Cherie je t'adore... comme la salsa de pomodore

I am a complete sucker for these things — so I'll just lift this video from Zeinobia and post it here.

The singer is Bob Azzam — a Palestinian Greek Orthodox crooner whose family took refuge in Cairo after 1948.

Things fall apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, The Second Coming

I don't have much to add to all the noise around the Mabhuh assassination, except to say that this is the opportunity to pressure European governments to distance themselves from Israel, notably by freezing any further advanced status talks between the EU and Israel. Ideally, a review of visa regulations for Israeli citizens should also be considered. Politicians need to latch on to this seriously, especially in Britain. Considering what've seen so far is mostly indignation without consequences (and that we can't really rule out the possibility of European cooperation — see Fisk's rant on this, although I am pretty agnostic about it).
I am still forming my own take on the impact of the assassination for the region (as opposed to Europe.) One of the most important things I think it reveals is the level of instability of the regional order — it suggests to me that since at least 2006 if not earlier the dynamic is one of chronic instability where open war is generally avoided (except by the Israelis) but all kinds of dirty games and pressures are being played. Think of the Bush administration's role in training Palestinian Authority forces, the Gaza clashes that led to the Hamas takeover, Hamas being pushed into an incredibly difficult position, the Syrians and Saudis playing all sides, Lebanon entering a post-post-Hariri phase, Iraq still to find a role for itself post-Saddam, Egypt's loss of control internally and externally, and so on and so forth. It's hard to describe today's Middle East, except that it is no longer the Middle East of the Oslo / dual containment era, nor is it something altogether new yet. Birth pangs indeed. 
The other thing that comes to mind is that Mossad was taken off-guard at crime-fighting capabilities of Dubai (despite its slightly buffoonish police chief). The fact is Dubai has been under considerable pressure to bring its role as a Mecca of arms dealers, money launderers, sanction busters and other shady characters under control for the past decade. Tremendous efforts were made by the US to control terrorism financing, and more still to monitor if not stop Dubai's connection with Iran. The fascinating thing about the Mabhuh tapes is that they were probably made using a British CCTV system that was built to keep track of these things, not Mossad operations. Likewise, as mentioned in the Economist story below on Lebanon, the monitoring equipment Lebanon used to uncover Israel's spy network was the result of French and/or Russian equipment brought in in part to improve the monitoring of Hizbullah.  O happy unintended consequences!
(Update: I just saw this WSJ piece that is exactly along these lines. It's by Robert Baer, the former CIA field operative.)
Here's a few links to some of the more interesting coverage I've seen, do send more!
And not really Mabhuh assassination related, but telling of Dubai's role as an international zone of shady deals:
Finally, via The National, this map of the comings and goings of the hit team:
*

Ajami

Oscar season is approaching and once again a film from Israeli and/or Palestine is in contention. Two years ago it was the promising but ultimately meandering Paradise Now. Last year it was the beautiful but politically blinkered Waltz with Bashir. This year it's Ajami, a noir/thriller set in an ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Jaffa. 

On the one hand, this film looks like it might be good--it's gotten a lot of positive reviews so far. And it's nice to see a gritty, contemporary movie mostly in Arabic, starring amateur actors from Jaffa, getting awards in Israel and beyond. 

On the other hand, you can expect a lot of international coverage to sound like this: 

The last thing you see in "Ajami" should be the first thing on your mind about this compelling new film from Israel. That would be the closing credits, written in both Hebrew and Arabic, separate but equal, side by side, mirroring the creative process behind this potent work and the story it has to tell.

That's from a review in the LA Times. Yes, the film is a collaboration between a Jewish Israeli and an Arab Israeli--offering everyone the perfect uplifting story hook, and another opportunity to expound on Israelis' and Palestinians' shared humanity (while avoiding talking about their very unshared legal rights and economic opportunities). 

 It's therefore interesting, in a review in The National, to see the Arab Israeli involved say he:

...condemns the Israeli government for exploiting the film as a promotional tool. He says Palestinians living in Israel have no equal rights, are treated with racism and not allowed to teach their history or culture. He hopes the film calls attention to their plight. “Acknowledging a group of people exists is the beginning,” he said. “When you know that something exists, you know it has problems. When you know that it has problems, it’s the first step in finding a solution.”

Mr. Copti should know about discrimination against Arab Israelis, given how his brothers were recently arrested, beaten, pepper-sprayed and told:  "What we did to you people in Gaza was just the beginning." 

Baheyya: ElBaradei is a wildcard

"Please God..."

One more ElBaradei link: Baheyya has woken from her recent slumber (first post since mid-October!) has given her take on the man:

Perhaps the scariest thing for Mubarak, wife, and son is that ElBaradei’s social democratic centrism, liberalism, and personal air of gravitas is rapidly forming him a constituency inside and outside Egypt. Like any dictator, the purpose of Mubarak’s existence is to snuff out the bottom-up formation of constituencies around rival groups or individuals. So far, Mubarak has succeeded in blocking or containing the growth of constituencies around challengers. Because elections are the time when constituency-building happens, they’ve always constituted an annoying but ultimately manageable nuisance for him. When the Ikhwan’s constituency-building threatened the parliamentary majority of Mubarak’s party in 2005, state violence was at the ready to strike at both voters and candidates. When Ayman Nour’s unexpected constituency-building in 2005 threatened to embarrass Mubarak, he mobilized his media and legal machine to smear Nour and put him safely behind bars. These tried and true tactics won’t work with ElBaradei. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.

I couldn't agree more with the piece (and the cartoons she illustrates the piece with are great). Especially the fact that, as I've written before, ElBaradei is shining a spotlight on the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections that will make the usual shenanigans a lot more difficult. 

Jonathan Cook on the Bronner Affair

Jonathan Cook writes about the NYT's Ethan Bronner and other bureau chiefs for Western papers covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Consider this: The NYT has a regular response when it comes to turning a blind eye to reporters with conflicts of interest in Israel - aside, I mean, from the issue of the reporters' ethnic identification or nationality. For example, I am reminded of a recent predecessor of Bronner's at the Jerusalem bureau - an Israeli Jew - who managed to do regular service in the Israeli army reserves even while he was covering the Second Intifada. I am pretty sure his bosses knew of this, but, as with Bronner, did not think there were grounds for taking action.

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The Unpolitician

This blog does not want to become "All ElBaradei, All The Time" but the last week has been a distinctively single-issue one in Egypt. I have a piece in the National newspaper's Review supplement taking a more critical look at the ElBaradei campaign than I might have so far.

Prior to his return and the first few days of media blitzkrieg that accompanied it, I thought it was important to note that ElBaradei's conditional candidacy for the presidency was important and could have consequences. I still think it is important, but there are more questions being raised about whether ElBaradei will be a flash in the pan or a constant thorn in the side of the Egyptian regime in the next few years. This piece has two parts: one looking at what ElBaradei represents, the other looking at his apparent reluctance to get into politics proper (and of course this may still change) tackles both the promise of ElBaradei's ideas and where he is appears reluctant to thread. 

The Mabhouh tapes, remixed


"Smile you're on candid camera."

Having started watching the remarkable film released by the Dubai police showing the comings and goings of Mohamed Mabhouh and his assassins on CCTVs, I quickly became bored. The problem: no sound from all these cameras. If I'm going to sit down and watch 27 minutes of surveillance footage, I need a soundtrack. But what to choose?

"Soldier of love"Let's face it, the Mabhouh assassination was almost certainly carried out by our cousins the Israelis. And what are they known for, apart from assassinations, the Dahiyeh Doctrine and its mass targeting of civilians, and of course their traditional foods like hummus and falafel?

The answer: execrable, schmaltzy pop music (remember Dana International?)

So I grabbed the Mabhouh footage and added as a soundtrack the well-known (well, in Israel) singer Eyal Golan's 1999 album, Soldier of Love. Watch the results below — it grows on you.

Click here to view or right-click to download

I think beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and spy scandals, this video really shows to what extent to which all of our comings and goings are increasingly monitored. It's a little bit creepy — not just because this may be the world's first extensively taped assassination operation, but also because it leaves you with the sense that you are always being watched.

It's interesting that this assassination has gotten so much attention. Some of it, notably over the forgery of passports and identity theft, is entirely warranted. I hope the countries concerned will act strongly. But over the larger question of its impact on the conflict, we're still not sure what Mahbouh's death means. Was he an indispensable contact with the Iranians? What secrets died with him? What does it mean for Hamas, especially if reports that it was infiltrated are true? And what does it mean for its relations with Fatah if reports that former Fatah security men were involved are true? Beyond the pseudo-glamour of all this cloak-and-dagger stuff (and if you watch the tape, in fact it's hardly glamorous and the hit team looks like they're on a corporate team-building exercise), there are a lot of unanswered questions here. Not to mention, of course, what mega hit job is being planned to avenge both Mabhouh's and (for Hizbullah) Imad Mughnieyh's death... 

Now for some Mabhouh-related links:

 

Who are you?

Here's looking at you.I'm having fun looking at the stats for the site. Here's a picture of the readership. It's too soon since the switch from the old system to get a full picture, but at least 3,000 unique individuals visit this site daily, mostly coming directly to the front page. Otherwise, you tend to come from Google, Twitter, Facebook and StumbleUpon.
You come here mostly from the US (21%), Egypt (15.3%), the UK (11%), and Lebanon (6.7%).
A quarter of you are using Firefox (25%), and about 15% of you use the same browser I do (Safari) but I am ashamed to say that too many of you are still using Internet Explorer 6 (14%). Are you out of your mind? Quick, upgrade to IE7 (10%) or IE8 (10%), or one of the others — IE6 does not support the modern web and this site will look much better with a browser like Safari or Firefox. Kudos to the geeks using Chrome (5%) and Opera (1%).
Most of you run Windows XP (40%) or, like me, Mac OS X (20%). Not too many using Vista (12%) or the new Windows version, whatever it's called (1%), and nearly 1% Linux is impressive. A big hug to the three users visiting this site from their PSPs. I am awed by the two users using Sun OS machines.

What does ElBaradei want?

After spending most of yesterday at Cairo Airport covering Mohamed ElBaradei's return to Egypt, it's worth taking a step back from the infectious enthusiasm of his supporters and listening more carefully to what they say — and what people close to ElBaradei believe he intends to do.

A member of the ElBaradei family sporting this great home-made T-shirt.But before I do that, I think it's fair to note that yesterday's welcoming committee was a success. There were over 1,000 people at the airport, the story got covered everywhere, and it has legs. It energized his campaign, even if many were disappointed that ElBaradei did not speak at the airport. I think he probably should have, but the conditions there were not good: supporters and journalists were crushing each other, there was no platform, and too many people to be controlled easily. One important reason for the success of the welcome was its timing. I think it might be no coincidence that ElBaradei decided to return to Egypt on the day that Egypt faced its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council and the day that Barack Obama met with Egyptian democracy activists Gamal Eid and Bahai Eddin Hassan. There was a lot of international attention on the question of democracy and human rights in Egypt that day. The regime's propaganda may have scared off some (newspapers had reported on-the-spot fines of LE1,000 — $182 — and massive security presence, both of which were untrue) but plenty turned out and a repressive approach was simply not possible.

Back to the ElBaradei campaign's potential. The sense that I get is that most of his prominent supporters are focusing on the potential for ElBaradei to be a symbol, a loudspeaker for the Egyptian opposition's near-universal agreement on what needs to be changed in the country: an end to emergency laws and the police state, constitutional reform to make politics competitive, and an end to the Mubarak family's role in politics. It's not much more complicated than that, and the question of whether ElBaradei will, or even can, run for president really seems secondary to them. The same can be said for ElBaradei himself from the interviews he's given so far: he systematically downplays the prospect of his candidacy in favor of talking about systemic problems, going just short of criticizing Mubarak directly.

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Gained in translation?

The American University in Cairo's newly established Translation Studies Center is hosting a lecture series, "In Translation." The first talk was by 88-year-old pioneering translator Denys Johnson-Davies (you can see it here); the second was by Humphrey Davies (no relation), the talented translator of Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Buidling, Elias Khoury's The Gate of the Sun and Bahaa' Taher's Sunset Oasis. This entertaining, pugnacious and thoughtful talk is also available online now. 

I took the opportunity to write a piece for The National on the increased interest in Arabic literature, and the many initiatives to encourage translation--either directly, or by giving Arabic literature international exposure.

On the cultural politics of translation, I note that:

...Arab writers are acutely aware of the tangible and intangible benefits of translation, especially into English. Regardless of whether their work is a best-seller of Yacoubian proportions, for many authors, says Hewison, translation is “the mark of success”. 

Given that only a dozen or so titles are translated every year, these are scrutinised and sometimes criticised as not representing “the best” of Arabic literature, or for supposedly pandering to western stereotypes and markets.

Translators from under-represented languages such as Arabic wield considerable influence over what books reach a western public. Johnson-Davies says: “Arabic translators have more power and more responsibility [than translators from other languages] because they decide what should be translated.” 

I also note the establishment of two new publishing ventures--the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, which will publish in both English and Arabic (and focus at first on childrens' and young adults' literature) and Arabia Books, a joint venture between AUC and a London publishing house. 

Oh, and the next lectures in the "In Translation" series are: Jonathan Wright (translator of Khaled Al Khamissi's Taxi and Yousef Zeidan's Azazeel) on March 10 and novest Ahdaf Soueif (translator of Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah) on April 28. 

The end of the beginning

I'm driving back from Cairo airport and writing this on a friend's iPhone as my blackberry has run out of juice. We're headed for a comedy night at the culture wheel on Zamalek. It'll be a nice break after six hours of waiting for Mohamed Elbaradei and constant tweeting.
Elbaradei chose not to speak tonight but will be appearing on many tv shows in the next few days. I got a little more insight on what he may be thinking and what his supporters might do next.
But that will have to wait for tomorrow.

The Campaign for ElBaradei

Poster for the ElBaradei Campaign

Two days ago we went to the office of a small NGO in Downtown Cairo to meet Abdel RahmanYoussef, the poet, television presenter and activist who is being the campaign to draft Mohamed ElBaradei. Youssef and a handful of others are using the office as a temporary HQ for the ElBaradei campaign, and were busy preparing today's welcome at Cairo Airport. 

So far, most of their work has been online: they are the people behind the "ElBaradei for President" website and the Facebook group that has, to date, 65,775 members and is growing at up to 2,000 members a day. But they've also been preparing for the return of Egypt's prodigal son. Versed in activist training seminars, they trained 120 people to manage today's gathering at Cairo Airport. Each person will be responsible for maintaining orders, leading the welcoming committee, and organizing attendance. They hope to have anything from several hundred to several thousand in attendance.

The problem is that it's not clear that the authorities will allow that. A lot of different scenarios to deflate the welcoming committee are possible. ElBaradei's flight — currently scheduled for 3pm on Flight 863 at Terminal 3 (although strangely it's not listed on today's arrivals list for Cairo Airport) — could be delayed. It could be diverted to another terminal, or to the VIP area of the airport where it would be far from the welcoming committee. There was a rumor going yesterday that police would impose an on-the-spot LE1,000 fine to anyone going to the airport to see ElBaradei. They could bar people without a ticket coming in, or do countless other things. Youssef, though, thought that media attention and the fact that it's ElBaradei meant the authorities would not prevent the meeting — "ElBaradei is a headache for the regime, they're not sure how to handle it," he told us. I am less sanguine, and as I head to the airport in a few hours I am not expecting an easy ride (although as a journalist I may have better luck than ElBaradei supporters.)

The ElBaradei campaign people have been in touch with their man, although they won't say how much. But it's an independent initiative, they are not being run by ElBaradei himself. I did not get a clear sense of whether they think they will join an "official" movement behind ElBaradei, or what ElBaradei intend to do beyond media appearances such as yesterday's interview with the prominent broadcaster Ahmed al-Muslimani on Dream TV. I couldn't watch the interview, but Zeinobia liked it. We'll put up the YouTube video when it comes out, and there is a preview of another interview with the generally anti-ElBaradei Amr Adib here. In America, Foreign Policy is planning to run the full interview it excerpted a few weeks ago.

The ElBaradei Campaign's ink stampThe important thing for the ElBaradei campaign, I was told, is to move from online activism to the street. "We can't have an impact unless we have hundreds of people standing behind Dr. ElBaradei," Youssef explained. He expressed impatience with the 6 April youth who were arrested a couple of days ago for spraying "ElBaradei 2011" graffiti in several Cairo neighborhoods over the past few weeks, feeling they made themselves easy targets. But he had his own thought for viral marketing: he has made and distributed ink stamps with the ElBaradei campaign logo and told me the story of this restaurant owner who, at the end of the day, stamps all of his cash with the stamp. The idea is to get money circulating to advertise the campaign.

What is not clear is what's next: will ElBaradei start campaigning immediately — not the presidency, but rather for constitutional change? Will he try to recruit opinion shapers and politicians? What does he have in mind as a way to implement what he's calling for? Will he go out and visit different places in Egypt, make public appearances, or stay aloof as a symbol rather than a politician? I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Abdel Rahman YoussefOne note of interest: Youssef is the son of Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based former Muslim Brother and perhaps the most influential Sunni thinker of our time. He doesn't like to be associated with his father (and probably won't be happy reading this), and I think he leans to the left rather than Islamism. He's been active in political circles at least since the invasion of Iraq, and was an early Kifaya backer. He's an impressive figure, very serious-minded and conscious of the limitations he operates under and what he needs to do get traction on the ground for his campaign. He seems to have learned lessons from the Kifaya importance and is adamant about the importance of getting ordinary people (rather than intellectuals) joining the campaign. He's done great work recruiting prominent personalities such as Alaa al-Aswany (who recently wrote an article in al-Shorouk urging people to welcome ElBaradei) to publicize it. His father could end up being a liability, and that would be a shame: Youssef deserves a lot of the credit for getting people excited about ElBaradei's return, and points out that ElBaradei announced his interest in returning to Egypt and competing for the presidency (or changing the political system only two days after they launched their campaign to draft him.

I will be posting updates from the airport on Twitter and may post here too. Stay tuned.

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Rami Khouri on Rodham-Clinton

Rami Khouri — whom I consider one the most thoughtful and analytically incisive Arab commentators around — gives Hillary Clinton a well-deserved putdown. Here's his very articulate take:

Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week were particularly revealing of why Washington continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” Clinton said.

Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups. 

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Finkelstein, Finkelstein, Finkelstein

I pre-ordered my copy of This Time We Went Too Far at O/R Books.

I also highly recommend watching the documentary about Finkelstein, American Radical. Finkelstein is an incredibly courageous figure, he has payed dearly for his engagement on the Palestinian cause and against those who manipulate the Holocaust for political purposes. It's really heart-wrenching to see what this principled and stubborn man has endured at the hands of powerful academics and pro-Israel activists like Alan Dershowitz, who appears to have single-handedly orchestrated the campaign to get him fired from DePaul University.

Finkelstein also appears briefly in Defamation, an Israeli film about the ADL, at his best: intense, scathing about the likes of Abe Foxman, and almost self-destructively forthright. Defamation is excellent, by the way, at showing the manipulation Israeli children endure. One of my favorite lines was from a rabbi arguing that an unreasonable obsession with anti-Semitism was the secular Jews' way of being Jewish.

2009, in Egypt, in pictures

As Al Ahram Weekly has reported, the Sawy Center recently hosted a large photojournalism competition. 

The winning photo in the news category was this picture of Sheikh Tantawi lifting a girl's niqab. Whatever you think of the niqab (personally I believe an argument for its harmful effect and its restriction can be persuasively made) there is a startling disrespect in the gesture. 

The photographer digitally altered the girl's face.

Interestingly, another award-winning picture also required the digital alteration of a female face--that of the girl being groped at the forefront.

These girls are being sexually harassed during the Eid holiday at Al Fustat park. 

Other photographs documented seasonal problems (the burning of rice chaff); particular upheavals (the pig culling--watch out, the picture is graphic); or scenes from daily life such as, below, children playing a game with bottle caps. 

You can see more of the pictures (if you scroll down) here