AP News : In Egypt, a corruption watchdog hit by backlash

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

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

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

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

There may be limits, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Last week in Egypt in TV

This is a sporadic column by Arabist contributor Nour Youssef. 

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

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

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

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Sisi vs. Sabbahi

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

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

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

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

A New Generation of Arab Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Minya

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

 

The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

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

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

 

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

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

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

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Dennis Ross and the Saudis

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

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

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

A Palestinian Bantustan won’t end the conflict

Daniel Levy, writing in Haaretz:

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

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

Egypt's Judges Strike Back: The New Yorker

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

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

 

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

Read the rest here

Egypt's unprecedented instability by the numbers

Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson write for Carnegie:

Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi. The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks.

This is based on data from WikiThawra, reinterpreted below in graphic format:

They conclude:

Egypt’s rulers have already earned two dubious distinctions in less than a year: since 1952, no Egyptian regime has been more repressive, and no regime in more than a generation has confronted a more intense terrorism challenge.

In Translation: A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

In this week’s article selected from the Egyptian press, Islamist thinker Fahmi Howeidy highlights the recent wave of attacks against police and soldiers and condemns the government’s rush to blame the Muslim Brotherhood with scant evidence. The shadow of a wider insurgency against the regime looms large over Egypt, making comparisons with Algeria that recently seemed unthinkable more of a prospect.

Translation is provided by the excellent folks at Industry Arabic. Help them help us by using their translation services for your company!

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UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

The US and the UK have made it onto RSF's "enemies of internet freedom" annual list for the first time:

United States: This is the first time the US has made it onto RSF’s list.  While the US government doesn’t censor online content, and pours money into promoting Internet freedom worldwide, the National Security Agency’s unapologetic dragnet surveillance and the government’s treatment of whistleblowers have earned it a spot on the index.

United Kingdom: The European nation has been dubbed by RSF as the “world champion of surveillance” for its recently-revealed depraved strategies for spying on individuals worldwide.  The UK also joins countries like Ethiopia and Morocco in using terrorism laws to go after journalists.  Not noted by RSF, but also important, is the fact that the UK is also cracking down on legal pornography, forcing Internet users to opt-in with their ISP if they wish to view it and creating a slippery slope toward overblocking.  This is in addition to the government’s use of an opaque, shadowy NGO to identify child sexual abuse images, sometimes resulting instead in censorship of legitimate speech.

I have lost count of the ways what these two countries do with one hand completely undermines what they do with the other – and that applies to a whole range of policies aside from internet freedom.

Syria in Free Fall

The NYT's Anne Barnard delivers a tragic snapshot of the Syrian conflict that tells us a lot about the region's, and the world's, inability to resolve conflicts like these:

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.
The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

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Links 18 February - 16 March 2014

Above, the "Libyan navy" – actually Misrata militias loading their pickup trucks mounted with artillery weapons onto a barge – shoots at the Morning Glory, a tanker that loaded oil from the blockaded port of Sidra, controlled by "federalist" militias. The ship was later seized by US Navy Seals. And below, the long-overdue links.

Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

Rare, grim, first-hand reporting from Sinai by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Egypt's army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region's villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world's biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants - a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth - have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.

"The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter," said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

"Even when the army's armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks."

Many residents say that the authorities' military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004-2006 debate about regular military vs. counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq.