The Syrian Trauma

 

    

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

Dissidence and Deference Among Egyptian Judges

For Egypt judiciary nerds (you know who you are), this article by Mona El Ghobashy for Middle East Report is just such a great read that weaves so many threads together, I have to link to it again. Money quote:

It is tempting to dismiss pro-government judges as lackeys of military rulers, automatons who move only at the behest of the de facto center of power. The reality is far more troubling. Many judges are active, self-willed architects of an expanded regime of legal exception and legal repression.

. . .

There have always been judges who see their role as applying, not checking, punitive laws. The zeal with which these judges and prosecutors are expanding the infrastructure of legal repression and resuscitating Mubarak’s paradigm of permanent emergency suggests that political dissidence is not their only target. A broader pacification of the population seems to be the goal, to punish the rampant disobedience and disrespect for authority that ruling elites remember as the revolution. Commenting on an avalanche of summary expulsions of students from universities, an administrative court judge said, “The reasons behind the expulsions [nowadays] weren’t there during Mubarak’s time. There wasn’t a revolution during Mubarak’s time.”

Sisi plagiarized his "spare change" idea

There has been much hullabaloo in the last couple of days about Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi's idea that transactions in Egypt's banking system should be rounded off to the nearest pound, with the "spare change" (i. e. whatever is left in piasters) donated to the government to, you know, pay for stuff.

Sure, the idea seems like a silly back-of-the-enveloppe calculation that an out-of-his-depth ruler has casually come up with because he has no economic vision for his country beyond a general sense that people are not sacrificing enough and that there should be more prestigious mega-projects run by the army. Yes, he could be clutching at straws because, while Egypt was in pretty dire straits when he took over in 2013, he has not improved economic fundamentals nor set the country on a path to reform

Of course, I'm not an economist, so all these assessment could be wrong and Sisi may actually be doing brilliantly. Who knows. The only thing I'd like is for Sisi to acknowledge where he got his idea from: 1999's cult comedy Office Space, in which disgruntled employees scam their company's credit union by introducing a virus into the computer system to syphon off fractional remainders of pennies from transactions. This shows he has better taste in movies than I thought, but, come on – credit where credit is due.

(By the way, anyone seen the printer at the presidency lately?)

Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Links 18-27 September 2016

The new issue of Middle East Report is out, and it features some great pieces by old friends, including Mona El-Ghobashy on Egypt's judges and Joshua Stacher on Hebron. And don't miss editor Chris Toensing's editorial on the absurd $38 billion President Obama decided to give Israel – a country whose leaders have tried to serially humiliate him – as a parting gift.

MER and its parent organization MERIP are subscriber-funded. Get a subscription and keep them producing great reporting and analysis on the region. 

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In Translation: Egypt's sorrowful class

Among all the many painful things Egypt has gone through in recent years – state violence, terrorism, oppression, a bitter political closing after the opening of 2011 – it may be the economic situation that is most sorely felt by the most people. The Sisi regime's grandiose plans – a new capital city, an expanded Suez Canal – are either in mothballs or have failed to deliver much-needed new revenue so far. The military is taking control of an increasing chunk of the economy, squeezing out the private sector that has driven much of the past 30 years of job and wealth creation (however skewed) and not doing much for the non-military public sector. (It's even creating its own private schools!) The chief victim of these policies, especially the ongoing devaluation of the Egyptian pound, is probably the middle class (because the poor are both less exposed to their impact as many subsistence goods are subsidized and because Sisi done more, even if it's not enough, on poverty alleviation and targeting the poorest in the country through cash handout programs and other measures).

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of writing in the Egyptian press about the struggling middle class – perhaps because it's back to school time, a moment in the year where families feel particularly pinched (especially if you want to avoid sending your kids to public school.) Tareq Hassan's column below is one of the better examples of this trend, which is so politically significant in the medium term to the Sisi regime. Defining the middle class is hard in terms of income (there are multiple layers), and one element of it is more about aspirations and class outlook than pure financials. In Egypt, I would argue there are three middle classes: the private sector middle class (currently losing out), the public sector middle class (stagnating) and the military middle class (accumulating privilege). They are not hermetically sealed from one another, but it does represent a shift, even reversal, of the trends of the Mubarak era.   

We are grateful to our pals at Industry Arabic for making this In Translation series possible. Check them out if you need to translate your professional documents from the language of the ض.

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Bidoun #25 in Arabic

Our friends at Bidoun write:

This issue of Bidoun was assembled in Cairo between March and April of 2011. It remains, if nothing else, a true record of an uncertainty — so rare that even those who experienced it can hardly imagine it today.
We're making this Arabic-language version available more than five years later. We had originally hoped to launch it in Egypt, but the moment wasn’t right. We’re still waiting.

Get it here.

In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October,  and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

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Links 13-31 August 2016

Links 1-8 August 2016

In Translation: Egypt's foundering economy

Last month, the Egyptian pound reached EGP13 to the US dollar for the first time, highlighting the massive stresses on the Egyptian economy and the inevitability of a further devaluation (long expected by the markets) despite the Central Bank of Egypt’s efforts to have controlled re-evaluation of the pound. Also last week, Egypt announced that it was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement for as much as $12 billion in loans (which will of course come with policy conditions) from the IMF. Yesterday, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi warned that austerity measures are coming. All of this points to the continuing fall of the purchasing power of average Egyptians, from the poorest segment of the population (only partly sheltered by price controls on basic goods) to the middle class (perhaps the most dramatically affected). 

These developments have appointed once pro-Sisi commentators to lash out. Like many once pro-establishment Egyptians I have met in the last year, it is not so much that they blame Sisi for the alarming economic condition of the country (that after all is a long-term trend) but his lack of vision for the economy and indulgence in wasteful prestige projects and the lack of transparency with what is being done with money raised from the Egyptian public and foreign backers. In the piece below, the Nasserist columnist Abdullah al-Senawi (who in 2013-14 was said to have Sisi’s ears and was a major supporter from the “nationalist left” through his TV show and writings) skewers the Sisi regime for his and more, predicting that such poor economic stewardship may very well spell its downfall.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for the translation. Do check them out for your Arabic translation needs - we’re very happy with them, and the New York Times recently used them to translate an excellent piece on Saudi Arabia by our friend Ben Hubbard.

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In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup

In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.

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Links 1 June - 14 July 2016

Sorry, we've been on holiday.

In Translation: Of Egypt, Qatar, and Libya

I am quite late in posting the translation below, which was published in May soon after the Vienna ministerial meeting on Libya in which Western powers announced that they were prepared to put in place an exemption to the arms embargo to provide weapons and training to the fledging Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj. The piece below is interesting, as an op-ed by a newspaper that while London-based is funded by Qatar. It signals the continuing exasperation in Doha with Egypt’s foreign policy, a precursor to this week’s diplomatic spat follow the sentencing of deposed President Mohammed Morsi on charges of having spied for Qatar. And, some might say, the odd kind-of-proxy war between the Egypt/UAE-backed Haftar forces and those Islamist forces in Libya closer to Qatar (who once again clashed in recent days.)

As always we bring you this translation through our partners at Industry Arabic, a professional translation service that specializes in Arabic documents of all kinds. If you or your company has an Arabic translation need, please check them out and tell them The Arabist sent you.


Cairo Uses Haftar to Prevent Libyan Reconciliation
Editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 19 May 2016

The Libyan crisis has witnessed a new development: The United States and the countries of the European Union have announced that they are prepared to arm the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, the option of direct Western military intervention has receded (despite the presence of American and European special forces on Libyan territory). After the GNA took over most ministry headquarters, it announced the names of its ministers. Then, forces loyal to this government began to clash with “Islamic State” forces—the main point of focus for Western powers—and to retake areas, checkpoints and border posts. The major difficulty that the GNA faces, though, is approval of its legitimacy by the recognized Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Despite a majority of representatives agreeing to this, having signed statements and announcing their explicit desire to recognize the GNA, the House of Representatives continues to refrain from doing so, for reasons that are quite clear.

The matter is related, of course, to the military control that the Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, enjoys over the eastern region of Libya, where the House of Representatives is located. From a regional perspective, it is also related to approval by the authorities in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—the actual sponsors of General Haftar—of the international plan to move from civil war to reconciliation.
In a recent statement made by General Haftar to a Libyan television channel, he said, “It is unheard of for a government to be established during a time of terrorism.” He means by this, of course, the GNA. He further stated that he “has nothing to do with political dialogue” and that what he is interested in is “imposing security and stability and ridding Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he argued that “democracy will come to pass over the generations,” but that he believes in it because he experienced it for 25 years in the West! Haftar’s statements contradict one another and undermine any credibility he has.

Collectively, his statements clearly express his enormous disdain for his supposed partners in Libya in his rejection of political dialogue and his acknowledgement of only one solution, the one that he imposes with his military forces and that eliminates the Muslim Brotherhood. After he establishes security and stability, he sees nothing wrong with promising Libyans (or those that are left) with democracy, which “he alone knows because he lived for 25 years in the West,” but in the generations to come!

In their cartoonishness, these statements made by General Haftar do not diverge from those of another general, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This is the man in whose footsteps Haftar had hoped—and continues to hope—to follow in moving from military control on the ground and over the government and the House of Representatives to the Libyan presidency. This has eluded him, however, for the simple reason that Libya is not Egypt and because the éradicateur solution did not work. This is what pushed the United Nations and the international community, in the end, to resort to the current compromise scenario.

Support for the Haftar option for Libya has led, in practice, to significant tragedies inflicted on the Libyan state and society. This has strengthened the hardline Salafist movement, as represented by the Islamic State. Furthermore, it has contributed to destabilizing the security of countries both close by and in Europe and to enabling gangs of smugglers to traffic across the Mediterranean those seeking refuge in Europe.
The only reason for this option to remain active on the Libyan scene is that its collapse would reveal the absurdity of the Egyptian model on which it was founded – something that Cairo is trying to postpone as much as possible.

J.M. Coetzee in Palestine

Nobel Literature Prize winner J.M. Coetzee spoke in Ramallah recently as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an event I cannot recommend following and (if you are as lucky as I was a few years ago) participating in enough.  

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links 11-30 May 2016

Free Ahmed Naji

Today is an international blogging day on behalf of imprisoned Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who has unfortunately become the latest poster child for the ruthless, petty and seemingly endless crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. Jailed on charges of offending public morals for a few scenes featuring drugs and sex in his novel "The Use of Life," Naji has just received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

The blog Arabic Literature in English is the place to start to read abut Naji's case and the solidarity efforts on his behalf. I interviewed him several times for an article on writers in Cairo published in The Nation a few months back and was as shocked as everyone else by his conviction. 

Here is a link to the offending chapter -- simply a rather charming description of a weekend spent partying with friends and lovers, in that most difficult of cities, Cairo -- in Arabic.  There are also excellent English and French translations available, and I strongly recommend reading them. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On US aid and human rights in Egypt

For Forbes, Charles Tiefer on some of the main points in a US Government Accountability Office on how the Defense and State Dept. have gone around laws placing restrictions on US aid to Egypt:

The report is a major exploration (77 concentrated pages) of how the U.S. State (and Defense) departments turn a blind eye to measures like, most recently, el-Sisi’s current brutal crackdown which includes recent massive arrests of peaceful protesters, long prison terms for demonstrators, smashing of human rights groups and jailing their attorneys, and the infamous covering-up at the highest levels of the torture-murder of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni.

Throughout the world, U.S. law requires its basic law of aid – known as the “Leahy Law” – that forbids aid to those with credible evidence of human rights abuses.  The GAO studied (for 2011-2015 with aid of roughly $1.3 billion aid to Egypt annually) the workings in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo of the U.S.’s worldwide (for relevant aid receivers) database of rights abusers.  The abuser database did, occasionally, flash red lights about units like the Ministry of the Interior, and, the Cairo police.  There were even infrequent occasions (in Morsi’s time) that the State Department did its job and created barriers or “tensions” about aid going to some abusive Egyptian officials and security units.

But, then, the U.S. system has used many ways, the GAO report showed, to condone the Egyptian government despite abuses.  First, it simply allows Egypt to get away with not responding to questions.  “In a postshipment check involving the transfer of riot control items, such as rubber ball cartridges and smoke grenades, to the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, the Egyptian government did not respond to a [State Department] question . . . . [Yet]  State closed [this] . . . as favorable.”  “Riot control” sounds like el-Sisi’s version of crushing the demonstrations — what observers reported as peaceful protest.

Second, State was slightly tougher on the Morsi regime ending in 2013, but seems fully to condone the worse abuses of the el-Sisi regime.  The GAO closely analyzed statistical evidence of the vetting of security forces that got coveted U.S.-funded training.  While overall “State rejected” in 2011-2015 “less than 1 percent of the total cases vetted,” the figures for el-Sisi’s time were even more condoning – the State Department “has not rejected any cases since fiscal year 2013, including no cases since the removal of President Morsi in July 2013. (Pages 37-38)”  No cases?  At all? Is this the same Egypt of el-Sisi that is constantly castigated by international human rights groups, and has outraged all Europe by the Regeni matter?

By the way, in what might be deemed the cover-up in Washington of the cover-up in Egypt, State gagged the GAO about telling how bad State was in its delinquency in vetting.  These figures were key to GAO’s blunt conclusion: ‘State and DOD [Defense] are not in compliance with their policies regarding human rights vetting (page 38).”  State gagged GAO this way:  “State deemed our [GAO] estimate of the percentage of Egyptian security forces that were not vetted . . . to be sensitive but unclassified information.  We therefore omitted that information from this report. (page 38)”

You can read the whole GAO report here.