The flotilla crisis seen from Cairo

Sorry about the quality - cops telling me to leave...

It's impressive to see such a forceful international reaction to this morning's deadly raid on the flotilla of boats bringing aid to Gaza. Thousands have protested in New York, Istanbul, Ankara, Stockholm, Paris and many other places, in one of the biggest mobilizations on behalf of the Palestinian cause in years. 

Even in Cairo, where pro-Palestinian demos have been very, very tightly restricted since the Gaza war — since the regime doesn't want any reminders of its role in the Gaza blockade — today was a surprise. At first, the protest outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed disappointed, with only a few dozen participants. But this evening, thousands gathered at the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square and staged an impressive protest, even if they were penned in by several hundred uniformed riot control troops and police officers, as well as tons of plainclothes security people and a bunch of baltiguiya (street toughs hired to intimidate, and need be, beat up protesters).  

I didn't get to come close to the mosque, because police people were everywhere (mostly plainclothes, which always leads me to say the equivalent of, 'who the fuck are you? where's your uniform? show me some ID if you're a cop' and that gets tiresome, especially since I probably only get away with it because I'm a khawaga) getting people to move off. But from what I could tell — confirmed by my colleagues Sarah Carr and Jon Jensen who were closer and there longer — it was a tightly organized affair, if not led by the Muslim Brothers then definitely Islamist-dominated. They even had a brief moment of shouting slogans against Mubarak, although that was quickly shushed down (my guess would be this is the old Labor Party Islamists vs. MB argument).

It's important to note that this is the biggest protest about Palestine since the Gaza war, in an atmosphere in which such protests have not been tolerated. We might see more in the next few days, including on Friday after prayers. This may revive local activism on Gaza as well as linkages made between the situation there and the situation in Egypt — notably the Mubarak regime's collaboration with Israel on the blockade. Expect a fierce fight in the media over this in the next few days, and more opportunities to express all sorts of grievances. But when Turkey expels its ambassador and Egypt is seen to be doing nothing, it looks very, very bad for Cairo.

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Bullshit alert: Haaretz

Haaretz, the sometimes leftish Israeli newspaper, ran a story with quotes from the Israeli soldiers who were involved in this morning's raid. Here's the beginning:

The left-wing activists on board a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who stormed their Turkish-flagged ship early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz.

The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.

Activists attacked a commando with iron bars as he descended onto the ship from a helicopter, the army said. The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a "life-threatening situation".

The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.

To be verified, and I don't have a problem with that. They ran a the following picture and caption with the story, though:

 

I don't know about you, but that guy doesn't particularly look like a leftist activist and the reporters and photographers standing behind him (who are supposed to be on separate ship) seem pretty relaxed for a bunch of people who've just seen 10 to 20 people killed. Not to mention, what's he doing with that knife if the IDF is already in control of the ship? And why is there no attribution to the picture, unlike the others featured in the article?

Update: I've added the link to the Haaretz story above, and for another ludicrous version of events being fed to the Israeli media, see this story titled "A brutal ambush at sea" — yes, they mean the activists!!!

 

How Israel sets the TV agenda

This morning was a powerful example how a well-organized press strategy, combined with hasbara, can drive the media agenda. As the story of the flotilla unfolded, I was zapping between BBC World, CNN, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic. The Arabic channels I'll discount, they were mostly reporting from Gaza or featuring well-known commentators like Abdel Bari Atwan (which, mind you, I don't find particularly useful.) Most of the English channels were struggling to respond to the crisis. CNN was late to the story and featured analysis from the talented Ben Wedeman in Cairo, which suggests it did not have someone ready in Israel or Palestine. With all due respect to Ben, an excellent correspondent, CNN was just not on top of the story. BBC World wasn't either — it's been clear for years the channel is chronically underfunded.

Al Jazeera English had multiple correspondents available reporting live, as well as people in-studio. It covered the issue non-stop for much of the morning. But TV is highly demanding medium, it needs new content all the time — and not just information, but video and sound. For a couple of hours this morning AJE was going from one Israeli official or commentator for another, the IDF has scheduled several press conferences, as did the Prime Minister's office and the Foreign Ministry. They controlled the news cycle by having their message dominate the airwaves in those early hours, the TV stations — starved for content since there was a communications blackout from the flotilla ships and Israel's military censor was no doubt squashing other aspects of the story — were running the Israeli viewpoint non-stop.

AJE compounded that by having its correspondents (one of them in particular not very quick-witted) constantly repeat what the Israelis were saying, and being ineffective in taking Israeli officials to task. And the Free Gaza flotilla organizers did not plan ahead — they did not have representatives who could be easily available in Israel/Palestine near where TV cameras were, few on the boats to talk by telephone, or others elsewhere who could go to studios. This oversight really impacted the early TV version of the crisis, allowing the other side's message to dominate.

Just in terms of international law, it might be noted that the blockade is illegal, as is piracy — which is what seizing control of a boat flying a non-enemy flag in international waters is. The focus should be on that the boat was full of unarmed activists, that the Israelis fired on the ship before boarding, as well as the wider issue of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We need reporters that raise these issues and don't just respond to unsubstantiated claims by officials.

How Israeli hasbara works

Hasbara is the Hebrew word for public diplomacy, i.e. the role people outside of government can have to spread pro-Israel messages and attack Israel's critics. It is a tried and tested propaganda method long relayed not only by Israeli citizens, but also pro-Israel lobbies (e.g. AIPAC), pro-Israel Jewish community groups (e.g. CRIF) and pro-Israel think tanks (e.g. WINEP). With the advent of the web, pro-Israel groups working in tandem with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted an often successful and often intensive hasbara effort targeting bloggers. This has included, for instance, efforts to leave comments in blog posts regarding Israel to defend the Israeli perspective.

In the days before the flotilla's last journey towards Gaza, blogs such as this one were targeted by a message saying that the IHH, the Turkish humanitarian organization that owned the largest boat raided today, had links to al-Qaeda. Considering that IHH is legally recognized everywhere except the UN, engages in humanitarian actions with many other organizations and has consultative status with the UN, I am skeptical. IHH does seem supportive of Gazans and Hamas, but that's no crime and it's certainly not "fundraising for al-Qaeda." 

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Twitter and the Gaza Flotilla

Above is a dynamically updated chart from Trendistic.com, a service that tracks trending topics on Twitter. It shows how much Twitter users have been using the hashtag #flotilla over the course of the past week, and naturally this includes a peak since this morning. According to Trendistic, #flotilla is one of the top trending topics at the moment, accounting 0.78% of tweets worldwide.

But you wouldn't know that from Twitter itself, which has #4wordsbeforedeath trending. It was popular last night, but as this time only accounts for 0.18% of tweets. So what gives?

There is some speculation that Twitter may be banning #flotilla from its trending calculations. Twitter can ban common words so as not to give false results. But #flotilla is hardly a common word. Last June, Twitter intervened (at the request of the State Dept.) to keep its servers going when #iranelection was trending. It was rightly applauded for doing so. So what's up with not allowing #flotilla to trend, and redirecting searches on the word to the homepage (just try it from your account.)

Update: There have been suggestions that Twitter's recently announced new rules on trending may be to blame. On Twitter's site, it says:

UPDATE: Recent Trending Topics Improvements

5/14/2010:

Twitter is about what is happening right now, and we have recently updated our trending topics algorithm to reflect this. The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the "most breaking" news stories from across the world. (We had previously built in this 'emergent' algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting. While this is very much a work in progress, with this tweak we have taken a big step toward capturing how trends quickly emerge and grow on Twitter.  We also think it's compelling to know what the "most popular" topics are, and we will look to capture this in some way in the future.

It is important to note that this new algorithm does not "block" any topics from trending. If topics you saw regularly in your Trending Topics menu have disappeared or are not showing as consistently as before, do a saved search for them on your homepage. That way, in one click, you can view search results for topics that matter most to you. Also consider localizing your Trending Topics menu, as shown below.

These changes do not really help explain why #flotilla is not being allowed to show as trending. First, it is a recently popular topic. Second, Twitter's website does not allow you to do a saved search for them — when you enter flotilla or #flotilla as a search term, it returns the full latest twitter feed, not tweets with these words. The system has clearly been set up to ignore "flotilla" both in trending and in search. I've asked Twitter for an explanation, which I'll post here if/when I receive it.

I should also note that #freedomflotilla is now trending.

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Issandr El Amrani

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

The Flotilla Murders

As I write this it is still not clear how many people have died as a result of the Israeli commando raid on the Free Gaza flotilla carrying aid supplies for blockaded Palestine. AP is still not going beyond four, Haaretz mentions 10, and al-Jazeera International says 15 or 16. Whatever the final number — which may still rise further as some of the wounded are in critical situation — it's pretty clear Israel decided to implement the naval equivalent of the Dahiya Doctrine on a group of largely unarmed activists carrying aid to a people who have suffered through three years of sanctions that have been endorsed by the international community.

There will be a lot of Hasbara over the coming few days, as there has been in the run-up to to this crisis. An important part in making the flotilla effort mean something will be to render it ineffective and bring back attention to the cold-blooded murders that took place in the international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean in the morning of 31 May 2010.

Hopefully we will see democratic governments, like Turkey, take swift and decisive diplomatic action to counter what amounts to an attack on Turkish citizens. The European Parliament can be mobilized over the attack putting its MPs at risk, although I don't expect much from the supine and cowardly European Commission. There is an opportunity here to bring pressure onto Arab governments, especially Egypt for its collaboration with Israel in enforcing a blockade. Out of this morning's tragedy good things might come to reinforce Israel's isolation and drive home the larger point that it has literally been getting away with murder for far too long. 

From Deir Yassin in 1948 to Khan Yunis in 1956 all the way to Qana in 1996, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, there has been effort for accountability against all odds. The flotilla murders are an occasion to bring attention to other even greater crimes, starting by making sure the international investigation by the Goldstone Commission actually goes somewhere.

Update: The Al Jazeera English video I had posted earlier has been "removed by user" so I am replacing with another from Justicentric (a great place to follow developments on this issue via twitter):

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Issandr El Amrani

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

Rape in the UAE

The story below, covered in The National, is disturbing in so many ways:

ABU DHABI // An 18-year-old Emirati woman who was charged with having consensual sex after alleging that she had been raped by six men retracted all her statements in court yesterday.

She told the judge she wanted to withdraw her accusations against all the defendants.

The woman, LH, offered no explanation in court as to why she changed her statements, other than being “unaware” of her actions when she reported the crime.

She added that her brother beat her after accusing her of talking to other men, and after the beating she went to the police to report the rapes.

If the prosecution drops the charge of consensual sex, the woman could face a lesser charge related to deception, which is punishable by six months to two years in prison.

If found guilty of consensual sex, as a Muslim woman, she would face lashes and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Although she changed her evidence, the charges are criminal, not civil, so it is for the prosecution to decide whether to drop the consensual-sex charge. Prosecutors said yesterday that none of the charges had been dropped at this stage.

According to court records, on May 2, LH went for a drive with a male Emirati friend, HA, in Baniyas.

Prosecutors said she went with the intention of having consensual sex with HA, a charge she denies. HA parked his Nissan Altima in an area called Bahia and had sex with her, prosecutors said. He is accused of then telephoning five of his friends, who joined him and raped LH from 1.30am to 5am.

She went to the police after the incident and told them she had been raped by the men in the back seat of the car. She was tested by the Forensics Unit at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, and evidence of assault was cited by the public prosecution in charging all six men with rape.

First, consensual sex outside of wedlock being punishable by " lashes and a maximum sentence of life in prison" is sick. 

Second, the idea that when you report a rape you might be charged with having consensual sex is a horrible deterrent to report a heinous crime.

Third, this woman appears to have been pressured by her family to withdraw the charges of rape. Meaning they prefer not to sully the family name rather than punish the crime done against her. Of course it's hard to know the details, but the story outlined above does not look good. Presumably when she reported the crime, forensic evidence for what was after all described as a gang rape would be obtainable.

Most depressing is the last bit of the story:

When the judge questioned YM [a defendant accused of rape], he also denied having sex or confessing to rape. The judge chastised him as the young man visibly held back laughter, reminding him that if he is found guilty, he faces the death penalty, as do all the men accused of rape.

YM, when asked by the judge, declined to request a lawyer. After the judge explained that it was mandatory to have a lawyer where the death penalty is a potential sentence, YM agreed to find one. The two defendants in custody were both represented yesterday by lawyers. The young woman also did not appear with a lawyer, and she was not asked about appointing one. No member of her family was present in court.

Unsurprisingly, treatment of rape cases doesn't seem great in the UAE. The National has a recent story about a Kirgiz woman who claimed she was raped and ended up being charged with prostitution. Another recent story features an Indonesian maid sold into sexual slavery. Of course such sexual slavery happen everywhere — it's one of the major international forms of international organized crime — but the convergence of retrograde cultural attitudes to rape and what appears to be terrible laws in the UAE makes for a pretty terrible situation. Another piece shows how reluctant this makes women of reporting rape.

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Issandr El Amrani

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

Links for May 23-28 2010

A much-overdue link dump.
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Breaking the Gaza blockade

Click for more pictures.

I am humbled by these people's courage and ashamed to find myself not doing more to break this inhuman siege on Gaza:

ASHDOD, Israel — Israel on Thursday unveiled a massive makeshift detention center in the country's main southern port and announced the end of days of intense naval maneuvers, vowing to stop a flotilla of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists trying to break a 3-year blockade of the Gaza Strip this weekend.

Military authorities said that masked naval commandos would greet the eight ships deep out at sea, escort the vessels to port and give each of the activists a stark choice: leave the country or go to jail.

But the tough response threatened to backfire by breathing new life into the activists' mission and drawing new attention to the oft-criticized blockade of Gaza.

"We know that we are sailing for a good cause," said Dror Feiler, 68, an Israeli-born Swedish activist who was on board a cargo ship headed from Greece to Gaza. "If the Israelis want us to pay a price, we will pay a price, but we will come again and again."

Some 750 activists, including a Nobel peace laureate and former U.S. congresswoman, have set sail for the Gaza coast in recent days, carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. They are expected to reach the Israeli coast on Saturday.

You can find out more and donate at the Free Gaza campaign.

3 Comments

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, www.arabist.net.

Achcar on the Mufti of Jerusalem

When in New York recently I saw this book around and was tempted to buy it. I now regret not doing so! But Gilbert Achcar has a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique, highlighting the (mis)use of the sorry affair of the Mutfi of Jerusalem's pro-Nazi leanings by Israelis, usually to tarnish all Palestinians with some kind of responsibility of the Holocaust. I had read about the Mufti's generally terrible politics (on Palestinian as well as Jewish issues) in the 1930s and 1940s in Rachid Khalidi's excellent The Iron Cage so this came as no surprise, but I didn't know the extent to which Israel had exploited him:

But the Zionists claimed the mufti was an official representative of the Palestinians and Arabs and in 1945 demanded (without success) that he be handed over to the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, as if he had been a key part of the Nazi genocide machine. Articles, pamphlets and books were produced to present Husseini as a candidate for prosecution. The mufti served a symbolic purpose, allowing the Zionists to claim that the Palestinians shared responsibility for the genocide, and justify the creation of a “Jewish state” on the territory of their homeland.

This motive became a constant in the propaganda of the state of Israel. It explains the extraordinary importance accorded to the mufti in the Holocaust memorial museum, in Jerusalem. Tom Segev observes that the wall dedicated to al-Husseini gives the impression of a convergence between the Nazis’ genocide plans and Arab hostility towards Israel. Peter Novick points out that the entry on the mufti in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published in association with Yad Vashem (the Holocaust remembrance authority), is much longer than those on Himmler, Goebbels or Eichmann, and only a little shorter than that on Hitler.

That last bit is quite incredible!

On a related note I am currently reading Ian Johnson's A Mosque in Munich, which is about American recuperation of Muslim allies of the Nazis (mostly from dissident Soviets from the republics that are majority Muslim — the Stan countries). It's fascinating so far, although Johnson's grasp of Islamism is weak when he discusses the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. More about that later.

P.S. Achcar also did a podcast for the Diplo.

 

Lowlander

He fought his first battle
on the parade grounds of Nasr City in 1981
He will fight his greatest battle
from the palaces of Sharm al-Sheikh in 2011
His name is Hosni Mubarak
He is immortal 

If Egypt ever does a remake of the classic sci-fi movie Highlander, this is what the slogan will be.

There has been much hullabaloo in the last few days about statements by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif:

When asked this weekend about Egypt's 2011 presidential elections, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was quick to express his wish to see President Hosni Mubarak run for a sixth term, an answer that again raised concerns over who might eventually replace the man who has ruled the nation for nearly 30 years.

"The [political] system has not put forth an alternative [to Mubarak], who can be comfortably placed in this field," Nazif said.

And by ruling party strongman Safwat al-Sherif:

"The party is filled with hope that President Mubarak will be a candidate," el-Sherif, Secretary General of the ruling National Democratic Party, told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television news network.

"Everyone looks to President Mubarak as a leader of this nation and everyone is behind him," he said.

"He (Mubarak) is a legend who cannot be replaced," said el-Sherif, also the speaker of the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament.

So suddenly everyone is wondering whether this means Mubarak will definitely run again, after much speculation that he is too sick to do so. Well, don't get too excited yet. What do you expect them to say? And frankly, what do you expect them to know? Mubarak appears to be doing well health-wise these days, with his trips to Italy and Greece and his (much-delayed) inauguration of Sohag's new airport. It's hard to tell.

What is pretty easy to tell is that this regime is a) fundamentally conservative, and will not initiate any kind of succession bid while Mubarak is still around or unless it is a done deal; and b) increasingly anxious about the future. Remember that back in 2005, Nazif voiced the opinion that Gamal would make a good candidate, although he was not ready yet. Now he doesn't mention Gamal (or perhaps it's just that he wasn't asked.) In any case, it was always a safe bet to think that Hosni Mubarak would run again, especially after the symbolic blow dealt to Gamal by Mohamed ElBaradei's entrance on the political scene.

You also have to factor in that all players in the regime are naturally better off with the status-quo than potentially risky change. The regime's problem today is that it can't predict the outcome of a transition to post-Mubarak, even if it wanted Mubarak Jr. This is why everyone would prefer to see Mubarak The Elder stay where he is, even if that means — as I've written here before — it means the Bourguibization of Egypt. This fragmented regime's problem is that Mubarak is what keeps it together; he is the cement that binds them together. Until there is a candidate around which there is a clear and overwhelming consensus — which may not be until after he passes from the scene — there can be only one.

They're not the only ones. I'm sure the Obama administration would rather not deal with the headache of an Egyptian transition, and while they're obviously thinking about it (as is the entire think tank world in DC and has the US military has been since the 1990s), they haven't figured out whether they should prepare or how. And we know from Aluf Benn, the Haaretz diplomatic correspondent, that the Israelis are quite happy with things as they are:

Of all the world's statesmen, the one closest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They have met four times since Netanyahu returned to power, and unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, Mubarak has no qualms about shaking Netanyahu's hand in public. "Ties are much closer than they seem," said a highly placed Israeli source. Referring to the peace process, an Obama administration official said "Mubarak tells people he is sure Netanyahu will do the right thing."

The wonderful friendship stems from the leaders' shared concerns about Iran. Netanyahu is anxious about that country's nuclear program, while Mubarak fears the Islamic Republic's potential to undermine his own regime. Israel and Egypt cooperate to enforce the closure of the Gaza Strip, in order to reduce weapons smuggling and weaken the Hamas government there.

I think Benn exagerates here — it's about a shared threat from Gaza as well as Iran — but it's pretty clear the Israelis are satisfied. It's not repeated often enough, but the regime has also put a lot of pressure on domestic activists to lay low about Gaza and Egypt's Israel policy — that's the reason there have been fewer protests about Israel/Palestine in recent years than there were at the beginning of the last decade (and not, as some have gloated, a change of Arab opinion.) Activism about Palestine in today's Egypt is a "Go Straight to Jail" card, something the Muslim Brothers in particular have been made to understand.

So back to the situation in Egypt. What you have, rather than a president who's in suspended animation, is a political transition process that's in suspended animation. To stretch the silly Highlander metaphor to intolerable levels, it's a Slowening. And it's somewhat sad that a country of 84 million is now feeling frozen in time, waiting for the old man to die. I don't envy him. Who wants to live forever?

(Arabist FM sticking to its promise — you can also watch the film version here.)

  

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Issandr El Amrani

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

Totology

Toto... can't tell them apart.

No, that's not a misspelling of tautology. It refers to the crossed wires in Thomas Friedman's brains that allow him to say make assertions whose relationship to reality are so threadbare that they amount to sleight-of-hand. Several years ago I decided to stop blogging about Friedman (whom I refer to, in my internal monologue, as "Toto"), because he gets very boring, and by and large I haven't even read him in a while. But the moral outrage he summons in his latest piece is so distasteful and selective it's worth spending a little time on. 

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More on Fayyad

A commenter left a question about yesterday's links, regarding my reservations about Ali Abunimah's post on Noam Chomky's attitude towards Salam Fayyad. There's an excellent article addressing Fayyad's difficult position in The Economist:

A PORTLY official from the office of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, planted a kiss on Musa Abu Mariya’s right eye, enveloped him in a bear hug and sped off in his sport utility vehicle trailing a cloud of dust. Mr Abu Mariya organises protests in Beit Omar, a town on the West Bank, against Israel’s appropriation of land for settlements and security walls that can cut through Palestinian farms and hurt the villagers’ livelihood. As official visits go, it was better than most. But the kiss left Mr Abu Mariya squirming. These days he no longer knows whether the pre-dawn knock on his door heralds Israeli or Palestinian security men. In recent weeks, both have hauled him off to their prisons.

The Palestinian official’s visit illustrates the dilemma faced by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Mr Fayyad. Publicly, the PA celebrates Mr Abu Mariya’s peaceful protests beneath Israel’s concrete watch-towers. His sit-downs in Beit Omar, on the main road that Jewish settlers use between Jerusalem and Hebron, the biggest Palestinian city in the southern part of the West Bank, chime with the PA’s own boycott of anything to do with the settlements. The PA recently gave the 25,000-odd Palestinians who work in them until the end of the year to give up their jobs or face up to five years in jail. And both the protesters and the PA share the common aim of ending the occupation in the 80% of the West Bank, known as Areas B and C, that are controlled directly by the Israeli army.

Yet the increasingly vocal protests by Mr Abu Mariya and others like him are disturbing the quiet that the PA has preserved since Israel crushed the Palestinians’ second intifada(uprising) some four years ago and that has given Mr Fayyad the space to start building a state from the bottom up. While the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, looks to American-mediated negotiations, which have just resumed indirectly, to bring about a future Palestinian state, Mr Fayyad has used the calm to try to resuscitate the economy and train security forces. Should protests, now concentrated in the rural parts of the West Bank and numbering around 40 a week, turn violent, Israel may once again feel obliged to rumble in and upset the PA’s plans. “Things are happening outside the cities beyond our control,” says a PA security official. “You can ride the tiger, but you have no idea where it is heading.”

Read more of the article for the impossible situation Fayyad is in, as well as some of the security provision he provides for the Israelis. The lesson I would take from it is that, with the failure of the political process almost certain, West Bankers should not rush, but make the next intifada one that counts (like the first before it was subverted by Arafat and Fatah and unlike the second, which led nowhere.) There needs to be strategic as well as tactical thinking.

Links for May 16-23 2010

I'm halfway through a trip to New York and Rabat, with not much time to blog. Yesterday I got around to putting up a bunch of links for the past week, although I'm sure there's a lot I missed. Here are they are...

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God Only Knows


No doubt powered by a serious cocktail of amphetamines, Hosni Mubarak undertook his first trip abroad this week since he was hospitalized in Germany — a sign that he is gradually returning to business as usual, or at least that he wants to be seen as doing so. His regimen these days seems to be a meeting a day, and one major speech in two or three months. During his trip abroad — a summit with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he is said to be plotting to corner the hair dye futures market (a hot commodity from the Mediterranean region to the Gulf to South Asia) —Boss Hozz came out with the following pearl:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday that only God could know who would succeed him following his 29-year-old rule, the official MENA news agency reported.
Dogging a question on his possible successor by an Italian reporter, Mubarak spontaneously said that “only God could know that.”

It reminds me of something a friend of mine who's often sought for commentary on succession used to frequently say about Egypt's post-Mubarak future and the deliberately cultivated ambiguity about it: "not even God himself knows what Mubarak is thinking about succession." This might be an apt time to reflect a to why Mubarak has never designated a successor or appointed a vice-president who would be seen as such. As I see it, there are three main reasons:

  1. In the early Mubarak period, there was a clear alternative from within the regime in Field Marshall Abu Ghazala, who was ousted from his position as minister of defense in 1989 and remained under house arrest (more or less) for the rest of his life. By not appointing a vice-president, Mubarak refrained from formalizing that alternative. After he consolidated power, Mubarak never saw a need to anoint anyone else with the vice-presidency, since even personalities not thought to be presidentiable (such as himself and Anwar al-Sadat) obtained legitimacy from the position. Cultivating a strategic ambiguity about succession has kept attention where Mubarak likes it best: on himself as kingmaker and ultimate decider.
  2. A second related reason has to do with threats from outside Egypt rather than inside it. Had there been a vice-president, it would become tempting for a certain major power (you know who you are!) looking to influence Egypt's domestic and foreign policy to meddle in regime politicking. Just look at Pakistan's history. It would have also been tempting for peer powers in the region — Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Israel — to also have another point of contact within the Egyptian regime that could present a credible alternative.
  3. A final and more speculative question that has to be asked, considering Gamal Mubarak's rise in influence over the past decade, is whether Mubarak pere has been plotting to install his son for years. It's probably more organic than that — Gamal's rise stems from his father's reluctance to share room at the top of the pyramid; a son is a natural trusted proxy (although not always, as deposed sultans of Oman and Qatar know). But one of the more interesting questions in today's Egypt is how Hosni Mubarak feels about tawreeth: is he fully on board, reluctantly so, or even very ambivalent about in a "King Lear" elderly paranoid way? 

 While you think about that, listen to this track (dedicated to Mystic Mubarak):

And then go on to read Adam Shatz masterful portrait of late Mubarak Egypt at the London Review of Books, Mubarak's Last Breath:

Under Mubarak, Egypt, the ‘mother of the earth’ (umm idduniya), has seen its influence plummet. Nowhere is the decline of the Sunni Arab world so acutely felt as in Cairo ‘the Victorious’, a mega-city much of which has turned into an enormous slum. The air is so thick with fumes you can hardly breathe, the atmosphere as constricted as the country’s political life.

Frustration, shame, humiliation: it does not take much for Egyptians to call up these feelings. It’s still often said that ‘what happens in Egypt affects the entire Arab world,’ but nothing much has happened there in years. Egypt has fallen behind Saudi Arabia – not to mention non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran – in regional leadership. Even tiny Qatar has a more independent foreign policy. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants, yet it’s seen by most Arabs – and by the Egyptians themselves – as a client state of the United States and Israel, who depend on Mubarak to ensure regional ‘stability’ in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran.

Read the whole thing.

Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the US

Yesterday morning I was at the UN building in New York, with a small group of journalists meeting Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. One of the issues that came up was Iran — in fact the buzz at the UN generally speaking is that Iran is the main topic of conversation at high-level meetings and the G-summits, no matter what's officially on the agenda. Ki-Moon had just received news that the US had just gotten a tentative agreement over a new package of sanctions on Iran and shared it with us, although he didn't have much to say about it apart some vague statement that the best way of addressing the Iran issue was through dialogue.

Shortly before Hillary Clinton announced the consensus over a new sanctions resolution, which is going to the UN Security Council soon, Brazil and Turkey had successfully inked a deal with Iran. The deal would have Tehran turn over about half of its nuclear fuel stockpile for a period of a year, a similar deal that the US had earlier said it would be amenable to. So the announcement on new sanctions came as a big f-you to not only Iran, but also Brazil and Turkey, as Gary Sick writes:

Only hours before Clinton’s announcement, the foreign minister of Turkey held his own press conference. Obviously unaware of what was about to happen, he described in some detail not only the tortuous negotiation process with Iran, but his perception that he was acting directly on behalf of the United States.
According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he had been in “constant contact” with Clinton herself and with national security adviser James Jones, while his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had face-to-face encouragement from President Obama in December and April.
The objective of Turkey and Brazil was to persuade Iran to accept the terms of an agreement the United States had itself promoted only six months ago as a confidence-building measure and the precursor to more substantive talks. There were twelve visits back and forth between the Turk and his Iranian counterpart, some 40 phone conversations, and eighteen grueling hours of personal negotiations leading up to the presentation of the signed agreement on Monday.
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Links for May 10-15 2010

I'm in New York for the next few days, and Morocco after that for a week, and expect blogging to be very light. Still, I promise a long post on the renewal of the emergency law this week and wider issues, including US-Egypt relations. I am writing this from a very interesting conference at CUNY on the future of Egypt (Hassan Nafaa is speaking right now), which is an occasion to remind you to follow me on Twitter (see sidebar) for updates and links that are not in the links posts.

Here are the links and I want to highlight the first one:

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Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by Iraq.ir.

One of my first days back in Baghdad, I tagged along with a 
photographer to go cover the handover of a small base from the 
Americans to the Iraqis up in northeast Baghdad.

I’d been in the neighborhood years ago on an embed and I was curious 
how it might have changed, and of course it was a chance to get out of 
the bureau and cruise a bit more around Baghdad.

We never made it.

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Youssef Chahine...why?

That famous scene from Bab El-Hadeed (Cairo Station). Courtesy Misr International Films

Youssef Chahine was one of the best-known filmmakers in the Middle East and – even more so – outside of it. A Silver Bear in Berlin; a life achievement award at Cannes; the bans on several of his movies, and the furious arguments over several others have all made sure of that. But was he also one of the best? Why did he alone, out of his many talented (some would say more talented) contemporaries, achieve such stature? Almost two years after the director’s death in 2008, at 82, the evaluation of his work, its significance and its influence, continues.

That's the beginning of a piece I just wrote for The Review at The National, the result of reading several books and spending all of last week watching Chahine movies--an interesting if at times tiring experience. My conclusion is that there are only three Chahine films I really like; that he had great abilities, a great eye, but his work was often undermined by his heavy-handed social and political commentary (and later, his equally heavy-handed stylistic flourishes):

Particularly in his treatment of political Islam, Chahine was always polemical and caricatural, his Islamists a bunch of schemers stroking their fake beards. Chahine’s uncompromising political stances are partly what made his name, but they also overshadowed his talents – and shortcomings – as a filmmaker. Today, the legibility of his films dates and mars them. And the critical enthusiasm in the West for films that present such simple analyses, and voice such unproblematic platitudes, seems almost condescending: “Look! An Arab humanist!”

Unfortunately a new book out by AUC does not contribute much to the evaluation of Chahine's work. The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema is a useful reference. It offers synopses, summaries of critical reactions (mostly from the Arab world) and many grand claims for Chahine’s films. They “converge the popular with the ideologically counter-hegemonic or subversive;” “deconstruct the representations and discourses that have limited the self-representation of Egyptian and Arab people;” and “function as agencies of modernist cultural practice through an exploration of their postcolonial narrative delineations of social inequalities, colonialism, capitalist globalization, ethnic and religious heterogeneity, non-normative sexuality, the Palestine question, [the list goes on].” What author Malek Khouri doesn’t do is explain persuasively or clearly (a difficult task, when encumbered with so much jargon) how all this is accomplished. I believe he overrates the originality, subtlety and relevance of Chahine's socio-political interventions. And he barely evaluates Chahine's films qua films at all. In fact he doesn't give any sense of the experience--for good or bad--of watching Chahine.