You know it’s time to leave when… (5)

December 28, 2005

It was a publicity stunt, pure and simple—a photo op, a silly event, but it got me out of the office, and well, I’d had a few when the embassy guy called me up the night before to see if I would go and cover it.

So there I am, at 8am on a frigid morning, a bit hungover, waiting in the Green Zone to be picked up to watch the US ambassador and the marine corps hand out gifts to little children as part of the marines’ longstanding “Toys for Tots” campaign.

I hate the word “tots”. In fact, not just the word, hate tots in general.

But I only have a few days left, and I can’t stand to be in the office typing up the daily death tolls anymore (for those counting 24 died on Wednesday, 11 on Tuesday, about 20 on Monday), so why not?
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No more posts until 2006

Had a few things I wanted to post -- notably the verdict against Ayman Nour, which is going to be a repeat of the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case -- but alas, no time. My immediate reaction is sympathy for Nour's two teenage sons, which are the clearest sign I've seen that he is a good man and does not deserve what is happening to him. I'm off to somewhere far from all this stuff, over in the southern hemisphere where it's the middle of summer. See you next year.
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But what kind of movie? (4)

December 20, 2005

We settled into the cramped confines of the armored humvee, its interior looking for all the world like some teenagers messy pickup truck—Coke cans, food wrappers, magazines and then the less prosaic stuff, gas grenade, assault rifles, ammo.

The lieutenant in the front seat was a friendly guy from Nebraska, in fact the whole convoy consisted of boys from Nebraska attached to the local marine unit occupying Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s far western province of Anbar.

“Lot of soldiers like to come out here,” he said as we pulled out of the marine base on the outskirts and headed into town. “Here’s where all the action is, not like Camp Cupcake out west.”
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The dapper dictator

The secret to Saddam Hussein's dashing style:
Things may be going poorly for Saddam, on trial for genocide in Baghdad, but, ironically, the ex-despot's misfortune has been the making of the tailor. On television channels across the Middle East, the Cesur brand gets free advertising worth millions every time Saddam is shown, attired in a dark Cesur number, at his trial. The result is that the Cesur factory and shop in the heart of the Istanbul rag trade - five brothers work in the business, headed by Recep, but "Allah is the boss" - can't ship out the suits fast enough. "Since the trial started, our sales in Iraq have tripled," says Cesur. "We reckon we've now got around 80% of the suit market in Baghdad. Before the war, it was 40%." Arab males are apparently taking the view that if it is good enough for Saddam, then it is good enough for them. The Cesur brand has become a status symbol, signalling coolness and a little bit of defiance. The buyers commonly prefer to show off by leaving the Cesur label on the cuff. Across the Middle East generally, the business is now selling up to 5,000 suits a month, 10 times the level of five years ago.
I have to admit that just the other day I wad admiring Saddam's suit--honest. Must stop by that shop next time I'm in Istanbul.
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Bouteflika resurfaces

So Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika decided to resurface [Le Monde, subscription] after weeks of rumors that he was on his deathbed. Bouteflika chose the 8pm newscast of the state TV channel on Saturday, during which he only appeared for a few minutes and looked haggard. His doctor, Messaoud Zitouni, a former minister of health, dismissed a prominent French doctor's guess-diagnostic of stomach cancer. Nonetheless, this episode has brought to the forefront the question of presidential succession, much as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's hospitalization meant that we already live in the post-(Hosni) Mubarak era. There has to be a better way to ensure a country's stability than medical reports, though. Meanwhile, in Israel, something similar to the Bouteflika-King Fahd-Mubarak-Hafez Al Assad-King Hassan II-King Hussein-pretty much every aging Middle Eastern dictator health crisis scenario. But, as always, our well-to-do Israeli cousins put us to shame with their slick PR. Thus the Jerusalem Post gushes:
If anyone is still worried about the stability of Israel's democracy, Sharon's minor stroke served as a reminder that we still live in an open society with a free press. In all dictatorships, and quite a few democracies, the leader's health is a matter of state-security. If he needs to be taken suddenly to hospital, it's done under a cloak of secrecy and the press are gagged. Israeli television viewers on the other hand knew that something was wrong with their prime minister when he was still being rushed into the trauma unit. For the next hour or so, no official statement was released and conflicting rumors abounded about whether Sharon had lost consciousness and how critical his condition was. A year and a half ago, Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak was hospitalized and when his condition deteriorated flown for special treatment in Germany. For a couple of hours, traffic on the streets of Cairo was brought to a stand-still and helicopters were buzzing low in the sky. Veteran reporters observed that it seemed as if a coup d'etat was in the air. The Egyptian press was muzzled and the man on the street was convinced that Mubarak was at death's door. It took the regime a week to realize that in order to quell rumors, something drastic was needed. A film crew was sent to the German hospital and a grouchy Mubarak, used to appearing coiffed and in a well-cut suit gave and interview in a dressing gown from his hospital bedroom. The Sharon spin-team needed only a couple of hours to return to its senses. Strategic advisor Lior Horev was already calling up reporters by ten in the evening, explaining that contrary to what analysts were saying, Sharon's minor stroke wouldn't hurt Kadmia's chances in the polls, but instead would cause an outpouring of public empathy towards Sharon. But the media coup de grace was just before midnight, when the PM himself, fresh from his MRI scan, made a quick round of personal calls to senior reporters on the big papers and TV channels, just in time to make the next morning's editions. Even the most seasoned diplomatic correspondent has trouble keeping cool under such a charm offensive.
Ah, the Israelis. Their generals are so much better at staying in power.
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The war on Christmas, Egyptian-style

Guess which MP wants to ban the sale of alcohol during Christmas and New Year? What's that? The Muslim Brotherhood? Nope. It's Ragab Hilal Hameida, the only elected Al Ghad MP (from the dissident faction, naturally).
Hemida denied that his call for the ban was the idea of the Muslim Brothers who have made similar demands in the past and now control 20 percent of the seats in parliament. "The sale of alcoholic beverages violates Article 2 of the constitution, which states that Islamic sharia (law) shall be the main source of legislation," Hemida argued. "I have sent an urgent memorandum to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Maghrabi calling for a ban on the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages during Christmas and New Years. "Muslims and Christians forbid these drinks," said Ragab Hilal Hemida, a member of parliament representing a breakaway faction of opposition leader Ayman Nur's Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. This would be the first step to outlaw alcoholic beverages altogether, he added.
Of course, this is yet another example of Hameida--one of the most repulsive features of the Egyptian political landscape--being conveniently used by the regime to stir up trouble. The Brotherhood's position on alcohol, whatever it may have been in the past, is not to ban alcohol. In fact, Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef recently said in an interview that while the MB believes that alcohol is wrong, legally it is a matter of personal choice. With its current strategy of taking over the reformist mantle, the MB is not about to start campaigning on issues it can't win, like banning alcohol. Seeing Hameida being used like this reminds me why I am not a Ayman Nour believer (in fact, very few people seem to be inside Egypt at least). Nour invited Hameida, who has had some success as a populist politician, into his party despite his well-known reputation as a troublemaker. It's one of the mistakes that Nour is now regretting, and why Egyptian liberals have to wait for someone better to represent them.
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Young Syrians and Lebanon

Here's an interesting take, by a Lebanese journalist, on why young Syrians don't really get the Lebanese independence movement because than can't begin to imagine it as a separate place:
In clear imitation of the one expression of Lebanese political will that had been most painful to the Syrian regime, the authorities commandeered one of Damascus' squares and set up a strike tent in the middle of it. Their respect conquered their resentment at what the Lebanese had done, and they encouraged university students to come and write messages and sign the huge boards they had set up under the gaze of television cameras. Then, to make sure they'd left nothing unimitated they copied the idea of the Lebanese opposition they so despise, and started wearing shawls across their shoulders. They even had a Syrian gentlemen moving through the crowd and distributing such shoulder-wear to demonstrators. They couldn't even manage to use the beginning of their own national anthem ("Syria, my sweetheart") as a slogan, they had to use the Lebanese national anthem. They couldn't think of anything for themselves. They made no attempt to distinguish themselves from the Lebanese. And why? Not because it was a conscious attempt to imitate them and not because the Syrian regime, with the downfall of the Soviet and Saddamist models of state, has exhausted its ability to renew itself. It is more likely that it stems from a deep-rooted Syrian conviction that Syria and Lebanon are one. Lebanon is not a different country or a separate people but a jealously guarded lover. What is Lebanon's is Syria's.
You can read the whole article at Babelmed.
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How John Bolton scuttled a deal with Syria

There is an excellent story from the current issue of The American Prospect that is making the rounds on American political blogs on John Bolton's role as US Ambassador to the United Nations. It covers a lot of ground, but there is one thing I'd like to pick out and focus on in particular, because I was peripherally involved in it and because it is very important to the current deteriorating situation in Syria.

0,,236177,00It involves a story that appeared in the London Times in mid-October, quoting anonymous high-level US sources, that the US had tried to offer a deal Libya-style deal to Syria. The story that appeared in The Times suggests that the US has offered Bashar Al Assad a deal: comply with our demands on key issues and we'll let your regime survive. The gist of the offer, which the official says has been transmitted via Arab states to Syria recently, is captured in the neat little diagram that ran with the story.

At the time, Josh Landis over at Syria Comment covered this over several posts, including a denial by Syria that any such deal has been offered and some thoughts about how seriously to take the source. Josh is frequently used as a source by journalists covering Syria, so it was no surprise he was let in on the identity of the source. When I read his post, I agreed with his basic argument: why leak the deal-in-the-making if it is really happening? This would only dissuade the Syrians from going ahead with it, as they would totally lose face. Qadhafi at least was able to claim initiative, even if the real work had come from the Brits. In the Prospect article, for the first time I believe, the fact that the high-level source was Bolton has emerged:
And so the tension between Rice and Bolton has grown dramatically in several areas, most notably with regard to Syria: The Prospect has learned that Bolton was the source of an October leak to the British press that submarined sensitive negotiations Rice was overseeing with that country. ... One of the �rst signs that a bureaucratic battle was brewing between Bolton and Rice over Syria came on October 18, when the State Department press corps was shocked to �nd that Rice had unexpectedly flown to New York to meet Annan. A State Department spokesman explained that the two met to “compare notes� in advance of a widely anticipated report by Detlev Mehlis, the secretary-general’s special investigator for the Hariri assassination. Yet Bolton, the man in charge of the United States’ day-to-day operations at the UN, was conspicuously absent from that meeting. In what appears to have been less of an accident than a matter of intentional timing, Rice made her trip to New York on the very morning that Bolton had to be in Washington, testifying before the Senate on the progress (or lack thereof) of UN reforms. The Prospect has further learned that, rather than forging Security Council strategy with America’s European allies at the UN building in New York, much of the diplomatic legwork has been carried out in Foggy Bottom. On October 22, a French delegation from the UN traveled to Washington for initial discussions on the Syria resolution (later called Security Council Resolution 1636), of which the French were the original authors. According to a diplomatic source, Bolton was not initially invited to that meeting. The French, however, insisted on his presence. So Bolton attended, but not without three chaperones: Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, Welch’s deputy (and vice-presidential daughter) Elizabeth Cheney, and National Security Council Middle East chief Michael Doran. “It’s like they stuck a strong team from the [State Department and National Security Council] to watch him,� said the diplomat. Despite Rice’s tight oversight of the resolution negotiations, the unanimity of the council was still in doubt one day before the Security Council meeting. Finally, in a last-minute lunch meeting with her foreign-minister counterparts from the veto-wielding permanent �ve Security Council members, Rice personally removed references to sanctions that had been inserted by the United States. With those obstacles to unanimous consent gone, Resolution 1636 passed 15 to 0. Rice’s involvement came after Bolton had won round one in the Syria battle. Bolton and Rice’s bureaucratic tiffs over Syria had actually boiled over two weeks prior to the Security Council vote. Journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, writing in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, reported -- and the Prospect has independently con�rmed -- that Bolton had leaked to British newspapers that the Bush administration had signaled its willingness to offer Syria a “Libya-style deal� -- a reference to Libyan President Muammar Quadda�’s decision last year to give up pursuing weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism in return for a restoration of relations with the United States and the United Kingdom. According to The Times of London, Syria responded positively to the secret U.S. offer, which was made through a third party. But after Bolton publicly aired the details of the potential deal -- which would require Syria to cooperate with the Mehlis investigation, end interference in Lebanese affairs and alleged interference in Iraqi affairs, and cease supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah—Damascus quickly denied that such a deal was in the offing.
Based on research over the past two months combined with some educated guessing, I believe those negotiations essentially took place via Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington who was recently named as head of the powerful new National Security Council, seems to have made the first visit. Bandar, as well as being quite close to King Abdullah, is also a Saudi who has incredible access to the White House and the Bush family in particular. Egyptian Director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman (the de facto national security advisor) was the second Arab official to approach the Syrians, making low-profile visits to Syria in late September or early October to present the deal to Syria. There were also discussions of this deal between National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Condoleeza Rice in late September with Egyptian officials (who it's not clear, although Suleiman and perhaps Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul Gheit are possibilities.) Although I have less information about the Saudi side save to say the Saudis were particularly irked by the Hariri assassination and that this was one of Bandar first priorities when he assumed his post as the equivalent of the director of the CIA, on the Egyptian side Suleiman's trip was part of constant involvement in the post-Hariri murder mess. Mubarak has clearly made this one of the most important things on his agenda (receiving Saad Hariri in Cairo in the last few days, I believe) and has made public noises that Syria needs to be brought in rather than isolated or "regime changed," no doubt because he didn't like the idea of this whole business becoming a standard operating practice. This was apparently also the policy of Condoleeza Rice at State and key Middle East policy officials. It now appears evident that Bolton decided to leak the ongoing negotiations (which, it must be pointed out, might not have completely worked out according to these demands) for the sole purpose of sabotaging them. This really needs to be followed up. Was he acting on his own behalf (since I'm not sure how his role as UN Ambassador gives him a role in the negotiations) or on behalf of the people who backed him in the Vice President's office, including Cheney himself? Is he really out of control? To what extent is this representative of larger splits in Bush administration? It all speaks very poorly of the conduct of the Bush administration's policy in the region. Again, it's not clear that the Syrians would have accepted such a deal, especially the clauses involving cutting off Hizbullah and handing over key suspects in the Hariri trial (particularly Assef Shawkat, who may be the ringleader and who is Bashar Al Assad's brother-in-law.) But there were signs the Syrian regime was being flexible, notably because of its decision (at around the same time, I believe) to cut off the local chapters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, some collaboration on the Iraqi insurgent question. The other thing that comes to mind is whether Ghazi Kannan's death in mid-October (i.e. around the same time as the Bolton leak) might be related. At the time, there were rumors that Kanaan might have been conducting secret negotiations or had been approached to contact Bashar Al Assad over these issues. The picture that emerges from all this is of a seriously disjointed Syrian regime (for instance recent rumors have it that all of Vice President Khaddam's property has been sequestered.) If, as some have interpreted, the Tueni assassination is a stab by the hardliners in Syria to force the regime to become isolationist in hope that it will never come to war, then it seems that they are mirrored by hardliners on the American side are trying to make sure war is the only solution.
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MERIP article

"Controlled Reform in Egypt: Neither Reformist nor Controlled" is a long article I just wrote on the elections for Middle East Report Online. It looks at the elections from the perspective of the regime's attempts to control the reform process over the past year, when it had repeatedly seized the initiative on major reform steps that have since turned out flawed, and the individual political groups that took part in it. It looks at some of the issues involved (the work of monitors, the issue of judges, the detail of the violence...) only peripherally, and some not at all, such as the debate over the US' attitude to Egyptian reform. That will be for other articles or blog posts. In the meantime, leave any feedback you may have here.
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Iranian anti-Sadat film

Some Iranians have been making nasty remarks lately, but this goes too far:
TEHRAN (AFP) - An extremist Iranian Islamist group announced it was working on a film about the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat entitled "34 Bullets for the Pharoah". The documentary, produced by the "Committee for the Glorification of Martyrs for the World Islamic Movement", is certain to further upset Cairo -- with whom Tehran cut diplomatic ties after Sadat signed the 1979 Camp David peace accord with Israel. "The documentary will feature raw images of the assassination of Sadat, the trial of the martyr Khaled Islamboli and his companions ... and their motivation for executing the signatory of the first peace treaty between an Arab country and Israel," the group promised in a statement faxed to AFP. It will "soon be available on CD-ROM", the group said.
Another blow to better Egyptian-Iranian relations (along with that street in Tehran they named after Khaled Al Islambuli)... But seriously, why is AFP treating a film produced by an apparently marginal group as diplomatic incident?
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Another perspective on the elections

I have been collecting material written on the Egyptian elections and will publish a list tomorrow. But to get things started, here is a damning indictment of the elections by my old friend Khairi Abaza (yes, I have friends even in that institution). I don't agree with him on every point (more on that tomorrow) but do agree with his conclusion:
In the current political environment, elections are not the key to political reform. Only serious reform can lead to free and fair elections that would attract the silent majority of Egyptians. Opening up the political environment by allowing parties and civil society organizations to be created more easily, by creating true impartiality in the state media, by restricting the unlimited use of state resources by the ruling party, by abolishing the emergency laws, and above all by reforming the constitution will contribute to greater political participation. A sign of seriousness in a political reform program would be cooperation between the regime and the prodemocracy opposition to achieve specific goals of constitutional and legal reform within a set timeframe. Unilateral and poorly defined reform programs are perceived as maneuvers to keep real reform at bay, leading to increasing radicalization and serious concerns for Egypt’s future stability.
More tomorrow, if I have time before I have to catch a plane.
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Does Bouteflika have stomach cancer?

Bouteflika's situation seems to be worsening in light of the absence of information about his health. Today's Le Monde has a report from Algiers:
In the absence of television footage of the recovering president, alarmist rumors are spreading. Memories of the long months of whispering that accompanied the sickness and death of Houari Boumedienne at the end of 1978 are resurfacing. Officially, he was on a friendly visit to the Soviet Union. In reality, he was receiving his last medical care abroad. Mistrust is therefore widespread. The man on the street is convinced that he is not being told something. Some speak of poisoning, others of heart problems or cancer, even death. The most routine announcements are interpreted as dramatic news. ... "Public institutions are paralyzed. Bouteflika concentrated all powers. He had gained control over everything. The result: no decision can be taken. Ministers just carry out routine affairs and their advisers are even more bored than usual!" says ironically a senior Algerian official for whom "everybody is just clocking in these days."
Meanwhile, medical experts say Bouteflika is likely to have stomach cancer, which at his age is no easy thing to treat.
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Arab journalists on Charbel

I don't really have anything to add on the death of Gibran Tueni, apart from saying that it moved me more than Rafiq Hariri's, both in a personal sense and in the realization that the Syrian-Lebanese situation seems to be spinning out of control. Or perhaps more accurately, that Syria, a country I know better and feel closer to than Lebanon, is spinning out of control. Maybe it's because I'm also journalist. I have noticed in the past few days a steady stream of beautiful eulogies in the Arabic and international press: The Night Kills The Day (Ghassan Charbel, Al Hayat)
I have the feeling I should apologize. I'm relying on your understanding. You're my colleague, and you know. Some pains prevent us from producing a beautiful eulogy. Some knights expose the scarcity of a dictionary. I won't hide from you that we had used up all of the roses before your wedding. We had used up the songs over your comrades. The trail of martyrs had seen us exhaust our metaphors and comparisons. We had used up all of the heart's handkerchiefs before your funeral. We had bid farewell to the ceremonies of farewell, and believed that we were protecting you. Gibran Tueni.
The Killers of Tueini are the Killers of Hariri - (Abdel Wahab Badrakhan, Al Hayat)
Gebran Tueini simply represented a free speech and a free opinion in a world worn out by years of Syrian hegemony, which attempted to kill the sense of freedom therein, yet to no avail. Gebran was just a member of a home and a newspaper, where all the liberty burgeons Lebanon knew blossomed. As such, he was opposed to tyrants and fascists, who accused him one day of being an agent of the Israeli enemy. So, was he killed by the Israelis to reward him for "being their agent", or by the French, where he was a temporary refugee to escape assassination, or by the Americans? The killers are the same who killed Rafik Hariri, and the international investigation should be extended to include all crimes. These crimes should be held accountable before the international tribunal so that the killer won't believe that he will remain for ever free. The whole press was struck by the killing of Gebran Tueini. His assassination was not "a settlement between Lebanese parties", as stated by one of the killers' advocates, it was merely an act carried out by the hired killers of an external party that has become known.
Gibran is with the Lord (Jihad Al Khazen, Al Hayat)
Gibran Tueni opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon and attacked the Lebanese and Syrian security agencies, before opposition or attacks came into fashion, practiced by those who had remained silent when they should have spoken, should have taken positions. Gibran was always harsh in his positions, reflecting the youth of his pen. I compared between what he wrote and what his father did. I find myself closer in thought, or work style, to the father. We shared a common effort in the beginning of the 1970s. I was influenced by his ideas and positions, and I still am. Gibran Tueni was something different. I saw him outside Lebanon more than I saw him in the homeland that I love. He became prominent as a "media star" after I left Beirut for London. He enjoyed wide popularity among many who shared his political views. Perhaps one example is sufficient. At a concert by Phil Collins in Beirut last month, a friend of ours got up, embraced and kissed Gibran, complimenting him on his appearance, although it was clear she was really complimenting him on his positions. Politics killed Gibran Tueni, but who really killed him? The Syrians. Always the Syrians. I don't rule out that it was the Syrians, although I don't rule out any other party. I await the results of an investigation, and I hope that it will be an international one, just as I await the results in the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
Defeat them with the truth (Michael Young, Daily Star)
None of this will bring Gibran Tueni back, nor is charm, elegance and perpetual dissent. Nothing will reassure us that the venerable An-Nahar can survive this latest crime. Ghassan Tueni will soon have to bury another child, the most heartbreaking duty of all. But deep down it's another wish we have: that the Tuenis, Ghassan but also Gibran's widow and children, will stick to their guns and demand that the truth come out. At the end of the day, his murderers remain most afraid of one thing: the truth.
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Scene from court (3)

December 13, 2005

So I missed him.

The old man. The fallen lion, the devil on earth. The one who looms over this whole post-invasion mess, whose name I write in articles a dozen times a day.

The day I attended Saddam’s trial, he decided not to. Of course there will be other days. The trial is moving incredibly slowly and this is only the first of what people are saying are going to be a dozen trials.

The three days of testimony only saw about nine witnesses in the first phase of the trial. The defense and the prosecution still have to call their people and at the rate it’s been moving lately, it should last at least another year.
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Mubarak appoints women and Copts to PA

It's rather pathetic, but Mubarak has decided to the enormous imbalance in the composition of the People's Assembly by appointing five women and five Copts. That means that out of six Coptic MPs, only one (Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali) has been elected, and that election was fixed in 2000 and probably fixed again in 2005! For the women things are scarcely better, with only four actually elected to their posts (again, with one of them probably put in place by a fixed election.) In other words, rather than use its clout (preferably through legal and non-violent means) to put women in parliament, Mubarak's ruling party preferred to place them 'ashan al decor at the president's discretion. Before the elections, NDP leaders defended the decision not to field many Copts and women because they were more likely to lose. Perhaps that's true, but appointing them is not exactly a solution either. The Egyptian press is now spreading reports of Coptic businessmen backing a non-religious party that would defend their interests. It's not clear whether that would be a Coptic party that would not be affiliated with the Church or a liberal party that would defend issues Copts feel strongly about (the latter would be a smarter choice), but considering that existing opposition parties are failing to rise to the occasion, it's not surprising some are looking for a new alternative. Prominent Coptic politician Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour has now been kicked out of the Wafd and accused of fomenting a coup against autocratic leader Nomaan Gomaa, and he would be ideally placed to lead such a party. It's a shame that Egyptian society, however, does not seem to be ready to see a party headed by a non-Muslim today. (n.b. I haven't seen the names of the appointed MPs yet, it's possible Abdel Nour is in that list.) Incidentally, I meant to mention it a few days ago, but Mubarak also recently passed a presidential decree that changed the regulations on maintenance of churches in Egypt. Copts had long complained that the authorities did not allow them to easily make reparations to churches; under the new regulation -- in theory -- if they don't get an answer within three months they can go ahead and assume their request is approved. The construction of a new church, however, must be through presidential permission. This rule is a legacy of an Ottoman decree that restricted church-building; the whole thing is an anachronism and would better be rid of altogether in favor of normal construction and zoning laws that would govern all religious buildings (mosques are currently handled by the Ministry of Awqaf, or religious endowments). His move by Mubarak seems to be in response to the recently-held Coptic conference in Washington, where this issue was a major sticking point. One also wonders whether it's a point that was raised by Senator Chuch Hagel when he recently visited Mubarak, since I believe Hagel attended the conference. If so I find it rather ironic that a US senator would put pressure on Mubarak over churches but not, say, security forces blocking voters from entering polling stations.
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Gibran Tueni killed

The Lebanese journalist and MP Gibran Tueni, who headed the excellent newspaper an-Nahar, has been killed:
Anti-Syrian journalist and lawmaker Gibran Tueni was killed Monday in an explosion that targeted his convoy, according to two Lebanese TV stations that are allied with him. Police did not immediately confirm. LBC and Future TV said Tueni was killed in the explosion in that killed two other people in an industrial suburb of Beirut. A switchboard operator at An-Nahar, the leading newspaper which Tueni heads, said "he's all right" when contacted by The Associated Press. His wife at the scene of the explosion was in tears. Asked by a reporter whether her husband was hurt, she refused to answer and shook her head as she was led away by police officers. Police gave no immediate word on casualties, but an AP photographer saw three mutilated bodies after the explosion. At least 10 cars were destroyed, some tossed into a valley in the hilly Christian Mkalles area on Beirut's eastern entrance. LBC TV and Future TV station, which is owned by the Hariri family, said a car bomb had been detonated, but police did not immediately say whether the bomb was placed in a car or next to a vehicle.
Tueni was the first major Lebanese journalist to call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in an open letter to Bashar Al Assad in March 2000. He had been an ally of Rafiq Hariri and a leading light of the Istiqlal '05 movement. His death is all-too-reminiscent of that of Samir Qassir, another journalist-turned-politician (or is it the other way around?) who was assassinated earlier this year. The leading suspects would of course be the Syrians, since Tueni was anti-Syrian, but I am not sure why they would kill such a high-profile person while the Mehlis investigation is taking place (or did Tueni have some new dirt?) But then again, they do seem to be building a track record of stupid assassinations. They haven't posted anything yet, but The Lebanese Bloggers might be a good place to follow this up. Update: Stacey remembers time spent with Tueni and shares what he told her, don't miss it. Le Figaro reports that Tueni had recently felt his life was threatened (he had spent a lot of time in France recently in part because of safety concerns) and notes the message the Syrian Minister of Information, Mehdi Dakhlallah, put out today:
The attack aims at the stability, the unity and the civil peace of Lebanon. The enemies of Lebanon are behind this attack. Before the intervention of foreign countries in Lebanon, the country was stable.
No doubt these crocodile tears won't go down very well in Beirut. A lot of anger over at the Lebanese Bloggers. Some interesting links and info from Beirut to the Beltway, notably that the technique used in the bombing is similar to that used against Hariri (but then again I've heard conflicting reports on that).
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Israel's circus politics

I used to follow Israeli politics much more closely a few years ago, but reading Haaretz recently reminded me that there is nothing more exhilarating than following the ups and downs of politics over there. This amusing article (shame about the racist ads, though) is just a small reminder of the high-stakes game being played in Tel Aviv:
There were plenty of comic moments during Shaul Mofaz's press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday: His entry through a window; his robotic adherence to prepared messages regardless of what he was asked; his exit through that same window. But the highlight was when he was presented with the letter that he sent over the weekend to some 130,000 Likud members, in which he promised never to leave his "home." That letter, he was told, had been written only five days earlier! "Ten days," he responded. "There were corrections and proofreading." During those 10 days, Mofaz suddenly discovered that the "Feiglins" had conquered the Likud; that Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau were pulling it rightward; that the "rebels," who opposed the disengagement, controlled the party. Somehow none of this was known to him three weeks ago, when Ariel Sharon left the Likud and urged him to join him. Only last Saturday night did it suddenly strike him. His political conduct in recent weeks has been hapless. Someone advised him to attack Sharon at every opportunity. In doing so, he drove away Sharon's supporters in the Likud. And the moment he began prattling to the media, he turned from a serious and professional defense minister into another politician. But the problem was not just Mofaz; it was also Sharon and his enormous appetite. Three hours before Mofaz telephoned Sharon on Saturday night, one of Sharon's associates said that Kadima would not accept any more new members. "Enough already!" he declared. But that was his opinion. His boss thought otherwise. Sharon wants to destroy the Likud. To rip it to shreds. Until not even a scrap remains. His resentment against the party that he established knows no bounds. Mofaz's desertion overturned another stone in the Likud. From now on, it is the party of the "rebels" (other than Silvan Shalom and Michael Eitan), and that is exactly what Sharon wants. To push the Likud into an extremist corner. To return it to the days of Menachem Begin's Herut, which was a marginal party, a laughingstock. And Sharon is moving toward this goal like a bulldozer - without worrying about the environment.
In the region only Lebanese politics come close to this (or would if they got a chance at a little more stability and transparency). With all the talk in Egypt these days being switching to a proportional representation system (at least that's what many of the pundits are advocating, no doubt partly to either isolate the Muslim Brothers or force them to integrate a party or form their own), one wonders whether we'll be seeing this kind of stuff in a decade's time. I have to wonder, though, why did Mofaz come in through the window?
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Mrs. Gamal Mubarak?

GamalgirlSo he's not gay after all: earlier this week, Al Midan, an Egyptian tabloid that rarely ventures out of the gutter, published pictures of what they said was Gamal Mubarak's fiancée. Gamal, 41, has been Egypt's most eligible bachelor for years but was never spotted with any companion. That had led to rumors spreading that if was not that interested in girls, much like Morocco's King Muhammed VI. I never quite believed that Gamal had chosen an alternative lifestyle, there were reports of him living with a girlfriend when working for Bank of America in London in the 1990s. I preferred to think those long nights spent on generating New Thinking® and battling the old guard of the NDP meant he had to make cutbacks on his social life. It's so lonely on Daddy's lap.

But never fear, Gamal seems to have found quite a lovely catch in Khadija Gamal, a 23-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo. (Note Gamal's political acumen: her first name, that of the Prophet's first wife, is sure to give him a more pious allure in these conservative times while her last name puts him at the center of all things. Perfect!) The happy couple has reportedly bought property in Zamalek for around LE5 million, suggesting that Gamal will leave the family compound in Heliopolis. (Zamalek residents, you pampered lot, if this is true your traffic problems have just quadrupled.) But does Khadija know that special basboussa recipe that Mama Suzanne is famous for? The funniest thing about all the rumors swirling about Gamal is that even this latest one--that he got engaged to the daughter of a prominent businessman--remains unconfirmed. Egyptians get to know nothing about the son, just as the father shrouds himself in secrecy. I suppose it adds to the leadership mystique. The independent press has been increasingly critical of the amount of secrecy that protects the presidency and affairs of state; last week Magdi Mehanna fired off an angry column about how much mystery there was on the composition of the next cabinet.HT E least Mubarak could have done, he said, was to consult public opinion or at least the largest opposition bloc--i.e. the Muslim Brothers. Update: Atle is the comments says it's not true. No wonder that in French, the parlor game known in English as "Chinese whispers" is called "telephone arabe."
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Stop your abortion if you're Jewish

BibiadFor the last few days, this ad has been displayed prominently on the website of Haaretz, the Hebrew and English-language Israeli newspaper. It reads, "if the Arab population in Israel reaches 40%, the Jewish state will be nullified. For the only solution, click here." All that above a picture of Benyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who is largely responsible for sabotaging the admittedly flawed Oslo peace process. If you actually click through, it will take you to EFRAT, an Israeli organization dedicated to countering the "demographic bomb" of Arab Israelis by discouraging Jewish Israelis from carrying out abortions. Cue Nigel Parry of the Electronic Intifada:
EFRAT, an organization committed only "to increase the Jewish birthrate in Israel" has no problem using the historical Jewish bogeyman of annihilation, fueled by naked racism, to frighten pregnant women into choosing not to have an abortion. Lest one think that EFRAT is a marginal organization, its website claims to have "saved 17,000 children" since 1977, boasts 2,900 trained volunteers, and its website offers video testimonials from "VIPs" that include Mr. Moshe Katsav, President of the State of Israel [View: Page | Video], and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau [View: Page | Video], who served as Israel’s Chief Rabbi between 1993-2003, was appointed Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa in 2005, and received the Israel Prize the same year. While Rabbi Israel Meir Lau's comments focus on praising EFRAT for offering an alternative to abortion, Moshe Katsav praises Efrat "for fulfilling a national duty of great importance. There was never a period in all the years of Jewish history that such a duty was as essential as it is in this generation." While it is not clear exactly what Katsav is referring to in the short clip, his invocation of history suggests he is hitting the same message as EFRAT's advertisement, one of survival of the Jewish people in Israel, in a time of demographic change. And Ha'aretz, one of the most influential newspapers in a country where one-fifth of the population are Arabs, presumably with many Arab readers, did not think twice about accepting money for an advertisement that portrays Arabs as a force of destruction in Israel, solely on the basis of their birthrate. Is there really anything left to say?
Hmmm not really.
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Bin Ladenism is not Communism

I forgot to link last week to Zibniew Brzezinski's well thought-out article about why the Bush administration should not refer to Islamism as the same as communism.
By asserting that Islamic extremism, "like the ideology of communism . . . is the great challenge of our new century," Bush is implicitly elevating Osama bin Laden's stature and historic significance to the level of figures such as Lenin, Stalin or Mao. And that suggests, in turn, that the fugitive Saudi dissident hiding in some cave (or perhaps even deceased) has been articulating a doctrine of universal significance. Underlying the president's analogy is the proposition that bin Laden's "jihad" has the potential for dominating the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of people across national and even religious boundaries. That is quite a compliment to bin Laden, but it isn't justified. The "Islamic" jihad is, at best, a fragmented and limited movement that hardly resonates in most of the world. Communism, by comparison, undeniably had worldwide appeal. By the 1950s, there was hardly a country in the world without an active communist movement or conspiracy, irrespective of whether the country was predominantly Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or Confucian. In some countries, such as Russia and China, the communist movement was the largest political formation, dominating intellectual discourse; in democratic countries, such as Italy and France, it vied for political power in open elections. In response to the dislocations and injustices precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, communism offered a vision of a perfectly just society. To be sure, that vision was false and was used to justify violence that eventually led directly to the Soviet gulag, Chinese labor and "reeducation" camps, and other human rights abuses. Nonetheless, for a while, communism's definition of the future bolstered its cross-cultural appeal. In addition, the intellectual and political challenge of the communist ideology was backed by enormous military power. The Soviet Union possessed a huge nuclear arsenal, capable of launching in the course of a few minutes a massive atomic attack on America. Within a few hours, upwards of 120 million Americans and Soviets could have been dead in an apocalyptic mutual cross-fire. That was the horrible reality. Contemporary terrorism -- though nasty and criminal, whether Islamic or otherwise -- has no such political reach and no such physical capability. Its appeal is limited; it offers no answers to the novel dilemmas of modernization and globalization. To the extent that it can be said to possess an "ideology," it is a strange blend of fatalism and nihilism. In al Qaeda's case, it is actively supported by relatively isolated groupings, and its actions have been condemned without exception by all major religious figures, from the pope to the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia. Its power is circumscribed, too. It still relies largely on familiar tools of violence. Unlike communist totalitarian regimes, al Qaeda does not use terror as an organizing tool but rather, because of its own organizational weakness, as a disruptive tactic. Its members are bound together by this tactic, not by an ideology. Ultimately, al Qaeda or some related terrorist group may acquire truly destructive power, but one should not confuse potentiality with actuality.
The argument, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that the threat presented by Al Qaeda, despite the horror of 9/11 and other attacks, is rather inflated compared to the threats from past and present dynamics. The arms race during the Cold War or the current Iran-Israel-US standoff over nuclear weapons (indeed, the idea of any nuclear power in the region) seem to me much more potentially dangerous. After all, as hard as it is to admit, we have learnt to live quite well with terrorism (i.e. it hasn't fundamentally changed the way we lead our lives nor does it present a fundamental existential threat.) The whole article is worth reading, there is also a passage on stupid terms like "Islamofascism," that favorite of the wannabe Churchillians.
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