The Arab Left at the World Social Forum

The WSF is talking place in Tunis this year — and apparently features a strong anti-Islamist sentiment, as well as strong sentiment against the perceived backers of Islamism — Qatar and… the United States:

With strong Arab participation, the forum’s opening day witnessed slogans calling for “bread, freedom and social justice,” which echoed the demands and ambitions of the now two-year-old popular uprisings across the region.

Flags of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Morocco and Algeria dominated the scene, waved by participating groups as they converged on 14 Janvier (January) Square, named to commemorate the Tunisian revolution, where tens of thousands gathered to start the opening march.

“The people of Tunisia are free people … No to America, No to Qatar,” was one of the chants voiced by Tunisian groups in reference to the countries believed to be allies of the ruling Islamist Nahda Party.

Pictures of slain leftist figure Shokry Belaid, who was killed — allegedly by Salafists — in February, were seen throughout the forum. Young children wore his image on their jackets, while many wore pins with his picture.

The famous, “The people want the fall of the regime” slogan was also repeatedly chanted.

Barbed wire, police guards, and armored vehicles surrounded the Ministry of Interior located only metres away from the central square where the forum was launched, forcing the marches to redirect their path.

“The interior ministry are thugs,” Tunisian and Egyptian activists — whose struggle was largely directed against police brutality — jointly chanted when passing by security forces.

Other common chants condemned the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose parties now dominate parliaments in Egypt and Tunisia and from which the Egyptian president hails.

“Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” the Egyptians chanted.

“El-Ghanoushi is a murderer,” chanted Tunisian activists, holding the head of the Nahda Party accountable for Beleid’s death.

Street cafes and restaurants were crowded with the masses who came to participate. Political side chats could be heard coming from all different corners. Arab activists were sharing experiences.

I guess the new themes in Arab leftism are anti-Brotherhood — as a tool of Western neoliberalism. If someone had told me that in 2010 I would have thought them crazy.

Women's safety and participation

I attended a day-long meeting in Cairo yesterday, facilitated by the NGO Safer World, addressing women’s safety and political participation in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The meeting was attended by activists as well as a few government representatives.

Although the situation varies quite a bit from one country to the other -- in Yemen the context is much more rural, for example, than in Egypt, and geographic isolation plays a big part in women’s security and participation -- there were many similarities. In all three countries, women are the victims of violence -- and of an ideological discourse that blames them for that very violence -- that intimidates them away from the public and political sphere.  Also in all three countries, women’s groups are extremely frustrated and angry with the Islamist groups and parties that have come to power since the uprisings, who they describe as “dictatorial” and accuse of wanting to undo progress on women’s rights. 

In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Islamist members of parliament and preachers have been saying grotesque things about women who were victims of gang rapes in Tahrir. The FJP has condemned some of the recent statements -- but only at the prodding of journalists, and even as some of its members have also expressed similar sentiments. 

President Morsi’s office sent a young female advisor on human rights and women’s rights to the meeting. She responded to the indignant questions of the activists with platitudes about the Freedom and Justice Party’s desire to listen before acting and the need not to demonize each other and to work together. In response to a question about the FJP’s position on lowering the age of marriage for girls, she said that the party had never advocated doing so and that there were “extreme” positions on all sides -- while some Islamists call for lowering the marriage age (to as low as 9), non-Islamists call for defending homosexuality. The claim prompted one activist to ask: “Why are you always bringing up homosexuality when we’re discussing women’s rights?”

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Art Dubai, part 2

I have a post on the LRB blog describing a few pieces I've seen this week (selected in a pretty arbitrary manner). 

This is "A Short History of Tall Men," featuring miniature detailed gold statues of failed strongmen whose names we've mostly forgotten. There are seven of them floating in globes of synthetic glass. The piece inspires a surprising tenderness for these failed leaders' authoritarian ambitions. 

 

Art Dubai, part 1

I've been in Dubai this week on a press junket for the yearly international art fair Art Dubai. I'm going to share some pictures with very brief comments.

The picture (and partial self-portrait) below was taken at one of the many gallery openings that accompany the fair. The mirrored work of Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian is very popular and a fitting representative of the glam and commercial Dubai art scene.

 

 

 

And Justice for All? | Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Interesting post by EIPR's Mohamed El-Shewy: 

Two noteworthy processes appear to be underway in Egypt, both of which have so far eluded the focus of most analyses and commentary on the country.  On the one hand, there has been discussion lately in the Shura Council (currently the country’s legislative body) of passing a “transitional justice law” that would supposedly result in the formation of a truth commission and “special courts,” to investigate government agencies, such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Bank. On the other hand, the government of Mohamed Morsi has been taking steps to “reconcile” with members of the Mubarak regime and businessmen associated with it—some of whom have fled the country or are serving sentences in prison. These two processes could potentially have a significant impact on the nature of Egypt’s political structure for some time to come.
The language used by the Shura Council on the “transitional justice law” has been one of necessity: to help Egypt “avoid many catastrophes and political instability”i. But it seems that lawmakers are repeating the chronic problem with transitional justice; the rush to pass such legislature based on the assumption that a transition has, already occurred. Since February 11, 2011 (the day Mubarak stepped down), this temptation has been there on the part of those interested in transitional justice, both internationally and domestically, to advocate for its application. As Egypt was now “in transition,” it followed that transitional justice was needed to safely guide the country to the stable, prosperous shores of democracy. Ezz el-din El-Koumi, one of the Shura Council members working on the law, stated in an interview that transitional justice would bring to an end the “reasons people have to protest.” This is an invariably short sighted way of approaching the issue.  
A major problem with transitional justice lies in the way it condenses long, complex histories of repression into a single moment of rupture, the transition. Thus, any violence or discontent that continues after the delineated time can be portrayed as disruptive to the democratization process. The recent and ongoing events in Egypt—particularly in the cities along the Suez Canal—and the continuing abuses committed by the security forces suggest that  “transition” (so neatly defined) is not a reality. It is erroneous to assume that mass political upheavals have fixed points in time; going from the large social movement of an “uprising” to the moment of political change of the  “revolution” to a period of “democratic transition”—which,  finally ends, in a democratic future.

 Read on for his suggestions.

Dubai has glitz but no real sewage system

Dubai

Quite astonished by this:

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It's located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn't have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.
You see the problem.

To solve the issue trucks come and collect wastewater from separate buildings, and then can queue for up to 24 hours to deliver it to treatment plants. Perhaps before building the next mega-mall, Dubai might invest in the unglamorous basics.

Israel has a partner in Morsi

Khaled Guindy writes:

Despite a general sense that things might still change for the worse, especially given Egypt’s instability and its strongly anti-Israel political culture, Israeli military officials have nothing but praise for Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation, which they say is better today than it was under Mubarak. According to Israeli analyst, Avi Issacharoff, “Whatever uncertainty Israelis may have had at the start of the transition, they now know they have a partner on the Egyptian side.” That claim was backed up by Morsi’s pivotal role in securing a Gaza ceasefire last November.

Even the highly unpopular Gaza blockade, which the Brotherhood had always vowed to overturn, has been loosened but not yet lifted. Thus, despite the Brotherhood’s ideological and historical affinity with Hamas, itself a Brotherhood offshoot, Gaza’s Islamist rulers remain in a box—albeit a bigger one than before.

This reminds me that recently someone who was recently in Israel said the security establishment thinks that Egypt will keep a lid on Hamas for them. I wouldn't expect that to last (if only because Hamas may have more clout over Egypt than vice-versa these days), but it's true that so far they're probably not too unhappy.

Kissinger on "just outcomes"

In this interview, Kissinger says:

“I’m not optimistic” about reviving peace talks, in large part because of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the region that aren’t inclined to support a “just outcome” with Israel, Kissinger said in an interview airing this weekend on Bloomberg TV’s “Conversations with Judy Woodruff.”

 Because of course Israel is all about supporting a "just outcome."

On "engaging" the Muslim Brothers

I found this draft of a post I started writing in April 2011 — just three months after Mubarak was toppled. I can't remember why I never published it, but if my feelings were tentative when, it pretty much describes exactly what I have argued to officials since mid-2012 what the mistake of the US and other Western powers towards the MB has been for the past two years.​ I wish I had made the argument more forcefully and earlier.

I have always hated the term "engagement" when applied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a term that became fashionable around 2005. It is generally used as in, "the US should engage the Muslim Brothers". It has its fierce advocates in the US foreign policy community, and many who are against. The problem is that the term is ill-defined and thus meaningless.

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Protests as seen by the FJP's newspaper

In an attempt to report public opinion towards all the protests that took place in the past eight months since Morsi came to power, the Freedom and Justice Party's newspaper, al-Horreya wa al-Adala, published this news article on 15 March in its Youth and Sports section.

Despite the fact that people are clearly divided about everything from Morsi to the weather, MB’s report shows a uncharacteristically unified image of society. From the Ettihidiya clashes and Tahrir sit-ins to Port Said protests and the Ultras’ attacks; the Egyptian people who had one collective view on the matter: Protesters are thugs.

The article, which is merely a collection of tweets and FB status updates by ungoogleable individual(s), begins with this headline: What do you want to be? A thug.

The sub-headline then goes:“It's a great job, gets you fame and money..."And if you get caught, you're an activist!"

Sohila Mahmoud on Facebook: "I don't see any reason to block the roads, why is everyone silent about these continued acts of thuggery against the average Egyptian citizen, who wakes up to make a living, only to go back home empty-handed?"

According to the article, “activists,” on Facebook have unanimously confirmed that these protests Mahmoud is referring to are "crimes" which can only be committed by "thugs."

"This is a crime against society. Thugs who throw rocks at the police, or Molotov cocktails, carry guns or knives should be immediately shot, so that we'd get rid of the National Damnation Front's thugs and the toppled president's as well," hopes Mohamed Abdullah in his FB status.

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A follow-up on the Syria arms report

In my recent post on the arming of anti-Assad rebels via Croatia and Jordan, Syria Comment’s Aron Lund raised several important points I’ve discussed in earlier articles, but not recently, about how label- and media-driven coverage of the fighting in the country has become - often at the expense of the non-military anti-Assad efforts still going on in the country that I interviewed Stephen Star on a few months ago.   Lund’s report in part builds off on a discussion he and I had over the piece, where he pointed out that “there isn’t an actual FSA organization” and that unless the FSA label is better explained, “[i]t serves more to confuse readers than to clarify organizational links.”  

Lund’s post is a good breakdown of the anti-Assad rebels’ organizations two years into the conflict, so I’d like to highlight a few points from the primer he has written for Syria Comment.

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US u-turn on Syria?

So says Abdel Bari Atwan in US U-turn on Syria:

Speaking in Oslo, the US secretary said: 'What the US and the world want is to stop the killing in Syria.' He added, 'Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should sit with the leaders of the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table to form a transitional government, according to the framework agreement concluded in Geneva.'

Such statements tell us that the US administration, during its second term, has turned to adopt a different position to the Syrian crisis, looking to achieve a political solution.

The US Secretary of State did not stipulate that the resignation of the Syrian president was a pre-condition condition for any political solution for the Syrian crisis during the press conference. He did not say that the Syrian regime or its representatives should sit with the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table, while he said Assad should negotiate with the opposition. The statement is essentially American recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime.

To be more clear, we should remind ourselves that for the last two years, President Obama told the world that President Assad had lost his legitimacy, stressing that he should leave the power. However, he has not said anything of the sort for the last five months.

He predicts "more harmonious relations between the Syrian regime and the US" in the future, as part of a Russian-US deal. I doubt it.

Congress makes its move on US aid to Egypt

Above, Senator James Marco Rubio makes a speech about amending US aid to Egypt. Worth a listen to get a sense of the mood. And not altogether unreasonable, either.

POMED has more:

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) submitted an amendment to H.R. 933 placing conditions on two forms of U.S. assistance to Egypt unless the country adopts economic reforms and human rights safeguards. The amendment will also begin a comprehensive, long-term reevaluation of U.S. military aid to Egypt. Speaking before the Senate, Rubio said, “The U.S.-Egypt relationship has been a critical one for decades, but it must be adapted to reflect the new political reality the Arab Spring has created. That adaptation process must begin with how our money is being spent and conditioning our assistance on Egypt’s adoption of economic reforms and a serious effort to protect the rights of religious minorities, women, a free press and the ability of Egyptian and foreign NGOs to promote civil society, governance and democracy.”

Read their post for full details. 

Solar eclipse

I'm not sure whether I linked to it, but last week my Latitude piece was about the shortages in diesel fuel in Egypt (called Solar). It's here.

For a closer look at the frustrations faced by microbus drivers, who have been blocking roads in protest at shortages, there is a fine piece of reporting in the Daily News Egypt. It's also the top story in many of today's Egyptian dailies, with fighting breaking out during protests and at gas stations. Some report that fuel is being diverted to Gaza (it is much cheaper to get Egyptian fuel than Israel fuel, after all.) Others that the fuel shortages reach as much as 60% in some provinces, and 30-40% in most. Apparently several fuel tankers are awaiting to be paid to unload their cargo — but the government has no cashflow.  

Lessons from Egypt's student elections

To follow up on last week's news about a Brotherhood routing in student elections, we sent Nour The Intern to Ain Shams university to see what happened exactly and what lessons might be drawn for national elections.

“(The Brothers) can't have the presidency and the student union," happily exclaimed a dentistry student at Ain Shams university, Shaymaa Hosny. 

According to recent results of student elections and the commonly outspoken sentiments against the Muslim Brotherhood in universities; Hosny is not alone.

"Students didn't just vote for the not-MB candidates only because they're not-MB," argued Amany Bahgat, a Masr Al Kawia 2nd year candidate in Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, "but also because not-MB candidates had actual work plans."

Masr Al Kawia Party (Strong Egypt, centrist Islamist party founded by former Brother and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh) has been working on its campaign and forming alliance with Al-Destour (social democratic party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei), and others, since January, Bahgat explained. She speculates that the reason why the MB did so poorly - aside from their popularity dip thanks to Morsi's blunders - was because the MB's youth, unlike all the other parties, didn't put much effort into their campaign and lacked a solid program.

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The police and the Ultras - a pox on both of their houses?

This weekend in Egypt, as in the past several weeks, the Ultras have been out of control, the kids who like to pretend they're Ultras and block traffic have been out of control, and the police has been either nowhere to be seen or out of control. I really recommend listening to this NPR report by Laila Fadel about police degenerating into revenge gangs to put things in context.

I have an op-ed coming up soon in The National about this issue (Update: here it is.) But it's easy to blame the police for everything — no one likes them. Someone needs to stand up to the Ultras and their teenage copycats who vandalize hotels and cars on the Nile Corniche and elsewhere too.

In Translation: How the Constitutional Declaration came to be

Much of the mayhem currently taking place in Egypt is a direct result of the Constitutional Declaration President Mohammed Morsi announced on 22 November 2012 and the political upheaval it caused. There has been much speculation as to why the declaration was made when it was (just after the end of the Gaza crisis), who had planned it and who was out of the loop and what its purpose was. Mohamed Basal, a reporter for al-Shorouk newspaper, has the inside story of how the Declaration came to be, shedding some light on some of these questions. We bring it to you in English thanks to the upstanding folks at Industry Arabic who make our In Translation series possible.

Basal's article is meticulously — though anonymously — sourced and provides a plausible narrative of how the Constitutional Declaration came to be. Some key points:

  • It was largely drafted by the Legal Affairs Committee of the Freedom and Justice Party, in consultation with Brotherhood leaders, but only with late input from presidential advisors.
  • Key judicial figures were only consulted late and opposed some of its provisions.
  • It was initially intended to include bringing the retirement age of judges down to 60 years old. Such a provision could still be implemented later this year to purge a large number of senior judges. The Vice-President threatened to resign over this.
  • The Minister of Justice and the Vice-President, both judges, fought against several of its provisions and did not think it was necessary — or legal — to "protect" the Constituent Assembly from a Supreme Constitutional Court decision.
  • Morsi and the Brothers believed a conspiracy was afoot (this much we know from their cryptic statements) for the Supreme Constitutional Court to launch impeachment proceedings against President Morsi — even though there are no constitutional means for this. They were also receiving information of a destabilization campaign from "sovereign bodies", meaning intelligence agencies.
  • The Constitutional Declaration was originally intended mostly to deal with the replacement of the Public Prosecutor and the extension of the Constituent Assembly, which by late November was far from finishing its work. It was the FJP's legal committee that added other provisions, backed by Morsi notably on the question of protecting the Constituent Assembly from dissolution and giving himself extraordinary powers (intended to deal with a perceived threat of unrest caused by the opposition).

Here's the quite long and detailed article for Egypt-watchers who want to understand the steps that led to the Morsi administration's biggest mistake to date.

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