Briant Whitaker has been doing an extraordinary job covering the story of hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers expelled from Saudi Arabia due to a change in labour laws there. You can check out all his posts here. Recently he explained why he thinks this is such an important story:
For the last month or so, as regular readers will know, I have been following the story of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrants. I have spent hours gathering information from open sources in an effort to get a clear picture of what is happening – and this is my fourteenth blog post on the subject in the space of four weeks.
To some this might seem excessive or even obsessive but it's an important story that international media – and especially western media – have largely failed to notice.
It's a story that deeply affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the world's poorer countries, who have been living and working in the kingdom – as well as countless relatives back home who have been depending on their remittances.
It's a story that heralds fundamental social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia itself, possibly leading to political changes too.
It's a story that also affects other Arab Gulf states, since they have all become heavily dependent on foreign labour – basically relying on those they regard as inferior beings to do dirty, menial or dangerous tasks from constructing their buildings, driving their cars, cooking their meals, cleaning up their mess and preparing their dead for burial. Many of these people work in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery.
A guest post from contributor Parastou Hassouri, who lives in Cairo, works in the field of international refugee law, and specializes in issues of gender and migration.
On Wednesday night, the report The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, was launched in Cairo (it was launched simultaneously in several other cities including Tel Aviv, Brussels, and Lampedusa). The 238-page report is based on interviews with 230 trafficking survivors: persons who survived the hellish ordeal of being kidnapped, held hostage and tortured brutally in the Sinai. It is a follow-up to a 2012 report, Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death.
I was first alerted to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking in the Sinai around 2007. At the time, I was working at the NGO Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA). The issue most often came up when we had to assist those who had been apprehended trying to reach the Sinai (and would be detained by Egyptian authorities, even if they were registered with the UNHCR as refugees). Back then, most of the cases we dealt with involved refugees who were voluntarily crossing the Sinai in hopes of reaching Israel, where they expected to find more work opportunities and perhaps an easier way of reaching Europe. Our biggest concern was the fact that Egyptian authorities in the Sinai were using lethal force to stop this “irregular migration,” which had resulted in numerous fatalities. There was a belief, at the time, that the Egyptian authorities were only responding to pressure being placed upon them by Israelis to stem the flow of migrants. I remember spending a lot of time advising clients against making the journey, telling them the risks were not worth it (especially as so many of them faced detention once in Israel anyway).
Over the course of months, we started to hear about situations involving hostage taking: that the smugglers who had promised to take the refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants to the Sinai would inform them mid-trip that they were being kept hostage until they could pay them more money than initially demanded. However, the situation was one that still started out “voluntarily”: the migrants were choosing to undertake the journey, despite the risks. The numbers choosing this route seemed to increase as the number of refugees being resettled to third countries (i.e. the U.S. and Canada) declined (this started during a period when the resettlement of Iraqis had taken priority for political reasons).The people going were from different countries: Sudan, Ethiopia, and often Eritrea. I once assisted two men from the Ivory Coast who had been detained after being abandoned by their smuggler, when he realized he had no chance of getting more money out of them. Looking at the turn things have taken, those men are lucky they lived.Read More
A semi-regular features from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.
It is now generally inadvisable to involve religion in politics in Egypt, unless you limit it to condemning involving religion in politics. This is especially true if you are just looking for a hadith that recommends the murder of your political opponents.
But ONtv presenter Youssef el-Husseiny has too much testosterone to care. Earlier this week, in an effort to see how much the Brothers like Sharia now, Husseiny told us a story about the Prophet and the Jews of Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa, which he argued gives the authorities the religious right to kill all Brothers that hit puberty.
Those Jews, Husseiny tells us, used to gloat over the misfortunes of the Muslims (just like the MB celebrated their fellow Egyptian Muslims' embarrassing football defeat) and broke the medina charter by collaborating with Quraysh, if only in spirit, against the Muslims in their unsuccessful siege of el-Medina during the Battle of the Trench. After the Muslims won, the Prophet, he says, asked his wounded companion Sa’d ibn Mo’ez what to do with the treacherous Jews, and Sa’d suggested the mass murder of all the post-pubescent males of the said tribes, or at least everyone capable of fighting. Given that it was a time of war, the Prophet followed Sa’d’s advice.
Moral of the story is: The Brothers are like the Jews of Nadir, we are in a time of war and they want Sharia, right? [Smile] They do realize Sharia would see them killed? Perhaps they want to disagree with Sharia and -- God forbid -- claim to know better than Sa’d, the Prophet [pause and smile some more] and Allah!Read More
The highlights of the last week include:
1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.
2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?"
3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment.
4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared.
According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks.Read More
Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog:
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?
A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.
A taste of the kind of venomous, scurrilous attacks being launched all over the Egyptian media against the young people who made January 25, 2011 happen. This latest installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the excellent translation service Industry Arabic.
Characteristics of an Egyptian Activist, by Dandrawy Elhawary, November 23, El Youm El Sabaa
Political activists in Egypt vary according to gender. The male activist is unemployed, soft and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled, and he wears a bracelet and a Palestinian keffiyeh. He has a Twitter account, a Facebok page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions. He repeats slogans calling for a non-religious state, attacking heavenly religions and accusing them of being backwards and reactionary, and he defends the rights of sexual deviants.
On the other hand, the female activist takes on the male role -- she "mans up." She listens to the songs of Sheikh Imam and the lewd poetry of Fouad Haggag and Naguib Sorour. She "likes" all the pages that use foul language and puts pictures of the great revolutionary Che Guevara on her Facebook and Twitter profiles.
Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:
Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.
Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.
I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].
- Veritas Egypt
Bernard Kouchner attending what appears to be a pro-coup conference.
The latest in pseudo-NGO astroturf
- Questions on Drone Strike Find Only Silence - NYTimes.com
- Floundering in a mire of its own creation, the Saudi government is incapable of reform
- Why Egypt’s Army Is Bad At Doing Business
- Qaradawi’s War for Egypt
By WINEP mufti David Schenker - good example of Lobby/Gulf shared interests.
- forced to walk through sewage | In Gaza
Life in the Strip keeps getting worse.
From a piece just published on the LRB blog:
The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.
On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’
On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.
Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers.
Ahmad Abdalla’s third feature film, “Rags and Tatters,” follows an unnamed convict who escapes from prison sometime during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak -- or rather is allowed to escape from prison: Some jails were allegedly opened at that time by the Ministry of Interior itself, in an attempt to foment chaos.
The man, played by Asser Yassin, is a sympathetic everyman, with dark and feeling eyes. He needs to be someone we like to look at, because his quiet, registering face is the focus of the film. As if tired of all the talk of the last two and half years -- of all the words that have been worn thin -- Abdalla has written a film with almost no dialogue. Actors’ conversations are often inaudible, no higher then a mumble. What exchanges we do hear are the most basic everyday stuff: “Cup of tea,” “God bless you.” When a young would-be revolutionary harangues his friends in the neighborhood about the need to go to Tahrir, a nearby motorcycle engine drowns out his words. The only music are some beautiful Sufi songs: unaccompanied male voices singing of holy love and yearning.
The movie is also unusual for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. It never portrays the protests in Tahrir. Instead, it is set in the streets and homes of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. It does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme deprivation, on their crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker.
Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” was a study of stasis, a day in the life of characters who go nowhere: a police conscript stranded in his guard post; and engaged couple stuck in traffic; a young man who dreams idly of emigrating. His follow-up, “Microphone,” which focused on the underground music scene in Alexandria, was seemingly quite different, full of kinetic energy. But all the eager young voices in the film still faced the stagnation and repression of Mubarak’s Egypt, and couldn't figure out how to make themselves heard.
This movie is Abdalla’s darkest and most powerful. It shares with his previous work a penchant for naturalistic acting; an under-stated social and political engagement; and an ambitious, creatively uncompromising vision.
This movie is like an inoculation against official propaganda and romanticization of the January 25 uprising. In the Q&A after the film Abdalla corrected someone who introduced “Rags and Tatters” as a “revolutionary” film. “This film isn’t about the revolution,” he said. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under.” It will only be showing in Cairo for one week, starting today.
On this podcast, journalists Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil speak to Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson about the greatest threats to human rights across the region, and about how to defend human rights in the midst of Egypt's "war on terrorism" and its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
One minute of video -- courtesy Mosireen -- sums it all up: the lame attempt to give the anniversary of clashes between protesters and police a disingenuous official veneer, and the inevitable reaction.
I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro:
Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.
Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.
As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.
Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.
Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.
"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.
As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?
Last week, Thomson-Reuters put out an annual poll ranking women's rights in various Middle Eastern countries. The surprise this year: Egypt was ranked the worst country in the region (followed by Iraq and Saudia Arabia) and the Comoros Islands were ranked the best (followed by Oman and Kuwait).
The methodology of this poll is very odd. It consists in asking anonymous gender experts from the region to "respond to statements and rate the importance of factors affecting women's rights across the six categories." (The categories are: violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards a woman’s role in politics and the economy.) The experts' responses "were converted into scores, which were averaged to create a ranking." So the poll isn't based on any analysis of data or legislation; it measures how 336 unidentified gender experts feel about women's rights. In which case, I'm not surprised Egypt came out on top this year: it's a reflection of the extreme disappointment and indignation over women's exclusion from the political process, their lack of security, their targeting for terrible sexual violence in the middle of street protests. It also probably reflects the preoccupation of women-right's advocates over the rise of Islamist political groups that clearly did not believe in gender equality.
What facts the report then quotes to contextualize or bolster its ranking are often wrong. Women in Tunisia were shocked to be told, incorrectly, that poligamy is legal and abortion is prohibited in their country (it's the exact opposite). With regards to Egypt, the report mentions "a rollback of legal rights since the 2011 revolution." Which rights would those be? Islamists may have wanted to revoke khula' divorce or lower the age of marriage, but they fact is they didn't. The only thing I am aware of is the language of the Islamist constitution, which enjoined the state to help women balance between work and their family obligations (a balance men were not tasked with finding).
A new occasional feature from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.
Earlier this week on Al-Nahar TV, political activist Ahmed Harara, who lost his vision to police rubber bullets in protests, became perhaps the first non-Islamist to openly attack Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military.
After making Mahmoud Saad read the names and ages of all those who died in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, he briefly explained to Saad why El-Sisi's army is no different from Tantawi’s. First, el-Sisi was a member of the hated Field Marshal Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that injured and killed protesters -- he justified the virginity tests and had Tantawi seated next to him in the Oct. 6 celebration last month.
Calmly, Harara moved on to note the militarization of the state, mentioning the general secretary of the cabinet who is an army general and the 17 new governors as an example. Even the police general, Samy Sedhom -- the man who called in on Al-hayah TV to clarify that the police forces in Mohamed Mahmoud only had plastic shields to injure the outlaws posing as activists, and conveniently lost phone reception when asked to explain the number of eye injuries that occurred -- is now the deputy governor of Sharqiya. (It is worth noting that his retirement age was reportedly extended and he was promoted to head the Supreme Council of the Police under Morsi.)
“[The military and the police] who still arrest and torture people till now...they are going to make the memorial service for the people they killed?” Harara asked. “Do they want to provoke us so we would go down to the streets for them to kill us?”Read More
My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show").
When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.
Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.
That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.
You can read the rest here.