Judeo-Muslim heritage

An association of imams and rabbis will be creating an institute for inter-religious and inter-cultural diplomacy in Fes, the old Moroccan imperial capital:
The creation of a permanent institute for inter-religious and inter-cultural diplomacy will be announced next June in Fes, during the Sacred Music Festival, held every year in this Moroccan central town.
The announcement was made by Faouzi Skalli, president of the Fes festival, on the occasion of the first congress of "imams and rabbis for peace," wound up Thursday in the Belgian capital city.
The projected institute will develop inter-religious diplomacy through reflection and interpretation of sacred texts to contribute to find a way out to political conflicts, Skalli said. Religious chiefs have an important role in promoting awareness among their communities of the judeo-moslem heritage, Skalli said.
This is an interesting development, especially since as far as I know there aren't many initiatives by religious leaders to resolve regional conflicts. Perhaps the most prominent is a program by the Church of England (it was started by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, but I don't know if the current one has given it the same attention) to get Palestinian imams and Israeli rabbis to meet and discuss. I remember attending one such meeting in Cairo last year, meeting some interesting rabbis involved in politics such as Michael Melchior. The various religious leaders' argument was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essentially a religious one and that therefore the solution should be religious. I can't say I agree with that, but no wrong can come from better inter-religious relations. Looking at the Moroccan side of things, it's good that there will be a public institution based there that will look at these issues. I remember being shocked by the Pew Global Attitudes survey a couple of years ago that showed that over 90% of Moroccans has a negative impression of Jews. I think that this is particularly regrettable in a country with a historical Jewish minority that until the creation of Israel was relatively well-integrated. Morocco lost a lot from the mass immigration of Jews in the 1950s and 1960s: there are currently over 650,000 Moroccan Jews worldwide, mostly in North America, but less than two thousand in Morocco itself. The city of Fes itself -- generally considered one of the most religious in the country -- once had an important Jewish population and it is generally believed that there was a lot of inter-marriage (and the occasional campaign of forced conversion). This, according to lore, is why Fassis (people from Fes) are pale-skinned.
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Poor Hosni

So Egypt's Hosni Mubarak says he's OK with having competition in the presidential elections -- but of course he's not saying he's OK with changing the constitution so that others can run against him:
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, said he did not mind others seeking nomination for this year's presidential referendum but that the top job was tough and offered no private life.
Parliament has yet to choose the sole candidate allowed to run in the September referendum. But Mubarak is expected to be nominated again, despite reformers' calls for the government to amend the constitution and allow more than one candidate to run.
Three prominent intellectuals have announced their intention to run for the position in a symbolic challenge to Mubarak.
Asked about those seeking to run against him, 76-year-old Mubarak said: "Let them go ahead, this is good. Democracy is like this. I hope that 100 nominate (themselves). Why will I get angry? I won't get angry."
My favorite part of this story is when Mubarak complains about how tough being a dictator is:
When asked about his job, Mubarak said: "Firstly, whoever sits in the chair of the president of Egypt, his health, time and nerves are ruined and he has no private life at all.
"If I want to go to one place or another, it's impossible, or walk in the street, it's impossible," he said, adding that he could not go to a restaurant or cinema.
"I stay surrounded by walls," he said, adding that even when he traveled abroad, he could not leave the hotel where he stayed because of security.
"It means the president of Egypt is a detainee," he said.
Vintage Hosni.
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Egyptian cinema and globalization

Walter Armbrust, the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, has an opinion piece on Egyptian cinema in the Daily Star:
Films that have struck American journalists - though not necessarily Egyptian audiences - as controversial include "Saidi fi al-Gamiaa al-Amerikiyya" (An Upper Egyptian in the American University; 1998), in which a peasant makes his way to the elitist American University in Cairo; or "Allo Amerika" (Hello America; 2000), in which a man visits his cousin in New York and encounters a virtual encyclopedia of Egyptian stereotypes about the amoral nature of American society. These films must be understood in the same context as "The Closed Doors." They are not so much anti-American as nationalist. More importantly, they are far from being the "massive wave" of anti-Americanism in the Arab world to which the American media often points. Indeed, anti-Americanism in Egyptian cinema is best seen as a mini-trend that has perhaps had its day. In the past two years by far the most significant commercial Egyptian film has been "Sahar al-Layali" (Sleepless Nights; 2003) - an exploration of marital problems portrayed pointedly against the backdrop of a completely globalized Egyptian society. "Sleepless Nights" showed characters who could have been living anywhere - in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or any suburbanized city. The film asked what relations between Egyptian men and women would be like if reduced to their essence through the elimination of all worries about money, modernity or politics. It represented in many ways a total embrace of globalization, but one that contrasted strongly with that of "The Closed Doors."
I would add to that one thing: many of the stereotypes about American life found in Egyptian movies (notably sexual licentiousness) are partly tongue-in-cheek, a play on the idea that lower class Egyptians think of foreign women as "easy." There are levels of subtlety here, especially in a film as ridiculous as "Allo Amerika," which plays on popular Egyptian stereotypes of America. I haven't seen "The Closed Doors" (the main film Amrbrust discusses, see the article) but "Sahar Al Layali" was indeed an excellent film, apart from the cheesy ending, and a departure from the rather bad goofball comedies of the late 1990s. On the other hand, the world "Sahar Al Layali" is set in -- that of well-heeled, cosmopolitan Cairenes -- may be reflecting the beginning of trend away from "popular" cinema. In a sense this could be a throwback to the 1950s and early 1960s, when most movies were middle class situation comedies that reflected an early Nasserist ideal of Arab modernity. But if so, one worries about the future of Egyptian movies about the working class outside of the slapstick comedies like "Al Limby." In America mainstream movies with (at least white) working class characters have been increasingly rare (perhaps the last great American movie dealing with working class issues is "Saturday Night Fever", which is unjustly mostly remembered for the dance and music.) Perhaps this is going to become a global trend.
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The Likud

The Head Heeb has an excellent overview of Israel's Likud party and a discussion of the current vogue for the term Likudnik, notably to describe some American neo-conservatives. He does a great job of explaining the different factions within the Likud, reminding us that while the tag "Likudniks" is convenient, it does injustice to a complex reality. On the other hand, I certainly believe some of the neo-cons who are particularly attached to Israel (the "Clean Break" group) are closest to this type of Likudnik:
The majority of the Likud right wing, and possibly a plurality of the party, consists of the group known either as "rebels" or "loyalists" depending on the sympathies of the beholder. This faction, of which Uzi Landau is the current leader, is sympathetic to the settler movement and to Greater Israel, opposed to the withdrawal and against Palestinian statehood, but its institutional loyalties are firmly with Likud rather than the far-right opposition. Many of them are old-guard Likudniks who came up through Herut, Betar or other Revisionist organizations. Thus, while the "rebel" MKs often vote against the government on policy issues, they will generally support it in votes of confidence, although there have been occasional mini-rebellions. Nor are they as ideologically monolithic as the Manhigut faction, with some willing to consider limited territorial concessions in return for a proven defensive benefit (albeit opposing a withdrawal under fire) and most opposing such Feiglin proposals as denaturalization of Arab citizens and redemption of the Temple Mount.
But they should also be identified more closely with the neo-liberal tendency within the Likud, notably that of Netanyahu:
The Likud also divides along an economic axis that runs from the neoliberals at one end to the populists at the other - or, in other words, from those who should be in Shinui but aren't secular enough to those who should be in Shas but don't like taking orders from rabbis. The neoliberals, headed by Netanyahu, have the support of the current administration and have been given broad authority to implement economic reforms. It isn't clear who leads the populists, although Eli Aflalo has been one of the party's most prominent dissenters on economic policy and voted against the budget to protest cuts in social spending. Both factions draw their membership from all along the nationalist axis and from all major interest groups; to some extent, the neoliberals are more Ashkenazi while the populists are more Mizrahi, but there are exceptions.
This should be seen as part of the wider shift over the past two decades especially from Israel's roots as a socialist state to a neo-liberal one, a transformation that has been spearheaded by both the left and the right and is deeply interconnected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an economic as well as political sense. As Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler write in their "The Global Political Economy of Israel":
Seen from this broader perspective, the current discourse in Israel is largely conservative, serving to bolster rather than undermine the existing power structure. This is achieved largely by presenting issues such as war, peace, ethnicity, religion, and formal political institutions, as if they were separate problems in need of separate solutions. These issues, though, are neither separate, nor are they 'problems' -- at least not for everyone. Instead, they are part of a much larger process on which there is practically no debate at all: the progressive emergence of Israel as a capitalist society. The new debates about international relations, identity, and domestic politics appear critical in tone only because the broader context in which they are embedded remains uncontested.
This applies to the US as well as Israel -- the fact that there has been little debate (outside academia) about the rise of neo-liberalism as conventional wisdom -- a conventional wisdom that is most stridently embraced by what we might call "the war party" in American politics. And this goes to the heart of the central conflict in the Middle East.
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The Race for the Presidency

This Egyptian presidential election is shaping up to be a real circus, and we're still about 10 months out. Al Sharq Al Awsat reported today that a fourth person, Yissry Al Sayid Mitwali, has announced his intention to run. He's an engineer with no political affiliations from an Alexandria textile factory. It gets better however. Al Hayat's Muhammad Salah reports today that a Web site belonging to the "Peaceful Popular Front to Save Egypt" has launched a campaign urging Amr Moussa, the Arab League's Secretary General, to run for president of Egypt. Moussa has yet to respond. So the candidate count to date includes: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Nawal Al Saadawi, Muhammad Farid Hassanein, Yissry Al Sayid Mitwalli, and... we're waiting for a response from Amr Moussa. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that last one. I have a suspicion that running for president in Egypt is going to become the chic thing to do in 2005.
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Unclear on the concept

Here's a telling indication of Egyptian democracy. Opposition parties have accused the government of undermining the constitution and the will of the people by announcing that President Hosni Mubarak will perform the constitutional oath of office for his 5th term in front of Parliament this coming September. The slight to democracy lies in the fact that the actual referendum will come later in the year.
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Islamist lawyer names names

Montasser Al Zayat, the Islamist lawyer who defended many members of Al Gamaa Al Islamiya in the 1990s, and reportedly helped broker the 1997 ceasefire with the government, has a new book of memoirs out called "Al Gamaa Al Islamiya... An Inside Look" (الجماعات الإسلامية.. رؤية من الداخل). Yesterday's Al Hayat review of the book says that it includes a detailed and graphic account of the torture that Al Gamaa Al Islamiya leaders were subjected to when they arrested following the assassination of Anwar Al Sadat in 1981. The book names names of those officers who carried out the torture, "some of whom have become stars of the judiciary talking about human rights and asking the regimes to respect human rights." Unfortunately the article doesn't give names, and I haven't read the book yet. But if there are explicit torture accusations against sitting judges, then this sounds like something worth pursuing.
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Criticism for the Pope

I mentioned earlier in the week that I sensed that the Coptic church had not emerged unscathed, from a public opinion perspective, after the recent events involving the bishop's wife who converted to Islam. Here is an article by Gamal Asaad in this week's Al Araby, the opposition weekly belonging to the Nasserist Party. Asaad is a Coptic writer, and I believe he's a former member of Parliament. It is written as an open letter to the Coptic Pope Baba Shenouda. I have translated the best parts below:
The first test of your holiness' reformist thoughts was aimed at exploiting your popularity to achieve a political role for yourself, in addition to your spiritual role. This was clear in your first confrontation with Anwar Al Sadat during the Kanka incident... Your ambitions have remained political, oh holy pope, in that you played a political role, and you have not ceased assuming political representation of the Copts for a single moment.
The Kanka incident occurred six moths after Shenouda was elected Pope in 1971. After a newly built church was destroyed by police, Shenouda ordered priests and bishops to go to the ruins of the church and celebrate mass there even if they risked being shot. Clashes resulted. Asaad goes on to criticize the pope for being the political representative of the Copts, and criticizes the state for consulting the Pope before appointing Coptic members to the Parliament and the Cabinet.
These practices of the absent State are very wrong. This gave the Copts the feeling that the church was an alternative for the State, and that you were their political representative... This caused a dangerous fissure in Egyptian politics, because it isolated the Copts and lead to their lack of participation in public affairs...
The voice of the ex-patriot communities of Copts have become loud. Their pressure has begun to bare fruits via the American intervention in Egyptian affairs concerning Coptic problems. This culminated when the American congress issued the Religious Protection Act... More important than that is the uncountable amounts of money that began to be sent to the church. That money caused the breaking of the relationship between the people and the clergy. The clergy were no longer in need of the people because they had an alternative, foreign money. Let us not forget that time when you said “the day in which the pope extends his hand to the rich Copts has ended.�
With all that, all hope of reforming the church was lost, along with the role of the secularists in the church. The clergy began to take control over everything. No longer was there a role either for the Consultative Council (maglis mili), or for the church committees. The bishops became the controllers of everything, enacting laws that do not fit with the age that we live in, and that do not agree with Christianity, and doing all this without any accountability. And this was the situation inside the church. As for outside of the church, the clear State-neglect off Coptic issues resulted in Copts turning increasingly to the church for representation. This helped create clerics who imagined that they were responsible for the Copts in more than merely religious areas-- in all the affairs of our lives. During this period many religiously incompetent clerics were consecrated.
With all the talk on reform in Islam, we sometimes forget that the Coptic church could use a bit of reform as well. Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of Islamic reform and the rhetoric of Asaad talking here about reform in the Coptic church. The clergy has too much power, interferes in political matters, enacts policies that are out of sync with the age we live in... There are many parallels to be drawn I think. Asaad goes on to criticize the pope for his handling of several recent issues, including the incident of a sex scandal involving a priest, and two recent movies which many Copts objected to. He accuses the Pope of exploiting all these issues to seize more political power.
The big blow came when the priest’s wife converted to Islam. For the first time the church took a stance that was not only incorrect, it was flat wrong. For this lady was not kidnapped, and was not forced to convert to Islam, and did not marry her colleague. The bishops of Buhayra knew all this, before they roused the youth to protest in Cairo...
Rousing the youth, sending them to Cairo, the spreading of lies and of incorrect information, was a means of pressure on the government, and the exploitation of the internal and external political environment. So are these, your holiness, political or religious actions? Where are the church’s Christian values when it protests and insults others? Are you not responsible for the several day long protests staged by the youth? And it did not occur to you, your holiness, that there are Muslims in this country, and that there is a reaction to every action, or is this not possible in moments charged with tension? Did your holinesses not think that if a woman, who converted to Islam of her own free will, was surrendered to the church, that this would provoke a reaction similar to what is happening now with the cases being raised against the security services and Al Azhar? And is all this Coptic anger simply because she is the wife of a bishop? Why not do this with the tens of other cases of wives of non-bishops? Or is the wife of a bishop equivalent to the mother of the Christians as some wrongly think?
As for your entering into politics, this exposes you to many problems, as there is nothing sanctified in politics, and there are no holy politicians. And how is it that you imagine yourself responsible for the Copts in affairs other than religion? And where is the constitutional or legal appropriateness for you to be responsible for the Copts? And what is the role of the State in this? And what is the relationship of the Copts to the state?
I want to say to your holinesses that because of what has happened recently the church and you personally has lost much standing in Muslim public opinion and in the general public opinion. You have lost standing with the regime which remains afraid of America. Are we to believe what is said about the Copts supporting the American pressure on the Muslims? If so, then where is the equality and unity among Egyptians? And is your holiness not accountable for the calls inside the Cathedral for American intervention?
Shenouda's recent defiance fits more with the Pope in his early years. Shenouda was a journalist and a poet before he became a monk. As a monk he was responsible for education, and he began a tradition of delivering weekly lessons. The lessons became popular; thousands of people began coming, making him a powerful force inside the Church. There were two schools among the Coptic clergy at that time. Here is Muhammad Hassanein Heikal describing that division in his book "Autumn of Fury": "One school, led by Shenouda, argued that the Church was an all-embracing institution which could provide a solution to all problems and an answer to all questions, temporal as well as spiritual. The other school, represented by Miskeen, insisted that religion was essentially a matter for the individual conscience, and should have nothing to do with politics." These two schools described by Heikal, are essentially the same two schools that are reflected in Asaad's article above. Of course, when Pope Korollos died in 1971, Shenouda prevailed. He's now quite old (nearing 80 I believe), and many are suggesting that the church's recent hard headedness is somehow a manifestation of succession struggles.
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ADHR to come out independently next month

As expected, the latest Arab Human Development Report will be coming without the support of the UNDP logo, the Daily Star's Rami Khouri reports:
BEIRUT: The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is expected to decide within a week whether or not it will publish under its name the third "Arab Human Development Report" that has drawn strong American and Egyptian government criticism, according to the report's lead writer. If UNDP declines to publish the report, Egyptian scholar Nader Fergani told The Daily Star in a telephone interview from Cairo, the report's 20-member advisory board of Arab scholars and intellectuals will publish it themselves next month through a new, independent organization to be established in Beirut.
As the article explains, it's likely the ADHR team will have little problem finding funding, so they will be able to continue their work with a fourth and final report on the empowerment of women. We published here an interview with Fergany a couple of weeks ago.
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Anti-Semitism report out

The State Department's new Global anti-Semitism report is now out. There is little for me to add to what I've said before about it being a bad idea to single out a particular group as a victim over others when there's plenty of racism going around for everyone. The main thing that the report points out as far as the Middle East is concerned is that:
Anti-Semitic violence was almost entirely associated with anti-Israeli terrorism and was not geographically widespread. Numerous attacks occurred in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and incitements to violence originated from the Occupied Territories. As well, terrorist bombings in Morocco in May 2003 and at the Taba Hilton in Egypt in October were accompanied by communiqués containing anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israeli statements. Terrorist organizations' propaganda in the region frequently was anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Israeli.
Compared with their coverage of Europe, there is thus a lot less anti-Semitic violence but much more anti-Semitic sentiment, which often comes from official sources. No surprise there. The most controversial point of the report, in my opinion, is how to make the distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. The report states that:
For the purposes of this report, anti-Semitism is considered to be hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity. An important issue is the distinction between legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.
I don't think I can agree with that last point -- the Nazi symbol represents, on an abstract level, brutal repression, and that is certainly what is happening in Palestine even if is far from being on the scale of Auschwitz. The fact is that swastika has become a convenient universal symbol to denote unjust oppression, something that suggests awareness of the Holocaust may be growing even outside of the West. It may be stupid to call leaders one doesn't like "Nazis" but it doesn't have to be anti-Semitic, even when it is used against the leaders of Israel. Besides, to a certain extent the use of Nazi imagery in anti-Israeli cartoons is designed precisely to elicit an emotional response.
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Al Qaeda's grand strategem

The Asia Times has an interesting article on Al Qaeda's unfinished work, arguing that what the organization is really after is drawing the US into a battle that would cause a worldwide Muslim backlash, beginning with the toppling of US-friendly regimes in Muslim countries. At the center of this strategy is what they call "the Egyptian camp", led by Ayman Zawahri and other top Al Qaeda commandants:
By the time the Taliban had emerged as a force in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, the Egyptian camp had settled on its strategies, the most important being:
  • To speak out against corrupt and despotic Muslim governments and make them targets, as this would destroy their image in the eyes of the common people, who interrelate state, rulers and nation.
  • Focus on the US role, which is to support Israel and tyrant Middle Eastern countries, and make everyone understand this.
  • The 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, were the start of al-Qaeda's - as it was now known - offensive against US interests. In retaliation, though, the US launched cruise missiles on Kandahar and Khost in Afghanistan. Consequent to this, al-Qaeda formed a special task force to plan for the September 11 attacks.
    It took three years for the plan to reach fruition, but discussions continued after September 11 among members of the Egyptian camp - who were now senior members of al-Qaeda - over broader plans to bring the world's superpower to its knees.
  • Before October 7, 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for September 11, most of al-Qaeda's top minds had already left the country. Their mission involved several targets:
  • To ideologically cultivate new faces from strategic communities, such as among armed forces and intelligence circles.
  • Get these new recruits to establish cells.
  • Each cell would be assigned to raise its own resources to chalk out a plan. However, only one of them would implement a plan, the others would serve as decoys to "misdirect" intelligence agencies.
  • An interesting theory, and one that seems to be working so far.
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    Nuclear Egypt?

    Once again "diplomats" are telling journalists that Egypt has a program to build nuclear weapons:
    VIENNA, Austria - The U.N. atomic watchdog agency has found evidence of secret nuclear experiments in Egypt that could be used in weapons programs, diplomats said Tuesday.
    The diplomats told The Associated Press that most of the work was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s but said the International Atomic Energy Agency also was looking at evidence suggesting some work was performed as recently as a year ago.
    But look further down the story to see exactly what they're talking about:
    The diplomat said the Vienna-based IAEA had not yet drawn a conclusion about the scope and purpose of the experiments. But the work appeared to have been sporadic, involved small amounts of material and lacked a particular focus, the diplomat said.
    That, he said, indicated that the work was not directly geared toward creating a full-scale program to make nuclear weapons.
    The diplomat said that Egypt's program was not "cohesive."
    I mentioned this story (here, here and here) when it first came out in early November and seemed to be more of an attack on Mohamed Al Baradei than one on Egypt, with some sources suggesting that Baradei had helped cover up the Egyptian program during his tenure as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog. Since it was just announced at the beginning of the week that Baradei would be running unopposed to a third term despite US objections, the timing is a bit suspicious. Equally suspicious is the State Dept's answer to the allegations -- take a look at yesterday's Q&A on the topic, in which the State spokesman evades all attempts to find out whether the US is raising the issue bilaterally with Egypt:
    QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this IAEA report regarding Egypt and the research with uranium that may be in violation of non-proliferation treaties?
    MR. ERELI: We've seen the press reports. We don't have anything definitive or authoritative from the IAEA. I expect we'll be discussing these press reports with them.
    As a general matter, we certainly believe it's imperative that member-states comply with their nuclear safeguards obligations, and we support the International Atomic Energy Agency in its efforts to investigate and document compliance by member states with their Nuclear Proliferation Treaty obligations and safeguards agreements. And I would note that Egypt is a member of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or is a signatory to Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
    QUESTION: But you haven't jumped on this yet? Nobody's been in touch with the Egyptian Government yet?
    MR. ERELI: Not that I'm aware, on this issue.
    QUESTION: But, I'm sorry, did you say we'll be discussing it with them?
    MR. ERELI: With the IAEA.
    QUESTION: Oh, with the IAEA. I see. Isn't there an impact on U.S. foreign policy?
    MR. ERELI: Well, let's see what the facts are before talking about impact.
    QUESTION: Well, in the Middle East, your former friend, Abu Mazen --
    QUESTION: Actually, could I just follow up --
    MR. ERELI: I'm sorry, let's continue this.
    QUESTION: -- follow up on that. I mean, does the U.S., separately from the IAEA, have any concerns or any information that corroborates?
    MR. ERELI: I think the -- we -- at this point, we would defer to the IAEA to present the evidence that it has. I'm not in a position to talk about what indications we may or may not have. I think that, in our experience, Egypt has been a responsible -- has been a responsible member of the NPT and has a -- as I said, has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA. And that's our view of the situation.
    QUESTION: With all your criticism of the IAEA in the past, though, about reports on different countries, why would you just wait and take the IAEA's word for something and not check with Egypt yourself?
    MR. ERELI: Well, you know, the question was about press reports that the IAEA has discovered things, so let's see what the IAEA has, let's discuss it in the proper forum, which is the IAEA, and, with the other members of the IAEA, based on what the findings are, decide what the appropriate action is. You guys are, you know, saying -- I think jumping to conclusions and saying take steps before you know what the facts are.
    QUESTION: No. Why don't you just ask?
    MR. ERELI: The issue is let's find the facts. The IAEA is the body with the authority to investigate member-states' compliance with the NPT and with safeguards agreements. The questions relate to those kinds of activities, so it's perfectly appropriate to look to the IAEA to report on what they've found and to act on that basis.
    So it's, you know, it's -- that's the procedure that works, that's the procedure that we'll follow, and it's on that basis that we'll make decisions about what appropriate next steps are.
    QUESTION: Is it possible to find out if the U.S. has ever bilaterally raised this issue in the past with Egypt?
    MR. ERELI: I can ask.
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    Limeys down on Israel, Egypt

    It seems that Brits really don't think much about Israel:
    LONDON - British Jewish leaders on Tuesday said they were not surprised by a poll published in the Daily Telegraph on Monday showing that Britons consider Israel one of the most undemocratic, unsafe, unfriendly and unattractive countries in the world.
    Well, I'm sure that's going to make a lot of Arabs happy -- especially the undemocratic bit, which shows that at least some people realize that countries that brutally occupy other countries shouldn't be considered democratic -- but they're also pretty down on Egypt, if you take a look at the top results:
    British poll results
    I'm particularly surprised that Egypt is considered, along with the US, as the fifth least friendly country -- quite on the contrary, both Egyptians and Americans tend to be known for their friendliness. For the least beautiful, OK sure most of the country is a rocky desert, but I thought most tourists went to the Red Sea, which is rather nice. After all Tony Blair has spent his Christmas holidays there for the past three years. More seriously, it's obvious that these results were influenced by the reputation of the countries for their poverty or political situation. The occupation and treatment of Palestinians is what got Israel (a rather pretty country in the Mediterranean style with some very nice national parks in some parts) and Egypt must have suffered from the high profile given to the treatment of gays, among other things. All in all, a rather stupid poll which tells you more about Britain than anything else. Notice all the best countries are ones with a majority of white populations and former British colonies?
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    Saadawi on women and the presidency

    Nawal Saadawi, potential candidate in the Egyptian presidential election, had an amusing column in Al Hayat a few days ago that has been translated:
    News about nominating myself for the presidency in Egypt initiated a debate within all popular circles and political and religious authorities until Sheikh Al-Azhar Mohamad Sayyed Tantawi issued his Fatwa (religious edict), allowing a woman to become a president. Thus Al-Azhar scholars were divided, some opposed him and others supported him, including the Islamic Research Academy Secretary General Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Fayoumi. He announced his support to Sheikh Tantawi's Fatwa and assured that Islam does not discriminate between men and women in the workplace, but the choice of work is left to how much it suits the nature of each.    
    The expression "the nature of each" opens the door for many questions: what is human nature? Is it something constant that does not change over the centuries? Does the man have a different nature than that of the woman? Is the difference in the mental, physical, biological, psychological or other differences? Is the nature of an American or European woman different than that of an Egyptian or Arab woman?
    Why then did Margaret Thatcher rule Britain for a number of years with an iron hand? I used to see her walking with her head up, proud, and surrounded with Arab rulers and other Presidents, Kings, or Sultans in the so-called Arab world. They used to walk behind her, with bowed heads, bent backs, or broken noses, surrendering to her English colonial decisions.
    It's over the top, as things tend to be with Saadawi, but worth reading.
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    Elections across the region

    In an AP story this morning, Sarah Al Deeb picks up on an obvious trend: there are elections scheduled across the Arab world for 2005, many of them extremely important to the political future of the country where they will be held.
    From Baghdad to Cairo, from Riyadh to the Gaza Strip, election is the mantra for 2005.
    Iraqis, Palestinians, Egyptians, even Saudis will be going to the polls, giving them a new sense of power in a region largely run by monarchs and dictators even in places where parliaments exist.
    But some say it doesn’t necessarily signal real change.
    “Elections are a magic word. You have got the magic word, but you don’t have magic without delivering,” said Saudi analyst Mai Yamani, with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
    “I don’t think there is any significance unless there is genuine intent to reform, share of power, minimize the power of the ruling elite, end corruption.”
    Fahmi Howeidi, a liberal Islamic thinker in Egypt, says the January 9 Palestinian election is the only one where there are real political players and the possibility of change.
    In Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it’s just “painting the house,” he said. “The results are known and there will be no fundamental change… a soap opera, a response to American pressure, and not a result of popular demand or a strong political action. There is no political struggle.”
    I have to disagree with Howeidi on several counts. First, if anything the Palestinian elections should not be included as ones where there is a real "possibility of change" since the outcome is already almost certain and that the main opposition figures have been discouraged from running. It has been made clear by the ruling Palestinian elite (that same one that hung around "corrupt" Arafat for decades) and by its main international backers that no other outcome will be tolerated -- not even Marwan Barghouti, and never mind the Islamist fundamentalists. I also worry that the prospect of early general elections in Israel if Sharon can't get his coalition together for a Gaza pullout. Over the past decade Israeli elections have tended to produce situations were previously negotiated agreements are reneged by the incoming government, which has differing priorities. It's hard enough to get things moving in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the moment without changes in government (as happy as I would be seeing Sharon leave, there are plenty of equally bad people to replace him, and also many worse ones like Netanyahu.) Secondly, the elections in Iraq are worth being a little more hopeful about. Despite that they are also being set up to ensure a specific result -- the election of Iyad Allawi -- the fact that there are strong alternative centers of power in that country make the general outcome less predictable. Yes, many will be afraid to vote. Yes, the elections may not be that credible. Yes, there is a danger that Sunnis will feel left out. But for better or for worse they will finally start an internal process of deciding what kind of constitution the country should have, and my feeling is that there are too many powerful blocs to make the imposition of a certain outcome really possible. So while there is a risk of civil war, there is also a chance of real political dialogue, compromises and deal-making -- in other words, ordinary politics. The result not being certain is a good thing. It's encouraging that even neighboring Syria has agreed to help Iraqis who live there to vote, which is ironic considering that Syrians themselves have no meaningful voting rights. And Arabs across the region are talking about these Iraqi elections, and seemingly getting more excited about them than their own. I'm even slightly positive about the Saudi elections, although of course they won't come close to solving that country's problems nor changing its incredibly craven leadership. But there are a lot of important local issues that need to be tackled in Saudi Arabia -- bread and butter stuff such as sanitation and so on -- and at least Saudis will be able to elect their local representative. What is rather depressing is the increasingly likely that despite rising opposition Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, 76, will probably be president for another six years. The ruling National Democratic Party will be announcing its candidate in March and the referendum will be taking place in September. The creepiest thing about this is that the referendum will be taking place before the parliamentary elections, now scheduled for November, meaning that an exiting People's Assembly will be electing the president, which is particularly ridiculous considering that it is parliament that chooses the candidate for the presidential referendum. In terms of elections in the Arab world, 2004 was depressing enough -- particularly with the sick joke of a presidential election in Tunisia. There is a great risk of just picking up the technical aspects of democracy, such as elections, without its spirit. Let's hope 2005 will be better.
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    Mubarak poll splits Muslim Brotherhood

    Yesterday's polling of public opinion by Al Misry Al Yom has triggered dissent inside the Muslim Brotherhood. While Egypt’s opposition leaders were near unanimous in taking a defiant stance against Mubarak, Mahdi Akef, leader of Egypt’s most powerful “opposition� force, sang a different tune.
    Al Misry Al Yom: Is the Muslim Brotherhood requesting an end to the rule of President Mubarak?
    Akef: I am not asking for that because I don't know whether whoever will follow him will be better. The problem is with the regime/system in its entirety. Let me tell you that at least we know President Mubarak. As for what will come after him we don't know him. The regime now is a police, dictatorial single man regime. I don't have any say in the matter. Our problem is with this regime/system, not with President Mubarak personally.
    Al Misry: But most of the opposition powers are demanding that Mubarak end his reign?
    Akef: There is no opposition in Egypt. And the problem is not President Mubarak. Rather it is the regime that he is overseeing. He is a man that we respect in every way, because he is the guardian of the state (waly al amr), and Islam, in the holy Koran, obliges us to obey him. We want the people to choose and to speak their mind and the Muslim Brotherhood will stand with them.
    Al Misry: But the people see the need to change item 167 of the constitution (which deals with how the president is elected)?
    Akef: If they truly want that then the MB is with them, but the people do not want that.
    Apparently Akef’s statements didn’t please other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the response from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as printed in Al Misry Al Yom the following day. Essam El Erian: "The demand to change the constitution is something that all the political powers agree on, because choosing the president of the republic from among more than one candidate is a basic condition for healthy democratic elections." Muhammad Abd Al Qadoos, a writer and member of the Muslim Brotherhood: "Every opposition force in Egypt, foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood, is demanding the elections of a president from among a number of candidates. Given that the supreme guide was requesting something other than that, he was expressing his personal opinion and that is his right... Changing the we elect the president is a condition of reform and a condition of democracy in this country. Elections must be between a number of candidates, so as to ensure that president is elected." Abdel Monem Abdel Maqsoud, lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood: "The demand to change the constitution to get rid of the single candidate referendum as a means to choose the president is a just demand and we differ with the what the supreme guide said. This is a basic demand of reform." Abu Ala Al Maadi, head of Al Wasat party and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood had this to say: “The statements of Akef are outside the national consensus, and provoke a number of doubts about the true positions of the MB.� Here is more of the New Years Day poll in Al Misry Al Yom. The headline was: "The politicians and the thinkers have reservations... university youth say No... citizens are between no and yes..."
    Thinkers, politicos, and intellectuals rejected a renewal of Mubarak for a number of reasons, among them: not conducting political and constitutional reform, the regime’s slowness in carrying out comprehensive changes and constitutional changes, in addition to the economic crisis that has become worse in recent years.
    As for the man on the street and citizens in Cairo and the governorates, they varied between yes and no, but the bigger percentage of them said they did not want Mubarak to be president again. They gave as their reasons the problems and crises confronting the citizens whether on the level of political and civil rights or economic considerations, especially the decrease in income levels and crazy price increases. Meanwhile many citizens said they wanted Mubarak to continue leading the country for various reasons, among them: maintaining stability and security, his long experience in overseeing the affairs of leadership, in addition to his success in dealing with the United States, Israeli and the other dangers that confront the nation.
    But the true surprise came inside the fences of Egyptian Universities, as a crushing majority of youth in the universities said a frank “no� to another term for Mubarak. They demanded a change of blood inside the regime, and expressed on their hopes that the future would be better for them, considering that it belongs to them more than others.
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    Ukraine effect

    I went to the Muhammad Munir concert last night. Munir is among Egypt's most popular singers today. He came on stage wearing a bright orange shirt and an equally absurd orange scarf. A few songs into his set he told the crowd that he was wearing orange "not because I am happy with the Arabs, but because I am happy with Ukraine." Al Misry Al Yom has kicked off the New Year with a rather impressive and courageous man-on-the-street opinion poll on Mubarak. There are no percentage approval ratings like we are used to seeing in our presidential polls, but there are two full inside pages devoted to assorted people, some known and others just average Egyptians, sounding off on Mubarak. I'll translate and post some of the highlights tomorrow when I have more time.
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