Egypt's raids on NGOs

Note: this post was written yesterday. I understand the US NGOs have had their property returned after the intervention of the US government.

I'm away from Cairo at the moment, so apart from a few panicked SMSs from friends and the coverage on Twitter I have not really followed yesterday's raids on six NGOs by the Egyptian police. Links for reported stories on what happened are at the bottom of the post. I want here only to give my own interpretation of what's happening.

Such a course of action was a possibility, of course, since last September or so when investigations into NGOs that receive foreign funding were initiated by SCAF, Minister of State for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga and the ministry of justice. The fight over NGOs, and the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be mostly drawing attention to Western-funded NGOs rather than Gulf-funded Islamic charities, is a manufactured crisis created to use as a card against Western, and more specifically US, pressure on the Egyptian government.

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The uprisings and the arts in the Arab world

One of the key people to follow for Middle Eastern news — particularly analysis of the media and cultural scenes — is Andrew Hammond, who works at Reuters. He also has a blog where he posts the occasional non-Reuters article, the latest of which is about the arts scene after the uprisings. After first discussing worries in arts circles about the rise of Islamists, Hammond writes:

However, I think a more pertinent issue to raise here is the general state of the al-wasat al-fanni, or the arts scene, as it is often referred to in Arabic, since this is what exercises the minds of these new players on the political scene. It is utterly corrupt. The arts were and are an intimate part of the rotten structure of Arab state politics. To rise to the top in Mubarak’s entertainment world you had to play the game with the regime, because the state placed itself at the centre of artistic production, giving the more sordid aspects of fame familiar anywhere a more sinister turn.

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An Egyptian army officer's tale

From testimony from an Egyptian military officer, published by Jack Shenker in the Guardian: Egyptian army officer's diary of military life in a revolution:

After Mubarak fell and the rule of Scaf (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) began, the top brass moved quickly to secure the loyalty of all mid-level and junior officers. Whenever a big Friday street demonstration or rally in Tahrir Square took place we would all receive a bonus of between 250 and 500 Egyptian pounds (£26-52), whether or not we had anything to do with policing the protests.

It's ridiculous; at the height of the unrest reserve officer salaries doubled and everyone was getting huge bonuses all the time (an average of 2,400 pounds – £254 – for me in January and February). Most full-time officers didn't really care what was happening politically on the streets, they were just happy with the extra money. Occasionally though you'd hear guilty jokes about how we were the only people who were benefiting from the revolution and the Egyptian people had been screwed over.

 Read the whole thing, it's very enlightening although not altogether surprising. This is how it ends:

But as the months went on, despite this ignorance and the generous bonus system, dissent against [Egypt's commander-in-chief and current head of Scaf, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi has grown. Most of the mid-level officers now think of him as Mubarak's right-hand man, and they hate the fact that Scaf's violence has tarnished the army's image in the eyes of the public. Many still disapprove of the current protests because they feel it's not the right time, and also because they're resentful that others can go and demonstrate on the streets when they themselves do not have such freedom. But that attitude is beginning to change, especially as independent TV channels have been airing video clips of the recent violence and the brutality of the security forces is being openly discussed by people like [prominent media personalities] Yosri Fouda and Ibrahim Eissa. More and more mid-level officers are turning against Scaf, and against Tantawi."

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Women, "honor" and public space

This is a guest post by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005, has taught international refugee law at the American University in Cairo and specializes in issues of gender and migration: 

Earlier this month, what was perhaps the biggest demonstration by women in Egypt in several decades took place. Thousands marched through Cairo, protesting the abuse of women protesters by soldiers. It was followed by a mass Friday demonstration in support of women, called the “Friday to Restore Honor.”

The show of support was impressive. But the title “restoring honor” was perhaps an unfortunate one in a society like Egypt, where the concept of honor has been used to repress women and push them out of the public sphere.

As the Egyptian feminist organization, Nazra, said in their excellent statement on the issue, this is not about women’s honor.  What must be protected here is not the honor of women, but rather their right to protest and be politically active alongside men as equal partners in this critical phase of Egypt’s history.

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Egypt: An end to virginity tests

Samira Ibrahim, who won first part of her case against the Egyptian military's

From Hossam Bahgat, the director of the excellent NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights:

I have good news (gasp). This morning the Court of Administrative Justice ruled in our favor in the case against army chief for subjecting female protesters to "virginity tests". Court admitted the case and issued an urgent injunction against any future "tests". We now continue the fight to get criminal accountability and compensation for the women.

The above pic is of Samira Ibrahim, a victim of the "virginity tests" last March who took the military to court.

Read more about the case in Daily News Egypt.

Media and the "girl in the blue bra"

I was interviewed by NPR's On The Media about the Egyptian media's reaction to the footage of the "girl in the blue bra" and, more generally, changes in the Egyptian media landscape and access to information.

Previously:

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

What the skyline tells you about Cairo

Photo from No Expectations

From Cairobserver, a site about Cairo's urban heritage and one of the best new Egypt-based blogs of 2011:

Take the lift at Cairo Tower to the top and look at the skyline. Besides the TV&Radio building from the 1960s and the ministry of foreign affairs from the 1990s, a couple of bank towers, the rest are hotels, mostly built with Gulf investments during Mubarak’s tenure. What does that tell us about Egypt, about Cairo? There are no condo towers for the wealthy because they opted to go suburban, there are few or no office towers (besides the two Sawiris towers further north) because most businesses that aren’t multi-nationals are too small to rent space in an actual office tower so they rent cheap-rent residential apartments. Big telecommunication companies don’t need office towers in Cairo because they went to the desert and built their own “Smart Village.” And media companies also went to the desert and built “Media City.” The skyline isn’t telling of a very healthy economy. The kinds of investments that typically make a city work have all abandoned the city.

The result of decades of petrodollar and comprador capitalism...

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The FT's Egypt Special

Every year around this time of the year, the Financial Times does a special Egypt supplement (these supplements are advertising-supported but have regular FT-quality content). This year's issue is well worth reading, looking back at an extraordinary year for Egypt and much uncertainty ahead.

FT Egypt Special [PDF, 36.6MB] 

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Podcast #23: The Sandmonkey Episode

In this week's episode, Ursula and I talk to the legendary Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, a major figure of the online coverage of the uprising. Also known as Mahmoud Salem, Sandmonkey was an unlucky candidate in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, standing in a Cairo district. He tells us about his experience there and as an electoral campaign manager in second round in Suez, and how he sees the most recent clashes between protestors and the army in Tahrir.

Show notes:

Podcast #23:

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The counter-revolution and women

The ugliness and ridiculousness of the army and their defenders' arguments this week has been hard to countenance. 

Much of the debate has centered on the shocking image of the young woman dragged, half undressed and mercilessly beaten in the street by soldiers. The denial, misogyny and hostility on display has been in direct proportion to the impossibility of defending this conduct. 

A sheikh with the Gamaa Islamiya exemplified the worst of Islamist bigotry and hypocrisy by telling Al Ahram a few days ago that "real Egyptian men don't follow April 6 women into the street" and if people are concerned for women's honor they should worry about girls sleeping overnight in tents with boys and dancing.

The focus on women -- their safety, their "honor," their participation -- has brought out the worst in the counter-revolutionaries. In the pro-army Abbasiya protest yesterday, people chanted: "From the ladies of Egypt to Ghada.." -- addressing this brave young woman, beaten by the army -- "Your end will be annihilation." They also reiterated the perversely common argument that the woman in the blue bra entrapped soldiers into beating and stripping her in the street. The event was headlined by Tawfeeq Okasha, a weird populist TV station owner (and former Mubarak supporter) who judging by this video -- in which he creepily tells activists Nawara Negm and Asmaa Mahfouz that he has guys all ready and lined up to marry them and teach them to calm down and love their country -- is a raving psychopath and misogynist. Just for good measure, the Abbaseya demo also reportedly featured posters of popular private TV channel presenters Mona Shazly, Reem Maged and others with nooses around their necks. 

The loons in Abbaseya are an extreme end of popular opinion (albeit one that is being dangerously encouraged). Many other Egyptians are shamed, shocked and scared by the army's violence towards citizens, and (although I think by now almost everyone knows that something terrible happened Downtown last week) would prefer to believe that it didn't happen -- or that those it happened to somehow deserved it. Egypt is still fighting the same battle, a year on: a battle over whether all its citizens deserve safety and dignity and whether those who are in power can be held accountable. The denial and incoherent rage being directed at protesters -- and at those women who, according to these arguments, chose to embarrass themselves and their country by getting themselves nearly killed in the street by soldiers -- shows how difficult and threatening this kind of change will be. 

The Egyptian military's economic empire

The Army and the Economy in Egypt, in Jaddaliya:

Any discussion of the relationship between the army and economy cannot ignore the military establishment’s near-absolute dominance of the local economy in various Egyptian governorates. It is well known to many that Egyptians outside of Cairo live under virtual military rule, wherein twenty-one of the twenty-nine appointed governors are retired army generals. This is in addition to dozens of posts in city and local governments that are reserved for retired officers. These individuals are responsible for managing wide-ranging economic sectors in each governorate. In other words, army generals—whose expertise does not go beyond operating armored tanks or fighter jets—are suddenly tasked with managing and overseeing significant economic activities, such as the critical tourism sectors of Luxor and Aswan, Qena’s sugar manufacturing enterprises, or Suez’s fishing and tucking industries.

There is no shortage of corruption stories involving army generals and their mismanagement of local economies. For example, in one such incident former Luxor Governor General Samir Farag—who previously served as director of morale affairs of the Armed Forces—sold land to a local businessman below market prices. The land was initially designated for building an Olympic games stadium. In fact, after hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds were spent on the project, all of a sudden construction was suspended and all the spent funds went to waste, as the land was sold to a businessman that owned a hotel across the street. Similarly, the residents of Aswan allege that their governor General Mustafa al-Sayed was involved in corruption cases involving public lands and the tourism sector. Al-Sayed recently appointed at least ten retired army brigadier generals as managers of the quarries and river ports and offered them exorbitant salaries, even though they lack relevant qualifications and experience.

Given that those in charge of managing our local economies receive such jobs as a “retirement bonus,” it is unsurprising that local development throughout Egyptian governorates has remained stagnant for decades and lags behind other countries.

This story barely scratches at the details, but is well worth reading. A look at military conscripts who end up working (for no money) in military factories would be particularly enlightening. It's really hard to underscore how terrible this military regime has been for this country, in every possible way. One thing though: some estimates cited in others pieces for how much of the Egyptian economy is controlled by the military go as high as 40%. That is almost certainly an exaggeration, since the private sector is at least 50% by itself and there is a large official state sector outside the military's control.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Foreign funding in Egypt

Check out this article in yesterday's al-Ahram [PDF, I can't find the link on al-Ahram's abominable website]. It discusses ongoing government investigations into foreign funding of NGOs. About 80% of the article is dedicated to $65m in US government funding of American NGOs such as NDI and IRI. It goes on in some detail, although all of this info is no revelation and is published by the US authorities. The rest — an afterthought — is about millions of pounds being sent by the Gulf to unnamed organizations (it is known that the Salafi dawa group Ansar al-Sunna al-Mohammediya is among them). At one point they even talk about millions being sent by "the finance ministry of a small Gulf country" which probably means Kuwait. It's just that al-Ahram does not want to offend the Kuwaitis.

They have already investigated the personal accounts of NGO people in Egypt, who could face all sorts of legal hassles. But while dozens of human rights groups are cited in the reports, the Salafi groups that received funding barely get a look. And most of this money came in February and March. Some of the money that came in — LE86,150,000 to be exact — went to the Muhammad Alaa Mubarak foundation, set up in memory of Hosni Mubarak's grandson. But there, no details.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

In Translation: Egypt's deep state

This week’s translation comes from al-Tahrir, the newspaper edited by Ibrahim Eissa that is among the most critical publications of SCAF and the security services to come out since the January uprising. The writer of this column is Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, a former high-level Egyptian diplomat who has woked on the Middle East peace process and in Sudan in various capacities, both for his country and the United Nations. He is also a novelist — his latest book has just been shortlisted for the Arabic Booker — and teaches International Relations at the American University in Cairo. His website is here. We previously feature Ezzedine (a friend of ours) in this hilarious video, in which he berates state television by introducing them to the concept of remote controls.

This column echoes a lot of my own thinking about recent events, notably hinting at a trend within the Egyptian deep state that is seeking to re-establish itself, manipulating politics (including the elections) and pushing SCAF towards confrontation and state media towards incitation against the revolutionary movement. This is a worrying development, even perhaps raising a question about whether one hand of the state knows what what the other is doing.

As always, we rely on the fantastic Arabic translation services of our partner, Industry Arabic. If you need anything translated from Arabic — a technical or legal document, a media article, a report — check them out.

Goodbye to Military Rule

By Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, al-Tahrir, 20 December 2011

The coup-makers who dragged the Military Council into adopting the approach of the State Security Investigations Service (SSI) in the way it handles revolutionary forces have damaged the Military Council, the image of the army and the army’s status in the new political order.

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Wanted — put a name to these faces

Above are pictures of soldiers, police and plainclothes participants — on SCAF's side — in the last week's protests. There are many more on Jonathan Rashad's site.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

More denial

This video is a prime example of the excruciating debates we're seeing on Egyptian TV recently. The guest on this show is insisting to the presenter that the army would never shoot at crowds, despite video evidence, claims Sheikh Emad Effat was shot at close range and then is challenged by a coroner's report saying he was shot at a distance and from a height (possibly indicating a sniper). Despite being contradicted with evidence at every turn, he keeps on rambling about the army as protector of the nation, etc., and that the allegations against it are therefore impossible.

It's rather typical, unfortunately, of the SCAF's worldview and that of some establishment figures: the army can do no wrong, therefore the army has not done anything wrong. What we're witnessing is an entire mental edifice of denial and excuses crumbling down. Great that this presenter gave him a tough time — on state TV, they often just nod along in agreement.

Previously:  Egypt, still the land of denial

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Parallel dimensions

This is a good video juxtaposing officials' speeches with the actions of protestors. We added the subtitles for non-Arabic speakers to get the jist of it, but you can see the original video here. The official speaking is Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri.

The women's march

It's heartening to finally see some uplifting, positive news in these depressing times. The march of around 10,000 women that has taken place today is precisely the type of unexpected turnaround that has made the Egyptian uprising a success at various points this year. It comes out of nowhere and recharges the depleted batteries of activists. It reminds the protestors that their rage will not be sated by throwing stones but only by seeing the solidarity of their fellow men and women. It is the type of event, once it percolates throught the late night TV talk shows and the newspapers, can actually deliver change and political pressure. For those who thought the protests went astray in the last few days by becoming more about revenge than demands, it is a welcome correction.

The SCAF of course rushed to produce an apology after its agents in the media began spreading rumors that the photo of the woman who was attacked by soldiers several days ago was doctored. Just like earlier today it suddenly announced it would punish officers involved in the "virginity tests" and the Maspero killings. But I doubt people will settle for show trials.

The Associated Press:

CAIRO (AP) -- Thousands of Egyptian women marched in the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, protesting abuse by soldiers who dragged women by the hair, stomped on them and stripped one half naked on the street while cracking down on anti-military protesters in scenes that shocked many in the conservative society.

The march was a rare protest by women and its numbers - about 10,000 by some estimates - underlined the depth of anger over the images from the fierce crackdown over the past five days on protesters demanding the ruling military step down immediately.

Even before the protest was over, the ruling military council issued an unusual apology for what it called "violations" - a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.

Thousands of women denounce military violence against female protesters:

CAIRO: Thousands of Egyptian women took to the streets of downtown Cairo on Tuesday denouncing the excessive use of violence and sexual abuse by the Egyptian army against female protesters, drowning out the relevance of an official apology to "Egypt's great women" published on SCAF's Facebook page four hours after the march started.

The march, which included about 6,000 women and around 2,000 men, began in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's revolution, and headed to the Journalists' Syndicate. Protesters had a loud and clear message for Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces: "Egypt's women are the red line."

Mothers, daughters and grandmothers marched hand in hand chanting against the military, calling for their fellow Egyptians on the streets and in their homes to join them in demanding that the military step down immediately.

All this sorts of reminds me of a column I wrote on January 1, about women leading the (then not happening) uprisings.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.

 


 

The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

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