Egypt's generals: It gets ever sillier | The Economist

On the latest impossible-to-satirize news story in Egypt: The claims by a an army general that the military's research program has invented devices that detect (at a distance of 500 meters) and cure Hepatitis C and AIDS. 

The story has unravelled amid a welter of protest from independent scientists and medical professionals that neither invention has been publicly tested, published, patented or peer-reviewed. A top scientific adviser to Egypt’s president declared the claims to be a “scandal” and a potential embarrassment to the Egyptian military. Investigations by local reporters appear to show that Mr Abdel Atti received his general’s rank not through military service, but as an honorary title. As recently as last year he appeared as a faith healer on religious satellite channels and had previously made an income as a private consultant in herbal medicine. An article in a Saudi newspaper in 2009 mentions him in connection with charges of sorcery.

 

Predictably, given Egypt’s highly polarised and envenomed political atmosphere, the affair generated controversy on Egyptian social media. Much commentary took the form of ridicule, particularly of Mr Abdel Atti bragging that he could now feed someone "AIDS kebab" and then cure the patient in a snap. Alluding to the reputed use of torture by Egyptian security services, one Twitter message parodied an army scientist reporting to his commander: “Yessir, we’ve tested the device. Straight away every patient confesses to feeling better!”

Others leapt to the army's defence. Anyone who made fun of the invention should be denied the miracle cure, insisted one television announcer. On Facebook, another defender demanded that the president’s doubting scientific adviser should resign. All critics of the invention were, he said, complicit in a giant plot by multinational corporations and Zionists whose fiendish aim was to maintain a Western monopoly of medical know-how.

 

No laughing matter

My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show"). 

The first episode of the new season (in Arabic).

When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.

Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.

That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.

You can read the rest here

Traffic, the antidote to propaganda

Traffic, the antidote to propaganda

The army and the people are one hand. Egypt is above everyone. And everything. It is also more important than everyone. And everything. We would sacrifice everything for it. We make promises and fulfill them. We will build with honesty and something related to sincerity that I would have read if the car wasn’t traveling so fast.

These short poetic sentence can be found in blue-on-white signs hanging under street lights, so you can learn the value of the homeland even at night - if you squint. They are on the new and improved Misr-ismailia Road, courtesy of interim president Adly Mansour (in the presence of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) and the armed forces.

As if having learned nothing from Titanic, I have, on one more than one occasion, bragged about how cars unfailingly maintained constant motion on this "unstoppable" road. Five lanes, I would boast -- it can comfortably take six cars and a motorcycle.

That was the case until the generals blocked it to tell us about how smooth traffic is on it and will continue to be now that they have fixed and peered over a map of it. (The very same map deposed president Morsi stood in front when he, too, was inaugurating the armed forces’ developments on the very same road with el-Sisi a few months ago.)

Sadly, the road improvements had been used too often for anyone to put another red ribbon on them now. So Mansour had to settle for inaugurating a never-before-used right turn.


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In Translation: Egypt heading outside history

Courtesy Industry Arabic, the latest in our In Translation series, in which Fahmy Howeidy -- a writer with moderate Islamist leanings and a big following --  critiques the drift towards a "militarized" political landscape. 

Egypt Heading into the Unknown and Outside of History

Shorouq Newspaper, 22 October, 2013

Egypt’s current problem is that it is moving along a path leading outside of history, and one fears that Egypt will drag the Arab world along with it in the end.

Reading Egyptian newspapers these days and following the statements of politicians -- who have begun to compete with each other to court the military  and outdo one another in praising its role -- it might not occur to you that the newspaper headlines, the comments of the editors, and the statements of the politicians could almost be an exact copy of the discourse in Turkey around half a century ago. However, anyone who has read the history of the militarization of Turkish society notes that the voices calling for the armed forces to intervene to save the country from chaos and collapse reverberated loudly during every political crisis. Given the fragility and weakness of the political situation, everyone considered the military the savior and rescuer. The military had credit with the public that permitted it to play this role, since it saved the country from occupation after the First World War, established the republic and led the process of modernizing the state. This is the background that was repeatedly invoked in order to militarize society from the establishment of the republic in the 1920’s and for 80 years afterwards.
 
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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. 

 

Impunity

I took over from Issandr this week to pen a post for the New York Times' Latitude blog about the so far unreleased (but now partly leaked) fact-finding report into the deaths and abuses of protesters, ordered -- but so far buried -- by President Morsi.

Last week, the British paper The Guardian published leaked chapters and several articles about the report that was written -- but not released -- by the fact-finding committee President Morsi created in July 2012 to investigate killing and injuring of protesters from the time of the revolution until his assumption of office (although in fact the committee appears to have focused on the revolutionary and early post-revolutionary period only). The Egyptian newspaper El Shorouk had already been reporting on the committee’s findings for several moths. Nour The Intern has heroically waded into these leaks and their coverage, to try to give us a sense of what has emerged from the committee’s work so far. Read it all after the jump. 

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More on yesterday's violence in Cairo

A piece of mine just went up on the Daily Beast about yesterday's clashes and deaths. Visited the Coptic Hospital this morning, and were told that while the bodies of 17 dead protesters lay inside, it was attacked by gangs last night and Christian men in the neighborhood had to defend it for hours. The footage below is of those clashes, from Al Masry Al Youm. 

And now I am hearing that State TV is admitting that no soldiers were killed. Can we confirm this? If this is true it is absolutely unbelievable. The automatic goverment agit-prop on this is almost as bad as the deaths. Every single (Arabic language) Egyptian newspaper with the exception of Tahrir newspaper led with stories and images today that emphasized the violence on the part of the demonstrators, not the army. Al Ahram's disingenuous headine reads: "Twenty-Four Soldiers and Demonstrators Dead.." It really is a full return to the days of the revolution. 

Submit to Mubarak

Once a military man, always a military man.
At a meeting of parliament's national security committee on Wednesday, committee head Mohamed Abdel Fattah Omar urged the Egyptian public to "entirely submit" to the will of President Hosni Mubarak.
"Even if Mubarak chooses dictatorship, we still must obey, since he would act as a benevolent dictator," said Omar.
Omar's comments came as the committee was discussing a draft law on the extension of Law 49 of 1997, which grants the president the right to take unilateral decisions in military issues pertaining to armaments without having to seek parliamentary approval.
Omar's remark came in response to objections to the law raised by Muslim Brotherhood MPs Sabri Amer and Essam Mokhtar. The two MPs also objected to the law on the basis that the president's term was slated to end next year.
Defense Ministry adviser Mamdouh Shahin, for his part, defended the move, noting that "current international and regional threats warrant the extension of the law."
The committee ultimately endorsed the bill, which it will submit to the People's Assembly next week for approval.
There have been some pretty sycophantic paeans to Hosni Mubarak in the past, but never has anything like this been said so explicitly. And this from the man who a few weeks ago was suggesting that Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali would be assassinated. We're in Saddam Hussein territory here. I also wonder if M. Omar (or I should say, police general Omar) is inspired by certain Sunni theologians, notably those of the Malekite school, who believe the umma should always submit to the sultan.
In any case, this story does shed light on a little-discussed provision of Egyptian law that has important electoral ramifications and partly explains the regime's panic during the parliamentary elections of 2005. Throughout his reign, Mubarak has been granted by parliament the right to conclude military armaments deals (import and export) without consultation — essentially a fast-track process to carry out these deals. Normally, the deals would have to be reviewed and approved by parliament. But, as long as there was a two-thirds majority in favor, parliament could always give the president the fast track — and it always has.
When the Muslim Brothers looked like they would get up to 120 seats in parliament in 2005, that two-thirds majority was threatened (two-thirds of parliament amounts to about 150 seats). So after the first round the security services began to crackdown and made the sure the Brothers would not get anywhere near that number.
This bill, if I understand it correctly, is either another iteration of the fast track or an actual amendment to the law to permanently enshrine the president's fast track privilege over arms deals — one that provides zero transparency over arms purchases, who gets commissions, and other fascinating aspects of the Egyptian military-industrial complex, its clients, and its major arms suppliers. It is as if Mubarak wanted to make he sure he left that legacy to his successor...
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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.

Links for January 14th

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