The Brotherhood's media offensive

The pan-Arab, Saudi-owned newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat has published an op-ed by the Muslim Brotherhood's number two, Mohammed Habib, outlining what a MB government would pursue in eight points. It is reproduced in full after the jump below. I don't particularly want to dwell on the content of the points: they are all relatively vague beyond calls for reforms that have long been demanded by all opposition groups and human rights activists. They do include some interest touches involving Islamist ideals, such as encouraging the arts within the boundaries of public decency (however you choose to define that) and encouraging technological research (I think they emphasize this point because many people rather stupidly think Islamism is a Luddite ideology.) It also basically defines its program as a rather rosy, soft-focus, social-democrat-meets-identity-politics hodgepodge of principles while leaving out the details. I would rather analyze what the publication of the article means. A thought has been forming in my head over the past few weeks, slowly taking shape into this basic and perhaps obvious realization: the MB is carrying out a long-planned, highly orchestrated and well-organized media offensive in parallel with its political offensive during the elections. This op-ed, and the one a few days ago in the Guardian are part of a string of evidence that it is making a real effort at communication to Egyptian, Arab and international media. From the top of my head:
  • The MB's representatives have made themselves highly accessible to all of the media present in Egypt, with a series of multilingual personalities being available.
  • Its communiques on election fraud are being widely spread and reported.
  • There is a media blitz of interviews with Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef and other MB leaders in the independent Egyptian press. It is also responding to attacks: I was recently told that the MB is currently considering take Adel Hammouda, the editor of the weekly tabloid Al Fagr to court for
  • It is making campaigners available to journalists and researchers, quite a few of which have embedded themselves with them in several locations around Egypt.
  • In addition to its well-established Arabic website, it has recently launched two highly professional, frequently updated English ones: and These put anything else by any other political forces in Egypt to shame, including anything produced by the government. Moreover, they are trying to spread the word about them to sites like this one: about a week ago, the webmaster of left a comment on this site telling me about them.
The bottom line: the Brotherhood is telling Egyptians and the rest of the world not to be afraid. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Habib op-ed is that it begins with "I would like to stress at the beginning that it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would hold power, at least in the foreseeable future." He is gently introducing the possibility, not so long ago absolutely unthinkable, and reassuring everyone that they are not Khomeinists. Perhaps he believes this foreseeable future could be within the next decade, or maybe this is only meant to be a way to move the MB's place in the public mind a little bit more to the mainstream. I don't know. The MB is still an extremely secretive organization and little is known of its internal workings and politics. But it now has a pro-active policy of maintaining and controlling its public image, and it is doing a much, much better job of it than the NDP. One more thing: perhaps it's the conspiracy theorist or finicky editor in me, but isn't it strange that Al Sharq Al Awsat miscaptioned the picture of Habib it ran with it "The writer is the Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood"? It immediately reminded me of the widely spread rumor, at the beginning of the year, of a coup in the MB in which Habib had taken control of the organization while leaving Akef as its figurehead. The reasoning was that many Brothers had been upset by Akef's statement that it would back a Mubarak candidacy for the presidency--a statement that irked younger Brothers especially and caused many to call for a more aggressive policy in opposing the government. Prominent middle-generation Brothers Essam Al Erian and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh were especially furious, with the former telling the press against Akef's will that he would run for president and the latter penning as acerbic letter in Al Hayat about it. Perhaps the MB's new confrontational style is the result of a change of balance of power inside the organization.
The Brotherhood are Unlikely to Form Government, However, this is How We Envisage It 28/11/2005 I would like to stress at the beginning that it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would hold power, at least in the foreseeable future. However, let us presume for the sake of argument that they have formed a government. How do we view this government and what are its concerns and mechanisms of work? I assume that we want a government to come to power only through strong public opinion that would elect such a government by its free will and through ballot boxes. In our opinion, only the people should have a genuine right to choose their rulers and representatives and the program that expresses their ambitions. The people should also be enabled to practice their right in bringing to account and even forcing the government to resign, in case it failed to fulfill its duties or deviated from the program, which it promised to implement. This should happen through a peaceful transfer of power and through the well-known tools of democracy. The first thing such a government will have to implement is to allow public freedoms such as the freedom to form political parties of various affiliations. It should allow freedom of press, thought and creativity (within the context of the major considerations of society, and the boundaries of law and order and public ethics). In addition, all extraordinary courts and laws should be abolished, with the Emergency Law coming at the forefront. A new law should be promulgated to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. All prisoners of conscience and political detainees should be released. Second, the government should commit itself to realizing a real and genuine segregation between the three authorities, the legislative, the judicial, and the executive authorities. The legislative authority should choose a group of people with high qualifications in jurisprudence, law and politics in order to write a new constitution which determines the type of government (a parliamentary democratic republic). The constitution should also define the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, together to determine the period of presidency, the authorities of the president and the right to question him. The constitution should also define the rights and duties of the citizens in the state. It should specify in details the terms of reference of each of the three authorities and it should be guided in this by the rulings of the Islamic Shari'a. It should also benefit from the lessons of history and the reality on the ground. The supreme constitutional court should be the final arbiter in determining whether the laws issued by the legislative assembly comply with or differ from the basic rules and principles of the constitution. Third, appointments to public offices and to all areas and fields and at each and every level should be decided on the basis of ability and qualification perform and not on the basis of trust. Fourth, our approach to our Coptic brothers is based on the belief that they are citizens and enjoy full rights of citizenship. We consider them part of the fiber of this society, and partners in homeland, in decision making and in destiny. This entails that they have full right in assuming public offices including that of the head of the state. Fifth, in its economic policies, the government would try to combine between the free market economies - but far from monopoly - and the principle of state ownership, especially in the major and strategic areas. In this respect, the state should fight poverty and starvation and should work to create solidarity and fair distribution of wealth and public benefits among all the citizens. Sixth, the government should pay special attention to education, scientific research and establishing technology. This is considered the beginning of renaissance and progress. There is no harm in borrowing all the sciences and the basics of modern techniques from other sources, so that we can occupy a strong position. In fact, such borrowing is a duty that the government should take up. Seventh, the burden of encouraging arts and literature in all fields and types falls on the shoulder of the government. Of course, it is imperative that such literature and arts should be serious and committed to the values and principles of the nation. They should stay away from superficiality, belittling minds and thoughts. Eighth, the government should open up to other Arab and Muslim governments. There should be cooperation and solidarity in various areas of economy, culture, media and defense. We shall work to cooperate in realizing peace between the countries and peoples of the world on the basis of justice, equality, and respect of rights. We shall try to lift injustice and suffering from those who have been the victim of such injustice and suffering.
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Egyptian NGOs call for change in third round of elections

The NGOs involved in monitoring Egypt's parliamentary elections have released a statement on the abuses that took place and made demands on how the third and final round should be held. Two interesting recommendations stand out: they are asking President Mubarak to "announce his full responsibility" for the third round, and asking the Muslim Brotherhood to "stop using religion and its slogans to make gains" and "to refrain from manipulating religious feelings." I find it rather odd that they are asking a religious party to stop using religious slogans, but this echoes the concerns we've been hearing all week from the Egyptian punditocracy across the political spectrum. Full text after the jump.
Full text of press release:
The National Campaign to Monitor Election / Shadow Election Monitoring Committee Press Release Statement Concerning Parliament Stage II Re-Election Monitoring The National Campaign for Monitoring the Elections and the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, the Shadow Committee for Election Monitoring coordinator, held a press conference on 27 November 2005 to announce the results of monitoring the parliament phase II re-election 2005. Statement Through our monitors' comments and statements about the phase re-election of the 2005 parliament elections, we can say that this round was dominated by a number of characteristics, the most significant of which are as follows: 1. Egyptian security forces prevented voters from their Constitutional right to vote, select and participate in government. Security forces imposed a security belt and a siege around many constituencies and polling stations, which even expanded to surround complete villages in some cases. 2. The high rates of violence and thuggery on part of thugs and dangerous criminals as an introduction to impose security belts around polling stations that would ultimately result in directing the election process in favor of certain candidates. 3. The use of money to influence the will of simple voters and abusing their need for money to buy their will. 4. Manipulating the religious feelings and worldly hopes of voters to achieve political gains in a country where illiteracy reached about 50%. 5. Failure to observe the law organizing political rights and the instructions of the Supreme Committee for Parliament Election without taking any legal measures against violators. 6. Failure to observe real judiciary supervision over elections. The role of judges was restricted –once again- inside polling stations to the extent that some security personnel humiliated the judges who attempted to break the security belt imposed on a polling station to allow voters to practice their right of giving their vote. As a result, some judges refused to continue supervision. 7. Many monitors were prevented from performing their work whether by security forces or some supervisors to the extent that some monitors were arrested and detained until the end of the election process. Monitors were also prevented from observing vote counts although they had been issued relevant permits from the Supreme Committee for Parliament Election. These aspects characterizing this round of the parliament election show that the round lacked many of the objective criteria of the election process and took place in a climate that can be described as unhealthy and lacking in honesty and ethics, deviates from the concept of democracy and the civil state. Criticism can not be restricted to one party in particular of the parties involved in the election process. All parties participated in varying degrees to creating this climate which renders the election process void. It no longer expresses the real will of the voters. Thus, in the light of the monitored incidents, we call upon all parties to seek a code of ethics that puts an end to such practices, including acts of violence, buying votes, manipulating religious sentiments or preventing voters from exercising their Constitutional rights. The Egyptian people should not be treated as goods in a market regardless of the price. Nobody should seek to manipulate the religious or the worldly hopes of the people. We also call upon the President to prove, rather than merely being the president of the ruling party, that he is the president of all the various sects and affiliations that the Arab Republic of Egypt encompasses. We call upon the Minister of Justice, the chairman of the Supreme Committee of Parliament Election, the competing parties and the Muslim Brotherhood to take the necessary measures that will control and minimize the unhealthy climate that characterized this round and prevent it from prevailing over the third round. For these reasons, we recommend the following: 1. The President to announce his complete responsibility for the third stage of the election. 2. The President to issue a decree that affirms the right of the Court of Cassation as stated in article 93 of the Constitution and render the results of its investigations concerning challenges obliging to all parties in order to teach anyone who attempts to manipulate the will of citizens that they will not be on the winning end before the parliament starts its sessions. 3. The Minister of Justice, as the chairman of the Supreme Committee for Parliament Election, is called upon to face up to his responsibilities and defend the regulatory principles placed by the Committee he heads. The Justice Minister is also called upon to adopt a more effective means to facing violations. One of the main reasons behind the phenomenon of thuggery is allowing candidates to exceed the duration of election campaigning which continued until election day, right outside polling stations without any deterrent. 4. The Interior Minister is called upon to give clear instructions to relevant security forces to secure the election process. He is also called upon to give clear instructions that judges supervise the election process as a whole, both inside and outside polling stations, as well as instructing security personnel to obey the decisions of heads of polling stations. 5. In order to prevent the phenomenon of thuggery, we also call upon the Minister of Interior to arrest and place in custody any candidate supporters or agents that perform campaigning activities 48 hours before the election. Voting should take place in the absence of any campaigning outside the polling station. 6. An immediate investigation should be conducted and opposition detainees should be released if proven innocent of involvement in acts of violence. 7. The National Democratic Party is called upon to search for an alternative means and to prevent its candidates from buying votes. Citizens' wills are more valuable than to be involved in such dealings. 8. The Muslim Brotherhood and its candidates are called upon to stop using religion and its slogans to make gains. They are asked to refrain from manipulating religious feelings. Finally, the National Campaign for Monitoring the Election and the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, the coordinator of the Shadow Committee to Monitor the Election, express their support to the independent judges supervising the election and their honorable positions represented by Counselor Dr. Noha al-Zeini. We announce that we have filed two complaints to the Minister of Justice (in his capacity as the chairman of the Supreme Committee for Parliament Election) and the Prosecutor General requesting an investigation concerning the violations mentioned in Counselor Noha al-Zeini's memo. The testimony of Counselor al-Zeini and other judges supervising the election should be heard, as well as the testimony of security personnel. Ballot boxes, as well as the vote counting results signed by sub-committee heads, should be kept in custody.
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They may say otherwise now, but if you had asked any expert on Egyptian politics how many seats the Muslim Brotherhood would get a month ago, not a single one would have said anywhere close to 76. That's the number preliminary results indicate, and it is also the number of years the Muslim Brotherhood has existed. In terms of political success, there is no precedent for this in the Brotherhood's history. And in about two weeks' time, they stand a good chance at breaking through the 100 barrier. I am of course now eating my words. Two weeks ago I did not think that the regime would allow the Brothers, who scored an impressive 34 seats in the first round, would do better in the second. But despite attempts to slow down their progress through thuggery, bribery and police interference, the Brotherhood has soldiered on. In the process, it has also occasionally bared its fangs. While I do not buy the state press and ministry of interior's claims that the Brotherhood was behind the violence that was seen in the second round of elections, I think that in certain occasions the Brotherhood (or perhaps individual members or supporters) decided that it would fight back against the NDP, which was bussing in voters and thugs, and took the initiative. It is not innocent in the tensions that we've seen in the past few days. But it is also not mostly responsible--that falls back on the state and the NDP, whose candidates (official or "independent") have grown all too used to using the nexus of political, economic and security power the ruling party can give to contest elections. In the big picture, I don't think that these incidents are that important either. The important thing is that the Brotherhood now has momentum and is emerging as the real winner of the eleciton, even if the NDP is not faring too badly (but they were never expected to get less than two-thirds of seats anyway). But it does show that the Brotherhood is now prepared to take risks (i.e. being painted as a group of thugs) that it has not been taking for a long time. This account from IslamOnline captured one of the most telling incidents:
But state-directed violence was met with resistance, in some cases, unlike in previous elections. MB supporters fought back and in some instances prevented buses carrying groups of NDP voters from unloading in front of polling stations. During the first round of elections, Wednesday, November 9, the Higher Committee of Elections and NGOs monitoring the process received dozens of complaints against "group voting". Supporters of Hishmat were determined to block buses from unloading what they said were "voters from other districts". Several hours after the polling station opened in Damanhour, the first bus, with Al-Minufiya (a Delta governorate, over 200 kms away) license plates, tried parking in front of a polling station when Hishmat supporters besieged it with clubs and stones, yelling: "You won't forge these elections." The bus reversed out of the street, followed by a volley of stones that shattered its windows. A cheer went up from the crowd as the bus sped away. Later in a press conference, Hishmat said that the attackers were frustrated "kids". "We told the government: don't cause friction in this district, don't treat it like other districts," Hishmat said, recalling his controversial eviction from parliament after he was elected in 2000. While Hishmat would not say there were orders for MB members to prevent "group voting" and to fight back against the goon squads, he said that there was a difference between the current elections and the elections of 2000, when the Central Security Forces teamed up with gangs of NDP strongmen to scare voters away from polling stations. "In the past elections the thugs intimidated people and caused them to avoid the polling stations. Now people aren't running away. They're responding," Hishmat said. Uprising On its part, the Muslim Brotherhood depicted the responses by their followers as spontaneous "uprisings." In Damanhour, there was palpable anger towards the NDP over the eviction from the previous parliament of Hishmat, a Damanhour local who is popular in the region. A voter told IOL she voted for Hishmat to "avenge what happened in 2000." An organizer with MB in Port Said firmly denied that the leadership had asked its followers to engage in violence towards supporters of the NDP. But IOL learned from a reliable source close to the Brotherhood that Brotherhood leaders had ordered supporters to "resist with civil disobedience" any attempt by pro-NDP gangs and security forces to intimidate voters. Shortly before the polls closed in Mina Al-Basl (Alexandria), IOL witnessed nearly two dozen supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood standing across the street from a polling station. When asked why some of them carried clubs, they responded that they heard a goon squad was on its way to damage the boxes. On seeing a Reuters journalist with a camera they dropped their weapons, and linking arms, began to shout slogans. Within minutes, dozens of riot police filed out of two buses and stood in formation between the protestors and the polling station. A commanding officer spoke with an elder from the protestors, assuring him that there would not be an escalation.
Let's not forget, however, that this seems to be one of the rare incidents of this happening. Much more typical of the second round of these elections were attacks on the press:
Security forces have harassed journalists in the past, but physical attacks on reporters have been rare, especially on non-Egyptians or those working for foreign media organisations. Mohammad Taha, an Egyptian working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, said a police officer had hit him while he was on the phone reporting election violence in the Nile Delta. "I was telling London that troops were threatening voters, beating them with sticks and using teargas. Then one of the officers heard me ... and put his hands round my neck," he said. "He tried to put me on the ground. But I struggled. I was on air at the time ... He told me to shut up and used a stick to hit me in the stomach. Then he asked one of the officers to take me away," he added. Police later confiscated parts of Taha's mobile phone and broke his earpiece. Reuters journalist Tom Perry was taken into police custody after attempting to take a photo. Both journalists had official press accreditation from the government. In theory there are few formal restrictions on reporting, provided reporters can show the card.
Or police preventing voters from entering polling stations:
In Laqana, a Nile Delta town 105 miles north of Cairo, police blocked all voters from reaching the polls. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khalad Saad Attayia hails from the village and was said to have near unanimous support. Dozens of residents showed an Associated Press reporter wounds and bruises they said they were caused by rubber bullets fired by police. Authorities launched volleys of tear gas every few minutes. As polls closed at 7 p.m. — after 11 hours in which none of the 7,500 registered voters had cast ballots — streets in the village were empty of vehicle traffic but crammed with angry townspeople. In the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, a U.S. human rights worker at one polling station also reported that police kept Brotherhood supporters from voting but lifted their cordon to ruling party supporters who showed up in buses at sunset. At that point Brotherhood voters and other opposition supporters began hurling rocks at police, who opened fire with tear gas, the observer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his organization would not let him give his name.
Or the mass arrest of Brotherhood supporters--some 680 have been arrested so far, which puts to and end the short span of time, between October and last week, when there were no Muslim Brothers in jail at all. And perhaps it might put an end to the endless rumors about a NDP-Brotherhood deal. Not to mention the rather horrific murders that took place last week. The absence of violence in the first round and its return on the second is very reminiscent of what happened during the 2000 elections, albeit on a smaller scale. It also would suggest that things are only likely to get worse as the Brotherhood does better. One of the most striking things about the second round is that among the NDP candidates were some bigwigs: for instance former NDP Secretary-General and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali. Arguably, Wali was on his way out anyway; he'd fallen out of favor and lost both his seat in the cabinet and any influence in the party. But he was still a power to be reckoned with in his constituency of Fayoum, which he ruled like a feudal baronet. The NDP did not choose to choose another candidate there, and Wali was defeated by a Brotherhood candidate. I'm sure the lovely Fayoum will be much the better for it. Other major NDP losers include Sayyed Rached, an important government lackey in the powerless trade unions, and Mohammed Abdallah, the dean of Alexandria University. But the NDP was not the only loser: as in the first round, the secular opposition did not do too well. The ancient Khaled Mohieddin, 83, founder of the Tagammu Party and the last Free Officer to be involved in politics and at one time a suggested unified opposition for the presidency, lost in Kafr Al Shukr. When his nephew, NDP uber-neoliberal and Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin changed his mind about running against him I thought it was probably due to someone up high (possibly at the very top) deciding it was not a very respectful way to treat your elders. But perhaps the younger Mohieddin would have been trounced as his uncle was. Another Tagammu loss, more regrettable this time, is that of Al Badri Farghali. Farghali was one of the most outspoken MP in Egypt and a real concern for workers, having started in politics at 16 while working as a stevedore. I remember visiting him with a friend at the qahwa Samara where he held court. Egypt just lost a very personable politician, even if he was a dinosaur in his own way. Another Tagammu stalwart, Alexandrian MP Aboul Ezz Al Hariri, also lost his seat. A bad day for the Egyptian left, but in many ways deserved: the Tagammu had little to offer voters after years of letting the Brotherhood, and lately, Kifaya, do all the standing up to the powers that be. The Wafd did essentially OK after a bad first round, scooping two seats in Port Said, one of its strongholds, and one in Ismailiya. But generally, the trend is that the secular opposition is doing even worse than its pathetic results in the 2000 elections. The political playing field is now entirely polarized between the NDP and the Brotherhood. It's hard to see how the old opposition parties will reform themselves (short of their leaders dying) or how newcomers like Al Ghad will recover from its split and the defeat and ongoing attacks against Ayman Nour (whose trial resumed last week, by the way.) The secular opposition, the one the West would apparently like to see grow, is doing badly indeed. There will be more time to explore the impact of the Brotherhood's success later on. But one thing that is being reported has to be dismissed: that now that the Brotherhood has more than 65 seats, it will be able to nominate a presidential candidate. First, assuming Mubarak lives, the next presidential election will not take place until 2011. The next parliamentary election, however, is in 2010. (Although there is a lot of speculation that this parliament won't last more than two years. I already suspect that the regime will slow down its legislative program to avoid getting into embarrassing fights with a crowd of Islamist MPs. Say goodbye to serious reform in 2006.) Secondly, to nominate a presidential candidate the Brotherhood also needs support from the Shura Council and local (i.e. municipal) councils. It might get the latter, but there has never been a Brotherhood member elected to the Shura Council. Ever. And 50% of it is appointed anyway. So the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc may not have much impact on a presidential election, especially if come the time the next parliament is elected there isn't so much foreign pressure on Egypt. There are a lot more dimensions to this that are worth exploring. Tomorrow, I'll be putting up the transcript of a short interview with Essam Al Erian, a prominent member of the Brotherhood, as well a post on what this means in terms of US policy towards Egypt.
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New design

Over the last 24 hours I've updated the design of to give it a cleaner and more attractive look. The basics won't change, but the old design lacked some basic usability functions. Most notably, the long list of links that used to be on the left have been moved to a special links section, there is a new list of "essential" sites I read often (it may surprise readers that I don't actually read a lot of blogs--I don't have the time and rather comment on the real word or the media than other blogs most of the time), there is a new archive page to look through old posts, and a new about page that explains some of the ideas I had when starting the site. The latter was particularly lacking in the old design and, I hope, will explain what this site is about. I intend to develop it a bit more in the coming few weeks. I'd appreciate any feedback, particularly on things that may not be working property with the new design. I also hope that, time permitting, it will encourage me to post more often and generally pick up the pace again after the relative lull of the past two months, which was due to professional and other commitments and certainly not the lack of excitement in Egyptian and regional politics in the last few months! I know many readers were disappointed to see more comment on the elections (it's coming), but if this blogging thing started to feel like a job or obligation, it wouldn't be much fun anymore. Finally, two apologies: the RSS feeds will no longer contain the full text of posts to save on bandwidth, and now features some random, context-sensitive advertising. This won't bring in much money, but I hope it will help cover hosting costs. Maalesh.
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New Cairo blogmag

G. Willow Wilson, a freelance journalist based in Cairo whose worked has appeared in Cairo and The Atlantic Monthly, has started New Cairo, a "blogmag" to collect "articles people would like to see get a little attention, but which are either too local or too in-depth (requiring prior knowledge of regional politics, etc) to publish in print abroad." The first story, about the role of dowries in Egyptian marriages:
The groom-to-be and his family arrive to a trilling zaghruda from the women in Zayna’s bedroom. They shake hands all around with Zayna’s parents and family and seat themselves in the main room, which is now filled to capacity. Zayna appears in a red-and-black dress and headscarf, followed by cousins who clap and sing. Once she is seated beside her fiancé, his father presents her with a jewelry box, inside which is her shabka: a gold ring set with six large diamonds, worth about LE 20,000. The word ‘shabka’ shares a common root with the verb ‘to tie’, and it is generally believed that this traditional gift of expensive jewelry from the groom’s family is meant to bind the young couple, placing them under a social and financial obligation to one another. Zayna looks pleased, but barely bats an eye as her fiancé slides the ring on her finger. Though the ring is worth as much as her parents earn in a year, it is not an extravagant bridal gift by modern Egyptian standards. The family of a middle-class groom can now expect to pay up to LE 15,000 for the dowry of a middle-class girl—LE 15,000 for her dowry, plus an additional LE 60,000 to 70,000 for the apartment where the young couple will live, and often LE 10,000 to 20,000 more for a shabka. In turn, a bride’s family is expected to throw a large wedding, which can cost anywhere between LE 10,000 and LE 30,000; and to furnish the apartment, which often costs at least that amount again. The financial strain of marriage plunges many families into debt for years.
It's a great piece. The blog is also taking contributions.
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More electoral violence

Rather nasty stuff:
CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's parliamentary polls claimed a second victim when supporters of a newly-elected MP seized backers of a losing candidate, tied them to the back of tractors and dragged them through the streets, police said. Another 21 people were wounded, some of them seriously, in the incident in the neighbouring villages of Al-Abshitiya and Dansho, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) northwest of Cairo. The victims lay in their blood for an hour before police were able to disperse the mob with tear-gas, police said. The constituency in the Gharbiya governorate which voted in last week's second phase of legislative elections has been the scene of several incidents since the victory of an independent candidate, police General Sayyed Gaber. Supporters of losing candidate Mohammed Kamel Marai from President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had accused the police of interfering in favour of the general and rigging the results. The general's supporters launched their deadly attack after false rumours were spread that young women from their area had been kidnapped by NDP thugs.
The kind of violence we've seen seems to be very dependent on local dynamics when compared to the state violence of 2000. In this case--a police figure backed by local constabulary--it seems to be a sign of a waning regime hold over politics rather than state intervention. It's pretty clear already that the buzzword of this election is "passive neutrality," which is used to describe the inaction of police and other security forces in the face of political thuggery. And it's not just the NDP that is using it.
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A simple plan (1)

November 24, 2005

The sign as we left airport instructed us to do a number of things. The one that really jumped out at me as we sped by was the order to “lock and load” weapons because we were entering an insecure area—i.e. the rest of the country.

Just boarding the flight in Amman, Jordan for Iraq, it was clear that there was something different about this plane. Most of the passengers were hulking broad shouldered fellows with cold eyes. The grey in their military brush cuts and expanding paunches, were their only concession to age as they go to Iraq to work dangerous security jobs.

The Royal Air Jordan plane in a bit smaller than most and crewed, oddly enough, by South Africans—perhaps because they are particularly good and taking airplanes into a “hostile environment.” There was certainly a special skill to flying that plane as it suddenly twisted into a tight spiral during its approach into Baghdad Airport.
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Brotherhood in the Guardian

More comment later, but for now read this article by Khairat Al Shatir, the vice-president of the Muslim Brotherhood, published in today's Guardian:
The violence that has erupted across Egypt in recent days is the result of government panic at the success of the Muslim Brotherhood - even in the rigged polls that pass for elections in the Arab world's most populous country. As the second round of voting opened on Sunday in Egypt's tightly restricted parliamentary contest, around 500 of our members were arrested at dawn and machete-wielding thugs attacked our supporters at polling stations. But the provocations of a corrupt, oppressive government - backed by the most powerful countries in the world - will not intimidate either our organisation, which has survived for 77 years, or the Egyptian people, who have increasingly come to trust us. Despite the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood - or rather because of it - the organisation continues to be banned in Egypt. Nevertheless, by standing as independents whose affiliation is widely known, 17 of our members managed to be elected as the largest opposition group in the last parliament. Given the pressure for change, we mobilised to win more seats in the hope that these new elections would be more honest and free. We are committed to democracy and to respect fair election results, whatever the outcome. But we have contested only 120 of the 444 parliamentary seats, knowing that standing for more might provoke the regime into fixing the results. The first round of parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood won more than 65% of seats it contested despite large-scale rigging and intimidation, confirm that our movement is seen by the public as a viable political alternative. But in spite of the confidence the Egyptian people have in us, we are not seeking more than a small piece of the parliamentary cake. This decision is dictated by political realities, both locally and internationally: in other words, the possible reaction of a repressive government backed to the hilt by the US and other western governments.
My question: is this the first time a Brotherhood leader publishes in a major Western newspaper?
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Haenni's new book

I'd like to take a moment to plug Patrick Haenni's new book, L'Islam de marché: L'autre révolution conservatrice (Market Islam: The other conservative revolution), which has just been announced. Haenni, a Swiss researcher who worked on his PhD in the Cairo district of Imbaba, when journalists and academics nicknamed it "the Islamic Republic of Imbaba" because it had such as large Gamaa Islamiya contingent, is doing important work on the new, often neo-liberal, forms of Islamism that have been emerging over the past decade. He is also a great expert on the rise of Muslim televangelists like Amr Khaled. This book seems to tackle both these topics, as the blurb says:
In the face of more widespread interpretations, a new Islamism is beginning to emerge that is ever better adapted to the market and globalization, much less overtly political but as conservative as ever. Seducted by management literature, focused on the individual and readily consumerist, it combines modernity and tradition to form a fundamentalism that has many affinities with American fundamentalist movements. Between the two universalisms--the French and the American--it is the second that this postmilitant Islamism chooses. From Casablanca to Cairo, Patrick Haenni analyses its rise through various social and cultural manifestations: moralistic literature, pious talk shows, dress codes, "women's salons", music, new practices of repentance...
Update: There is a lot more information (in French) about the book here.
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Backlash against the Ikhwan

As is by now well known, there were at least 300 arrests of members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood made today, the second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections. Many of us who observe Egyptian politics had thought it would happen after their upset in the last round, where they already doubled the number of seats they won in 2000. Others thought there would be no police crackdown, but perhaps other forms of fraud or intimidation, or merely a deal to urge the Brothers to calm down before they get whatever would be considered too many seats. Before we tuck in into today's news, two things are worth remembering. First, the Brothers have taken an aggressive stance in their campaigning, but they are still fielding candidates conservatively. Quite early in the campaign they conceded some seats to prominent NDP members, and overall they only fielded about 150 candidates, or less than a third of the People's Assembly 444 elected seats. In other words, they never really tried to threaten the NDP's control of parliament (assuming they could even in a completely fair election), since it's still practically guaranteed that the ruling party will retain the two-thirds control it needs to do things like kick off MPs, start constitutional amendments, etc. The second thing is that in 2000, the first round also saw some surprising results in favor of the MB, and that then the second and third round were considerably more violent and fraudulent than the first. Therefore, when this time around they again did well in the first round, many expected a crackdown of some sort. One informed person I spoke to today said that a meeting of all top relevant personalities in the regime was held on Thursday, when the final results of the first round came out. They decided then--against the wishes of some--not to use police force to interfere with the second round. What we saw in the official press, aside from concern about the results, was more like advice to the Ikhwan to stay within the law then a threat. In other words, I'm not sure that today was intended to involve clashes with police or amn al markazi forces, from the regime's point of view. I made an all-too-brief excursion to Damanhour today, but only managed to stay a few hours before I had to get back. I missed most of the action, but managed to talk to a few people, both locals and observers from various parties. The center of town seemed calm, but there were reports of clashes on the outskirts of town. What certainly seemed clear was that this city was very much a pro-Ikhwan place, especially as its candidate, Gamal Heshmat (who was ousted from his seat in 2002 in a rather unsavory way), could play the martyr's card. His opponent was Mustafa Al Fiqi, a prominent NDP figure and the head of the People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee, and therefore a frequent regime interlocutor with foreigners and parliamentary delegations. Al Fiqi had until then been appointed to parliament (Mubarak gets to pick 10 people this way every time), and I am not sure why he was now running--did the NDP want to put one of its biggest honchos there, or was his star declining? In some ways, this was the great symbolic fight of this round, especially as Heshmat had been an exemplary MP for his constituency and was removed in a nasty way. In the run-up to the campaign, things were almost gentlemanly between the two candidates. Al Fiqi promised that he would resign his NDP membership if any fraud took place. Heshmat said he was sure his opponent would not be tempted by fraud or political corruption, and even thanked Gamal Mubarak for not attending Al Fiqi's popular rally, something that "would have given a presidential character to the parliamentary elections." From what I saw in Damanhour, Ikhwan supporters actually outnumbered NDP ones around polling stations. They clearly had a strong electoral machine there, were psyched up, and feeling confident. Their posters also seemed to dominate, although usually it's the opposite. People who spent more time there than I did confirmed that, talking about a well-honed political machine and impressively fast responses by organized teams to whatever problems cropped up. From what I've heard and what later transpired, many of the Ikhwan supporters were feeling quite cocky. One NDP supporter I spoke to said that buses belonging to the Al Fiqi campaign were attacked as they entered the city by Ikhwan supporters with rocks. The Ikhwan version is that these buses were either carrying out-of-district voters or thugs. Later on, I heard from one friend still in Damanhour that amn al markazi (Central Security) troops had surrounded a main voting station. The Ikhwan supporters were angry about it and charged them. The troops hit back, with tear gas (my friend received some of that too.) Overall, the situation around the country is as bad or worse than in Damanhour. Here's the AP's list:
The Brotherhood said about 300 people had been arrested across the country on Sunday. The Interior Ministry said hundreds were arrested, mostly Brotherhood members detained for inciting violence and rioting. Earlier, a Brotherhood spokesman in Alexandria, Ali Abdel Fattah, said men had opened fire on the group‘s backers in a downtown polling station, killing one man and wounding several other people. That report was also never confirmed. Mohammed Hehmat, a Brotherhood supporter, said about 2,000 people were prevented from voting as police cordoned off polling stations before closing time. A Brotherhood campaign worker, Sameh Bakr, said police fired tear gas, Molotov cocktails and bullets to keep voters away. In the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, witnesses said a Brotherhood candidate‘s brother was shot and wounded by the cousin of the NDP candidate. The Egyptian human rights watchdog said one of its monitors was kidnapped in Port Said, another Suez Canal city, and that candidates‘ representatives were being denied access to polling stations.
Reuters says 467 were arrested, whereas I've heard at least 400. It adds:
A Brotherhood candidate's representative was stabbed in the neck in a polling station in Edku on Egypt's north coast, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) said. Armed gangs were deployed in Brotherhood strongholds in the northern coastal city of Alexandria to stop voters entering polling stations, an EOHR monitor in the area said. A gang of about 70 young men armed with swords, machetes and knives threw rocks at one polling station in Alexandria. Local residents hit back with stones. Police blocked voters from entering polling stations in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour, an area with strong Brotherhood support. After stones were thrown at them, police fired teargas on crowds waiting to vote, a witness said. Thugs trying to intimidate voters shot dead one man and stabbed another in Alexandria, medical sources and witnesses said. It was not clear for whom the thugs were working.
Last I heard, the candidate who was stabbed in Alexandria is in hospital in critical condition. I have also heard that the driver of another candidate in Alexandria was beaten to death by thugs. I am certain more of this kind of violence will emerge by tomorrow. In the meantime, the ministry of interior is sending around multiple press releases, for perhaps the first time ever giving actual detail of the arrests being made and engaging in damage control. Here's an excerpt and a PDF [420kb, Arabic/English] of the fax I received:
The Official Spokesman noted that Ministry of Interior sources had discovered, prior to election day, plots by some supporters of some candidates, the majority of which were Islamists, to engage in thuggery, voter intimidation and violence with a view to affecting the outcome of the election. He went on to say that the Ministry had contacted all party and group leaderships to inform them that the Ministry would not permit any illegal acts and that it would not allow any threat to national security or stability to affect the integrity of the election or the rights and safety of voters and the public as a whole. General Hamad went on to note that while disturbances and violence were limited to a handful of districts, media coverage by a number of satellite channels gave the impression that chaos ruled the day; an impression which he categorically denied as untrue.
The press release also adds that there were no pre-emptive arrests before the elections, attacks on police officers, denied that they were unfairly blaming Islamists but said that "the reality was that the majority of these incidents were either planned or instigated by Islamic elements" and denied that polling stations were closed early, saying that there were only that some stations "may have paused their operations for brief periods in order to deal with the large number of voters." The general gist of it is this: we wanted to have clean and well-policed elections, but the Ikhwan provoked us. You see, they are violent--give them an inch and they'll take a mile. I think there is a fair argument to make that the violence against individual candidate could have nothing to do with the authorities are merely a reflection of the fact that candidates are heatedly campaigning in general, and things can get out of hands. That being said, in the first round the police was criticized for being too passive in the face of candidate-inspired fraud and violence. Now they seem to be overcompensating. There is also no clear explanation why amn al markazi troops were stationed outside polling stations in Damanhour and elsewhere, except unless they wanted to repeat the 2000 scenario of frequent use of troops to block access to polling stations. The other thing is that, in places in Damanhour at least, Brotherhood candidates and their supporters were ready and willing to stand up to fraud and police intimidation, even with violence. This makes it hard to say whether what happened was a result of a chance of stance on the regime's part on a reaction to a more cocky Brotherhood leadership and supporters who were not afraid of taking on police to make sure they got what they feel is owed to them--a repeat of the success of the first round. More later, as news of the results trickles out and the newspapers come out. Update: I should clarify--especially after reading Praktike's post--that I do not really know whether yesterday's violence was premeditated by the regime, but simply want to not jump the gun and say the state had planned this all along. I'm sure they had contingencies, but still do not see why in general they would have pulled out the amn al markazi forces rather than resort to other means. I suspect local security leadership may make a big difference in these matters, and also want to stress that Ikhwan supporters, apparently buoyed by their recent success, were more ready to escalate things in the face of police or other type of obstructions than they might have otherwise.
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A postcard from Tunisia

Elijah Zarwan, the author of the recently released HRW report on internet censorship in the Middle East, sent me a long email about his experience so far in Tunisia. He agreed to let me share it here:
I'm always paranoid when I'm in Tunis. Maybe it's the ubiquitous Amn al-Dawla thugs following me, loitering in the lobby, hanging out in the cafes. Maybe it's the strange behavior of my email accounts. Maybe its the blank responses to my text messages to human rights advocates or journalists. Whenever the paranoia lifts and I start thinking this is actually quite a nice place, something happens to sour my impression of the country. That was the case on my first full day here. It was a beautiful morning. I was up early and decided to walk to a meeting at the Goethe Institut to discuss the Citizen's Summit on the Information Society, planned as a parallel event for NGOs that didn't have official recognition at WSIS. The Citizen's Summit itself had been cancelled after the hotel that was to host it abruptly cancelled the venue, citing the sudden need to repair the conference room. Meetings that are expected to air critical views are often cancelled for the same reason. I got to the Goethe Institut at around 9 a.m. and saw human rights advocates and former political prisoners I'd met in September standing around on the sidewalk. I went over to say hello. They told me plainclothes police had prevented them from entering the building. I looked around. Sure enough, there were crowds of plainclothes police gathering around us, glaring, talking on their radios. More seemed to be showing up as we tried to figure out what to do. Eventually, the plainclothes police converged on us. The Tunisians were afraid they'd be arrested. When they hid behind me and the other internationals, the Amn al-Dawla thugs pushed and shoved us too. They kept it up for about six or seven blocks until we all got into separate taxi cabs and the international NGO types gathered in a cafe to do what NGO types do: issue a statement and a press release. Back at the Goethe Institut, a Belgian TV cameraman had his camera confiscated and the German ambassador was unable to convince the cops to let the Tunisians in. The Human Rights Watch delegation had to rush off to the official summit for a panel discussion we'd planned on freedom of expression and the right to information online. The panel was attended mostly by Tunisian GONGOs (Government NGOs, or OVG -- organisations veritablement gouvernmental -- as they're known here). They showed up at every panel I spoke at and made the same speeches. The gist is always the same: RSF is a terrorist organization, that's why their Web site is blocked, Tunisia is a moderate, rights-respecting country, why are we picking on Tunisia and Middle Eastern countries instead of focusing on Iraq and Guantanamo (we do that too), and so on. They get really worked up. After one panel, I came up to one of the women, thanked her for her question, and told her that the HRW report also notes that Tunisia has made progress in recent years. She pulled me into the bowels of the summit, into the administrative area where the first-aid and maintenance facilities are housed, and made me repeat what I'd told her to a man I inferred was the GONGO dispatcher for the summit, the guy watching the schedule for any event that looked likely to mention anything bad about Tunisia and dispatching people with speeches. They don't do any harm, they just fill up the time with firery oratory to make sure the government's view gets across and other questions can't be asked. The next day we launched the report at a fairly dull press conference, did our interviews afterwards, and then held another press conference at the hotel for opposition journalists, international journalist friends, and civil-society types who weren't accredited for the formal summit. There were two vans full of Security guys out front and a few standing around in the lobby. They didn't do anything. It was just intimidation. The next day, the Swiss president made a strong speech criticizing Tunisia's record on free expression, standing right next to Kofi Annan and President Ben Ali. First translation, then the video feed cut out on Tunisian TV. Shirin Ebadi spoke at the Tunisian League for Human Rights' (LTDH by its French acronym), but I missed her speech because I was interviewing the brother of a guy detained for allegedly posting terrorist threats online (his brother says he only saved the html file of threats made by a Palestinian group on his computer).  The crowd broke out into chants of "Horreya, horreya!" as  Ebadi spoke.  The rest of the night was spent between radio interviews and visits to two groups of hunger-strikers. First, I went out to Belkis and Sihem Zerrouk’s home in a suburb of Tunis. Sihem and her 16-year-old daughter Belkis have gone without food or water since November 6 in solidarity with Sihem’s husband Hatem. Hatem is a long-term political prisoner held for his alleged connection to the banned Islamist al-Nahdha Party. Hatem has gone without food and water since November 4. When Tunisian and international journalists and human rights advocates arrived at the women’s home, they found the usual plainclothes security agents stationed at the corner. Inside, the women lay wasted, near death. Posters calling for Hatem’s release hung behind the bed. Though she clearly was trying to maintain her composure and her dignity, Sihem was wracked by painful spasms and occasionally cried out in pain. Upon seeing the two, a doctor from the LTDH immediately called out for someone to call an ambulance immediately. The mother was suffering from severe calcium deficiencies and might not last the night, he said. Family members tried to put on a brave face, but periodically wiped tears from their eyes and hugged each other for sympathy. Their faces were lined with worry. I left when the paramedics arrived. The HRW people then went to the better-known core group of eight hunger strikers at at 23 Mokhtar Attieh Street, a law office converted into a protest headquarters outfitted with rows of beds and photos of political prisoners. The strikers, lawyers Mohamed Nouri, Semir Dilou, Ayyachi Hammami, former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui, opposition party figures Nejib Chebbi, Hamma Hammami, and Abderraouf Ayadi and journalist Lotfi Hajji, were gaunt and sober. The official press first refused to carry news about the hunger strike, while the private, pro-government papers ran stories attacking the organizers as disloyal Tunisians. The next day, the Tunisian government unsuccessfully tried to stop a panel on free expression conducted by the Open Net Initiative and the Berkman Institute from taking place.  I was in the audience, listening to Nart Villeneuve talk about online censorship worldwide and to a panel of Chinese, Zimbabwean, and Iranian bloggers with such attention I didn't notice anything was amiss. Apparently the conference organizers were busy "running interference" outside the door, trying to keep Security from shutting the thing down. That night, my friends from the HRW delegation went to our usual Internet cafe and found the same Security guy who'd directed the pushing and the shoving at the Goethe Institute already there. The last day of the summit, HRW did another panel on privacy rights with other groups from Europe and China and spent the afternoon in government meetings. I caught up with friends in the evening and got a good, if cynical, lecture about Tunisian politics. My friend is as disillusioned with the human rights and opposition types as she is with the government, and can marshal some good reasons why. Well, there you go. It's the same everywhere. Tonight I'm off to the south of Tunisia to meet with Abdalla Zouari. Zouari spent 12 years in prison for his connection to the banned Islamist al-Nahdha Party. Since his release a few years ago, he's been under administrative control, which means, in his case, that he has to live in a rural area of southern Tunisia, far from his family and international visitors. He's under round-the-clock surveillance, can't leave the village, and reportedly can't go to neighborhood Internet cafes to go online. I'll be glad to get back to Egypt.
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HRW's False Freedom Report

HRW has just released its long-awaited (well, by me, anyway) report on online censorship in the Middle East, penned by my good friend Elijah Zarwan. You can get it here, and it covers four countries in depth, each with its own specific problems: Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tunisia. Some cases in other countries are also mentioned (notably Bahrain and Libya), but for the sake of brevity and resources the report had to focus on these countries. The report notes that Egypt's "free internet" project and, aside from a few exceptions, generally tolerant policies towards online censorship, come out making it look quite good in comparison. Since this site is usually rather negative about Egypt, I think in this case the government deserves to be commended for having made the internet so easily available and relatively unfettered. Now, for the rest of the country... One of the interesting things about the report is the role that private companies involved in IT and telecoms often play a quite complicit role in internet censorship. I hope this can be a beginning to exposing their complicity and thinking about how they can be pressured financially to mend their ways. The other thing that is worth thinking about is that in some cases, censorship and monitoring might be justified. As backwards and moronic as they are (well, their government at least), Saudis may very well feel that a site like should be banned because it potentially contains nudity or pornography. The same goes for real porn sites. If a country decides it wants to block some material for moral reasons, can we say that this is political censorship? Another point, again quite relevant to Saudi Arabia as well as other countries, is that there is legitimate policing work to do on the internet, particularly in the case of jihadist websites that can be used to spread dangerous ideas or organize terrorist activity. What do you do about those? Where is the line between an online police state and counter-terrorism efforts? Meanwhile, back in Tunis, the government does not want you to read this report. I just received some nice screenshots from Elijah, who is launching the report at WSIS over there, of error pages when you enter the URLs above. Click on the pic below for a full size shot. 111605Arabicpressertunsia
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First glimpse of election results

It had been predicted, but it's still hard to believe that after only one round of parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have secured some 34 seats in the next People's Assembly. And that's with still nearly two-thirds of parliament seats to go, even though the constituencies in the next two rounds are likely to have fewer Brotherhood strongholds. For the last few weeks in the Egyptian press, everyone has been writing about what this means. Did the Brotherhood do a deal with the government? Is it really that strong? Is it serious about its commitment to democratic processes? Does it really have a clear agenda beyond "Islam is the solution"? Coverage of the Brotherhood: AFP Reuters AP BBC Le Monde There are also wider questions being asked. The NDP is safe with at least 140 seats secured by its official candidates and "independents who are likely to rejoin the NDP. But with the defeat of some prominent candidates, such as Amin Mubarak (the president's cousin) in Menoufiya and Hossam Badrawy, one of the more outspoken NDP "reformists," this election will turn out into a partial failure of the ruling party's ability to claim that it has carried out serious reform and turned into a serious party. It still seems to be, for all intents and purposes, a party of opportunists who join it for access to the state's resources. Even more worrying is the opposition front, which only appears to have secured five seats. The defeats of Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour and Ayman Nour are also indicators that the most "centrist" opposition figures are being sidelined. The secular opposition is for now the biggest loser of these elections, apparently having neither the popular appeal to convince voters nor the deep pockets to buy their votes. (See the excellent multi-page coverage in this week's Al Ahram Hebdo for coverage of this in French, as well as all of the independent and opposition Arabic press of the last few days, most notably Al Masri Al Youm's headline today "Who pays more?!") In some neighborhoods the price of a vote is going as high as LE1000, and one reporter said that she saw a voter waiting in front of the ballot box without doing anything. When she approached him to ask why he wasn't voting, he said he was waiting until the last minute when his vote could be sold for the highest price. All of this vote-buying is taking place in front of electoral officials and police, so the problem this time around seems to be that the police is not interfering enough, not that it is interfering too much. Finally, my favorite election anecdote so far: apparently, last night candidate Talaat Sadat (nephew of the late president), whose symbol is a lion, went campaigning around his Tala constituency with a pair of real, live lions, scaring the locals and kicking up quite a fuss. Needless to say, he won.
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The Looney Tunes

I usually complain to virtually anyone who'll listen that Tunisia is always forgotten in the long list of rather nasty Arab regimes. This is because it's a small country and not politically important, but also because the regime there is quite clever at appearing moderate and buying off the foreign press when it needs to (particularly in the Arab world, but also in Europe). So I am pleasantly surprised to see a lot of media attention given to the regime and its appalling record: Human Rights Watch:
(Tunis, November 14, 2005) – Today as a global summit on the Internet got underway, the Tunisian government did all it could to smother a local summit on the same topic. One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day’s events proved it to be an opportunity missed.
Already, rights watchdogs say, both Tunisian and foreign reporters on hand for the summit have been harassed and beaten. Reporters Without Borders says its secretary-general, Robert Menard, has been banned from attending. These groups -- including a coalition of 14 freedom of expression organizations -- argue that such practices makes Tunisia unfit to host an event whose goals include promoting free expression and bringing Internet access to as much of the world as possible.
There were tussles on Monday involving members of Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs, who say they were prevented by Tunisian policemen from accessing a venue where a preparatory meeting for a non-authorised 'fringe summit' was to be held. A reporter from the French newspaper Liberation, who had been investigating alleged human rights abuses, was stabbed and beaten in a busy central neighbourhood of Tunis last Friday, and says nearby police did nothing to help him. The only demonstration the authorities are allowing is a protest by Tunisian students against the presence of an Israeli delegation at the summit - despite the fact that Israel and Tunisia do not have diplomatic relations. The delegation includes Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, who was born in Tunisia, and who is being accorded the status of a head of state, as he is attending in prime minister Ariel Sharon's place. Tunisians drawn from various strands of the opposition have been taking a rare chance to focus the attention of the hundreds of foreign journalists gathered at the summit on what they see as Tunisia's shortcomings in the areas of press freedom and human rights: they have been staging a hunger strike since 18 October to protest at the lack of government reforms in these areas.
Le Monde, 14 November editorial (worth reading in full):
Arrivé au pouvoir il y a dix-huit ans à la suite d'un "coup d'Etat médical", le président Zine El- Abidine Ben Ali a, depuis longtemps, transformé la paisible Tunisie en une caserne où toute contestation est interdite, mais dont la réalité politique échappe aux millions de touristes venus profiter de son soleil. A quelques jours de l'ouverture du sommet, le régime a cherché à donner le change, en offrant une image plus présentable : des dizaines de sites et de blogs de l'opposition, qui pourtant ne se privent pas de dénoncer le pouvoir en place, sont accessibles. Cette éclaircie ne trompe personne. Elle ne durera que les trois jours du sommet. Le régime n'a pas l'intention de s'amender, comme le prouvent les méthodes violentes utilisées par la police il y a quelques jours, pour disperser une manifestation de soutien à des opposants en grève de la faim depuis près d'un mois. Since he seized power 18 years ago after a "medical coup d'etat," President Zine El-Abdin Ben Ali has transformed peaceful Tunisia into a police state where any dissent is forbidden, a political reality unseen by the millions of tourists who have come to enjoy its sun. A few days before the opening of the summit, the regime tried to put on a new face: tens of opposition websites and blogs critical of the regime are now accessible. But this reprieve fools no one. It will only last for the three days of the summit. The regime has no intention of reforming, as the violent methods used by police against a demonstration in support of dissidents on a hunger strike for a month now has proven.
The article ends with an appeal to the French government to issue a stronger condemnation of Tunisia and praise the US for having already urged further political reform. Also read this fine article on Tunisia in today's issue of Le Monde:
Y a-t-il des Tunisiens heureux ? Sûrement, mais ils sont rares. "Les gens souffrent. Les uns parce qu'ils n'arrivent plus à faire de l'argent comme autrefois. Les autres parce qu'ils se heurtent à des problèmes de survie ou de surendettement", souligne le docteur Fethi Touzri, médecin psychiatre. D'une façon ou d'une autre, tous sont écrasés par le système savamment mis en place par le régime Ben Ali depuis dix-huit ans, à base de peur et de clientélisme. A la peur omniprésente s'ajoute la honte de participer à un système que très peu se sentent la force d'affronter à visage découvert. Chacun redoute de voir sa famille touchée par des représailles en cascade : agressions physiques, perte d'emploi et d'aides financières, contrôle fiscal, procès montés de toutes pièces, etc. Are there happy Tunisians? Surely, but they are rare. "People are suffering. Some because they are no longer to earn as much as they were able to. Others because they face problems of survival or debt," says Dr. Fethi Touzri, a psychiatrist. One way or the other, all are crushed by the system savagely put in place by the Ben Ali regime for 18 years, based on fear and clientelism. In addition to omnipresent fear is added the shame of participating in a system that very few have the strength to confront openly. Everyone is afraid of having their family hurt in reprisals: physical aggressions, loss of jobs and financial aid, tax audit, invented lawsuits, etc.
Let's not forget, of course what happened a few days ago to Christophe Boltanski, a reporter for the French left-wing daily Liberation. He was attacked by four men a few minutes from his hotel in Downtown Tunis, sprayed with tear gas, punched and kicked and finally stabbed in the back. His clothes were covered in blood. The one of the assailants yelled, "enough" and ordered the others to stop. They stole his briefcase, which contained his papers. After being taken to an emergency room, he called the police to register the attack. They suggested he come to the police station the following day. Boltanski had just written a sympathetic article about a hunger strike by Tunisian human rights activists. Liberation itself has complained that the pro-Ben Ali French government took over 40 hours to file a complaint. Gaullists in general have an appalling record of supporting Arab regimes -- while doing research on Iraqi Shias, I remember coming across a book written by a French rightist MP/journalist titled "Saddam Hussein, Un Charles de Gaulle Arabe." A few days later, a Belgian documentary team was also assaulted and its Tunisian helpers were threatened. A videotape was confiscated. Tunisian activists have also launched a website for their "citizens' summit" here. It has been intermittently blocked from Tunisia, where the president's wife owns the main ISP (a profitable monopoly). I'd also recommend reading this article, written by an old friend (under a pseudonym), on press freedoms. Update: Le Figaro has another strong article on this today, in which among other things it states that many countries are downsizing their delegation: Condoleeza Rice is no longer going, several EU states are sending lower-ranking officials, and Cees Hamelink, Kofi Annan's advisor on communication issues, has resigned in protest of the "ridiculous" summit. Today's edition of Le Monde adds that participating countries are being embarrassed by a summit they think is important for the UN but has become about Tunisia. It also reports a new attack on journalists, this time from the French satellite channel TV5. Update II: I should have posted this excellent op-ed by the great Kamel Labidi earlier.
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Prince(s) of Darkness

Oh the irony dept.:
200511151217You are cordially invited to a book discussion of PRINCES OF DARKNESS THE SAUDI ASSAULT ON THE WEST BY HUDSON INSTITUTE SENIOR FELLOW LAURENT MURAWIEC featuring a keynote address by RICHARD PERLE Hudson Institute Trustee Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
The funny thing, of course, is that Perle himself is known as "the prince of darkness" in Washington circles because, er, he looks evil and works in the shadows. Murawiec is one of Perle young proteges and famously gave a PowerPoint presentation to the Pentagon in 2002 in which he describe the Saudis as America's worst enemy and advocated invading the oil fields and confiscating the royal family's wealth, something he most succinctly put as "There is an 'Arabia,' but it needs not be 'Saudi'." (I could not agree more. He also said, rather mysteriously, that "Egypt is the prize," although it's not clear of what.) I am sure it will be as even-handed a book as Perle's own "An end to evil", a book we use as bathroom reading in my household: after all, you can never stand reading more than one page at a time. Meanwhile, in a White House in a post-neo-con mood cozies up to Riyadh:
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 13 -- With skepticism still deep on both sides four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and Saudi Arabia on Sunday inaugurated a new "strategic dialogue" to expand cooperation on six key issues, including terrorism and energy. ... After Rice's talks here, the Saudi foreign minister said the kingdom was "fighting as hard as we can. I would dare anyone to say there is another country that is fighting terror as hard as we are." Faisal, the U.S.-educated son of the late King Faisal, noted that Saudi Arabia has outlawed incitement and cracked down on Saudi financing destined for militant groups inside and outside the country. "There is what I would call a misunderstanding about Saudi Arabia among the U.S. public, as there is a misunderstanding about the United States among the Saudi public. That is why we are trying to influence this," Faisal said, adding that the news media were partially responsible for image problems. The goal of the dialogue is to launch institutions and meetings every six months at senior levels to address problems that now rely heavily on personal relationships and ad-hoc contacts to resolve, according to Saudi and U.S. officials. Both countries want to revive the kind of partnership set up by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in the early 1970s that covered a wide variety of topics, such as military planning and energy policy. But noticeably missing from the dialogue are the issues of political reform and democracy, which are at the top of Washington's foreign policy agenda but are the most politically sensitive issues in the Persian Gulf nation. Six new U.S.-Saudi groups will instead focus on counter-terrorism, military affairs, energy, business, education and human development, and consular affairs.
I think that with this we can put to rest the recently revived idea of doing exactly what Murawiec advocates and taking the Saudi out of Arabia (and the oil fields too), although it still intrigues a lot of people.
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Egyptian blogger arrested

I just received this Email:
Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman [aka: Kareem Amer] is a 21 year-old Egyptian student of law at the Azhar University, Damanhour Campus, a women's-rights activist and a correspondent for Copts United. In addition to writing at Civic Dialogue, he also publishes at a blog he maintains.
On Wednesday 26 October 2005, Egyptian State Security took Abdolkarim from his home, and confiscated hard copies of his writings. He is now on his way to an unknown detention. Three Egyptian bloggers visited Abdolkarim's family. The family attributed the state security raid to his writings, although it was not clear if his blogging is directly related. According to his brother, Abdolkarim's relations with Islamist Fundamentalists in his neighborhood of Moharram Bek, Alexandria, are tense. It is possible that the fundamentalists have filed a security complaint that led to his detention
This arrest no doubt comes in the context of the recent sectarian riots between Copts and Muslims in Alexandria. This blogger is Muslim and a student at Al Azhar. In recent weeks his blog has been devoted to events in Alexandria and has included several rather scathing attacks on those Muslims who had rallied against the controversial play. State Security likely arrested him as a precautionary move. Someone like Kareem Amer does not fit the mold, and this always makes state security nervous. Amer wasn't arrested because of what he was writing. He was arrested because of who he is. Had he been a Copt railing against Muslim extremism it would never have caught state security's attention. But because he's Muslim and an Azhari, he is more dangerous. Amer was arrested because state security doesn't want to have to deal with the fall out if some radical decides to stab him for his inflammatory writings. A similar case would be the case of Metwallif Ibrahim Saleh, a bearded Salafi who has been in prison for nearly three years, because of his reformist writings on Islam. Saleh had written that it is okay for Muslim women to marry non-Muslims and that the Koran does not sanction death for Muslims who convert to other religions. There are dozens of writers in Egypt saying the same thing, so why has Saleh been singled out? Because he's a Salafi fundamentalist, and they're not supposed to make such arguments. Here's ex-state security chief Fouad Allam on the Saleh case, but I think it is equally applicable in the case of the arrested Egyptian blogger:
State security has nothing against moderate, tolerant Islam, explained fomer head Fouad Allam. “Their logic is that writings like this, about Muslim women marrying non-Muslims, and about changing religions, is very dangerous because of the huge impact of Islamic extremist ideologies,� he said. “It could produce a problem and impact the security situation.�
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