A lonely fight defending Egypt's jailed dissidents

Great profile of Egyptian lawyer Ragia Omran by the AP's Hama Hendawi:

Defending arrested activists is Omran's way of keeping the revolution alive.

"We are not going to accept that the police state will continue to run the country unchallenged. There have to be people who object to this, and we are going to be those people - I and the others who are with me," she said one afternoon after a court hearing for 25 young men on trial for breaking a draconian law effectively banning protests which was adopted a year ago.

"I cannot give up. My friends and family want me to leave the country. I cannot," she told The Associated Press in one of several recent interviews.

. . .

The 41-year-old Omran earns her living as a corporate lawyer. Defending activists is her volunteer work. That can mean punishing hours. One recent day, she attended the signing of a nearly $700 million loan deal that her firm helped work out. In the days that followed, she was in court representing jailed activists, tromping into police stations to find clients, and visiting prisons, trying to bring food and other supplies to detainees.

She often keeps clothes in her car so she can make quick changes out of her corporate business suit and heels. Her mobile gets a constant stream of texts and calls. Sometimes she herself cooks food to take to inmates - things that can go a few days without spoiling.

Standing only 5 feet tall (1.53 meters), she charges with determined steps into prisons, police stations and courtrooms, where she meets constant resistance from authorities.

"In the first two years after the revolution, police and the Interior Ministry were careful with us because they didn't want bad publicity," she said. "Now they don't care... This regime does not care about its image, the law or regulations."

Watching Cheney: He’s Got Nothing

Andrew Sullivan on Dick Cheney's defense of torture:

To put it more bluntly, Cheney’s response is unhinged. It is suffused with indiscriminate rage which is indifferent to such standards as whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, or even if he should be in a prison at all. He is acting out a revenge fantasy, no doubt fueled in part by the understanding that 3,000 Americans lost their lives because he failed to prevent it – when the facts were lying there in the existing surveillance and intelligence system and somehow never got put together.

What we have here is a staggering thing: the second highest official in a democracy, proud and unrepentant of war crimes targeted at hundreds of prisoners, equating every single one of the prisoners – including those who were victims of mistaken identity, including American citizens reading satirical websites, including countless who had nothing to do with any attacks on the US at all – with the nineteen plotters of one terror attack. We have a man who, upon being presented with a meticulous set of documents and facts, brags of not reading them and who continues to say things that are definitively disproved in the report by CIA documents themselves.

This is a man who not only broke the law and the basic norms of Western civilization, but who celebrates that. If this man is not brought to justice, the whole idea of justice in this country is a joke.

Springborg: The resurgence of Arab militaries

Like the previous post also at Monkey Cage, Robert Springborg makes an interesting argument about the Arab uprisings have empowered militaries:

The Arab upheavals and reactions to them have resulted in a profound militarization of the Arab world. In the republics, this has taken the form of remilitarizing Egypt, further entrenching the power of Algeria’s military and possibly preparing the Tunisian military for an unaccustomed role in the future. In the other republics, regime supporting militaries have been pitted against militias emerging from protest movements, with both sides attracting external support. In the monarchies, ruling families have bolstered their militaries by increasing their capabilities and by roping them together in collective commands. They have done so primarily to confront and put down further upheavals, wherever in the Arab world they might occur, but probably also as part of intensifying intrafamily power struggles. Behind this militarization is the U.S. presence in various forms, including as primary supplier and trainer, operator of autonomous bases and orchestrator of counter terrorist campaigns.

This, he argues, may be particularly significant for the Arab oil-rich monarchies that are significantly beefing up the abilities of their armed forces, which Springborg says is a "double-edged sword". 

Heydemann: Arab autocrats are not going back to the future

Steve Heydemann, writing for WaPo's Monkey Cage, argues that "premature deindustrialization" and large-scale structural unemployment naturally leads to the inability of post-Arab Spring authoritarian regimes to generate a new social contract.

To the extent that MENA political economies are defined by premature deindustrialization, the pathways out of poor capitalism will be very hard to find. The likely outcome is a massive semi-permanent class of underemployed and unemployed whom the state will view as a persistent threat to stability, necessitating repressive-exclusionary modes of governance.

Even if MENA countries can escape the trap of premature deindustrialization the alternatives to authoritarianism face strong headwinds. Democratization has been discredited by its association with the presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, as well as the Libyan and Yemeni experiences. It has been further undermined by public disillusionment with Western liberalism, and by the declining leverage of Western democracies over regional actors who no longer depend on the West for foreign investment and foreign assistance. Nor can the transnational ideologies that legitimated (and tested) Arab regimes, including various versions of politicized Islam, serve that purpose any longer.

In contrast, market-oriented models of authoritarian governance are seen as viable alternatives. Reflecting regional trends toward sectarian polarization, regime elites in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya have sought to reframe mechanisms for containing and channeling mass politics – much of which continues to revolve around demands for economic inclusion, voice, and distributive justice – around combinations of exclusionary, xenophobic, ethno-sectarian, and tribal conceptions of state-society relations and citizenship, policed by newly reinvigorated post-uprising internal security agencies.

Thus, even while emergent models of authoritarian governance in the Arab world exhibit a wide range of continuities, they are moving beyond the authoritarian bargains and the authoritarian compromises of earlier eras, toward repressive-exclusionary systems of rule organized in response to the threat of mass politics under conditions of poor capitalism. These emergent models will generate stresses that will test their capacity and their resilience. In their current incarnation, however, the trajectories of authoritarian governance in the Arab world seem to offer little basis for optimism among those who have long hoped that prosperity and democracy would find a firm foothold in the Middle East.

The Jews-Only State

All par for the course in "the only democracy in the Middle East" (from The Guardian):

A controversial bill that officially defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been approved by cabinet despite warnings that the move risks undermining the country’s democratic character.

Opponents, including some cabinet ministers, said the new legislation defined reserved “national rights” for Jews only and not for its minorities, and rights groups condemned it as racist.

The bill, which is intended to become part of Israel’s basic laws, would recognise Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalise Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and delist Arabic as a second official language.

In Translation: Belal Fadl on Egypt becoming "A Nation of Snitches"

Belal Fadl, an Egyptian screenwriter and columnist who has continued to speak his mind on the brutality and hypocrisy of the country's military regime, has published a five-part series with the news site Mada Masr on the history of domestic espionage in Egypt. Our good friends at the professional translation service Industry Arabic have translated the final installment in the series; the earlier ones are available in Arabic on the Mada site. 

Egypt: The Nation of Snitches Makes a Comeback. Is Sisi Fulfilling Nasser’s Dream of Turning All Citizens into Informers?

When a ruler depends solely on the power of oppression and completely impedes rational thinking, he no longer concerns himself with ensuring that there is an informant for every citizen.  Rather, he seeks to drive each and every citizen to become an informant of his or her own volition.

Some weeks ago, Abdel Rahman Zaidan, coordinator of the Revolutionaries Front in East Cairo, published a testimony on his Facebook page that soon became widely shared.  In this testimony, Abdel Rahman states that as he was riding a microbus [shared taxi-van] home, he was surprised to hear a middle-aged woman begin to fiercely criticize Sisi, the current government, and the Interior Ministry, much to the shock of those riding in the microbus with her.  One of the other passengers, encouraged by what the woman was saying, joined her in openly attacking Sisi, the government, and the Interior Ministry. Before Abdel Rahman could join the discussion, the woman suddenly asked the driver to pull over next to a church along the way.  As soon as the microbus stopped, the woman stuck her head out the window and called to the church guards, shouting, “Save me! There’s a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist in the microbus!” The guards rushed over, began beating the young man who had criticized Sisi, and pulled him from the microbus. The woman also got out of the microbus in order to accompany them and to testify to the heinous act that the young man had committed. She shot a sharp glance back at the other passengers, as if defying them to intervene, and stated proudly, “We’re cleaning up this country!” The remaining passengers, shocked at what had happened, sat frozen in their seats as the microbus drove away. Abdel Rahman concludes his testimony by advising his colleagues – who are busy defending their comrades who are among the students who have been detained, providing for their needs, and publicizing their cases – to refrain from talking about politics on public transportation in order to focus their efforts on what is most important. He urges them to avoid falling into this new security trap, set to ensnare anyone who expresses opposition to what is happening in Egypt.

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Price tag of Erdogan’s new palace revealed: $600m - FT

A decade ago it could easily be argued that Erdogan did a lot of good for his country. With every passing day he looks more and more like a crude mafiosi dictator:

The controversy over a new 1,000 room palace for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has deepened with a government acknowledgment that the complex costs more than $600m, nearly double previous estimates.

Mehmet Simsek, finance minister, said the complex, which dwarfs the White House, the Elysee and Buckingham Palace, would cost a total of TL1.37bn, ($616m) of which TL964m had been spent so far from the budget of the prime minister’s office. This compared with previous reports estimating the cost at $350m.

Mr Erdogan sees the palace, built in protected forest land in contravention of a court decision, as a symbol of a new, more vigorous Turkey. But his critics denounce it as the excess of an ever more authoritarian and powerful leader.

“The so-called sultan has built this for himself in a country where 3m people are without work,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican Peoples party, in a speech on Tuesday, citing court of accounts figures suggesting contractors were overpaid. “You cut down hundreds of trees to build yourself this palace.”

The complex, opened last month, incorporates Turkey’s traditional Seljuk and Ottoman architectural styles, and features a majestic tree lined interior hallway, an underground bunker and a park.

Lunch with the FT: Sir John Sawers

Says the man who relentlessly cozied up to Mubarak wih his chum Tony:

Sir John, who was British ambassador in Cairo between 2001 and 2003, says the Arab spring shows that revolutionary change is impossible to manage and will normally end up worse for western interests and values. “We saw it in Tehran in 1979, and we’ve seen it in Egypt over the past few years.”

On the so-called Islamic State

Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism. 

But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy. 

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

Links August 2014

Clearing the holiday backlog...

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"Palestinians Live What Israelis Fear"

The emails filling my box about Israel function as a remarkable document. They are a record of seemingly reasonable people who have completely lost track of basic moral reasoning. And that represents itself nowhere more consistently or powerfully than here: treating what could possibly happen to Israelis as more important than what already is happening to Palestinians. It’s such a profoundly bizarre way to think, that only this maddening issue could bring it about.

“Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist!”

Indeed– and Israel not only denies Palestine’s right to exist, it has achieved the denial of a Palestinian state in fact. What kind of broken moral calculus could cause someone to think that being told your existing state should not exist is the same as not having a state of your own?
— The Daily Dish

“I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”

Alaa Abdelfattah decides to go on hunger strike:

Statement from the Family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Alaa is on Hunger Strike: “I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”.

At 2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday August 17, Alaa visited his father, Ahmad Seif, in the ICU Unit of Qasr el-Eini hospital, after Seif had become unconscious.

Three days earlier we’d been on our latest visit to Alaa in Tora Prison. His father’s health at that point had been relatively good. Since then there had been no way for us to inform him that his father had gone into crisis. And so Alaa arrived at the hospital in the small hours of Sunday happy to be visiting, carrying flowers, looking forward to talking with his father. He found him unconscious in an ICU cubicle.

That spectacle crystalised matters for him. By the end of the few-minute visit Alaa had decided that he would withdraw co-operation with the unjust and absurd sitution he had been put in – even if this cost him his life.

For context, Alaa had previously taken the view that he would cooperate with the judicial process and authorities, hoping for an eventual acquittal on a retrial (since his conviction was the result of an absurd trial he was not allowed to attend.)

His family's full statement is here.

Links 1-30 July 2014

A long overdue link dump. From the first link:

“In all the suffering and death,” wrote a friend from Gaza, “there are so many expressions of tenderness and kindness. People are taking care of one another, comforting one another. Especially children who are searching for the best way to support their parents. I saw many children no older than 10 years old who are hugging, comforting their younger siblings, trying to distract them from the horror. So young and already the caretakers of someone else. I did not meet a single child who did not lose someone – a parent, grandmother, friend, aunt or neighbor. And I thought: If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

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Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."