The unsaid in second round negotiations

There’s been some buzz over the last day or so over a proposal for a national charter by secular, liberal, non-felool forces (aka most of the small parties in the Egyptian parliament) as well as several ideas over some kind of deal with the remaining presidential candidates on the shape of government. I keep seeing stipulations such as “no MB prime minister” or “vice-presidents from outside the MB” that makes it clear that these initiatives are largely targeted at candidate Mohammed Mursi. I barely see anything about negotiating with candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

I also — and I believe this is a big omission — see no details about restricting the powers of the military, getting rid of SCAF and retiring the generals who currently serve on it, overhauling the General Intelligence Services, or anything else that has been considered largely beyond the pale of political and media discourse since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. It kind of reinforces the feeling that a) most political activists seem to think the greatest threat is the Islamists, since many of the points are about preserving a secular state, b) there is not much courage out there (at least among the professional politicians) about raising the issue of the deep state, the military and the security services. Is this resignation, perception of what's realistic, of lack of imagination?

While some of Egypt’s Islamists are certainly worrisome, and the country has a past of terrorist violence coming from the extreme fringe of a wide-ranging Islamist spectrum, most of the damage done to the country in the last 30 years came from the regime, not the Islamists. Of course some may make the argument that the average Egyptian is more interested in decent governance and a return of economic growth and security than some of these other issues. It’s an arguable point, but besides the point if we ask the question, what does the political class want? Right now, 15 months after Mubarak was removed from power, I am still not sure I know the answer to that question. I hope the full statement from these “liberal, secular, non-felool” forces that is supposed to come out tomorrow clarifies things somewhat, but it also seems that some of these questions should have been addressed a while back.

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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.

No more social buttons

I've decided to remove the tweet, like, g+ and what not buttons from the blog. To make things load faster, and because I came across this. (I am highly impressionable.) One day I might disable comments on the shorter posts too, when the Arabist redesign comes along (maybe this summer), and replace them with email.

Complain if you want.

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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.

New Book: The Journey to Tahrir

A new collection of articles about Egypt that appeared in Middle East Report in the last decade or so is now out. It's edited by Chris Toensing and Jeannie Sowers, and includes a piece by me as well as other blog contributors, friends, and leading Egypt experts (Mona El-Ghobashy, Tim Mitchell, Joel Beinin, etc.). It's a great way to review late Mubarak Egypt and the January 2011 uprising, as well support the excellent MERIP.

Get your copy now.

 

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 International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre

The International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre : The New Yorker

Yesterday, Annan was back in Damascus calling on “everyone with a gun” in Syria to give it a rest—as if all parties were equally to blame for the country’s agony. By what honest argument, after Houla, can one deny Syrians who feel the need to take up arms against the Assad regime? And who can take comfort from what the spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, tweeted today: “Positive & constructive meeting between Annan & President Assad this morning. Details discussed to push forward the plan & end violence”?

Sounds a lot like the Middle East peace process in the last 20 years, doesn't it?

Philip Gourevitch has more on Syria here, in which he writes:

To Syria hawks, like Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, the solution to the crisis is simple: an American- and NATO-led air war against Assad. But, at the NATO summit in Chicago last week, there was no support for the idea. Proponents of intervention like to point out that Obama’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, was the co-author of a piece in Foreign Affairs which said that the “victory” in Libya should serve as a model for future interventions to prevent atrocity and support positive political change. But none of the conditions that worked to NATO’s advantage in Libya—its geographical and political self-containment, Qaddafi’s abandonment, the efficacy of the opposition forces, the ease of executing the mission from the air—pertain in Syria. Instead, the situation has all the makings of just the sort of quagmire that NATO is impatient to get out of: the main item on the agenda in Chicago was to declare the plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 “irreversible.”
 
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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.

Syria's atamans

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti—Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long—dead atamans. Despite the under—strength, under—armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti—Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissent Yassin al—Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al—salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al—taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one—way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter—intelligence obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

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Muhammad Morrissey

A particularly elections-and-music obsessed friend of the blog writes:

Strategy for the next three weeks: Every time you hear Egyptians debating the merits of Morsi or discussing his platform, imagine that they are talking about the grim dandy crooner Morrissey. Egypt will seem to be a trippy place! "But don't you think that Morrissey will be able to work more effectively with parliament?" "Morrissey is an Islamist technocrat, he can't lead the largest Arab nation!" "Morrissey is the only man who can fix the Egyptian economy!" And, the most basic question: "Who are you going to vote for, Ahmad Shafiq or the preening lead singer of The Smiths?

And he sends us a treat after the jump.

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Why accept these elections?

As I write these lines, a large group of people angry with the decision of the Egyptian Presidential Election Commission's decision to dismiss allegations of (massive) fraud in favor of candidate Ahmed Shafiq have ransacked set fire to his Cairo HQ, and more are protesting in Tahrir Square and in Alexandria. Only a few thousands have come out so far, but there are calls for larger protests tomorrow and Friday.

I can't say I particularly blame them.

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn't care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. They never received much backing from political leaders, however (including Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi until now, since they have rejected the PEC's ruling), unless you count Mohamed ElBaradei's boycott of the election and rejection of the transition process (but he too only half-heartedly called on the generals to step down). The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn't want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don't know whether they'll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid.

Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi are mediocre candidates — the former is quite shallow and too much a product of the Brotherhood to be the transformative politician he claims to be, the latter stuck in the morass of Nasserism and has a dubious past of links to Saddam, Qadhafi, and a present position towards the Syrian civil war ("it's an international conspiracy," he says) that is classic fourth-rate Arab paranoid populism. But someone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you're going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF, and the (officially) winning candidates. It's just good politics.

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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.

It's time for politicking

"You'll be late for the revolution!" - Some social science of the presidential elections:

Morsy is now trying to mobilise the revolutionary vote for him, and some (like the novelist Alaa El Aswany) are going along with that. But everything that the Brotherhood has done in the past year and so indicates that as soon as they gain power, they will drop, marginalise, and - if necessary - recklessly repress their former allies.

However tempted by an anti-Shafiq, pro-Morsi, vote, secular / progressive / revolutionary voters are in the second round, how many will actually do it in light of their perception of the MB's behavior in the last year? This is what the Brotherhood lost by some of its behavior over the last year, notably over the constitutional assembly and its refusal to seriously condemn crackdown on protestors: its claim to the leadership of the opposition. This is why Morsi's score, in most interpretations of the results, is seen as being against both the old regime and the revolutionaries: the Brotherhood is perceived as forming its own distinct group. Indeed, the prospect of a restoration of the old regime through Shafiq is not necessarily as terrifying to some to an unstable military-Brotherhood alliance like Sudan in the late 1980s (see how that ended?)

It is a tough dilemma: one might be tempted to block Shafiq by voting Morsi, but then think that Morsi will just turn around and negotiate with the army without any input from the "revolutionary" forces. I spoke about this to MB leader Khairat al-Shater the morning after the election; he seemed to think there was no need to bring in other candidates as VPs or promise them cabinet positions (or some policy impact) because even if their voters did not choose Morsi as their first choice, there is a reservoir of goodwill towards the MB among them.

But that's not how politics should work: candidates' endorsements should be in exchange of clear gains, most notably an actual position of influence in government (and in that case VP may not be the job to go for). Discussion of this in the Egyptian media makes it seems like it's some kind of dirty deal, but that's BS: the unlucky candidates that represent about 50% of the first round vote need to get something for their support. 

Update: While I think Hamdeen Sabahi should focus on his appeal for a recount and try to invalidate some of the Shafiq votes for now, his statement that he refuses any position under Morsi is non-sensical. The question should be what does he get from them — both personally and hopefully for what he thinks his voters represent. 

Random thoughts on early Egypt voting results

A few scattershot observations on Egypt's election results:

First -- voting behavior in transitional countries, when people's sense of political identity is still inchoate, is totally all over the place. What happened in "Islamist stronghold" Alexandria? Who are the Salafis For Sabahi?

Sabahi's surge notwithstanding, the run-off as of mid-afternoon still looks like it will be between the Brothers' Mohammed Mursi and ex-Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. If Hamdeen repeats his Alex performance in Cairo this may change.

[Update: It's Mursi vs. Shafiq. Sabahi did do very well in Greater Cairo, taking first place there as well. But it's not good enough to offset Shafiq in Delta provinces like Sharqiya and Menufiya.]

However, regardless of who pulls ahead, the margins for second place look like they're going to be around one or two percentage points -- meaning that the top two names indicate more about the randomness injected into the race by the pre-vote disqualifications than they really say about voter preferences. If Omar Suleiman were still in the race, for example, Shafiq and he might be relegated to vote-splitting also-rans. If Abu Ismail were still around, maybe Mursi would be a distant third -- or, alternately, maybe Abul Futuh or even Sabahi would have slipped down a few notches.

Pre-vote polls had suggested that the Brothers had lost considerable support since their parliamentary triumph last year. For the past several weeks I've talked to a lot of ex-FJP supporters, who voted for Brothers for parliament because they thought the group really cared about the masses or "feared God" and would not be corrupt. But they have decided since then that the Brothers are politicians like everyone else. I had thought that the leitmotif of this election might be Brotherhood voters going for Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (as a guy who speaks his mind) or for Amr Moussa (as a man with experience).

Actually, it looks like the leitmotif might be voters who went FJP for parliament but then didn't turn out at all on Wednesday and Thursday. People lost confidence in the Brothers. But the Brothers' excellent organization means that they still managed to produce enough pluralities where it counts.

[Based on final results, I see there was a big metropolis bias in my perception. Morsi's performance in Cairo was almost as bad as his performance in Alex. But he did very well in Upper Egypt.]

Some quick number crunching from jadaliyya.com's parliamentary summary and the excellent spreadsheet by @iyad_elbaghdadi and @GalalAmrG mirrored here by Moftasa. Math and errors are my own.

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The early results are in... and it's not good

(This was written earlier this morning, to be updated).

With about half of the polling stations reported, it looks like Egypt's presidential elections will go to a second round between Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood and former general Ahmed Shafiq. This is the most polarizing outcome possible, and is particularly unfortunate as the other candidates are not trailing too far from these two poll leaders — Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi in particular amount together for about 40% of the vote, while Mursi is unlikely to get much higher than 30%. More about this later — I have to run off to a meeting but wanted to signal some good sources of info and raw data:

ArcGIS - EgyptVote2012 - a GIS color mapping of Mursi, Shafiq and Aboul Fotouh votes (click the middle icon on the sidebar for details and to cycle through the candidates).

#EgyPresElex - Google Docs - Iyad al-Baghdadi's amazing effort to note the results as they come in, per governorate.

And finally pics from Jonathan Rachad from the election itself:

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.

My belated take on Egypt's elections

I have been incredibly busy in the last month, and then traveling and taking a break over the last week away from all the electoral folly, hence this blog has provided scant coverage of Egypt’s presidential election thus far. I hope to correct this in the next few days — and in any case there’s plenty of commentary elsewhere — and provide some opinion about the way this election might go.

But first, a few words about the big picture — what this election means and how to situate it in the post-Mubarak era. At a very simple level, this election is the beginning of the end of the transition period (if defined as return to civilian government). Its outcome will be a new president for Egypt, and — apart from the writing of a new constitution — the bizarre interregnum launched by the referendum on constitutional amendments that took place in March 2011, a little over a month after Mubarak stepped down. The electoral process is attracting a lot of media frenzy inside and outside Egypt, and a not inconsiderable (if often mixed) level of enthusiasm among Egyptians, since it is the first election in which the outcome is not obvious to all. No doubt turnout will be high, and hopefully the voting process itself not too flawed since one would think the military regime now in charge can’t afford to blatantly rig the poll. But, globally, we’ll see Egyptians excited about having a real choice before them rather than an obvious outcome, and a real sense of uncertainty about who might win.

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In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on SCAF

For a variety of reasons, I was unable to put up a translated article about the early May clashes in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, that appeared earlier this month. The clashes may have receded into memory with the excitement of the presidential elections, but they’re still relevant — if only because more clashes might be expected if the results (as the polls predict) exclude revolutionary candidates or are seen to be rigged.

For a reminder of what happened in Abbasiya, check out this Storify stream compiled by Arabist contributor Paul Mutter, which he put up on FPIF. The column we’re featuring today deals not so much with the clashes themselves as the reaction from the SCAF, and their repeated lack of accountability and scape-goating in such incidents. It raises important questions about whether the next president will even to hold anyone accountable, since the army appears to have successfully buried the investigations with their cryptic talk of “third elements” and so on. In my mind, this is one illustration of why a presidential election should not have been held under military rule, as their record is far too flawed.

The column below was written by Fahmi Howeidy, who has had an interesting turn lately. A conservative writer often seen as close to the Muslim Brothers but also close to the Egyptian establishment, he has voiced doubts about the wisdom of the Brotherhood’s presidential run and is also increasingly critical of the SCAF. Since he is considered to be the most-read columnist in Egypt, his voice counts and speaks of the unease with the SCAF beyond revolutionary circles — and, if you read between the lines, the effort to distinguish between the military and the SCAF.

As always, this article provided by the translation gnomes at Industry Arabic, who do sterling work when it comes to putting out clear copy of your Arabic articles, reports, documentation, and much more into whatever language you want and vice-versa. Professional, bespoke translation with a fast turn-around — what more could you want?

They warned us, but did not understand us

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 5 May 2012

It is not enough for the Military Council’s spokesmen to say that the army is innocent of the Abbasia massacre, and it is not appropriate for one of the Council’s members to say that the protestors rejected an offer from the authorities to protect them. The former statement could be made by anyone, with the exception of those who run the country, while the latter should not be made by any state official.

There is nothing new in the statements that seek to exculpate the army – and often the police – from the charge of suppressing protestors and opening fire on them. We have heard this talk several times before. Not only did some official spokesmen not wash their hands of the incident, but they went so far as to deny that there were snipers in the first place, even though hundreds of thousands of people saw them standing on the tops of buildings shooting at them.

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Googling Egypt's candidates

Google's Egypt elections doodle

Friend-of-the-blog Gabriel Koehler-Derrick does some really neat stuff with Google to track prominent personalities in religious currents, politics, and society in the Middle East. In this commentary he sent us, Gabriel looks at Google as an alternative indication of the popularity (or interest in) the various candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections. A PDF version of this article, which includes graphs that are tricky to transpose to the web, is here (275kb).

With the approach of Egypt’s presidential elections on Wednesday, a variety of polls have been published trying to anticipate the outright winner, or at least identify which two candidates are capable of winning enough votes to force a runoff election.  Given the challenges associated with polling in Egypt, the historic nature of the election, and a confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically shaken up the field of contestants, it is not surprising that the outcome remains unclear.  While far from perfect, data from internet search trends suggest a far less ambiguous outcome: Amr Moussa is comfortably in the lead and Muhammad Morsi is the candidate most likely to face him should there be a runoff. 

Anyone familiar with the telecommunications industry in Egypt might question the utility of using data derived from internet searches to better understand political developments.  While internet penetration rates have grown impressively, according to a recent survey conducted by A.C. Nielsen for Google’s MENA office, only about 39% of Egyptians have “regular access” (defined in the survey as logging in once a month) to the internet.  The data from the A.C. Nielsen survey also show that Egypt’s community of internet users are disproportionately male, and younger than average, with the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts being particularly well represented.  To the best of my knowledge, credible statistics about the income and education level of Egypt’s internet users are not publically available, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that typical internet users are skewed towards urban areas, and better educated and significantly wealthier than national averages. Because of these challenges, data derived from internet searches cannot be considered statistically representative of the Egyptian population.  

Despite these drawbacks, internet search data enjoys a number of advantages for examining the presidential race.  First, the number of data points for any time period is huge.  A back of the envelope calculation, based on the Nielsen survey and some basic population data from the UN, suggests that in Egypt, Google gets almost 26 million searches a day. While only a tiny fraction of these searches are politically related, nine out of the “top 10 rising people” in Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist survey of Egypt’s search trends were connected to the revolution or politics more broadly, indicating just how influential political developments in 2011 were  on search trends in Egypt. By way of comparison, none of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Turkey has anything to do with politics, and only one of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Canada , former leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) Jack Layton.  Data from Google AdWords, provides an updated 30-day average of the number of searches for a given term, shows some impressive averages for each of the top presidential contenders.  This is crucial because it provides a sense of scale for the Insights for Search data cited below, which uses normalized results not raw numbers to plot the trend lines for the various candidates.

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Podcast #30: Indecision time

The first round of Egypt's presidential elections are upon us. This week the regular gang is joined by two guests: former Arabist contributor Charles Levinson, who now is a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and Italian-Egyptian journalist Rolla Scolari  — both of whom are old Egypt hands.

We've talked in previous podcasts about why the context for the election is flawed for multiple reasons. Now we focus about the pure politics: who's ahead, who's trailing, what we think will happen, and what the country can handle — and give an anti-endorsement.

Podcast #30

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.

Dispatch: Algeria's "nif"

Since there was a lot of interest in Abu Ray's recent piece on Algeria, I have asked friend-of-the-blog Geoff Porter if I could reproduce an email he sent me just before the parliamentary elections there. Geoff's take is quite unique, and while I'm not sure what to make of it (having not been to Algeria) I thought it was worth sharing. Let us know what you think of it.

Parliamentary elections on 10 May have provided commentators with another occasion to discuss why Algeria did not have an “Arab Spring” like so many other countries in the Arabic-speaking world and to prognosticate about why Algerian voter participation rates are likely to be so low. Not one to pass up an opportunity to share my own views, below is my take on what is at play in Algeria.

One well-worn explanation for Algeria’s lack of an Arab Spring is because the horrific bloodshed that followed Algeria’s first foray into multi-party politics in the 1990s left Algerians cagey and afraid. They watched jealously over the course of 2011 as their neighbors stood up to and toppled authoritarian regimes, but were too cowed by memory to do the same. And now presented with legislative elections and the opportunity to voice their political views post-Arab Spring, Algerians have become too apathetic to go to the polls to try to bring about political change. Voter participation is will be low, the argument goes, because Algerians think that they are impotent in the face of the deep state’s power.

A portrait of a defeated and timid population emerges from this interpretation. But anyone who has spent time in Algeria would quickly attest to Algerians’ pride and defiance. So how to explain the difference between the two profiles? One explanation is that the arguments about why Algeria did not have an Arab Spring and why Algerians are unlikely to vote are wrong.

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When Pizza Becomes Policy

Like US policy in Bahrain, this looks repulsive. Credit: Arabian Business

Paul Mutter sends in this inspired analogy on US policy towards Bahrain, where the crackdown continues.

Pizza Hut’s Crown Crust Pizza is a good metaphor for up the US’s Bahrain policy: stuff ’em full of meats and cheeses in the hopes that such largesse predisposes them to better hear us out on human rights. This month the US lifted restrictions on a host of sales to the Bahraini military, going well beyond previous exemptions made since the 2011 freeze on a US$53 million arms deal, reportedly in the hopes of raising the profile of the Crown Prince at home following his visit to the US:

“The administration didn’t want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. “They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can’t deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand.”

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States.

Problem is, several commentators have noted, is that often times after a big meal the last thing you want to do is talk. The Crown Prince is thought to be facing down a hardline clique helmed by the Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad and his brother, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad who have conspired to force the prince out of his perch in the Defense Ministry to buttress the Sunni factions that reject dialogue with the opposition.

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Dispatch: The Algerian exception?

Election posters in Algiers (credit: Abu Ray)

Our friend Abu Ray, a journalist covering North Africa, sent in this dispatch from Algeria where he was to cover the recent parliamentary elections, in which the ruling FLN won against expectations that Islamist parties would do well, as they have done in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. The Islamists and many others have decried widespread fraud and the turnout was very low.

For some of us journalists, the Arab Spring meant discovering French colonial architecture, or at least that of Tunis. I mean no one went toTunisia before the revolution: it was a journalistic dead zone. And then came the uprising, the confused aftermath and then the October elections, and each time, we would wander around the tree-lined Bourguiba avenue, with its never-ending outdoor cafés and beautiful peeling old buildings and think, wow, now THIS is a capital city.

Up until this point, if what you’ve seen of Arab capitals is the slow motion urban train wreck of Cairo, the bland concrete and glass of the Gulf and the soul destroying beige ugliness of Baghdad, Tunis was amazing.

Until I saw Algiers. The white city on the sea has just block after block of achingly beautifully filigreed white buildings with delicate blue balconies arrayed around a perfect semicircular bay, climbing up a steep mountain like an amphitheater.

There are drawbacks. Everything built from the 1950s on is hideous and unlike Alexandria’s lovely bay, the Algiers port is, well, smack dab in the center of the bay, so once you got close to the water, you are dealing with warehouses, train tracks, highways and chainlink fences guarding customs buildings.

But climb the hill and and there you were in winding streets connected by steep staircases, working your way through old neighborhoods. So Algiers was a rare enough site to visit, but this time around, the government wanted to invite the world for their elections, their “spring.”

It was time to throw a party, show off the city and tell the world how Spring-like Algeria was feeling. It was the regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, elections the country has been holding regularly every five years like a train schedule, and with about as much literary merit. But since everyone was looking around the region saying, “where’s your spring Algeria?,” the aging regime of old revolutionaries felt they had to put on a show. So the observers were invited in, the journalists suddenly got visas, and a fairly closed place was suddenly thrown open — much to the joy of those who love old colonial cities.

As it turns out, asking Algeria experts why there was no “Arab Spring” in Algeria, could possibly be the equivalent of asking the inane post 9/11 query of “why do they hate us?” They do get tired of that. One answer is that Algeria had its spring in 1988 when angry riots over a failed system broke out around the country necessitating a massive army crackdown that killed 500 people — roughly proportional to the numbers that died in Tunisia and Egypt’s 2011 revolutions.

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