The best of Al Qaeda

Asia Times Online describes an Al Qaeda compilation CD (why call it state-of-the-art, though?) that is being sold illegally in South Asia and the Middle East. The CD is quite well put together, apparently, reminding me of the high production quality of an Iraqi insurgency video a few months ago. That seemed to have been put together in part by and for British Muslims of Indian and Pakistani origin; this CD, with English and Urdu subtitles, could be targeted to the same people. But of course, nowadays any vaguely techy person could make their own VCD or DVD.
Asia Times Online, meanwhile, has learned of the release in Afghanistan of a state-of-the-art CD comprising selected speeches by Osama bin Laden from 2002 to December 2004. The CD is already available (illegally) in Pakistan and in parts of the Middle East. Security experts believe that soon it will flood the market as the first step towards a broader al-Qaeda goal; to shed its shadowy image and openly propagate the call for mass jihad against the US and any other foreign occupiers in the Middle East. The CD's speeches address specific audiences, like the one in 2002 to the Pakistani nation, the 2003 speech to Americans, a speech in 2004 to Europe and the December 2004 address to the people of the Arabian peninsula (Saudi Arabia). The CD includes horrifying images of war and destruction in Iraq, and pays tribute to the Iraqi resistance. Unlike in the past, the CD appears to have been made by professionals in a well-equipped studio. The audio and visual effects are clear, with English subtitles for non-Arabic speakers. Additionally, separate formatted files include transcripts in languages such as Urdu, Persian, English and Arabic.
The Asia Times article also includes a lot of interesting material on the US' propaganda war, most notably its contract with the Lincoln Group to plant pro-US articles in the Iraqi media, but rather unconvincingly contrast the CD and the article planting as two parts of a media war. Not really, I would say, since one is covert and narrowly targeted while the other seems part of an effort to gain a higher public profile. Update: some recent related articles about the article-planting scandal:
  • Comic writer Henry Beard confesses to planting pro-American jokes in Baghdad papers.
  • The LA Times editorial makes "Godfather" analogies.
  • Whirldview, a blog, says that there more US companies involved in psy-ops than the Lincoln Group.
  • From Aqoul: Arab journalists "weak and corrupt," says top Dubai honcho while demanding more positive spin.
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Bouteflika death watch?

Arab leaders are notoriously cagey about their personal health, and right now, Algeria has not one but two top officials receiving treatment from French doctors amidst high levels of secrecy, says Le Figaro. Yazid Zehrouni, 67, the minister of interior, has been in a French hospital since October, ostensibly for a kidney transplant. He has appeared on Algerian radio once to assuage rumors that he was dying. An even higher-ranking guest of French military doctors (remember, they also treated Mubarak and Arafat and most recently the greatest of all Arab leaders, Jacques Chirac) is President Bouteflika (68) himself, who checked in on November 26 to operate on an ulcer. He hasn't been heard from since despite assurances by his cabinet that he would return promptly. The Algerian press is wondering about all the secrecy if the operation was routine and there are reports that his convalescence could be extended. One to watch.
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Egyptian web editor arrested

The web editor of balady.net, an Egyptian Islamist website, has been arrested:
Egyptian authorities have arrested the second online journalist in six weeks, closing his website and confiscating work material. Ahmed Mahmoud Abdallah, also known as 'Abu-Islam', is editor of the Balady Net news site and former editor of the now defunct opposition newspaper Al-Shaab. He is a member of the Union of Egyptian Journalists and head of the Centre for Islamic Enlightenment, a project that aims to encourage different religions to work together. Mr Abdallah was arrested in Cairo on 5 December by state security agents.
I would assume that this had to do with the recent arrests of Brotherhood supporters, but I don't know much about this case right now.
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A violent end

With the death toll now at eight, hundreds of wounded and more than 1300 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in jail, the end of election season is rather grim. It all looked so much more hopeful during the first round, which was carried out with minimal fraud and interference (but excessive vote buying.) Baheyya's collection of pictures more or less says it all. The Brotherhood still got 12 more MPs elected, bringing the total to 88, and one really wonders whether all this mess was necessary to prevent them from getting closer to 100, considering that in any case it makes no difference to their power in parliament and only a little symbolic difference. The NDP has about 70% of parliament, more than enough, although nearly half of those seats come from "independents" who rejoined the NDP as soon as they were elected. The state press, which had begun to be more even-handed in recent months, is today back to its bad old habits: unlike the independent papers, judges, election monitors and various foreign news agencies, it is claiming that Islamists were behind the violence, taking its cue from preposterous ministry of interior press releases that contain gems such as:
The incidents of violence witnessed during the election were the product of various candidates, in particular Islamists, and the strict neutrality of the security forces, so strict that they were even accused of 'passive neutrality'. These incidents required that security forces respond sternly to restore order and secure the electoral process, a position which was repeated in numerous statements by the Ministry of Interior. These statements went unheeded by various candidates and their supporters, in particular Islamists, who insisted on abusing the unprecedented climate of freedom which the country is witnessing.
Or:
These negative aspects should not divert attention from the concrete achievements of Egypt's political reform process which cannot be ignored by any objective and fair analysis of the election. They will not stall the process of reform or thwart our commitment to deepen democracy.
The effrontery of it all. For more reporting see: "Egypt slips down democracy ladder" (FT) "Islamists build on gains in violent elections" and "Egypt ruling Party Wins Clear Majority" (Reuters) "Police attack voters during last day of Egypt elections" (WP) "Brotherhood Wins 12 Egypt Parliament Seats" (AP)
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Final day of elections still as bloody

At least two dead, dozens wounded, massive police presence preventing people from voting in some districts, and clear targeting of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Welcome to "New Thinking". There's some fine and extensive reporting by the AP here. Results, as always, won't come out until very late tonight or tomorrow at the earliest, but Reuters quoted a Muslim Brotherhood official as saying they expected another 15-20 seats.
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More on State Dept. comments on elections

So the State Dept. is fine-tuning its statement in light of the grumbling over last week's praise of Egypt's conduct of the election. The point seems to be that while not perfect, these elections are a vast improvement on what happened previously. On the one hand, it's true that the size of the opposition in parliament is much bigger than it previously was. But on the other, I think -- and we're likely to have this confirmed tomorrow -- that this election has seen the most violence and vote-blocking. This is a country where the police spends its time stopping citizens from voting when an election's results start to bother it. That's hardly something praise-worthy. (Key passage highlighted.) Daily Press Briefing for December 6 -- Transcript:
QUESTION: Human rights groups are reporting some widespread violations in the Egyptian elections and there's been 69 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested today, and also Mr. Nour has been detained. So I just wondered whether your assessment of the Egyptian elections so far is the same as it has been in recent weeks, or do you think so far that it is a free and fair vote? And I just wondered if you had any further comment on how it's progressing. I think it's the final round on Wednesday. MR. ERELI: Yeah. There are a number of, I think, points to make. We've seen the detention today of Ayman Nour, who is a prominent leader of political opposition in Egypt. We've also seen a number of developments over the past couple weeks during the parliamentary elections that raise serious concerns about the path of political reform in Egypt. Those developments include the arrest of opposition candidates and their supporters. They include clashes between Egyptian security personnel and voters, physical abuse of domestic monitors and journalists, as well as the barring of domestic monitors and in some cases even voters from polling places. Clearly, these actions send the wrong signal about Egypt's commitment to democracy and freedom, and we see them as inconsistent with the Government of Egypt's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society. I would note that in this context the Egyptian people themselves are having a debate about these latest developments and on Egyptian TV, both government and private, you see a vigorous debate about these developments and about what they mean for the future of Egyptian democracy and Egyptian society. So it's not just us that's saying this. It's the Egyptian people themselves that are noting these developments with concern and asking serious questions about how it may relate to the future of their own country. And that's as it should be. With regard to Mr. Nour's case in particular, I think that I would note that the presiding judge has ordered that he be remanded to custody pending a hearing on December 10th. We would call upon the Government of Egypt to make every effort to ensure that this trial conforms to international standards and we've also made it clear that we will be watching this trial closely, and that with respect to this trial, as well as the other political activity in Egypt, we and the international community, I think, believe that the Egyptian people should be free to speak and assemble and choose their leaders in an atmosphere free from intimidation. QUESTION: And what's your view of the arrest of the 69 Muslim Brotherhood -- MR. ERELI: Yeah. As I said -- QUESTION: -- on the eve of the vote and if they should be released -- MR. ERELI: Yeah. Well, first of all, I don't have the details of those cases. We view these arrests in the context, as I said, of a political process that has been characterized, as I said, by intimidation and harassment and is inconsistent with the Egyptian Government's commitment to openness and freedom. So without getting to the specifics of these cases because I'm not familiar with the specifics, I can say that they are part and parcel of an atmosphere, a general atmosphere, which, frankly, does not meet the expectations of the international community or, frankly, the Egyptian people themselves. QUESTION: Have you been in touch with the -- sorry -- have you been in touch with -- MR. ERELI: I'm sorry. What is the follow-up? QUESTION: You seem, the words that you're giving us now, you seem to be taking a harsher stand on this. Have you made any formal complaints to the Egyptian Government or am I reading the tealeaves a bit too much? MR. ERELI: No. QUESTION: You seem to be making a much more forceful criticism than previous -- MR. ERELI: I think we've been fairly outspoken frankly about how we see things going in Egypt from the beginning. Starting with the Secretary when she went to Cairo and gave her speech at American University where she was very forthright about the importance of democracy, first and foremost, to Egyptians and the people of the region, as well as to the United States. Second of all, in the presidential election, we provided you with our assessment of things, but also made the point that -- and I think this is an important one and it should not be lost in our discussion -- that this is first and foremost an issue for the Egyptians to wrestle with and to come to terms with, their democratic development, their process of reform and their fulfillment of the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. And in the context of the presidential elections, we said that the -- amending the constitution to allow for multiparty contestation of the presidency was a significant and positive step and that in the wake of those elections we looked to the Government of Egypt to follow through on its commitments to make progress in meeting standards that it had set for itself in the parliamentary elections. And during the course of these parliamentary elections, we have said that in many cases, those standards are not being met. QUESTION: Adam, if I can follow up on that. I think it was last week, it was either you or Sean, that you were saying that you were convinced that the Egyptian Government did share the U.S. goal of ensuring free and fair elections. Do you think that is still the case? MR. ERELI: That is the stated commitment and stated position of the Egyptian Government and take them at their word. QUESTION: While, okay, take them at their actions as well. Do you think their actions fulfill their -- MR. ERELI: There are, you know, there are actions that we have noted and that, again, let me emphasize, the Egyptians themselves have noted, that are disturbing and that raise concerns. And in our representations to the Government of Egypt of which there have been numerous, at both the senior and working levels, we have urged the Egyptian Government and civil society as well to act in ways that meet international standards, are consistent with commitments and stated policy of the Government of Egypt, and help advance the development of democracy in Egypt. Is it perfect? Have there been problems? Is it perfect, no. Have there been problems? Yes. Has progress been made? Certainly. If you look at where Egypt is now in terms of reforms and openness and democratic development versus where it was a year or two years ago, I think it's important to note that there has been important progress made. Are there problems still? Yes. Are these problems that the Egyptian Government is aware of, the Egyptian people are aware of? Yes. It is something that they themselves are debating and working through and trying to resolve? Yes. And our role, the position of the United States is to try to help them do that, to try to identify -- help them identify and work through issues that are problematic, to help cooperate with civil society and others to ensure openness and transparency and to engage in a common endeavor, in a spirit of partnership and alliance so that, frankly, the desires of the Egyptian people can be fulfilled. QUESTION: Adam, when you first started talking and when the Secretary and the President first started talking about this whole democracy agenda, you said that your relationships with countries would be governed in part by their commitment to freedom and democracy. In your representations to the Egyptian Government are you making clear that this could have a negative impact on the future of U.S. relations, given the fact that you do have very close relations with the Egyptians on many issues, including the Middle East and Iraq? MR. ERELI: Right. Right. You know, we make the point worldwide that, you know, we've talked about it with respect to other countries as well, that -- I guess, two points: One is the pace and scope of change is something for every country to decide, based on the circumstances and the history of that country. We've also made the point that as democracy develops, as fundamental freedoms blossom, so does the relationship with the United States and that, I think, you can apply it to other countries. The development of -- there is a link between the development of democracy and the depth of the relationship with the United States, simply because the fuller the democracy, the greater the share of interest and the more we have in common and the more we can, I think, the more we can engage, the broader can be our engagement, the deeper can be our engagement. That doesn't meant to say that if there are problems and things are slow or things take a while, that’s going to hurt the bilateral relationship, but I think I'd put it in a more positive perspective. And that is, as they grow and develop and become a fuller, richer, more vibrant democracy and more vibrant civil society, so does the relationship with the United States.
Today a friend spoke to a leading election monitor who received US funding for his training. His words: "We appreciate the financial support, but we also need moral support. Frankly, this [State Dept.] statement is ridiculous."
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Busy, busy, busy

Some interesting links I don't have time to blog about at length:
The federal government received failing and mediocre grades yesterday from the former Sept. 11 commission, whose members said in a final report that the Bush administration and Congress have balked at enacting numerous reforms that could save American lives and prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The 10-member bipartisan panel -- whose book-length report about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks became a surprise bestseller -- issued a "report card" that included 5 F's, 12 D's and two "incompletes" in categories including airline passenger screening and improving first responders' communication system. The group also said there has been little progress in forcing federal agencies to share intelligence and terrorism information and sharply criticized government efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction or establish clear standards for the proper treatment of U.S. detainees.
  • A letter from Human Rights Watch to Condoleeza Rice about the State Dept.'s comments on the elections in Egypt, which has received some prominent coverage here in the opposition press:
We are writing to express our astonishment at the statements yesterday by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack regarding state-inspired violence and irregularities in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Mr. McCormack’s statements, including his assertion that the State Department has “not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian Government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections,� are utterly disconnected from the reality of what is happening in Egypt today. They make a mockery of the policies you and President Bush have articulated on numerous occasions this year regarding the importance of respect for democratic freedoms in the Middle East generally and in Egypt in particular.
  • Novelist Adhaf Soueif has published her diary of the last few months in The Guardian. It is rather predictable considering she is related to some of Egypt's most prominent leftist activists and even, yes, the very politicized yet apolitical (or is it the other way around?) blogger Alaa of Manalaa.net:
Most Egyptians believe the country is being plundered for the enrichment of an elite that owes allegiance to foreign powers. This is not a new state of affairs. There's even (as there would be) an old proverb that says "Masr kheirha legheirha" - Egypt's bounty is for outsiders. But what colours today's scene with tremendous urgency is a fear the ruling regime will attempt to perpetuate itself for another generation, handing power from Mubarak the father to Mubarak the son through the ruling National Democratic Party. Hence there is a perception that if power is not wrested from this regime, then Egyptians can wave goodbye to any hope of reasonable levels of economic prosperity and social justice. Life is already very hard. If pushed the remaining few centimetres into despair, who knows what forces the country might succumb to? And if Egypt descends into chaos, what will the effect be on the rest of the region? It is the conviction that the country needs to be saved now that is driving the turbulence in universities, courts, unions, and on the streets.
  • Republican presidential hopeful Chuck Hagel visits Cairo and impresses all with his eloquence and political acumen:
Q: Parliamentary elections are going on, what is your opinion on it? Senator Hagel: I have a difficult time just dealing with my own elections, and so I never venture guesses or opinions on any one else's elections, although I think it is important to have elections. I am a great proponent of elections, if you win (laughter). But we are seeing more elections in this part of the world, and I think that is a very good sign. All people of all nations need opportunities to express themselves, and govern themselves and that's what elections are about, and elections produce self-governance.
WHILE the Bush administration and its critics escalated the debate last week over how long our troops should stay in Iraq, I was able to see the issue through the eyes of America's friends in the Persian Gulf region. The Arab states agree on one thing: Iran is emerging as the big winner of the American invasion, and both President Bush's new strategy and the Democratic responses to it dangerously miss the point. It's a devastating critique. And, unfortunately, it is correct.
  • The ICG has a new report out on Lebanon in which they recommend against pressure to disarm Hizbullah, the organization the Bush administration has said is more dangerous than Al Qaeda:
While short-term efforts to disarm Hizbollah are likely to backfire in the absence of progress on the peace process, some steps could be taken to gradually integrate its military wing under national army control.
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Mistaken rendition

There is a must-read story in the Washington Post about the pitfalls of the ever-expanding rendition program run by the CIA:
In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation. Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations. The Masri case, with new details gleaned from interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret. The CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people, including several key leaders of al Qaeda, in its campaign to dismantle terrorist networks. It is impossible to know, however, how many mistakes the CIA and its foreign partners have made. Unlike the military's prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- where 180 prisoners have been freed after a review of their cases -- there is no tribunal or judge to check the evidence against those picked up by the CIA. The same bureaucracy that decides to capture and transfer a suspect for interrogation-- a process called "rendition" -- is also responsible for policing itself for errors. The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials. One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said. "They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said. While the CIA admitted to Germany's then-Interior Minister Otto Schily that it had made a mistake, it has labored to keep the specifics of Masri's case from becoming public. As a German prosecutor works to verify or debunk Masri's claims of kidnapping and torture, the part of the German government that was informed of his ordeal has remained publicly silent. Masri's attorneys say they intend to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts this week. Masri was held for five months largely because the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center's al Qaeda unit "believed he was someone else," one former CIA official said. "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."
This story is very familiar to me, not because there have been other cases that appear similar (although they exist), but because it is reminiscent in what often happens in the Arab world. People are suspected, but either illegally or through emergency laws that let security services bypass normal legal procedures, suspects are essentially vanished. Some never reappear, others only after a long time during which their lives are shattered and they are often tortured. Such systems are of course ripe for abuse, whether because of the incompetence of the officials that run them (here the CIA high-ranking official with a "hunch") or because they are used for personal retribution (for instance as is now common in Iraq when informants turn in people they don't like over to US or Iraqi forces). According to the Post's story, "On the day of his release, the prison's director, who Masri believed was an American, told Masri that he had been held because he "had a suspicious name," Masri said in an interview." Masri means Egyptian in Arabic, and there are countless number of people who bear the same name. One would have thought that counter-terrorism efforts would be a little more sophisticated than that. As he put it himself:
Masri can find few words to explain his ordeal. "I have very bad feelings" about the United States, he said. "I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws."
Incidentally, there seems to be growing indignation in Europe over the extent and scope of the CIA rendition program. An issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel released today outlined contained a detailed list of over 430 secret rendition flights, on the eve of Condoleeza Rice's visit to Berlin. The list was released by the German aviation authority at the request of the leftist parliamentary coalition, which may push for a public debate not only on rendition, but on the use of German airspace for US air force flights that have to do with other reasons, such as the war in Iraq. Germany has a large number of US air bases despite closures and is an important logistics center for US operations in the Middle East. (See this Le Monde article for more on this.) Le Figaro is also reporting that at least two rendition flights made a stop in France. There have also been over 300 flights that stopped in Europe overall, and Eastern Europe is particularly involved. Apparently, the CIA rushed to move prisoners out of European prisons before Rice's trip began, which has allowed her to make statements that sound -- and might very well still be -- flat-out lies. I watched her give her speech on CNN yesterday and found it very legalistic; in other words, it may have been technically true but was highly misleading in spirit.
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Jackson Diehl outdoes himself

Sometimes you really have to wonder whether there's really a serious anti-Mubarak constituency in Washington, or whether it is simply Jackson Diehl's pulpit as deputy editorial editor at the Washington Post that makes it seem like it. For years now, Diehl has been the most vocal critic of the Mubarak regime and a gung-ho supporter of the Bush plan to democratize the Middle East. This has helped bring some much-needed attention to the situation in Egypt, something that local rights activists have been grateful for. But his latest column presents a problem:
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former general, practices politics with martial crudeness, so his latest scheme for thwarting the Bush administration's pro-democracy agenda wasn't hard to discern. Under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections for his formerly rubber-stamp parliament, Mubarak set out this fall to crush his secular and liberal opposition, which has been growing in strength all this year, while allowing the banned Muslim Brotherhood to nominate a limited number of candidates and campaign relatively freely. The goal was to eliminate all moderate opposition and present the United States with a choice between his continuing rule -- and the eventual succession of his son Gamal -- and an Islamic fundamentalist movement.
OK, that's one popular interpretation of things, but the election is not necessarily a highly orchestrated plot. The secular and liberal opposition has not been growing in strength all year outside of Al Ghad, and that growth has been limited. Diehl does interpret what happened to Ayman Nour (remember him?) pretty correctly, though:
In the first of three rounds of voting last month, the strategy played out beautifully in the Cairo district of Ayman Nour, the liberal democratic runner-up to Mubarak in September's unfree presidential election and the greatest potential threat to his son. The president's party nominated a former state security police officer against Nour; the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate cooperatively withdrew and endorsed Mubarak's man. Some 2,000 government supporters were then illegally registered in the district and, in defiance of a court order, bused in to vote against the local favorite. Nour was declared the loser, and last week the government resumed his criminal prosecution on trumped-up forgery charges.
Diehl describes a crisis of legitimacy for the regime among "moderate Egyptians," whoever those are. I'm not so sure. Everyone is saying the elections' results will seriously affect the Gamal crowd's pull. They seem to believe that elections and democracy really have something to do with Gamal's presence at the helms of the NDP. Watch out for the Gamal Mubarak-led reform process restarting in full swing within a few months, or perhaps as early as 17 December when Baba Hosni is scheduled to make yet another major political speech (according to this morning's press). After all, when these elections are over Gamal will be the only important secular "reformist" politician with pull in parliament, now that Nour, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (who seems to now be challenging Wafdist leader Nomaan Gomaa, at last!) and Mona Makram Ebeid have lost their seats. Anyway, he continues with following policy prescriptions:
Mubarak's 24-year-old autocracy probably won't collapse anytime soon -- but it has lost the support of most of the moderate Egyptians who hoped it would carry out a gradual political liberalization. That should force some hard decisions by the Bush administration, which also has banked on a regime-led reform; its characterization of the elections last week as "an important step on Egypt's path toward democratic reform" was ludicrous, and indefensible. What to do? First, President Bush should refuse to be spooked by Mubarak's would-be boogeyman. Though the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed fundamentalist, it renounced violence decades ago and has joined with secular opposition groups in calling for a genuine parliamentary democracy in Egypt. "[W]e are serious about pushing forward the process of reform, actualising democratic transformation and building a development renaissance on all fronts," said an essay published in Al Ahram last week by a senior Brotherhood figure, Essam Erian. That's an agenda the administration should be able to endorse -- and promote as an example for other Islamic movements in the Middle East. Second, the administration should make clear, starting now, that it won't tolerate a future undemocratic transfer of power from Mubarak to his son, or anyone else. The 77-year-old president is just beginning a new six-year term; the United States should explicitly link the continuation of the billions of dollars in official aid that prop up his regime to steps toward the democratic election of his successor. If Egyptian political life is freed, there will be plenty of good candidates by 2011; like Ayman Nour, they just won't be members of Mubarak's parliament.
Will Washington listen? I don''t know, but have some ideas about what they might do. For a future post.
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A culture of maneuver and guile

I missed when it came out, but via David Rees, the genius creator of Get Your War On and My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable, take a look at this excerpt from a New York Times story by their Baghdad bureau chief John Burns:
To a great extent, the American story in Iraq has been one of a profound clash of cultures - of invaders who came with a belief that they could transplant the virtues of democratic bargaining and a civil society that secures the vital interests of all, only to be confounded by what Iraqis themselves often describe as the culture of Ali Baba, the mythical villain of Baghdad. In that culture, maneuver and guile, secrets and untruths, terror and treachery are, too often, the coin of the realm for deciding who gets wealth and power.
Ya salaam! Burns is obviously a graduate of the Bernard Lewis School of Arab Studies.
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The third round

I'm off to Alexandria for the weekend, so no further posts until Sunday. In the meantime, here's a collection of of links to coverage of the third round of elections, which seemed just as violent as the second: Violence mars Egyptian elections (BBC) Tempers flare as final Egypt election showdown kicks off (AFP) Egypt's Parliamentary Vote Marred by Violence, Intimidation (VOA) Police block voting in Egypt (Reuters) Police Block Polling Stations in Egypt (AP) Police fire on Egyptian voters (CNN) And the some stuff to mull over during the weekend: Arabs should not exclude Islamist parties - Albright
DUBAI, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The United States should not back "sham" reforms in the Arab world which continue to isolate powerful Islamist opposition, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on Monday. "It would be a mistake to exclude Islamist parties on the assumption they are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence," she said in a statement released shortly before her appearance at a conference in the United Arab Emirates. "The best way to marginalise violent extremists is to make room for as broad a range of non-violent perspectives as possible." ... "The system he (President Hosni Mubarak) is recommending would make it virtually impossible for truly independent parties to participate. Sham democracy should be exposed for what it truly is," Albright said.
State Department Daily Press Briefing, 1 December:
QUESTION: I have a question about the Egyptian elections. It's becoming more and more violent. There was one dead and 70 wounded today when the police shot demonstrators in front of the polling station. Do you have any comment on that? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we have -- we are concerned about the violence that has surrounded recent -- recent phases of the Egyptian electoral process. This is the third and final round that began today. There's also, I think, going to be some runoff elections after this round as well. But these elections are overall an important step on Egypt's path towards democratic reform. As I have said before, we are concerned that these -- that violence has intruded upon these elections. As I have said before, it is the responsibility of the Egyptian Government to provide an atmosphere for all Egyptians where they feel free to express their will at the ballot box in a peaceful manner; that they don't feel threat, intimidation or they are not barred from voting. It is important that the Egyptian Government provide that atmosphere for all of its citizens and I am sure that the Egyptian Government is committed to providing that environment. We have talked to the Egyptian Government on -- about this issue and we expect that any government would want to provide an environment where their citizens can feel free to express, peacefully, their will at -- through the ballot box. QUESTION: Did you have the contact with them recently about that? It seems the last -- MR. MCCORMACK: I know that -- I know that this has been part of an ongoing discussion. I don't know exactly when our last contact with them has been on this issue, but I know we have been -- we have talked to them recently about this issue. QUESTION: And do you plan to engage more aggressively with them on that? Are you going to send somebody there or -- MR. MCCORMACK: Ultimately, these are, you know, it's not the United States that creates this environment in Egypt; it's the Egyptian Government -- you know, the environment where people can fell free to cast a ballot. So that's the responsibility of the Egyptian Government. But what we can do is continue to focus on the importance of the Egyptian Government providing that kind of environment. QUESTION: Despite the worsening violence, you're still convinced the Egyptian Government's committed to providing the atmosphere that you want. Does that mean then that they're just not capable of doing it? MR. MCCORMACK: Saul, I'm sure that they want the same thing that everybody does and that is an environment where everybody can express their peaceful free will through the ballot box. This is an important step in the democratic reform process for Egypt as its political class undergoes changes as a result of elections. Elections can have a transformative effect, we believe on the political classes. It's a positive development. So we're sure that the Egyptian Government shares the desire to provide that kind of environment, that sort of peaceful environment for this election, to unfold. QUESTION: But no, I understand that you are sure that that's what they want. What's happening is that isn't happening. There's no -- there hasn't been the provision of a peaceful environment. And so do you assess why not? MR. MCCORMACK: I think at this point, Saul, we have expressed our concerns to the Egyptian Government, concerning the violence that has intruded upon these elections. And we have emphasized to them that it is important that they act to create the kind of peaceful environment -- environment that is important for free and democratic elections. QUESTION: Can I follow-up? MR. MCCORMACK: Yes. QUESTION: I mean, are you sure? I mean, does this cast doubt upon the Egyptian Government's true commitment to peaceful and free and fair elections? MR. MCCORMACK: I think that we have not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian Government isn't interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections. I remember back many months ago, when the Secretary was in Egypt. She had a press conference with Foreign Minister Gheit. He, at that point, expressed his will and his desire that there be free and fair elections in Egypt, and that was with respect to presidential elections, but I would expect that that expression and that desire continues through these parliamentary elections as well. Yes. QUESTION: Do you acknowledge, Sean, that there is a disconnect your assessment -- that you're convinced they want a peaceful election and the fact that there isn't one -- a peaceful election? MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think that what I would say at this point, Saul, we are working on the ground to understand the exact circumstances of some of these events, the violence that has taken the place, the arrests -- some of the arrests that have taken place. I don't think we have a full picture of that yet so I couldn't really offer you a complete assessment at this point. QUESTION: Okay. It just seems a bit like Elise was saying, there's probably just two ways of looking this: There isn't a peaceful environment because they're just incapable of providing it because they can't control their own security force so they can't control protests. Or if it's not that, it's that they're aren't actually -- they're not actually committed to a peaceful process, even though that's what they are telling you and even though that's what you're convinced about. So considering that second option is a possibility, are you at all concerned that they're pulling the wool over your eyes? MR. MCCORMACK: I think at this point we want to understand the circumstances of the violence. I don’t think that I can -- standing here -- tell you that we have a complete understanding of the arrests -- some of the arrests that have taken place and of the violence that has taken place. We're working to understand that better. And I think that once we have an understanding -- a better understanding of that, some of the facts, then we can offer a more complete assessment about the elections as a whole is -- you know, we have spoken, I think pretty forcefully and forthrightly about the fact that it is important that these elections -- that the Egyptian Government act to create a peaceful environment. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is part of a democratic reform process that is advancing in Egypt. You had multiparty presidential candidate elections. You now have partway through or nearing the end of parliamentary elections in Egypt, you know, in which a number of independents have won seats. I think -- I haven't checked the record books, but I think this is one of the biggest gains of independent seats in the history of Egyptian parliamentary elections. So that is significant. You see an opening of the political process in Egypt. That is positive. So while these -- while these -- some of this violence is concerning, and while some of -- there are questions concerning some of the arrests that have taken place, let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a -- that these elections overall represent an important step in the democratic reform process in Egypt. QUESTION: I take your point that there's a bigger context to all this. There's some advances that you are noting. But I just want to speak about the part that's concerning you, which is the violence. You say you're looking for complete understanding, but there have been three rounds and there have been observers, international observers giving their assessments. There have been records, public records of the number of people arrested and you say it's pretty obvious that the arrests target the Muslim Brotherhood. They're the vast majority of arrests. So why is it so tardy? Why are you taking so long to make your assessment? There's plenty of evidence out there. MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think that, you know, our people on the ground are working hard to gather the facts. Concerning -- you know, concerning the arrest, as I said, I don't have all the facts concerning these arrests, but I think putting aside the specific case of Egypt, I think that we would say that we would be concerned about any use of a law, wherever it may be, in whatever election, any use of law by a government specifically and -- applying that law specifically in order to impede the peaceful political expression of people trying to participate in an electoral process. So I think as a general principle, certainly we would have any misapplication -- concerns about any misapplication of the law. Now, specifically with respect to Egypt, I don't -- again, I can't attest to the particular facts concerning these arrests. I know that others have made claims, others have spoken out about this issue. But based on the information I have here, I cannot provide you a full picture concerning the particular -- the particulars of those arrests. If and when we do have a more full picture concerning the violence or the arrests, I'd be pleased to share that with you. QUESTION: Well, that's quite a noteworthy juxtaposition. We weren't asking about any law and you decided to talk about things more generally, but in the context of the Egyptian election you talk about the misapplication of the law -- MR. MCCORMACK: No, I didn't talk about it in terms of -- QUESTION: No, you said -- MR. MCCORMACK: What I said -- QUESTION: You juxtaposed the two. You said -- MR. MCCORMACK: No, I said -- I said as a general principle and I said putting aside the Egyptian elections. So I want to make it clear that I was making a very clear distinction. I wasn't making a judgment at this point concerning the Egyptian elections. QUESTION: I agree. I agree that's what you're doing, but nevertheless you chose to take this public diplomacy into an arena about misapplication of laws that could impede fair elections or peaceful elections. So I'm asking you: Is there a misapplication of the law in Egypt at the moment in these targeted arrests? MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I get back to my -- the first part of my answer in which I talked about the fact that I did not have the particulars surrounding these arrests, particular facts surrounding these arrests. QUESTION: You don't think in Egypt, particularly with the Egyptian authorities, your juxtaposition will echo, will resonate, just the way it has done with me? MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not going to try to speak to how any particular individual might react. I was making a very general point about our views about elections and how we would expect any election around the world, wherever it may be, to unfold.
I'm off to eat fish.
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Is NileSat blocking Al Jazeera?

I just noticed something rather strange: I turned to Al Jazeera to take a look at their coverage of the third round of Egypt's parliamentary elections today and all I saw was one of those multi-colored standby screens. All their other channels -- Al Jazeera Live, Al Jazeera Children -- were fine. But when I switched from the Al Jazeera feed running on NileSat (the Egyptian government-owned satellite company) to the one on Hotbird (owned by a European consortium, I believe), it worked fine. I'm no broadcasting expert, but the only explanation I can think of for this is that NileSat switched off its Al Jazeera feed. And this on a day when Al Jazeera is showing street riots in Mansoura and all kinds of turmoil in Kafr Al Sheikh, were its journalists were detained earlier today. I think most people with satellite dishes in Egypt are tuning to NileSat, which has most Arabic channels. To get another satellite, you have install a special add-on antenna on your dish and have the appropriate receiver. So my guess is that a lot people in Egypt missed Al Jazeera's coverage. If anyone has a better explanation than a ban by the government, please leave a comment.
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White birds, black birds (2)

December 1, 2005

The light here is, quite simply, beautiful.

I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or we’ve just been lucky and not had many hazy days but at sunrise and sunset, it’s that sharp golden light that I associate with the desert.

Especially at sunset, the buildings spread out before our hotel turn a bright gold before gently fading into the gathering darkness. The office has bank of windows looking down at one section of the broad Tigris, which winds like a restless brown snake through the center of the city.

Flocks of white gulls are constantly flying along the course of the river. Suddenly they’ll all stop and settle on the water, letting the current carrying them down river before, abruptly, throwing themselves into the air to wheel around a bit more.
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