Links for 11.25.09 to 11.26.09

Le journal hebdomadaire | Abou Bakr Jamai's imagines a letter from a Sahrawi. ✪ For Jews, roiling Yemen no longer place to call home | On persecution of the less than 350 remaining Yemeni Jews. ✪ MyMemory - Machine translation meets human translation | Uses records of translations to provide best one possible, Arabic possible. ✪ BBC iPlayer - Document: 23/11/2009 | BBC radio show on Britain's role in the Oman coup of 1970. ✪ AFP: Court jails Moroccan rights activist over drug case | Outrageous imprisonment of whistleblower for denouncing official corruption. ✪ Yemeni refugees caught up in Middle East's forgotten war | World news | The Guardian | Is it forgotten if the Guardian and others keeps on talking about this war, though? It's more that most of the world doesn't care. ✪ Q&A: Iraq war inquiry | UK news | guardian.co.uk | Interesting info - and note, no such inquiry in the US... ✪ Joe Sacco | The Observer | Interview with the cartoonist author of "Palestine" and "Footnotes form Gaza." ✪ Le Figaro: Uri Davis, Juif et dirigeant palestinien | About an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli who converted to Islam and joined Fatah. ✪ Is Everybody Disappointed In Obama? | TPMCafe | Because he's a coward, that's why. ✪ Who's Paying?: The Case for More Transparent Policy Discourse | Stephen M. Walt | "Not surprisingly, the exposure of Galbraith's dealings has caused some controversy in Iraq, though remarkably little in Washington." ✪ SHE2I2: Egyptian court upholds comic book ban, fines creator & publisher | "Metro" ban upheld. ✪ Marwan Barghouti: Peace talks with Israel have failed - Haaretz | "I do not see that there are fundamental political differences between Fatah and Hamas." ✪ Morocco relishes dual identities - Variety | On Morocco's film industry. ✪ Public Service Announcement | Center for a New American Security | Andrew Exum stops blogging. I understand him...
Read More

Links for 11.19.09 to 11.24.09

Middle East Report 253: Beyond Compare by Julie Peteet | On the similarities of the Israeli occupation to Apartheid, its differences, and a call for a new advocacy strategy. ✪ Newsweek Reporter's Ordeal in Iran | Newsweek International | Newsweek.com | Maziar Bahari's story. ✪ The sixth war - The National Newspaper | Greg Johnsen on the Huthi-Saudi-Yemeni war(s), and their socio-political underpinnings. ✪ Daily News Egypt - Shalit Release Imminent, Claim Egyptian And Israeli Press | Heard that before - who will be the spoiler for prisoner exchanges now? ✪ Morocco: Endangered 'Model'? | Human Rights Watch | HRW's Eric Goldstein on Morocco's slide to more and more rights abuses. ✪ MEI - Middle East International | Another new issue. ✪ Saudi Arabia goes to war | Mai Yamani | On Riyadh's attack on Huthis marks the first solo military venture for the Saudi army. ✪ Hey, preacher – leave those kids alone | Ariane Sherine | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | I'm a rabid atheist and even I think this goes too far. People can choose sooner or later anyway, parents have rights over their kids. But of course religious schools should get no state funding. ✪ Syria's crusade for tourism | Travel | The Guardian | Damascus wants to double the number of tourists that visit it. Quick, get there before the country is ruined... ✪ Homeland Security Today - preparedness and security news - Obama Dilutes Power of Top Intel Officer; Elevates DCI | Interesting piece on failed attempts to restructure US intelligence community, caused by fight between CIA and DNI. ✪ International Journal of Žižek Studies | It would be funny if this was satire, but it's not. ✪ Interview / Reporter Helen Thomas criticizes Obama's Mideast peace efforts - Haaretz | "I don't think they are working very hard for peace." ✪ Will Turkey benefit from Ergenekon? - Le Monde diplomatique | Remnants of Turkey's deep state and Cold War networks. ✪ Le Figaro - La lutte des princes saoudiens pour succéder au roi Abdallah | As Sarkozy visits, creepy old geezer princes fight for kingdom. ✪ Little behind Obama's tough Mideast talk: analysts - Yahoo! News | In foreign as in domestic policy, Obama has no balls.
Read More

Soccer nationalism

Egyptian crowds near the Algerian Embassy (Elijah Zarwan) Egyptian crowds near the Algerian Embassy (Elijah Zarwan) On Thursday night, out in Downtown Cairo for a drink, I was startled to see a well-known alley blocked by riot police at both ends. It turned out they were there to protect the Air Algeria offices from Egyptian soccer fans. Later that night, protesters outside the Algerian Embassy in Zamalek clashed with police. The soccer-inspired nastiness on both sides continues, surprisingly long. So after all the ridiculous posturing and dispiriting violence of the last week, it's a pleasure to read this editorial by Al Shurouq newspaper editor Hany Shukrallah. Shukrallah wonders:
"Don't you think there's something exaggerated in this discourse about dreams, hopes, historical moments and historical victories; in the scenes of tears, hugs, hurrahs, marches of millions [...] Isn't there something shameful in comparing a soccer game, however important it may be in the soccer world, to the construction of the pyramids and the High Dam and the miracle of the 1973 crossing [of the Suez Canal]? Don't you think, dear reader [...] that there's a sort of cheapening of our history, of its true heroes and accomplishments and sacrifices [...], in which more than 11 Egyptians participated?"
After deploring the complicity of the media in inciting hatred of the other team and country ("Overnight, Algeria has transformed into Egypt's number one enemy, and the Algerian people have turned into the prime target of Egyptians' hatred and contempt"), Shukrallah argues that it's the deterioration of social and political life in the Arab world that has led people to "search for easy contests, areas in which to let loose our stored up anger and frustration and feelings of humiliation, as long as this costs us no effort, and exposes us to no punishment [...]." He concludes: "The wonder of soccer nationalism is that it doesn't require citizens--just 'supporters.'" Egyptian supporter fighting police near Algerian Embassy (Elijah Zarwan) Egyptian supporter fighting police near Algerian Embassy (Elijah Zarwan)
Read More

Birds of the Nile

Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry My last foray into the Cairo Film Festival was to go see عصافير اانيل ("Birds of the Nile") last night. The film is based on the work of the novelist Ibrahim Aslan, which already inspired a great Egyptian film, the 1991 Kit-Kat. "Birds of the Nile" is no Kit-Kat, however. At least from what I saw: I didn't stay through the film. I'll admit that extraneous factors may have made me impatient, yesterday: I'd gotten up at 6am to go to Alexandria and back, and the Good News Cinema at the Hyatt for some reason played the film with the volume turned up to ear-splitting levels. In a more tolerant mood, I might have staid through the film--but I doubt my final opinion would have been different. From the trite and obvious sound track (funny music for funny scenes; sad music for sad scenes), to the indifferent cinematography, to the melodramatic clichés, to the voice-over narration, it all reminded me of a soap opera rather than a film. There was none of the lightness, irony and surprise of Alsan's work. Unfortunately, because I'd really been looking forward to this one. The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat
Read More

Sheikh Mo and his vision

Dubai, supposed success story going through a rough time, is not so different than the poorer, larger Arab states. Angry Arab:
Shaykh Majid bin Muhammad bin Rashid of the House of Maktum (son of Shaykh Mo) has received a MA degree from the Dubai Police Academy for his thesis on "The Genius of Crisis Management in the Vision of Shaykh Muhammad Bin Rashid of the House of Maktum." Do you now see why I am an Angry Arab?
Read More

Links for 11.16.09 to 11.18.09

ضغوط أمريكية لزيادة الغاز المصري لإسرائيل وخفض أسعاره - بوابة الشروق | al-Shurouk reports that US is asking Egypt to increase gas deliveries to Israel, and at cheaper price. ✪ US rebukes Israel on settlement plans - Yahoo! News | ... but will do nothing about it. ✪ Nubian fury at 'monkey' lyric of Arab pop star Haifa Wehbe | World news | The Guardian | The Haifa Wehbe / Nubian scandal. ✪ The Obama admin is selling the peace process, but the press is not buying it. | Phil Weiss has surreal transcript from State Dept. over new settlements. ✪ Readability - An Arc90 Lab Experiment | Very nice bookmarklet for reading long articles. ✪ Palestinians say they will ask UN to recognise state - Yahoo! News | Doesn't the UN already accept previous resolutions with the 1967 line? Regarding my previous comment on US senators' call for a veto, the Palestinians do appear to want to take it to UNSC, not UNGA. ✪ Le Figaro - Conjoncture : Le grand Monopoly mondial des terres agricoles | Nice chart accompanying this article on the sale of arable land to food importing nations. ✪ U.S. "would veto" Palestinian state move: Senators - Yahoo! News | I suspect recognition by the UN would take place by the General Assembly, not the Security Council, so that turncoat Lieberman can take his veto and shove it... ✪ The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: full text | openDemocracy | Report on UK Israel lobby by documentary filmmaker Peter Oborne. ✪ FT.com - Inflation rears its head again in Egypt | Mostly affecting food prices ahead of Eid. ✪ Egyptian Blogger Beaten | "During the mayhem of a major soccer match, Egyptian blogger Kareem el-Shae’r was kidnapped and beaten. El-Shae’r moderates the Free Egypt blog and is a member of Ayman Nour’s el-Ghad party and the April 6 Youth movement. For his activism, el-Shae’r has been arrested several times and beaten before. The Egyptian interior ministry refused to comment on the incident." ✪ Gaddafi hires 200 young Italian women – to convert them to Islam | And tries to convert them to Islam. ✪ Israel must end Gaza blockade, evictions, alleged abuse of Palestinian children - Ban | "Israel should end the blockade of Gaza, cease evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes, and ensure that the rights of children are respected and that all allegations of torture and ill-treatment are promptly investigated and perpetrators prosecuted, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an annual report released today." ✪ Yemen Finds Dreamland of Architecture - NYTimes.com | On Yemen's traditional architecture. ✪ The Arabs by Eugene Rogan | Book review | The Guardian | Robert Irwin reviews this book, which I am currently reading.
Read More

Gulf states targeted by BDS campaign

The BDS campaign is picking up steam:
Dubai: A pressure campaign targeted at Gulf states was launched in Occupied Jerusalem on Monday by a coalition of 170 Palestinian organisations urging Arab states to boycott companies complicit in Israel's expansion in the holy city. In a rare public pressure campaign, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Palestine, a grouping of Palestinian civil society organisations, has turned its focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is preparing to build a multi-billion dollar railway to link its six members. The BDS campaign has called on the GCC and its member states to shun French transport giants Alstom and Veolia, both of which are involved in the construction of the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR), an Israeli project that is expected to link the eastern and western parts of Occupied Jerusalem as well as Jewish colonies on the West Bank. Critics say the JLR will hinder Palestinian aspirations to have occupied East Jerusalem as a capital of a future Palestinian state. Unaware The BDS campaign has proven successful in Europe, where companies have excluded the two transport companies from tenders and divested from them, leading to a loss of $7 billion (Dh25.69 billion) to $8 billion in opportunity cost, according to campaigners. "Despite these important achievements in the West, no Arab state, especially in the Gulf, has to date excluded Alstom or Veolia from bidding for their public contracts," read a press release issued by the movement yesterday. The two companies are now facing a lawsuit in France filed by Palestine Liberation Organisation and French advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarité for their activities in Occupied Jerusalem.
Now instead of the silly anti-normalization campaign in Egypt, kept alive by dinosaurs over non-issues, let's see a national movement against selling gas to Israel and joining the BDS strategy.
Read More

Arab Booker nominees announced

The nominees for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (commonly known as the Arab Booker, because it's partly managed by the Booker Prize Foundation) have been announced. The prize was launched in 2007 and the winners so far have been Baha' Taher for Sunset Oasis and Youssef Zeidan for Azazel. Taher's work is available in English and Zeidan's will come out in English next year--one of the $50,000 prize's goals is to encourage translation of Arabic literature. The press release says that this year: There were 115 eligible submissions, from 17 Arab countries - Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria. The long list of nominees after the jump.
bookerarabic.png
Read More

The Mummy

The_Night_of_Counting_the_Years Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Fund recently helped restore the 1969 classic المومياء\ ليله ان تحصی السنين ("The Night of Counting the Years/The Mummy") by Shady Abdel-Salam, and the film was shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and, last night, at the Cairo International Film Festival. (Apparently, Scorsese saw "a completely pink" 16 millimeter version of the film, in 1976, at a home screening, and never forgot it.) The film is based on the true story of the discovery of an incredible cache of Pharaonic mummies, in the late 19th century, in the mountains near Luxor. The cache had been found by a local tribe, who kept its location secret and slowly sold its contents on the black market. But the authorities discovered the cave, and transferred its contents to the Egyptian Museum, where they are today. Framed by these true events, the film tells the story of two brothers, sons of the tribe's dead chief, facing their inheritance. The film is famously beautiful. Abdel-Salam paid great attention to costumes and scenery, and he used the Pharaonic temples in Luxor, the desert, the Nile river, the tribesmen and women and in their flowing black garments and the soldiers in their bright red tarboushes, to compose shot after breath-taking shot. The pace is slow, solemn, dream-like. The dialogue is all in Formal Arabic, much of it is close to prose poetry--and it's declaimed like poetry. A friend I saw the film with compared it to Greek tragedy. The film raises the question of nationalism versus tribalism, of historical identity, and of how one lives with and what one makes of the past. None of this is resolved neatly: the final scene, which is truly stunning, shows the young tribal chief--who has made the "right" decision and handed over his tribe's pilfered patrimony to the state's modern, knowledge-seeking archeologists--in a state of evident pain, loss and fear. It's a very slow film, and the acting can seem stilted. But the deliberate pace allows images to grow unforgettable, and the film's solemnity is what gives the story its power, its aura of legend.
Read More

Links for 11.12.09 to 11.15.09

Violence Flares Ahead of Algeria-Egypt Soccer Match - The Lede Blog - NYTimes.com | The NYT's blog The Lede has a nice post about the Algeria-Egypt, game, so I don't have to do it as I don't even like football. ✪ Daily News Egypt - Egypt Among States Attempting To Weaken Un Anti-Corruption Convention Enforcement Mechanism | Egypt and others against review mechanism for corruption convention. ✪ The Young Brotherhood in Search of a New Path | Khalil al-Anani. ✪ The Brotherhood vs. Al-Qaeda: A Moment Of Truth? | Jean-Pierre Filiu. ✪ The Saturday Profile - An Arms Dealer Returns, Now Selling an Image - Biography - NYTimes.com | Profile of arms dealer Adnan al-Khashoggi, who apparently has fallen on hard times. Still, I'd like to know why he met with Richard Perle in 2002. ✪ Blogging Imam Who Knew Fort Hood Gunman and 9/11 Hijacker Goes Silent - The Lede Blog - NYTimes.com | Can't believe this guy has not been arrested prior to leaving the US. ✪ 'Going Muslim' - Forbes.com | NYU professor "goes desi" after Texas massacre. Is this just Indian (I assume the professor is originally Indian or Sri Lankan) prejudice against Muslims? I wonder if the next time an Asian shoots people at a college we'll say, "going oriental"... Shame on you, Forbes. ✪ Palestine: Salvaging Fatah | ICG's new report on Palestine. [PDF]
Read More

CNN on Libya's Islamists

[Note: if you can't see the above video, go here.] CNN's Nic Robertson has really outdone himself in sycophancy and breathlessness - and he has quite a track record. In this special facilitated by Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, who gave CNN access to prisons as well as himself, Robertson does PR for Seif's efforts to reconcile his father's regime with one of the main opposition groups in Libya. This story is interesting, as is the recantations of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), but what CNN presents here is a simplistic "Seif has converted Islamists away from jihadi violence" story along with Dan Browneseque "Jihadi code" nonsense, complete with pained, serious look at Robertson reads the Arabic manuscript of these ideological revisions (I don't know for sure, but my guess he probably does not read Arabic at all.) It is pure self-inflating propaganda, and CNN fails in two major ways here. Firstly, it does not really question the history of the LIFG and its relationship with the regime, or the regime's policies towards the opposition. The attempts to portray Libya as vibrant and dynamic (shots of the city at dusk, emphasis on the modern, etc.) are risible and the Seif-Benotman buddy narrative slightly sick. Secondly, everyone knows that in one of the rare findings about al-Qaeda in Iraq it was found that Libya and the LIFG was a major source of foreign fighters. There have been allegations that the regime has facilitated jihad abroad to get rid of the domestic threat. None of this is covered, as it would not make Seif look very good. The LIFG story is interesting - see Hugh Miles' recent LRB blog post - but it deserves a lot better than Nic Robertson's antics and CNN kowtowing to the Qadhafis.
Read More

Heliopolis

Hanan Motawe' in Heliopolis Hanan Motawe On Thursday evening, I went to the (very crowded) premiere of the new film Heliopolis--the Egyptian entry in the Arab film competition at the Cairo International Film Festival. The film is the first feature by Ahmad Abdalla, who was the editor on Ibrahim Al Battout's Ain Shems. Like Battout's film, Heliopolis is independent, in the sense that it was made on a shoestring, with actors and crew volunteering their time (unlike Ain Shems, it did get the Censor's approval before starting to shoot). My impressions after the jump... The film stars some well-known actors like Khaled Abul Naga and some relative unknowns. It follows five parallel stories in contemporary Heliopolis. There is a university student doing research on the neighborhood; an engaged couple looking for appliances and an apartment; a Christian man thinking about emigrating to join his mother and brother; a hotel receptionist whose family thinks she's working abroad; and a conscript sitting all day in his guard box. When I spoke to him last week, Abdalla told me the film was about people "whose lives don't change." None of the characters advance towards their goals, and several of them describe their day as "wasted." The conscript--whose name we never learn, who never says a line, and who managers nonetheless to elicit our interest and our sympathy--is a particularly affecting example of this. (How many times have you walked past these poor kids scattered around official buildings like so much human baggage, dropped off from police trucks in the morning, and picked up late at night?) The theme of emigration, of wanting to be somewhere else, is linked to this sense of waste and present throughout--particularly in a surprising but effective dream sequence. I was pleasantly surprised by Heliopolis. It's a slow film, and it doesn't try to do anything ground-breaking. But I appreciated the naturalistic dialogue, the smooth editing and plotting, the slow accumulation of details, and the mostly subtle treatment of its points. (There were a few good jokes, too). Heliopolis is a cautious but polished effort by a first-time director. Some of the friends I saw the film with disagreed with me, but I thought it struck a convincing balance between its larger point about the stasis of Egyptian society and the need, nonetheless, for a narrative framework. I'd like to see Abdalla keep his understated style but tell a story where things do happen next time.
Read More

Culture links: Al Aswany and Darwish

The Complete Review takes a look at Alaa Al Aswany's Friendly Fire (just out in English) and finds that:

Al Aswany's writing is generally tighter and more consistent in these smaller, more concentrated efforts -- perhaps because he doesn't have to force bridges between episodes and takes the freedom to only write what needs be written. Yet the much greater scale and reach of his novels, and his free-wheeling mix of stories in them is a great part of their appeal, and while the stories collected in Friendly Fire are well done, the sum of them does not have nearly the power of, especially, a novel such as The Yacoubian Building.

(I've actually heard from a good many people now that they prefer these short stories to The Yacoubian Building, and definitely to the generally panned Chicago).

A lovely poem by Mahmoud Darwish. And an excellent piece at The Review on the relationship between Darwish's early, politically engagé poems, and his later, more inward-looking work. Robyn Creswell (who wrote a fine piece for Harper's on Darwish a while back) notes that:

It is difficult for the English reader to appreciate, for example, the extent to which Darwish’s late poetry is a complex mode of self-criticism. Darwish was always his own severest judge. He never allowed any one style, however successful, to harden into a method. His final lyrics are very distinct from the plainspoken, confrontational poetry that made him a celebrity while he was still in his early twenties. They are also distinct from the poetry he wrote in Beirut during the Civil War, or during the first Intifada, or the long foundering and bitter aftermath of the Oslo Accords. Indeed, Darwish’s late poetry is in an important sense a reaction against his earlier work, an attempt to escape the prisons of his former personae.

As the piece mentions, much of Darwish's work is available in English now.

Read More

New ARB

The new Arab Reform Bulletin is out: 

Hudaiby's article on the MB is a welcome reflection on the current crisis of the Muslim Brothers, and Nasrawi provides an overview of Egypt's labor unrest and efforts to set up independent trade unions. Haven't read the rest yet, but the issue of the Moroccan press code is quite important after two years of clashes between journalists and the regime -- so looking forward to that!

Read More

Links for 11.09.09 to 11.12.09

Report: Angelina Jolie planning to adopt child from Syria - Haaretz - Israel News | Jolie and Pitt thinking of adopting an Iraqi refugee baby in Syria. They also met with Bashar and his wife, apparently. United Colors of Adoption... this will cause a stir. ✪ Israel & Palestine: Can They Start Over? - The New York Review of Books | Malley & Agha's latest, in which they criticize the two-state solution, criticize alternatives to it (notably one-state), and sketch out the alternative: a hudna, a long-term interim truce while work on fundamental questions is carried out. Not entirely convincing, too vague at times, but there's something interesting there nonetheless. I wish they could be more straightforward. ✪ UN: Gaza needs construction material before winter - Yahoo! News | Even greater humanitarian crisis looming. ✪ Palestinian borders could solve settlements row: Fatah - Yahoo! News | Muhammad Dahlan picks up Daniel Levy's line about deciding on borders. Worrying. ✪ Israeli flights over Lebanon break resolution: UN - Yahoo! News | "UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – All Israeli military flights over Lebanon break a resolution aimed at ending the 2006 hostilities between the two neighbors, a UN envoy said Tuesday." So let's have the UN set up air defenses, then! ✪ Abbas slams Israel on settlements at mass Arafat rally - Yahoo! News | Funny pic of Abbas alongside this story. Well he's shown he can have some balls, at least, and highlight the dismal failure of the Israelis and Americans on the settlement question. ✪ Israel mulls draft refugee law - Yahoo! News | "JERUSALEM (AFP) – A draft law stipulating that any Middle East peace treaty must mention compensation for Jews forced to leave Arab states has passed a preliminary reading in the Israeli parliament, a spokesman said on Wednesday." ✪ Gaza, Gilad Shalit, Hamas, and Israel : The New Yorker | Somewhat flawed piece by Lawrence Wright, but nice descriptions of the misery of Gaza. Too much Gilad Shalit for my taste. ✪ Arab Reform Bulletin - Brotherhood Faces Leadership Challenge | Ibrahim al-Hudaiby about the MB's internal dispute and its need to institutionalize decision-making. ✪ Memo From Riyadh - Influence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia Fades - NYTimes.com | An interesting story on Egypt and Saudi Arabia's dwindling relative power to influence regional affairs. Except I would not put Cairo and Riyadh in the same basket: Egypt is in absolute decline, Saudi in relative decline. Also interesting stuff on differences between the two on how to handle Syria. ✪ 6 Guantanamo detainees resettle in Palau Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | The absurdities of the war on terror: "KOROR, Palau (AP) - Six Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo Bay but still wanted at home as separatists arrived Sunday on their new tropical island home of Palau after the tiny Pacific nation agreed to a U.S. request to resettle the men." ✪ Géopolitique des médias arabes (1/2) : Rotana, mondialisation et normalisation | Culture et politique arabes | First post in a series of the geopolitics of Arab media. This one largely focuses on Kingdom Holdings and Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal. ✪ الرئيس جمال عبد الناصر، الصفحة الرئيسية | Gamal Abdel Nasser archives at the Alexandria Library. ✪ In Turkey, fertile ground for creationism - washingtonpost.com | On Islamist creationists in Turkey. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Obituary Amin Howeidi (1921-2009) Vexed, not villainous | Gamal Nkrumah's obituary of former Egyptian spy chief Amin Howeidy.
Read More

Cairo Film Festival

The Cairo International Film Festival kicked off yesterday, after the usual round of arguments and recriminations. You can find information about the films being shown if you look under the "cinemas" tab on the festival website. Of course the (only available at the last minute) schedule doesn't specify where the theaters are, or give any information about the films, whose titles have been translated quite sloppily into English. Par for the course: I tried dealing with the festival administration for my article and met with the usual combination of high-handedness and disorganization that characterizes so many state-run cultural events. The festival is always nice and a great opportunity to see interesting work. But it's also always marred by strange unprofessionalism: from asking participants and foreign journalists to pay sometimes ridiculous amounts for their festival access cards (and making them go through multiple time-wasting steps to get them); to being unable to guarantee saved seats to the director of a film premiering in the festival. No wonder they had to browbeat local directors into participating.
Read More

USAID re-examined

POMED writes in its invaluable Monday briefing, so that I don't have to:

Thomas Carothers has released an important new report, "Revitalizing Democracy Assistance: The Challenge of USAID" that explores needed reforms in foreign democracy assistance. The report recommends three key reforms: decreasing bureaucratization, bolstering local ownership of projects, and strengthening the institutional emphasis of democracy promotion within USAID. The report concludes "a successful revitalization of USAID's democracy and governance work would be a telling signal that the Obama administration is forging significant institutional changes that will help the United States meet the serious challenges that democracy's uncertain global fortunes now pose."

Also last week, the USAID Office of the Inspector General released a fascinating new report, "Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities."  The report is quite critical of the effectiveness of USAID's democracy and governance programs in Egypt, and concludes that, "A major contributing factor to the limited achievements for some of these programs resulted from a lack of support from the Government of Egypt. According to a mission official, the Government of Egypt has resisted USAID/Egypt's democracy and governance program and has suspended the activities of many U.S. NGOs because Egyptian officials thought these organizations were too aggressive."

Carothers is perhaps the greatest American expert on democracy promotion, and I read the USAID Inspector General's report, which is scathing. So much money has been wasted on democracy promotion in Egypt, partly because of the Egyptian government's obstructionism, but also because so many programs were ill-conceived.

Now we just have to wait for a head of USAID to actually be appointed -- and for US democracy-promotion policy not to run so much at odd with its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Read More

The relaunched Middle East International

In 2003, Middle East International, one of my favorite publications on Middle Eastern affairs, shut down because of lack of funding. MEI was a dowdy, spare magazine with long articles and analysis from writers based in-country who knew what they talking about. Well, at least I would say that because I was one of them. So it came as a great pleasure when I heard, a few months ago, that some former staff were reviving the magazine. It has now published its first new issue, with many of the same old contributors. MEI's editor, Gerald Butt, writes:
The ethos of the former MEI remain the same and a number of the key correspondents from the past are also regular contributors to the relaunched magazine (Haim Baram, George Hawatmeh, Michael Jansen, Jim Muir, Peretz Kidron, Nicole Pope, Graham Usher, Ian Williams, to name just a few). The new Editor of MEI is Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent and editor of Middle East Economic Survey. His Deputy is Najm Jarrah who was closely involved in the production of the previous MEI. They are advised by a group of distinguished Consultant Editors: Rashid Khalidi, Jim Muir, Zaki Nusseibeh and Patrick Seale.
I will be contributing to MEI about Egypt and elsewhere, and have no less than three pieces in the new issue: news analysis articles on Gamal Mubarak and the Brothers' crisis, and a review of Brian Whitaker sure-to-be-controversial new book, What's Really Wrong With The Middle East. You can read them all in the free PDF issue they are giving away for the relaunch. The review of Whitaker's book was tough to write, and not only because his publisher (who had promised to send me the book) only gave me a PDF version. I read it on my ebook reader, which I find surprisingly usable to read but less friendly for taking notes. But I was also apprehensive that Brian, an acquaintance and a journalist whose work I respect, had bitten off more than he could chew. The provocative thesis of his book is that there is too much focus on how bad the Arab regimes are not enough of Arab societies' problems: patriarchy, intolerance, mysoginy etc. I very much like the argument and think it needs to be made. I feared that Whitaker would immediately be attacked because he is not Arab, or that he could revert to culturally essentialist arguments like those in Bernard Lewis' work. He has already been attacked for this by the admittedly easily irritated Angry Arab (Whitaker responded here). I do not think that Whitaker fell into that trap (although I wish he did not approvingly quote such a flawed work as Mark Allen's Arabs) and his book deals with some tremendously difficult and sensitive issues. It's great that someone with a reputation for fair and sympathetic coverage of the region has broken these taboos. Whitaker's book also includes some great interviews with activists in the region who offer some really innovative ways to get out of the current predicament, which I agree is about more than the regimes, even if their role should not be underestimated. I did not agree with everything in it (who ever does when reading a book?), and think some parts could have been better. I also think Whitaker underestimates the amount of self-criticism in the region (I have in mind, for instance, Fouad Zakariya's critique of Islamist and other conservatisms in the 1980s). But this is a thought-provoking book, warts and all, on a subject that deserves wider attention.
Read More

Hossam Tammam on the Brothers

hossamtammam.jpg Former Brother Hossam Tammam is one of my favorite analysts of the Muslim Brothers. I think he really captures the tensions in the group elegantly here, without resorting to the misleading moderate vs. conservative dichotomy. It's more about an inward-looking vs. outward looking group, he writes:
At the root of the MB's current crisis is its dwindling ability to maintain cohesion between its various sub-trends. An influential faction of its leadership is increasingly monopolising decisions on matters pertaining to the group's image, ideological orientation and future. The organisation of the MB is difficult to grasp for those unfamiliar with such totalitarian entities. Structurally it is bigger than a political party, but unlike a political party its membership and scope of operations transcend the state. Ideologically, it has more in common with a political front or organisational umbrella for different, in this case, Islamist trends, than it does with a party espousing a specific platform or programme. The umbrella embraces ultraconservative fundamentalists to religious liberals and everything between, all of whom have managed to coexist within a single organisational framework, generally subscribing to the principle of gradual peaceful change. Against such diversity we can nevertheless speak of two divergent trends. One favours open political involvement in student or syndicate circles and other areas of public life. Known as the reformist trend, it has drawn the contours of the MB's image in the sphere of public life. Abdel-Moneim Abul- Fotouh is the most prominent exponent of this trend among the group's senior leaders. The other trend runs the organisational operations of the group, in which capacity they oversee recruitment activities, hierarchical appointments and relations, and the design and implementation of material and programmes for indoctrination. The most important exponent of this conservative trend in the MB leadership is Mahmoud Ezzat. The MB leadership has always managed to keep these two trends together despite their mutual differences. This has been no small task, massaging the strains between people who prefer to work in the public domain and, hence, are naturally inclined towards constructive, open and continual engagement with society, and those whose focus is inward, whose energies are forever directed at building their own world and raising the "vanguard of the faithful" upon whom the hopes and duties of reshaping society and the nation are pinned. The expansion in the activities of the group, combining proselytising, charity and political activities, favoured coexistence to the extent that the public reformist and conservative organisational trends were regarded as complementary. Their combined efforts, it was believed, lent impetus to the group, expanded its grassroots base and improved its image among the government elite. The organisation also seemed pleased to be the Mecca for all, to those inclined towards political involvement, to those dedicated to proselytising, and to those keen on philanthropic and charity work. The leadership was not particularly concerned with unifying these diverse interests towards the pursuit of a single clearly defined vision; it was merely content that they should not clash.
Read it all. And for more MB fun, I just came across this Scribd user that has a collection of articles on the Brothers: ikhwanscope.
Read More

Don't expect too much from T.J. Friedman

Several years ago I decided that reading and blogging about what Thomas Friedman writes was tiresome, and I haven't linked to much by or about him since then. I will break this rule for his latest column, on the whole quite reasonable about being fed up with the impasse with the peace process (although of course he criticizes the Palestinians in part for the wrong reasons), which some people like my friend Phil Weiss think is a call to turn off the aid spigot to Israel. Here's the passage he and others think may hint at this:
If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.
I don't see how this can be interpreted as a call to cut off aid to Israel. It's at best a call to cut off aid that supports the Middle East Peace Process, which is largely aid to the Palestinian Authority. But I wouldn't even read that much into it. I am pretty sure Friedman will never, ever threaten the Israel-US relationship. It's a bad habit to pay attention to bad writers when they write something we like. In this column many may sympathize with MEPP fatigue; but his analysis is flawed. Friedman is sick of intransigeant Israelis but also of Palestinians (i.e. the PA) for not wanting negotiations before a settlement freeze. This is a ridiculous assessment, much like the recent about-face about Israel's "unprecedented concessions" by Hillary Clinton is ridiculous. Obama offered set the standard to restart MEPP talks by talking about a settlement freeze -- a complete settlement freeze, not a partial one. The PA said, OK, that works for us. It is now the US that is changing that bar, not the PA. But the Obama administration now appears to be blaming the PA and the Arabs for not accepting its own about-face, i.e. for sticking to the rules of the game Obama had set at the beginning of this round of pre-negotiations. A much better analysis of US policy is provided by Daniel Levy, a dovish former Israeli official and advisor to Ehud Barak (to be frank, the kind of person I am generally skeptical of.) In this condemnation of Obama's amateurism, he explains the missed opportunity for dealing with Israeli intransigence and gets a nice dig in at Hosni Mubarak:
The Obama team's call for a comprehensive settlement freeze was consistent with past U.S. policy (notably Bush's Roadmap of 2003), although it was perhaps treated with more seriousness coming from the new 'hope and change' President. The Israel Prime Minister's answer came in June, and it was a rejectionist one: no full freeze, and no limitations whatsoever on settlements in East Jerusalem. That is when the malaise set in. The administration had three possible options in responding: 1) Stick to its guns and calibrate a set of escalating consequences in response to possible ongoing Israeli recalcitrance. 2) Make a smart pivot by declaring, for instance, that if Israel could not for its own reasons freeze settlements, then this would make all the more urgent the need to quickly define and agree a border for an Israel-Palestine two-state solution. And the U.S. could reasonably have adopted a formula regarding that border (such as based on the 1967 lines, minor mutual modifications to accommodate settlements close to the Green Line in a one-to-one land swap). The U.S. could have explained to its Israeli friends that absent a defined border, the settlement freeze would have to be comprehensive, but in the discussion on borders, there could be more flexibility given the one-to-one land swaps. 3) Dig themselves into a hole. Insisting on a freeze, heightening expectations, without a plan for achieving that end, and by then acceding to talks with the Israeli government over koshering aspects of settlements expansion. It is certainly legitimate for the administration to have not chosen option one, and to have decided that this was the wrong issue and/or wrong timing to escalate with the Netanyahu government. My own preference would have been for option two, and indeed, the administration could reasonably be perceived to have laid the ground deftly for such a pivot. Unfortunately, they went for option three, and it all came crashing down around their feet this week. The Secretary's last minute stop in Cairo to round off the trip said it all. The Mubarak regime tried to help salvage some American pride, lining up behind the Secretary's efforts. Except that it is precisely the Mubarak government whose credibility is so severely questioned in the region, it is the largest Arab recipient of American financial assistance, and is obsessed with leadership succession--in short, getting a smile out of the Egyptian leader doesn't even register on the congratulatory charts.
Is consistency really too much to ask? If the settlement freeze really is an impasse, I would favor for some form of negative consequence for Israel. But perhaps that is politically impossible for domestic US reasons. So the second option, shifting the emphasis to what Israel considers its permanent borders -- something it has always avoided defining -- would be a better start.
Read More