The case of Sami al-Hajj

I've been traveling for the last few days and have not been able to blog much. Here's a contribution to the blog by Arabist reader Paul Mutter, on the case of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj. Normal activities will resume next week. 

Sami al-Hajj, Al Jazeera Cameraman Held at Guantanamo Bay for Six Years, Detained over His “Intelligence Value” as an Al Jazeera Employee

By Paul Mutter

April 25, 2011


(Photo © Al Jazeera English, 2008)

Sami al-Hajj (pictured), a 42year old Sudanese man, was an Al Jazeera journalist detained by Pakistani authorities on December 15, 2001 when he and a colleague attempted to leave Afghanistan. The Pakistanis then turned him over to U.S. forces as a suspected “enemy combatant.”

He was eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he arrived on June 14, 2002. He then spent the next six years there, until he was cleared of all charges in 2008.

Al-Hajj was considered an “enemy combatant” whose “access to senior terrorist leaders demonstrates his probable connections to the al-Qaida network and other militant jihadist organizations . . . . Detainee is a member of al-Qaida who is an expert in logistics with direct ties to al-Qaida leadership.”

However, new evidence has come to light that shows the U.S. government hoped to use al-Hajj as a source of intelligence, perhaps even an informant, on Al Jazeera’s work, either to spy on the network’s operations, or to track down Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.

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The Alex fallacy: blaming Islamists for demography

Foreign Policy runs a series of photos of Alexandrian beaches in 1959, "when Alexandria was once Club Med." But, "by the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam." Except in fact, Alexandria today is probably Club Meddier than it ever was. The only difference between then and now is that while in the 1950s, the party scene was east of the inner harbor (and was then mostly restricted to non-Muslim minority communities), the last time I went out carousing in Alex the party scene was west of the inner harbor, in Agami, and Muslims were fully represented among the scantily-clad, Heineken-drinking gilded shabab.
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Links 21-23 April 2011

I just read Mohammed ElBaradei's new book, which comes out in a few days and contains some pointed broadsides against the Bush-Cheney administrations, including a scene in which Dick Cheney threatens to launch a campaign of discreditation against ElBaradei if he does not play ball on Iraq. (He didn't — and they tried to discredit him). The book is all about nuclear diplomacy — not on his experience since he came back to Egypt — but shows the portrait of a man deeply respectful of national sovereignty, international law, and diplomacy. And at times he is quietly scathing about US policies to undermine these. (A full review will be out soon.)

There won't be a lot of links for the next or so as I'll be traveling.


The de facto Saudi-Israel alliance

You know something is weird is taking place when you see the following.

And in Ynet:

Op-ed: Israel, Saudi Arabia should form alliance of necessity vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear threat

Shoula Romano Horing

Finally, Saudi Arabia and Israel have common ground for establishing a temporary strategic alliance, similar to the one that existed during World War II between the Soviet Union and United States against the Nazi regime.

Both countries mistrust President Barack Obama as a reliable ally and fear the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

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Lions, foxes or donkeys of the desert?

I love this Photoshopped image (grabbed from Lion of the Desert?) from this week's Economist. We are entering the "Oh my god what have we signed up for?" stage of of the Libya war, after February and March's hope that Qadhafi was a low-hanging fruit and that he would fall just like Ben Ali and Mubarak did. I am still conflicted, somewhere between Anthony Cordesman (finish the job) and Helena Cobban (never should have gone in the first place). Both come, of course, from a point of view critical of liberal (or neocon) interventionism, although for different reasons. So does Steve Walt. The other question in my mind is about whether early French (followed by other Western) support for the rebels emboldened them to fight a war they couldn't win, relying on help from abroad, and now puts them in a position where they will not negotiate.

The Economist makes the case for more involvement, esp. US, and that Misurata is crucial to the rebels:

Apart from the humanitarian crisis in Misrata, the city—the country’s third largest with a population of more than 500,000 and an important port—is strategically vital. As long as it holds out, it prevents Colonel Qaddafi from imposing a de facto partition between west and east and provides encouragement to the opposition in other western towns, such as Zintan and Zawiya, and even in those parts of Tripoli, the capital, that briefly rose up in the early days of the revolution.

Tough questions all. But I love the way Sarkozy looks on this pic — like Louis de Funes.

New political parties/forces in Egypt

I'm traveling right now (in Saudi Arabia--more on that later) and I forgot to link to the story I did earlier this week for The World, looking at some new political force and parties emerging in Egypt now. The list is long these days, but I spoke with El Wasat -- a moderate offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which has actually been trying to get approved as a party for 15 years. Because its case was in court during the revolution, and a judge ruled it its favour immediately after, it is actually the first new licensed party in the country. The Brotherhood is also forming a party, of course, as are young Islamists affiliated with it but who are more liberal than the leadership. 

I also checked in with the 6 of April movement, which was a force behind the revolution and has decided that rather than be a political party it wants to see political action groups and lobby groups legalized in Egypt, so it can mobilize around particular causes or candidate but not adopt a particular political ideology (the movement has looked at groups like and AIPAC as organizational models). 

There are also several new liberal parties being formed, notably the Free Egyptians party of liberal Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, whose members include writer/editor Gamal El-Ghitany and scientist Farouk El-Baz, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which is home to many of the young activists who helped plan the revolution and who are close to Mohammed El Baradei's coalition (and already had its first drama when left-wing darling and political analyst Amr Hamzawy joined then quit days after in an apparent snit over the wording of a party statement). 

Links 21 April 2011

  • Bahrain: divide, repress and rule - Le Monde diplomatique
    Alain Gresh.
  • Yemeni Officials Consider ‘30 + 60’ Plan to End Crisis - Businessweek
    Saleh leaves in 30 days, elections after 60 - in exchange for immunity.
  • Arab Reform Bulletin - The Future of al-Nahda in Tunisia
    Don't overestimate it.
  • Matthew Kaminski: Searching for Hayek in Cairo -
    Interviewing Gamal's partner to make the case for capitalism is hardly a wise move - except perhaps to WSJ readers.
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    In LRB: Is there a Libya?


    I have a new review of the two books above, on Libya's 20th-century history, out in the London Review of Books (subscription). I really recommend both of the books above if you want some background to the ongoing civil war, they're both excellent. Vandewalle focuses on the creation of Libya, in terms of its establishment as a state but also the experimentation Qadhafi conducted. Martinez focuses on the Qadhafi era and provides a condensed overview of the transformation of Libya from a revolutionary state to a mafia state.

    Here's an excerpt from the end of the (long) review:

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    Links 13-20 April 2011

    It's been an insanely busy week, so I haven't been good about keeping up the links. Here's a bunch:

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    Did this man cut off Egypt's internet?

    General Rushdi al-QamariHossam has been a sterling job of late of putting together a who's who of State Security, partly derived from files and a CD of pics he obtained during last month's State Security HQ raid, to track down who was doing what and who's going where post-revolution. You can see it all by going to

    This entry is on the State Security officer who would have been in charge of shutting down Egypt's internet on the eve of January 28. The question, as always, is where is he now? Has he been simply moved to another office? Will there be accountability for State Security or will these generals who ran Egypt's repression on a day-to-day level simply move to new positions in a superficially restructured State Security?

    Read Hossam's post for the details.

    Buy a T-shirt, donate to the Red Crescent

    Get a T-shirt with the awesome Arab revolution logo on the right from here (EU store)  or here (US store) and the proceeds go to the Red Crescent, which has been doing incredible work tending to the injured in the Arab uprisings and particularly in Libya where its volunteers face great danger to help others. 

    The Red Crescent is the regional equivalent of the Red Cross, with which it partners to provide emergency relief across the world.


    Egyptians protesting their own Arab League candidate

    There will be a protest on Wednesday 20 April at the Arab League to protest Mustafa al-Fiqi's as Egypt's candidate at the Arab League, reports Hossam:

    Mostafa el-Fiqqi, former NDP, diplomat and Mubarak’s secretary of information has reinvented himself as a revolutionary as soon as Mubarak stepped down. Fiqqi won his 2005 parliamentary seat in Damanhour in a completely rigged vote (I covered the elections in his constituency on that year and I’m witness to the irregularities that happened) and was the one of the regime’s biggest propagandists in dealing with media outlets.

    . . .

    Fiqqi was also kicked out by the revolutionaries in Tahrir when he tried to visit the square on 10 February, one day before stepped down (as seen in the video above). Hence, it came as a shock for me and many others that this NDP man who praises Israel’s normalizers and who was a cornerstone in Mubarak’s foreign policy, would be Revolutionary Egypt’s candidate for the secretary general of Arab League post.

    Hossam has some videos of al-Fiqi's performance for the old regime on his post. I posted about al-Fiqi's candidacy here. I have been told, but not confirmed, that the reason for al-Fiqi's candidacy is his proximity to people on the SCAF.

    Abdallah Saleh's taste for whiskey

    I need to read Wikileaks more often:

    Pointing to the ROYG's problems in combating rampant drug and arms smuggling, Saleh told General Petraeus that U.S. maritime security assistance was insufficient to cover Yemen's nearly 2,000 km of coastline. "Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?" Saleh suggested. The General told Saleh that two fully-equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni Coast Guard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year. Saleh singled out smuggling from Djibouti as particularly troublesome, claiming that the ROYG had recently intercepted four containers of Djibouti-origin TNT. "Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don't care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen -- provided it's good whiskey but not drugs or weapons," Saleh joked. Saleh said that smugglers of all stripes are bribing both Saudi and Yemeni border officials.

    Same cable contains a passage where Saleh is confused about what the US is bombing in his country exactly, and this gem:

    Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters. Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, "ease" the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes, according to Saleh. The U.S. could convince Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supply six helicopters each if the American "bureaucracy" prevented quick approval, Saleh suggested. The General responded that he had already considered the ROYG's request for helicopters and was in discussions with Saudi Arabia on the matter. "We won't use the helicopters in Sa'ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda," Saleh told General Petraeus.

    Sa'ada, of course, is a northern rebellious province where the government has nearly lost control.

    Bashar The Boring

    Syria: speech by Bashar al-Assad, 16 April 2011:

    For the Syrian citizens, the new government means new blood; and new blood means new and great expectations. But for this blood not to become old in a short period of time, we need to renew it constantly. This renewal happens by introducing new ideas. This new blood is not necessarily related to the individuals who join the government, but rather related to the new ideas which we produce every day. The world is moving fast around us, and we need to move at the same pace so that we can say that we are developing. Otherwise, we will be moving backwards. The world is moving ahead every month, every week, and sometimes every day.

     Oh spare me this unbearable banality. I can't bear to read the whole thing.

    Seif al-Qadhafi's art collection / Arts / Collecting - The Art Market: Beware of buyers:

    London’s Islamic art sales concluded last week with a notable absentee – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. It turns out that the son of the Libyan leader was a buyer of mid-range items at previous auctions. Bidding through a London-based agent, he was collecting for an as-yet-unfinished museum of Islamic art in Tripoli. This buying has now stopped but Islamic art dealers were buzzing with the news that some consignors have been contacted because an unidentified buyer has failed to pay for purchases at the sales last October. From there, many concluded that Saif Gaddafi could be involved. Sotheby’s and Christie’s refused to comment.

    Those art dealers must be taking a hit.

    WSJ on Iran vs. Saudi

    The WSJ has a long piece on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi that it is selling as a new Cold War. The piece covers an important topic, and makes some good points, notably on Bahrain, but has many other problems. To wit:

    For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.

    But the maneuvering extends far beyond the well-worn battleground of Lebanon. Two years ago, the Saudis discovered Iranian efforts to spread Shiite doctrine in Morocco and to use some mosques in the country as a base for similar efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After Saudi emissaries delivered this information to King Hassan II, Morocco angrily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, according to Saudi officials and cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks.

    As far away as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the Saudis have watched warily as Iranian clerics have expanded their activities—and they have responded with large-scale religious programs of their own there.

    A couple of things here. First — and I'm astonished how often this happens — Hassan II died in 1999. His son Muhammad VI is the king now, and was the one who decided to break relations with Iran. Secondly, while it is true that the Moroccan security services were worried about Iran (although the sudden interruption of relations, which was probably a quid-pro-quo in exchange for Saudi financial support, was widely criticised in Morocco as astoundingly petty diplomacy), they should be much more worried about Saudi Arabia's religious propaganda. Take for instance the Salafist sheikh from Marrakech who, a few years ago, advocated sex with nine-year-old girls and joked "they were better at it", and who had to flee the country to escape prosecution. Where did he go to? Saudi Arabia, which funded his activities. Where do Saudi princes come to give money to religious fanatics during the day and have sex with young girls in the evening? Morocco. A few summers ago in Rabat a story was going around that one particular Saudi prince liked to recruit teenage girls and give them 5,000DH simply to break they hymen with his finger. The Saudi royals are vile, the product of decades of excesses and unlimited wealth, a bunch of latter-day Neros but without the culture or military prowess. 

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    This is / was Misurata

    Above, a recent picture of the Libyan town of Misurata by the Telegraph's Geoff Pough.

    Below, a video of the town shot during Ramadan 2010, by YouTube user HoneyBees1885.

    Brings it home. More about the destruction of Misurata at the NYT.

    And the song is great — the YouTube comments say it's by Reda Aqraf (رضا أقراف).

    Via Andy Carvin and LibyaInMe on Twitter.

    How Americans feel about the Arab Spring

    Shibley Telhami did one of his useful polls:

    An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that greater democracy in the Middle East would be positive for the United States. Further, a solid majority would favor this happening even if this resulted in Middle Eastern countries becoming more likely to oppose U.S. policies.

    . . .

    When asked about the impact on the United States over the next few years "if the countries of the Middle East become more democratic," 65 percent of those surveyed said it would be mostly positive, while 31 percent believed it would be mostly negative. When asked about "the long run," an even larger number — 76 percent — said democratization would be mostly positive for the United States. 

    A majority of 57 percent reported they "would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies."  This number is up from 48 percent when PIPA asked this question in 2005. 

    Goes to show, once again, the problem is not the American people, the problem is Washington. One thing though: I don't like "awakening" — it's not like we were asleep all this time.