Meet Ashraf Khalil, get "Liberation Square"

Come meet Ashraf Khalil, author of  Liberation Square and contributor to the Arabist Podcast at these AUC events:

► On Thursday, May 3, 2012, at 1:00 pm in Mary Cross Lecture Hall, AUC New Cairo Campus. 

► On Monday, May 7, 2012, at 6:00 pm at the AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore, AUC Tahrir Campus (entrance from Mohammed Mahmoud gate).

► Both events will include a book signing and a question-and-answer session.

► For more about Ashraf Khalil's Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (AUC Press, 2012), click here. For a recent interview with the author, click here.

► "Tear gas still lingered acridly in the air, and blood spattered the asphalt, which had been gouged and broken up to create fresh projectiles." To read the complete prologue of Khalil's book, click here.

(If you're not in Egypt, you should pick up a copy of Liberation Square on Amazon or your local bookshop.)

On Mediapart's Libya-Sarkozy scoop

The French news site Mediapart has released another document it claims shows that French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his close associates had maintained backdoor ties to the Libyan government from 2005 to 2011, including a 2005–6 agreement to allegedly funnel 50 million Euros worth of Libyan money into Sarkozy’s campaign chest.

The December 10, 2006 letter in question is said to be an official correspondence between Bashir Saleh Bashir[1], then-head of the Libyan African Investment Portfolio, the LAP and Moussa Muhammad Koussa, former head of the Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya (the intelligence service) who in March 2011 quit his post as Foreign Minister and fled to the UK. In the letter, Moussa informs Bashir that per the results of the two men’s October 6, 2006 meeting Sarkozy’s chief of staff Brice Hortefeux and the arms dealer Ziad Takieddine, the LAP would be responsible for making payment of 50 million Euros to Sarkozy’s election campaign. The Libyan document released last week is the first new piece of evidence to be presented by the outlet since French terrorism lawyer Jean-Charles Brisard’s walking back of testimony he gave that had described alleged secret 2005 conferences between Sarkozy’s people and the Libyan regime in 2005.

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Sudan: SAS on Heglig & Abyei

If you're looking for info on Sudan, there's few better resources than the Small Arms Survey's Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment reports. They have a new one on the conflict over Heglig, as well as a wider look at fighting in Abyei and the above map [PDF]. From the first one:

Most of the fighting has focused on Heglig, Sudan’s largest oil field, which produced 55,000 barrels a day; the income derived from this oil had become crucial to Sudan following South Sudan’s decision in January to suspend its oil production, depriving Sudan of fees from the oil’s transit through its territory. By many reckonings, Heglig is north of the 1956 historical border that is supposed to dictate the frontier between the two states. But many Southerners have long considered it part of the South. Heglig, which is known as Thou (or Panthou) in Dinka, was one of the territories depopulated by militias during the second civil war, when Sudan used paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF) to clear southern residents from areas around oil-producing sites. For many Dinka at the border, accepting Sudan’s possession of these territories is tantamount to accepting the ethnic clearings of the 80s and 90s.

. . .

The prospects for negotiation are poor. SAF has said the Heglig attack nullifies Sudanese commitments made in Addis Ababa, and that there will be no further talks. Bashir has been even more bellicose, declaring that the current conflict will end either ‘in Juba or Khartoum’, i.e. with the destruction of one of the parties. Such statements are designed for internal consumption in Sudan, and do not reflect Sudan’s actual bargaining position. The fighting may in fact ease with the coming of the rainy season. The recent battles may be simply attempts by both sides to carve out positions on the ground before rains begin.

Dunn on the necrophilia law hoax

It's gone around the internets a lot already, but I really think Michael Collins Dunn of MEI deserves kudos for his excellent deconstruction of the stupid "necrophilia law" hoax. It's really amazing how many people completely suspended their common sense and took it seriously. As he writes:

It's a case study in the down side of instant 24/7 reporting, and it tells us something about the tendency for Western media to believe absolutely anything about Islamists.

Once we kissed

It took me almost a year to collect this rare footage from Arab films between the 20's and the 60's. With the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism after the Arab Spring in 2011, extremists have been calling for a rupture with the past and censorship of our heritage. This is a reminder of who we used to be, and that one day we were capable of showing love rather than condemning it...

Inspired by Giuseppe Tornatore's "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso" scene finale.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TflvNm22cpk

Music by Ennio Morricone


A wonderful video in the context of calls for strict censorship in state television and cinema in Egypt. More generally speaking, some of these kissing scenes from the 1940s-60s are more passionate than many scenes of the last 20 years.

[Thanks, KK.]

On "Why do they hate us?" and its critics

FP's "sex issue" coverThe piece below was contributed by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005 and focuses on issues of gender and migration. She is currently a consultant with International Civil Society Action Network's MENA program, which examines the intersection of women's rights, peace and security.

Given that Mona El Tahawy has, for at least a decade now, written about Islam and gender in the Middle East, and primarily for an English-speaking (read “Western”) audience, it is a bit surprising that in her recent piece in Foreign Policy’s sex issue, she would repeat so many of the same ideas and fall into the same traps into which others before her have fallen, providing many a commentator and academic with an opportunity to pounce upon her within hours of the piece’s publication.

El Tahawy’s piece reads like a catalogue of horrors, as she cites example after example of some of the more egregious instances of violations of women’s rights: from Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws infantilize women, to Yemen, where the practice of child marriage is still all too common, and to her native Egypt, where shortly after the uprising which ousted Husni Mubarak, female protesters detained by the military were subjected to humiliating virginity tests.  In the overarching question hanging over the piece – “why do they hate us” – El Tahawy never quite identifies who “they” are, but she does seem to place the cause of this misogyny squarely within conservative religious doctrine now being promoted by some of the political actors that have found a voice in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

The responses to El Tahawy’s piece came fast and furious. I will admit to only having read about twenty of them, though I am sure there are dozens more.  Even before reading the responses, I could have guessed what most would say, for indeed El Tahawy’s piece is reductive and essentialist, at the same time that it generalizes and perpetuates some of the very stereotypes individuals like her have long struggled to debunk. 

However, El Tahawy’s piece and the responses to it get caught in the same circular debates that feminist theorists have been trying to address for some time, and highlight the significance of two theories in particular:  intersectionality and the double-bind. 

Intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by African-American feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, examines how various biological and social categories such as race, gender, and class, and politics interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic social inequality.  Intersectionality led feminists into also writing about the “double bind,” a situation wherein an individual (or group) finds herself struggling to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of multiple identities. 

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The social media batteground in the Gulf

 On the one hand, it's deeply worrying that the government is seeking to create a surveillance culture that encompasses spying on all digital media.

On the other, that same government would struggle to arrange a children's party if provided with a clown, a bouncy castle, some children and an unlimited supply of jelly.

The satirist Daily Mash on new British online surveillance laws 

Hamza KashgariOn the one hand, a Wahhabi fatwa against Twitter. On the other, a princely stake from an Al Saud in the platform.

And on the other other hand, a growing campaign across the region to censor - and censure - dissent from social media users that is no laughing matter.

Social media is certainty shaking up the Kingdom. Hamza Kashgari was arrested for "blasphemous" tweets - his supporters now assert that so desperate were the Saudi authorities to make an example of him to score points, they pressured Malaysian officials into arresting and extraditing him while he was traveling around Malaysia, and then lying about this by claiming they had detained him at an airport.

In addition to the aforementioned fatwa, at least three Saudi journalists have been arrested and detained for their role in participating in or covering Shia demonstrations in the eastern part of the country. As Toby C. Jones noted, the Shia demonizing campaign of spring 2011 had as much to do with fear of losing influence in Bahrain - and perhaps more so - as it did with fear of having to make concessions to the country's Shia citizens and rein in the Wahhabi establishment:

In Saudi Arabia, in dozens of places, hundreds of protesters routinely assembled, calling for relatively minor concessions, including greater religious tolerance and the release of Shiite political prisoners. But confronted by the sweeping changes underway across the region, officials claimed that the protests at home and especially in Bahrain, if they were allowed to succeed, would lead to a catastrophe - a democratic state next door controlled by a Shiite majority, one they insisted would take marching orders from Tehran.

Given the heavy-handedness of the Saudi authorities, online anonymity is a safer way to organize than congregating in a town square. But the net is heavily monitored nonetheless, and stepping out into the sun rarely ends well. "March 11—the intended Day of Rage—came and went without mass protest," Madawi Al-Rasheed wrote last month, and in the process of turnout and crackdown, at least one Saudi YouTuber was disappeared by the authorities.

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"Failure to fix Egypt's economy could lead to second revolution"

That's the conclusion of a new paper by Jane Kinnimont for Chatham House [PDF], which argues that too much of what politicians promise is vague and without basis, that the Muslim Brothers could find themselves soon at odds with labor movements, that the subsidy system now in place is both failing to address inequality and costing the government too much, and much more. 

It's worth reading alongside this piece on the lingering confusion over when the IMF rescue package for Egypt will be approved by the government, and what string are attached, as well as whether the next government will be expected to carry the same kind of "austerity measures" we've seen in Greece over the last year (in my opinion, this would be a disaster) — and if not, how it will finance expenditures. In the meantime, a few days ago Saudi Arabia became the first country since last year not to wait for the IMF deal to start disbursing loans and grants to Egypt, for a total of about $1.5bn.

The Egypt-Israel treaty and the gas deal, cont.

A couple of days ago I blithely stated that Egypt's decision to cancel the agreement it had to supply natural gas to EMG was not a violation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. I am now cautiously walking that back; I am not so sure anymore. There was a memorandum of understanding signed between Egypt and Israel in 2005 that guarantees Egyptian supply of natural gas not just to Israel but to EMG specifically, in quite precise terms. I am reproducing the relevant portion below:

Here is the full copy of the MoU in PDF, which is also available on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website. It's signed by then Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy and then Israeli Minister of National Instructure (and Mubarak's best friend in Israel) Benyamin Ben Eliezer. I am not sure what relation it bears to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which it recalls in its preamble, as it does not seem to be an addendum to the treaty.

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The impact of the end of the Egypt-Israel gas agreement

I don't have time to comment much on this, although it's a subject that has long fascinated me. Perhaps later. But the bottom line to yesterday's new that Egypt is canceling its deal with Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG), which supplied gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company, is minimal aside from coming lawsuits and efforts at international arbitration by EMG's shareholders.

It is certainly not a breach of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which does not guarantee Egyptian supply of natural gas to Israel, and only requires "normal" economic relations between the two countries. A dispute over a commercial deal is part of normal relations, although the Israelis might argue that there is not much normality about bilateral trade relations. 

Here's a business take from the newsletter of HC Brokerage, an Egyptian investment bank:

In our view, the potential implications of this development can be divided as follows: (1) Politically, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty stipulates that the 2 countries maintain normal economic relations; it does not make any specific requirements regarding Egyptian natural gas exports to Israel. (2) Legally, the natural gas agreement involves 3 parties – EGAS (an arm of the Egyptian government), East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG, an Egyptian company subject to Egyptian commercial law), and Ampal-American (the Israeli counterpart) – according to the former head of EGAS, who, speaking yesterday on Al Youm TV, highlighted that EGAS has the right to terminate the supply of natural gas to EMG at any time, following which EMG would be entitled to file a lawsuit in the Egyptian courts, and added that any compensation on behalf of EGAS to EMG is limited to USD180m. Ampal-American previously filed a lawsuit against Egypt, demanding compensation of USD8bn due to damages Israel incurred on the back of recent supply disruptions, but, according to the agreement, EGAS is entitled to respond only to EMG’s allegations, not to Ampal-American’s. (3) Economically, Egypt does not import natural gas but does subsidize it domestically as the selling price is below cost. On our estimates, the cancellation should result in a cUSD260m decrease in exports. On the fiscal side, such excess supply could be channeled either to subsidized consumers or to nonsubsidized energy-intensive industries, or it could be reexported at a different price. On the Israeli side, Israel already raised domestic natural gas prices 9% to account for supply disruptions and priced in a complete cutoff of Egyptian natural gas supplies, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Moreover, Israel’s Tamar natural gas reserve, which was discovered recently and is expected to begin operations by April 2013, should meet all of Israel’s domestic demand with the potential for a surplus that could be exported. The cancellation should therefore not affect Israel very much.

If the only legal recourse is suing in Egyptian courts, I doubt EMG will get very far — or only far enough to get at most $180m which is not much compared, say, to the $550m EMG says it invested in the infrastructure. In the meantime, any pressure Egypt faces over the deal is probably going to be a factor of how much this worries other international investors, especially in the hydrocarbons sector, and how much the United States in particular decides to make a big deal out of this on behalf of Israel. I would think the US should stick clear of this controversial issue, but it may be difficult to do so because some key EMG shareholders are US-registered companies. One of them, Sam Zell, a well-known American businessman who owns the Chicago Tribune and LA Times, is an active political donor in the US as well as longstanding supporter of Zionist causes.

Beyond Syria's "truce" and interventionism

The April 12 truce between the Syrian military and the armed opposition groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella is fragmenting as reports continue to come out of Syria showing that violence is continuing while the UN is preparing a ceasefire monitoring mission. Syrian blogger Maysaloon, on the catch–22s for the Syrian Army and the armed resistance:

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has announced that the regime will not withdraw its armed forces from Syrian cities until it has a written guarantee from the opposition to abide by a ceasefire. To add insult to injury the statement asks that the guarantee also provide for the handing in of weapons by the different groups and also to allow for the “state” to reassert its control over all parts of the country. Apparently the Ministry wished to “clarify” the Annan proposal; in effect what the regime is demanding is a surrender document from the opposition.

What is most absurd is that Syria does not have one opposition, but many oppositions. It also does not have one Free Syrian Army, but many different groups fighting loosely under that label. So getting them to agree and provide one document - even if we assume they were going to accept this demand - is nearly impossible. And that, of course, is the whole point of the regime’s demands.

Saudi and American hawks continue to call for the arming of Syrian opposition group. On the other side of the coin, “liberal interventionists,” now including French president Nicholas Sarkozy, are urging, with hints of support from Turkey, that Western countries should establish “humanitarian corridors” for the tens of thousands of refugees who have been making for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

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Being a woman IT professional in Saudi Arabia

This morning, Saudi (update: she was born in Saudi but is not Saudi) IT professional Ruba al-Omari tried for the umpteenth time to attend an IT event in Jeddah. Most of the time she's tried this before, she had to be segregated or what she calls "IT mutawwas" would ask her to leave. She tweeted about her experience, and I Storified it below. I thought it illustrated rather well the ordinary struggles of a woman in the kingdom of backwardness. 
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The Noise of Cairo

Singer Shaimaa Shaalan

I had the chance to see the documentary "The Noise of Cairo" last night. The film is about Egyptian artists and their relationship to the revolution -- their engagement, whether political, personal or professional, and the effect they expect the uprising to have on the creative field. (This is a topic I have written on myself, in "Art in Egypt's Revolutionary Square," at the Middle East Research and Information Project).

 

The film is excellent. It consists of a well-chosen and well-edited series of interviews with a broad cross-section of Egyptian artists. It addresses some fundamental questions (How do you creatively engage with such an extraordinary political moment, if at all? Will the uprising lead to new and different work conditions for artists, to increased freedom of expression? Should artists find new audiences now; try to, as writer Khaled El Khamissi says, build a bridge between culture and society?) without belaboring the points or putting words into the artists' mouths.

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"Our steadfast pursuit of a freer Saudi Arabia"

A must-read, and courageous, letter from Saudi Arabia by Waleed Abu Alkhair in WaPo:

Every week, I am host to several dozen people at my home, most of them politically engaged Saudi youth. I started the salon after government and religious authorities clamped down on gatherings of liberal youth in cafes and bookstores in the wake of Hamza’s arrest, severely constricting the space for free expression in this city. The oppressive trend has accelerated as religious hard-liners have mounted a vicious campaign to cleanse society of what they deem “unbelief” and “deviant thought”: in reality, any ideology different from their own.

At one of the salon gatherings, I had the pleasing epiphany that religious hard-liners have begun to lose control of a young generation that is hungry for freedom. A brave young man responded passionately to clerics whom I had naively invited to participate in the salon and who had threatened him for supporting freedom of expression and belief, saying: “Who are you? Who are you to inflict your religious guardianship upon us? We are free, free to say what we like. You are just like us, not better. The era of religious guardianship is over.”

There was a stunned silence.

Rapt in admiration, I thought about how only 10 years ago I was expected to blindly obey the dictates of an Islamist organization — and how, then, I never would have dared to engage in a debate with its disciples. Those of us born in the 1970s, when extremist religious thought was at its apogee in Saudi Arabia, had a single choice if we wished to serve our communities: Join an Islamist organization.

This op-ed is couragerous in two ways: first in challenging the religious establishment in defending freedom of belief, but also in calling for a constitutional monarchy. Abu Alkhair is unable to travel from Saudi — let's hope it doesn't get him into more trouble, as I can't recall ever reading such a powerful liberal indictment of the Saudi system.

More transition by lawfare in Egypt

This is an interesting development:

The Supreme Constitutional Court decided Saturday it will not review a request by the ruling military council to review a draft amendment to the political rights law that would isolate regime figures.

The People’s Assembly approved the draft amendment earlier this month, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces referred it to the court on Thursday.

The proposed amendment originally targeted presidential hopeful Omar Suleiman, who served as spy chief and vice president under ex-President Hosni Mubarak. But after the Presidential Elections Commission disqualified him from the race, it would now target Ahmed Shafiq, who served as Mubarak’s prime minister and is also running for president in the May election.

The court said Article 28 of the Constitutional Declaration, enacted in March 2011, states that the Supreme Constitutional Court should only review the amendment that organizes the presidential election, so extending its tasks to reviewing amendments without a clear text violates the article.

More clearly, the SCC says it cannot review the constitutionality of the law before it is passed, i.e. that it has no jurisdiction over bills. Most Egyptian experts think the law is probably unconstitutional (because it discriminates against specific individuals), but the SCC can't even give an opinion on it. It has thrown the ball back in SCAF's court to avoid further charges of a politicized judiciary, which are mounting after the judicial decision to allow the American defendants in the NGOs case leave the country and the attacks made on the Presidential Election Commission (composed of judges) to disqualify 10 candidates at last Friday's Tahrir Square protests (which featured banners against the members of the PEC).

The bottom line in all this is that the judiciary is turning to be an extremely powerful, and controversial, branch of the state in the new Egypt — one that has had a largely positive image but is starting to be seen, even if it is difficult to attack, as having made pro-SCAF decisions. As more "lawfare" is used during this transition by court filings for injunctions (such as against the formation constitutional assembly), the more judges will be on the front lines. Is that really where they want to be?

Podcast #28: And then there were 13

Sorry we've been away for so long: travel, work, and sheer confusion and mental exhaustion over the state of Egypt's politics prevented us from getting together sooner. But we're now back with a new podcast, catching up on Egypt's shaky transition and looking at the latest presidential election news — the disqualification of leading candidates, the ones who remain, and what it might take to win the race.

Do check out Ashraf Khalil's recent piece on the Muslim Brothers and Ursula Lindsey's look at Hazem Abu Ismail for The World. I wrote about the disqualification of the leading candidates for The National, with more comments in this blog post. Steve Negus has a smart take on the Brothers' loss in popularity in recent months here. And just a note to say that Syria is on our minds, even if professionally we've been focusing on Egypt. We hope to tackle that thorny subject soon.

Podcast #28: