A rough wake-up

I arrived in Doha last night to attend a conference on democracy organized by Al Jazeera. For me and many of the journos on this trip, of course, this conference is an excuse to dig a little deeper into the forthcoming Al Jazeera International, the English-language station. I was looking forward to meeting some of the people behind that and take a closer look at Al Jazeera's operation in general. I certainly did not expect to be on Al Jazeera, which is what happened this morning. At 7:15am, I received a phone call from a former freelance contributor to the Cairo Times, the magazine I edited a few years ago. He was now a producer for Al Jazeera and wanted me to be ready to appear live, in Arabic, in two hours. Barely awake, panic immediately set in. I am rather self-conscious about my Arabic, which not only isn't that great, but also sounds like an Egyptian fellah with a Moroccan twang. I don't really speak fusha (the modern standard Arabic of Al Jazeera and broadcasting in general) and have no desire to sound like a hick on the most watched Arab television station in the world. I politely refused on these grounds, but they finally dug up a translator (Saddam Hussein's former translator, actually) and so, around 9:30am Doha time, I appeared live on the show hadith al sabah (morning news). We talked about foreign-language publications in the Arab world -- ones that I worked in like the Cairo Times and Cairo magaazine, and others that have made a name for themselves. The questions were intelligent and touched on a lot of different issues, from whether these magazines were representative of the Arab world or not, regional differences, censorship and other obstacles. I made sure to get a word in for Jill Caroll (a veteran of the Jordan Times), whose chilling video appeared late last night on Al Jazeera (note to CNN: don't brag about showing a still picture rather than the film without sound as Al Jazeera did: they are as chilling as each other, and it just looks like you're saying that Al Jazeera, whose staff has made tremendous efforts on and off air to appeal for Jill's release, is somehow morally reprehensible. It's bull.) I also mentioned the trial against Tel Quel, a French-language Moroccan weekly that has faced indirect pressure for its courageous reporting. One thing they asked about is whether the Egyptian experience showed that these magazines were doomed to failure. While the politically engaged magazines I worked for failed financially, this is not an indication for the rest of the industry. Egypt Today, a monthly, has published a quality magazine for some 26 years. Al Ahram Weekly, working within the constraints of state ownership (but often pushing the boundaries), is about 15 years old. Elsewhere, foreign-language Arab publishing in thriving, notably in the Gulf, but also in Lebanon and the Maghreb. And some are independent publications that are quite politically courageous (in Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon notably). I'll be blogging about the conference and my impressions of Al Jazeera and Qatar. There are tons of interesting people here - I flew in with the cream of the Egyptian punditocracy, Fahmy Howeidy and Salama Ahmed Salama, both men of characteristic masri charm and intelligence. I had breakfast with Hugh Miles, author of the famous book Al Jazeera, who is also very interesting. And had an argument with the Weekly's Amira Howeidy about Hamas, although I'm not sure why, since we both seemed to agree. This should be an interesting few days. 
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Interview with Kanan Makiya

Democratiya has the first part of a thought-provoking long interview with Kanan Makiya in which he reveals a lot of his intellectual development from young Trotskyist to his present role as a supporter of the invasion of Iraq and one-time advisor to the State Department.
The first political event of my life was the 1967 Arab/Israeli war. Although I had no political background, I started to listen to the BBC during the war. In Baghdad we were getting triumphalist speeches from the Arab Nationalist Regime (that preceded the Ba'athist takeover in '68) telling us the Arabs were winning, and that the Israelis were on the run. All lies and bullshit. And I remember knowing that it was bullshit at the time. I had my first political discussion with young men and women of my age in Baghdad, at a public swimming pool where we gathered. I said, 'it's lies, it's lies, it's not true'. The Arab world was losing the war, superfast, but there was this denial. And ordinary people only had what the regular news was saying. I remember being infuriated by that obvious lie.
It's also worth to re-read Edward Said bitter, and in my view unwarranted, harangue against Makiya a few years ago alongside with this.
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New law allows US funding of other armies

Congress has for the first time allowed the Pentagon to assign up to $200 million of its budget to foreign armies:
The move, included in a little-noticed provision of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act passed last month, marks a legislative victory for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who pushed hard for the new powers to deal with emergency situations. But it has drawn warnings from foreign policy specialists inside and outside the government, who say it could lead to growth of a separate military assistance effort not subject to the same constraints applied to foreign aid programs that are administered by the State Department. Such constraints are meant to ensure that aid recipients meet certain standards, including respect for human rights and protection of legitimate civilian authorities. "It's important that diplomats remain the ones to make the decisions about U.S. foreign assistance," said George Withers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a former staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. "They can ensure such decisions are taken in the broader context of U.S. foreign policy." Many lawmakers, too, were initially cool to Rumsfeld's request. The Armed Services committees in both the House and Senate declined to write the provision into their original defense authorization bills, citing concerns about a lack of jurisdiction and an absence of detail about where the money would be spent. But the Pentagon pressed its case, with senior commanders joining top officials in weighing in with reluctant members. "This was the most heavily lobbied we've been by the Pentagon in the several years I've been here," said one Senate staff member. "They really, really wanted this."
What for?
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Rights report on Libya out

Human Rights Watch has just issued the first in a three-part report on human rights in Libya, a rare look into the bizarro world that is Qadhafi's Libya. The HRW researchers that worked on the report are the first activists to get access to political detainees, senior government officials and dissidents in a long time (if ever), so a lot of this stuff is compiled by an authoritative organization for the first time. It's well worth a look. The release of the report coincided with the liberation of 14 political prisoners in Libya, including eight from a group called Al Ahly Football Fans. They were young supporters of Benghazi FC who rioted after their team lost a match and apparently shouted political slogans as well. They were initially sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted. HRW did not know much about the others, who belong to an Islamist group. The report will be refreshing reading to people who follow human rights issues in Libya because it provides a quite wide range of examples of political prisoners. In the Western press at least, coverage of rights issues in Libya has focused on Bulgarian nurses accused of having contaminated a hospital's blood bank with AIDS on which the EU has made a lot of noise, or the case of Libya's most famous dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, who was liberated under pressure from the Bush administration and then re-arrested shortly thereafter because he called for Qadhafi's removal on Al Jazeera. From the report:
The most well-known political prisoner in Libya today is Fathi al-Jahmi, an engineer and former provincial governor, whom the Internal Security Agency has held for more than twenty-one months without trial at a special facility in Tripoli. Internal security forces first arrested al-Jahmi, aged sixty-four, on October 19, 2002, after he spoke critically against the government and Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi at a Basic People’s Congress in Tripoli, calling for the abolition of the Green Book, free elections in Libya, a free press, and the release of political prisoners. The People’s Court subsequently sentenced him to five years in prison, apparently for defaming the country’s leader and the Jamahiriya system. On March 1, 2004, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden met al-Qadhafi and called for al-Jahmi’s release. Nine days later, the appeals chamber of the People’s Court heard al-Jahmi’s case, and gave him a suspended sentence of one year. Al-Jahmi was released on March 12. In Washington, President Bush welcomed al-Jahmi’s release. “Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi al-Jahmi,� he said. “She’s [sic] a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy. It’s an encouraging step toward reform in Libya. You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things.� That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the U.S.-funded al-Hurra Television in which he repeated his call for Libya’s democratization. He gave another interview to the station on March 16, in which he called al-Qadhafi a dictator and said, “all that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him." On March 25, he told al-Arabiyya Television, “I don’t recognize the revolutionary committees, and I don’t recognize al-Qadhafi as the leader of Libya.� The next day, security agents entered al-Jahmi’s Tripoli house and arrested him, his wife Fawzia Abdullah Gogha and their eldest son Muhammad Fathi al-Jahmi. The arrest was for their own protection, officials said, due to public outrage over the interviews he had given. The Internal Security Agency detained al-Jahmi and his family in an undisclosed location for six months, without access to relatives or lawyers. There were no known charges against them, and the government continued to claim that they were being held for their own safety—a claim repeated to Human Rights Watch about Fathi al-Jahmi in May 2005. On September 23, 2004, the authorities released al-Jahmi’s son Muhammad, and they released his wife Fawzia on November 4. At this writing in January 2006, Fathi al-Jahmi remained in detention. The first international organization to visit al-Jahmi was the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which sent a doctor to examine him in February 2005. The organization found that al-Jahmi suffered from diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. His “often haphazard care,� the group said, “has placed Mr. al-Jahmi at a significantly increased danger of a critical or fatal cardiovascular incident and severe kidney failure, among others.� On May 10, 2005, Human Rights Watch visited al-Jahmi at his place of detention, run by internal security. The facility was a simple, one-room building with basic furniture, a satellite television, kitchen, and bathroom in a guarded compound near the coast. Al-Jahmi said he was free to walk around the compound during the day, but guards locked the door at night. The authorities had not informed him of Human Rights Watch’s visit, he said, but he had anticipated guests when the guards began cleaning up. The government has not made public the charges against al-Jahmi, but he told Human Rights Watch that he faces charges on three counts under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government, insulting al-Qadhafi, and contacting foreign authorities. The third charge, he said, is due to conversations he had with a U.S. diplomat in Tripoli. Al-Jahmi said he had been to court approximately ten times over the previous ten months, although he did not specify whether these sessions were part of his trial. Most likely they were hearings in front of a judge for the prosecution to request an extension of pre-trial detention, as required by Libyan law. Al-Jahmi has refused a Libyan lawyer because “they can’t say anything when it comes to Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi,� and he demands international representation. He has refused to speak in court. He made clear that, if released, he would not hesitate to criticize al-Qadhafi again. His two immediate complaints were not being able to get newspapers or reading material and having limited visits from his family. He has not seen his youngest daughter since his arrest. Al-Jahmi said his health was relatively stable and he gets the necessary medications. However, when Human Rights Watch spoke with him in May 2005, security officials had not allowed him to see a doctor since the February visit of Physicians for Human Rights, despite promises to the organization that he would be free to see a doctor of his choice. The authorities allowed him to see a doctor in a Tripoli hospital on the day of Human Rights Watch’s visit, he said. After the visit, Human Rights Watch inspected al-Jahmi’s Tripoli home, which security forces had reportedly ransacked during the time when al-Jahmi’s wife and son were detained. The family had cleaned the house’s downstairs but the upstairs was still damaged with broken furniture and scattered papers. According to Fathi al-Jahmi, “they used it like animals under instructions from al-Qadhafi and his cousins. I lost everything I have in the house—all my documents and cash and money. They took everything my son has for his Internet café.� According to the head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency Col. Tohamy Khaled, the government arrested al-Jahmi according to the law, and he will face a trial. He was holding al-Jahmi in a special detention facility for his own safety and because he is “mentally deranged.� He told Human Rights Watch: I’m responsible for his health care, his detention, and I want to say this: if this man was not detained because he provoked people—they could have attacked him in his home. Therefore, he is facing trial…He’s in special detention because he’s mentally disturbed and we’re worried he will cause a problem for us. According to al-Jahmi’s family, unknown individuals tried to set the family’s Tripoli house on fire on May 23, but a family member was able to douse the flame. The police confirmed the arson attempt, the family said. The family also told Human Rights Watch in November that the authorities have forbidden all relatives to visit al-Jahmi for more than seven months. The last time they visited al-Jahmi was on or around June 5, 2005, despite multiple requests. Human Rights Watch asked the Libyan government in October 2005 about al-Jahmi’s medical and family visits but had received no reply as of January 10, 2006. Human Rights Watch raised Fathi al-Jahmi’s case with Shukri Ghanem, the General Secretary of the General People’s Congress. “I can assure you that the trial will be fair,� he said.
On top of these issues, there is also coverage of Islamists, notably from the Muslim Brotherhood but also many other small groups (which the Libyan government say are violent), who as in most Arab countries form the bulk of the political prisoner population. According to Fred Abrahams, one of HRW's researchers, one of the charges against al-Jahmi is meeting with a foreign diplomat -- and that diplomat was American. If the nationality of the diplomat is spelt out in the trial, Abrahams said, then the US has a "obligation" to apply greater pressure. Another Libya story I saw this morning makes me wonder whether this pressure will be forthcoming. European and North American states have already taken it easy with Libya since the "change of mind" over WMD, the incredibly unreasonable Lockerbie bombing compensations and Tripoli's cooperation on intelligence and renditions/torture sub-contracting, in their eagerness to line up those juicy post-sanction reconstruction and oil contracts. A group of US oil companies is now pushing to take Libya off the State Department's "sponsors of terrorism" list:
Libya expects the United States will soon remove it from its list of state sponsors of terror following the return to Libyan oilfields of the Oasis Group of U.S. companies, a top Libyan oil official said on Wednesday. He said he was "positive and confident" the former pariah state would be wiped from the list, with the expected backing of the Oasis Group, comprising ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Amerada Hess. "I would expect logically they will be willing to put the right message across to the U.S. government to do something about it quickly," Tarek Hassan-Beck of Libya's National Oil Company told Reuters in a telephone interview. An international lawyer who has worked on cases involving Libya said he believed companies might be reluctant to pour new capital into the oil producer unless they had assurances Washington would restore full ties. "This is a high-risk strategy .... unless of course there were some understanding as to how long the existing sanctions would remain," said Timothy Scrantom of Meridian 361 International Law Group. Libya's presence on the list bars it from receiving U.S. arms exports, controls sales of items with military and civilian uses, limits U.S. aid and requires Washington to vote against loans from international financial institutions.
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Party time for the Brotherhood

Interesting tidbit from a Le Figaro article interviewing Mohammed Hilal, an octegenarian member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council:
The current leadership decided, for the first time in the history of the Egyptian branch, to define the outline of a party. It's the minimalist tendency, associated with the 'old guard,' that won. "The Brotherhood will stay as it is," explains Mohammed Hilal. " We will have alongside it a political party with Islam as a political reference. Its members will be Muslim Brothers, but it will not bear our name. The minority wanted to transform the brotherhood into a 'Muslim Brothers' Party.'"
One of the fascinating things for Brotherhood watchers are the tensions and battles between its various factions. At the elections, the younger, more aggressive faction seemed to have won out. On the party issue, the old guard idea of splitting the Brotherhood between dawa and politics -- endorsed by some such as the "young guard" (well, middle-aged really) Essam Al Erian -- may have now won out. Yet, as the old guard necessarily passes away, I wonder whether the distinctions between movement and party will be essentially a convenient legal fiction -- perhaps more useful, and more politically dangerous, than a transformation into a party. What I'm still waiting for, however, was the announcement by Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef a few weeks ago in an interview with Al Destour that internal bylaws would be changed to impose a duration and term-limit for Supreme Guides -- i.e. that instead of being elected for life, as is the tradition, that they would serve a maximum of two five-year term. Actually carrying that out would deliver a strong message to the regime, which is reluctant to carry out similar reforms for the presidency. Meanwhile, Gamal Mubarak has emerged from hiding (ever since the elections got nasty) to deliver a four-part interview to the state-owned rag Rose Al Youssef, saying he has no intention of running for president and that he is preoccupied with how Egypt should deal with:
"The question of how we should deal at the political and legal levels with attempts to circumvent the national consensus banning religious parties is on the table," Gamal Mubarak told the state-owned Roz al-Yusef daily. The 42-year-old head of the ruling party's policies secretariat deplored the Muslim Brotherhood's "use of religion and religious slogans to achieve political gains" in the polls. In the fourth part of his interview with Roz al-Yusef, he described the movement's participation in parliament as "having negative repercussions on the electoral and political process."
Not as negative as police beating up voters, methinks. It looks that the regime's bright young thing isn't very different from the old guard when it comes to the Brotherhood.
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What happened to the shoe? (6)

January 24, 2006

You could feel the reverberation of the explosion in your chest as it shattered the morning calm of the office.

We always hear bombs from around Baghdad from our 7th floor perch overlooking the city, but usually they are just distant thuds that sends everyone to the balcony, scanning the skyline for the telltale plume of smoke.

This time though, there was no need to go looking as the sudden flash only 200 meters away followed by the a massive boom made it pretty clear where it was coming from.
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Kuwaiti comics

The New York Times has yet another Arab comics story, this time inspired by the 99 attributes (or names) of God:
The story concerns 99 gems encoded with the wisdom of Baghdad just as the Mongols are invading the city in the 13th century - in his version, to destroy the city's knowledge. The gems are the source of not only wisdom but power, and they have been scattered across the world, sending some 20 superheroes (at least in the first year, leaving another 49 [sic] potential heroes for future editions) on a quest to find them before an evil villain does. "To create the new, you have to tap into the old," Mr. Mutawa says of the deep historic connections in the comic. "The real goal is to teach kids that there's more than one way to solve a problem." The characters in "The 99" are not all Arabs, but Muslims from all over the world. Jabbar, the enforcer, is a hulking figure from Saudi Arabia with the power to grow immense at a sneer; Mumita is a bombshell from Portugal with unparalleled agility and a degree of bloodlust; and Noora, from the United Arab Emirates, can read the truth in what people say and help them to see the truth in themselves. There is even a character who wears a burka, aptly called Batina, derived from the word meaning hidden. But that is where religion stops and mythology begins, Mr. Mutawa says. "I don't expect Islamists to like my idea, and I don't want the ultraliberals to like it either," he says. So far, he has managed to get Kuwait's censors to approve the early mock-ups, he says. But to keep the orthodox at ease, he has included women in headscarves and plays it by the book as far as religion goes.
This guy seems to be quite serious about this, and has gotten people from Marvel to work on the project.
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Al Zayat calls for Jill Carroll's release

There have been a lot of calls for Jill Carroll's release from religious authorities across the Islamic world as well as some Islamist movements. This one, by former Gamaa Islamiya member Montasser Al Zayat -- who shared a cell with Ayman Zawahri after the assassination of Sadat -- just arrived in my inbox:
An Appeal from Montasser al-Zayat to the kidnappers of the American Journalist Jill Carroll I followed with grave concern the kidnapping of the American journalist Jill Carroll on Saturday, January 7, west of Baghdad. I'm concerned to what extent are the resistance factions—who are kidnapping journalists and media workers—following the guidelines of religion. The resistance, which has the right to fight the occupation and target its symbols and spies, must also be sure of the facts on the ground. I learned from media reports and from friends who knew the kidnapped reporter that she was well known for her sympathy towards the Iraqi people since the start of the terrible occupation. She observed the Arab and Islamic traditions, and dressed modestly out of respect to the Iraqi customs derived from Islam. Also her published reports show clearly her sympathetic approach towards the Iraqi cause. If the reporter has been in the hands of the Iraqi resistance for nearly two weeks now, then this means she has been interrogated carefully, and the truth should have been revealed by now to the kidnappers. I’m asking the kidnappers to release her so that it would be a clear message to the whole world—a message of a just cause and the ability to achieve justice even under the most difficult circumstances, where the Iraqi people and the resistance movements are facing the tyranny of the occupier. I’m sending my regards to the honorable resistance men, who are fighting the occupation, and I’m reminding everyone with our prisoners in the occupation prisons in Iraq and Palestine. May Allah help secure their release. Montasser al-Zayat Head of the Liberties Committee, Lawyers’ Syndicate 23 January 2006
Al Zayat is now Egypt's most famous Islamist lawyer, often taking up the cases against Islamist groups, as well as the author of "The Road To Al-Qaeda : The Story of Bin Laden's Right-Hand Man, and something of a civil liberties activist. It seems even the most convinced Islamists see the insanity of not releasing Jill.
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New issue of Bidoun

Bidoun, the magazine about Arab and Persian art, pop culture, architecture and much else, has a new issue out on the theme of envy. It includes an interesting article on Nasr City, the neighborhood of Cairo built in the 1960s.
Medinet Nasr's unapologetic modernist sprawl seems to insist on the physicality of history, especially the history of a reclaimed and self-determined Egypt that followed the 1952 revolution and the renegotiation of those concepts in following decades. Original housing was constructed by public companies, building and housing cooperatives made low-interest loans readily available, and the area was rapidly settled. The expanding ranks of nationalist-era civil servants and government employees constituted a majority of the area's first residents. Medinet Nasr became home to a flurry of new ministries and important government institutions such as the National Planning Institute and the Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics. A newly installed metro line was intended to ensure access to the rest of Cairo. Shifting dynamics in the international oil market catalyzed the area's growth. A boom in oil revenues from the early seventies until the late eighties led to an influx of wealth into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, dramatically changing the region's economic situation and spurring major development initiatives and widespread investment there. At the same time, more and more people flooded into Cairo from the countryside, as increasingly subdivided agricultural land became less and less sustainable. Many Egyptian men joined the multitudes of foreigners flocking to the oil rich region to work in all sectors and at all economic levels. Their imported income supported a parallel boom in Medinet Nasr real estate and lent the area a particularly Gulf architectural influence and an association with new money.
There's also a review of a book on Iranian bloggers by Alaa Abdel Fattah of manalaa.net fame -- and much more.
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Egyptian opposition parties begin to change

Noaman Gomaa, the despised dictatorial leader of the Wafd -- one of Egypt's oldest liberal parties -- has been unseated by an overwhelming vote of its secretariat, with Gomaa's former deputy Mahmoud Abaza taking his place for 60 days until a new leader is elected. This has been a brewing coup against Gomaa over the past few weeks, sparked by his decision to kick out former MP Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (who says he lost his seat in the parliamentary elections partly because he did not receive proper support from the party) without consulting party leaders. Nour has since mounted a campaign against Gomaa, rallying to his side other party bigwigs including the formerly pro-Gomaa Abaza and Mohammed Sarhan. There had been an earlier split soon after Gomaa's election after the death of historic leader Fouad (Pasha) Serageldin, with some members (notably those from the old landed gentry and aristocracy that formed the traditional core of Al Wafd), but an attempt at a lawsuit never led anywhere. The Wafd is now likely to emerge safely in the hands of Abaza (with Abdel Nour, probably not in line for the top job because he is a Copt, as an eminence grise), although Gomaa has refused to acknowledge the legality his removal and could yet grab on to power. As Al Ahram Weekly pointed out in its coverage, police encircled the stately Wafd party headquarters in Doqqi (a mansion that belonged, I believe, to the illustrious Serageldin family) and blocked anti-Gomaa partisans from entering, while favoring pro-Gomaa ones. This confirms what observers have thought for a long time: that Gomaa was a tool of the regime, given the party as his personal fiefdom in exchange for support of the state. Gomaa's last minute decision to run for the presidential elections this summer (despite a previous agreement for an opposition boycott) and his poor performance, trailing behind Ayman Nour although he had been the state's preferred runner-up, finally discredited him. If the crisis at Al Wafd is not resolved in favor of the reformists, there has been talk of forming a new liberal party that would gather like-minded reformists from other parties, including the ruling NDP. The key advocate of this idea right now is Mona Makram Ebeid, a former president of Al Ghad before she was muscled out by Ayman Nour and some of his less savory acolytes. She has little political pull, so it's not sure what will come of it. But it's an idea that could still rescue the best elements of parties like Al Wafd and Al Ghad should they be taken over by pro-state elements, which is the current situation -- although in Al Wafd's case, reformists would be better off if they could keep its powerful and historic name. Meanwhile, a similar rethinking and restructuring is taking place on the left. As Amira Howeidy explains in another Weekly article, the left has been widely discredited:
In a follow-up seminar to last month's discussions of "the crisis of the Egyptian left" the Socialist Studies Centre on Sunday invited a number of leading left-wing figures, including veteran lawyer Nabil El-Hilali and the Tagammu's Abdel-Ghafar Shukr, to address the future of the left. The results of the parliamentary elections, said Shukr, clearly showed that the left hardly qualified as "a political pole" in today's Egypt. In approaching the reasons why this is the case the speakers were initially cautious, though the discussion soon turned into a scathing self-criticism of the past failures. Khaled Hamza, a communist and member of the left- wing Al-Tagummu, reminded the audience that the left once had a presence on the streets and in society. This, he continued, is obviously no longer the case. "The left's first major withdrawal was when it abandoned the people... Some then sided with the regime while others simply stayed at home." The behaviour of Al-Tagammu, believes Hamza, singling out recent headlines in the party's mouthpiece Al-Ahali which appear to highlight the links between the government and a supposedly opposition party, has impacted negatively across the entire left. " Al-Ahali," said Hamza, actually urged Mubarak to interfere and stop his party's thugs [from attacking candidates and voters] during the elections." He listed other reasons why the left was no longer a presence on the political scene. It is too scattered and divided, and on too many occasions the various factions have squandered whatever political capital they possessed on squabbling among themselves. "We need to unite, we need a party," he continued, "an Egyptian communist party that can Egyptianise Marxism... An elected, democratic party... we communists have never experienced democracy [from within]. We know only centralisation."
This week, the Nasserist Party held a meeting -- presumably the first of many -- to talk about structural changes to the party, including the need to elect a new leadership. The Tagammu has been said to be doing the same thing. Both parties could learn from the criticisms of newer movements "for change," as well as more established pseudo-parties such as Karama, a breakaway Nasserist movement that actually did fairly well in the recent elections. The domestic politics joke of the week in Egyptian papers, however, was news that a coalition of ten minor (read: utterly irrelevant) opposition parties, none of which have MPs, have decided to form a shadow government. A good idea by stupid people -- perhaps the real opposition (liberal, leftist and Islamist) should think about doing the same.
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Nour supporters beaten

This SMS is currently making the rounds in Cairo:
Egyptian State Security raids Ghad supporters at the entrance of Africa Cup stadium, beat women, kidnaps three and throws them in the desert after taking banner which said "Nour wishes Egypt victory" and "Free Ayman Nour."
Looks like Egypt, which is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations (which I'm rather disappointed to see no sub-Saharan African state decided to boycott despite the racism recently demonstrated by security forces against Sudanese refugees, leading to 28 deaths), does not want any party poopers.
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Cartoonist sought for propaganda job

From Harper's. a job ad for a comic book artist interested in producing Arabic-language propaganda for Middle Eastern children:
In order to achieve long-term peace and stability in the Middle East, the youth need to be reached. One effective means of influencing youth is through the use of comic books. A series of comic books provides the opportunity for youth to learn lessons, develop role models, and improve their education. The Contractor shall provide development of an original comic-book series. Knowledge of Arabic language and culture, law enforcement, and small-unit military operations is desired. The comic books will be produced in Arabic so the boxes will have to follow a sequence of right to left and top to bottom. The series will be based on the security forces, military, and police, and set in the near future in the Middle East. If the subject matter for a specific comic does not do well in its intended focus group then it may be dropped and/or a new basis for the comic will be selected. A designated representative of the U.S. Army will provide thematic guidance, cultural expertise, and oversight to the Contractor. Additionally, photos of regional architecture, vehicles, and people, which will serve as a basis for the artwork, will be provided. This will be a collaborative effort with representatives of the U.S. Army who have already done initial character and plot development.
Knowledge of Arabic language and culture, law enforcement, and small-unit military operations is desired. That's a tough one. [Totally unrelated to this or anything else for that matter, I highly recommend reading Robert Crumb's trippy "The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick" if you're into bizarre comics.]
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More on Egypt-US FTA

The plot thickens:
CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) -- Egypt could lose its chance of a trade deal with Washington if it cannot persuade the Bush administration to launch talks within the next few weeks, a congressional staffer told Egyptian businessmen on Wednesday. The Bush administration has not yet decided to start talks with Egypt and both it and some of the members of Congress who would vote on any agreement have linked expanded trade with Egypt with political changes by President Hosni Mubarak. A particular concern is the imprisonment of liberal opposition leader Ayman Nour, who is serving a five-year sentence on forgery charges he says are politically motivated. The senior congressional staffer, who asked not to be named, told a breakfast organized by the American Chamber of Commerce Egypt would not get another chance at a deal for four years. "If they don't launch the FTA [Free Trade Agreement] within three weeks to a month, you will lose the opportunity until 2010. That's the grim reality ... and the FTA negotiations have been taken off course by events not directly related," he said. Another congressional staffer told the meeting U.S. lawmakers would also take Egyptian reform into account. "It's important for you to recognize that for a number of members of Congress, progress on political reform will be very important in deciding how they will vote on the FTA," he said. The Egyptian government says it has made changes, notably by amending the constitution last year to allow multi-candidate elections for the presidency. But monitors said presidential and parliamentary elections last year were seriously flawed. Mubarak beat Ayman Nour, his most prominent opponent, by 89 percent of the vote to 8 percent, and his National Democratic Party retained its two-thirds majority in parliament. Businessmen and congressional staffers at the breakfast said the Egyptian government should also act fast on the Nour case. Told it could take months for Nour's appeal to come up in court, one businessman said: "That's just not quick enough." [emphasis mine]
Does anyone know why Egypt would not get a chance at a FTA until 2010? Is there a technical reason or is this just politics? Anyway, I'm not sure how seriously to take this, but it certainly puts Egypt's pro-business, pro-FTA and increasingly influential business community (the papers these days are full of headlines about "the businessmen's cabinet") in a quandary. There is simply no way Nour could be released through an appeal within that timespan. Just pardoning him or releasing him would be an intolerable sign of weakness for the regime. I suspect that, if true, this could also be a convenient excuse to delay a FTA many Congressmen are unsure about. Unlike Bahrain and Oman, Egypt can threaten US industry in certain strategic sectors, such as textiles -- this at a time when the US is under pressure to revise its subsidies regime in the Doha Rounds and in its ongoing fight against the EU. Overall, the FTA delivers few tangible benefits to US companies (and, some have argued, nothing that great to Egypt either.) So even if economically this could have limited impact, politically it's a slap in the face. The Bush administration's behind-the-scenes pressure on Egypt continues... (This follows a previous post on the same topic.) Update: I missed this earlier story which confirms that trade talks are on hold. Update 2: Here is another story with quotes from USTR Robert Portman on why there is a delay:
Trade Representative Rob Portman said the United States still sees "tremendous potential economic opportunities" in pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) with Egypt. "We also think that an FTA would help to support and encourage the economic reforms that are already ongoing in Egypt," he told reporters. "But we still have both commercial and political concerns which may not allow us to launch formal FTA discussions," Portman added. "It is an ongoing concern on the political side. It is one of the considerations we have to take into account."
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Al Jazeera to sue Britain for transcript

Good luck to them:
Yosri Fouda, an investigative reporter and acting Al-Jazeera bureau chief in London, told The Associated Press the network had hired Finers Stephens Innocent LLP in an "attempt to put pressure on the British government" to hand over part of the record of the conversation. "We would like to know the truth," Fouda said in a telephone interview. The news channel, which is highly popular throughout the Middle East, wanted to "set the record straight" concerning the Bush-Blair conversation. Fouda said the network was only asking for a transcription of "the ten lines" of the conversation that purportedly involved the Doha, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, conceding that Britain's desire to keep the rest of the conversation secret was understandable as a matter of state security.
Knowing how frequently leaks take place in Britain (partly due to a politicized civil service) and the political ammo this could be to David Cameron's new US-skeptic Tory party, I wonder why the transcript hasn't already been leaked.
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US defers Egypt FTA

Apparently an US-Egypt Free Trade Agreement is yet again being postponed.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has not decided yet whether to begin free trade talks with Egypt, a U.S. trade official said on Tuesday, amid U.S. concerns about Cairo's commitment to democratic reforms. "The decision will be made when the United States and Egypt together deem it to be the most appropriate way to move the relationship forward," said Christin Baker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office. Baker was responding to a Washington Post editorial, which said the Bush administration had told a Egyptian trade team not to come to Washington this month for previously scheduled talks to discuss the proposed trade pact.
Just a few months ago Egypt's Minister of Foreign Trade, Rachid Mohammed Rachid, was very optimistic that negotiations could start soon. The Egyptian government and Egyptian big business have been pushing for this for nearly a decade now, always to be disappointed because of slow economic reform or other matters as minor countries like Bahrain and Oman (as a friend calls them, the "bitch states") speed ahead with their own FTAs. Now this is being linked to the Ayman Nour case. The Washington Post, in its ongoing campaign against the Mubarak regime, published this editorial today:
THE BUSH administration has taken a first step toward adjusting its relationship with Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak's flagrant violation of his promises to lead a transition to democracy. An Egyptian delegation that was to visit Washington this month to discuss a free-trade agreement has been disinvited, and the agreement itself was put on hold. Thanks to Mr. Mubarak's autocratic backsliding -- including his crude persecution and imprisonment of his leading liberal opponent, Ayman Nour -- Egypt will continue to lag behind Jordan, Morocco and other modernizing Arab states that enjoy tariff-free access to U.S. markets. For Egypt's business community and the reformist technocrats in its cabinet, the message should be clear: Egypt won't join the global economic mainstream unless it abandons its corrupt dictatorship.
I wouldn't get to enthusiastic, this "first step" is most probably the last step... but we'll see. Update: The State Dept. commented on the issue in its daily press briefing.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can you confirm The Washington Post editorial that there was a trade mission from Egypt deliberately dis-invited to send the Egyptian Government a message that they're not making enough progress towards democracy? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, in terms of trade missions, the United States Trade Representative is the authority that would meet with foreign trade delegations and they would govern the --scheduling those visits, so I think that they're probably the most appropriate place in the government to ask those questions about timing, the particular timing of any delegation's visit. I would say only that we have been working closely with the Egyptian Government on the issues of democratic and economic reform. We have been trying to encourage democratic and economic reforms. We have seen some progress in those areas. We have been working with them on -- in the area of trade. Just last year, we worked with the Egyptian Government and the Israeli Government to set up a QIZ. It's a trade zone that has been quite successful. So we will continue to engage the Egyptian Government on issues of economic reform and of trade and, of course, on the political front, we will as well. So we are going to be addressing this whole series of issues across our relationship with Egypt that's a very broad and deep relationship that we have with them, and I would expect the discussions about democratic and economic reform, as well as our trade ties with the Egyptian Government, including a free trade agreement, will continue. QUESTION: Can I follow up on -- QUESTION: While the USTR has been -- is obviously the point of call for the specific trade issue, this building has been the main point regarding pushing the democracy agenda with Egypt. So I wonder, is a part of the reporting true that the Bush Administration is dissatisfied with where they -- how far along they are on the democratic path and therefore taken a decision to send a signal that you're not doing it right, whether it was through dis-inviting them in a trade mission or some other way? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, after the most recent round of elections, you know that we expressed our serious concern about Egypt's commitment to democratic reform. We think that democratic reforms, economic reforms go hand in hand, as we talked about a little bit earlier, concerning this hemisphere. We believe that these things are interlocked: democratic reforms, good governance, going hand in hand with the expansion of economic opportunities and the expansion of trade are very important to the freedom agenda that the President has outlined in his First Inaugural. So we're going to be working with Egypt on that whole range of issues. We believe that economic reforms are important. We believe that democratic reform -- continuing democratic reforms are very important. We expressed some serious concerns about -- in the wake of the results of the last election, some of the things that we saw, about reforms on the democratic front. So we'll continue -- certainly continue our dialogue with the Egyptian Government on these issues and we'll keep you updated on how discussions with respect to our free trade agreement progress. QUESTION: Well, can I follow up? At the same time, when the President and the Secretary talked in the beginning about the democracy agenda and that U.S. relationships are going to be governed with countries depending on their commitment to kind of democracy, rule of law, human rights and things like that, are we seeing a decision by the Administration to put that policy in effect? Is Egypt at the point now where its relationship is -- where the relationship with the U.S. is, at this point, being affected because of its lack of commitment to some of these reforms that you've (inaudible)? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, when the President and the Secretary talked about -- and have talked about the freedom agenda, what they have -- and the President specifically mentioned Egypt in the Second Inaugural Address. He called upon the Egyptian Government to lead in the spread of democracy in the region, just as they led the way in negotiating a peace with Israel. Also part of that Inaugural, and the Secretary has subsequently spoken about this as well, is the idea that in order to have the best possible relationship that you can with the United States, to have the broadest, deepest relationship with the United States, that's going to depend on this intersection of interests. Of course, we're going to continue to have a good, broad and deep relationship with Egypt. The trajectory of that relationship, of course, will depend upon the continuing intersection of interests between the United States and Egypt. I expect that the trajectory is going to remain on a good course. Are there issues? Sure, and we've talked to the Egyptian Government about that. In order to -- so it gets back to the basic principle. In order to realize the best possible relationship with the United States, then we would expect that the Egyptian Government would continue along the pathway to democratic and economic reform. We have seen steps towards that goal. They have made promises in that regard. President Mubarak has talked about, during his presidential campaign, changes that he promised to make and we would hope that President Mubarak follows through on the promises that he made in his election campaign. So we'll see how these events unfold. Again, we have an excellent relationship with Egypt. We have a number of mutual interests. We have a great interest in the advance of the democratic and economic reform efforts in Egypt, and those discussions and that focus will certainly continue in the months and years ahead. QUESTION: Right. But to go on what you just said, is it right now with Egypt the broadest and deepest it could be based on its actions in terms of this trajectory of commitment to democratic reform? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, I think that there are always issues that we can work on. We talked about our serious concerns regarding the recent election. While Egypt has made great strides on the front of opening up the political process in Egypt to other parties, there is still a long way to go and we're going to work with them on that. Ultimately, these are decisions that are going to have to be made by the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian people; we can't dictate this -- dictate changes to them. They themselves are going to have to make those decisions. We can encourage change, but ultimately they are the ones that are going to have to make these decisions.
How can a man talk so much and say so little?
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Jihad Al Khazen on blogs

The wonderful and often weird Al Hayat columnist Jihad Al Khazen has been writing on blogs over the past few weeks. Three articles have appeared thus far, one general, one on Arab blogs, and another on advice you can find on Arab blogs. Al Khazen also has his own blog collecting the English translations of his columns, although unfortunately he hasn't updated it in a while.
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Cheney, Egypt and Iraq

Dick Cheney was in Egypt today for a round of talks with Hosni Mubarak, the first such high-level visit in years. There was, predictably, a small demonstration at the Cairo High Court today against the visit by the usual leftist suspects. But the bulk of interest of the visit had to do with why Cheney was making this personal trip, since the last time he did so, I believe, was when the US was trying to get Arab support (or at least tacit collaboration) for the invasion of Iraq. The AP piece linked above has this:
Arab diplomats said high on the agenda will be the situation in Iraq following the Dec. 15 elections, the crisis with Syria over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and a looming standoff over the Iranian nuclear program. The diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are particularly concerned over the role of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority after Shiite victories in the vote. Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both key U.S. allies - are the two Arab powers behind an Iraqi national reconciliation conference that is expected to convene next month in Iraq to clear the way for a larger Sunni participation in the political process. Cheney's visit comes amid an escalating confrontation with Iran, with Washington and Europe moving to bring Tehran before the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been reluctant to publicly criticize Iran for its nuclear activities, urging instead to declare the whole Middle East - including Israel - a nuclear free zone. Washington has rejected that idea.
This all seems rather plausible, particularly with the Egyptian-Saudi attempts to stabilize the conflict with Syria (as seen in recent weeks, notably with the dramatic shutdown of the Saudi-owned media to former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam) and the Iran question being an issue of genuine concern for all Gulf states and Egypt as a regional player. Yet, ever since the visit was expected in early December of last year, there has been speculation that one of the reasons Cheney wanted to see Mubarak was to ask him to send Egyptian troops to Iraq. Juan Cole today expanded on that theme, quoting a story from the Iraqi paper Al Zaman. Cole says:
There has been no official acknowledgment of any such talks on either side, so it is a little speculative. But I think the reports are at least plausible, and are worth thinking about seriously. Iraqi politicians have repeatedly said that they might accept troops from other Muslim countries, but not from any direct neighbors. Egypt might therefore in principle be acceptable to them. The problem is that the government of Iraq is dominated by Shiites and Kurds, who are fighting Sunni Arabs. The Egyptians are Sunni Arabs, and will be suspected in Baghdad of sympathizing with the guerrilla movement. Still, if it were a matter of avoiding civil war or being taken out and shot by Zarqawi, perhaps the Shiite and Kurdish leaders could accept Egyptian troops out of desperation. Mubarak would certainly be happy to crack down on Muslim radicals such as the Zarqawi group, just as he has virtually destroyed the al-Jihad al-Islami and the al-Gama'ah al-Islamiyah in Egypt itself. The wording of the Al-Zaman article suggests that Cheney is angling with Mubarak for a contingency plan, in case things go very badly indeed when the US withdraws its troops. In other words, the Bush administration is going on hands and knees to Cairo because it is very, very desperate and very, very worried. Al-Zaman says that Cheney will also talk to Saudi Arabia about the issue. Since Saudi Arabia is a neighbor, and anyway doesn't have much of an army, presumably Cheney would be asking Riyadh to fund the Egyptian/ Arab peacekeeping force in Iraq. Saudi Arabia had played a similar role in funding the Syrian peacekeepers in Lebanon in the 1970s and after. Cheney will also seek greater support in the Arab world for the new Iraqi government, which will begin being formed as soon as the final results of the December 15 elections are announced. The previous Iraqi government had sometimes tense relations with the Arab League. Arab nationalist governments had tilted toward Saddam Hussein's Baath regime and had viewed the rise of a Shiite-Kurdish government in Baghdad, established by an American military intervention and with implicit Iranian support, with sullen suspicion.
The rumors that were published in Al Zaman first appeared in Egypt in December, in the weekly independent newspaper Al Destour, if I remember correctly. Although I don't have the original articles at hand, I remember discussing them with colleagues and thinking that there was little if anything concrete about them -- i.e. they were not sourced to high level officials or any concrete information. Considering that Al Destour is a newspaper of opinion, with most of its articles being rants, satires and essays against the powers that be, it is entirely plausible that the idea that Cheney would ask Egypt for troops is merely the product of the overheated imagination of one of its more conspiratorially-minded contributors. Nonetheless, we might consider the idea in any case, if only because the US does indeed face a problem in Iraq and that Arab troops could be a solution. Juan Cole strings up several arguments, which I think on the whole do not hold up:
1. The Egyptian regime has been afraid of Iranian-inspired Muslim radicalism ever since the 1979 revolution. The opportunity to attempt to counter Iranian influence in Arab Iraq could seem attractive to the Egyptian military, and also could strike them as a form of self-defense. It is often forgotten that Muqtada al-Sadr's Kufa is not that far from Egypt's Asyut, and although Shiites are viewed as heretics by most Egyptians, Muslim radical ideas can jump across the sectarian divide.
My immediate reaction to Egypt sending troops to Iraq is, why in the hell would it want to do that? Nor do I think that the Egyptian military is interested in adventurism, even if the enemies would be Jihadists. In fact, rather than being a form of self-defense as Cole puts it, this would probably have the effect of bring the Jihadi trend back to Egypt. That the regime fought a domestic insurgency does not mean it has an appetite to do the same elsewhere, especially when it would have to do so in collaboration with a pro-Iran Shia government that does not trust it.
2. Egypt receives $2 billion a year in US aid. Although that aid helps US corporations more than Egyptians, since it must be spent in the US, it is a prop for the regime. The opportunity to receive further aid from the US and Saudi Arabia for a role in Iraq could seem to the military regime in Cairo too good to pass up. Significantly, al-Hayat reports that Cheney is in charge of negotiating a free trade deal between Egypt and the United States, which would open the US market unrestrictedly to Egyptian exports and vice versa. Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco already have such an arrangement.
There is more to the US-Egypt relationship than mere American extortion through USAID and FTAs. Although it's plausible more aid would come from the US and Saudi if this happened, I am not sure that even then it would be worth it considering the considerable domestic opposition to the war in Iraq and the fact that Egypt has problems elsewhere, notably in the Gaza Strip.
3. If the US dumps the Iraq mess on the United Nations, and the Egyptian troops could serve under a UN command, the enterprise might be made palatable and legitimate to the Egyptian movers and shakers. That is, establishing order in the Arab nation in the wake of an imperial withdrawal (coded as a defeat) is a task that might appeal to the Egyptian political elite.
A UN command would certainly be the minimum required by the Egyptian military. But even so, in this scenario the US would essentially be subcontracting Iraq out to Egypt, and Iraq is just too messy to have much appeal to anyone, let alone and Egyptian political elite that has some serious structural problems to consider domestically in the years ahead.
4. The Egyptian military has many contacts with the old Baathist elite that is a key player in the guerrilla movement, and might be able to broker an end to the unconventional civil war.
Egypt could have has done this over the past few years. Besides, Baathist guerrillas are just part of the problems in Iraq, and in the long-term Shia militancy could prove a bigger challenge than Sunni militancy. What then? Can the former friends of Baathists really be seen as trusted mediators or peacekeepers?
5. The Arab League member states don't want Iran going nuclear, and the Saudis have spoken publicly on this. An Egyptian military and intelligence presence in Iraq might strengthen Cairo's ability to monitor the Iranian program and would be a way for the Arabs to pressure Iran over it. The Egyptians want as a quid pro quo for the Americans to pressure Israel to give up its nukes, so as to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and stop the arms race in the region (which the Israeli Bomb impels). AP reported on Monday, Jan. 16 from Cairo: 'Egypt on Monday said it supported using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes but rejected the emergence of a nuclear military power in the region, in its first official reaction to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. "All countries should adhere to their commitments in a way to allow the international community to be sure of the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, as we do not accept the emergence of a nuclear military power," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.' If the Kurds and the Shiites could be talked into it, a US withdrawal from Iraq in favor of an Arab League peace-keeping force might be the least bad end game for a terrifyingly unstable situation.
Israel is not about to give up its nukes, the Egyptian plan is just moral grandstanding--they're right, Israel should give up its weapons, but they don't know how to convince world opinion and the great powers how to make it. This is part of the chronic instability of the Middle East that results from Israel's disproportionate military strength, which probably now also includes second-strike capability and means Israel will stay nuclear for some time to come. Egypt is no great friend of Iran and probably supports a non-nuclear Iran, but why should it take a strong stance on the issue when it knows the US, the EU 3 and the UN will do all the work anyway? The profound political conservatism that underlines the Egyptian regime compels it to seek the solution that is most pro-status quo practically every time. This is no different. In other words, I really don't think we should expect Egyptian troops to be patrolling Falluja anytime soon. However, that doesn't mean Egyptian help in Iraq wasn't on Cheney's agenda. For over two years, there has been a standing Egyptian offer on the table to help train Iraqi troops. Thus far, only a very small number of Iraqis have actually taken advantage of this, apparently because the Iraqis (and maybe the Americans) themselves don't want to. This was reported in mid-December, coincidentally not long after the Cheney rumors popped up:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Egypt has repeatedly offered to train tens of thousands of Iraqi forces but Washington ignored this offer and chose instead to criticize Cairo for not doing enough, Egypt's envoy to the United States said. The United States has consistently accused Arab countries, including Egypt, of not doing enough to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, but Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said on Thursday this criticism was unfounded. "We have offered to train Iraqis for over two years," he told reporters at a breakfast at his residence. Fahmy said he offered Egypt's help in troop training during discussions with officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and members of Congress but they gave no response. "It's got to the point that I have stopped begging," he said. "It's mind-boggling," he added. Asked to comment on Fahmy's complaint, a State Department official said Iraqi troop training was a bilateral issue between Egypt and Iraq and not the United States. He added that the training of Iraqi forces would most likely not be cost-efficient in Egypt. The Pentagon did not have any immediate comment. Fahmy said Egypt, which did not want to send its own forces into Iraq, had the capacity to train 3,000 Iraqi troops every three months at a school outside of Alexandria in Egypt. So far, he said Egypt had trained 146 Iraqi forces. "Iraqis don't want Arab forces in Iraq and we are offering to train Iraqi forces and no one is listening," he said.
Claude Salhani of UPI commented on Fahmi's statement at the time:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- The United States is overwhelmed in Iraq as it struggles to train Iraqi forces, hoping they will eventually replace American combat troops, in turn allowing for a gradual reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq. Only then, once properly trained Iraqi forces are in charge of their own destiny, can American troops start to deploy out of the area and begin trickling back home. But before any of this can happen, Iraq needs its soldiers, officers and security personnel trained. Yet, inexplicably, the Bush administration, which in the past has asked for help from Arab and European countries, has not responded to offers from Egypt to help train Iraqi troops, said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to Washington. Egypt is one country that has repeatedly offered its services to Iraq and to the United States but, he says, the offers on military training are consistently ignored. Shortly after the capitulation of Saddam Hussein's regime, when U.S. forces entered Baghdad in 2003, Paul Bremer, then the U.S. administrator in Iraq, dissolved the Iraqi army and security force and discharged anyone from the civil service who had been a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Since then the Bush administration has sought Arab and international participation to help rebuild Iraq's military and its security forces. Few countries have stepped up to the plate. Among the few that have are Germany, Jordan and Egypt. Germany and Jordan were taken up on their offers and thousands of Iraqi troops traveled to those two countries to undergo military training. But inexplicably, repeated offers from Egypt went unanswered. Meanwhile, the Iraq military remains in desperate need for additional training as it struggles to rebuild a military and security apparatus capable of taking over the task of securing the country -- a job currently in the hands of the U.S. military. "We have the capacity to train about 3,000 Iraqi troops in Egypt every three months," said the Egyptian ambassador, speaking to a group of journalists over breakfast in his Washington residence Thursday morning. While thousands of Iraqis were sent to train in Germany and Jordan, only "146 or 147 Iraqi troops have trained in Egypt so far," laments the ambassador. Maybe the ambassador did not approach the right people? "I spoke to the Pentagon, I spoke to the people at the State Department and I spoke to the National Security Council," he said. The ambassador says he did not get a clear-cut answer from practically anyone as to why Egypt's repeated offers over a period of almost two years were ignored. "It's at this point where I stopped begging," said Fahmy. United Press International asked the Pentagon why this was so. Col. Fred Wellman, public affairs official for the Security Transition Command in Iraq, explained: "We have many training offers from all over the world. I am not the person in charge of saying 'Yes' or 'No.' There is an overall training plan. We check all the offers. We have offers to train them in Germany, or also in individual schools within the U.S. There is, for instance, a training operation in Jordan. But it is better for the Iraqis to be trained within their own soil."
It could be that Cheney was asking Mubarak to send trainers to Iraq so they could do their job there (again, I would expect both Egyptian and Iraqi resistance.) This is more plausible, although considering the recent news about Iraqi Ministry of Interior Shia death squads, I'm skeptical. There is, after the dismantling of the Iraqi army, a lot of work to be done on its structure, logistics and doctrine. Egyptian military officers, in a training capacity, could do that (although considering the "cost-efficient" comment above, I wonder how much they're asking.) And that could be used by the Bush administration to claim Arab support for its policies in Iraq and a broadening of the coalition. But I doubt that any of the heavy fighting, patrolling, etc. will be done by anyone else than Americans and Iraqis for some time to come. In the meantime, rather than: Cheney may have just come to negotiate the Egyptians' asking price in training troops, and get the Saudis to pay for it.
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