Yemen has recently become the focus of increased media attention as a result of the proxy war there being fought between the US, Saudi Arabia, the government of Yemen and multiple tribal and Islamist insurrections. But in an environmentally marginal country such as Yemen, the popularity of the narcotic qat ranks high among the country’s difficulties.Read More
This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.
An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.
The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.
While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer -- a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.
The short answer is: Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.
The quick retort: Not again?
The quick answer: Yes, it could be déjà vu all over again. But it might not.
Geoff Porter emails:
Over the last several days there has been lots of analysis about AQIM and about how the situation in Mali and France’s bombing campaign came to be, so there’s not much point in going over that ground again. Instead, it might be helpful to look forward to what the French campaign is about (and what it’s not), as well as to look north to the implications for North Africa.
Until 2012, AQIM in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization – kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc – but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology. It was intertwined with local populations to the extent that they provided cover and support for illicit activities, but it did not try to impose its salafi jihadi ideology on the population with which it interacted. In general, its roughly 500 fighters existed on the margins of an already marginal region. It was troublesome, but it did not pose a strategic threat to local governments or Europe or the US. That obviously changed in 2012 with the influx of Libyan weapons, the Tuareg rebellion, the collapse of the government in Bamako and its control of the northern half of Mali. AQIM went from a criminally inclined, underperforming Al Qaeda affiliate with dubious loyalty to controlling a large territory and running a “terrorist safe haven” in a country that was an ally to both France and the US. And it placed AQIM and the other Islamist organizations with which it has tensely shared power – Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din – squarely in France’s sights.
This is a guest post by Nathan Field — a little break from Egypt, Gaza and all that.
Great Tuesday Washington Post piece by Kevin Sullivan on Saudi women and unemployment. The part at the end on Saudi labor policy and the two-tier labor force is critical.
What Sullivan doesn’t address in much detail though is how the presence of so many foreign workers has distorted wages in the private sector, and causes the unemployment problem to persist in a country where there are literally millions of jobs that Saudis could be working.
Importing foreign labor was necessary initially because for the first several decades of the Kingdom’s development the Saudi labor force was not nearly large enough. Harder to understand is why the situation has been allowed to persist through the present, when despite a reasonably qualified Saudi labor force, the ongoing option of easily hiring workers from countries such as the Philippines and India still exists.
The car bombs that hit Tripoli on August 19 and following clashes with those believed responsible for them have highlighted the recurrent nature of such attacks in the new Libya — just yesterday, for instance, the car of an Egyptian diplomat in Benghazi was also bombed (no one was hurt). The government has blamed Qadhafi loyalists but it's unclear whether this is the case; there are other possible culprits. Having not followed this closely, I gained some clarity yesterday by reading an email sent by Geoff Porter, a North Africa specialist who frequently visits Libya, on the issue. He kindly agreed to let me post it here.
The three car bombs in Tripoli on Sunday 19 August merit a quick Libya update.
Although there were three bombs, the attacks in effect represent a single data point, so it is difficult to extrapolate a trend from them or plot a trajectory for security in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya. However, when placed in the broader context of security risks throughout the country, something in fact can be gleaned from them – namely that security threats in Libya are evolving away from utilitarian violence to terrorism, violence that is ideological and idealistic. This evolution presents new problems for the General National Congress (GNC) in its efforts to get Libya under control.
Libyan officials attributed the attacks to a group of men loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi. After the attacks, security sources reportedly arrested 32 members of the group, which they said is intent upon sowing discord in the country and is determined to discredit the GNC that was sworn in on 8 August.
The Tripoli bombings were preceded over the last several weeks by a string of assassinations in Benghazi. The assassinations targeted former members of Qadhafi’s intelligence services, all of whom were allegedly on a hit list that includes between 109 and 900 names. It is not known who carried out the attacks. Some speculate that an unspecified Islamist group was responsible. Others think that a local militia with particular grievances against the Qadhafi regime is behind the murders.
Last week's anxiety-ridden wait for the winner of the Egyptian presidential election to be declared was perceived by many as a game of shadow boxing between SCAF and the MB — whereby the former put pressure on the latter or gave itself the option of rigging the election for Ahmed Shafiq. As many have noted, only the MB could have had the national organization to collect the tallies of votes polling station by polling station, raising the question of whether the regime could have gotten away with rigging the elections if Aboul Fotouh or Sabahi had been in the runoff against Shafiq. Contributor Bilal Ahmed sent in his thoughts on the matter.
My initial skepticism regarding the Morsi presidency has faded in light of his announced victory. I was wondering if the nearly 800,000 votes that were voided would change the election results, but the commission reiterated the Muslim Brotherhood’s announcement last week. Egypt’s first president after the revolution is Mohamed Morsi.
The most striking thing about these elections, and probably one of its most important lasting effects, is the accuracy of the independent tallies conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political faction the Freedom and Justice Party. There is no other organized political force in Egypt with the resources to accurately conduct polling at all of Egypt’s 16 000 polling stations, and the MB has not squandered its opportunity to occupy this role.
Nathan Brown — a professor at GWU and Carnegie Scholar whose fantastic writings on Egypt’s transition you can find at Foreign Policy and Carnegie among other places — has hastily jotted down some very quick observations on the supplementary constitutional declaration just issued by SCAF (here's a scan of the constitution [PDF] Update: English text.). Here they are:
The supplementary constitutional declaration really does complete the coup in many obvious ways–basically returning martial law (in its more original sense rather than the “state of emergency” that just expired), making the military unaccountable, and grabbing back oversight of the political system for the military just weeks before the scheduled end of military rule. Most of this is clear on the surface and does not need much analysis.
Two more detailed notes I would add that may otherwise be missed:
In a landmark ruling today, a Cairo appeals court struck down air. “We can find no legal basis in any Egyptian legal text for air. This lack of legality extends to various human activities connected with air, including breathing, use of vacuum cleaners, and parliamentary debates,” the three-judge panel stated in a written ruling. (The judges were unable to deliver the opinion orally because they were all holding their breath).
The court deferred to a September session consideration of challenges lodged against windows, emoticons, ful for any meal other than breakfast, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
In other Egyptian legal news, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court issued what legal observers have already termed a “continuous loop” judgment. The Court found itself unconstitutional. However, it argued, since it had no constitutional authority, its own ruling was invalid. And if the Court’s finding of its own unconstitutionality had no constitutional standing, the Court actually did have full constitutional authority after all. And it would use that constitutional authority to find itself unconstitutional. But then, since it had no constitutional authority, its own ruling was invalid.
The decision continued for 4000 pages before a printer jam prevented completion of the ruling.
Meanwhile, the parliament escalated its conflict with the judiciary following yesterday’s State Council ruling that Britain’s severance of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire in 1914 was legally invalid because it had been issued in English, which is not an official language. The Court had ordered that all Egyptian state institutions be disbanded as a result. By an overwhelming vote, parliamentarians reacted by repealing the original Ottoman conquest of Egypt, thus hoping to remove the court’s jurisdiction over Britain’s 1914 decision.
The SCAF has also reacted to the State Council decision, posting on its Facebook page a statement declaring that the first existing Egyptian legal document, the Narmur palate, clearly gives ultimate political authority to the military and that all subsequent constitutional documents draw their authority from, and thus cannot contradict, that text.
A Freedom and Justice deputy promptly filed suit in an administrative court to strike down the Narmur Palate as belonging to the gahiliyya.
More news tomorrow.
This commentary was contributed by Nathan Field.
There’s a growing school of thought that promotion of entrepreneurship is an effective solution to the socio-economic problems facing many Arab countries, especially Egypt. In Jobs@Arabia.com Thomas Friedman heaped praise on Oassis500, a high-tech accelerator in Jordan that provides startup money and training to budding internet companies. A prominent American investor recently profiled FlatLabs6, a similar effort in Cairo. And the pilot version of the State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship program offers mentorship to young Egyptian entrepreneurs, mostly in the tech and IT space.
The case for promoting entrepreneurship as a solution in Egypt is strong. Why? A solid argument can be made that the single most important cause of the 2011 uprising was economic — or, in other words, lack of economic opportunities.
There are more Egyptian university graduates than ever before, with higher aspirations than any previous generation, yet, in an increasingly competitive and liberal global economy, the government has to this point been unable to generate anywhere near enough jobs that meet their expectations. Thus, in February 2011, that discontent — probably exacerbated by the effects of the post-2008 global financial crisis — caused the ranks of Egypt’s previously passionate but relatively small opposition to reach a critical mass, and sweep away the Mubarak regime.
Friedman and company’s approach is sound. However, what should not be overdone is the implicit assumption that “startup” means (or should mean) “tech” and especially “internet company.” Virtually every article covering this trend in the Arab world focuses exclusively on web-based companies. Certainly, they have a place, but an equal, if not greater focus should be on the development of new lower-tech, labor-intensive firms, because they are more likely to make an impact in addressing Egypt’s un and underemployment problems.
Friend-of-the-blog Gabriel Koehler-Derrick does some really neat stuff with Google to track prominent personalities in religious currents, politics, and society in the Middle East. In this commentary he sent us, Gabriel looks at Google as an alternative indication of the popularity (or interest in) the various candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections. A PDF version of this article, which includes graphs that are tricky to transpose to the web, is here (275kb).
With the approach of Egypt’s presidential elections on Wednesday, a variety of polls have been published trying to anticipate the outright winner, or at least identify which two candidates are capable of winning enough votes to force a runoff election. Given the challenges associated with polling in Egypt, the historic nature of the election, and a confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically shaken up the field of contestants, it is not surprising that the outcome remains unclear. While far from perfect, data from internet search trends suggest a far less ambiguous outcome: Amr Moussa is comfortably in the lead and Muhammad Morsi is the candidate most likely to face him should there be a runoff.
Anyone familiar with the telecommunications industry in Egypt might question the utility of using data derived from internet searches to better understand political developments. While internet penetration rates have grown impressively, according to a recent survey conducted by A.C. Nielsen for Google’s MENA office, only about 39% of Egyptians have “regular access” (defined in the survey as logging in once a month) to the internet. The data from the A.C. Nielsen survey also show that Egypt’s community of internet users are disproportionately male, and younger than average, with the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts being particularly well represented. To the best of my knowledge, credible statistics about the income and education level of Egypt’s internet users are not publically available, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that typical internet users are skewed towards urban areas, and better educated and significantly wealthier than national averages. Because of these challenges, data derived from internet searches cannot be considered statistically representative of the Egyptian population.
Despite these drawbacks, internet search data enjoys a number of advantages for examining the presidential race. First, the number of data points for any time period is huge. A back of the envelope calculation, based on the Nielsen survey and some basic population data from the UN, suggests that in Egypt, Google gets almost 26 million searches a day. While only a tiny fraction of these searches are politically related, nine out of the “top 10 rising people” in Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist survey of Egypt’s search trends were connected to the revolution or politics more broadly, indicating just how influential political developments in 2011 were on search trends in Egypt. By way of comparison, none of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Turkey has anything to do with politics, and only one of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Canada , former leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) Jack Layton. Data from Google AdWords, provides an updated 30-day average of the number of searches for a given term, shows some impressive averages for each of the top presidential contenders. This is crucial because it provides a sense of scale for the Insights for Search data cited below, which uses normalized results not raw numbers to plot the trend lines for the various candidates.
The piece below was contributed by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005 and focuses on issues of gender and migration. She is currently a consultant with International Civil Society Action Network's MENA program, which examines the intersection of women's rights, peace and security.
Given that Mona El Tahawy has, for at least a decade now, written about Islam and gender in the Middle East, and primarily for an English-speaking (read “Western”) audience, it is a bit surprising that in her recent piece in Foreign Policy’s sex issue, she would repeat so many of the same ideas and fall into the same traps into which others before her have fallen, providing many a commentator and academic with an opportunity to pounce upon her within hours of the piece’s publication.
El Tahawy’s piece reads like a catalogue of horrors, as she cites example after example of some of the more egregious instances of violations of women’s rights: from Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws infantilize women, to Yemen, where the practice of child marriage is still all too common, and to her native Egypt, where shortly after the uprising which ousted Husni Mubarak, female protesters detained by the military were subjected to humiliating virginity tests. In the overarching question hanging over the piece – “why do they hate us” – El Tahawy never quite identifies who “they” are, but she does seem to place the cause of this misogyny squarely within conservative religious doctrine now being promoted by some of the political actors that have found a voice in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The responses to El Tahawy’s piece came fast and furious. I will admit to only having read about twenty of them, though I am sure there are dozens more. Even before reading the responses, I could have guessed what most would say, for indeed El Tahawy’s piece is reductive and essentialist, at the same time that it generalizes and perpetuates some of the very stereotypes individuals like her have long struggled to debunk.
However, El Tahawy’s piece and the responses to it get caught in the same circular debates that feminist theorists have been trying to address for some time, and highlight the significance of two theories in particular: intersectionality and the double-bind.
Intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by African-American feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, examines how various biological and social categories such as race, gender, and class, and politics interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic social inequality. Intersectionality led feminists into also writing about the “double bind,” a situation wherein an individual (or group) finds herself struggling to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of multiple identities.
This piece was contributed by Bilal Ahmed, a student and activist completing his senior year at Rutgers University who has spent time in Yemen. This piece was primarily written during his stay in Tahrir Square, Egypt. As always with guest contributors, their opinions are their own.
There are flags hanging in many buildings in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. These flags, in addition to the standard Yemeni red, white, and black, contain a light blue triangle with a red star within it. They are seen everywhere, from tea shops, to private homes, to the crowds of protestors that have been marching on Aden’s streets for the past year.
These are the flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, colloquially known as “South Yemen.” The PDRY was an avowedly Stalinist-Marxist single-party state, though its classification as such is a matter of debate. More significant than Marxism in the history of South Yemen was the state’s mobilization of dormant nationalism among South Yemenis.
“North Yemen” extends from the Saudi Arabian border to the de facto border between North and South signed by the Ottoman and British Empires in 1905. South Yemeni nationalism is rooted in the different histories that birthed the two former states, with North Yemen initially ruled by Imamates and finally an autocratic Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) “President” in Ali Abdullah Saleh.
South Yemen has an entirely different past that must be understood in the wake of its growing geopolitical focus.
The following post, on legislation dealing with economic corruption recently decreed by SCAF, was contributed by Shereen Zaky, a lawyer in Cairo.
On January 3rd, SCAF discreetly passed an amendment to the Investment Law essentially permitting the settlement of economic corruption crimes via financial reconciliation, as well as designating an extra-judicial process for the settlement of disputes regarding government contracts. Published only a few days before parliament was due to convene, the timing is significant both in terms of circumventing parliament’s assumption of legislative power and because the amendment could escape scrutiny, overshadowed as it was by greater events.
Law 4 of 2012 permits the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones, the regulator of investment and companies in Egypt, to settle with investors who have committed either in person, or as an accomplice of a government employee, embezzlement, theft, illegal acquisition or misuse of public funds and property, harming the public welfare, and similar offences, while undertaking any of the investment activities covered by the law, provided they restore the disputed amounts or reimburse the state for their approximate value at the time the offence was committed. The settlement can take place any stage before a defendant is convicted by the final court of appeal.
Essentially, this could allow the likes of Ahmed Ezz and other corrupt businessmen to slip neatly out of prison, as well as many other regime figures. It seems like one of SCAF’s now-familiar counter-revolutionary gambits, designed to protect their corrupt cronies and conceal their own implication in crime, but with a little adjustment it would actually be a reasonable means of protecting Egypt’s collapsing economy.
The post below, on the worsening relations between the two Sudans and the Northern regime's domestic worries, was contributed by Abdullah Ahmed. I had missed these alarming developments, which before the Arab uprisings would have been major news.
While much attention is currently being focused on Egypt, there is much to learn from the current oil dispute between Sudan and its former territory, South Sudan. South Sudan’s oil shutoff reveals that it is not willing to bargain for permission to export oil.
With the other issues yet to be settled between the two governments, including final demarcation of the border, the SPLM-led South Sudanese government is taking the situation very seriously. The National Congress Party’s “take no prisoners” attitude in dealing with South Sudan’s government is strongly reflected in Omar al-Bashir’s actions and words. For example, the undersecretary of Sudan’s foreign ministry gave an interview just over a month ago in which he referred to the South Sudanese as “brothers” and the border issue between the two countries as a minor issue. Yet, Sudan’s actions have been much louder than the words of her paid employees, as the recent bombing of the Jau area on the border illustrates.
Here's a take on the recent events in Egypt by Nate Wright, an Arabist reader and Cairo-based freelance journalist. My own take coming up soon. Update: see this map to get a better idea of where's where.
After a week of violent clashes between protesters and police forcesin November, the military moved in and built a concrete wall betweenthe two parties on Mohamed Mahmoud street, the main thoroughfarerunning from Tahrir Square towards the Ministry of Interior. Lastnight, activists toppled the wall using metal beams and ropes, and thebattle lines were dramatically shifted.
Now, police officers are facing down protesters on Mansour street.It's a good distance from Tahrir but a lot closer to the Ministry ofInterior. The sight of tear gas raining down, motorcycles ferrying outthe wounded and protesters standing their ground recalls the clashesin November on Mohamed Mahmoud street and again in December on anearby street. But these similarities mask the changing geography of the battle.
Mansour street is straighter and wider, making it a lot easier forspectators to watch from a distance. The slight bend in MohamedMahmoud street meant that in order for people to see the tear gasthemselves, they often had to be fairly close to the front lines. WhenI walked down Mansour street this evening it was clogged withthousands of people -- many more than I'd ever seen on Mohamed Mahmoud.
This is a guest post by Rabab ElMahdi, co-editor with Philip Marfleet of Egypt: The Moment of Change.
Civilian-Military Relations in Egypt
By Rabab ElMahdi, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo.
One of the clear demarcations of democratic polities is civilian control over the military. However, such control is neither automatic nor easy to attain even during periods of democratic transition. In certain cases, foundational constraints imposed by authoritarian legacies and the transition process have conferred upon the armed forces substantial influence over the nascent democratic governments. And in many cases indicators reinforce the view that there is greater continuity than discontinuity in military behavior between the pre- and post-authoritarian periods. If military have left office but not abandoned their centers of power, then the transfer of authority from military to civilian hands is more superficial than real. At worst, the formal departure of the military from power might represent, not the end of a political cycle, but rather its continuation. At best, democratic rule would be severely limited, subject to military supervision, moderation, or arbitration.
The following account, by activist and artist Aalam Wassef, details a meeting with prisoner of conscience Maikel Nabil, who was sentenced to two years in jail by a military tribunal on 14 December 2011 for "insulting the military." It is reproduced here with permission and was originally published on Facebook.
This is an account of my encounter on December 31st with Egyptian blogger and activist Maikel Nabil, arrested by the Supreme Council of Armed forces for opinions he posted on his blog. Maikel is now serving a two years sentence and is enduring inhuman conditions of detention. Since his arrest Maikel has refused to recognize the Military Prosecutor’s ability to judge him. Military trials for civilians have swept the Egyptian revolution with no less than 12,000 arrests since January 28th 2011.
El Marg Prison, 8.40 am. Waiting for Mark, Maikel Nabil's younger brother. Mark arrives carrying three heavy bags containing juices, milk, books, hundreds of sympathy messages, newspapers… An ornamented award certificate reads Istanbul, AHRLY, To Maikel Nabil for his firm commitment to freedom. I read again and stop at the word firm.
As we pass the prison’s porch, we’re immediately identified as Maikel people. Walky talkies start buzzing. Harrassment starts, routine bullying and unwritten administrative measures that Mark denounces vocally, one after the other, fearless.
Our bags and ourselves are searched and scanned, papers are confiscated. We board the traditional yellow wagon-bus that will take us to the visitor's hall. Right and left, all we can see are fields and animals. At the end of this unexpected green road, stands a white, blind, imposing wall, topped with barbed wire and, in the middle of all that whiteness, a small black door.
This is a guest post by Nathan Field.
One of the major themes I’ve noticed in the media after the Salafi al-Nour party won 25% of the votes in the first round of Egyptian elections was a surprise (or as in this week’s In Translation – anger). Yet their success shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Here are four points to ponder:
(1) Most popular T.V. stations to 25% of the votes isn’t a huge jump:
In 2008 Ahmed Hamam and I talked to dozens of Egyptian Salafis, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and various journalists and academics for a study on Salafi Satellite TV Stations in Egypt, published in Arab Media and Society in April 2009.
While precise Nielsen-style statistics don’t exist in Egypt, the general consensus was that Salafi-oriented TV stations such as Al-Nass and Al-Rahma, featuring charismatic preachers like Mohamed Hassan, were drawing higher ratings than any other TV stations in Egypt. So the evidence of the popularity of Salafism has been clear for years.
This post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.
It is a dot on a map dwarfed by its neighbors, but it is also an influential and stable country in a rough neighborhood. The United Arab Emirates is an increasingly sought-after ally, one with an ambitious foreign policy that it can finance with its rich resources.
Do not underestimate the power of a small state, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. The UAE (and Qatar) is saying we “are determined, ready to play an unusual leading role in events…We are daring enough. We have the capacity, the ability and the desire to play a bigger role,” he said.
The UAE sent a dozen aircrafts to support the no-fly zone over Libya and the country was arguably (along with Qatar) one of the biggest contributors on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Now as the NATO campaign is winding down, the Emirates’ contributions to Libya will “continue and become much more prominent in the post-Gaddafi era,” Abdullah said.
But Libya is just one of the many arenas in which the UAE is currently operating. For the past eight years, the UAE Armed Forces have been in Afghanistan — the only military force from an Arab country. (Previously, the Emirates assisted with peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kosovo.)
“The US, UK, France, see in the UAE an Arab state that thinks strategically, and one with which they can cooperate,” said John Chipman, director general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The contribution of UAE Special Forces to the operation in Afghanistan and of air assets to the coalition effort in Libya demonstrated that the UAE had no strategic aversion to direct cooperation with Western militaries when strategic perspectives and aims were aligned,” he added. “This case by case, but unemotional, strategic cooperation is likely to continue.”