since July 3. The West, led by the US, the Ottomans and the matchbox that is Qatar, is still intimidated by Egypt's potential for greatness and so it continues to plague it with corruption, poverty and injustice, giving the protesters it pays to paralyze traffic something to chant about. Only thing that has changed is that the narrative is no longer funny.

Even Tawfik Okasha is sick of repeating it. The owner of the Faraeen channel gave his viewers an ultimatum: if they don't join him on April 11 in al-Abbasiya Square to -- well, he hasn't really specified what, but he knows that if the population doesn't show up, the terrorists win, and he will quit the whole nationalism thing and punish them with BBC-like uncaring professionalism because it is not worth it anymore. It's worth noting that Okasha's good friend, lawyer Mortada Mansour -- the man who has cursed and slandered more people on air than Okasha himself -- is running for president.

It may come as a shock, but Okasha is not the only TV host in Egypt who is aware of the existence of professionalism and his deliberate failure to meet its standards. Others like Lamis el-Hadidi admit to it too, only passive-aggressively to silence critics. (After yelling on air at a former Egyptian colleague for “selling himself” and being a “traitor” for working for Jazeera, Hadidi grumbles sarcastically about those who would reign in her patriotic fervor by holding her to a journalistic code of ethics..) 

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Sisi vs. Sabbahi

Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi recently requested the chance to debate former defense minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi (whose propagandists have done quite a bit of Nasser-invoking themselves recently), prompting treasured local wit Sarah Carr to ask: "So will there be a public debate between Sisi and Sabahy. Will it just revolve around who loves Nasser harder?"

This sent contributor Paul Mutter down an imaginary wormhole from which -- courtesy this classic SNL sketch -- the following emerged: 

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

A New Generation of Arab Innovation

I have managed what seemed nearly impossible to me these days and written a positive story from the middle east. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, I take a look at Arab researchers who -- quite against the odds -- have made discoveries or managed to bring inventive products to the market. The article is behind a pay wall but here is a bit of the section on American University in Cairo chemist Hassan Azzazy, who has developed a better test for Hepatitis C (one that is based on verifiable science, unlike some other recently announced inventions). 

The new test, which relies on gold nanoparticles that change color on contact with the virus, could be on the market in a year. It should cost about $8, a tenth of the cost of the two-step test currently available.

Establishing a start-up company to commercialize his breakthrough has been "a big, long journey," says Mr. Azzazy. He had to persuade his university’s administration to create the infrastructure to support his project. It took the American University in Cairo nearly two years to figure out the legal and logistical framework to create the spinoff, something no one at the university—and, its administration says, no one anywhere else in Egypt—had done before.

In 2013, Mr. Azzazy finally incorporated his company, D-Kimia, and raised about $500,000 from private investors. D-Kimia now is developing tests for other diseases, including tuberculosis and bladder cancer.

The American University in Cairo’s technology-transfer office, which was created in 2010, requests 50 percent of royalties on any product developed by professors and has filed eight patents based on Mr. Azzazy’s work; D-Kimia is developing three of them, he says.

Aside from improving Egyptians’ health, Mr. Azzazy views job creation as the other main purpose of his research. He gets visibly agitated at the thought of all the students who emerge from universities in Egypt every year with a diploma and no job prospects. 

"As an educator, I owe it to my students to empower them to earn a living," he says.  

From Minya

Imma Vitelli went to Minya and -- unable to speak to the judge who recently handed out a death sentence to 528 men in the murder of one police officer -- tracked down the young public prosecutor who put together the case. He showed her cell phone footage he had used as evidence and told her: "All 528 [accused] worked together to carry out this act of terrorism, responding to the call of Brotherhood leaders." (In Italian). 

 

The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

Interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the limitations and blind spots of so-called liberal Islam and proponents such as Tariq Ramadan. 

Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.

 

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

The talented team at the professional translation service Industry Arabic brings you this installment in our regular In Translation series.

Letter to Sisi: Why do they object to your candidacy?

Moataz Bellah Abdel-Fattah, al-Watan, March 28, 2014 

A statesman is like someone driving a very large vehicle with many mirrors and gauges; he has to pay attention to all of them at once and to pick up on warning signs in time. All of this he must handle with the requisite wisdom. 

Presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi began his electoral campaign Wednesday and many – I believe the majority – celebrated his announcement of candidacy. However, it is a poor political and strategic calculation on the part of candidate Sisi and his team to not pay attention to those rejecting his candidacy, some of whom have said outright: “He’s entered the trap” and “He’ll drink from the same cup.” 

The efficiency of Sisi’s campaign will come from its ability to deal with the objections raised against him by his opponents. He and his campaign must answer these questions and prove the soundness of his position. 

For example, when I asked what the main reasons advanced by some of those rejecting Sisi’s candidacy are, I got the following responses: 

1. He’s a billionaire who has not and will not feel the pain of the vast majority of the people suffering every day. This is evidenced by his statement that people should “tighten their belt and go to work”, which indicates a mindset far from that of the people and their reality. 


 2. All of his experience is with the military. He hasn’t worked in any other fields -- political, social, or economic. This is no time for experiments and learning on the job in a country whose economy is on its last legs and whose infrastructure is collapsing. 


3. He’s not an independent decision maker. Just as Morsi was a deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi will represent and take orders from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Thus SCAF will be the true ruler, and all state institutions will exist merely for appearance’s sake and as a cover for oppressive military rule. 


4. He’s connected to the interests of Mubarak’s corrupt regime and the National Democratic Party (NDP). He appointed [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Mehleb, a member of the NDP’s Policy Committee and assistant to Gamal Mubarak, to be Egypt’s prime minister—after two revolutions. This is the biggest catastrophe of all, and shows the orientations and intentions of Sisi as well of those close to him once he takes power.

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“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?”

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?”

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?” asked Nivine, a 36-year-old with chronic kidney disease – non-rhetorically. Ever since she has heard about the bustling human trafficking and organ trade in Sinai back in 2011, Nivine wondered where she could get her hands on a kidney, should she need one later. And later she did and was forced to resort to post a Facebook note with her blood type and cell number to find a donor. (Donor here means someone who will “donate” their kidney to her, if she donates 30-50,000 Egyptian pounds to their bank account.) 

Nivine’s question, though horribly misdirected and intentioned, is a pertinent one. After all, there are only 35 hospitals licensed and (in some cases barely) qualified to perform organ transplants nationwide and those 35 only transplant kidneys, livers and corneas (which happen to match the organs stolen from the refugees); and there is presumably a limited number of surgeons with the know-how to remove organs without damaging them and access to ambulances with refrigeration units to preserve them; how difficult could it possibly be to track down the doctors involved?

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In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

Last week, the stodgy flagship of Egypt's state press, al-Ahram, published an op-ed by one of its regular contributors, Nader Fergany – a leftist intellectual who runs al-Mishkat Center, a think-tank, and is best known internationally as the editor of the original Arab Human Development Report. The op-ed contained a type of critique of then Minister of Defense Abdelfattah al-Sisi (this was a few days before he stepped and down and announced he would run for president) rarely seen in any part of the Egyptian media (at least those newspapers legally printing), never mind al-Ahram. It triggered speculation as to what it meant: how would the editors of al-Ahram allow this? Is it a feint of openness to distract from the fact that the presidential election is essentially being rigged – that we are returning to the late Mubarak-era model of opposition existing through the pen but never given a chance at the ballot box? Or a sign of genuine splits inside the establishment?

Our friends at Industry Arabic translated Fergany's piece below. Please give them consideration if you have any type of translation project, it helps them keep on helping us with this In Translation series. 

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Dennis Ross and the Saudis

Dennis Ross' call for Obama to "soothe the Saudis" is hardly surprising for this pre-eminent supporter of the status-quo in US Middle East policy since the 1990s, with of course the usual focus on Iran (i.e. against the nuclear talks). But the bit about Egypt is telling too: 

Egypt and Syria will be harder nuts to crack. But focusing on our common strategic objectives is a starting point: preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, ensuring that jihadis cannot gain footholds in Egypt or Syria, and stopping the genocide in Syria. Perhaps, on Egypt -- where the Saudis cannot afford to be Egypt's ATM forever -- the president could offer to lift the hold on key weapons in return for the Saudis using their influence to get Egypt to finalize an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

If you think what's most important to achieve in Egypt these days is an IMF agreement, you're not just cynical, you're delusional. Ross is as toxic on Saudi Arabia as he is on Israel.

A Palestinian Bantustan won’t end the conflict

Daniel Levy, writing in Haaretz:

The logic of the current U.S.-led effort is apparently predicated on the assumption that by offering Israel unprecedented security deliverables within a two-state deal (under a package put together by U.S. General John Allen), together with front-loading recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that Netanyahu would then be unable to dodge a serious negotiation on territory. That logic, combined with the ever-present American unwillingness to deploy any leverage viz its Israeli ally. Predictably enough, the Israeli leadership has pocketed the American concessions, demanded that the Palestinians follow suit, and asked for more.

Read the whole thing for details and insights on the negotiations.

Egypt's Judges Strike Back: The New Yorker

My take on the sentencing of over 500 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to death in a single case tried in the southern town of Minya. (The same court is set to hear similar mass cases with over 900 defendants in the coming month). 

It was alarming, at the end of the largest mass sentencing in Egypt’s modern history, to see five hundred men held responsible, so expeditiously and so severely, for one murder, when there have been no convictions—in fact, there has not been a criminal investigation—related to the deaths of the twelve hundred civilians killed in August. More than eight hundred protesters died during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in 2011; not a single police officer has been convicted for their killings. (Mubarak himself was convicted only of failing to prevent their deaths, and has won the right to a retrial on that charge.) Although cases against senior officials of the Mubarak regime have meandered through postponements and appeals for years now, the verdict in Minya was handed down after two brief sessions. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations that monitored the proceedings, “Witnesses were not called, evidence was not presented in court, and the accused were unable to defend themselves.”

 

It is unlikely that the sentence will be carried out. A majority of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia; the defendants who were in custody, and their lawyers, were not even present when the verdict was delivered. If the conviction is not overturned on appeal, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a government-appointed cleric, must ratify the decision to put the prisoners to death. But his assent does not guarantee that the penalty will be imposed: during the nineteen-nineties, when the state waged a brutal campaign against Islamist militants, some were held for years in prison, with death sentences hanging over their heads, as a kind of leverage. The judgment in Minya may be a similar deadly warning, but it represents something even more significant: it is a sign of how deeply Egypt’s judiciary has been compromised by the government’s onslaught against the Brotherhood.

Read the rest here