War of the CRAPs: Hirsi Ali contra Manji

This NYT piece on the relationship between Courageous Reformist Arab Personalities (CRAP) Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji seizes the non-relevance of these people to the problems of the Islamic world yet, admitting that, continues to find them enthralling. First there is this paragraph:
Yet though they are allies on one level, their approaches to Islam are strikingly different, with one working outside the religion and one within. Neither one can be considered a spokeswoman for a significant Muslim constituency in the Middle East. (Indeed, their most sympathetic audiences are probably Western.) But their differences have implications for all the big issues the West grapples with in considering the Muslim world. How much popular support do terrorists have? Is a secular Middle East possible, and what’s the best way to promote it? Is Islam itself an enemy of the West?
But then this conclusion:

Clearly, this is a debate of importance not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims as well, and for a Westerner listening in, the best way to understand it may be to translate it into the language of European history. Irshad Manji sees herself as moving Islam into the 16th century; Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants to move it into the 18th. It’s as if Luther and Voltaire were living at the same time.

Is there anything more puerile, more annoying, more navel-gazing, more incredibly stupid than comparisons between modern Islam and European Christianity? This is the New York Times: the best way to understand its approach to the Muslim world may be to translate it into the language of American television: a combination of the faux-earnestness of 1950s family comedy and the fixation on the travails of minor celebrities seen in contemporary reality shows. It's as if "Leave it to Beaver" and "American Idol" were being watched at the same time. [From Muslim Rebel Sisters: At Odds With Islam and Each Other - New York Times]
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Ammar Abdulhamid on Syria: "It's the economy, stupid"

Syrian Blogger and opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid has a very different take on prospects for change in Syria, which he says will be driven by economic factors. I would not be so optimistic (I see the same kind of thinking over Egypt's current economic crisis) because just like you can't control a country entirely through security measures, you can't make change happen entirely through economic disgruntlement, for which temporary fixes can always be found. Here's the text of his address to the US Congress:

Change in Syria is not a matter of “if� anymore, but of when, how and who. Facts and factors influencing and dictating change are already in progress and are, for the most part, the product of internal dynamics rather than external influences. Although this assertion seems to fly in the face of traditional wisdom regarding the stability of the ruling regime in Syria, the facts are clear and plainly visible for all willing to see.
 
The problem has been that most experts and policymakers have always been more concerned with high-end politics to pay any real attention to what is actually taking place on the ground. Issues such as the International Tribunal established to look into the assassination of former PM Rafic al-Hariri, Iran’s growing regional influence, the Assads’ sponsorship of Hamas, Hizbullah and certain elements in the Iraqi insurgency, escalating international pressures against the regime, and the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the regime and opposition forces continue to dominate the ongoing international debate over Syria’s present and future.
 
The dynamics of daily life, however, shaped more by inflation, unemployment, poverty, imploding infrastructure, and official corruption and mismanagement might actually be rewriting the usual scenarios in this regard. For as that old adage goes: “it’s the economy stupid!�

And Syria’s economy is indeed imploding. The lack of government response in this regard, or, to be more specific, the fact that government policies seem to be making matters worse for most Syrians, is forcing people to organize around issues of local concern, and to begin to agitate. Albeit this agitation is not yet anti-regime per se, that is, no one is yet demanding the ouster of the current president, it is indeed anti-establishment in nature, that is, it is clearly aimed against official policies, corruption, mismanagement, neglect, lies, arrogance and impunity. As such, it marks an important departure from the usual docile attitude and an important milestone on the road towards the rise of a popular grassroots movement against the Assad dictatorship, if the situation is properly managed by opposition groups.   
 
This phenomenon is still admittedly in its embryonic phase at this stage, and might take years before it produces a real challenge to the regime’s authority on the grounds; it should also be borne in mind here that this phenomenon may not automatically translate into grassroots support for any of the existing opposition movements or coalitions and might just lead, in the absence of active outreach efforts by the opposition, to the emergence of new more popular forms and figures of opposition, albeit the Damascus Declaration seems to be the one movement with the greatest popular appeal. Still, what is clear here is that the phenomenon is real and does merit observation. And, for those interested in ensuring the emergence of a “positive� democratic outcome eventually, it does merit support as well.
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Links April 23rd to April 26th

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Talking back

Yesterday several of the opposition-minded papers in Egypt ran with front-page stories about Bilal Diab, a Cairo University student who heckled Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif as the latter was delivering a speech to students about how great things were going in Egypt. I love this story, as does the Egyptian media, because it is reminiscent of other similar incidents well-known in political and activist circles, such as Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi's famous harangue to Sadat in the 1970s (they were student union politicians then) or more recently (a few years ago) leftist political commentator Muhammad Said Sayyed's osé questions about democracy to President Mubarak at the Cairo Book Fair.

Here's more about Bilal Diab:

CAIRO: “Mr. President, Mr. President, Egypt’s youth are behind bars.�
With those words Belal Diab, a 20-year-old literature student at Cairo University, interrupted Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif as he addressed the student body on campus Monday, kicking up a media storm.

“We want you to release those detained on April 6. Mr. President those are the people you were talking about who use the internet, those are the people who stood up and defended you when you were criticized at the World Economic Forum for saying Egypt is globalizing. Mr. President I want to tell you one thing, Education is zay el fol [perfect] the university is zay el fol, there is bread, there is democracy and freedom, release Egypt Mr. President, release Egypt Mr. President!� he said as students clapped passionately.

“I was provoked [by Nazif’s speech],� Diab told Daily News Egypt. “How can he talk about information technology, the internet and how the youth has to use it to express their opinions and get their voices out there when those who did exactly that are now all behind bars,� he said, referring to students who created the Facebook group promoting the April 6 strike.

“I admit that I was out of order but I had to get my voice out there, officials have to start listening to us instead of detaining us,� he said.

When Diab had completed his outburst, Nazif had turned to him and said, “I feel sarcasm and pain in your words, but I’m telling you Egypt is alright and you have to look at everything with objectivity because there are many challenges facing this country.�

“There objective reason for detaining these people is the acts of destruction they committed and there is a thin line between expressing your opinion and encouraging destruction, striking and rioting. Many want such chaos in this country but we won’t let this happen. Egypt is not a chaotic country,� continued the Prime Minister.

Diab, however, insists that he wasn’t wasn’t being sarcastic. “I was speaking passionately and my tone was serious. As for the sarcasm he was talking about who is really being sarcastic in this country, is his cabinet … those telling people that everything is fine and were are progressing,� he said.

The incident led to an abrupt halt of the lecture. Neither the Minister of Higher Education, Hany Helal, nor the President of Cairo University, Ali Abdel Rahman, gave their scheduled speeches.

As soon as Diab had ended his impassioned speech, two security guards sat behind him, but when the lecture was over and they tried to grab him they were prevented from doing so by the crowd, which saluted him for having “the guts� to speak openly.

But soon enough, the same security guards, accompanied this time by a police officer and a university professor, caught up with him. The professor asked for Diab's university ID. It was then that the guards took hold of him in front of the crowd and escourted him to the office of the head of the university’s security.

What's neat about this story, and some of the more recent similar episodes, is that you have people who are not really political activists standing up for themselves and their country. The same could be said of Esraa Abdel Fattah, the woman who is said to have started the Facebook campaign for a general strike on April 6, and who was arrested and charged with inciting unrest. Interestingly, both Diab and Abdel Fattah are young members of the al-Ghad party, the vehicle for Ayman Nour's brief but spectacular entry into national politics in 2005. Nour, you will remember, is still in jail on trumped up forgery charges as punishment for his temerity. But obviously the spirit of dissent and contestation that Nour and many others (notably Kifaya) pioneered in 2005 is still alive and well, even if those movements and parties aren't. On a completely different note: this week the pro-government magazine Rose al-Youssef had a 32-page special on Facebook, including everything from its use for activism to the different groups Egyptians have formed there (such as, apparently, "Egyptians who love Israel" and "Egyptians who love George W. Bush" as well as, of course, the many sexual opportunities a Facebook account provides. Much of this "special" is complete bullshit, but I do like the cartoons. roza.JPG
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Links for April 22nd

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Links April 21st to April 22nd

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CAMERA's war on Wikipedia and Palestinian history

From Electronic Intifada:

A pro-Israel pressure group is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.

A series of emails by members and associates of the pro-Israel group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), provided to The Electronic Intifada (EI), indicate the group is engaged in what one activist termed a "war" on Wikipedia.

A 13 March action alert signed by Gilead Ini, a "Senior Research Analyst" at CAMERA, calls for "volunteers who can work as 'editors' to ensure" that Israel-related articles on Wikipedia are "free of bias and error, and include necessary facts and context." However, subsequent communications indicate that the group not only wanted to keep the effort secret from the media, the public, and Wikipedia administrators, but that the material they intended to introduce included discredited claims that could smear Palestinians and Muslims and conceal Israel's true history.

... A veteran Wikipedia editor, known as "Zeq," who according to the emails is colluding with CAMERA, also provided advice to CAMERA volunteers on how they could disguise their agenda. In a 20 March email often in misspelled English, Zeq writes, "You don't want to be precived [sic] as a 'CAMERA' defender' on wikipedia [sic] that is for sure." One strategy to avoid that is to "edit articles at random, make friends not enemies -- we will need them later on. This is a marathon not a sprint." Zeq also identifies, in a 25 March email, another Wikipedia editor, "Jayjg," whom he views as an effective and independent pro-Israel advocate. Zeq instructs CAMERA operatives to work with and learn from Jayjg, but not to reveal the existence of their group even to him fearing "it would place him in a bind" since "[h]e is very loyal to the wikipedia [sic] system" and might object to CAMERA's underhanded tactics
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Bad writing from a long time ago

Search around Project Guttenberg, the excellent repository of free ebooks, and you're bound to find dozens of books that in some way have to do with Egypt. One thing most of these have in common -- particularly those from the 19th and early 20th century, when the Victorian fad was to write travel diaries -- is that they are mostly dreadfully dull. They also appear to be written by the same person who writes the scripts for the sound and light show at the Pyramids (O Nile, Father of Time...) Here's one I found today, The Spell of Egypt by Robert Smythe Hichens (otherwise a relatively capable early fantastic/mystery writer). These are the first two paragraphs:
Why do you come to Egypt? Do you come to gain a dream, or to regain lost dreams of old; to gild your life with the drowsy gold of romance, to lose a creeping sorrow, to forget that too many of your hours are sullen, grey, bereft? What do you wish of Egypt? The Sphinx will not ask you, will not care. The Pyramids, lifting their unnumbered stones to the clear and wonderful skies, have held, still hold, their secrets; but they do not seek for yours. The terrific temples, the hot, mysterious tombs, odorous of the dead desires of men, crouching in and under the immeasurable sands, will muck you with their brooding silence, with their dim and sombre repose. The brown children of the Nile, the toilers who sing their antique songs by the shadoof and the sakieh, the dragomans, the smiling goblin merchants, the Bedouins who lead your camel into the pale recesses of the dunes—these will not trouble themselves about your deep desires, your perhaps yearning hunger of the heart and the imagination.
Yikes!
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Links April 18th to April 20th

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Links April 16th to April 17th

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London Palestine Film Festival

The Guardian writes on the occasion of the London Palestine Film Festival:
Perhaps Palestinian cinema cannot help but be ironic, when the most widely known cinematic images of Palestine are those that close Otto Preminger's 1960 film Exodus and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. In Exodus, youthful Israeli forces win a decisive battle against the old-world savagery of Britain and Nazi Germany, before turning to fight the encroaching Arabs. In the Spielberg film, Holocaust survivors walk across a plain with Jerusalem in the background: a landscape that, given the location, can only be the Bethlehem wilderness. While Exodus reduces the life of the cities of pre-Israel Palestine to an image of marauding savages, Spielberg erases the local population entirely. These Hollywood histories depend upon their directors' bullish confidence; Palestinian cinema, in contrast, is characterised by doubt and self-reflection.
This site appears to be the official home of the festival, which is held at SOAS and the Barbican.
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Stacher report on Egyptian Muslim Brothers

Former Arabist contributor to the blog and all-around smart guy Josh Stacher has penned a report on Egypt's Muslim Brothers for the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research:
Within and between western governments, a heated policy debate is raging over the question of whether or not to engage with the world’s oldest and most influential political Islamist group: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While British analysts have suggested that engagement with the Brotherhood could provide a valuable opportunity for challenging their perceptions of the West, the Bush administration has been far less open to the idea, arguing that it would be inappropriate to enter into formal ties with a group that is not legally recognised by the Egyptian government. This paper offers the following recommendations for western governments in regard to their specific relations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: 1. Western policymakers should press the Egyptian government more firmly on its political reform commitments, and should be more consistent in their criticism when opposition figures, including Islamists, are the arbitrary targets of state repression 2. Representatives of western governments should seek more opportunities for dialogue with political opposition groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood
I think this report -- of the many on the group -- perhaps most clearly advocates a policy of engagement by Western states towards the MBs, reflecting Josh's long-held conviction that it's worth talking to the Brothers. And since it's put out by a British institution, it's framed in the introduction by the controversy over the Foreign Office hesitant policy about reaching out to Islamist groups in the region. There's a lot of interesting stuff there, even if you're Ikhwanophobic.
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Links April 15th to April 16th

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London Book Fair and Arab literature

The London Book Fair, which this year shines a spotlight on Arab literature, ends tomorrow. Here are selected links to related stories: ✯ PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED - On religion and censorship for Egypt's independent publishing houses. ✯ Pigs raid Sharqawi’s publishing house; confiscate books خنازير الداخلية تداهم دار ملامح للنشر وتصادر كتب at 3arabawy - Hossam reports that blogger M. Sharqawi's publishing house, which puts out among other the graphic novel Metro, was raided. ✯ Authors and critics on arabic literature | Review | guardian.co.uk Books - Ahmed Alaidy, Roger Allen, Amani Amin, Alaa al-Aswaany, Mourid Barghouti, Sulayman al-Bassam, Feisal al-Darraj, Sabry Hafez, Hala Halim, Denys Johnson-Davies, Hisham Matar, Amjad Nasser, Hanan al-Shaykah, Adania Shibli, Bahaa Taher, Hind Wassef, and Nabil Yassin on the state of Arab literature. ✯ British Council - New Arabic Books - Program to translate Arabic books ✯ Books | Cairo's greatest literary secret - Profile of Bahaa Taher ✯ Is the Arab world ready for a literary revolution? - Features, Books - The Independent - Essay piece from the Hay Alhambra lit festival ✯ Arab book world challenges | theBookseller.com - Amr Moussa promises "decade of education" to encourage literature. ✯ Arcadia and Haus launch Arab imprint | theBookseller.com - London publishers launch project to publish Arabic lit in translation.
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Hillary Clinton on Israel

From Hillary Clinton's website, her position on the two-state solution:
Hillary Clinton believes that Israel’s right to exist in safety as a Jewish state, with defensible borders and an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, secure from violence and terrorism, must never be questioned.
The fact that the Clintons, after George W. Bush, are the worse thing that happened to US foreign policy in the Middle East must never be questioned.
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25 senior MBs sentenced 3-10 years by military tribunal

Just in from Reuters: EGYPTIAN MILITARY COURT HANDS JAIL TERMS TO 25 FROM MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, ACQUITS 15 - BROTHERHOOD LAWYER Ikhwanonline has special front page for occasion. Some background in English from Ikhwanweb at "Final Session of MB Military Tribunal today" and "Journalists and MB Supporters Harrassed Prior to Military Verdict" Pending detail of who got what sentence, what many will be looking for is what the bigshots -- Khairat al-Shater, Hassan Malek, Muhammad Bishr and others -- got. Reuters says Khairat al-Shater is among those convicted, which is as expected. I am surprised at the 10-year sentence, most had been expecting sentences of 3-5 years, although it is not clear which charges were actually applied in the end. MB lawyer Abdel Moneim Maksoud is awaiting full details of verdict. AFP says there is no right of appeal to verdict, but I am not so sure, didn't Mubarak last year ask for the creation of a military appeals court? AFP reports Hassan Malek and Khairat al-Shater got 7 years each - definitely worse than expected. Seven members tried in absentia got the maximum 10 years, and 16 others received sentences of between 18 months (which is the amount of time that has elapsed, more or less, since the original arrests in late 2006 and early 2007) and five years. With Malek and al-Shater likely to serve their full 7-year sentence, the immediate questions will be 1) how does their sentence affect the MB's fundraising ability, since these are two of the wealthiest members who own a variety of IT and engineering companies, among other things; 2) what does it mean for the succession of the General Guide, since al-Shater was a favorite to head the MB (and for some was already a de facto leader) after current guide Mahdi Akef, 80, should step down in the next few years? Also, who will fill al-Shater and Malek's positions in the organization as well as in the Guidance Bureau? Full list of who got what [Arabic]. Ikhwanweb has a summary in English. AFP also has a write-up. Also, I can confirm that this verdict is appealable according to a law passed in mid-April 2007 that introduces appeals for the court, despite reports to the contrary. The appeal may provide another opportunity for negotiation between the MB and the regime, but is also potentially risky: a new verdict could be worse, particularly considering the uncertainty of the set(s) of charges against the defendants. Hmmm I can imagine the press will have fun with the fact that the other verdict of the day exonerates a NDP bigwig in the worst public health scandal of last year. AP report here, Akef reacts with typical vim:
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's supreme leader, slammed the verdict, describing Egyptian authorities as "corrupt" and a "bunch of gangsters." Akef said there was "no evidence" against them and that he had "expected the court to acquit them all."
(The above post has been updated continuously -- newest paragraphs at the bottom)
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Links April 13th to April 14th

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Links April 11th to April 13th

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