The great sharpening

Tell me your metaphor, I'll tell you what kind of third-rate mind you are. Condoleeza Rice's new talking point is that the Middle East is going through a "great sharpening" of differences between the voices of extremism and the voices of moderation. Except that her moderates are people like the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian regimes and hapless clientelist buffoons like Fouad Seniora of Lebanon and Abu Mazen of Palestine. She says, don't pay attention to all the violence and "day-to-day" news. There's a wider change at hand that's much more important than that. And it won't be done anytime soon. So basically her argument is that the Bush administration doesn't need to be held accountable for its disastrous Middle East policy because in fact it has a master plan and in 20 years everything will come out fine and dandy, you just wait. Extended quotes from recent interviews with Rice after the jump -- don't miss the special goodness from Fox News at the end. To the New York Times:
SECRETARY RICE: I think we can go right to questions. I might just make one point, which is that I think that this summer in the Middle East with the events in Lebanon actually sharpened, in some ways, what really is going on in the Middle East, the kind of sharpening between extremist forces and moderate forces. And what will be interesting and important is how that plays out over the next, now, probably several years. But on the one side, clearly, the moderate Arab states, Saudi, Egypt, Jordan, the weak but democratizing moderates in Iraq, Lebanon – and by that, I mean Maliki, Siniora, Abu Mazen in the Palestinian Territories; and then on the other side, Hezbollah, Hamas, and really supported by Iranian influence and sort of Syrian transit. I think it really did lead to a kind of sharpening of this contradiction, if you will, between the extremist forces and the moderate forces and I think that’s going to play out in very interesting ways over the next several years. But I just wanted to make that point.
To the New York Post:
I would just like to say that on probably the issue that’s been on everybody’s mind, the Middle East, and what’s going on there, with this summer and events in Lebanon really helped to clarify what the struggle is really about. You really do have a struggle between extremism and moderation that came out very strongly, I think, with the events in Lebanon, and with on the one side Hezbollah and Hamas and the Palestinian territories backed by Iran with the kind of sidekick of Syria, and then on the other hand moderate Arab states and democratizing, relatively weak moderate forces but moderate forces nonetheless like Maliki in the Iraqi Government, Siniora in the Lebanese Government and Mahmoud Abbas in the territories. And it probably brought into sharper relief that there isn’t really a gray area here but a sharpening of extremism versus moderation
To the Wall Street Journal (her people, so she goes on at length):
SECRETARY RICE: Well, thanks. Let me just say two or three words and then we’ll just open up. I’m always quite aware that academics can go on in 50-minute slots about things that nobody actually wanted to hear, so I tried to avoid doing so. But I do think I’d like to just make a couple of points that this is a very challenging time in international politics and I see it as a time when we’re going through a big historic transformation. And so I am probably less concerned on a day-to-day basis by the turbulence that we see and I think there’s a tendency – present company excepted of course – in reporting to report the turbulence on a daily if not hourly basis. And when you’re in the midst of a big historic transformation you’re going to have a lot of turbulence. And so I think the important thing is to try to understand the underlying trends that are emerging and to be concerned about whether or not those trends are moving in the right direction, not what is happening on any given day. In the Middle East, I think those trends are moving in the right direction but I think that we got a very big wakeup call in the summer with the war in Lebanon because in a way that it had not really been clarified before the Middle East with all of its historic animosities and so forth, I think had to confront its modern – its current environment, which is one in which extremism on one side and moderation on the other came into pretty sharp relief. And that has been very clearly recognized now, I believe, by the moderate Arab states – the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians – by moderates in the kind of fledgling democracies that are there, whether it be Iraq or Lebanon or even the Palestinian territories, and the supporter, the financier, the inspiration for those extremist forces like Hezbollah and Hamas, I think is now clearly in everybody’s mind Tehran, and that has given a kind of clarity to what the challenge is from Iran, not just on the nuclear side, not just on the internal politics side, but literally on Iran’s ambitions for the region as a whole. So that means that I think the next several months, leading probably into several years, will be trying to find a way to rally moderate forces on behalf of emerging democratic moderate forces in the region to withstand what I think is a now quite substantial push against them by extremists and by Iranian-led extremism. That will take some time. That will take some thought to what kinds of institutional responses there need to be. It will take understanding almost everything that we’re looking at with Iran in that context. But most importantly, it’s going to take some real effort at strengthening those moderate democratizing forces in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories. I cite the time factor here because I don’t think that this is a battle, if you will, or a struggle that’s going to be won on George W. Bush’s watch. I think the framework can be laid, but I think the struggle is not going to be won on his watch. Now, that is not to by any means diminish the central struggle in the war on terror against al-Qaida and their progeny, but it is another more geostrategic element that for the first time I think puts a state sponsor of terror in a very key position geostrategically. Terrorist groups without state sponsors are obviously extremely dangerous and can do great damage, as we saw with al-Qaida. Terrorists who are the arms and legs and kind of tentacles of a state with considerable assets at its disposal has the potential to – have the potential to change the kind of geostrategic picture. And I think we’re dealing with both simultaneously. So with that opening, let me just ask what’s on your mind. I just want to say this personally. When I was in government the last time, I was here for the end of a great transformation, the end of the Cold War and all the work that had been done for almost 50 years to solidify democracy and resist communism and it ultimately weakened communism to a point that it collapsed of its own weight in Europe with a lot of pressure from the outside but ultimately just collapsed from within. So I guess for having been around to enjoy that, I get to be around at the beginning of another great historic transformation and it’s considerably harder, the beginning than the end.
Of course, not all of the media is buying up. Sean Hannity's Fox News has much more important, hard-hitting questions:

QUESTION: First, joining us on our newsmaker line, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is back with us. How are you?

SECRETARY RICE: I'm fine, Sean. How are you?

QUESTION: All right. I gotta – but I don't want to talk politics yet. Hang on, I'll get to that, or issues involving the importance of life and death. I had no idea -- I knew you got up every day and you worked out. I had no idea until I saw you on 60 Minutes you liked Led Zeppelin.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, I do.

QUESTION: What do you listen to, Stairway to Heaven? Is there --

SECRETARY RICE: Actually, I listen to just about anything Led Zeppelin's done. And I love Cream, too. I've got very eclectic taste in music, Sean. What can I say?

QUESTION: And you're a concert pianist. And I saw that you had your band recital as the show was going on. You're terrific on the piano.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I've been at it a long time, since I was about three-and-a-half.

QUESTION: Yeah. You know, I've got to tell you, I don’t know a lot about your life story and I know that you have outside interests and it's very therapeutic obviously for you. Another passion of yours, of course, is football.

SECRETARY RICE: Right.

QUESTION: But your childhood really got to me, watching Saturday night, because you lost a friend when you were growing up in the bombing of a church in Birmingham.

SECRETARY RICE: I did, Denise McNair. Birmingham had a very small kind of middle class black community. Everybody's parents taught together, and we went to church together, and the kids played together. And Denise's father was a – the photographer in the community, and so he photographed everybody's weddings and birthday parties. And Denise went to kindergarten -- one of my prize pictures is my dad handing Denise her kindergarten graduation diploma. So it was indeed a very sad day when she died.

QUESTION: You know, it's funny, the Latin word for education is educre, to bring forth and deliver with.

SECRETARY RICE: Right.

QUESTION: And what's fascinating about that is it's sort of -- it's predicated on a belief system that God creates you and he sort of designs you and creates you into the person that you're to be. I almost got the feeling watching that piece on Sunday night that this is your destiny, that you dealt with terrorism as a very young girl and in a sense it sort of shaped you to become this person with a very strong backbone to stand up against it now because you dealt with it as a child.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I do believe that if you have been through what I called "homegrown terrorism," you know if you've seen what it means to have a community rocked like that by terrorism, you know that there isn't any way to negotiate with people like that. You know that there really is good and evil. You know that these things are black and white.

And you know, there used to be a thought that well, the terrorists had this reason or that reason. There's no reason for destroying innocent life. And I think that probably comes more personally to me.

For she is the Great Sharpener.
Read More

New Pentagon outfit wants more agitprop in Iran

Not being satisfied with the fact that Voice of America/Radio Farda broadcasts to Iran are already the most popular in the country, the Bush administration would like to see lies and disinformation inserted just as they do in Iraq:
WASHINGTON - In another indication that some in the Bush administration are pushing for a more confrontational policy toward Iran, a Pentagon unit has drafted a report charging that U.S. international broadcasts into Iran aren't tough enough on the Islamic regime. The report appears to be a gambit by some officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office and elsewhere to gain sway over television and radio broadcasts into Iran, one of the few direct tools the United States has to reach the Iranian people. McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of the report this week, and it also has circulated on Capitol Hill. It accuses the Voice of America's Persian TV service and Radio Farda, a U.S. government Farsi-language broadcast, of taking a soft line toward Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime and not giving adequate time to government critics. U.S. broadcasting officials and others who've read the report said it's riddled with errors. They also see it as a thinly veiled attack on the independence of U.S. international broadcasting, which by law is supposed to represent a balanced view of the United States and provide objective news. "The author of this report is as qualified to write a report on programming to Iran as I would be to write a report covering the operations of the 101st Airborne Division," Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said in a statement on Tuesday. Larry Hart, a spokesman for the board, which oversees U.S. non-military international broadcasting, said that the radio and TV operations have covered Iran's human rights abuses extensively and have featured appearances by dissidents - who sometimes telephoned from Iranian jails. Surveys have shown that Radio Farda is the most-listened-to international radio broadcast into Iran, Hart said. Three U.S. government officials identified the author of the report as Ladan Archin, a civilian Iran specialist who works for Rumsfeld. Archin was out of town this week and unavailable for comment. She works in a recently established Pentagon unit known as the Iran directorate. Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week that the unit was established this spring as part of a government-wide reorganization aimed at better promoting democracy in Iran. He confirmed Tuesday night that Archin had been asked to prepare the report. "It was meant to be a look at how the program was working and to determine if it was an effective use of taxpayer dollars," Ballesteros said. Critics charge that the unit resembles the pre-Iraq-war Office of Special Plans, which received intelligence reports directly from Iraqi exile groups, bypassing U.S. intelligence agencies, which distrusted the exiles. Many of the reports proved to be fabricated or exaggerated. Some of the directorate's staff members worked in the now-defunct Office of Special Plans, and some intelligence officials fear that directorate also is maintaining unofficial ties to questionable exiles and groups.
That is so 2002! Ladan Archin, by the way, was a Wolfowitz protégé from SAIS (surely by now one of the most discredited academic institution that does international relations, considering its alumni) involved in the Iraq war run-up and a connection with Ahmed Chalabi.
Read More

The coming fight over the Nile

This has been playing out for a few years already, and is worth keeping an eye on. For Egypt, Sudan's political future is crucial to this issue and is one reason Cairo is so adamantly opposed to the partition of Sudan and to foreign intervention in Darfur. The thing is, this year had the biggest volume of water coming into the Nile in decades (presumably a consequence of climate change), and I'm not sure what the scientific impact of diverting more water upstream would be on Egypt. But no matter what, Egypt will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo:
The distribution of Nile River water has been regulated by the 1929 Blue Nile agreement between the United Kingdom and Egypt, and the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The latter gave Cairo a de facto right to veto any project using Nile water in other riparian states. Although this treaty remained unchallenged over the years, this is no longer the case. Indeed, many African states have experienced robust G.D.P. growth rates in recent years -- with the notable exception of Eritrea, which suffers immensely due to its border war with Ethiopia and its devastating economic policy of self-reliance -- and this has increased their need to develop their infrastructure, produce more energy, and provide more water to their populations. Understandably, the majority of the Nile River countries now want to re-negotiate the decades-old treaties.
Considering Egypt's considerable fall in regional stature over the past few years, it won't be in a great position to re-negotiate the treaty when the time comes. And while in the past some officials have threatened military action over this issue, I can't imagine they would really be able to carry them out considering that the other states have a pretty strong case that they would be righting an unfair treaty.
Read More

Map of Tunisian political prisons

There's a fascinating post over at Global Voices on the Tunisian blogosphere. As many of you know, Tunisia is one of the most information-repressive countries in the Arab world. It has what's probably the most advanced censorship authorities in the region, and very actively monitors the internet, taps phones, follows dissidents and threatens them. The very nature of the regime is that it is a police state, run by the police for the police -- this is not a military regime or ruling family type regime. One exiled Tunisian blogger, Sami Ben Gharbia, has put together with some Google Maps magic a map of Tunisian political prisoners. This kind of information is rarely available publicly, and banned in Tunisia (and not discussed in the Arab and international media, in which the Tunisian regime buys positive coverage every time it can). A few months ago I attended a meeting of North African human rights activists. There were some Tunisians there who told horrible stories of detention and attacks against the families of political detainees. In the case of one of Tunisia's most prominent activists, Siham ben Sedrine (whose husband is still in jail), the Tunisian media waged an extremely nasty campaign accusing her of prostitution and published doctored porn pictures of her. While other countries, such as Egypt, have more political prisoners Tunisia has one of the nastiest attitudes to dissidents in the region.
Commenting on the map at nawaat.org, the site Sami runs, astrubal is pretty scathing about Tunisian bloggers’ reaction to the new site – he says there has not been one mention of the site since it was launched a few days ago, and calls the Tunisian blogosphere the ‘lobotomisphere’. Bear in mind that, according to some sources, the Tunisian government is currently holding an estimated 350 political prisoners in prisons around the country, and there are regular human rights reports focusing on the treatment and welfare of the prisoners. Something you’d think was a really major topic of interest for Tunisian bloggers, but astrubal seems to be right – when I checked just now, not one of the French or English blogs aggregated at the Tunisian Blogs aggregator mentioned or linked to Sami’s site. I asked Sami by email why he thought this was the case: I really do not expect to see the so-called “Tunisian bloggers” or Blogosphere talking about this issue. Most of them have chosen the self censorship and have decided to avoid discussing and writing about political content that may hurt the Tunisian regime. They talk about everything except Tunisians’ interior affaires. It is The Taboo of the Tunisian blogosphere. Besides, I’m part of the banned bloggers who do not save the Tunisian regime and who are not recognized as “member” of the Tunisian blogosphere. As the blogger and journalist Wael Abass wrote last week on the Deutsche Presse Agentur: “Sami Bin Gharbia, the Tunisian owner of Kitab.nl, is destined to become a refugee both physically and virtually. He lives in Holland as a political refugee and he is banned from the Tunisian blog aggregator (…) so he took refuge in the Egyptian blog aggregator hosted by Manalaa.net.” Not only we are censored in Tunisia, we have also been censored on the Tunisian blogger aggregator and even on the periodic “Echoes from the Tunisian blogosphere” which is published on Global Voices. They do not hear our “Echoes” only because we write politics! We do understand their fear to talk about those issues, especially those living in Tunisia. Hopefully, they understand our concern to defend our citizenship and rights? Remember, this is the Web! And we are committed to defend this extraordinary tool against the censorship and its passive ally: the self censorship. As Sami says, those within Tunisia who speak out on human rights live in a climate of fear. During the World Summit on the Information Society, Ethan Zuckerman gave a vivid account of meeting with the Tunisian Human Rights League. Tunisian bloggers may not yet be in a position to create or discuss a site like Sami’s, but according to one site that linked to Tunisian Prisoners Map, users from Tunisian ISPs are clicking through.
It's a very interesting debate, and again do check out the map of Tunisian political prisons -- someone needs to do that for every Arab country.
Read More

Useful idiots

Tony Judt on Bush's useful idiots:
It is particularly ironic that the ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’, in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same ‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.
A must-read.
Read More

Frank Rich: Why Bush went to war

I am seeing a lot of plugs for New York Times columnist Frank Rich's new book, The Great Story Ever Sold, which makes the argument that Bush went to war against Iraq because Karl Rove needed a "war president" for the midterm elections in 2002. This simple explanation is perhaps the most convincing I have heard, especially as plenty of other people -- big business, the neo-cons -- were ready to jump on the bandwagon. From Gary Kamiya's review in Salon:
Far more compelling -- and originally argued -- is his insight into the real reason Bush went to war in Iraq. His answer to this endlessly debated question, and his related excursus on the personality of Bush himself, may be the single most lucid and convincing one I've ever read. Although it is almost painfully obvious, and wins the Occam's Razor test of being the simplest, it is put forward considerably less often than more ideological theories -- whether about controlling oil, supporting Israel, establishing American hegemony, or one-upping his father. Perhaps this is because Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections. Yet Rich makes a powerful argument that that is the case. Playing the key role, not surprisingly, is Karl Rove. "To track down Rove's role, it's necessary to flash back to January 2002," Rich writes. The Afghanistan war had been a success. "In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections." Rove decided Bush needed to be a "war president." The problem, however, was that Afghanistan was fading from American minds, Osama bin Laden had escaped, and the secret, unglamorous -- and actually effective -- approach America was taking to fighting terror wasn't a political winner. "How do you run as a vainglorious 'war president' if the war looks as if it's winding down and the number one evildoer has escaped?" The answer: Wag the dog. Attack Iraq. Now ideology comes in, along with the peculiar alliance of neocons and Cold War hawks that had been waiting for their chance. "Enter Scooter Libby, stage right." As Rich explains, Libby, Cheney and Wolfowitz had wanted to attack Iraq for a long time, not to stop terrorism but for the familiar neocon reasons of remaking the Middle East and the familiar Cold War hawk reasons of trumpeting America's might. "Here, ready and waiting on the shelf in-house, were the grounds for a grand new battle that would be showy, not secret, in its success -- just the political Viagra that Rove needed for an election year."
Obviously I'll need to read the book to see what Rich's argument really is, but this sounds very interesting indeed.
Read More

Bakchich

If you read French, go immediately check out Bakchich, an excellent webzine/blog about sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and the Middle East (but it's especially good on the Maghreb and Muslim Africa.) They have a handsomely designed PDF magazine (a kind of Canard Enchainé or Private Eye for the region) as well as a blog, and some interesting articles on the security shake-up recently carried by King Muhammad VI in Morocco, Tunisia's latest attacks on press freedom, and more. Very nice cartoons too, including this one on Tunisia: Picture 1-2 The caption says: "19 years of happiness: corruption, lockdown on civil liberties, poverty... the happy results on Ben-Alism."
Read More

'Ghost Plane'

My friend Stephen Grey's long-awaited book on extraordinary renditions is out.
Stephen Grey's book
Stephen is one of Britain's top investigative reporters, who did, in my view, some of the best reporting pieces on the current "War on Terror." His new book is a must read... Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program Related posting: Bush admits to CIA secret prisons
Read More

My first time

One more remark on the NDP’s annual conference: I think it’s the biggest (and maybe only) surprise that Gamal has declared Egypt’s ambitions to start a civil nuclear program.

As posted a few days ago, several states in the region could be pushed to start civil nuclear program as a reaction to Iranian nuclear ambitions.

As far as I recall, this is the first time for an Egyptian government or party official to talk about it publicly. I think it is also the first time for Gamal to talk about national security issues, which so far have been the domain of Hosni Mubarak and some security officials. This further positions Gamal, by adapting Ahmadenijads tactics of playing around with the national pride.

The US envoy to Cairo said soon afterwards that the US could be willing to cooperate with Egypt on its program.

So I would speculate that the issue was already raised when Gamal recently went to renew his pilot’s license in the US, as the NDP tried to sell his trip.

Otherwise, I think the best commentary on the NDP conference has once more been chipped in by inerrant Egyptian street humour:

“They called it ‘New thought and a second leap toward the future?’ When was the first time?�

Read More

State Security threatens blogger

Blogger Mohamed Gamal, who posts under the name Mr. GEMYHOoOD, has been receiving threats from State Security recently. During the last Kefaya sit-in, Gamal told me he received phone threats from State Security officers, who asked him to take down a posting, where he drew a caricature of Hosni Mubarak urinating on the map of Egypt. Gamal refused to take it down, and continues to receive the daily phone threats. Yesterday, Gamal was on his way to the Kefaya conference at the Lawyers' Syndicate, when he was stopped by a security agent who checked his ID, and few minutes later Gamal received another phone threat from security, that he broadcasted to his friends via the mobile phone speaker.
Mr.GEMYHOoO demonstrating against Mubarak
You can read Gamal's account of the threats, in Arabic, here. Ma3lesh ya Mr. GEMYHOoOD... You have all my solidarity...
Read More

A brave new world

White House press release about Bush's speech to the UN, which apparently highlighted the bright and positive and fluffy and oh-so-pretty developments in the Middle East. Argues that minute changes in the Gulf's absolute monarchies are great, that a sham election in Algeria is just super-duper, manages to place blame for "the suffering of the Lebanese people" entirely on "state within a state" Hizbullah rather than Israel, which did the actual bombing of civilian targets, mentions the sin of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons without talking about regional allies who have them (Pakistan, Israel, India). I could go on. A lot of this stuff is standard fare of US Middle East diplomacy, but coming from the guy who is driving the region into complete chaos it smells worse than usual. Perhaps the worst is that the last third is devoted to peace in the holy land, something this president has put less efforts in achieving than any of his predecessors for the last three decades at least. [Thanks Simon]
Read More

Intellectuals and dictatorships: the case of Antoine Sfeir

In the long history of public intellectuals using their pulpits to defend the indefensible (more often than not, for direct personal gain rather than any error in judgement), Arab intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century will occupy a special place. Arab dictators -- as well as their foreign supporters -- have spent a considerable amount of money in buying favorable views from opinion-makers, columnists, activist-intellectuals and others over the years. Saddam Hussein was perhaps most notorious for doing this, but he is joined with more discreet dictators such as Morocco's kings, Algeria's generals, Libya's Muammar Qadhafi and countless others. And then you have the Saudi media machine, a huge formation indeed that goes through the heart of what passes as quality journalism in the Arab world (and one that is influential even inside non-Gulf countries: just ask Al Ahram's Ibrahim Nafie how well he gets on with this or that Emir.) A more interesting sideshow is the growing Saudi-Qatari media battle, with Al Jazeera walking an unpredictable line between total subservience to the Emir of Qatar, a fair amount of editorial independence by any Western corporate standard, and at least two wide intellectuals schools of thoughts among its key staff (Arab nationalism and Islamism, in various forms.) This an enormously complicated subject, but one thing that has always enraged me is those intellectuals and journalists that defend Tunisia's Ben Ali, a police state that takes the worst aspect of police culture (corruption, violence, mediocrity) as the motus operandi of the state. In his interesting Middle East-centered blog on the Monde Diplomatique website, Alain Gresh rips a new one in Antoine Sfeir, a France-based Lebanese author who passes as respectable in most of the region and contributes for some prestigious magazines. For me, no longer:
Le régime tunisien dispose, depuis de longues années, de nombreux thuriféraires en France. Le premier est sans aucun doute le président de la République Jacques Chirac – ainsi déclarait-il au cours de sa visite officielle en Tunisie, début décembre 2003 que « le premier des droits de l’homme c’est manger, être soigné, recevoir une éducation et avoir un habitat, ajoutant que de ce point de vue, il faut bien reconnaître que la Tunisie est très en avance sur beaucoup de pays » (Lire la réaction de la Ligue des droits de l’homme à ces propos). Jacques Chirac n’a pas le monopole de cette complaisance et des responsables politiques, de gauche comme de droite, n’hésitent pas à chanter les louanges du régime de Zine Abidin Ben Ali. C’est le cas aussi de certains « intellectuels », comme le prouve un des derniers ouvrages d’Antoine Sfeir, intitulé Tunisie, terre des paradoxes, qui vient de paraître aux éditions de l’Archipel. Le degré de flagornerie à l’égard du chef de l’Etat tunisien y est assez exceptionnel. Ben Ali est ainsi décrit comme réunissant « en sa personne toutes ces compétences. D’une part, elles lui permettent de se montrer plus efficaces, et les résultats obtenus plaident en sa faveur ; d’autre part, la réunion de ces compétences en un seul homme évite de les voir entrer en conflit. » (p. 213) Le régime est-il policier ? Citant un rapport du département d’Etat, l’auteur affirme que la Tunisie compterait entre 450 et 1000 prisonniers, dont très peu ont été condamnés pour des actes de violence. « On peut le déplorer, certes », précise-t-il. « Mais que penser du Patriot Act ? Faudrait-il accepter que les Etats-Unis se protègent contre l’islamisme et non la Tunisie, où le danger est pourtant bien plus réel et pressant : tentatives de coup d’Etat, assassinats, attentats – dont celui de la synagogue de Djerba – et volonté affichée de renverser le régime pour y instaurer, par la force et la terreur, un Etat dépourvu de toute liberte ? » Etrange raisonnement, puisque l’auteur lui-même affirme que les prisonniers ne sont pas inculpés pour des actes de violence... D’autre part, qui approuve le Patriot Act ? (lire p. 13) « Autre accusation, poursuit Sfeir : le régime tunisien est un régime policier. Actuellement, il ne l’est pas plus que les Etats-Unis, la Grande-Bretagne, ou même la France » Il suffit de lire n’importe quel rapport d’Amnesty International, de Human Rights Watch, ou de savoir que, depuis l’arrivée de Ben Ali au pouvoir le nombre de policiers a quadruplé, pour mesurer le sérieux de cette affirmation.
I'll just translate that last line so you get the flavor:
"Another accusation," continues Sfeir, "is that the Tunisian regime is police state. In fact, it is no more a police state than the United States, Great Britain, or even France." It is enough to read any Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch report to know that since Ben Ali's rise to power the number of police officers has quadrupled, and measure the seriousness of [Sfeir's] commentary.
It is incredible how many defenders of the Tunisian regime -- which has bought off many Arab and European newspapers of note (the Americans just don't care) -- there still are in French policy and intellectual circles. I can hardly go to a French diplomatic function without getting into an argument about Tunisia -- which like Morocco's kings and Lebanon's late Rafiq Hariri have a long history of bankrolling the presidential campaigns of Jacques Chirac. Antoine Sfeir now joins the ranks of the defenders of some of the world's most odious dictatorships. I hope his payoff was worth it.
Read More

The NDP conference

It's hard to drum up the enthusiasm to blog about the National Democratic Party's annual conference, which started today. It's not exactly like anything earth-shattering is likely to happen, and the interest in Egypt's ruling party's attempts to reform itself (which started a few years ago) has dwindled amidst the clear reversal of the dynamic of reform that was launched last year and the depressing failure of reformist movement to achieve much concretely -- not to mention the secular opposition's electoral failure, the recent judges' crisis (which they lost some time this summer, by the way), and the general crackdown on Muslim Brothers, bloggers and activists. Some would add to that the abandonment of Egypt's democrats by the Bush White House, which had previously egged them on, in favor of a "US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue" and the generally deteriorating regional situation (these are worth arguing about another time._ It's interesting that last year the NDP did not make a big fuss about its conference (despite it being an electoral year), leaving the limelight to the presidency to make its bid for re-election. Even the slogan of the 2005 conference, "Crossing to the future," was taken from the presidential campaign. What a difference that was to 2003 ("Citizenship rights") or 2004 ("Priorities of reform") -- party conferences that were much-touted as a sign that Egypt was changing and proposed interesting ideas about civic rights (in 2003, largely unimplemented) and major economic policy shifts (in 2004, complete overhaul of tax law, major changes in customs and duties, introduction of various economic laws). Of course these conferences were also largely about the rise of a "Gamal Gang" inside the NDP and the decline of old party bosses such as Kamal al-Shazli in favor technocrats, businessmen, and a new generation of supposedly much more sophisticated party bosses. So what can this week's conference ("Second wind for change" -- who comes up with these slogans?) really be about? Gamal's role in the party and in Egypt's future seems assured now, his internal enemies seem to have lost, the party no longer needs to prove its democratic credentials to the world now that the democratization fad has passed. Well, I will argue that this conference is the most "domestic" one the NDP has held so far, even if it has again invited a selection of the top Egypt experts in the US and Europe to attend and observe the chrysalis of Jeffersonian democracy on the shores of the Nile. The agenda has to a large extent been set by the Egyptian media, the sole survivor (for how long?) of 2005's remarkable political opening. The main issues the NDP will be addressing are answers to the critiques put forward by the media, most notably:
  1. What is the party doing to implement President Mubarak's electoral promises on political reform?
  2. What is the party doing to implement President Mubarak's electoral promises on job creation and the improvement of average Egyptians' lives?
  3. What is the party going to do about the string of transportation disasters that have hit the country?
  4. What vision does the party have for Egypt's role in the region and the world?
What's been announced so far is that 2800 party members will attend and that there are 28 policy papers that will be discussed. Safwat al-Sherif, the SecGen of the party and the last major "old guard" figure still in a leadership position, has stated that there will not be personnel changes at the top like in past conferences. (But then again, he is the leading candidate to lose his job.) Masri al-Youm has announced that 58 NDP MPs have sent a memo of protest to President Mubarak to voice their concern that the party is being hijacked by businessmen and stating that the party is being run by three people around Gamal who are using the same strong-arm tactics as the old guard (my guess: steel magnate and MP Ahmed Ezz, Secretary for Information Ali Eddin Hilal, and Secretary for Youth Moufid Chehab, but I'm not really in the loop.) Question one, on political reform, will probably be the big showcase of the conference. Amendments to articles 76 and 77 of the constitution are being discussed and could be presented to parliament by the end of the year. Everyone is already expecting the wording of the amendments to be disappointing, as were last year's amendments to article 76, but I have not seen any details yet. Whatever the changes, the important thing is that they will be tailored to suit Gamal Mubarak's eventual accession to the presidency and that they will not include the greatest constitutional reform that could happen to Egypt, the introduction of term limits. It seems there will be some other minor measures, such as moving to end the position of the "Socialist Prosecutor," a Nasser-era holdover, and some changes in the Supreme Judicial Council. There are a few other measures, but these can be discussed in due time if they are mentioned. The real bombshell is that, according to the press and NDP statements, the ruling party will move to end judicial supervisions of elections. Leave it to the NDP to take as the main lesson of its dismal performance (for official candidates) in last November's elections, of the prevalence of open vote buying and random violence, and of the interference of police and security in favor of its candidates that it should reduce the only positive thing about the election -- that the judges did an excellent job and reported fraud where it occurred. On the laughable pretext that electoral supervision takes judges away from their caseload and slows down the judicial system (which is extremely slow anyway), they are ready to remove the only semi-independent supervision of the election that carries moral and legal authority (electoral observers and party monitors don't really). That will be worth analyzing in full should it happen, but there can be no clearer sign of Egypt's growing authoritarianism at this point in time -- or that the judges really lost in a more fundamental way than most people are willing to admit. I'll skip the economic and job-creation initiatives because it's the kind of thing that most people would like to see the NDP succeed in doing. Job creation is extremely important and I'm curious how they;ll ever reach the massive figures of new jobs that Mubarak promised in his campaign, even if the economic is generally doing better. It might be interesting to see whether Ahmed Nazif will push his pet program to replace or end subsidies, an important and controversial program. Otherwise here I think we can mainly expect to see Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin huff and puff away about how many companies he sold this year -- but probably not answer serious allegations that these were sold below price and that someone along the lines pocketed a commission. Question three, regarding the recent transportation scandals, should be a major issue unless the party leadership tries to shut it out. Since the Minister of Transport recently got a hefty chunk of change from the sale of the third mobile license to Etisalat specifically for this purpose, one might expect/hope that a concrete program to modernize the sector and improve safety standards will be adopted. It would certainly be good PR for the party. That leaves us with question four, in my opinion the most interesting. It is the first time in the history of the NDP that national security issues are brought up. These are usually the sovereign province of the presidency, and most MPs and party apparatchiks are utterly disinterested in foreign policy issues, on which they can never have any influence (although I see today that the parliamentary committee on religious issues, composed of NDP and Muslim Brotherhood MPs, has called for cutting diplomatic relations with the Vatican over PopeGate. Did they ever do that with Israel, I wonder.) In a recent pre-conference speech, Gamal Mubarak made for the first time a reference to "Egypt's national security" and the need to discuss Egypt's (dwindling) role in the region. Newspaper reports outlined seven main points:
  1. Egypt’s role in the Middle East peace process
  2. The restructuring of tools for a common Arab foreign policy, such as the Arab League
  3. Egypt’s relationship with the United States, notably with a view to influence US policy in the region
  4. Promoting Iraq national unity and the country’s Arab character
  5. Working towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East
  6. Confronting the rise of Iran as a regional power by reviewing Cairo’s policy towards Tehran and encouraging it to act as a force for stability in the region
  7. Promoting Sudan’s national unity and territorial integrity
I think this whole dimension is entirely a reaction to the fiasco that was the Lebanon war for the Mubarak regime, and the growing frustration at Egypt's collusion in US and Israeli plans for the region. The above plan basically outlines more of the same, with the difference that Egypt, once a regional power, is satisfied with defending its "near-abroad" in Sudan from regime change. And if there was ever a regime deserving of regime change, it's Sudan's (and no risk of creating a civil war there, there already is one!) and minor regional aims (hedging its bets on Iran, institution-building at the regional level, preventing the disintegration of Iraq). The rest of it is cods-wallop and essentially amounts to having a foreign policy that is subservient to the US. There's an argument to be made that this is the best Egypt can hope for, and there is certainly a need for its proponents to make a compelling case for it. But they are going to have a tough time fighting the nationalist-populist line Kifaya, Karama and most other political currents are taking. And perhaps that is the whole point: keep'em talking about regional injustice, say that unfortunately there's nothing you can do about it, and at least they won't be talking about domestic issues. One more thing: maybe, just maybe, the NDP will decide to pay its electricity bill.
Read More

... and welcome to Canada

arar_maher.jpg A man got beaten into a false confession. The internal security agency lied to the government and to the public to cover up their brutality and incompetence. The government lied to the public to cover up their culpability. When the man complained, government officials told lies to the press in an attempt to discredit him. Sure sounds familiar, but the country could come as a surprise: Canada. Maher Arar was picked up by US officials acting on intelligence ineptly gathered by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (yep, the guys in the little red uniforms) while transiting the US on a Canadian passport and exported to Damascus for interrogation where (surprise!) he was tortured. After he returned to Canada and complained, as yet unnamed “government officials� started a campaign to smear him in the national press. Here, however, the parallels to countries closer to the home come to an end. See, we know all this because an independent commission was set up under a judge—a judge who was going to get his full salary whether or not he came up with the real facts of the matter—and that commission was able to impel the testimony of a range of key players and make most of its findings known. It’s unpleasant to be reminded that internal security operatives are a breed that transcends cultural and national identity, but here’s the silver lining: a willful, independent judiciary can be an effective counterweight. Something to remember next time there’s a demo outside the Judges' Club.
Read More

Welcome to Egypt

Peekaboolite.jpg Remember the survey at the beginning of the summer that suggested tourists are unhappy with the way they’re treated in Egypt? If memory serves, it blamed overcharging service industry types for many visitors making Egypt a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After a weekend trip across the Sinai, though, I think there may be another culprit, and I think the little fellow behind his clipboard might know who it is. Snapped lounging at a highway check-stop making gestures all-too-familiar to women around Cairo, he didn’t want his picture to be taken and wasn’t about to offer his thoughts on the macro-economic implications of the country being overrun by half-trained goons, but I think his input is clear enough. I’m guessing that there are quite a few people in government here who are familiar enough with Europe—if only Switzerland—to understand that being openly harassed, be it by well-armed soldiers on street corners or by beltagui with guns stuffed into their jeans in the middle of the desert, isn’t something that is going to encourage tourists to make a return visit. Pity that taxi drivers and waiters are so much easier to blame.
Read More

A pardon for Nour?

I forgot to post this last week, but readers may be interested in reading a letter by Ayman Nour's family to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2005 presidential elections, in which he came a distant second from Hosni Mubarak and most probably caused him to be sentenced to jail on 25 December of the same year. In the letter, fully reproduced below, President Mubarak is appealed to grant Nour a pardon. Previously Nour had refused to petition Mubarak for an appeal, and I am still not sure whether the administrative legwork to file for a pardon has been done or whether this a more informal, moral appeal. It's worth noting that US President Bush recently called for Nour's release, as have opposition MPs in Egypt. Letter from Ayman Nour on the anniversary of the 2005 presidential elections.
This week marks the anniversary of the first presidential elections in Egypt's history which took place on September 7, 2005. This week also Dr. Ayman Nour, leader of Al-Ghad party and the second candidate according to the results of the presidential elections, almost completes one year in prison for allegedly having forged Al-Ghad party powers-of-attorney. We receive both events with contradicting feelings due to the severe deterioration in Nour's health after having suffered coronary artery, diabetes and high blood pressure complications. Thus, continuing to enforce the five-year sentence would represent a death sentence to Nour, a matter organized by Article 36 of the law governing prisons which deals with release for medical reasons. This issue is also governed by Article 149 of the Egyptian Constitution which entitles the President exclusive authority to grant pardon or reduce the sentence. Dear Sir, Today there are people celebrating the one year anniversary of the election considering it a sign of democratic progress. There are also those who believe it useful for the President to use the exclusive authority vested in him by the Constitution by suspending the penalty or considering the year Nour spent in prison sufficient due to the extremely hard conditions, the unjust and harsh treatment he was subjected to. It has become clear that those who wish to show their ability in serving the regime are focusing on harassing Nour through depriving him of his basic human right guaranteed by the Constitution and the Prisons Law. It is enough to point out the decision to prevent him from writing in a clear violation of the Constitution, the law and prison regulations. He was also prevented from receiving treatment and having an urgent artery operation at his own expense. Moreover, he is under 24-hour surveillance in prison, prevent from movement and correspondence in violation of the law and prison regulations. He is also prevented from receiving the special food for his health condition from outside the prison which led him to go on hunger strike more than once in objection. The Administrative Judiciary Court is also considering a number of relevant lawsuits, the decision related to the first of which is expected on 26 September. We appeal to you for immediate intervention to save Ayman Nour's life and for a wise call for a stance that takes all the conditions of the case, which we do not wish to go into now and which are known to everyone, into consideration. We are not asking to give Nour an equal treatment as singers, artists and others. We only call for observing the circumstances, harms and health risks and respond to a request submitted to the President months ago by 110 current parliament representatives to release Nour through a Presidential Decree in accordance with the Constitution. The President's response at this time in particular to the request of about one-third of the parliament representing the nation has major implications. It is worth calling for and moving to achieve to save the life of an Egyptian citizen who, on 7 September 2005, obtained over half a million votes. Dear Sir, We address this message to you due to our confidence in your sincere patriotism and your ability to make an effort in line with the dedication we know you enjoy to your convictions and the ideas you adopt that transcend political and party differences. We hope the God grants success to you efforts on our behalf. Ayman Nour's small and larger families
Read More

A nuclear Arab world?

While the stand-off between the US and Iran gets the most attention, I think it is equally important to look at the regional dynamic that has been kicked off by Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

At a Bahrain sponsored GCC security conference that took place September 10 – 11, the Gulf countries discussed what to do about the Iranian nuclear program, by which they feel increasingly threatened, both militarily and environmentally. (Iran’s Busheer reactor is just some 200km away, across the Persian Gulf.)

During the conference, GCC’s general secretary Abdulrahman bin Mohammed Al Attiyah urged the Arab world to consider starting its own peaceful nuclear program.

Algeria (as well as Turkey) is already working on large-scale nuclear programs. Analysts say that others, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could quickly follow suit, once Iran’s nuclear program is up and running, as they want to avoid Tehran being the uncontested regional super power next to Israel.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in which I gave an overview on regional dynamics and different Arab interests regarding Iran’s nuclear program:

The Gulf States do not want to end up in the crossfire between Israel and Iran. Shortly before Christmas, they surprised the world by suggesting the creation of a nuclear-free zone expressly for the Gulf. This would include Iraq and Iran, but not Israel. Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League, protested angrily behind the scenes. "That would weaken the Arab position versus Israel and would imply that some of the Arab states are worried only about Iran’s atomic weapons," Salama explained. Thus, each country in the Arab world seems to be watching out for its own interests first.

Read More

EU inches towards Hamas

EU’s Foreign Ministers continued to reluctantly inch towards accepting Hamas in a Palestinian government of national union during their meeting yesterday.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers agreed on Friday to back a Palestinian national unity government being formed by President Mahmoud Abbas with the Hamas Islamist movement, despite U.S. misgivings. "We agreed that we have to support the new Palestinian government. It's a very important turning point for the situation," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told Reuters.

While some countries such as France, Finland or Slovakia appear to be ready to accept Hamas in government, others such as the UK, Germany or the Netherlands hesitate, also considering that the Bush administration has not changed its position.

Washington said on Thursday it saw no grounds so far to lift the embargo on contacts and aid. But many European governments are anxious to end the stand-off, which has contributed to aggravated poverty and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories.

I think it’s a mere question of time when the EU will come to terms with the new reality in Palestinian politics, and in the end the EU’s desire to play a more active role in the region independent from Washington could be the last push to normalize relations with Hamas.

Read More

Holiday snap

People who read this blog will know I am no great fan of Saudis and their morbid culture, or lack thereof.(Yes, not all of them, I know, allow me some artistic license here...) Do you really need more explanation that their recent attempt to ban women from entering the great mosque at Mecca (cutting with all Islamic precedent) or this man who lingers in a jail because he once joked about Muhammad's penis? It's not only that they are intolerant bigots, but also that they are incredibly stupid. This picture had me rolling on the floor in laughter for a good 10 minutes: Picturepose
Read More