But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly  welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks. 

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Egypt's Jon Stewart on Comedy and Politics

Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog: 
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?

A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.

 

How to recognize an Egyptian activist

A taste of the kind of venomous, scurrilous attacks being launched all over the Egyptian media against the young people who made January 25, 2011 happen. This latest installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the excellent translation service Industry Arabic. 

Characteristics of an Egyptian Activist, by Dandrawy Elhawary, November 23, El Youm El Sabaa

Political activists in Egypt vary according to gender. The male activist is unemployed, soft and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled,  and he wears a bracelet and a Palestinian keffiyeh. He has a Twitter account, a Facebok page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions. He repeats slogans calling for a non-religious state, attacking heavenly religions and accusing them of being backwards and reactionary, and he defends the rights of sexual deviants.

On the other hand, the female activist takes on the male role -- she "mans up." She listens to the songs of Sheikh Imam and the lewd poetry of Fouad Haggag and Naguib Sorour. She "likes" all the pages that use foul language and puts pictures of the great revolutionary Che Guevara on her Facebook and Twitter profiles.

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That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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Zogby says Egypt "split down the middle" on coup [PDF]

From a Zogby poll of public opinion in Egypt, from this September:

A plurality (46%) of all Egyptians believe that the situation in their country has become worse, not better, since the Morsi government was deposed. Eighty percent (80%) of FJP supporters express this view. But only about one-half of the rest of the country feels that Egypt is better off, with nearly one in five saying that the situation is the same as it was before the military intervened.

The military remains the institution in which Egyptians have the greatest confidence, but their positive rating has declined to 70%, owing to a sharp drop in support from those who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP and a slight decline in support among liberals and those Egyptians who associate with none of the country’s parties.

The country is split down the middle in its view of the military’s July 3rd deposing of the Morsi government. The FJP, of course, is unanimous in finding the military’s action incorrect, while almost two-thirds of the rest of Egyptians support the deposing of Morsi.

With the caveat that polls in Egypt can be unreliable, this suggests that coup-skeptics are more numerous than imagined – but perhaps too intimidated by pro-coup propaganda and the ongoing crackdown to go out and demonstrate about it. And it's not about being pro-MB, either, or anti-military. 

On Mohamed Mahmoud Street

From a piece just published on the LRB blog

The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.

On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’

On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.

Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers. 

Go see "Rags and Tatters" (if you're in Cairo)

Rags-&-Tatters.jpg

Ahmad Abdalla’s third feature film, “Rags and Tatters,” follows an unnamed convict who escapes from prison sometime during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak -- or rather is allowed to escape from prison: Some jails were allegedly opened at that time by the Ministry of Interior itself, in an attempt to foment chaos. 

The man, played by Asser Yassin, is a sympathetic everyman, with dark and feeling eyes. He needs to be someone we like to look at, because his quiet, registering face is the focus of the film. As if tired of all the talk of the last two and half years -- of all the words that have been worn thin -- Abdalla has written a film with almost no dialogue. Actors’ conversations are often inaudible, no higher then a mumble. What exchanges we do hear are the most basic everyday stuff: “Cup of tea,” “God bless you.” When a young would-be revolutionary harangues his friends in the neighborhood about the need to go to Tahrir, a nearby motorcycle engine drowns out his words. The only music are some beautiful Sufi songs: unaccompanied male voices singing of holy love and yearning. 

The movie is also unusual for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. It never portrays the protests in Tahrir. Instead, it is set in the streets and homes of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. It does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme deprivation, on their crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker. 

Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” was a study of stasis, a day in the life of characters who go nowhere: a police conscript stranded in his guard post; and engaged couple stuck in traffic; a young man who dreams idly of emigrating. His follow-up, “Microphone,” which focused on the underground music scene in Alexandria, was seemingly quite different, full of kinetic energy. But all the eager young voices in the film still faced the stagnation and repression of Mubarak’s Egypt, and couldn't figure out how to make themselves heard. 

This movie is Abdalla’s darkest and most powerful. It shares with his previous work a penchant for naturalistic acting; an under-stated social and political engagement; and an ambitious, creatively uncompromising vision. 

This movie is like an inoculation against official propaganda and romanticization of the January 25 uprising. In the Q&A after the film Abdalla corrected someone who introduced “Rags and Tatters” as a “revolutionary” film.  “This film isn’t about the revolution,” he said. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under.” It will only be showing in Cairo for one week, starting today.

Podcast #44: Just how bad is it exactly?

On this podcast, journalists Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil speak to Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson about the greatest threats to human rights across the region, and about how to defend human rights in the midst of Egypt's "war on terrorism" and its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Show notes: 

Qatar's ambitions and American universities

I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro: 

Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.

Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.

As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.

Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.

Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.

As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?

The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis: A Death in Jenin

Juliano was the founder of the Freedom Theatre. He was an Israeli citizen, the son of a Jewish mother and therefore a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish state. But his father was a Palestinian from Nazareth, and Juliano was a passionate believer in the Palestinian cause. He would often say he was ‘100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish’, but in Israel he was seldom allowed to forget he was the son of an Arab, and in Jenin he was seen as an Israeli, a Jew, no matter how much he did for the camp. Among the artists and intellectuals of Ramallah, however, he was admired for having left Israel to work in one of the toughest parts of the West Bank, and was accepted as an ally. Since its founding in 2006, the Freedom Theatre had been under constant fire: local conservatives saw it as a corrupting influence, even a Zionist conspiracy; the Palestinian Authority resented what Juliano said about its ‘co-operation’ with Israel; and Israel saw him as a troublemaker, if not a traitor. 

In a must-read piece in the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz portrays a complicated, compelling man and artist, and delves into the mystery of his murder. 

Ranking Arab Women

Last week, Thomson-Reuters put out an annual poll ranking women's rights in various Middle Eastern countries. The surprise this year: Egypt was ranked the worst country in the region (followed by Iraq and Saudia Arabia) and the Comoros Islands were ranked the best (followed by Oman and Kuwait).  

The methodology of this poll is very odd. It consists in asking anonymous gender experts from the region to "respond to statements and rate the importance of factors affecting women's rights across the six categories." (The categories are: violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards a woman’s role in politics and the economy.) The experts' responses "were converted into scores, which were averaged to create a ranking." So the poll isn't based on any analysis of data or legislation; it measures how 336 unidentified gender experts feel about women's rights. In which case, I'm not surprised Egypt came out on top this year: it's a reflection of the extreme disappointment and indignation over women's exclusion from the political process, their lack of security, their targeting for terrible sexual violence in the middle of street protests. It also probably reflects the preoccupation of women-right's advocates over the rise of Islamist political groups that clearly did not believe in gender equality. 

What facts the report then quotes to contextualize or bolster its ranking are often wrong. Women in Tunisia were shocked to be told, incorrectly, that poligamy is legal and abortion is prohibited in their country (it's the exact opposite). With regards to Egypt, the report mentions "a rollback of legal rights since the 2011 revolution." Which rights would those be? Islamists may have wanted to revoke khula' divorce or lower the age of marriage, but they fact is they didn't. The only thing I am aware of is the language of the Islamist constitution, which enjoined the state to help women balance between work and their family obligations (a balance men were not tasked with finding). 

Last week in Egypt in TV

Last week in Egypt in TV

A new occasional feature from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.

Earlier this week on Al-Nahar TV, political activist Ahmed Harara, who lost his vision to police rubber bullets in protests, became perhaps the first non-Islamist to openly attack Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military.

After making Mahmoud Saad read the names and ages of all those who died in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, he briefly explained to Saad why El-Sisi's army is no different from Tantawi’s. First, el-Sisi was a member of the hated Field Marshal Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that injured and killed protesters -- he justified the virginity tests and had Tantawi seated next to him in the Oct. 6 celebration last month.

Calmly, Harara moved on to note the militarization of the state, mentioning the general secretary of the cabinet who is an army general and the 17 new governors as an example. Even the police general, Samy Sedhom -- the man who called in on Al-hayah TV to clarify that the police forces in Mohamed Mahmoud only had plastic shields to injure the outlaws posing as activists, and conveniently lost phone reception when asked to explain the number of eye injuries that occurred -- is now the deputy governor of Sharqiya. (It is worth noting that his retirement age was reportedly  extended and he was promoted to head the Supreme Council of the Police under Morsi.)

“[The military and the police] who still arrest and torture people till now...they are going to make the memorial service for the people they killed?” Harara asked. “Do they want to provoke us so we would go down to the streets for them to kill us?”

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No laughing matter

My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show"). 

The first episode of the new season (in Arabic).

When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.

Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.

That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.

You can read the rest here

Egyptian constitutions galore

Courtesy of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a handy chart of Egypt's recent experiments with constitutions, including a partial draft of the current work-in-progress. Thanks to Zaid al-Ali for compiling.


 

English

Arabic

Commentary

Draft Constitution by the 50 member committee (C50)

 10 November 2013

Link

Link
Link

 

The 50 member committee (C50)'s rules of procedure
 
12 September 2013

Link

Link

 

The presidential decree establishing a 50 member committee (C50) to prepare a final version of the draft constitution
  
1 September 2013

Link

Link

 

The proposed changes to the 2012 Constitution by the 10 member expert committee (C10)
  
20 August 2013

Link

Link

Link

The Constitutional Declaration suspending the 2012 constitution and establishing a new road map for the country
 
8 July 2013

Link

Link

Link

The 2012 Constitution 

  25 December 2012

Link

Link

Link

The March 2011 Constitutional Declaration
  
30 March 2011

Link

Link

Link

Things that haven't changed in Egypt

1. The abysmal treatment of detainees (and their remarkable resilience) as yet another foreign journalist's account of being arrested shows: 

During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me. The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate. I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back. As the sun set, the call for prayer was heard, and incredibly, after asking a guard’s permission, everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.

As time passed, the men started talking to one another. Speaking in whispers, some of the men near me said they were part of the march, while others swore that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. All but one were experiencing arrest for the first time. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking a smile.

“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me. “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him. “Just stay… what’s the word? Optimistic,” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times.  “Welcam to Eegipt,” he said. Everyone burst into laughter. “Shut up!” the guard shouted.

2. The solid relationship between American and Egyptian intelligence services: 

Gen. Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, the director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, said had been “no change” in his organization’s relationship with U.S. spy agencies, despite delay of some U.S. weapons deliveries to the Egyptian military and talk of new Egyptian military contacts with Russia. “Cooperation between friendly services is in a completely different channel than the political channel,” Tohamy said. “I’m in constant contact with [Director] John Brennan at the CIA and the local station chief, more than with any other service worldwide.”

Assets of the Ayatollah

Fantastic investigative piece by Reuters describing a secret fund entirely under Ayatollah Khamenei's control. Originally created to temporarily administer seized properties and redistribute the wealth through charity, Setad has grown over the years, continuing to seize real estate and accumulating into a secret slush fund entirely at Khamenei's disposal.   

All told, Reuters was able to identify about $95 billion in property and corporate assets controlled by Setad. That amount is roughly 40 percent bigger than the country's total oil exports last year. It also surpasses independent historians' estimates of the late shah's wealth.

And:  

A complete picture of Setad's spending and income isn't possible. Its books are off limits even to Iran's legislative branch. In 2008, the Iranian Parliament voted to prohibit itself from monitoring organizations that the supreme leader controls, except with his permission.

 

 

The dangers of politics for women

It’s dangerous to be the first”  is the title of a report just published by the NGO Safer World, based on interviews with hundreds of women who are trying to participate in public life in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. According to press release, the report finds that:

..women are seriously worried that states are not responding to their growing security concerns and, in many instances, state security providers are part of the problem. Consultations with over 400 women from a variety of social groups across the three countries found that rising crime, the widespread availability of weapons, and violent conflict between armed groups are major security threats. In addition, women face targeted violence against them, including harassment, sexual assault, threats of violence, and slander. Many perceive the police to be ineffectual and even part of the problem. Threats associated with honour and reputation present a particular challenge for politically active women and are being used by established power-holders as a political tool to side-line women from public life and restrict their opportunities to feed into policy and decision-making.
There are signs that a vicious cycle is in operation where insecurity reduces women’s political participation and low participation in turn means continued insecurity for women as their safety concerns are not taken into consideration by formal and informal authorities.

One of the reasons that Egypt's cultural and political elite advanced for declaring the Muslim Brotherhood beyond the pale was their bigoted views on women's place in society and public life. But the truth is that "liberal" parties and the state marginalize women as well.