Bad cops, good cops (22)

December 11, 2006

The word of the air strike came around mid-morning. I was actually the one to take the call from our stringer in Samarra. He said 32 people had been killed in an American air strike somewhere to the south according to local government official Amr something-or-other and he was heading towards the site, then the line went dead.

We tried to call him back later, because you can’t give a story based on the word of Amr something-or-other, certainly not an Americans-killed-dozens-of-people kind of story, but he’d either moved out of coverage area or the appalling Iraqi mobile networks were having another miserable day.
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Don't drink the water

The US Embassy in Cairo has apparently released the following advisory:
Periodic routine testing by a U.S. military laboratory of "Safi" brand bottled water showed results of elevated radiological readings for alpha and beta particles. Laboratory protocol now requires specific follow-on testing. Although initial testing levels fell within the safety margins of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. military authorities of the Central Command suspended the sale of Safi water through the retail facilities it operates. The American Embassy commissary, which is used by American diplomats and military personnel assigned to Egypt, suspended sales of Safi pending further test results. Based on the EPA standards, we do not believe that the consumption of Safi water has posed a risk. We will report the results of further testing as soon as they are available.
Isn't Safi bottled by the military?
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serve and protect

Reuters piece up at the moment on the police-sodomy video that did the rounds a few weeks back. Elijah Zarwan gets in some good quotes on behalf of the human rights community, and Hisham Kassem pops in at the end to point out that, surprise surprise, apathy reigns. However, the piece, which appears with a December 11 dateline, ignores a number of blog postings, including Hossam Hamalawy's, that suggest that not only has the victim been identified, but so have the perpetrators. Time for Reuters to update this story.
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Who trains Egypt's teacher?

From the Egypt Human Development Report 2005:

The Ministry of Education, as the main provider of in-service teacher training, does not have the capacity to cater for the training needs of all employees, even within the traditional parameters. This has led to the adoption of the ‘one size fits all’ strategy whereby all teachers receive the same training at the same time irrespective of the wide variation of their qualifications (only 46% of employed teachers are graduates of Faculties of Education).

Others are filling in, namely international IT companies, most recently under the Egyptian Educational Initiative. I wrote a piece on it for, trying to show how these companies take over government tasks – out of their own interest, but for the benefit of school teachers (at least those who participate), I believe.

Independently of the current initiative, Intel plans to train an additional 650,000 teachers on its own. The company has thereby shown itself to be even more ambitions than other businesses active in the IT field in Egypt. The Egyptian Ministry of Education presents a rather different, seemingly uninvolved image. Its press spokesman referred to the participating companies and the responsible department head in the IT Ministry. In the end, he refused to answer any questions about the program.

(This week google announced another cooperation with the Ministry of Education, bringing its products to students in Egypt.)

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Arab Human Development Report 2005

UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report 2005 has been launched this week – this year it focuses on women in the Arab world. Next to a lot of valuable data and figures, it discusses progress and continuous discrimination of women. It makes some interesting points – for instance arguing that moderate Islamic groups with their increasing respect of human rights, minorities, internal democracy and good governance are balancing the noise that extremist Islamic groups are making in public. The report also criticizes some Arab states for claiming to have ratified international conventions, without adapting national legislation to an extent where women and men would be fully equal before the law. Overall, the report seems to argue that it is much less Islam but rather deep-rooted traditionalism in Middle Eastern societies which is responsible for the situation of Arab women.
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Better late than never?

I read the recommendations and descriptions of the Iraq Study Group report wit a mixture of elation and rage. Elation because this was the final nail in the coffin of the whole incredibly destructive US neo-con mission to remake the Middle East. It was the reassertion of traditional realpolitik over US policy -- not necessarily the best and most constructive approach, but certainly less destructive that Bush Jr. and his psychopaths. I’m sure many would say it’s not even the lesser of two evils, but under the cold calculating approach by people like Baker and the others, Iraq would not have been so horrifically destabilized. As the cartoon in the Guardian said, it was time for the adults to get back into politics. God save us from the visionaries. Steve But if the price for Bush’s humiliation was the wholesale dismantling of Iraq’s social fiber, was it really worth it? And that’s where the rage comes in. It’s a good report, it’s familiar reading because all of us – media, Iraqis, international organizations – have been saying this for years. Where the hell was this panel a year and a half ago before got quite so awful? Why do these old fogies say it and everyone, including the president, nod sagaciously and accept it, while everyone else was ignored before. The upbeat military weekly military press conferences, the blog attacks on the “liberal media�, the Bush administration’s defense of the situation … suddenly it’s all gone, as though it never was, and everyone seems to have no problem acknowledging that the situation in Iraq has become beyond awful. Better late than never. I guess. Unless of course it’s too late.
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IMA funding under threat

There is a looming financial crisis at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, according to this Le Monde report. Arab states are supposed to be funding 40% of its budget, which keeps running a deficit, but they often push for something in exchange (exhibitions for Qadhafi's son or insignificant Kuwaiti artists) and have been running late with payments. Just like the help they always promise the Palestinians. Still, funding something like the IMA would probably get more diplomatic bang for the buck for France than its recently launched 24-hour news station. At less than 25 million euros a year for about one million visitors annually, a great library and bookshop, and some of the best exhibitions in Paris (not to mention a Jean Nouvel building that became an instant Paris landmark with its photo-reactive diaphragm windows), it's a steal.
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The Iraq Study Group Report

Reading commentary on the release of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, you get the impression that some people expected a report to end the civil war and are disappointed that it didn't. One interesting thing in the report is that apparently the US embassy in Baghdad has only six fluent Arabic speakers. Another is that the Iraq war is costing eight billion US dollars a month, with an eventual total cost of some two trillion dollars. At the risk of sounding completely insensitive to the plight of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein (I am not) I think I would rather have Saddam untoppled and that money would have been better spent on virtually any global problem such as global warming, food security, human, drugs, and arms traffic control, economic development in the Third World, AIDS, etc. Of course that might not have been as good for the bottom line of big business.
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Hosni's wisdom

Hosni Mubarak on whether the US should stay or leave Iraq:
DUBLIN: An immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be dangerous but staying is also risky, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview published on Wednesday. He said while talking to a daily newspaper that Iraq needs a strong leader but he did not name anyone. "I don't want to mention any names now," he said in an interview before his first visit to Ireland, which starts on Wednesday and is part of a tour including France and Germany.
The names on Hosni's mind: Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak, Safwat Sherif. OK, actually he probably means a nice former Baathist he can get along with. Just not one of those pesky Shias.
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Stubborn stability

Carnegie has a new paper on how Jordan, er, should be more democratic. I have an idea: get rid of the Hashemites. Perhaps they should rule Saudi Arabia instead, it's bound to be an improvement and anyway it's the Hegazis' turn again. More seriously, it's nice to see an establishment think tank like Carnegie take the US to task for enabling puppet Jordan's authoritarian drift.
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Debate on Hamas and terrorism

The Conflicts Forum held a debate about a week ago on "an elected Hamas is still a terrorist organization" in which, among others, Stephen Cook, Dan Ayalon, Mark Perry and Stanley Cohen participated. The point being debated is rather badly phrased -- it's obvious that Hamas has used terrorism as a tactic in its struggle for the liberation of Palestine -- but the debate is lively and stimulating. It's really a debate about one (really meaning the US or "international community" in this context) should embrace Hamas as a potential partner for peace rather than ostracize them. Since there are plenty of occasions where political groups that use terror tactics have been integrated politically (from the Zionist terrorist groups of the 1940s to the IRA to the PLO) that question should be moot. The really bigger question, it seems to me, is whether some partners on both sides are interested in peace at all. I don't think that in Israel either Likud, Kadima, or a good part of Labor is really interested -- hence the failure of Oslo and the continual race to expand West Bank settlements under various governments since the mid-1990s. On the Palestinian side Hamas has not resolved some of its ambivalence, although it is certainly seems more willing to consider a fair two-state settlement than a group like Islamic Jihad. Both sides have used, on purpose and with the intent to terrorize, unthinkable violence against civilians. But the Palestinians have done so largely out of self-defense against a foreign occupier while the Israelis have done so mostly to perpetuate an occupation internationally recognized as illegal and to crush a liberation movement. Correction: The debate was not hosted by the Conflicts Forum but rather by Intelligence Squared, which also chose the phrasing of the question.
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Hairy relations

Our good friend Dr. Zahi is furious, of course, but the attempted sale of some hair of Ramsees II. by the son of a French archaeologist has led to serious diplomatic trouble between Egypt and France.
A French postman who tried to sell online what he claimed were strands of hair from the mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II was being held by police yesterday. Jean-Michel Diebolt, 50, was arrested at his home in Grenoble after he placed an advertisement on a website offering strands of hair and tiny fragments of the funeral cloth from the 3,200 year-old mummy for €2,000 (£1,300). He claimed to have obtained the pieces from his late father, a researcher who had been part of a French team which analysed the mummy in the 1970s.
Here’s the revenge? Nine French nationals were arrested during the past week-end in Egypt on charges of planning terrorist attacks in the region.
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America's Kingdom

Qahwa Sada has three guest posts about Bob Vitalis' new book, America's Kingdom, which I've just ordered and am very much looking forward to read during the holidays. One is by Vitalis himself, explaining what he was trying to do, which is not so much a history of ARAMCO as much as an intellectual attack on the idea of American exceptionalism and the blind spot Americans have in considering their country as just another imperalist state, not so different from the European imperialist states after all. Unfortunately, the two other contributors -- Toby Jones and Gregory Gause -- love the book, so there's not that much debate. But I guess it means it's really going to be quite an important book for Middle Eastern Studies and the study of American foreign policy and its relationship with the oil industry.
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Fish ‘n chips-eating surrender monkeys

This article from the NYT from Dec. 2 about a British initiative in Afghanistan’s Helmand province caught my eye. After fighting the Taliban in Musa Qala district, British forces “who had been under siege by the Taliban in a compound there for three months� brokered a ceasefire with Taliban forces and local government – and pulled out. In the words of one Afghan lawmaker:
"The Musa Qala project has sent two messages: one, recognition for the enemy, and two, military defeat," said Mustafa Qazemi, a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament and a former resistance fighter with the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for seven years. . . . Some compare the deal to agreements that Pakistan has struck with leaders in its tribal areas along the Afghan border, which have given those territories more autonomy and, critics say, empowered the Taliban who have taken sanctuary there and allowed them to regroup.
What’s so interesting about this is that this is essentially what the British did in southern Iraq. They gave up. No one really likes to talk about it, and they are extremely difficult to embed with, but more and more people are starting to recognize that the one place coalition forces really suffered a defeat was in the south. The Brits don’t patrol in Basra anymore, they largely just stay in their compound and get shelled every night. US bases get shelled too, but then they do something about it and the shelling stops. Their most famous move was their abrupt withdrawal from Amara, capital of Maysan province, where they were rocketed every night by Mahdi militia. So with no warning to Iraqi authorities, they declared their mission in Amara complete, pulled out and “redeployed� to the Iranian border to conduct “World War II-style� desert patrol tactics. Somehow trying to turn a retreat into a evocation of the glories of the North Africa campaign. The base in Amara, meanwhile was sacked by the Mahdi militia because Iraqi authorities hadn’t been given enough time to take control of it. Since their departure, there have been pitched battles in Amara between Mahdi militia and police (who are controlled by the rival Badr Brigade Shiite militia). Now don’t get me wrong, Iraq’s a tough place and each army has to make its decision about how to deal with it, but the British enjoy so much describing how they do everything better than the Americans. In the beginning of their Basra occupation, they described how their years of experience occupying Northern Ireland made them expert at a light touch and winning the inhabitants’ trust. Now, as they are talking about pulling out, the city is dangerous place awash in battles between rival militias and gangs making millions off the oil smuggling. The Brits just let them take over, and when it got too dangerous, they stopped leaving their base. And now they are leaving entirely. In Afghanistan, when the fighting suddenly became hot. They appear to be doing the same thing. So my question is, who are the real surrender monkeys?
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Prisoners of Sex

Oooops double posting. maalesh. Negar Azimi has an interesting article about gay rights (or lack thereof) in Egypt in the NYT Magazine. I remember at the time of the Queen Boat arrests being on the periphery of some of the debates in the human rights community whether to take on the case of not -- I was advocating being as aggressive on this as any other issue that involves unlawful arrest and police brutality, and pushed for giving decent coverage of the case in the Cairo Times at the time, going against the judgement of its publisher, Hisham Kassem, who was (and still is) the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. While I could understand some of the reluctance human rights activists, already tarnished as fifth columnists, had in giving their support to this case, I thought they should on a purely technical basis -- i.e. as defenders of human rights, not defenders of gay rights. Those Egyptian human rights activists who decided to avoid the case received a lot of flak from major Western donor organizations, while those who took it on found that certain embassies and rights groups were now keen to donate funds for projects. It is understandable that some people will see this as a form of Western pressure, thus reinforcing the fifth columnist image of the human rights community. But I wonder how people would see a similar case today -- after 9/11, after MEPI, after the rise of the whole clash of civilization discourse on both sides of the Mediterranean. Would it make them more or less likely to take on a case like the Queen Boat? This is an excellent case to test the impact of the mostly Western funding of human rights groups in the Arab world and its relationship to "cultural politics."
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under the boardwalk

Bidoun magazine editor Negar Azimi has a good piece in the NYT magazine today on homosexuality and repression in Egypt. Maybe I just liked it because yellow press shill-artist Mustafa Bakry comes off badly in the lead, but Negar also deals in some refreshingly unjournalistic nuance. Whether she gets it right or not I don’t know, but her characterization of homosexuality and gay sex as an “unremarkable aspect of daily life, articulated in different ways in each country, city and village in the region,� sounds a little more plausible than that "we don't have those guys here" line that I've now heard once too often. In fact, that's what much of the piece is about: the politically motivated rebranding of gay sex as a western perversion deserving of potentially lethal repression by security forces. Makes one think that it's a pity that there aren't any gay politicians, no one at a senior level (say ministerial), who could speak out on behalf of a culture of personal rights and against the culture of crass politicking that surrounds the issue. Of course, that person would have to be well connected and virtually impossible to remove no matter what he said or did. Yep, pity there's no one like that around. Three nice photos with Negar's article by one Ziyah Gafic.
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