Adam Curtis' wonderful blog

Murtaza, Sanam and Benazir Bhutto

I am a huge fan of the documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, the author of wonderful films about our times such as The Power of Nightmares, The Trap and The Century of the Self. Curtis recently launched a blog, and in his latest missive he tracks down the parallel rise of Benazir Bhutto and post-Soviet Russian reformist Yegor Gaidar. It's a blog post that feels like one of his documentaries, with their eerie juxtaposition of politics and sociology with footage of ephemera, old newsreels and experimental music.

Make sure you watch the videos, especially the ones of Russian musician Sergey Kuryokhin.

More on Le Journal

My op-ed on the closure of Morocco's Le Journal Hebdomadaire is here, at the Guardian's Comment is Free site. It's a personal appreciation of the role it played in the last decade and a half, as well as a note of concern at the direction Morocco has taken in recent years.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the magazine's closure, and I'm sure more organizations will soon follow suit.

Links Jan. 27-31 2010

✪ Special report: The rise of Islamic militia in Somalia | World news | The Observer | By Peter Beaumont, who is good on Somalia.
✪ Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World by James Mather | Book review | Books | The Observer | Dalrymple reviews a book on the Levant Company.
✪ Why are there no arab democracies? [PDF] | Journal of Democracy article by Larry Diamond, who concludes it's mostly because of oil.
✪ Ambassador to Syria - Laura Rozen - | Robert Ford, a high-level appointee, will be first since 2006.
✪ Egypt-Algeria: Who's afraid of Amr Adeeb? | Al-Masry Al-Youm | Amr Adeeb and Egyptian-Algerian football rivalry.
✪ Autocracy-lite in Jordan | Chris Phillips | Comment is free | | Not so sure about the 'lite'...
✪ Wonk Room » Looking Toward A Future Gulf Security Architecture | Big question: will US reconfigure its role?
✪ Daily News Egypt - Egypt Still Involved In Secret Detentions, Says Un Report | Along with US, Russia, China, Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, India and Iran. Wonder if Morocco too.
✪ Waq al-Waq: The Myth of Undergoverned Spaces in Yemen | No such thing - rather, "alternately governed".
✪ Coptic Assembly of America | Activist site of Coptic emigrés.
✪ New MB leader slapped with travel ban | Al-Masry Al-Youm | As usual these days for senior Muslim Brothers.
✪ Brotherhood to Egypt: Don't squeeze out moderates | Reuters | Interview with new Murshid Mohamed Badie.
✪ A Duped President’s Wasted Foreign-Policy Year by William Pfaff -- | Powerful op-ed by Pfaff (on!!!)
✪ Congress letter to Obama | Finally, congresspeople we can be proud off, here calling for an end to the Gaza blockade.
✪ Universities and Islam: Hearts, minds and Mecca | The Economist | "A forthcoming book by Steffen Hertog, a sociologist, will argue that terrorists include a high number of engineers—not because of their need for bomb-making skills, but perhaps because of a mindset that likes rigidity and binary choices."
✪ Holocaust remembrance is a boon for Israeli propaganda - Haaretz | On Netanyahu's distasteful use of Holocaust remembrance for anti-immigrant, anti-Iran rant.
✪ The Decline of the Israeli Left | Secrecy News | Full book by Israeli writers available for download.
✪ Goodbye to oil that: the excesses of today's quest for crude - The National Newspaper | Review of books on oil.
✪ Michael Mineo Testifies That Police Brutalized Him in Subway - | NYPD Egyptian style?
✪ Arabic on the iPad - SaudiMac It works. Am still skeptical though, esp. as ebook reader, although it looks great for comic books.

Change in Syria?

Great Mosque in Aleppo, by Flickr user rinogas.

If a prize were awarded for the most ingenious country in the field of Middle East diplomacy, I think the grand prize for the past decade would have to go to Syria. It has an abominable regime (though not worse than many others in the region), and lost its Lebanese foothold where it did untold damage. But its ability to survive the concerted efforts of the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration to bring the regime down after the murder of Rafiq Hariri has been astonishing. A few years later, Syria is creeping back in into Lebanon, re-conciliating with Saudi Arabia, flirting with the US, enhancing its ties with the EU, building a solid new alliance with Turkey while maintaining its Iranian option. From a Machiavellian standpoint, chapeau!

Some recent developments are worth exploring to fill out the picture. Rami Khouri writes that he was astonished to see signs of a new opening for civil society while attending a conference in Damascus where many spoke critically about the challenges facing the country:

All this was unusual for a Syrian society ruled by a centralized and strict Baathist regime that has dominated all aspects of citizens’ lives. This is not a state that routinely admits its shortcomings, asks for help from partners, or subjects its senior officials to public questioning. So what is going on in Syria? How serious or sincere are these expressions of change, partnership and greater operating space and responsibility for civil society? 

Only time will tell, but for now we hear the state proclaiming a desire to change, while skepticism abounds about whether its rhetoric will translate into action. This is mainly because previous Syrian government pledges of change did not always happen, or newly opened spaces were quickly closed (as in human rights and political discussions, or a seriously free media). Yet the tone and consistency of this week’s high level message of change in the civil society sector are both novel and consistent, and therefore intriguing, and worth exploring and monitoring. 

The best hope now is that the Syrians themselves will test the sincerity of their government’s call for a deeper, stronger civil society. If the state is sincere, this is a moment of some hope for Syria and its neighbors. If it is bluffing, this is the moment to call its bluff and find out.

Previous openings — notably the short-lived "Damascus Spring" that began soon after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father — have been disappointing. Many dissidents have been jailed and tortured. But a confident Syria may be prepared for a limited opening that it could not afford when the Bush administration was mulling over an invasion or destabilization campaign. What is needed now is the space to build the roots of a future strong civil society, something Syria has never really had.

Josh Landis of Syria Comment has more thought-provoking material, although I'm skeptical of the figures:

Deputy Prime Minister Dardari informs us here that GDP is $60 billion. Gross Domestic Product is the most important economic indicator. This is 20% higher than what most have been led to believe and is more than double what it was in 2004. To have the country’s GDP more than double in 6 years is remarkable. This is faster growth than even China has experienced in the last six years.

Moreover, we are also told that inflation now is less than 3%. This is also substantially lower than what most have been led to believe. Both the budget as well as the trade deficit is also thought to be less than 3% of GDP. If these numbers are correct, Syrian government spending can afford to be much more expansionary than people thought.

Doubling the GDP in 6 years? Highly unlikely — in fact the figure does not take into account earlier high inflation and population growth — but if there's some truth to this economic boom, the question is what the hell happened to cause it, especially when the country was being threatened with all sorts of sanctions? I'm also surprised at the low inflation, esp. considering the inflationary pressures of the first few years of the Iraq war and arrival of refugees. Of course not all news is rosy, and this story reveals the damage cause in the eastern plains by drought. And there's more analysis of Syria's economy here.

Egypt and peace-processing

Here is in black and white what has long been obvious about the Egyptian-mediated Palestinian reconciliation talks — that they were never conducted in earnest:
Senior sources in the defense establishment say that the Egyptians are even willing to agree, albeit belatedly, with the Israeli-American conclusion that nothing good will result from Cairo's effort to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration fears that intra-Palestinian reconciliation would only bolster Hamas at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. 

Palestinian unity has been understood to mean that a joint government would involve Hamas and that would also present the United States with a constitutional problem. 

Legislation passed in Congress would prevent the administration from continuing to give aid to the Abbas-Fayyad government the minute it agrees to include Hamas as a partner. Cairo will not admit it publicly but it appears that its reconciliation initiative is dead. 

An Egyptian source says that the mediation efforts stopped because "conditions in the area do not permit it." The source said that the Hamas rejection of an Egyptian compromise proposal, in part because of pressure from Iran and Syria, is preventing progress toward reconciliation. 

On the other hand, the Egyptians are now trying to push for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the PA, even by indirect American mediation. 
This is a reminder that the Gaza war was a gift for Egypt: Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU, at a time of US presidential transition, restored Egypt's "regional role" by appointing it as the key mediator between Israel and Hamas (for a permanent ceasefire and, separately, a prisoner exchange), Hamas and the PA (for reconciliation), and an important player in the regional peace process and relations between the PA and Israel. Egypt's intention has never been to conclude a Palestinian reconciliation, because Congress and the Obama administration would probably exit the peace process if that happened. Whatever happens, for Cairo, the process — any process — must be maintained in order to generate strategic rent. 

Iraq's pre-electoral violence

Anthony Shadid — whom I hope will improve the NYT's Middle East coverage — reports on those terrible Baghdad bombings:

The attack came at a precarious time. The capital’s political class is mired in a dispute over the disqualification of hundreds of candidates for promoting the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein. Despite calls for compromise and warnings by the United States and United Nations officials that barring the candidates threatens the credibility of the vote, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has taken a hard line.

The prime minister faces a competitive campaign against a rival Shiite Muslim alliance, which has proved eager to question his anti-Baathist credentials as well as his claims of restoring a semblance of security.

American officials have warned that violence will almost assuredly escalate before the vote, and survivors of the attack offered as many suspects as motives — including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown terrorist group, acting with Baathists, as well as Mr. Maliki’s rivals. Mr. Maliki has blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Baathists for the previous attacks, though American military officials have consistently maintained that Al Qaeda acted alone.

“The parties have already started fighting over the seats of power,” said Heidar Abbas, 42, a pharmacist. “Who’s responsible? It’s the parties themselves.”

I rarely post on Iraq, because I think it's well-covered elsewhere and I haven't been there, but as the story on Iraq increasingly becomes about the Iraqis rather than the US presence or foreign fighters, I think that may change. Certainly the decision of the Iraqi government to ban former Baathists seems ill-advised and contrary to most experience of successful national reconciliation.

Morocco's Le Journal Hebdomadaire to close

The last issue?I just received very sad news from Abou Bakr Jamai, the editor behind one of Morocco's most courageous publications and one that had been a symbol of the opening that began in the mid-1990s under King Hassan II and petered out under the rather aimless reign of his son, Muhammad VI. Bou Bakr wrote:

After all your prediction about the end of Le Journal has been proven on the money. Le Journal Hebdo has been shut down. Yesterday, 5, yes 5, bailiffs showed up armed with a court decision to take over Le Journal Hebdomadaire and the company behind it, Trimedia.. What is still unclear to us is the legal argument that led the judge from the receivership procedure of Mediatrust to act against trimedia. The only link is the title:"Le Journal Hebdomadaire" but the title is owned by the publisher himself not the company. Although we are waiting to get a clearer legal picture, we can already officially announce the death of Le Journal Hebdomaire.  

The story of Le Journal  is in some sense the story of trying to hold to account the new Moroccan monarchy, which has received lavish foreign aid and diplomatic support for a moderate image it never fully earned. We've mentioned Le Journal frequently here, and Bou Bakr became over the last decade more than a magazine editor, but also a leading dissident, as the New Yorker aptly captured in its October 2006 profile, The Crusader [PDF, 8MB].

The end has been predicted as near for some time, particularly as the regime imposed an advertising boycott from Morocco's big business and Le Journal became what would be the first in a series of publications to receive life-threatening libel fines. The paper lost its appeal in 2006 against that libel fine and faced the threat of having its assets confiscated ever since. Jamai himself has been in exile for the last few years to avoid his personal property being seized (and to protect his family.) Bou Bakr and his partners were in negotiations to sell the publication this summer, in view of clearing debt and launching a new one after a year or so, but the deal was blocked at the last minute (probably due to palace influence.)

Amidst other developments in the treatment of the press, in the rise of police brutality and torture once again, and the continued makhzenisation of a once dignified opposition, it paints a sad picture of Morocco as the little country that could have changed and become a model for the rest of the Arab world, but didn't.

More on this later.

Sponsored links:

We are the leading the world in providing best 650-293 exam product and 70-652 exam dumps prep solutions. Our incredible offers for testking 1z0-550 dumps and evergreen testking 350-030 dumps are accessible at reasonable prices. Our testking JN0-660 also have very rare in IT world.

Meeting Osama

There was a nice edition of the short BBC World Service radio program Witness today, about Osama Bin Laden. It focuses on Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, who met him in the late 1990s.

Listen here for the next seven days. Atwan's book about al-Qaeda — The Secret History of al Qaeda —includes many of the vignettes he talks about here, and is a pretty interesting non-academic, non-CT oriented, account of Bin Laden and friends. Atwan is funnily self-deprecating as a pampered "five-star journalist" when served "soggy potatoes and rotten cheese." I wonder if the gebna qadima was al-Zawahri's contribution.

Links for 27.Jan.2009

✪ Ex-U.N. Weapons Inspector in Iraq Is Charged in Child-Sex Sting - | A sad end to Scott Ritter.
✪ ei: New York Times fails to disclose Jerusalem bureau chief's conflict of interest | Does NYT correspondent Ethan Bronner's son serve in the Israeli army?
✪ Algeria’s Dirty War against the Jihadists « On War and Words | Interesting post on Algeria's dirty war.
Mubarak: Egypt presidential elections will be freer in 2011 - Haaretz | Completely misleading story — there is nothing concrete announced by Mubarak.
✪ BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - Classic Serial | For fans of George Smiley.
✪ الموقع الرسمى للحملة الشعبية المستقلة لدعم وترشيح البرادعى | Website for Mohammed ElBaradei as president of Egypt in 2011.
✪ Palestinian parliament expires four years after Hamas electoral upset / The Christian Science Monitor | So now neither the West Bank nor Gaza have a legitimate government.
✪ U.S. playing a key role in Yemen attacks - | Interesting that CT operations in Yemen began before Christmas "crotch bomber" incident and current focus on Yemen.
✪ Amour, gloire, beauté et envers du décor « SN | A review of two recent Egyptian movies, in French.
✪ Watching Yoav Shamir’s Defamation « P U L S E | A film about the ADL's scare-mongering.
✪ Interview: Mohamed ElBaradei | Foreign Policy | Excerpts of forthcoming interview.
✪ After Cairo: From the Vision of the Cairo Speech to Active Support for Human Dignity | Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) | Report urging Obama administration to do more on democracy-promotion and more.
✪ Arab silence is no substitute for policy on a troubled Iran - The National Newspaper | Emile Hokayem on the need for a regional security arrangement in the Gulf.
✪ Bush Pentagon Hired Conspiracy Theorist As Al Qaeda Specialist | TPMMuckraker | Analyst who pushed Saddam being behind 9/11 commissioned to write history of al-Qaeda for Pentagon.
✪ Al-Masry Al-Youm defies Cairocentrism | Al-Masry Al-Youm | Paper launches Alexandria edition.

ElBaradei's proposal for Gaza

Foreign Policy got hold of Mohamed ElBaradei ahead of his return to Egypt and is set to soon publish a long interview, focusing both on Iran and his tenure at the IAEA and his impending return to Egypt (third week of February, FP says.) I can't wait to read the full thing once it's available, and urge you to read the excerpt they put on online. For now I'll focus on the part of the interview which deals with Egypt's policy towards Gaza, where ElBaradei makes an interesting (if off-the-cuff) policy proposal:

FPPresident Mubarak has been criticized harshly in Egypt and from outside, from some quarters, for his policy toward Gaza. Do you have any opinions on his policy toward Hamas?

ElBaradei: I don't really know the details about his relationship with Hamas. All I know about Gaza is that you have to distinguish between national security and humanitarian assistance. I would quote Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, who wrote that we are failing Gaza and that 1.5 million innocent civilians have been penalized because of the behavior of some of the Hamas members. To me this is not much different from what happened to Iraq before and after the war. You end up penalizing the innocent and the vulnerable -- the citizens. According to Patten, Gaza is only getting 31 of the "essential items" from the Israeli side, while they need thousands of items. They're not getting any construction materials. They received 41 truckloads of materials; the whole place is rubble.

The need to separate your politics from humanitarian needs and from protection of civilians is a principle that was established a hundred years ago with the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions. I feel that we are moving away from that in many ways. We talked about "crippling sanctions," for example. When you talk about "crippling sanctions," you have to understand that those who are being crippled are not the people in power -- it is the innocent civilians, the elderly, and the young. That is to me absolutely the wrong approach.

FP: Does that mean you would stop the construction of this underground wall that is currently being constructed between Egypt and Gaza?

ElBaradei: As I said, I don't really know the details, but if this [border area] has been used for smuggling, drugs, weapons, or extremists, then Egypt has the right to make sure it protects its security. But what Egypt can also do is use the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow Gaza to have humanitarian assistance. For example, one idea I have is to create a free zone in the Egyptian part of Rafah [the border town]. I don't see why we can't have a free zone there where people from Gaza go and buy their own basic needs. So there is a difference between protecting national security, which no one questions, and providing humanitarian assistance.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say this is an ElBaradei policy platform, but it's certainly a very interesting suggestion and possible answer to the question of what kind of alternative policy Egypt could be pursuing towards Gaza — not the ideal policy, but rather a realistic policy considering the real security threat perception felt by Egypt (and not just the regime), the potential for radicalization Gaza represents, and regional constraints.

I'm not sure how literally ElBaradei is using the term free zone — i.e. whether he means a customs free zone, as Port Said was. If so the concept would run into the intricacies of the Oslo structure, most notably the Customs Union between Israel and the OPTs established under the Paris Protocol. This may seem like a technicality in light of the humanitarian crisis Gaza is facing, but it would certainly be a real concern to the Israelis and both Hamas and Fatah, with implications of separate economic systems for the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, peace-processors and officials of the concerned governments would have to do serious rethinking of the economic structure that currently exists in Israel/Palestine and that allows for the duty-free exports of Palestinians goods to Israel, which Palestinians rely upon to some extent. One could of course counter that Israel is not accepting Gazan exports for the moment, but it is a nonetheless an important shift in thinking.

There is another strategic implication for all concerned: such a plan would risk perpetuating the "three states for two peoples" direction the conflict is now taking, with Gaza becoming integrated into the Egyptian economy and the West Bank quite distinct from it. For Egypt, this is essentially what Israel would love to see: Gaza becoming Cairo's problem, not Tel Aviv's. It runs against the Egyptian argument thus far that Gaza is Israel's obligation under international law, and does not solve the concern about Hamas. 

Still, the argument could be made that Egypt could supply Gaza with the reconstruction material it needs, and perhaps act as an intermediary for Gaza's trade with the outside world (esp. the EU), without becoming economically implicated itself. There is certainly a good argument for a humanitarian opening of Rafah to grant Gazans access to the outside world, and allow goods in. It can be controlled in light of Egypt's concerns, and provide an alternative to tunnel smuggling. The devil will be in the details, though, and whether the PA and Israel (and even Hamas) would approve of such a plan, and what consequences there would be to going ahead with it even without, say, Israel's approval. 

Nonetheless, it's good to see ElBaradei not shying away from tackling this difficult issue. More Egyptians should be thinking about their country's responsibility in Rafah, and proposing serious and fully thought-out alternatives to the current policy. From what I've seen there's been much hand-wringing, but not many concrete proposals.

Culture links

* A new-ish art space in Cairo adds an open air theater. I've been to Darb 1718 and it's a quite special location--nice to see they are making such good use of it. 

* Masr International Films (the late Youssef Chahine's production company) teams up with the BBC to produce TV serials "that experiment with themes like religion, gender equality, challenging societal norms.." Not sure how I feel about the social message part of this project, but if they can make an Egyptian equivalent of that Pride and Prejudice mini-series...

* The great and terribly ill Tony Judt is writing a series of autobiographical essays for the NYRB. The last one is on his youthful "all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism." 

Booleess Day

I had wanted to write something funny and incisive about Police Day, the annual event of pageantry and appreciation for your local cops celebrated in Egypt. But the above-mentioned cold has prevented me from doing so, and I even missed my favorite part of Police Day, the Nile Squad river rescue demonstration. If you are so privileged as to have a room or be a member of the gym at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, it offers the best view.

Don't despair, though, Jack Shenker has written a nice-guide on how to celebrate Police Day and Bikya Masr has a collection of their articles on the performance of Egypt's finest.

I still haven't entirely confirmed this (partly due to my near-comatose state), but President Mubarak in his Police Day speech several days ago is said to have made several important statements (about fundamentalism, among other things, and allusions to the Iranian threat.) Most interesting though is that Police Day is now an official national holiday — i.e. a bank holiday as they say in the UK (or has this always been the case? I can't remember). Is this a promotion of the police to the same status as Armed Forces Day? Compensation for the humiliation suffered by the police at the hands of the army last March? A sign of a great leveling between coppers and soldiers? Is Minister of Interior and supercop Habib al-Adly the next president? Hosni works in mysterious ways.

Anyway, all joking aside, whatever happens in Egypt over the next few years dealing with the declining quality of police work, rock-bottom trust for law enforcement and a routine practice of torture will be one of the most important challenges the country will face. Worth mulling over on this day.

SourceForge and Clinton's internet freedom speech

A few days ago Hillary Clinton made a major speech about internet freedom. She said:

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone. 

One step towards that would be to fix the various impediments the US puts on accessing data, including from Middle Eastern countries. Take SourceForge, one of the most important repositories of open-source software in the world, where developers collaborate on building all sorts of tools, including the kind that might facilitate evading internet censorship. It turns out that since early this month it's been blocked in various countries including Iran, Syria, Sudan as well as other places upon which Washington has imposed sanctions. 

Arab Crunch has a post by Abdelrahman Iblidi, a Syrian programmer, criticizing the legislation that forces SourceForge to ban users from these countries and others (Cuba, North Korea.) Syrian developers have had similar problems before with Google Code and other US-hosted sites. This example of internet censorship is particularly grating because open-source technology has often provided solutions to go around internet censorship and protect user privacy, such as Tor

[I was alerted to this issue thanks to a tweet by one of the Egyptian blogosphere's leading open-source advocate, Alaa].

Nothing to see here, move along

Not a great strategy to confront sectarianismWaleed Marzouk writes aptly in al-Masri al-Youm English about the discourse of denial of sectarian problems:

The 11 January edition of “Weghat nazar” (Point of view), a talk show on Al Masriya channel, was one of the more blatant demonstrations of the complete denial of sectarian strife in Egypt. In a segment that hosted Qena’s Christian governor, Magdy Ayoub, presenter Abdel Latif el-Minawy introduced his subject with a saccharine oration on the glories of Egypt that included a mention of 7000 years of culture by the Nile and a dismissal of sectarianism as a national issue. The governor was seen quickly biting his tongue, going through the mental gymnastics of trying to avoid the phrase "sectarian." Finally, Ayoub opted to say, "The killer was a criminal with no religious affiliation, who targeted places that could have had Muslims too."

El-Minawy went on to introduce his studio guests, journalist Saad Hagras and researcher Hani Labib, asking them to comment on the issue “not from a sectarian perspective, but the point of view of a regular civilian altercation." The guest speakers seemed to miss these instructions. Both responded with informed and level-headed comments.

Incidentally, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a NGO that does excellent works on issues related to minority rights (among other things), released a report last week on the Naga Hammadi. It is extremely recommended reading. At the press conference for the report, researchers described the state of siege the town and surrounding village are under, intimidation of locals by security, the destruction of Coptic property by Muslims that took place because of false rumors being propagated, and more. One of their most salient criticisms of the handling of the situation by the security services was that more could have been done to prevent the killings of 6 January, and that investigations must look into the rumor-mongering and political backdrop of the sectarian tensions since last November.

In this week's Middle East International [subs], I wrote:

The official explanation, that the killings were in retaliation for the rape, is on the surface plausible, considering the prevalence of the practice of tar, or vendetta, in the region. But this version of events is questioned by local activists, who point out that the Christmas killings do not fit the pattern of a vendetta, particularly since the killers were not related to the rape victim and the targeted clerics were unconnected to the rape. Some subscribe to a conspiracy theory, according to which the killings may be part of a political ploy to intimidate Christians ahead of this autumn’s parliamentary elections.

At the centre of this conspiracy theory is one of Naga Hammadi’s MPs, Abdel Rahman el-Ghoul. Ghoul, a Muslim and with a fundamentalist reputation, is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). He stood for election in 2000 (losing the seat), and again in 2005, when he won, despite the opposition of Bishop Kirollos. “In a place like Naga Hammadi,” explains Yousef Sidhoum, editor of Coptic weekly al-Watani, “when the bishop says he supports a candidate, every Christian will vote for him.” Bishop Kirollos, who has backed other Muslim candidates, has long opposed Ghoul, and relations between the two men are tense. After the attack, the bishop said that the gunmen “intended to assassinate me, and I know who is behind it.”

The prevalence of this theory points to a general dissatisfaction with the political handling of sectarian relations. Some denounce tokenism: for instance, the governor of the Qena region is a Copt, but is seen as relatively powerless and ineffective compared to other governors. His handling of the tensions since last November has been criticised, as has a perceived Muslim bias among police and security forces. “This is the game the regime plays,” says Sidhoum. “They address discrimination by appointing a token official. Christians in Qena remember his predecessor, a Muslim, much more favourably.”

The relationship between the MP, al-Ghoul, and the murderers deserves to be investigated — as well as treated with caution by those who want to immediately blame him for ordering the killing. Things are still very unclear. But al-Ghoul most definitely played a negative role in encouraging sectarian tensions in the region, and that deserves a closer look. Pretending that the killings were some random criminal act, as al-Ghoul has vociferously done in parliament, won't help.

Links 22-24.Jan.2010

✪ Daily News Egypt - Blogger’s Prison Sentence Upheld | Egypt's top blogger, Wael Abbas, at risk of prison.
✪ Israel's controversial expansion of Ariel University in West Bank | It's not controversial, it's illegal.
✪ Why Mideast Envoy George Mitchell Should Resign | Stephen M. Walt | He was conned by Obama.
✪ Egypt mufti wants to put prayer ringtone on silent - Yahoo! News | And a good thing too.
✪ The Qaradawi Index | Marc Lynch | On the sheikh's influence.
✪ al-Masri al-Yum | This clever name for a recipe site by the TBE people has left me wondering how Arabist could hit back with its own clever cookery monicker.
✪ Analysis: Arabs, Jews don`t have equal rights to recover pre-1948 properties | No kidding.
U.S. Jew indicted as possible Israel spy - Haaretz | Yet another case of Israeli industrial espionage in the US — these companies should be banned.