Inside Al Ahram

My old friend and fellow journalist Sabah Hamamou -- who I and colleague Ashraf Khalil have both interviewed in articles about the Egyptian media -- has penned an autobiographical expose about her two decades as a reporter at state flagship newspaper Al Ahram (Sabah started there as an intern when she was still a teenager).

Hamamou's self-published يوميات صحفية في الاهرام ("Memoirs of an Al Ahram journalist"), now availabe in Cairo bookstores, is a fascinating and dispiriting window into the dysfunction of the once venerable newspaper. In a confidential, colloquial sytle, Hamamou explains everything from the logistical difficulties of working in newsrooms where 20 journalists share one phone to the way Al Ahram has gradually become bloated with the relatives and friends of senior employees, making a majority of the staff complicit in a parasitical, self-interested culture. The book gives a glimpse into the overwhelming challenge of carrying out institutional reform in Egypt today -- and not just in the state media. 

You can follow Hamamo on Twitter at: @hamamou and on Facebook.

Friedman: Shame on Egypt's president

Friedman: Shame on Egypt's president

Thomas Friedman writes (in the NYT, of course, although link above is a free access syndication):

I find it very disturbing that one of the first trips by Egypt's newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, will be to attend the Nonaligned Movement's summit meeting in Tehran this week. Excuse me, President Morsi, but there is only one reason the Iranian regime wants to hold the meeting in Tehran and have heads of state like you attend, and that is to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement — the exact same kind of democracy movement that brought you, Mr. Morsi, to power in Egypt.

I was not aware Morsi made a ringing endorsement of the Iranian system of government while in Tehran. Does this attitude mean that Friedman believes heads of states who call themselves democrats should not visit autocracies? I don't remember him making a fuss, say, when President Obama visited Cairo in 2009 when some of Morsi's friends were in prison. Or when Obama visited China. Or Russia. Or Saudi Arabia.

Also, why is he singling out Morsi out of all the NAM leaders? Why not the representatives of the other 118 countries attending? This wouldn't have anything to do with Israel and the nuclear weapons program issue, would it?

Update: A good reaction on Twitter:

Syria linkdump

This is a bit lazy, but here is a series of links on Syria that I never got around developing into a post. It has a bunch of French links because I was wondering what François Hollande is playing at when he says France will recognize a Syrian government in exile if one is formed: what consensus exists to form one? And why after spending so much time distancing himself from Sarkozy is he talking about repeating the Libyan model that France pioneered, when it very suddenly recognized the Benghazi rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, which was a major push in the international diplomacy over Libya?

Here are the remains of the day:

  • Syrie : pas d'intervention !
  • Syrian opposition plans 'The Day After' in Berlin | World | DW.DE | 28.08.2012
  • Le Figaro - International : Syrie : Hollande veut un gouvernement provisoire
  • Le Figaro - Flash Actu : Hollande n'exclut pas d'intervenir en Syrie
  • President Hollande calls on Syrian opposition to form govt, says France would recognize it |
  • Syrian Army Drops Leaflets Over Damascus |
  • Le Figaro - International : Syrie : Hollande veut un gouvernement provisoire
  • Le Figaro - International : L'opposition syrienne planche sur l'après-Bachar el-Assad
  • Syria’s rebels: More than they can chew | The Economist
  • François Hollande calls on Syrian rebels to form provisional government | World news | The Guardian
  • Egypt's new foreign policy

    I'm working on a piece on this topic, but today's Reuters' interview with Morsi acts as a kind of inauguration for the subtle but distinct foreign policy change taking place in Egypt. I would not start getting all alarmist about it (seem some recent WINEP pieces and other agitations of the Lobby), but it points to an attempt to project a more balanced approach to a domestic audience, not necessarily achieve that much in the short term. More on that later.

    Do listen to the husky voice of Laila Fadel reporting on this in her new gig at NPR, featuring the baritone gravitas of Michael Hanna and more.


    Iran Said to Send Troops to Bolster Syria

    Iran Said to Send Troops to Bolster Syria

    Not just the FSA's foreign fighters in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal report from Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut:

    A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, appeared to offer Iran's first open acknowledgment of its military involvement in Syria.

    Reuters Syrian Speaker Mohammed Jihad al-Laham, left, and Alaeddin Boroujerdi of the Iran parliament's national security committee Saturday in Damascus.

    "Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well," Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC's Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees in a speech Monday. The comments, reported by the Daneshjoo news agency, which is run by regime-aligned students, couldn't be independently verified. Top Iranian officials had previously said the country isn't involved in the conflict.

    I am slightly amazed that the WSJ has these sources:

    Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters, has appointed Qasim Solaimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces, to spearhead military cooperation with Mr. Assad and his forces, according to an IRGC member in Tehran with knowledge about deployments to Syria.

    The Quds Forces are the IRGC's operatives outside Iran, responsible for training proxy militants and exporting the revolution's ideology. The U.S. blames the Quds Forces for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    "Solaimani has convinced Mr. Khamenei that Iran's borders extend beyond geographic frontiers, and fighting for Syria is an integral part of keeping the Shiite Crescent intact," said the IRGC member in Tehran. The so-called Crescent, which came together after Saddam Hussein's fall, includes Shiites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

    Iran is now sending hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij—a plainclothes volunteer militia answering to the guards—to Damascus, said two people in the IRGC familiar with the movements.

    Many of the Iranian troops hail from IRGC units outside Tehran, these people say, particularly from Iran's Azerbaijan and Kurdistan regions where they have experience dealing with ethnic separatist movements. They are replacing low-ranking Syrian soldiers who have defected to the Syrian opposition, these people said, and mainly assume non-fighting roles such as guarding weapons caches and helping to run military bases.

    Iran is also deploying IRGC commanders to guide Syrian forces in battle strategy and Quds commanders to help with military intelligence, Mr. Sazegara and the current IRGC members said.

    Syria: The Day After

    The Day After » Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria

    This is the site of a group of 45 intellectuals who drafted a report on what to do in Syria once the Assad regime is gone. It deals with six basic issues:

    1. rule of law
    2. transitional justice
    3. security sector reform
    4. electoral reform and forming a constituent assembly
    5. constitutional design
    6. economic and restructuring policy

    From a very quick glance it appears to try to hit all the right notes but give few suggestions on implementation. My biggest question, however, would who amidst the various personalities and groups involved in the insurrection against the Assad regime has signed up to this? And what are the steps envisaged from getting to Assad fleeing the country or being killed to forming a transitional government capable of taking these recommendations on?

    There is also much wishful thinking here, such as this puzzling sentence:

    Therefore, Syrian leaders must take care to ensure that elections produce not merely democratic (in the sense of majoritarian) results, but rather legitimate results. 

    What does that mean?

    Update: Some people have had difficulties getting the PDF report from the above-linked site, here is a copy.

    Morsi's team

    The new team of assistants and advisors appointed by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (see links below) can be criticized on many grounds: it is mostly composed of Islamists, and the reasons for various people being in these positions — or what exact powers these positions come with — are rather uncertain. While there are some good people there, one gets the impression that the council of advisors is there mostly to reward loyalist and political partners and give a few token positions to "frenemies" from across the ideological aisle. It's not even clear whether these advisors will be a real center of power (well, at least they will have the power that comes with access, presumably) or if the "kitchen cabinet" of the Morsi staff will be elsewhere. I would have liked to see what appointments are made on the staff of the presidential palace, under the chief of staff or Morsi's personal secretariat, more than these largely political appointments. I suspect they will be what their holders make of them, let's hope they use these positions and podiums wisely.

    Of course, in any presidential system the holder of the office uses these appointments to reward friends and allies, and there is no reason to expect anything different here. By that standard, several of the appointments — Goweida and al-Sayyad — are a decent attempt to reach out. But these are still too few, and there are too many cronies, in the extraordinary times when the president should have been, as he claimed he would be, a uniter. In particular, there are very few representatives of the Coptic community: including Habib here is a joke considering he has very limited credibility with the bulk of Egypt's Christians, even if Samir Morqos is a good choice for the more prominent "assistant" position.

    One question I still don't have answered is: does the lack of diversity in Morsi's team represent his desire for a mostly Islamist team, or the lack of potential partners outside the Islamist community — considering that many who were asked in July turned down the offers of a post?


    Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

    Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

    From Abu Muqawama who just read Caesar's Commentaries, which is a great book I'm surprised he hasn't read before:

    Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.

    . . .

    The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.

    This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.

    He also has a rant on Fisk there, which is always fun, and deserved in this case of moral equivalency between the Syrian army — which has underwritten regime repression in Syria for 40 years — and the FSA's own atrocities. Too bad because Fisk did some valuable reporting embedded with the Syrian army in the last week.

    What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

    What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

    This is a review piece I did for the Cairo Review, looking at three different books on the "Arab Spring" by Marc Lynch, Tarek Ramadan, and Marwan Bishara. I actually have read or at least leafed through about 6-7 books on the Arab spring. As historical books, I find them all wanting — they do not offer a clearer picture of what happened than what an attentive observer who followed the media can garner. I am still waiting for a Ten Days That Shook The World on any single uprising. 

    Lynch's book is most useful, because he has thought more about the area where he can contribute an original analysis, on the question of media and the "Arab public sphere." Ramadan's book is at times fascinating and at other infuriating, he appears to not quite know what to make of what happened and a conspiratorial tone is present throughout the book. Bishara's book was disappointing, because I liked his book on Palestine, but mostly because it's quite messy. But there is worse, I read Hamid Dabashi's book and while it will please the academic left is offers far too many grand narrative about the Arab Spring as a challenge to capitalism and break with the neocolonial order. I debated Dabashi at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last year, a very lefty place, and I thought his take on Libya (imperial intervention) was simplistic, ignoring that many Libyans called for just such an intervention simply because it doesn't sit well with his political convictions. 

    I recommend you read another review, this time of six "Arab Spring" books, by our friend Maria Golia in the TLS; she offers different takes than mine. 

    Also, if you're interested in reading these books, please order them through the links below to support this site.

    The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

    The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

    Lisa Goldman, for TechPresident, on where Egyptian Twitter is at:

    But over the last eight months things have changed. Once prominent voices have become subdued, or gone mute. New personalities have risen to prominence. Once unified in their opposition to the Mubarak regime, the January 25 activists are now divided by public ideological spats. Nearly all the Egyptians who tweeted exclusively in English before and during the initial months of the uprising are now communicating at least part of the time in Arabic — and not the formal written language that is understood by all literate Arabic speakers, but colloquial Egyptian dialect.

    In many cases, the early participants in the discourse are burnt out, turning inward and becoming absorbed in their own careers. But there are other significant causative factors at play.

    For politically engaged Egyptians online, the Twitter discourse has shifted, several well-known commentators told techPresident. Once it was about reporting and participating in the revolution; now it is about discussing the revolution and debating political issues. Twitter is now hosting a vigorous debate about Egypt's future. After months of fighting the entrenched remains of a decades-old regime, on the streets and in public opinion, revolution fatigue has set in for the January 25 activists. Rather than demonstrating on the streets, they are exchanging ideas online. But the discussion does not include the majority of Egyptians who lack Internet access. This fact has not escaped those who are most intensely engaged in the discourse, even as they wonder whether their digital debates are an echo chamber or a means of effecting change.

    Conclusion: the real action is on the street. 

    A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at SciencesPo Paris on my experience running this site and my perception of the role of social media in the Arab uprisings. My take then, and now, is that Twitter was far more important in shaping a narrative for the outside world then shaping a narrative for the Arab world (where Facebook was much more important for the connected and al-Jazeera the major influence for most of the others). Twitter is a emotive communication medium, what many Arab tweeps did — as well as relay information — was communicate an emotional state (excitement, fear, courage, etc.) that enabled a global audience to feel like it had a front seat to events and that allowed it to bypass or supplement traditional information sources (television, newspapers, websites). It was a mobilizer of international public opinion with many tweeps acting as propagandists and cheerleaders (this was particularly evident in the more calculated efforts to use Twitter in Libya, Bahrain and now Syria) for their cause. That's why so much of it is in English.

    In my talk, since I was in Paris, I echoed Jean Baudrillard's theory that "The Gulf War did not happen" — i.e. the "Arab Spring" did not happen. I mean this in the sense that the global/Western experience of the Arab Spring, often fed by Twitter soundbites that were largely recuperated by traditional media (remember how common quotes of tweets were at the time) because Twitter is, in this sense, the ultimate infotainment, because it provides so much emotional punch. It was a spectacle. Much of what was out there was a mise-en-scene of the events, with the tweep as hero. I think a lot of the "disappointment" one reads in Western commentary about the "Arab Spring" turning into an "Arab Winter" (because of violence, Islamists, etc.) is because they believed in that narrative of January-March 2011. It's their own stupid fault for believing in it, the reality was always a lot more complex — their problem was to allow themselves to be caught in the enthusiasm of those experiencing the events and casting themselves as characters in them.

    U.S. triples arms sales, mostly to GCC

    U.S. Foreign Arms Sales Are Most of Global Market

    Thom Shanker in NYT:

    Overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion last year, or more than three-quarters of the global arms market, valued at $85.3 billion in 2011. Russia was a distant second, with $4.8 billion in deals.

    The American weapons sales total was an “extraordinary increase” over the $21.4 billion in deals for 2010, the study found, and was the largest single-year sales total in the history of United States arms exports. The previous high was in fiscal year 2009, when American weapons sales overseas totaled nearly $31 billion.

    A worldwide economic decline had suppressed arms sales over recent years. But increasing tensions with Iran drove a set of Persian Gulf nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — to purchase American weapons at record levels.

    These Gulf states do not share a border with Iran, and their arms purchases focused on expensive warplanes and complex missile defense systems.

    Tripling of arms sales in 2011, with a good half of them going to the GCC. Under the administration of a president who received a Nobel peace prize partly in expectation of future work towards peace.

    Mission accomplished for big oil in Iraq?

    Mission accomplished for big oil?

    Greg Muttit in Le Monde Diplomatique:

    Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago: corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.

    Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

    In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects — up to 25% — to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.

    When neocons ♥ jihadis

    Two Cheers for Syrian Islamists - By Gary Gambill

    Gary Gambill in Foreign Policy:

    So long as Syrian jihadis are committed to fighting Iran and its Arab proxies, we should quietly root for them -- while keeping our distance from a conflict that is going to get very ugly before the smoke clears. There will be plenty of time to tame the beast after Iran's regional hegemonic ambitions have gone down in flames.

    How did that work out for you in Afghanistan, Gary? 

    Sometimes I think that the ideas of some policymakers and analysts in the US and Israel (this guy is from Middle East Forum, a neocon / Israel lobby outfit) amounts to "let's set the whole region on fire" if it hurts Iran.

    When Assad falls, Kurds in Syria say they’ll take back lands given to Arabs

    When Assad falls, Kurds in Syria say they’ll take back lands given to Arabs

    David Enders reporting for McClatchy:

    ALI FARO, Syria — Sattam Sheikhmous still farms wheat on what’s left of his grandfather’s land, shrunk from more than 32,000 acres to less than 5,000 by the Syrian government in 1966.

    “They said it was a socialist policy, but we believe it was political,” said Sheikhmous, now in his 60s, referring to the government confiscation of land that began when Syria joined with Egypt, then ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, to form the United Arab Republic in 1958.

    The land confiscation took place across the country. But in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hasaka, in Syria’s northeast corner, the resettlement of Arabs from another part of the country in the 1970s created ethnic tensions that could manifest themselves violently when the Syrian government fully relinquishes control of the area, now seen by many as only a matter of time.

    “We have to ask them to give us our land back. If they don’t, we have to do whatever we need to do,” said Sheikhmous. “It’s not just our land, it’s Kurdish land. If they don’t leave peacefully, we will use weapons.”

    What fantastic legacies these regimes are leaving behind. Of course, in this case, it may be more a question of recovering the property of large landowners that was redistributed by progressive policies than doing anything for the sake of "Kurds" — unless he intends to distribute that land to all and any Kurds.

    Ghobashy: Egyptian Politics Upended

    Egyptian Politics Upended

    Don't miss Mona el-Ghobashy's take on Egypt, for MERIP (I just renewed my subscription, so should you to get access to their latest print issue on "The US posture in the Middle East" and support their wonderful free pieces online):

    Mursi’s recovery of presidential power capped more than a year of intrigue. After coordinating with the Muslim Brothers on the shape of the presidential election, the generals ended up openly vying with the Islamist group for the position they both had intended to share. The project of the negotiated presidency failed; the generals lost the election and gutted the presidency; and in July the SCAF was all set to write military tutelage of civilian government into the constitution. But then Mursi struck. In the aftermath, the military appears poised to quit formal politics, auguring a new political setup about which only one thing is certain: The Egyptian state is no longer off limits to the Egyptian people.

    Syrians are torn between a despotic regime and a stagnant opposition | Hassan Hassan | Comment is free |

    Syrians are torn between a despotic regime and a stagnant opposition

    From a piece by Hassan Hassan for The Guardian:

    Moulhem Droubi, a senior member of the Brotherhood, has said the organisation represents 25% of the Syrian population.

    Mr Droubi appears to be a big fat liar. How could an organization that was crushed in 1982 and ruthlessly oppressed for the next 30 years have the presence in Syria to gather such a following? If one day there are elections, it may do well, but but right now the Syrian MB represents a mostly exiled leadership, surely.

    The rest of piece is illustrative of the confusion over the opposition.