France draws the military consequences of US disengagement from the Middle East

From Le Figaro's report on a "white paper" on France's military doctrine for the years ahead:

«C'est un fait majeur, lourd de conséquences, aussi important selon moi que les printemps arabes, car il signifie que l'on ne pourra plus désormais compter sur les États-Unis comme on le fit jusque-là», commente Étienne de Durand, le directeur du Centre des études de sécurité de l'Ifri, qui a suivi de près les travaux du livre blanc. Les deux dernières guerres livrées par la France, en Libye et au Mali, organisées autour de coalitions verticales, représentent selon lui «l'avenir». «Le fait que les États-Unis ne veuillent plus être en première ligne est un changement fondamental qu'il nous faut intégrer», poursuit cet expert.

The report also stresses the need to maintain France's African bases as a consequence of Operation Serval in Mali, describes the "vertical" coalitions used in Mali and Libya as "the future" and stresses that "the fact that the United States no longer want to be on the front line is a fundamental change that we must integrate". 

Hizbullah & Iran coordinate on Syria

Nick Noe from Mideastwire says he believes this report from al-Rai on what was discussed between Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and top Iranian leaders recently:

“- The Syrian opposition was deemed a tool in the hand of the higher interests and the neighboring countries and an echo of the American politics. According to the Iranian sources, the participants agreed on dealing with the opposition by using force…by enabling the regime to achieve victories on the ground.

“- The parties that took part in the meetings in Tehran agreed on moving from a state of defense to a state of offense in Syria in response to the British, French, American,Turkish and Gulf support for the opposition

“These sources quoted prominent Iranian generals who said that “…Iran can send hundreds of thousands of troops to Syria in order to defend the Al-Assad regime and to protect its part in the Reluctance (sic - that's the Western side, surely?) Axis in the event that the West was to proceed with supporting the armed men…” The highly informed Iranian sources revealed that “the participants praised Iraq’s role in preventing the Takfiris from using the Iraqi lands…” 

"If we don't go to war on Syria, we'll have to on Iran"

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham:

“If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Graham said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”

Mr. Graham added, “There’s nothing you can do in Syria without risk, but the greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists, and they’re pouring into Syria.”

Amazing how quickly the Syrian conflict is being redefined — with the risk now being presented as that the guys the US and its allies have armed and empowered might get Assad's weapons.

Tahrir has lead to...

Alaa Abdelfattah writes:

Tahrir has lead to an explosion of activism and community engagement. But Tahrir has also exposed the weaknesses in the current model of organizing. Relying too much on a small, highly connected network of activists who work on all causes at once has led to a revolution where 'the people' were not later represented in the political process. It has mobilized masses with no community memory of the long struggles that led to the uprising. Legions of citizen hungry for change and looking for ways to help change happen are failing because they lack the proper networks and experiences.

What next? That's been the question for two years.

In Translation: At Muqattam

In Translation: At Muqattam

​We are still playing catchup with a backlog of translations I have been late in putting up. To test the mettle of Industry Arabic, which makes our In Translation feature possible, I sent them a widely-read piece that appeared shortly after the “Battle of Muqattam” — the clashes that took place as an anti-Brotherhood protest outside their headquarters in Muqattam, a hilltop suburb overlooking Cairo. Penned by revolutionary journalist/blogger/poet Newara Negm, it’s full of aameya expressions and popular culture references. And as always they did a very good job of it.

It’s a partisan account of what took place, to be sure, although Negm is not among the most rabid critics of the Brothers. But many of the incidents she mentioned check out and have been detailed in reporting and investigations since then. It’s written in her trademark convoluted, meandering style but it’s worth getting through — and the translation does capture some of what makes her writings so popular among many Egyptians.

The notes and extra parenthetical clarifications were added by the translator and myself.

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Sukuks and not very halal Islamists

The Economist's Pomegranate blog writes about the travails of Egypt's sukuk law, championed by the MB but blocked by al-Azhar in one of the many unintended consequences of the shoddy constitution:

Egypt’s finance minister, Al-Mursi Al-Sayed Hegazy, says sukuk issuance could generate $10 billion a year for the country. That is highly unlikely any time soon, considering the current junk status accorded by ratings agencies to Egypt’s ordinary bond issues. But given the severity of the country’s economic situation, the protracted IMF negotiations over a possible $4.8 billion loan (which Salafists have also attacked despite a proposed interest of only 2%), and growing global demand for Islamic banking, the scholars of Al Azhar might be wise to spare the hair-splitting. Egypt right now needs every piastre of money it can find.

Sukuks are a fine investment vehicle, but I differ on the view that al-Azhar is hair-splitting. The issue al-Azhar has taken up is that sukuks, by their very nature, involved the lender taking as collateral the investment project itself. Azhar opposes their use in state projects (as opposed to private ones) because public goods would risk falling into lenders' hands. Since this is precisely the kind of situation that led to Egypt coming under British overlordship, Azhar's position is not surprising — especially considering that considering the state of Egypt's finances, a default on sukuks is not unlikely. The real problem here is that the Muslim Brothers want to change the terms of sukuks so that such collaterals are avoided in the case of public projects. Except if that's the case, in Sharia terms this is not a sukuk anymore. It's something else. The Brothers cannot have their cake and eat it too, by claiming to implement Sharianomics and then bending these supposedly holy rules.

Disinformation and Egypt's multiple realities

I used to joke that Egyptians have their own reality distortion field, which once entered can lead you to believe that their country is center of the universe and where black is white, the patently untrue is brandied as incontrovertible fact, ​and a person will assure you of one thing when its opposite is plain to see in front of your very eyes. 

In the current media scene, the Egyptian reality distortion field has multiplied into (at least) two views of reality: one in which the Muslim Brotherhood is a savior that will guide the country to a Renaissance and Mohammed Morsi is geopolitical genius; another in which an Iranian-Israeli-American plot to install the Brotherhood threatens to unravel the country. The latter discourse is more shrill and insane, perhaps due to the fact that Islamists control a small minority of the print media in the country, that their numerous satellite channels have less compelling non-religious programming, and that their normal discourse is bizarre and nasty enough for the propaganda to be relatively tame. The two worlds co-exist and occasionally collide, a bit like the sci-fi show Fringe​.

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Perfection itself assaulted by vile, envious Baradites

Some hilarious language in this Brotherhood defense of Egyptian Ministry of Supply Bassem Ouda — which the opposition would like to see replaced by a neutral figure to prevent the MB from getting an electoral advantage through control of the ministry, particularly after allegations that state property was being distributed by the MB in electoral campaigning in January — but that is being spun here as an attack on a stalwart and heroic figure. Like all propaganda pieces, it sounds very silly, particularly when it claims Mr Ouda "invented" popular committees, to have "solved" the problem of flour smuggling, etc.

Does Anti-Ikhwanism Really Matter?

Really good commentary by Khalil al-Anani:

After the revolution, the MB's leaders replaced Mubarak's repression with the opposition's conspiracy against their rule as a rallying point. It is one of many tactics that are employed by these leaders in order to maintain members' loyalty and sustain the unity and coherence of the movement particularly during hard times or crises. Therefore, although they are in power, they continue to perceive themselves as "victims" of the opposition which turned to be the "external enemy" that attempts to undermine the "Islamic project" regardless of what the latter means. Ironically, the most powerful opposition to the MB's rule now comes from Salafis and other Islamist forces not from liberal and secular forces. More importantly, by treating the opposition as an uncompromising "foe" the MB leadership could ensure members' adherence and maintain their control over the organization. Indeed, the attacks on the MB's headquarters in Mokattam in March was a golden chance for leadership to feed this narrative and internalize within members' mindset. "Now the entire tanzim (organization) is under the control of the conservatives and all members would unwaveringly support President Morsi to the end of his tenure," a senior member of the MB told me. Clearly, the more the opposition presses the MB, the more solid and coherent the movement becomes.

Hence the importance of constantly exaggerating the role of the opposition — and particularly the NSF — in fomenting unrest, even though there's scant evidence that ElBaradei and friends are putting thousands on the street. The MB does not know how to maintain coherence among its diverse members without fighting culture wars.

Stability in Algeria, or is "reform" even possible?

Today's reports that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered what is being called a "minor stroke" and is hospitalized in France, and the ongoing debate about a new constitution being drafted ahead of new presidential elections (which might very well now be rushed) next year, are a good time to issue a report on Algeria. Which is what Carnegie's Lahcen Achy has just done, in The Price of Stability in Algeria. He argues, among other things:

If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability. The government must begin enacting managed political reform or face the possibility of collapse.

There's a lot more there, but post-Arab uprisings one has to wonder: is "managed reform" ever a possibility, and if so what is its aim? Managed reform was what was being advocated in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere before 2011. It invariably was carried out only superficially — but was nonetheless part of the rhetoric of these regimes. They were always on the road to reform, and often did implement some sort of changes, especially in economic policy, but never democratized. If anything, appearing to be engaged in a process of reform considerably increased the political risk for these regimes, creating a gap between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of autocratic rule. Autocratic regimes that never claimed to reform, like Saudi Arabia (indeed most monarchies) or Sudan, turned out to be safer.

The lesson for autocrats from the Arab Spring, indeed, may be "whatever you do, don't reform." Do not initiate a process that promises more than you can deliver. If, like me, you believe the central cause of the uprisings was not strictly political or economic, but moral — that the regimes had exhausted their capital of legitimacy and were proving unable to renew it — it's not clear that Algeria has reached that point of collapse. The regime continues to have legitimacy, after all.

The reforms advocated in the Carnegie report are all fine if somewhat vague — e.g. "Enact deep political and economic reforms conducive to sustainable and equitable economic expansion, increased public participation in politics, and effective accountability of political leaders" — but can they be carried out by the current regime leadership? Isn't the story elsewhere, at the heart of how power and legitimacy is constituted and understood in Algeria, and what will happen to the real power structures of Le Pouvoir once dominant personalities leave the scene?

Egypt Independent shuttered

Egypt Independent, an excellent publication we have grown to rely on and have written about before, has been shut down by its parent company, Al Masry Al Youm, and its new CEO, Abdel Moneim Said. (Mr. Said was a member the NDP Policies Secretariat and one of the brains behind the Gamal Mubarak project; he became CEO of state flagship Al Ahram in the last year before Mubarak's ouster. The last time I interviewed him, he was facing an insurrection from some of his own journalists and was soon to lose his job for his support of the Mubarak regime -- here is an old column of his defending the fraudulent 2010 parliamentary elections). 

While this is a difficult economic climate for the press and while Egypt Independent may very well have been running deficits, the Al Masry Al Youm administration seems to have been very uninterested in the many different proposals to keep the online version, at least, running, until new investors could be found. In fact it's not clear if the journalists who have put in four years of hard work will have any access to the name and archive they built. And they were not allowed to print a final, 50th edition of the paper that reflected critically on its own history, experience, and relationship with its mother company. 

Instead, Al Masry Al Youm sent out this disingenuous email to its subscribers -- which was of course skewered here. 

The team at Egypt Independent is regrouping and hopes to launch a new publication as soon as possible. Make sure to get your subscription money back form Al Masry Al Youm (call 16533) so we can give it to them instead when they're ready. And you can follow them on Facebook for updates. 

In a media landscape that is extremely polarized -- where different political and business interests support media outlets as a way to further their agendas -- Egypt Independent was that rarity, a professional independent outlet that asked uncomfortable questions. 

But what's happened to them -- and I really encourage you to read their final issue, which delves into all the challenges facing independent media in Egypt today -- is not unique. The Daily News Egypt closed earlier this year, only to open under new (and, to believe this recent article, troubling) management. Al Ahram Online's beloved editor, Hany Shukrallah, was sacked recently. All this at a time when Egypt needs unbiased and ground-breaking local coverage more than ever. 

Fahmy Howeidy on Egypt's political crisis

I have in recent weeks neglected the blog, including the regular In Translation ​feature provided by the wonderful people at Industry Arabic, your go-to place on quick and quality translations from or to the language of the ض. I'll be posting some delayed pieces over the next few days. The first one is by the man generally regarded as Egypt's, and one of the Arab world's, most influential columnists, Fahmy Howeidy. It dates from a few weeks ago but the themes it raises are still relevant.

Howeidy is generally seen as an Islamist intellectual, but has not been an all-out partisan of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he is sympathetic to them. ​In the piece below, his critique of the opposition mirrors that of many Islamists, and he also offers a critique of the Morsi administration striking lack of political deftness in handling a country still in transition. And he offers some suggestions for handling the coming time period leading to new parliamentary elections, including that the Brotherhood should steer clear of ministries involved in elections (thus echoing NSF demands). It's an interesting balancing act.

Read on.

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Why do things look different?

Because the site has moved its hosting system. This is a work in progress and some recent comments may have been lost in transition. The site will be further changed over the course of the new few weeks and new features introduced. Stay tuned.

For those of you who subscribe via RSS, things should be fine as long as you used the RSS address used for several years — this one. Likewise, those who are subscribed to the site's Feedburner mailing list should have little interruption in service (see sidebar).

One advantage of this new system is that the site should be rendering much better on mobile devices.

And yes, I will be blogging more next week than I have in recent weeks — when burn-out, work and travel took all my time. But be patient with the site as I work out the kinks of this transition.

The MB on why a judicial purge is needed

Nour writes in with this link to IkhwanOnline, where this article "The Judges or the Revolution makes the following arguments:

1) Judges are allowed to join state institutions, so can a judge be fair in a case that involves a company or a ministry where he works as an adviser?
2) Raising the retirement age for them was to make sure that Mubarak's men kept their posts for as long as possible.
3) Nepotism: about 60 percent of judges belong to the 75 families (that's not so bad, keeping in mind that nepotism is literally everywhere).
4) Dissolving the parliament, rejecting the constitutional declaration, refusing to appoint a new prosecutor-general, letting ex-regime figures walk, etc.
5) Unfair perks, from gifts (which ex prosecutor-general admitted to receiving but the Supreme Judges Council didn't even question him about it) to LE3000 each for medical expenses, despite the fact that the judges and their families' healthcare is covered by the state. Article claims that their medical expenses alone cost the state LE50 million a month.

Meanwhile, the vice-president of the State Council tells the press that the MB is provoking the judges' anger in order to get them to boycott supervision of the parliamentary elections.

Today's Arabic

I wrote a piece recently for Al Fanar -- a new English-Arabic portal about higher education in the Arab world -- about concerns over the "loss" of classical Arabic, supposedly threatened by the spread of foreign language schools, the Westernization of young Arabs, and the historical phenomenon of diglossia

Is the Arabic that young people speak today — grammatically “incorrect,” full of dialect, foreign words and neologisms — a threat to linguistic heritage and cultural identity? Or is it the natural development of a vital, globalized vernacular?

During the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, there were two slogans: الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام ("The People Want the Fall of the Regime") was in Fosha, or classical Arabic and -- as that language does -- it traveled across borders, from one Arab country to the other. But in Egypt there was also another slog: ارحل يعني امشي ("'Depart' means get out!") which "translated" the Fosha word for "leave" into the Aameya one. The revolution spread alongside a classical slogan, but they also saw an eruption of colloquial Arabic, indispensible to satire and subversion, to "telling it how it is," into the stultified public discourse, and I think that will remain the case (look at Bassem Youssef, look at mahraganaat music). 

That said Arabic-speakers don't want to lose contact with Fosha -- the language of the Koran and of literary heritage -- and there are very strong religious, political, cultural arguments against doing so. Ideally, young Arabs could master the entire colloquial-classical spectrum, plus a foreign language or two, and be all the richer for it. The fundamental challenge is not linguistic but has to do rather with low literacy and low-quality education. 

Impunity

I took over from Issandr this week to pen a post for the New York Times' Latitude blog about the so far unreleased (but now partly leaked) fact-finding report into the deaths and abuses of protesters, ordered -- but so far buried -- by President Morsi.

Last week, the British paper The Guardian published leaked chapters and several articles about the report that was written -- but not released -- by the fact-finding committee President Morsi created in July 2012 to investigate killing and injuring of protesters from the time of the revolution until his assumption of office (although in fact the committee appears to have focused on the revolutionary and early post-revolutionary period only). The Egyptian newspaper El Shorouk had already been reporting on the committee’s findings for several moths. Nour The Intern has heroically waded into these leaks and their coverage, to try to give us a sense of what has emerged from the committee’s work so far. Read it all after the jump. 

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Blind Ambition

I'm sitting in the beautiful old Radio movie theatre in Downtown Cairo, watching a black and white movie filmed on a cell phone. On screen, people (all so familiar I feel I crossed them once in the street) are complaining, arguing, not listening to each other while charging forward in endless linguistic loops. The dialogues, as one audience member suggest afterwards, are as frusrating as unresolved mathematical equations. They are also captivating, the way overheard snatches of intense conversation often are, full of urgenty invoked cliches and naked self-assertion and self-righteousness.

We laugh, out of both the pleasure and the discomfort of recognition. Humour, I would venture to say, is rare in contemporary art films, which is another reason that Egyptian artist Hassan Khan's "Blind Ambition" is worth seeking out (although I do wonder how much of this very verbal film is lost to non-Arabic speakers). I saw it last night, as part of the ongoing D-Caf cultural festival. As Khan explained after the screening, it is based on "daily, personal observations" but also elaborated through a painstaking directing/acting process (which as far as I understand toes the line between scripted and improvised) and clever formal choices meant to undercut the exchanges' seeming naturalism. When people aren't speaking, for example, the film is silent. It is as if the characters' voices make them "come into being," says Khan -- the space of single, memorable moments. 

Here's a good write up in Egypt Independent, too. 

The Bassem Youssef case

A lot of ink has been spilled already over the charges that have been filed (by individuals absolutey not formally affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party) against Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef of insulting the president, and religion, and Pakistan.

I was (I think) the first English-language journalist to profile Bassem, back when he was filming his show in a room of his appartment (and I can barely ever claim to being a trend-spotter). I have been following his career with interest ever since, as he has morphed into a social and media phenomenon and, now, a test case in the ways the revolution may have broken the stale old bounds public discourse. 

Sarah Carr has written a great post about the double standards here regarding what "proper" language and behaviour is. Youssef has challenged this by speaking and joking in a way that is much closer to the way people actually express themselves -- this is the basis of his appeal and of people's discomfort with him. 

After being questioned by the Public Prosecutor, and being featured on the Daily Show, and causing a minor diplomatic spat on Twitter between the US Embassy in Cairo and the presidency, Youssef dedicated an entire show to Qatar, the "little brother" that is buying up Egypt now (and supposedly backing the Brotherhood). Please forgive me for linking to MEMRI, but here is a sub-titled video of the send-up of Arab nationalism that has become an instant classic. 

French academic Yves Gonzalez-Quljano has a great analysis on his blog Culture et politique Arabes, in which he writes: "Plunging his scalpel unceremoniously into the open sore of national amour propre, with only a strong dose of humour for anaesthesia, the former surgeon has seemingly dashed any hopes on the regime's part of silencing him. More than ever, he can count on powerful supporters, not just among the defenders of freedom of expression around the world, but even more among Egyptians, who were hit in the heart -- the expression isn't too strong -- by a parody of nationalist operetta that provoked exasperation and enthusiasm." 

Youssef's influence and reach is such that the show was enough to ignite a public debate -- and a lot more satire --  over Qatar's growing leverage and influence. In Qatar (where I travelled just last week) the public reaction was more muted but predictably negative. But after a visit from Prime Minister Hesham Qandil probably intended to smooth things over, Qatar pledged several more billion dollars in assistance.