In Alexandria

For a conference on the latest Arab Human Development Report, which focuses on the environment. Hope to blog about it, but I'm already seeing some interesting papers on global warming and overpopulation.

Some interesting and worrying stats:

- there are 369 million Arabs today; in 2050 there will be 598 million.
- 90% of land in the region is classified as arid or dry sub-humid.
- 15 of the 22 arab states are among the world's. Most water-stressed countries.
- Temperature increases in the region due to global warming will be of 2C over the next 15-20 years and up to 4C by the end of the century.
- Droughts have already become more frequent, notably in Morocco.
- Mediterranean will rise by 30cm to 1m and will flood parts of Egypt's north coast.

More later.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Get rid of Ross

Laura Rozen of Politico talks to US officials who see Dennis Ross continue being Israel's lawyer rather than America's troubleshooter. It's scathing:

“He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” one U.S. official told POLITICO Saturday. “And he doesn't seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this Administration.” 

Last week, during U.S.-Israeli negotiations during Netanyahu’s visit and subsequent internal U.S. government meetings, the official said, Ross “was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi's coalition's red lines.” 

Ross, the U.S. official continued, “starts from the premise that U.S. and Israeli interests overlap by something close to 100 percent. And if we diverge, then, he says, the Arabs increase their demands unreasonably. Since we can't have demanding Arabs, therefore we must rush to close gaps with the Israelis, no matter what the cost to our broader credibility.” 

A second official confirmed the internal discussion and general outlines of the debate. 

Obviously at every stage of the process, the Obama Middle East team faces tactical decisions about what to push for, who to push, how hard to push, he said. Those are the questions. 

As to which argument best reflects the wishes of the President, the first official said, “As for POTUS, what happens in practice is that POTUS, rightly, gives broad direction. He doesn't, and shouldn't, get bogged down in minutiae. But Dennis uses the minutiae to blur the big picture … And no one asks the question: why, since his approach in the Oslo years was such an abysmal failure, is he back, peddling the same snake oil?” 

Sounds like Ross is wasting everyone's time. Why keep him around?

Cook on ElBaradei

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations weighs in on the ElBaradei phenomenon in the house mag. The first part looks at what ElBaradei has done so far and the dilemma he presents the Mubarak regime, and then Cook tackles the potential for real change ElBaradei represents and how the US should react:

But it has become clear that although it continues to try to cut ElBaradei down to size, the regime recognizes the difficulties of completely marginalizing him. In fact, Mubarak and his advisers may let ElBaradei agitate, organize, and even run for president. An ElBaradei candidacy could actually help the regime in one important way: without being totally disingenuous, Mubarak and others in government could use the existence of a credible presidential contender as a demonstration of Egypt’s political reforms.

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Iraq's elections: anything goes

 The Economist has a round-up of Iraq's election results and this nice chart. The bottom line:

The parties may still have to wait several more weeks while voting disputes are resolved and seats in parliament allocated. A complex formula will boost representation for women and minorities (including Christians) and award extra seats to the largest parties. Only then will the winner be revealed. The group with the most seats will not necessarily have won most votes.

The slowness of the count contrasted with the frenetic pace of negotiations in Baghdad’s hotel lobbies and party headquarters. No alliance came even close to an outright win. Messrs Maliki and Allawi both face an uphill struggle to find a winning coalition. Their most obvious partners are the Kurds, who are part of the present government and will seek to stay on to defend their regional privileges. With two suitors wooing them, they will demand extra concessions.

But the Kurds are no longer the sole kingmakers. Assuming they act as one block, including a newish reform party called Goran (meaning Change) as well as the two older ones, their 50-odd seats would still not be enough to give either Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi the 163 seats they need to command a majority in parliament.

So the Iraqi National Alliance, an umbrella group for Shia religious parties that campaigned strongly against both men, may hold the final balance. Within that alliance, Mr Sadr has a role. But another part of the National Alliance, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), could also play a part, even though it did badly in the election, getting only a dozen seats. As part of Mr Maliki’s current government, ISCI will also be keen to stay on board, enjoying the perks and patronage of office. But it strongly opposes Mr Allawi’s anti-Iranian stance and in the past has quarrelled with Mr Maliki too. In any case, ISCI alone is too small to swing the balance.

Having not really followed Iraq's politics since the invasion, I'm feeling it's time to take an interest again now that they are at least partly running things themselves, with all the glorious complications of that country's politics. And they've already made a comeback to the Arab regional scene by doing the classic Arab state thing at the Arab League summit: they are boycotting (a good Jazeera wrap-up btw) because Qadhafi held a meeting with Baathists. And to think they were originally meant to host...

Dining with al-Qaeda

I've just started reading Hugh Pope's journalistic memoirs, Dining with al-Qaeda. It's really good fun so far, and the second chapter — covering Pope's first job with UPI in Beirut — has a great story of his disenchantment with Robert Fisk, who always magically had more exciting stories than anyone else. His secret: he made them up. Pope went to great length later on to investigate claims by Fisk, in his Independent reporting and in his magnum opus, about Turkish "starving" of Kurds that nearly got the Independent banned there and caused Turkish authorities to blow a gasket, almost kicking Pope (a lowly stringer for the Indie) out of the country. He's calls all this "Fiskery" — others call it Fisking, especially when Fisk goes after individuals — and while he's not bitter about it there's a real sense of disappointment that Fisk jeopardizes his position of authority and emotional power on these made-up stories. He writes:

Fisk's writings, more than almost anyone else's, manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of U.S. policies  But facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agents of readers' emotional and political responses. 

The thing is, Fisk's over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting, for instance when Fisk refers to getting onboard an Apache helicopter even though they don't have passenger seats. If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It's a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.

In any case, do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest either in foreign correspondents in the Middle East. I'll do a proper review later, but I see that the Economist loved it (and if you read the review, you'll note a mea culpa about the paper's support for the Iraq war at the bottom).

Friday Videos

Norman Finkelstein talks about settlement expansion in Jerusalem and his new book on the Gaza war, This Time We Went Too Far, on Democracy Now. I am reading the book at the moment, so far it is everything you would expect from the meticulous Finkelstein.

Chris Hedges on American decline — his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle  seems fascinating.

Gaza tunnel builders and smugglers, the lifeline of the world's biggest prison.

You might also be interested in al-Masri al-Youm editor Magdi Gallad's interview with Mohamed ElBaradei.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Submit to Mubarak

Once a military man, always a military man.
At a meeting of parliament's national security committee on Wednesday, committee head Mohamed Abdel Fattah Omar urged the Egyptian public to "entirely submit" to the will of President Hosni Mubarak.
"Even if Mubarak chooses dictatorship, we still must obey, since he would act as a benevolent dictator," said Omar.
Omar's comments came as the committee was discussing a draft law on the extension of Law 49 of 1997, which grants the president the right to take unilateral decisions in military issues pertaining to armaments without having to seek parliamentary approval.
Omar's remark came in response to objections to the law raised by Muslim Brotherhood MPs Sabri Amer and Essam Mokhtar. The two MPs also objected to the law on the basis that the president's term was slated to end next year.
Defense Ministry adviser Mamdouh Shahin, for his part, defended the move, noting that "current international and regional threats warrant the extension of the law."
The committee ultimately endorsed the bill, which it will submit to the People's Assembly next week for approval.
There have been some pretty sycophantic paeans to Hosni Mubarak in the past, but never has anything like this been said so explicitly. And this from the man who a few weeks ago was suggesting that Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali would be assassinated. We're in Saddam Hussein territory here. I also wonder if M. Omar (or I should say, police general Omar) is inspired by certain Sunni theologians, notably those of the Malekite school, who believe the umma should always submit to the sultan.
In any case, this story does shed light on a little-discussed provision of Egyptian law that has important electoral ramifications and partly explains the regime's panic during the parliamentary elections of 2005. Throughout his reign, Mubarak has been granted by parliament the right to conclude military armaments deals (import and export) without consultation — essentially a fast-track process to carry out these deals. Normally, the deals would have to be reviewed and approved by parliament. But, as long as there was a two-thirds majority in favor, parliament could always give the president the fast track — and it always has.
When the Muslim Brothers looked like they would get up to 120 seats in parliament in 2005, that two-thirds majority was threatened (two-thirds of parliament amounts to about 150 seats). So after the first round the security services began to crackdown and made the sure the Brothers would not get anywhere near that number.
This bill, if I understand it correctly, is either another iteration of the fast track or an actual amendment to the law to permanently enshrine the president's fast track privilege over arms deals — one that provides zero transparency over arms purchases, who gets commissions, and other fascinating aspects of the Egyptian military-industrial complex, its clients, and its major arms suppliers. It is as if Mubarak wanted to make he sure he left that legacy to his successor...

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Links for March 24 2010

It gives me great pleasure to play this wonderful song. I've known it for a while, and just found this live version on YouTube. But it took coming across Qifa Nakbi's post today to fully understand its origins:

That’s right, he’s singing about food: yabra (i.e. stuffed graped leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), lahm mishweh (grilled meat), etc.

A great tune. So what’s the back-story? I’ve been able to dig up various bits and pieces, but perhaps one of the readers can help out. The Wikipedia page on Gaillard suggests that he was reading from an Arabic menu, while this page claims that it was anArmenian menu, and that the song was actually “banned on at least two Los Angeles radio stations for its suspicious lyric references to drugs and crime…” 

Do listen to the album version on the post, as well as Arabian Boogie.

Now for the links...

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Forms of compensation

Don't miss the new show at the Townhouse, put on by the art and culture magazine Bidoun. From the press release: 

FORMS OF COMPENSATION is a series of 21 reproductions of iconic modern and contemporary artworks, with an emphasis on sculptures, paintings and prints by Arab and Iranian artists.  The series was commissioned by Babak Radboy for Bidoun Projects and produced in Cairo by a range of craftspeople and auto mechanics in the neighborhood surrounding the Townhouse Gallery.  The fabrication was overseen by Egyptian artist Ayman Ramadan, who sent installation shots of the original artwork, found for the most part in Sotheby's auction catalogues in Dubai, along with the instruction that each copy should differ in one small way from its referent.  Besides this note, there was limited communication between Radboy and Ramadan, or between Ramadan and the individual fabricators. The small and often strange differences that result between the original works and their copies arise for the most part from this lack of communication, along with several conscious mediations made by Ramadan and considerations for time, labour and cost made by the fabricators themselves.  All 21 pieces were completed within the space of two weeks.


Ayman Ramadan's re-interpretation of Turkish painter Burgan Dogancay's Rings (Wall sculpture series), using plastic bracelets

Of course the status of art versus its replicas has been a matter of debate at least since "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." A lot of contemporary art is simply a reflection on what constitutes art in the first place. 

The curators write that: 

The new works are surprising, often funny, and highly ambiguous. Despite their lowbrow fabrication, the forgeries do not simply reinforce a critique of high culture or of globalized art production. There is something uncanny about the works themselves.  More clones than twins— in encountering the fakes it is the primacy of the originals, which seems somehow destabilized, not in relation to their copies, but to themselves. 

That sounds like a critique to me. Of course there's something flattering in being iconic enough to be reproduced, but I read the show's take on the established and valuable works it spoofs as provocative. It's hard to see the replicas of Mona Hathoun's $25,000 "Waiting is Forbidden" sign (itself made in a workshop in Cairo, and I believe an exact replica of actual signage) and not feel one's sense of artistic (and financial) valuation go dizzy.  

Mona Hatoum's "Waiting is Forbidden"

In the end, I think, the show is strong because the question it investigates--what constitutes the originality and value of art--remains a powerful one. And what gives Forms of Compensation added depth, for me, is the fact that the relationship between the "copies" and the "originals," -- between commercial craftsmanship and art -- is embedded in the physical/social space of the Townhouse gallery and the surrounding workshops. The show's implications radiate outwards, from a very specific place and time and context, in a quite marvelous way. 

Egypt: Dark days ahead for NGOs

 Formal politics in Egypt are pretty moribund: aside from the competition for seats inside the ruling National Democratic Party, what you have is a ravaged landscape of opposition political parties with little or no public presence that barely mustered nine seats in the last parliamentary elections. But while political parties are either a co-optation mechanism that provides access to state backing and resources (the NDP) or weak token opposition or talking shops (the legal and largely loyal opposition), there has been a remarkable growth in the strength and vitality of civil society in the last decade.

This applies to explicitly political groups, such as religious movements like the Muslim Brothers (which is still more of a movement than an unrecognized political party), to the various movements for change grouped under the Kifaya label, to the campaign for Muhammad ElBaradei. But it mostly applies to the vast network of NGOs, human rights groups and others that, with varying levels of opposition to the regime, have in recent years done the work of advocacy and awareness-raising that politicians have largely eschewed on issues as varied as women's rights, torture, property rights, labor, minority rights and countless other aspects of defining the rights of Egyptian citizens. The groups operate under legally (and otherwise) difficult circumstances, but they have nonetheless been able to carve out a space for themselves to do politics by other means than the ballot box. The reality is that while formal politics is largely uninteresting, political vitality has moved elsewhere, to the NGOs and social movements that have formed the bulk of real opposition to the Mubarak regime's liberticide and often retrograde policies.

This is why it is alarming to hear that a new draft NGO law is currently circulating and may be passed by parliament within months. The existing law is already pretty bad. It should be changed, but not in the way that a group of 41 prominent Egyptian NGOs are now worrying about. Do read the whole statement for the details, but particularly worrying are reports that the bill would:

  • Allow state bodies to interfere in the internal management of NGOs;
  • Provide mechanism to control funding and notably restrict foreign funding;
  • Impose membership in state-run federations;
  • Prohibit NGOs from working in more than two fields;
  • Restrict the right of NGOs to form coalitions domestically and internationally;
  • Ban NGOs that are registered as civil companies rather than associations.

The last point is particularly worrying: because of the already draconian nature of the existing law, many NGOs are actually registered as businesses to get around state control and have greater flexibility in fund-raising. If the new law passes and is implemented, it could decimate some of the most vibrant NGOs in Egypt.

Two more things to note. First, the NGOs say:

It seems that the haste to pass the bill is attributable to a desire to undermine civil society efforts to monitor the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Following the abolition of judicial supervision of elections in the last round of constitutional amendments and the government’s refusal to allow international monitors, this step will facilitate further dishonest elections conducted without any meaningful oversight. Some articles of the new bill aim to limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalizing all forms of unregistered civic organization. 
This criminalization may have ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others) including the threat of imprisonment for their leaders and activists.
If that's the case, this is a threat to all the groups that have been fighting for a more democratic Egypt, as well as the ElBaradei campaign — an indeed ElBaradei himself. And there are already signs that election monitoring by a coalition of domestic NGOs, as carried out in 2005, might be curtailed. (Also see this.)

The other thing that struck me was a line about US backing for the new law. In a segment discussing plans to have a federation of civil organisations regulate NGOs, the statement says:

Significantly, the President of the state appoints one-third of the members of the General Federation, including its chair. It is customary for the chair to come from the ranks of former ministers or army officers—the current chair is a former prime minister who has already boasted that these changes have been supported by the U.S embassy in Cairo and USAID. 

I don't believe this to be accurate — the former prime minister's (probably Atef Ebeid actually it's Abdel Aziz al-Hegazy, PM in the mid-70s under Sadat) claim, I mean, not that he might have made the boast. The US has been critical of the NGO law in the past; the latest State Dept. human rights report for instance states:

Government restrictions on NGO and international organization activities, including limits on domestic organizations' ability to accept foreign funding, continued to limit investigation of and reporting on human rights abuses.  

The US embassy has confirmed to me that neither it nor USAID has seen any new legislation or endorsed anything whatsoever. [edited for clarity.]

I hope that if this bill does make it to parliament in the next few months, the US and other countries will take a strong stance against it; it appears to go against everything Barack Obama was talking about in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Unfortunately, the terribly misguided US decision last year to only provide USAID funding to NGOs recognized by the government sent a terrible message to the Egyptian government that US taxpayers' money can be spent according to its wishes and implicitly recognized the existing NGO regulations, going against the State Dept's longstanding reservations about freedom of association in Egypt. It was particularly perplexing when the Egyptian government has itself blocked US NGOs from establishing offices in Egypt. More generally, the funding restrictions added to the mixed messages coming from Washington, such as the establishment of the Mubarak Trust Fund.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

The marriage crisis

I just wrote about the scholarly book "For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt" for Foreign Policy. Here's the intro:

In 1932, Fikri Abaza, a young Egyptian editor and lawyer from a prominent family, gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo in which he announced his intention of remaining a bachelor. He had proposed to four women, he said, and four fathers had rejected his proposals on financial grounds.

The next day, the young man's lecture was the "talk of the town," American University in Cairo professor Hanan Kholoussy tells us in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt. Yet Abaza's complaint was hardly unprecedented. As Kholoussy documents, it was emblematic of a debate that raged in early 20th-century Egypt around the supposed increase in bachelors. That debate has striking parallels with one going on today in Egypt, where another "marriage crisis" is supposedly looming -- one in which it is the rising number of "spinsters" that most troubles observers.

I say supposedly because in both cases, "crisis" may be an overstatement. The "marriage crisis" of today, like the one back then, might have more to do with public anxiety over sweeping societal changes than any catastrophic threat to the institution of marriage.

Reading about the earlier crisis immediately put me in mind of the current one, and of the hit blog-turned-book عايزة اتجوز ("I Want To Get Married"), which I've reviewed before. Of course, my point isn't too deny that there aren't serious obstacles to marriage and serious consequences to delayed marriage. But is a phenomenon that dates back a hundred years a "crisis"? And today, is the concern over the allegedly rising number of unmarried women really warranted? 

Back when I was reviewing "I Want to Get Married," I spent a lot of time on various Facebook groups established by women to fight the stigma of being "a spinster," or just discuss the options and preoccupations of single women. I translated some exchanges (very roughly) because I thought they were pretty interesting. I'm posting them after the jump. 

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Culture in Dubai (an oxymoron?)

 Zaha Hadid's design for a giant opera house in Dubai. The land it was to be built on has reportedly been sold, and will be car park.

Foreign Policy reviews a new book (only out in German) by the former head of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

Michael Schindhelm's impressionistic account of Dubai's failed bid to buy an artistic identity by importing talent from around the world joins books in German and English about Dubai as the instantaneous city, with its made-to-order architectural majesty and astonishing new acts of consumerism, on the brink of cracking up even as it was being built. This emerging literature of the collapsed Dubai experiment gives a more detailed picture of the backstage bluster and indecisiveness that led to such unparalleled overreach than one finds in the news coverage. The portrait revealed is depressing, from the fortune-seeking Western consultants jockeying for position to the money-mad al-Maktoum dynasty with its thwarted pretensions to international grandeur.

Meanwhile, in the new issue of Bidoun, Negar Azimi discusses an Iranian artist whose success parallels the rise of Dubai's art market. 

There is a manner in which the discomfort Moshiri’s work evokes in some circles mirrors the sensitivities brought on by the peculiar geography that is Dubai — situated just one hundred miles from Iran across the Persian Gulf. Strangely, the artist’s fortunes have closely tracked the dramatic ascendance of that city, a place that inspires wildly diverse reactions, depending on one’s ideas about history, class, and, above all, taste. After all, it is in that glittering Xanadu — where Moshiri is represented by The Third Line Gallery, and spends more and more time — that he came to be known as the auction-house golden boy, the paladin of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams.

In May 2006, Christie’s held its inaugural sale in Dubai, outpacing all expectations and tripling pre-sale estimates. It was not long before Bonhams and Sotheby’s followed suit. By 2007, Christie’s was holding two sales per year at the Emirates Towers Hotel, and in October of that year sold $12.6 million of Arab and Iranian art in one evening alone. Moshiri was featured in these sales and in 2008 broke the auction record for a painting by an Iranian artist, with a work with the Farsi word for LOVE embroidered in Swarovski crystals and gold sequins. There was an irony in the fact that Iranians such as Moshiri could go on living at home, while being within close reach of the flush markets of Dubai. Suddenly, many observers of this young market wondered if the auctions were not distorting the field. And still others called Moshiri a sellout — though often finding it difficult to articulate exactly what he was compromising. As ever, there was the discomfort of seeing someone get fabulously rich from making art. I once asked him if he ever thought of disengaging from the auction market and all its accompanying baggage.

“The refusal to participate wasn’t interesting to me. It wasn’t effective,” he said. “Sure, there were moments, especially when the auction houses would come to Iran to pick up work, that I would be frustrated. But by not entering, what kind of statement are you making? You disappear. Of course, the auction also means that you hope work you made ten years ago, and wish would disappear, will not reappear. But it’s still impossible to withdraw completely, or it was for me.”

On the subject of Dubai, Moshiri is enthusiastic. “To find myself in that position, to witness a modern city being built up, was incredible,” he said. “Things were adventurous, my imagination was running wild. The energy was incredible. To imagine an aesthetic that is completely run out of this world. Nothing was held back. Everything was unchained.”

Algerian War Chic

Nom de Guerre is a New York based fashion designer. For their Spring/Summer 2010 collection, they've decided to draw inspiration from the look of belligerents in Algeria's war of independence, both on the Algerian side and the French OAS militia that tried to squash the independence movement. The result: epaulets, khaki shirts, camouflage pants, and more. It's like extras from Battle of Algiers.

Here's how they pitch it:

Via  Rue89 and @selim


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

The new Sheikh al-Azhar

Mubarak and his chief of staff Zakariya Azmi

The big news from yesterday in Egypt is that President Mubarak is back at work, making phone calls, shifting paperwork and generally looking busy. Among the tasks he's carrying out from his hospital room is appointing Ahmed al-Tayeb as the new Sheikh al-Azhar to replace Sheikh Tantawi.

Others have highlighted the trajectory of Tayeb's career — he is a former Mufti of Egypt and most recently was the dean of al-Azhar University. There, he was best known for tolerating security crackdowns on students from the Muslim Brothers that led to their stupid "martial arts demonstration" that provided the excuse for mass arrests, including senior leaders such as Khairat al-Shater.

The new Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed al-TayebAside from his animosity towards the Ikhwan, he is also generally known as a "moderate" and pledged to keep al-Azhar "centrist." I'm not sure what the means — it seems to indicate he is generally against clashes of civilizations, al-Qaeda and other things one would expect out of any decent religious leader. Things are not going to get very far if the standard for reform of al-Azhar is simply ensuring that it rejects salafi jihadist thinking. Much is being made of his PhD from the Sorbonne, though.

Anyway, having done a little search on my personal database I came across this article from al-Sharq al-Awsat's 26 August 2002 edition, chronicling what was then a public spat between al-Tayeb and Sheikh Tantawi:

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 

He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 
He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

I wonder if he still believes in boycotting US products.

The other interesting thing yesterday is that all state imams were told to pray for Mubarak's health during their Friday sermon. One wonders what to make of it: should it be a sign that the situation is quite bad? Probably not. I would guess it's either a directive from on high to show fealty to Mubarak, or perhaps the initiative of Minister of Awqaf (and until yesterday candidate for Sheikh al-Azhar) Hamdi ZaqZouq, who is the official in control of such things. Either way, when you're trying to reassure the nation that Mubarak is fine, surely having all public mosques pray for his health sounds a dissonent message...


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Mubarak over the years

Someone sent me a Facebook link to the video below this morning. I'm not a fan of the voice-over, script or background music, but some of the footage is really great.

Click here to watch.



Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Links on the Israel-US spat, 18 March 2010

 ✪ The U.S. quarrel with Israel - - WaPo editorial condemns Obama for having a fight with Israel, takes Israeli reports on administration demands at face value, uses stupid argument that US demands on Israel make Arabs ask for more. Basically, WaPo is simply not credible on Israel/Palestine: it asks that the Obama administration accept humiliation and step down from its goals, stated US policy for decades regarding settlements, and international law, and talks of "intransigence of Palestinian and Arab leaders." You mean the intransigence that caused them to propose a comprehensive peace on the basis of international law since 2003, and which was ignored by both Israel and the US? What a bunch of sellouts.

✪ Informed Comment: Cpl. Jeffrey Goldberg, Guarding the Prison of the Nationalist Mind - Juan Cole really does a wonderful takedown of Jeffrey Goldberg.

✪ 'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: On the current tipping point | A bunch of good commentary from Cobban, esp. on the next steps the administration could take:

A. Announce the launching of an administration-wide review of all U.S. policies that have any relationship to the Israeli settlements including policies affecting economic links and trade preferences being extended to settlements as well as to Israel proper; the activities and tax status of U.S. entities, including non-profit entities, that have dealings with or in the settlements. The terms of reference of this review should explicitly spell out that its purview includes the settlements in Jerusalem as well as elsewhere (including Golan.)
B. Announcement of a similar review of policies and entities related in any way to Israel's illegal Wall.
C. Commit to a series of steps aimed at speedily ending the illegal and anti-humane siege that Israel maintains against Gaza and restoring all the rights of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
D. Sen. Mitchell should be empowered to talk to representatives of all those Palestinian parties that won seats in the 2006 PLC election which was, let us remember, certified by all international monitors as free and fair. Obama and Co. should also inform the Egyptians and all other parties that they want and expect them to be helpful rather than obstructive in the Palestinian parties' efforts to reach internal reconciliation.E. Move speedily toward giving the other four permanent members of the Security Council more real role in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. They all have a lot to offer and can help the U.S. get out of the very tight spot it currently finds itself in, in the Greater Middle East region.

✪ Obama says no crisis in US-Israeli relations | He should have said no crisis, but big problem.

✪ Israel crisis: Taking cue from US anger, Mahmoud Abbas digs in heels | This is the big AIPAC narrative, that US is enabling the PA to harden its position. It's bullshit, why would the PA take negotiations seriously while settlement expansion is ongoing? All Abbas is doing is sticking to international law, the Quartet guidelines and Obama's demands from last year.

✪ US-Israel crisis reshapes Quartet meet agenda | The basic point: if the US shows leadership as it did after the Biden visit, the Europeans and others will speak their mind more freely about Israel's sabotaging of peace.

✪ US may be seeking Israel 'regime change' This AFP story is mostly based on quotes from pro-Israel, Jewish Clinton administration sources — the very people who failed to act against settlement expansion back in the 1990s.

✪ Taking Sides « London Review Blog | John Mearsheimer: 

Siding with Israel against the United States was not a great problem a few years ago: one could pretend that the interests of the two countries were the same and there was little knowledge in the broader public about how the Israel lobby operated and how much it influenced the making of US Middle East policy. But those days are gone, probably for ever. It is now commonplace to talk about the lobby in the mainstream media and almost everyone who pays serious attention to American foreign policy understands – thanks mainly to the internet – that the lobby is an especially powerful interest group.

Therefore, it will be difficult to disguise the fact that most pro-Israel groups are siding with Israel against the US president, and defending policies that respected military leaders now openly question. This is an awful situation for the lobby to find itself in, because it raises legitimate questions about whether it has the best interests of the United States at heart or whether it cares more about Israel’s interests. Again, this matters more than ever, because key figures in the administration have let it be known that Israel is acting in ways that at best complicate US diplomacy, and at worst could get Americans killed.

He concludes with the $2.5 billion a year question:

There will be more crises ahead, because a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point and ‘greater Israel’ is going to end up an apartheid state. The United States cannot support that outcome, however, partly for the strategic reasons that have been exposed by the present crisis, but also because apartheid is a morally reprehensible system that no decent American could openly embrace. Given its core values, how could the United States sustain a special relationship with an apartheid state? In short, America’s remarkably close relationship with Israel is now in trouble and this situation will only get worse.

✪ The Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace: Two States for Two People: If Not Now, When? [PDF]

✪ This might be a good occasion to highlight's work on making data on lobbying more accessible. They cover all lobbies, and have the goods on pro-Israel campaign financing (Joe Lieberman and John McCain are on the top of the list) and the legislation the lobby supported. They also have listing for pro-Arab campaign contribution: over the last two years, while pro-Israel lobbies gave $6,288,215 pro-Arab lobbies gave... $56,050. So much for the great Arab lobby that Israel apologists always talk about. 

Update: Talking to IDF radio, Elliott Abrams says Obama wants to bring down the Netanyahu government, and makes other noises that suggest he'd make a better Israeli government official than an American one. [Thanks, Mandy.]

The IslamOnline Affair

Pic of IslamOnline strikers from Flickr user Ahmed Abd El-fatah

Over the last few days, Egyptian media circles have been up in arms about a strike at, the portal about Islam, Islamists and politics in the Muslim world. The chief meme being put out by employees and their supporters is that the "moderate" brand of Islam the site had promoted is being pushed out. A new board has come in at the Islamic Message Society of Qatar, which owns the site. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, the board chairman and founder, is said to be considering resigning. The new board wants to take the site in a more Salafist direction — for instance, board members objected to mentions of Valentine's Day on the site. All of this info, of course, comes from the strikers so we have to take their word for it, the board is staying mum.

Now, I've always been irked at people describing Qaradawi as a moderate. But IslamOnline, which is not always necessarily so moderate, did put out an excellent media product and fascinating debates about Islamists, notably the Egyptian Muslim Brothers (I suspect that more than a few Brothers work at IslamOnline). I notably remember reading there the most trenchant critique of the Brothers' political party program there, by a leading member of the group. It also has very wide discussion of social and personal problems from an Islamic perspective. Overall, while it wasn't my proverbial cup of tea, it was possibly the most professional new media publication in Egypt, and certainly more "moderate" than Qatari wahhabis (they're not much talked about, but are just as bad as their Saudi counterpart).

The strike thus far has featured a huge sit-in at the Sixth October City office of the site, which was broadcast live online, and vigils. And it's very much the talk of the Egyptian Twittosphere.

There's been some good reporting on this, here are a few links:

Islam On-Strike | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt

Going Off-line | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt

Daily News Egypt - Full Article (DNE: I thus punish you for not putting the headline of articles in the title of the page.) 

IslamOnline website in crisis as employees in Egypt stage sit-in | World news |

Gendered justice

There's an ongoing row these days over women judges in Egypt. 

The country's first female judge was appointed in 2002. Since then, 42 other women judges have joined the bench. But there are still no women overseeing Egypt's criminal courts, or in its State Council--a big court with jurisdiction over all disputes that involve the government. 

Female graduates of law school applied to the State Council, and its leadership (a Special Council of seven) was looking at their applications. The rank-and-file, however, revolted. They held a vote a few weeks back in which they banned women from joining--334 to 42.

The Prime Minister appealed to the High Constitutional Court to rule on whether this vote/ban was legal. On Sunday, they said no. Now the matter goes back to the State Council. It is expected that eventually they will have no choice but to let women in. 

This is just the latest confrontation in what I'm sure will be a long, fraught process of gradual integration.

There doesn't seem to be any legally valid arguments for banning women. And--somewhat to my surprise--few of the opponents of women judges engaged in religious arguments--perhaps because this strategy has already been tried, without success? So the arguments of those who oppose women judges tend to be a little thin

Council Adel Farghaly, president of The Administrative Courts of Justice, had another way to justify such decision:

The refusal to appoint women to senior judicial positions has always been based on the fact that Egyptian women don’t perform the military service and pay their blood as a price like men do. And women occupy judicial functions in Western countries because they perform military service, and run all the jobs held by men, including acts of physical labor.

And then he adds:

The judicial work in Egypt is not suitable for women, as they cannot pay attention to their family and social duties based on their nature and on the social traditions, unlike men.

Others say it takes times, and it's not that they're against women judges--society just isn't ready for them:

“We don’t want to make this an issue of fundamentalists not assigning women as judges because there are also Christians who are against assigning women as judges, so it’s not a problem of Islamic opinions,” Mr Abu Zid said. “Sooner or later, it’s a fact that women will be assigned in these courts. But I think it’s a matter of time.”

Mr Abu Zid said he is among those judges who might feel “shy” dealing with female colleagues, particularly given the justices’ long work hours and the judges’ need to adjudicate cases in more conservative governorates outside Cairo. 

The State Council functions as a sort of law office within the Egyptian government by assigning legal advisers to other ministries, Mr Abu Zid said. “It would make some obstacles in the places where they are assigned. It will not be suitable to let her have her job in Tanta, in Beni Suef, in Alexandria. They can’t send them to regions other than Cairo,” he said. “It’s not a matter of the quality of the work. It’s so easy to have a job in administrative judgment, It’s a matter of suitability.”

Apparently--as I report here--the State Council judges themselves chose to focus on the argument that work as a judge is just too hard, too demanding, for women. This argument has popped up again and again in different forms. There's a big emphasis, for example, on the fact that judges have to move between different courts in the provinces, and that this travel would conflict with women's duties as mothers and wives.

It's also been dispiriting to hear the very same judges who honorably lead the campaign for judicial independence and clean elections argue--like Ahmad Mekki did on TV talk show Al Qahera Al Youm recently--that women can't be judges because they can't travel without their husbands' permission; because even if they say there are willing to be transferred across the country, they can't be trusted to keep their word; and because there aren't rest houses and other facilities ready for them yet (!). 

More women judges doesn't necessarily mean that women will be able to assert their rights more easily. But needless to say, it makes a huge difference to equality at large when justice is only administered by one sex.