Qatar and Egypt still at odds despite GCC reconciliation

David Kirkpatrick reports in the NYT:

CAIRO — Shaking hands and kissing foreheads, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf came together this month to declare that they had resolved an 18-month feud in order to unite against their twin enemies, Iran and the Islamic State.

But the split is still festering, most visibly here in the place where it broke out over the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president. “Nothing has changed — nothing, nothing,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomacy.

. . . 

But government officials on both sides of the gulf split now acknowledge privately that Qatar scarcely budged. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates suspended their anti-Brotherhood campaign against Qatar because of the more urgent threats they saw gathering around them.

A senior Qatari official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the joint communiqué supporting Mr. Sisi’s road map was merely a “press release” that carried little significance.

“We will always support the population of Egypt,” the official said. Al Jazeera was “editorially independent,” he said, adding that the other states “should not create political issues just because a channel is broadcasting what is happening.”

Although Qatar asked some Brotherhood members to leave Doha because of their political activities, only 10 or fewer have done so, according to Brotherhood leaders and Qatari officials. “We have not asked them to leave in any way, and we have not bothered them in any way,” the official said.

So what's really happened here, then, is that the the part of the al-Saud family that was very critical of Qatar because of Egypt got overruled by the part that's more concerned about Iran and Daesh, Qatar agreed to reduce the media infighting in the Gulf and perhaps participate to some extent in Saudi Arabia's calls for greater economic and military unity, and Abu Dhabi had to accept it because Riyadh said so. But I doubt they'll even be able to keep the media wars at bay for that long, so maybe it's more simply that the Saudis are finally learning to prioritize and not pick fights with everyone at the same time.

Cairo's moral panic

On December 7, the police raided one of Cairo’s few working hammams, a run-down bathhouse in the center of the city where gay men sometimes cruised. They marched over twenty nearly naked, cowering patrons out into the street. A female reporter, Mona El Iraqi, and her investigative team instigated and filmed the raid for a program called “El Mustaghabi” (”The Hidden”). She defended her actions by saying she was trying to raise awareness on World HIV Day. The men have been subjected to anal examinations, which supposedly can determine if they are gay. They have been charged with prostitution and debauchery. 

This is just the latest, most shocking instance of what has now become the biggest crackdown in years on gay and transgender people. 

The authorities have also shut down some noisy street-side cafes in Downtown. A month after one venue was closed an official described it as an “atheists’ café,” whose customers also allegedly worshipped Satan.  Presumably said this was said to aggrandize the raid and to justify it. It also sustains a politically useful narrative about the kids hanging out Downtown — those same “revolutionary” ones — being troublemakers and worse. Some of the local media was happy to expand on the theme. A special report by El Watan about “The Street of Apostates’” in Cairo was sub-titled: “Violence and Drugs and Politics and Atheism.” Meanwhile, inviting (presumably terribly naive) atheists on TV only to yell at them, threaten them, kick them off the platform, call their mothers, or diagnose them as psychologically imbalanced remains prime entertainment. Men of religion recently got in on the act, announcing their concern over Egypt’s alleged 886 atheists (a mysteriously precise number that elicited a certain amount of skepticism and hilarity).

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In Cairo and Doha recently

Mint condition bus passes, spawning decades, owned by one obsessive-compulsive Egyptian citizen, and now by my friend and collector Amgad Naguib. 

Mint condition bus passes, spawning decades, owned by one obsessive-compulsive Egyptian citizen, and now by my friend and collector Amgad Naguib. 

In Amgad's antiquarian's shop in Downtown Cairo

In Amgad's antiquarian's shop in Downtown Cairo

One of my interviews in Doha. The first female president of Qatar University, Dr. Sheikha El Misnad

One of my interviews in Doha. The first female president of Qatar University, Dr. Sheikha El Misnad

For National Day in Qatar: special paint job and a portrait of Sheikh Tamim on the window.

For National Day in Qatar: special paint job and a portrait of Sheikh Tamim on the window.

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.