Travel ban lifted on US NGO workers

This is what Reuters is reporting:

(Reuters) - Egypt has decided to lift a travel ban preventing American pro-democracy activists from leaving the country, judicial sources said on Wednesday, a move that is likely to defuse a standoff that has plunged U.S.-Egyptian ties into a crisis.

It was not immediately clear when any of the activists involved in the case would leave the country. Sixteen of the 43 people facing charges are Americans. Some of them are not in Egypt and some others have sought refuge in the U.S. embassy.

Since late this morning I've been getting rumors that the Americans had in fact already left, or that a deal had been brokered by Jeffrey Feltman in DC, or somesuch. I did not know what to believe, but there were already signs earlier today by Hillary Clinton's statements when she said "we will resolve this issue concerning our NGOs in the very near future." She was speaking to lawmakers in the US.

I suppose my first reaction is good for them — they'll be able to leave the country, won't have to face the risk of jail. Good for US-Egypt relations too, I suppose, with no images of Americans in a court cage or facing trials. The stupid descriptions of this situation as a "hostage crisis" and hyperbole on both sides threatened to turn this into a political issue and, in an election year, into an electoral issue.

But as I sit watching Mona Shazli, one of Egypt's top political talk-show hosts, appear rather flummoxed by the whole thing, there are signs that Egyptians' reaction will be to think (no matter what they think of the merits of the case) that all the talk about their judicial system being above political influence being total bullshit. Especially after the cryptic way the judges involved in the case recused themselves earlier today. No doubt some Egyptians will not be happy about the way this unfolded, in the way it makes their country look. (Perhaps though that's a hidden plus if it further discredits SCAF!)

Of course, Egypt deserves to look ridiculous in this case. The government media raised anti-Americanism to hysterical levels. The officials and judges involved painted a ludicrous picture of a foreign conspiracy to divide the country. Politicians rushed to jump on the we-don't-need-the-khawagas'-fluss-anyway bandwagon, and the prime minister gave credence to an ill-thought-out campaign to "replace" foreign aid by asking cash-strapped citizens to donate.

You know what it all reminded me of? Mubarak-era Egypt, with its weird hysterical petulance.

Of course, there are many unanswered questions. What will happen to the others indicted in the case? What will happen to the NGOs involved?What will happen to the manner in which the law, officials and state media treat NGOs more generally? And what was the price paid by the United States — particularly as the Obama administration is still supposed to confirm to Congress that Egypt is making progress in its democratic transition? 



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,

In Translation: Nabil Fahmy on the US-Egypt NGO crisis

A few days ago the trial of 43 NGO workers — some of them US citizens — started amidst a campaign of hysterical anti-Americanism in some of the Egyptian press. In the US, the question has been handled with arrogance by part of the political class, and no doubt a degree of alarm amidst defense lobbyists, Pentagon officials and others who worry that the crisis could end the $1.3bn in subsidies to the US defense industry that military aid to Egypt primarily is, as well as strategic relations with Egypt. While the tone become more subdued among senior officials on both sides, the outcome is still hard to predict — because everything is unpredictable in Egypt these days, and because the US is in an election year.

One of the calmest, down-to-earth Egyptian commentaries on the affair I’ve seen is by Nabil Fahmy, who was Egypt’s ambassador in Washington for much of the late Mubarak period — notably when tensions with the Bush administration were at their highest. In this piece, Fahmy gives his opinion that the crisis will be overcome, and reflects on the mistakes made by both sides. He is most lucid when look at his own side, though, notably the arbitrary nature of the enforcement of NGO legislation that belong to the pre-revolutionary era. Fahmy is sometimes said to be a potential future foreign minister, and some believe he was sidelined (or chose to take a leave of absence from the ministry of foreign affairs) at the end of his career, as the Mubarak era entered its last phase.

The article was, as always, ably translated by Industry Arabic, the full-service translation company. Those guys are awesome!

Egyptian-American Relations after the NGO Crisis

By Nabil Fahmy, al-Shorouk, 26 February 2012

In recent weeks, we have witnessed extreme strain in Egyptian-American relations. In the sphere of public opinion in both countries, this crisis has been accompanied by demagoguery exploited by politicians and media personalities, as well as some officials. They have carelessly reported inaccurate information, or adopted slogans and demands that are not in their countries’ best interests.

I will not go into the charges leveled against a number of both foreign and Egyptian NGOs, as well as against governments in detail, as they have now been put before the court. Rather, I will first limit myself to some brief observations before moving on to the most important issue, which is the future of Egyptian-American relations.

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Judges in Egypt's NGO case recuse themselves

From al-Ahram:

Three judges  in charge of handling the recent case filed by the government against a number of US and Egyptian non-governmental organisation (NGOs), announced Tuesday afternoon that they have submitted their resignation from the case "for reasons of discomfort." The 14 Egyptian and 29 foreign aid workers face trial for receiving illegal foreign funding and for working without a formal license: they have been accused of posing a threat to Egypt's national security.

Judge Mahmoud El-Khodairy, lawyer and head of the People's Assembly Legislative Committee, explained Tuesday night to private TV channel Al-Hayat that a judge stepping down for "reasons of discomfort" could be due to an existing relationship the judge has with any of the defendants, the accused or the lawyers. A judge may also relinquish the case, he added, if the court itself was involved in any details of the case. When a judge does resign from a case, the lawsuit is transferred to another district court within a "brief" time period, El-Khodairy concluded.

Reasons of discomfort? Try talcum powder. But seriously, this either means something fishy is going on or that the trial will take even longer than planned. The next date was meant to be April 26, which is a while away.


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,

The internet and the canal

Voila Capture8

The above chart is from a very cool graph made by the Guardian showing major internet cables across the world. This highlights how Egypt, or to be more specific the Suez Canal, is one of the world's major choke points for data traffic between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. I remember a decade ago talking to Egyptian IT types about the potential for Egypt becoming a major data-caching hub (to make internet access between east and west faster by caching content so that data requests would only have to travel half the distance). Yet to my knowledge there are no major data centers in the canal zone — surely a missed opportunity.

How SCAF is seeking to resolve corruption cases behind closed doors

The following post, on legislation dealing with economic corruption recently decreed by SCAF, was contributed by Shereen Zaky, a lawyer in Cairo. 

On January 3rd, SCAF discreetly passed an amendment to the Investment Law essentially permitting the settlement of economic corruption crimes via financial reconciliation, as well as designating an extra-judicial process for the settlement of disputes regarding government contracts. Published only a few days before parliament was due to convene, the timing is significant both in terms of circumventing parliament’s assumption of legislative power and because the amendment could escape scrutiny, overshadowed as it was by greater events.

Law 4 of 2012 permits the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones, the regulator of investment and companies in Egypt, to settle with investors who have committed either in person, or as an accomplice of a government employee, embezzlement, theft, illegal acquisition or misuse of public funds and property, harming the public welfare, and similar offences, while undertaking any of the investment activities covered by the law, provided they restore the disputed amounts or reimburse the state for their approximate value at the time the offence was committed. The settlement can take place any stage before a defendant is convicted by the final court of appeal.

Essentially, this could allow the likes of Ahmed Ezz and other corrupt businessmen to slip neatly out of prison, as well as many other regime figures. It seems like one of SCAF’s now-familiar counter-revolutionary gambits, designed to protect their corrupt cronies and conceal their own implication in crime, but with a little adjustment it would actually be a reasonable means of protecting Egypt’s collapsing economy.

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The Factory

As part of al-Jazeera's great series on the Arab uprisings, this documentary profile the workers of Egypt's largest textile mill in Mahalla al-Kubra, who took to the streets on April 6, 2008 in the largest protests in decades, presaging the January 2011 uprising. 

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,

And now for a radical neo-Marxist economics break

☞ bnarchives - The Asymptotes of Power

I have dissected, step by step, the national income accounts of the United States, from the most general categories down to the net profits of the country’s largest corporations. I have shown that, from the viewpoint of the leading corporations, most of the redistributional processes – from the aggregate to the disaggregate – are close to being exhausted. By the end of the twentieth century, the largest U.S. corporations, approximated by the top 0.01%, have reached an unprecedented situation: their net profit share of national income hovers around record highs, and it seems that this share cannot be increased much further under the current political-economic regime.

This asymptotic situation, Bichler and I believe, explains why leading capitalists have been struck by systemic fear. Peering into the future, they realize that the only way to further increase their distributional power is to apply an even greater dose of violence. Yet, given the high level of force already being exerted, and given that the exertion of even greater force may bring about heightened resistance, capitalists are increasingly fearful of the backlash they are about to unleash. The closer they get to the asymptote, the bleaker the future they see.

It is of course true that no one knows exactly where the asymptote lies, at least not before it is reached. But the fact that, over the past decade, capitalists have been pricing down their assets while their profit share of income hovers around record highs suggests that, in their minds, the asymptote is nigh. 

From the Israel-Canadian economist Jonathan Nitzan, whose book (with Shimshon Bichler) The Global Political Economy of Israel is quite interesting, with a radical new ecomomic model that should be applied to elsewhere in the region. Most of it is above my head, but a key concept in their work is differential capital accumulation — i.e. that capitalist actors compete not on absolute terms but in terms of how well they do compared to each other and the average. Fascinating stuff — for radicals and liberal democrat centrists alike, because of how it speaks to the current malaise in advanced capitalist societies, which while in many respects thriving fear that they are losing social gains made in the last century and standing on the edge of a precipice — beyond which are societies with extremely skewed distribution of both economic wealth and political power, like most of those in the Middle East.


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,

Morocco, the Gulf and the media

An interesting item at Angry Arab — Aljazeera and Morocco:

"Yassine sent met this:  "So al-Jazeera decided not to air the documentary on Morocco and the 20th of February Movement (nuqta sakhina), which they had been promoting for more than a week. Why not? Again? (In November the same thing happened (back then the al-Jazeera crew was forbidden to go to Tanger and the al-Hoceima area: two centers of the Moroccan uprising).  The Moroccan king recently 'gave' the Qatari emir some 4 5.000 hectares (=450 km²) in the Guelmim area so that the Qatari emir could go hunt there. And also, these two weeks al-Jazeera has been negotiating a possible return to Morocco with the new minister of information. So I guess the negotiations are concluded. Perhaps the documentary was just a card in the negotiation-process. This is Gulf-media"""

The Emir of Qatar has a huge property in Tangier where he spends part of the summer, close to the king's own palace (and the king spends most of his summer in the north, either in Tangier or nearby Tetouan). Jazeera like other media has had trouble with the Moroccan government, but there is little explanation for the cancellation of the broadcast of this documentary (presumably as part the channel's very good series of documentaries on the Arab uprisings).

Incidentally, two members of the February 20 movement who worked for a UAE-based TV channel (Dubai TV) were fired at the request of the minister of information last year. Solidarity among absolute monarchs trumps all.

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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,

The best thing you'll read on Syria

 Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime | Middle East Research and Information Project

This, by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is by far and away the best piece I have read on Syria (and why you should really subscribe to MERIP — not to read it, because it's free, to support it as a platform). It stands out among all the hare-brained intervention plans, the letters from Syria, the impassioned calls for action and all the rest. I really urge you to read the whole thing, but here are some selected highlights.

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The staggeringly stupid fallout of the US-Egypt aid debacle

A must-read column by DNE's Rania al-Malky on the stupid scheme to raise "Egyptian aid" to replace the foreign kind:

If one year after Egypt's downtrodden and destitute people toppled Mubarak with thunderous, unrelenting calls for bread, freedom and social justice, those very Egyptians are being coerced into donating part of their paltry salaries to support a government they did not choose, then it's safe to say that the 'revolution' has failed.

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Will Fox News fire Tucker Carlson for calling for genocide?

No, I doubt it will. But this video is a good occasion to revisit the whole Ahmedenijad "wipe Israel off the map" debacle (i.e. that he did not say that, although he may have meant it), reflect on the fact that thus far it is Israel and the United States where talk of a strike on Iran is routine, as well as the sorry state of television discourse in the United States. In France, for instance, Carlson would be almost certainly sued and perhaps could even face prison. In the US this will probably be defended under the First Amendment (which I actually prefer), but many respectable news organizations have fired contributors for much less. Too bad Fox News probably doesn't fit that description.

Update: HM sends me via Twitter a link to an exchange of emails between Carlson and Gleen Greenwald of Salon on this. Carlson says he was actually talking about the dangers of a strike on Iran to the US economy. Watch for yourselves, seems pretty unambiguous.

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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,

Palestinian reconciliation: Hamas' opening gambit

Hamas and Fatah leaders have been meeting Cairo this week to continue hammering out the details of the third unity agreement they’ve tried to reach in the past five years. The agreement would give Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a transitional cabinet, sidelining Hamas and, in theory, his own Fatah party. Officially, Hamas’s top leaders - Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh - have committed to them. But Al-Ahram, Egypt’s state-owned daily, is reporting that Hamas is determined to secure their own concessions from Abbas in exchange for allowing him to assume the post of interim prime minister. It is not clear which Hamas leaders are pushing these measures, though if there is a concerted effort from within the group, I would not be surprised to see the name of their #2 man in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, pop up.
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McInerney on the NGO crisis

Stephen McInerney of POMED — who knows more about NGOs in Egypt and US policy towards Egypt, notably aid, than most — has a piece on the US-Egypt NGO crisis in Foreign Affairs. It's a good roundup, and he ends on the following advice:

Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment.

I'm half-sympathetic and half-opposed to what he argues. I completely agree that not cutting or revising aid programs should the Americans (and others) indicted be imprisoned and if undemocratic policies towards civil society continue would send the wrong message.

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Saudi Arabia's unrest in Qatif

Here's a piece on a topic that gets scant coverage generally speaking — the wave of protests and dissidence that has hit Saudi Arabia over the last year. Jess Hill in the Global Mail:

It's all happening in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, home to most of the Kingdom's Shia minority, and 90 per cent of its oil. Seven people have been shot dead by Saudi security forces since October 2011, two in the past month alone. The Saudi Interior Ministry says these deaths resulted from gun battles between protesters and police. But in all amateur videos that show protesters being shot, there is no evidence that protesters were shooting back.

There have been remarkable scenes of rebellion. One photograph, taken on February 10 this year, shows a young man hurling an effigy of Crown Prince Nayef at a row of armoured anti-riot tanks. It's an extraordinary provocation. Prince Nayef is not only the head of the Interior Ministry - he's also the heir to the throne.

But it's not just a few people defying the Prince. On February 13, at a funeral for the most recent 'martyr', 21-year-old Zuhair al Said, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets, chanting "No Sunna, No Shia, but Islamic unity! We're not afraid, down with Nayef! You're the terrorist, you're the criminal, you're the butcher, ya Nayef!"

"We will never rest, country of oppressors! Son of Saud [royal family], hear the voice! We will never give up 'til death!" Prince Nayef responded with his own threat. On February 20, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said these protests were the 'new terrorism', and were being 'manipulated from abroad' (read: Iran). The Ministry would confront them with 'an iron fist', he said, just like it confronted Al Qaeda.

A lot of interesting background there on Qatif, the oil rich region that is mostly Shia, and the specter of Bahrain that hangs over it (and which explains why the West rushed to support Saudi Arabia's intervention in Bahrain). A real uprising in Qatif, targeting petroleum installations, could choke Saudi production and send global oil markets spiraling out of control.

(On a tech note: mixed feelings about the side-scrolling layout on — one of the one hand it renders magazine-style articles well, but on the other hand cut-and-paste is tricky. Still, nice to see a publication think outside the box.)


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,

Nir Rosen on Syria's future

I really recommend this article, the last part of a Q&A series with Nir Rosen, who has been in Syria in recent weeks. It covers the many reasons why intervention is unlikely to either happen, or if it does, to work in a satisfactory manner, how the conflict is likely to perdure short of a large-scale massacre, how Syrian society is likely to disintegrate as shortages become more common and tensions increase among communities, and no one seems to be able to really do something about it that doesn't risk making things worse. He concludes:

If this civil war comes to pass, it will lead to a humanitarian crisis. Already, there is a diesel shortage in much of Syria. And in much of the country, electricity is shut down at least some of the time - even if this is often done for punitive or offensive security reasons. In opposition strongholds, normal government services have ceased. Garbage is piled high; children do not go to school. Eventually, if this continues, infrastructure will start to collapse. Electricity will cease to be available. People will turn to generators if they have access to them. Fuel for cooking and heating will be even harder to come by. Already medicines for children and chronic conditions is hard to obtain in opposition strongholds. Neighbourhoods will be besieged, and tens thousands of families will flee for safety to other parts of the country.

Syria is crumbling before our eyes, and a thoroughly modern nation is likely to be set back many decades.

As seen in Iraq — indeed perhaps Nir is heavily influenced by his experience there, although at least Syria did not endure what Iraq did under the UN sanctions regime in the 1990s.

I often wonder whether Turkey could intervene in Syria (logistically supported by NATO). Nir thinks Turkey is unable to do it, and it is certainly reluctant. There would be a certain acceptability to Turkish intervention, in the manner that Vietnam intertevened in Cambodia in the 1970s. I think that they would have to do so in a brutal way that would empower their local allies (whatever they find) and crushes the Kurds. It could resemble, perhaps, the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in the 1970s, which was welcomed by the international community at the time. Ironically we may be seeing the Lebanonization of Syria, after all these years of Syrian power over Lebanon.


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,

Mubarak's letter to court

SCAF head Hussein Tantawy, kissing Hosni Mubarak, 1980s or early 1990sFrom Mubarak’s memo to the court trying him, protests of innocence and the obligatory reference to foreign conspiracy. Sarah El Deeb reports for AP:

“The unjust accusations and the baseless allegations I am facing sadden me. I am not someone who would shed his people’s blood. I have spent my life defending them. Hosni Mubarak is not someone to smear his military honor with ill-gotten wealth,” the published letter said.

He is charged with complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters in the uprising that forced him out of office last year. If convicted, Mubarak could face the death penalty by hanging. Five of the former president’s top security officials face the same charges.

“Despite everything, I am totally confident in the fairness and justice of the Egyptian judiciary. I am totally confident in history’s judgment, and totally confident in the great Egyptian people’s judgment — free from the allegations of the tendentious and those seeking to sow sedition, and those receiving foreign funding.”

In the completely schizophrenic mindset of SCAF, the security services and the state media they control, the revolution is both a glorious day and an insidious plot. They like the part that got rid of Gamal Mubarak and his friends, settling a decade-long inner-regime clan war. But they still can’t stand the other, more important, part that wants all the regime gone. That schizophrenia is part and parcel of Mubarakism.

Nathan Brown on Egypt's judiciary and corporatism

For judicial wonks out there, a superb piece on the past, present and future condition of the judiciary in Egypt has just been published by Nathan Brown at Carnegie. It's long, but here's an excerpt I want to comment on that deals with the judiciary getting increasing leverage over the state, and specifically the Supreme Constitutional Court but then expands into a wider point about the revival of corporatism more generally:
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In Translation: Fishere on Egypt's presidential race

Egypt’s never-ending election season has just shifted — after the bore of the Shura Council elections, which most ignored — into presidential mode. The big topic of the past week has been about whether a consensual presidential candidate is desirable, or even possible. The Muslim Brotherhood has postponed endorsing its candidate of choice until after all hopefuls have registered, and it’s still not clear whether SCAF has chosen whom to back, with multiple potential candidates representing the military or “deep state”. Mohamed ElBaradei’s withdrawal from the race has created a gap on the liberal end of the spectrum, and undermined the crebility of the election and the transition as a whole (his argument, indeed, is that the transition needs a reboot before proceeding to new elections and a new constitution).

I picked this week’s In Translation article — as always expertly translated by the wonderful folks at Industry Arabic, who can tackle anything from arcane religious documents to angry op-eds to thick legal or technical documents — to show the debate on the revolutionary side of the spectrum, where many are rather despondent at the choices before them. Ezzedine Choukri Fishere — a friend, diplomat, professor and novelist currently shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge — is close to ElBaradei and here frets about the rush to judgement among revolutionaries before it is clear who is even running or under what circumstances the poll will take place (including, of course, whether as expected it will take place under military rule).

Between Revolutionary and Foolhardy

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, al-Tahrir, 19 February 2012

A hair’s breadth separates carefulness from cowardice. It is carefulness to avoid antagonizing people, especially foolish people. However, it is cowardice to flatter people and refrain from stating the truth so as not to anger them. There is nothing easier for a writer to do – any writer – than to flatter the public, since he is sitting at home writing, and exaggerating for the public will not cost him anything. To the contrary, it will increase his popularity, expand his base of support, and cause him to be showered with intoxicating comments and descriptions. No responsibility lands on his shoulders, since in the end he is just stating an opinion, and no one is held to account for an opinion. Hence, the easiest, the cheapest and the most comfortable thing is for the writer to say what he knows the public wants to hear, or at least avoid diving headlong into issues he knows for sure will outrage them.

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