"We told you our shitty Syria policy would fail"

This (from the NYT) is pretty disingenuous from the Obama admin:

WASHINGTON — By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

. . .

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

. . .

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

If it was convinced this was the wrong idea, then it should not have done it and come up with another alternative. This kind of half-assed abdication of responsibility seen in Syria and Libya (support the overthrow of the regime, but in the first case don't do anything serious about and in the second pursue regime change with no day-after strategy) is really a disgrace. Foreign policy is one matter where the president usually has to compromise less, particularly with his own cabinet. If he disagreed with Clinton and others inside the administration then Obama should have told them to stuff it, not meet them half-way.

IN TRANSLATION: WESTERN SUPERIORITY AND ARAB DENIAL (Part 2)

Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

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More attacks on the press in Turkey

Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.

The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists. 

Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists

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In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

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Exclusive: 50 Spies Say ISIS Intelligence Was Cooked - The Daily Beast

Nice scoop, Daily Beast. Obama has a mini-Bush moment:

More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military's Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials, The Daily Beast has learned.
The complaints spurred the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence. The fact that so many people complained suggests there are deep-rooted, systemic problems in how the U.S. military command charged with the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State assesses intelligence.
“The cancer was within the senior level of the intelligence command,” one defense official said.
Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the analysts claim.
That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months. That’s according to 11 individuals who are knowledgeable about the details of the report and who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.

Although the problem appears to be mostly inside CENTCOM rather than with the White House or the civilian parts of DoD, unlike the cooked-up info about Iraqi WMDs under the Bush administration.

NYT profiles Mohammed Soltan

David Kirkpatrick, the Times' excellent (and departing) Cairo correspondent, profiles Egyptian-American former political prisoner Mohammed Soltan:

Mr. Soltan was initiated into prison life through a standard ritual known as “the welcoming”: Stripped to his underwear, he was forced to run between two rows of guards who beat him and the other new inmates for two hours with batons, belts and whips, he said.
A friend changed the dressing on his arm with a soiled cotton ball. Later, other prisoners held him down as an inmate who was a doctor used a straight razor to remove the metal rods from his arm.
At his final destination within the prison system, at the Tora prison complex in Cairo, he was housed in a dungeonlike cell, about five yards per side, with about 25 other political prisoners — a mix of Brotherhood members, militant jihadists, and left-leaning or secular activists. It was there, he said, that he began to think of a hunger strike as an alternative to the jihadists’ urgings to join them.
The jailers “strip away your freedom. They wipe the floor with your pride. They make sure you have no will left,” he said, “but the hunger strike reverses that process.”

Egyptian jails are an utter disaster – jihadist factories, essentially.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Helping the Syrian people

As the bodies of those trying to reach Europe continue to be found piled in trucks or washed up on shores, are we finally acknowledging the almost unfathomable magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, and our responsibility to help? Many ordinary citizens are doing more than their governments.

German train stations are overwhelmed by donations for arriving refugees. An online fundraising campaign has raised $150,000 to benefit a Syrian father of two selling pens on the streets of Beirut. Over ten thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to volunteer to host Syrian refugees (after their government announced it would take 50).

If you are an American, you can sign this petition to resettle more Syrian refugees in our country (we have taken less than 1,000 so far). The suffering of these people is a historic calamity, and a shame on us all. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

 

In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

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Links 17-21 August 2015

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The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis, writing for the Boston Globe about food riots and the dependence on imported grain in Arab countries:

THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.

I don't think he gets it quite right. Apart from the poorest states, Arab states have largely been able to cover their grain imports – either by spending a lot of their budget on it, or with aid. And the era of regular food riots (even if cost of living – in Egypt for instance a poor household will spend a disproportionate part of its income on food – was part what spurred of the Arab uprisings) is over. Morocco used to have these food riots on a regular basis until the early 1990s, they were often brutally suppressed. The last major for riot in Egypt was in 1977, even if there were clashes over the malfunctioning of bread distribution in 2010-2013. The sharp rise in commodity prices of 2008 was handled in the short-term by these governments, even if it may have contributed to the 2011 uprisings.

In other words, states are actually able to sustain food subsidies. Moreover, there are interest lobbies that want them maintained, particularly since traffic in subsidized flour is lucrative. Better management of bread supplies is clearly needed; and arguably delivering on that makes you popular – in Egypt, since 2011 the army's (partial) takeover of bread distribution was widely seen as successfully putting an end to shortages. The point here is that local droughts are less important than fluctuations in commodity prices and the ability of the state to raise funds to cover these or insure against them, since essentially many of these states import not just their calories but also their water in the form of grain. And that is more sustainable than it seems, because these governments do have access to funding (and it is far more sustainable than spending on fuel subsidies). In fact, droughts may be more important how they impact the agrarian economy than how they affect the food supply – arguably the long drought of the late 2000s in Syria, and the rural-urban migration it caused notably in the north-east, was an important cause of the rebellion there but not because it disrupted food supply at a national level.

US reviewing its participation in MFO in Sinai

A potential big deal, but it seems unlikely that the US would actually withdraw, even temporarily, from the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai. That being said, the MFO are in an increasingly precarious position with reports of attacks on or near their bases in Sinai (the MFO are extremely discreet, and I'm not sure such attacks have been acknowledged publicly). The chances Islamic State Sinai Province would target them are not negligible, if they haven't already, and some of the peacekeepers are requesting heavier weaponry. From AP's report:

Armed primarily with light weapons, armored personnel carriers and similarly limited materiel, the forces lack the capacity to take on Islamic State or other militants across the sparsely populated, desert territory. As a result, officials said, the Obama administration has been conducting an “inter-agency review” of the US posture in the Sinai.
The talks have included an examination of ways to bolster the safety of the Americans there, possibly by bringing in additional equipment to better secure positions, according to senior administration officials familiar with the discussions. But the debate also has encompassed the question of bringing the US peacekeepers home, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject and demanded anonymity.
Although the Camp David Accords, which led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, legally mandate the presence of the two American military units, the US can remove them — at least temporarily — if they’re in imminent danger. Still, such action could have major political implications. One official said the US does not currently believe there is an imminent threat facing the peacekeepers.
/Source

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

What's in a veil

Our friend Sarah Carr opens a blog post about the Egyptian government's latest misguided, ineffectual attempt to legislate what women wear on their heads ("Secularisn't") with some reflection on her own distaste (and doubt over the validity of that distaste) for the niqab, the full face covering. 

I mean there are a million ways to abuse a child on the abuse spectrum. Perhaps allowing/encouraging her to wear neqab isn’t that bad. I think why it bothers me is that it sexualises a child, since for women who wear it, the neqab is an interpretation of the veil, which ultimately is about modesty. No child should have to think about that, and no one should be thinking about that while looking at a child.

I think a lot of people struggle to explain why they feel so differently -- why they feel a line being crossed, or draw a line -- about the hejab (head scarf) and the niqab (full face covering). I like to keep the criminalization of fashion to a minimum, and I think the French ban on the headscarf is ridiculous and discriminatory. But there is more than a difference in degree between covering your hair and covering your face. What's troubling about the niqab is a very obvious thing: it's dehumanizing. We anthropoids acknowledge each other by looking each other in the face and in the eyes -- doing so is one of the most powerful, most meaningful and sometimes uncomfortable (as we've all experienced on public transportation) interactions we can have. To become faceless is to erase yourself and to greatly limit your capacity to relate to others and for others to relate to you. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Israel's Iran Deal Enthusiasts

Daniel Levy, in Foreign Affairs, points out that most experts and security apparatchiks in Israel like the Iran deal, but very few politicians. There are some real zingers in this piece, such as:

In main, the Israeli leadership has focused on castigating the deal for what it was never designed to address, namely Iran’s role in the region. That must be particularly irksome to the P5+1 powers. It was, after all, Israel’s leaders who insisted that the nuclear file be addressed first and on its own, and who pushed back hard against any attempt to forge a more comprehensive understanding or grand bargain with Iran (an idea explored over a decade ago in back-channel talks during the term of President Mohammad Khatami). Last summer for instance, when Iran and the West found themselves on the same side against Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq, senior Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was head of the Iran file at the time, noted that Israel had pushed for and received commitments from “the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans—that a total separation will be enforced,” that is, the West would not negotiate with Iran on regional issues until the nuclear question was dealt with. Israel, in other words, demanded that the nuclear file be treated as a standalone issue—the very thing that it now criticizes about the deal.

So basically it seems that Israeli politicians feel about the Iranian nuclear deal the same way they feel about Israeli-Palestinian peace: a nice idea to pay lip service to, but something they'll do everything to oppose in practice. Levy's analysis of what stands for Netanyahu's opposition in Israeli politics, and their repositioning as not only against the deal but also against the way Netanyahu has opposed the deal, is enlightening to read inasmuch as what it tells you about the chronic short-termism of Israel's political leaders.

The conclusion on Israel-US relations is fascinating, too:

More than the Iran deal itself, it is this Netanyahu-led campaign against the White House that is so controversial, both in Israel and in the United States. The Israeli center–left, the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, and the security establishment have all condemned Netanyahu on that score. Stateside, Bibi has the competing pro-Israel lobbies—AIPAC and J Street—duking it out, and Jewish community centers, federations, and synagogues are all being pulled into the fray. American Jews are being asked to ditch the Democrat president they have overwhelmingly voted for (twice) in favor of a Republican-aligned Israeli prime minister, who previously pushed for the Iraq war and is now engaged in a deeply partisan struggle, in which he wants the Israeli interest (as he interprets it) to be placed above the American interest. Many American Jews are uncomfortable with being put in this predicament. Polls suggest that a clear majority back Obama and his Iran deal. To be sure, at this point, it is unclear who is using whom more—Israel the Republicans or the Republicans Israel.

In Translation: April 6's Ahmed Maher on Egypt under Sisi

Last month, Huffington Post launched its Arabic edition in London to great fanfare. Like other spin-offs of the American website, HuffPo Arabi is a joint venture, not under the direct editorial control of the original. It is not the first Arab world edition to launch – HuffPo Maghreb has French-language Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan sites – but it is the first Arabic edition one. It has generated some controversy already (update: meant to link to this critical Buzzfeed piece), in part because the site is far from the liberal leanings of the HuffPo mothership, but also because of its pro-Islamist leanings. One of the key people behind HuffPo Arabi is Wadah Khanfar, a former director-general of al-Jazeera known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood trend. The site has predictably taken the kind of positions generally associated with the Qatari-funded media (i. e. anti-Assad, anti-Sisi, pro-Erdogan, etc.)

Among one of its early coups is to secure an interview with the imprisoned leader of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, sentenced to prison last year for violating the draconian protest law approved by interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour and enforced with gusto under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. The interview does show some criticism of the Brotherhood, even  if most of the vitriol is reserved for Sisi, and paints an alarming picture of the radicalization taking place in Egypt's over-flowing prisons.

We bring you this translation through our friends over at Industry Arabic – we heartily recommend them for any Arabic translation job big or small. Check out their website to get a quote for your needs.

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Links 27 June - 10 July 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Egypt in TV: terrorism in Sinai, the need to "liquidate" Brothers, Sisi's 100% successful presidency

“Tell me, respectable president Sisi, why you didn’t secure the checkpoints when you knew they were targeted?” the bitter father of one of the 17 (according to the military) or 70 (according to medical sources) soldiers, who were killed in last week’s coordinated North Sinai attacks, tried to ask the camera as the CBC reporter next to him continued to talk over him. 

CBC was not the only channel to choose the wrong guest in last week’s mess. Dream TV’s Wael el-Ebrashy looked regretful in his stony silence as he heard former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi say that the state’s oppression (of activists and the MB) breeds terrorism. 

Politely critical voices like Sabahi’s, however, were lost in a sea of calls for revenge and conspiracies theories, with the double chin of former deputy head of the Supreme Constitutional Court Tahani el-Gabali and the wagging finger of Sada el-Balad host Ahmed Moussa taking the lead. 

The former demanded that all human rights activists be silent forever and that the Egyptian government stop considering the condemnation of the international community when cracking down on its opponents (implying they ever did), while the latter all but ordered judge Nagy Shehata to find a way to legally kill deposed president Mohamed Morsi and senior members of the Brotherhood in their cells. 

“It is very simple,” Shehata replied with confidence, being the reliable source that he is on the subject of killing Brothers. (Shehata has handed down over 500 death sentences to MBs.) Transfer their cases to the State Security Criminal Court, he said,  so that there can be no appeals. 

Impressively efficient, the fuming Moussa then showed a picture of a man he said was a former military officer, whom he said was the behind the assassination without shedding light on how he happened across this information so quickly. If it is true, shouldn’t the government make some kind of announcement and if it isn’t, shouldn’t the patriotic Moussa know better than to spread false information? 

Also giving legal advice on TV lask week was el-Gabali, who told el-Ebrashy that anyone who is happy or celebrates the death of Barakat is a partner of the terrorists and should be arrested. “Don’t you want the rule of law? This is the rule of law,” she said. 

 

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Media, the regime, and censorship in Egypt

Our own Nour Youssef has a piece in the Guardian about the Egyptian media, the role it has played in the events of recent years, and the complicated system by which it stays in alignment with regime interests. It has interviews with a who's-who of prominent TV hosts and is chock-full of incredible quotes. 

“I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution,” says Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters inEgypt.
Moussa has no qualms admitting on air his relationship with the authorities – and his vocation to serve them. He claims he would also extend the same courtesy to the police, he said but he “might stop and think a little first”.
Sharing Moussa’s sense of duty towards the military is the veteran talk show host Mahmoud Saad, from Al-Nahar TV. “The military should never, ever, ever be covered,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don’t know what will hurt national security.”
But it’s also the power to influence people that appeals to him, he says. “It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that when you swing right,” he says as he swivels his upper body right, “the people will swing right. “And when you swing left,” he goes on, swivelling in the opposite direction “the people will swing left.”

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.