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 Mubarak verdict

An abridged version of the Mubarak verdict (still hundreds of pages long) was released earlier this week and according to this press report, the judge includes the following "historical context" for the benefit of "future generations," based on the testimony of former Field Marshall Tantawi (President Sisi's mentor), general Sami Anani, former intelligence chief Omar Suleyman and others. These leaders explained in their depositions how the United States, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Qatar all collaborated to implement the American Greater Middle East initiative, a plan to fragment and weaken the Arab world that started with the invasion of Iraq. Because of the costliness of that operation, the foreign conspirators then turned to "fourth generation warfare" (a term that has become integral to Egypt's most popular conspiracy theories) and began "training a small group of young people to protest and strike and engage in civil disobedience and demonstrate, to bring their countries to a halt." The former intelligence officer Amr Afifi supposedly directed the Egyptian demonstrators from abroad.

The demonstrators themselves were criminals, poor people and misguided youth; they were infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who shot both protesters and police.  And of course , the judge writes that "The United States funded the Muslim Brotherhood from abroad, to enflame the country whenever the situation was calming down." 

As human rights activist Hossam Baghat put it on Democracy Now recently

Initially, the charge was that [Mubarak] had ordered or failed to stop the killing of protesters. The judge decided to throw out that charge on a technicality, saying that prosecutors did not follow the right procedure in adding him to that ongoing case in 2011. But really, what’s truly astonishing about this decision is that after the judge is done exonerating everyone and addressing every charge, for about eight pages then, the judge goes into what he calls, literally, the historical context of this verdict. He says, again literally he says, so, I’m not going to rule on the merits of these charges because of these procedural errors, but let me tell you what really happened in 2011. And then he goes on to repeat everything that the propaganda machine of Sisi and the current regime and the Mubarak people have been advancing about a global conspiracy.

Mubarak: "I didn't do anything."

It is really no surprise that the charges against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- for being responsible for the killing of protesters in January 2011 -- have just been dismissed on an unpersuasive technicality. There is apparently quite a bit of indignation in Egypt at this latest evidence of judicial integrity, although I find it shocking that anyone is shocked. The same message has been delivered loud and clear, for months now: We're back, and none of us is going to be held accountable for anything. 

Anyway, if you want to hear Mubarak chuckle, and a fawning interviewer call him "Mr. President," listen to the video below. 


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.

Egyptian media: a shameless parallel dimension

Unbelievable. This sentence (among others) in a  New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick about Sisi's speech to the UN:

What viewers back in Egypt could not see was that during the General Assembly, almost all of the diplomats present watched in amused silence as Mr. Sisi’s small entourage did the clapping in response to his chant.
becomes this assertion in Al Ahram newspaper:
Kirkpatrick pointed out that all the diplomats were in a state of silence and enjoyment throughout al-Sisi’s speech.

Saudi Arabia sentences Shia cleric to death for "sedition"

This is from Amnesty International's report on the death sentence handed down to a senior cleric from Qatif, in Saudi Arabia's eastern, oil-rich and largely Shia region. 

A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Here is a short video clip  of Sheikh Nimr, arguing for justice rather than sectarian loyalty: "You're Shia; don't oppress Sunnis. You are oppressed. If you oppress anyone, even Sunnis, Allah doesn't love you. […] The oppressed should gather together against the oppressors. El Khalifa [the ruling family in Bahrain] are oppressors, but Sunnis are not responsible for them. El Assad is an oppressor, but Shias are not responsible for him. The oppressed cannot defend oppressors."

The sheikh supported the protests that have been ongoing in the Eastern province for several years. The prosecutor in his case has asked that he be crucified. From the BBC:

Officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun battle. However, his family disputed the allegation that he resisted arrest and insisted that he did not own a weapon.
The cleric was held for eight months before being charged and reportedly spent the first four in an isolation cell at a prison hospital in Riyadh.
Activists and relatives say Sheikh Nimr, who has a wide following among Shia in Eastern Province and other states, supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
In 2011, he told the BBC that he supported "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
His arrest prompted days of protests in which three people were killed.
Human Rights Watch said more than 1,040 people had been arrested at Shia protests between February 2011 and August 2014. At least 240 are still believed to be in detention.

Hey Baghdadi!

The barbarity of the so-called Islamic State has inspired a new wave of "What is wrong with Islam?" hand-wringing. On American television it is as simplistic and disconcerting as one would expect. Muslims around the world meanwhile have predictable bristled at begin told they should immediately condemn or apologize for terrorism. 

There is a serious conversation to be had about the lack of freedom of religion and expression in Islamic countries. The richest countries in the region use oil wealth to spread a noxious, bigoted, ultimately self-destructive version of Islam. Although many Islamic scholars have condemned IS, there is very little space for open, tolerant debate on matters of religion. 

But terrorists remain on the fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. And Islamists are hardly the only ones who are illiberal in the Middle East. Discrimination against women and minorities is as rampant under "secular," military, US-backed regimes (it's not exactly hard to find in America either). Islamism and jihadism are modern, political phenomenon that have as much to do with oil wealth, despotism, and Western military interventions as they do with religion. 

I want to share this video of the Lebanese band El Rahel El Kebir ("The Great Departed"), performing in a small cabaret in Beirut, to a laughing audience, sometime in August. This jaunty song  is addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, whose claims to religious legitimacy it effortlessly demolishes.

 

The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on el-Baghdaid, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:

علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله

عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعةوالسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة

(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is "Because Islam is merciful… we'll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We'll blow folks up/Because there's no compulsion in religion/we'll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!")

It's a catchy, brave little fuck-you. The Islamic State wants to be feared, to be taken seriously, and to pass for the representative of pure Islam. The US media is all to happy to oblige. Others in the Muslim world show it the contempt it deserves. 

(Thanks to Karl Sharro for the tip). 

Help translate The Confines of the Shadow, an Italian-Libyan novel

We recently received this message, regarding an effort to crowd-fund the translation of what sounds like a fascinating series of novels set in Libya during and after the Italian colonial occupation. 

We are currently trying to raise £8,000 to underwrite the production costs of Alessandro Spina's Libyan-Italian epic The Confines of the Shadow, which will be translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely. A 1300 page multi-generational series of novels set in Benghazi, The Confines of the Shadow is a sequence that maps the transformation of Libya from a sleepy Ottoman backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1960s.

Called “the Italian Joseph Conrad” and a “20th Century Balzac” by the Italian press, Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi in 1927, and he lived in Libya for most of his life, until he was forced to leave the country during the darkest years of Gaddafi's rule. He passed away in 2013, but not before his masterpiece was awarded the Premio Bagutta in 2007, Italy's highest literary accolade.

In the run-up to our publishing Volume 1 of this epic, The Nation published Naffis-Sahely's essay 'Spina's Shadow' in their August 18-25 issue. Banipal also featured the essay on their website to help promote our fundraising effort: Who is Alessandro Spina?

As this sort of project requires extensive financing, we are asking you to help contribute to the production of the remaining two volumes. This is the link to our Indiegogo site. The pledges range from £5 to £300, and we are grateful for all of them. 

Please consider making a pledge today to help support the work of Darf Publishers. We are offering, among other perks, exclusive advance excerpts from Volume 1, a chance to put your name down for a deluxe hardcover edition of the book, as well as a limited edition of prints featuring the cover art. Once you’ve pledged, please help spread the word online.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/alessandro-spina-s-the-confines-of-the-shadow

I grew up in Italy but had never heard of Spina. I searched in vain for his books in bookstores there during a recent visit (they could be ordered but there wasn't time). After being forced to leave Libya, he lived in Italy as a comfortable recluse, entirely devoted to his writing, the friend and correspondent of several prominent Italian authors. He appears to have had a reputation but a very small audience. I don't know yet if his writing is as good as his publisher and translator claim, but I do know I'd like to find out. 

 

Egypt in TV: Sisi's UN speech, Bassem Youssef's bad manners, a women's coup

What's been on the small screen in Egypt lately, from our TV correspondent Nour Youssef. 

Egypt’s talk show hosts may have always been unethical and unprofessional, but they have never been quite this childish. It is hard to watch Ahmed Moussa giggle whenever his guests call the Qatari royal family and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan names (for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood), and not think of my fourth grade arch enemy, Khaled Picksnosealot.

Last month there were five on-air fights (followed by numerous opportunities for the analysis and re-iteration of insults). One of the fights ended with business tycoon Naguib Sawiris comparing Al Kahera Wal Nas’s Abdelrahim Ali to (who has become infamous lately for playing private telephone conversations of activists, undoubtedly leaked to him by the security services) "an annoying fly that gets into the mouths of others" and another was started by the unknown founders of a failed Tamarod-like movement who complained about not getting a share of the praise for toppling president Mohamed Morsi in a seventh grade history book.

 “(Mohamed Hassanein) Heikal is the one who made the theory that has held us back all this time!” announced Tamer Amin, who’s had enough of the reverence that the veteran political analyst and historian enjoys in the media. According to Amin, Heikal is guilty of giving the same advice to every Egyptian president: To put only those he can trust, and not those who are competent, in positions of leadership -- advice they all followed religiously, thus holding the country back. It is time to move on to younger thinkers, Amin says. Especially since “most of (Heikal)’s ’judgements and his political prophecies in the past years were wrong.” He ended this virtually unprecedented attack with a reminder that there are over 90 million Egyptians -- surely one of them can fill Heikal's shoes.

The strangest fight so far, however, was between satirist Bassem Youssef (who went into a forced retirement earlier this year when Egypt's "democratic transition" gave him more freedom of expression than he could handle) and AlQahera AlYoum’s Khaled Abu Bakr in New York. According to the latter’s side of the story (which is the whole story as far as the media is concerned), an unprovoked Youssef walked up to him to grudgingly say hello and then came back a moment later screaming obscenities and complaints about not being able to cycle on the Suez road unlike President Abdelfatah el-Sisi, whom he accused Abu Bakr and his colleagues of shamelessly shilling for. Youssef said all this in full view of women and impressionable children, every talk show from Tamer Amin to Osama Mounir took care to note. Even Mortada Mansour – a lawyer who has made a career of picking fights with public figures and threatening to publish the details of their affairs -- gasped at the idea of a man cursing in front of his wife, or worse yet, cursing the people of Egypt. (Anyone who has been to Egypt knows that the people of Egypt curse the people of Egypt all the time.)

The endless reprimands to “The Boy” (Youssef’s new derogatory nickname) also included suggestions of emigration and of revoking of his citizenship; a photo-shopped picture of him as a rabbi from Moussa and a monologue from Mounir about how Youssef will never be back on TV because Sisi is a “decent” man who won’t stand by as Youssef expands the vocabulary of innocent Egyptian women, making them prone to lewd behavior and talking back.

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