Snitch on your servants!

The following notice (translated from Arabic) has recently been put up in the swanky Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, home of the expat, rich and famous (and Gamal Mubarak):

Security Directions for the Safety and Security of Residents in the District of Zamalek

  1. Please do not give a copy of the key of any private residential apartment to any person working for its occupants (servant/cook/driver etc)
  2. In case of the owner/occupant's travel or leaving the apartment please ensure it is completely closed and inform the watchman or security guard…
  3. In case of engaging (a servant/ maid/driver etc) please inform us in advance of their commencing work [so that] from our part we may check the identity of the worker and ascertain whether they have any record. (In this case please send a copy of the identity card to us with the building watchman).
  4. Please make sure the exterior door of your building is closed and not left open.
  5. The building watchman/ security guard is instructed not to allow entry to any person except after checking their identity and the identity of the occupant they wish to visit.
  6. The building watchman/security guard is instructed to register the details of any suspicious or unknown person in the security log.
  7. We are to be informed in case of the absence of a watchman/security guard or in case the exterior door of the building is not closed.
  8. In case of anything [unusual] at the property please contact us at any time.

We kindly ask all owners to implement these instructions for their security.

With thanks

Ministry of Interior

Qasr al Nil District

Zamalek Police Post

Captain Islam Abd al Aal

Rais Mabahith al Gazira

No one really seems to know why these are going up these days, but the fevered and irresponsible speculation is that security for the whole district has been put on alert for the possibility that Gamal Mubarak could be targeted for an attack as he circulates through the crowded streets of Zamalek. Naturally, if you can afford to live in Zamalek you are above suspicion, so security instead worries about servants taking control of a strategically located apartment to stage an attack on his motorcade. Or something. Or maybe someone recently got burgled by their servants, and that someone is well-connected enough to have put the whole district on alert. In any case, rest assured, big brother is looking out for you and your domestic help.

On that note, Eid al-Christmas Mubarak, Happy Greater Feast of Ritualized Abrahamic Sacrifice and Merry Jewish. Regular activity will resume in the Gregorian calendar year 2008.

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Links for 12-18 December

Automatically posted links for December 12th through December 18th:
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December 2007 ARB out

The December issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin is out (well probably a week or so now), and it's worth taking a look at. Steven Cook (who wrote this book on the military in Middle Eastern politics) writes about the US presidential candidates and democracy promotion in the Arab world, a notion all the first-tier candidates pay lip service to. Steve notes however that:

More than any of the other candidates, Senator John Edwards situates democracy promotion within a policy to fight extremism. As part of a long-term effort to support political change, Senator Edwards has called for $3 billion in funding for global primary education, increasing microfinance programs, supporting health care in developing countries, and “dramatic increases� in the “promotion of constitutional democracies and the rule of law across the developing world.�

One may argue over whether democracy promotion should be the business of US presidential candidates (Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul don't think so), but it's good to see Edwards have a proposal with a bill attached and a focus on rule of law rather than elections. That being said, Obama and McCain have also made much noise about this, with Obama making clear that he would implement aid/trade conditionality as a tool of pressure:

Of all the candidates, Obama provides the strongest hint of how he would go about promoting political change in the Arab world. The centerpiece of his approach can be described as conditionality in which economic and military aid, trade deals, and debt relief would be coupled with an “insistent call for reform.�

I'd like to see how far he gets in applying conditionality in practice, since in most cases aid deals are tied to domestic economic interests.

This issue of ARB also has a piece on Lebanese civil society and the Khalass movement by Omayma Abdel Latif (we miss her in Egypt), finding it has had very limited impact in going beyond sectarian lines:

Five months into the Khalass campaign, it is not clear whether the organizers’ efforts to go beyond politics and sectarian polarization are bearing fruit. “It has not created momentum or attracted enough popular attention,� wrote Ghassan Saoud in al-Akhbar newspaper recently. Other observers have suggested that a photo-op between two political enemies such as Saad al-Hariri, head of majority March 14 bloc, and Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and an ally of Hizbollah, would change the popular mood ten times faster than Khalass and other anti-war civil society activities.

There are also articles there on economic obstacles to further democratization in Mauritania, freedom of expression in Libya, and educational reform in Saudi Arabia.

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In eigener Sache

Here’s Ulrich Ladurner of Die Zeit (one of Germany’s largest and most influential papers) travelling to a remote Iranian province to find out whether Ahmadinejad’s promises to improve life in the country’s regions were fulfilled. (Which is a laudable intention, as few bother to look at the country beyond nuclear bomb issue.) The article simply ends up being about how difficult it is to find information in Iran (title: The Persian labyrinth – Has President Ahmadinejad improved the situation of the poor in the provinces? To find an answer to that is as difficult as decoding the truth on the Iranian bomb.) Now, the author talks to a doorman working at a local authority:
“Our president is the best president in the world,� he says, without being asked. You don’t have to believe he means what he says. […] What he really thinks? Maybe he doesn’t know that himself. Iran is a country in confusion.
Isn’t this highly discriminating of Middle Easterners – just because the khawaga correspondent doesn’t understand what’s going on on someone’s mind doesn’t mean that someone himself doesn’t know what he has on his mind. This is a feature, ok, but if you ask whether provinces are benefiting from what the capital promises, the words economic growth, investment and unemployment shouldn’t be totally missing from your text, should they (he does mention inflation). Instead Ladurner travels to an industrial area and tries to measure the province’s economic development by glancing at factories and roads from the outside. One paragraph really struck me: The author finds out a school that gets promoted as being built within six months of Ahmadinejad’s arrival in fact was built by a local business man two years before Ahmadinejad got elected. He gets the business man’s mobile number, but then he stops short of calling the guy because he doesn’t want to endanger the one he got it from (well, you just don’t tell anyone). Local business men, affiliated with the centre of power or not, can be a good oral source in the absence of reliable social and economic data. So instead of calling up that potential source of information, he spends much of his text (and research, presumably) on complaining about Iranian state officials putting him off from office to office instead of giving him information. But the bureaucracy of some Middle Eastern states is a result of these countries’ political economy (for which the West often is responsible) and not of the mindset of Middle Easterners, as suggested by the author in an almost Michael Friedmanian manner. (In eigener Sache is the German media’s slug for announcements on internal issues.)
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Creative Chaos

 I just saw the movie that everyone is talking about in Cairo these days: Heyya Fauda (It’s Chaos). It’s the latest by Youssef Chahine, but unlike a lot of his work lately, it’s eminently entertaining. It’s also very political. The film opens with actual footage of the many street protests and altercations between demonstrators and riot police that shook Cairo in the last few years. One of the main characters is a police officer who steals, bullies and tortures his way through the film. In one scene, the officer re-enacts a well-known joke about President Hosni Mubarak: he buys something and of course is told it’s free for him, but he says no, he insists on paying. “How much is it?� The scared storekeeper says: “25 piasters for you, ya-basha� (a few American cents). To which the officer replies: “No, no. Here’s a pound. Give me four.�

 

The movie also has the almost obligatory allegory of Egypt as a victimized young woman, as well as explicit nods to (if not outright mentions of) the president’s national party, the tension between the police and the judiciary, and what Chahine clearly views as the hypocrisy of the Muslim Brotherhood. It all ends with a cathartic scene in which a great throng of Egyptians attacks a police station. It’s as riveting as revenge fantasies generally tend to be.

 

The movie has been predictably championed by the opposition press and criticized by state hacks. It’s not a masterpiece—it has some pretty unconvincing moments—but it has strong performances and great momentum. What I found most interesting is the way it manages to be a commercially successful thriller (the screening I saw was packed) with some substantive political content. I was genuinely surprised that some of this stuff made it past the censors. People laughed loudly at all the jokes about police prevarication, clapped at some moments of revolt, and by the end were calling for the odious police officer to off himself, already. 

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There goes EgyptAir

It takes one of EgyptAir’s European offices more than three months to issue a simple refund (including what I thought were attempts to keep the money). If it continues to refuse improving its services, the airline will be swept away by competition once Egyptian civil aviation is liberalized (which is why that hasn’t happened yet, but there are hints the government is losing its patience with the airline.) Egypt has (except for regional airports) not yet signed the BlueSkies agreement with the EU (unlike Morocco, in a way a competitor on the Middle Eastern tourism market), which amongst other things allows foreign airlines to fly to Cairo and then on to other destinations, thus competing with EgyptAir’s domestic flights. EgyptAir did not renew its information systems between the 1970s (!) and the early 2000s, and there were years its subsidiaries didn’t even bother to issue annual reports to the holding company after the new structure was created in 2002. The situation is somehow similar to Italy: a big tourism nation, whose national carrier just doesn’t get its act together. Alitalia makes 1 million euro loss a day, and nobody wants to buy the carrier (let’s wait and see whether any of the three current bidder will actually buy it) as no one knows how bad it is. Except that in Egypt, and that’s the point I’m trying to make, national security issues are once again in the way of economic growth and jobs. Civil aviation is one of the last sectors still very much controlled by the security apparatus. It is full of former air force generals (and pilots?), of course, but for instance Cairo’s airport is also not part of any governorate, which means it is administered directly by the presidency – which means Zakaria Azmi and the likes from the presidential surroundings control which business man has to pay how much to get export licenses and so on. At least until very recently, the mukhabarat had stakes in what appeared to be private sector services companies at the airport, and forced the management of these companies to blow up staff numbers with additional pairs of eyes observing passengers instead of doing what these companies were supposed to do to render Cairo with the services-oriented airport it deserves. I always found it difficult to remain patient while the police guy who checks whether you got a border stamp about two meters after you got a border stamp is unable to find the border stamp in your passport if you know that at the same time there’s plenty of non-police guys available to carry your luggage right into the airplane without any controls whatsoever for just 50 euro (the business man who told me that didn’t have change ready when he tried to navigate around that big group of Italian tourists in front of him that made his flight very much look like taking off without him.) Getting back to EgyptAir, the issue is its protection prevents Egypt’s tourism industry from realizing its potential. Foreign carriers’ demands for more slots at Cairo’s airport are delayed or not approved, but this lowers the number of tourism arrivals other parts of the government (rightfully) hope for. Let's hope being a member of the Star Alliance will approve the service-side of things at EgyptAir (while the quality of its pilots and the modernity of its fleet are undisputed).
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Enter Nassef

Finally, Nassef Sawiris has moved out of the shadow of his brothers who made a lot of headlines with their emerging markets telecoms empire (Naguib) and Swiss alpine village (Samih), while Nassef’s Orascom Construction Industries (OCI) maintained such a low profile it could (reportedly) do business with the Pentagon and North Korea at the same time. Now, France’s Lafarge has bought OCI’s cement operations in a 14.9 billion dollar deal, and in return Nassef gets an 11.4 pct stake in Lafarge plus two seats on the company’s board of directors. Analysts say OCI wants to focus on construction and infrastructure, but – as you can never quite separate business from politics in the Middle East – I’m wondering whether the Sawiris’ truly believe the Middle Eastern cement boom is over or whether we’re rather seeing a long-term strategy of the three brothers to move part of their assets away from Egypt (and the Middle East). Their relations with the ruling family don’t seem to be as strong as in the case of other Egyptian business tycoons (which means the impact of Mubarak’s death will not be as strong), but I guess we’ll have to wait for the full picture (on this one as on so many other things) until the Pharao has moved on to another life. In any case, the proceeds from the sale will be paid out to shareholders as special dividend – i.e. mostly to the Sawiris themselves. I’m wondering what the brothers are up to with so much cash.
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Links for 12 December

Automatically posted links for December 9th through December 12th:

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Links for 5-6 December

Automatically posted links for December 5th through December 6th:
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Off to Brussels

I will be in Brussels for the next week, bringing some much-needed Arab advice on good governance to the people who were unable to form a coalition in SIX MONTHS. It is an initiative co-sponsored by Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh.

Blogging will be severely limited, as I expect Brussels has fallen to warring Waloon and Flemish factions and I will be busy avoiding projectile chocolate and beer, or blue oranges, or whatever it is that Belgians fight with.

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Links for December 4th

Automatically posted links for December 4th:

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Podhoretz on the NIE

Prepare to have your head explode:

Dark Suspicions about the NIE NORMAN PODHORETZ - 12.03.2007 - 17:50

It is worth remembering that in 2002, one of the conclusions offered by the NIE, also with “high confidence,� was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.� And another conclusion, offered with high confidence too, was that “Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.�
I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.

[From Commentary » Blog Archive » Dark Suspicions about the NIE]

Norman Podhoretz, of course, is a leading advocate of immediately attacking Iran. He was also in favor of invading Iraq. But since the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs was wrong, then the latest intelligence on Iran's WMDs must also be wrong. Geddit!?!
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Qursaya Island

I'd mentioned before this story about the Egyptian military's attempts to takeover an island south of Cairo in order to build a new development, which means kicking out the farmers and other inhabitants that live there. There has been anecdotal evidence that the military is getting increasingly greedy about encroaching on the civilian sphere, particularly when it comes to prime land and business. Some, perhaps many, would say that has always been the case. But it's worth reading the AFP dispatch (one of the only English-language stories on the issue to my knowledge, although the independent and opposition Arabic press has given it plenty of coverage) in light of the movies Hossam posted today, which show the islanders' fight against soldiers and include a documentary on the island.

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The spies who loved NIE

This is just plain bizarre. Where has this report been for the last two years?

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 — Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.
An administration that had cited Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as the rationale for an aggressive foreign policy — as an attempt to head off World War III, as President Bush himself put it only weeks ago — now has in its hands a classified document that undercuts much of the foundation for that approach.
The impact of the National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion — that Iran had halted a military program in 2003, though it continues to enrich uranium, ostensibly for peaceful uses — will be felt in endless ways at home and abroad.
It will certainly weaken international support for tougher sanctions against Iran, as a senior administration official grudgingly acknowledged. And it will raise questions, again, about the integrity of America’s beleaguered intelligence agencies, including whether what are now acknowledged to have been overstatements about Iran’s intentions in a 2005 assessment reflected poor tradecraft or political pressure.
[From An Assessment Jars a Foreign Policy Debate About Iran - New York Times]

Scott Horton has links to a summary of the full report, which essentially says:

• We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.
• We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

Of course that won't stop the people at Warmongers Inc. (i.e. WINEP, that research center of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, just look at who wrote that report) to continue talking about how exactly they should be bombing Iran.

But it does raise some pretty big issues about why the Bush administration has exaggerated the threat that Iran's nuclear program, why this year's NIE contradicts previous ones, and how much this change of mind is politics rather than pure tradecraft and new information. The most likely source of new information for the American intelligence agencies would be the alleged Iranian defector believed to have been either selling intelligence to Western agencies for several years or to have more recently been turned. Remember this story from this Spring? It was hard to trust at the time, since it came out in the Sunday Times (that favorite clearinghouse for Mossad disinformation) and various Israeli newspapers.

Either way some might take it as a sign that the US intelligence community was either (1) scared into being extremely cautious after the Bush administration tried to blame it for missing the boat on Iraq, (2) going on the offensive against the Bush administration's clear desire to sanction or bomb Iran as a form of revenge against being bullied about for the last seven year because they now face a discredited lame-duck president, or (3) both. Although now may now be a time to commend them for agreeing with the assessment of other intelligence agencies and of the IAEA (by the way: how about an apology to Mohamed Baradei?), in the end no matter which way you look at it they (the spy community) come out looking pretty bad. It's going to take them a while to recover from the lack of trustworthiness demonstrated in the whole Iraq WMD fiasco.

I am now looking forward to seeing some of the wingnut commentary about how the people who wrote NIE are a bunch of appeasers, traitors and anti-semites. And, just maybe, a new policy towards Iran not designed to bring the Persian Gulf to the brink of apocalypse and that gives ordinary Iranians more, not less, access to the outside world. That's the lesson to be learned from over a decade of sanctions against Iraq that destroyed that country's civic fabric and, with the occupation, led to the present sorry state of affairs.

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Links for December 3rd

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Links for 2 December

Automatically posted links for November 30th through December 2nd:
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US withdraws resolution under Israeli pressure

US withdraws Mideast resolution:

UNITED NATIONS - Because of Israeli objections, the United States suddenly withdrew a U.N. resolution endorsing this week's agreement by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to reach a Mideast peace settlement — even though the measure had overwhelming Security Council support.

The U.S. about-face in less than 24 hours on Friday surprised many U.N. diplomats and highlighted Israel's difficult relations with the United Nations, which it contends is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. But what surprised U.N. diplomats most was that the U.S. didn't consult Israel, one of its closest allies, before introducing the draft resolution on Thursday afternoon.

With virtually every other Mideast resolution, the U.S. has consulted Israel in advance, but on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad first presented it at a closed council meeting.

As he left, he welcomed the "very positive" response from council members but told reporters he needed to consult with the Israelis and Palestinians on the text to ensure that the resolution was what they wanted.

It clearly was not what Israel wanted as a first step to support the agreement that emerged at the U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to try to reach a peace settlement by the end of 2008.

Well-informed diplomats said Israel didn't want a resolution because it would bring the Security Council, which it distrusts, into the fledgling negotiations with the Palestinians.

The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Khalilzad introduced the draft resolution not only without consulting the Israelis and Palestinians but without getting broad support from President Bush's administration.

"It's not the proper venue," Israel's deputy ambassador Daniel Carmon told reporters after Friday's council meeting. "We feel that the appreciation of Annapolis has other means of being expressed than in a resolution."

Why don't the Israelis want a UN resolution on Annapolis? Because they want to stay as far as possible from the solutions to the conflict that are most legitimate in international law, namely the ones contained in UN Resolution 242. As always, Israel gets its special treatment and dictates the US position in the United Nations. So while there is broad international consensus on the conflict, Israel seeks to escape it, because it can.

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