Universities on fire in Egypt

Another Al Azhar student has reportedly died in clashes with police. I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unrest on Egyptian campuses (it is behind a paywall).

El Watan video of police firing tear gas and bird shot into Al Azhar university

The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.

Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.

At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.

Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.

Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."

The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester. 

An all-out brawl between female Azhar students and security guards armed with sticks.

Two movies from Egypt

I've written a little piece on the LRB blog about Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square -- which still hasn't been screened anywhere in Egypt, unfortunately -- and Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters, which I've already written about on this blog

The first hour of Noujaim’s film is full of familiar faces and jolting violence. The courage of the film-makers, who time and again barely dodged police onslaughts, results in some extraordinary footage. It is hard to watch this reminder of the yearning and suffering that followed Mubarak’s ouster. But it’s important to have this record. I imagined it being played on a continuous loop on all of Egypt’s TV channels, instead of the screeds against ‘terrorism’ and pop music video clips featuring military deployments. 

Human rights NGO raided in Egypt

From the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: 

EGYPT SECURITY FORCES RAID LEADING HUMAN RIGHT ORGANIZATION, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS ARRESTED AND HELD INCOMMUNICADO

More than 60 security and police officers stormed the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) at approximately midnight on 18 December, 2013. According to eye witnesses some of the officers belonged to Azbakeya and Abdin police stations and some belonged to the Homeland Security Agency (formerly known as the National Security Agency).

The officers were heavily armed and held non-armed human rights defenders working at the ECESR at gunpoint using automatic machine guns. When the ECESR’s lawyer asked the police officers to provide them with a search/arrest warrant one of the officers, believed to belong to homeland security slapped him.  Another police officer tried to stop the homeland security officer from beating the ECESR employee at which point the homeland security officer also beat the police officer and tore his clothes.

The police confiscated three laptops and a computer monitor within the office.  They then arrested and blindfolded the ECESR lawyer, another ECESR employee and four volunteers.  They were then put into a car and taken to an unidentified location. They were forced to stay blindfolded for the duration of their detention. While being dragged to the car all six defenders were beaten and slapped despite not resisting. 

[...]

Lawyers from Egyptian human rights NGOs requested information on the whereabouts of the six defenders throughout the night, including at the Azbakeya and Abdin police stations, as well as at the Cairo Security Directorate. The whereabouts of the detainees were not revealed. Informal channels of information confirmed that the arrested human rights defenders were detained in an unknown Homeland Security detention facility.

The next morning (19 December) at approximately 10am, five of the six detainees were driven blindfolded again to the Abdeen police station.  The police returned the laptops and the monitor back to the arrested defenders and they were released at approximately 11 am.

Mohamed Adel, a well known member of the April 6th youth movement and a volunteer with the ESCER,  remains detained in an unknown location.

When the five other detainees were released they were told that they were arrested by mistake and that the main purpose of the raid was the arrest of Mohamed Adel.  Adel is standing trial along with Ahmed Maher, another prominent leader of the April 6thmovement and well-known activist Ahmed Douma.

However, CIHRS believes that the intent of the government was to intimidate independent rights groups in Egypt.   Moreover, the ECESR also believes the attack may be in response to the recent engagement of the ECESR on the review of Egypt at the United Nations (UN) treaty body on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as its ongoing engagement on the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Egypt, and as such constitutes a reprisal for engagement with the UN. 

It is important to note that Adel surrendered himself to the court on the day that Maher and Douma’s detention was being renewed, and the court at this time ordered his release on grounds that he did not have a standing in the case.

The last time I saw Mohamed Adel he was depositing a request with the Kasr El Nil police station to stage a protest against the new protest law . He and his colleagues at ECESR were about to release a documentary about the ongoing Iron and Steel Workers strike in Helwan. 

DC court ruling suggests Snowden was right

 

The NYT reports on a case in which the NSA snooping program is savaged, indicating it will probably end up in the Supreme Court:

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Leon wrote in a 68-page ruling. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

Egypt's army chief: Will he? Won't he?

From The Economist's Pomegranate blog:

Mr Sisi has so far been coy, shying from the limelight. His reticence has made other potential candidates hesitate to step forward, though two former presidential hopefuls, Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a centrist Islamist, have both lately aired pointed 'advice' that it might be better for the minister to stick to military affairs. So it was with a mix of fascination and sarcastic glee that Egyptians have responded to what is alleged to be a leaked, not-for-publication portion of an interview with a sympathetic newspaper editor, in which Mr Sisi seems to suggest he may be pre-destined for the highest office.

On the tape the general, or a very skilled mimic, confesses to having often experienced peculiarly prescient dreams. In one of these he, like a Muslim hero of old, raised a sword emblazoned in red with the words "There is no God but God". In another he wore a portentously magnificent Omega watch, etched with a large green star that seemed to him a symbol of mysterious power. And he dreamed of a conversation with Anwar Sadat in which Egypt’s president from 1970-1981 declared that he had known in advance that he was destined for greatness, to which Mr Sisi responded, "I, too, know that I will be president of the Republic".

A couple of things to note here:

  1. There is a cultivated ambience of uncertainty regarding Sisi's candidacy, which increasingly appears likely. This is either deliberate manipulation to create an artificial sense of suspense and build up candidacy until it hits a crescendo when it's made official (while intimidating other potential candidates), or it reflects some level of pushback within the regime about the prospect of his candidacy (hence the focus on Amr Moussa, Sami Enan and other potential establishment candidates). 
  2. The whole dream thing may appear slightly loony to observers, but it's not that loony. There is a rich Islamic tradition of interpretation of dreams (and premonitory dreams) that is perfectly legitimate (it's a major feature of some Sufi practices) in Muslim terms. Some of this will echo with ordinary people, and it serves to increase Sisi's appeal and the myth around him more than discredit him.

Update: AP picks up on the dream thing, too.

Learning from Cairo | Mada Masr

Mada Masr has just published my review of two new books about Cairo that focus on the relationship between political upheaval and the urban environment. CLUSTER's book Archiving The City in Flux is an excellent, eloquent introduction to informality -- the many ways that Cairenes use public spaces despite, or outside, government regulation -- in the city. 
Nagati and Stryker argue that what happened in January 2011 was the result of “decades of the urbanization of injustice.” What happened after the uprising was the temporary breakdown of the state’s heavy-handed presence, for better and for worse. One informal neighborhood took the unprecedented step of connecting itself to Cairo’s ring road by building its own access ramp. Others have taken advantage of the chaos to engage in less civic behavior, from petty crime to riding motorcycles on sidewalks. 

The proliferation of street vendors in downtown Cairo — where they occupy growing swaths of the sidewalk and the street, poach business from shops and blast music from speakers — is one of the case studies included in “Archiving the City in Flux.” It is a hugely contentious issue and a litmus test for people’s political attitudes and their class prejudices. For some, street vendors represent a much-dreaded lower-class chaos (interestingly, they attract a level of disapprobation that triple-parked Mercedes don’t seem to). For others, they are “the people,” struggling to make a living and challenging the authority of the state.

The CLUSTER team’s work exposes the unfair stigmatization of lower-class informality while not romanticizing every example of people laying claim to a bit of this crowded, competitive city as an act of admirable political subversion. Their approach is empathetic yet empirical. They measured what percentage of sidewalk in downtown Cairo is occupied by street vendors (64 percent). They created a map showing where marches to Tahrir originated from, and they catalogued the changing products sold there (from cotton candy to gas masks to, during extended sit-ins, pillows). They used time-lapse photography to document how sidewalk stalls evolve throughout the day. They drove along the ring road charting where microbus stops, tea stalls, mechanics and staircases have been created by the local communities that were originally encircled but not served by the freeway.

You can see the full text of both Archiving the City in Flux and Learning from Cairo online here

 

Saudi expulsions crisis by Brian Whitaker

Briant Whitaker has been doing an extraordinary job covering the story of hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers expelled from Saudi Arabia due to a change in labour laws there. You can check out all his posts here. Recently he explained why he thinks this is such an important story:
For the last month or so, as regular readers will know, I have been following the story of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrants. I have spent hours gathering information from open sources in an effort to get a clear picture of what is happening – and this is my fourteenth blog post on the subject in the space of four weeks.

To some this might seem excessive or even obsessive but it's an important story that international media – and especially western media – have largely failed to notice.

It's a story that deeply affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the world's poorer countries, who have been living and working in the kingdom – as well as countless relatives back home who have been depending on their remittances.

It's a story that heralds fundamental social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia itself, possibly leading to political changes too.

It's a story that also affects other Arab Gulf states, since they have all become heavily dependent on foreign labour – basically relying on those they regard as inferior beings to do dirty, menial or dangerous tasks from constructing their buildings, driving their cars, cooking their meals, cleaning up their mess and preparing their dead for burial. Many of these people work in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery.

 

30,000 trafficked in Sinai

30,000 trafficked in Sinai

A guest post from contributor Parastou Hassouri, who lives in Cairo, works in the field of international refugee law, and specializes in issues of gender and migration.

On Wednesday night, the report The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, was launched in Cairo (it was launched simultaneously in several other cities including Tel Aviv, Brussels, and Lampedusa). The 238-page report is based on interviews with 230 trafficking survivors:  persons who survived the hellish ordeal of being kidnapped, held hostage and tortured brutally in the Sinai. It is a follow-up to a 2012 reportHuman Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death

I was first alerted to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking in the Sinai around 2007.  At the time, I was working at the NGO Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).  The issue most often came up when we had to assist those who had been apprehended trying to reach the Sinai (and would be detained by Egyptian authorities, even if they were registered with the UNHCR as refugees). Back then, most of the cases we dealt with involved refugees who were voluntarily crossing the Sinai in hopes of reaching Israel, where they expected to find more work opportunities and perhaps an easier way of reaching Europe. Our biggest concern was the fact that Egyptian authorities in the Sinai were using lethal force to stop this “irregular migration,” which had resulted in numerous fatalities. There was a belief, at the time, that the Egyptian authorities were only responding to pressure being placed upon them by Israelis to stem the flow of migrants. I remember spending a lot of time advising clients against making the journey, telling them the risks were not worth it (especially as so many of them faced detention once in Israel anyway).

Over the course of months, we started to hear about situations involving hostage taking: that the smugglers who had promised to take the refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants to the Sinai would inform them mid-trip that they were being kept hostage until they could pay them more money than initially demanded.  However, the situation was one that still started out “voluntarily”:  the migrants were choosing to undertake the journey, despite the risks. The numbers choosing this route seemed to increase as the number of refugees being resettled to third countries (i.e. the U.S. and Canada) declined (this started during a period when the resettlement of Iraqis had taken priority for political reasons).The people going were from different countries:  Sudan, Ethiopia, and often Eritrea. I once assisted two men from the Ivory Coast who had been detained after being abandoned by their smuggler, when he realized he had no chance of getting more money out of them. Looking at the turn things have taken, those men are lucky they lived. 

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Last week in Egypt in TV

A semi-regular features from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.

It is now generally inadvisable to involve religion in politics in Egypt, unless you limit it to condemning involving religion in politics. This is especially true if you are just looking for a hadith that recommends the murder of your political opponents.

But ONtv presenter Youssef el-Husseiny has too much testosterone to care. Earlier this week, in an effort to see how much the Brothers like Sharia now, Husseiny told us a story about the Prophet and the Jews of Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa, which he argued gives the authorities the religious right to kill all Brothers that hit puberty.

Those Jews, Husseiny tells us, used to gloat over the misfortunes of the Muslims (just like the MB celebrated their fellow Egyptian Muslims' embarrassing football defeat) and broke the medina charter by collaborating with Quraysh, if only in spirit, against the Muslims in their unsuccessful siege of el-Medina during the Battle of the Trench. After the Muslims won, the Prophet, he says, asked his wounded companion Sa’d ibn Mo’ez what to do with the treacherous Jews, and Sa’d suggested the mass murder of all the post-pubescent males of the said tribes, or at least everyone capable of fighting. Given that it was a time of war, the Prophet followed Sa’d’s advice.

Moral of the story is: The Brothers are like the Jews of Nadir, we are in a time of war and they want Sharia, right? [Smile] They do realize Sharia would see them killed? Perhaps they want to disagree with Sharia and -- God forbid -- claim to know better than Sa’d, the Prophet [pause and smile some more] and Allah!

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In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

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