Time to move

...I was just about to post on Soros column in the Financial Times, taken from the same article in the New York Book Review, but focusing on the Palestinian national unity government. Here are two excerpts:
The Bush administration is again committing a blunder in the Middle East by supporting the Israeli government in its refusal to recognise a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. This precludes any progress towards a peace settlement at a time when such progress could help avert conflagration in the greater Middle East. The US and Israel seek to deal only with Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president. They hope new elections would deny Hamas the majority it has in the Palestinian legislative council. This is a hopeless strategy, because Hamas would boycott early elections and, even if their outcome resulted in Hamas's exclusion from the government, no peace agreement would hold without Hamas support. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is pursing a different path. In a February summit in Mecca between Mr Abbas and the Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the Saudi government worked out an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which have been clashing violently, to form a national unity government. Hamas agreed "to respect international resolutions and the agreements (with Israel) signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation", including the Oslo accords. The Saudis view this accord as the prelude to the offer of a peace settlement with Israel, to be guaranteed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. But no progress is possible as long as the Bush administration and Ehud Olmert's Israeli government refuse to recognise a unity government that includes Hamas.
[...]
There is now the chance of a political solution with Hamas brought on board by Saudi Arabia. It would be tragic to miss out on that prospect because the Bush administration is mired in the ideology of the war on terror.
Meanwhile, as expected, there is some movement in Europe towards dealing with the new government and ending the financial boycott, notably from Norway. Probably soon from France, too. I understand that Germany could be more flexible as well in dealing with Hamas, but is a bit tied at the moment as it performs EU Presidency. (Another problem is that the US anti-missile shield for Poland and the Czech republic complicates relations with Washington.) If the EU dealt with the new government, as I think it should, it would probably not immediately make a difference on the international scene. The US and Israel would hardly be impressed. But it would for sure strenghten Hamas' moderates (the two ideologues Zahar and Siam are already no longer members of cabinet) and improve conditions on the ground for the population. I see no reason why a cabinet with moderate people such as Finance Minister Salam Fajad, Information Minister Mustafa Barghuti and Tourism Minister Abou Daijeh could not be dealt with.
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Soros on AIPAC

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has written an article denouncing AIPAC's grip on American politics. On Israel, America and AIPAC - The New York Review of Books:
The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism. Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby's ability to influence political contributions. When Howard Dean called for an evenhanded policy toward Israel in 2004, his chances of getting the nomination were badly damaged (although it was his attempt, after his defeat in Iowa, to shout above the crowd that sealed his fate). Academics had their advancement blocked and think-tank experts their funding withdrawn when they stepped too far out of line. Following his criticism of repressive Israeli policy on the West Bank, former president Jimmy Carter has suffered the loss of some of the financial backers of his center. Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. I speak from personal experience. Ever since I participated in a meeting discussing the need for voicing alternative views, a torrent of slanders has been released including the false accusation in The New Republic that I was a "young cog in the Hitlerite wheel" at the age of thirteen when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking the inventory of a Jewish estate. AIPAC is protected not only by the fear of personal retaliation but also by a genuine concern for the security and survival of Israel. Both considerations have a solid foundation in reality. The same two factors were at play in the United States after September 11 when President Bush declared war on terror. For eighteen months thereafter it was considered unpatriotic to criticize his policies. That is what allowed him to commit one of the greatest blunders in American history, the invasion of Iraq. But at that time the threat to our national security was greatly exaggerated by the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney went so far as to warn that the threat would manifest itself in the form of a mushroom cloud. In the case of Israel today the threat to national security, even national survival, is much more real. Israel needs the support of the United States more than ever. Is this the right time to expose AIPAC's heavy influence in American politics? I believe this consideration holds back many people who are critical of the way AIPAC conducts its business. While the other architects of the Bush administration's failed policies have been relentlessly exposed, AIPAC continues to be surrounded by a wall of silence.
His central argument is that US policy in the Middle East must stop being subservient to AIPAC and its allies and make an aggressive push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. This means talking to Hamas on the foreign front and countering AIPAC's negative influence on the home front, starting with countering what he terms as AIPAC's "success in suppressing divergent views" among American Jews. Timed as Saudi King Abdullah's peace initiative is once again on the table, let's hope this can have some influence and that Soros will put his considerable amount of money where his mouth is.
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The constitution and the future of Egypt

I've been away for the last few days and missed Thursday's Kifaya demo and subsequent arrests. From Hossam's accounts, it appears pretty clear that the Mubarak regime is brooking no dissent as we head into the referendum period, to be followed by elections for the Shura Council and a spate of legislation that will be, as usual, hurried through parliament before summer recess (notably a new electoral law and the anti-terror law.) So we can expect see more of the same, and probably more arrests of activist-bloggers in the next few weeks. As the walkout staged by opposition MPs shows, the current crisis over the constitution is perhaps one of the most serious in years. There are plenty of things that are dubious about the constitution, but the opposition has rallied around two major points: the amendments to articles 88 and 179, which respectively would reduce judicial supervision and cancel out constitutional protection of personal rights, giving police powers to search and conduct surveillance without warrants as well as detain prisoners without charging them. (I won't go into the details -- Gamal Essam Eddin covered them nicely in this story.) In my opinion, there are two central things to keep in mind about the coming period. The first is whether the opposition can get its act together enough to either produce a "no" vote on the amendments (which of course could easily be changed into a "yes" by the authorities, if 2005's referendum is anything to go by) or whether it should call for a boycott of the referendum. Currently, the opposition is split about what to do, as it is on the question of whether MPs should resign in protest. It seems unlikely that the opposition would be able to mobilize voters against the amendments, particularly as the NDP is preparing a major campaign (of course using the state's resources as well as its own) for a "yes." Some are beginning to predict that President Mubarak will dissolve parliament after the referendum (most probably later this year), a move that would meet considerable opposition from many NDP MPs who spent a lot of money getting their seats. A new election, under a new (probably list-based) electoral law would probably greatly reduce the number of Muslim Brotherhood MPs (and thus the overall number of opposition MPs, even if secular opposition parties make modest gains). The endgame of all these maneuvers -- ostensibly to consolidate power during the twilight years of Mubarak's rule -- is still uncertain. But Egypt's deepening authoritarianism is getting much attention. Here's a round-up of some recent stories: Burying democracy further in Egypt - Amr Hamzawy and Dina Bishara on the escalation of the Mubarak regime against domestic opponents, especially the Muslim Brothers. Crackdown by a clique - Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh denounces the recent crackdown on the MB and the constitutional amendments, saying:
Stability cannot be achieved by depriving social and political leaders of civil justice. Nor can it be achieved by resisting democracy and excluding the largest political force in the country from political life. By closing the doors to dialogue, the state is opening a door to chaos and extremism. The consequences will be severe, not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East.
Can that be interpreted as a fear that younger members of the Ikhwan might choose a more violent route than the leadership? It's a point that is much debated around here. More rights in Egypt, not fewer - NYT op-ed says "Washington should help independent groups organize in the event of such a vote. Dissenting voices are essential if there is to be any hope of free debate and democracy in Egypt." O NYT op-ed writer, are you aware that most independent groups in Egypt hate the US and its policies in the region? Or that such help would be automatically be labeled as foreign intervention? Rather than suggest interventionist solutions (i.e. ones that involve interfering in other countries' domestic affairs), how about lobbying for the severing of diplomatic relations or military aid programs or any other measures? Imaging Otherwise in Cairo - Anthony Shadid traces the birth and death of the Kifaya movement. This is the first part. I'm not sure about his thesis, i.e. that Kifaya has died. Like many people, I think he fundamentally misunderestimates Kifaya's impact. Without Kifaya, much of the growing dissent taking place today would not be taking place. It was never going to bring down the regime -- only elements within the regime can do that. In the second part of the story, Shadid looks at the US backing away from pressuring Egypt. Again, I think he gets it wrong in exaggerating the role of US in creating that "Cairo Spring" of 2005 and in minimizing the prospects for political change (although not necessarily a transition to a Jeffersonian democracy) in the next few years. It is true that the opposition in Egypt suffers from the lack of clear leadership and political consensus, but it still early days. If there's one thing that's clear about Egypt today, it's that nothing is certain.
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The "burqini"

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I'm not trying to make fun of this -- people can wear what they want -- but why call it burqini? A burqa is a rather extreme form of fundamentalist gear that is not found in much of the Muslim world outside of Afghanistan and, to a much less degree, India and Pakistan. Is the Taliban what they want their product to be associated with? Incidentally, this "burqini" is now standard issue for Muslim female lifeguards in Australia.
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Readings

Israel's right to be racist - Joseph Massad deconstructs Zionist apologia for apartheid:
Israel's struggle for peace is a sincere one. In fact, Israel desires to live at peace not only with its neighbours, but also and especially with its own Palestinian population, and with Palestinians whose lands its military occupies by force. Israel's desire for peace is not only rhetorical but also substantive and deeply psychological. With few exceptions, prominent Zionist leaders since the inception of colonial Zionism have desired to establish peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands they slated for colonisation and settlement. The only thing Israel has asked for, and continues to ask for in order to end the state of war with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, is that all recognise its right to be a racist state that discriminates by law against Palestinians and other Arabs and grants differential legal rights and privileges to its own Jewish citizens and to all other Jews anywhere. The resistance that the Palestinian people and other Arabs have launched against Israel's right to be a racist state is what continues to stand between Israel and the peace for which it has struggled and to which it has been committed for decades. Indeed, this resistance is nothing less than the "New anti- Semitism".
Attacking Iran - UPI analysis of the impact of an attack on Iran on oil prices, and in part 2 on Russian involvement and the difficulty of assessing which facilities to hit. A More Islamic Islam - Geneive Abdo on why the Western media wastes its time on "Muslim secularists" like Irshad Manji and Wafaa Sultan. Four years on - Helena Cobban says "I told you so" about the war on Iraq. Western Sahara between Autonomy and Intifada - a MERIP piece sympathetic to the Polisario sees a new generation of Sahwari activists emerging (encouraged by ongoing police repression) as long as Morocco can count on the support of the UN and major powers for its autonomy plan. It's interesting to read next to the rather pathetic attempts by Morocco to link the Polisario with Islamist terror groups. Hizbullah's social services - an excerpt from Augustus Richard Norton's new book, Hizbullah. Mission délicate pour Javier Solana à Damas - Le Figaro says EU foreign policy supremo Javier Solana is trying to negotiate a secret agreement in Damascus to spare the Asad family from the scrutiny of an international tribunal.
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Landis contra Young

Something of a nasty fight has emerged between two of the most prominent commentators on Syria and Lebanon, Joshua Landis and Michael Young. The two seemed to be on cordial terms before, with Landis frequently referring to Young's writings on Lebanon, even though it's always been clear that they had opposite attitudes. Young has long been critical of Syrian meddling in Lebanon and supportive of the March 14 movement, as well as generally critical of Hizbullah. Landis, who writes more from a Syrian perspective, has defended Syria from some of the more spurious attacks against it while still providing critical coverage of its domestic politics. In a March 10 post discussing efforts at obstructing a deal between the US, France and Syria over Lebanon, Landis counts Young as one of the intellectual obstructionists of such a deal (political obstructionists include Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt and US Ambassador to Beirut Jeffrey Feltman). Landis goes on to attack the obstructionist line as one that is dangerous for Lebanon and the region as a whole as well as one that puffs up a "Shia crescent" threat and gives Lebanese Shias "slave" status in a Christian and Sunni-dominated polity:
The only problem with this analysis is that it is has led to a long list of failures and the needless death of thousands of Iraqis and Americans. Michael Young recommended the invasion of Iraq in 2003, claiming that the "consociational" Lebanese model of government that has served his country so well would bring peace and happiness to Iraq and quickly be replicated throughout the Middle East. It has taken the West four long years of watching Iraq descend into ferocious civil war to come to grips with the short comings of this analysis. In 2006, Young advocated keeping the incompetent Lahoud as president of Lebanon rather than giving Michel Aoun a chance at elections. (Aoun was the most popular candidate in Lebanon at the time.) This obstructionism led directly to the summer war between Lebanon and Israel. With no prospects of a non-violent adjustment to Lebanon's lopsided power-sharing formula, Hizbullah and its opposition allies fell back on the old formula of "resistance" and demonstrations. When war broke out, Young began excitedly prognosticating that Israel could break Hizbullah and international forces disarm it. He insisted the Shiite party did not represent authentic Lebanese demands, being merely a creature of Iran and Syria. Again, Young's dreams didn't materialize. Instead, the inconclusive war led to paralysis in Lebanon as Hizbullah and the Siniora government stand face to face, each unwilling to bow to the demands of the other. Rather that admit that he has misjudged the opposition or the ability of American and Israeli power to reshape the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners, Young continues to insist that Syria and Hizbullah will buckle if only the US will inflict a bit more pain on them. Rather than come to grips with the real flaws of Lebanon's democracy, Michael Young, like many other Lebanese, believes that the use of force by foreign powers can preserve the skewed status quo in Lebanon. He wants international forces to disarm the Shiites in the South, and the US to inflict more pain on Syria. The Lebanese obstructionist solution is to import violence into Lebanon and the region. They refuse to allow a "typically muddled but non-violent solution to the impasse." Importing foreign armies to keep the Shiites in their place will only lead to further war and extremism on both sides. What is wrong with the "consociational" system that is held up as the epitome of Lebanese democracy and power-sharing? Quite simply, it treats Shiites like slaves. In pre-civil war America, black slaves were counted as half a white person. In Lebanon they are accorded the same political weight. Although Shiites are estimated to make up some 40% of the population, the Taif Accords, Lebanon's constitutional arrangement, permit the Shiites only 22% of the seats in parliament. The defenders of Taif will scoff at this analogy between Lebanese Shiites and American slaves. They will say, "But we don't treat Shiites as slaves. They can vote and they are allocated the third most powerful political office in the land: the President of the Parliament. All true, I admit, but this doesn't obscure the simple fact that Shiites are accorded only half the political worth of other human beings in Lebanon.
That post (which is longer than what's excerpted above) was obviously provocative and generated a lot of comments on Landis' blog. He eventually posted a follow-up with some reader responses and said he wanted to let passions cool. He did mention that Young had responded but did not put up his response. Young decided not to wait and wrote up his response in the Daily Star's opinion pages, of which he is the editor. The response was much more aggressive in tone than anything Landis wrote against him, although arguably Young was the injured party thus far. The column was titled "the blogosphere's foreign informant" and in it Young accuses Landis of being soft on the Syrian regime (he compares him to Patrick Seale, Hafez al-Asad's biographer, whose book does rather soft-pedal criticism of the late Asad, although it remains a very good read.) He defends himself from some of the charges Landis made, notably denying that he ever said that he would leave Lebanon if Muslims were given more power in the confessional system. More seriously, Young accuses Landis of willfully putting Syrian dissident Michael Kilo in danger by revealing that he met with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Morocco to strike a deal against the regime. Again, you should read the whole thing, but here is the most vitriolic part of Young's article:
My theory, and take it for what it's worth, is that Landis' ambition is to be the premier mediator with and interpreter of Syria in American academic and policy-making circles - a latter-day Patrick Seale. In this context, and again this is just a coagulating hypothesis, Landis has frequently used his blog to prove his worth to the Syrians - perhaps to enjoy better access. He has also maligned those offering perspectives different than his own. In the post where he went after me, Landis harshly attacked the An-Nahar Washington correspondent, Hisham Melhem, as well. My conviction is that Landis felt he had to discredit us both, mainly because we fear that Lebanon will pay if the US engages Syria. As he once, revealingly, put it to me: "Your anti-Syrian line is the most coherent and best packaged." I would dispute the term "anti-Syrian" and find his use of the word "packaged" peculiar. Perhaps I'm just not partial to Syria's leadership. Is court scribe really a role an academic should aspire to? And what does it say about Landis that he has consistently promoted the idea that the United States should sign off on renewed Syrian control over Lebanon in exchange for a deal with Damascus in Iraq? What kind of esteem does a scholar invite by wanting to return a recently emancipated, fairly democratic country to its former subjugation by a foreign dictatorship?
Now, some of the attacks on both sides seem a bit petty (but then again petty attacks and score-keeping appear to be a mainstay of Lebanese punditry) and some of the allegations are rather serious. It's too bad to see two of the more influential opinion-makers on Syria and Lebanon (in the West, of course, they are non-entities in the Arabic-language media) get into a personal catfight like this. I'm not going to take sides -- not that either would care. I've long had concerns about bias in the writing of both, but still read both regularly and have learnt much from them. Being biased doesn't mean you're not interesting. I do think Landis, whose blog is an excellent resource, sometimes comes across as an apologist for the Syrian regime, although I don't think he actually is and also airs negative opinions about it. Similarly, Young occasionally comes across as an apologist for the 14 March movement (or the Siniora government). I actually do like the overall intent of Landis' argument about Shias still being viewed by many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians as an underclass. Young appears to be saying that he agrees the Taif accords need to be scrapped, but he hasn't exactly taken warmly to the way Shias (or at least those represented by Hizbullah) have pushed for that change, i.e. the street protests and occupation of Downtown Beirut. He's also been an advocate of sectarianism of sorts. I remember this column (Daily Star subscribers can find it here) he wrote last December that surprised me:
Every few years the Lebanese must cope with an individual, party or community that ignores, disastrously, sectarian conventions. When the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Druze couldn't get it right during the 1970s, the country descended into a 15-year war. Today, it is Hizbullah, as prime spokesman for the Shiite community, that is making a similar miscalculation. If conflict can be averted, then the party's learning a lesson will have been worthwhile: better a weak Lebanese state where communal alignments can counterbalance the hegemonic tendencies of one side to a strong, purportedly non-sectarian state that will consistently drift toward a disputed, therefore unstable, authoritarianism. That said, permanent, rigid sectarianism is not ideal. For any truly democratic order to emerge, the Lebanese must ultimately think as citizens, not as members of religious tribes. But wishing that away will not work. The only solution is to modify sectarianism from within, to provisionally accept its institutions while making it more flexible and opening up space for non-sectarian practices. The Taif agreement outlines the means to reach this end, and just as soon as Lebanon can break free of Syrian and Iranian manipulation, just as soon as Hizbullah agrees to a process leading to its disarmament, no matter how lengthy, sectarian negotiations will become possible and the road to reform can be taken.
That column was criticized here, but the point I would like to make about it is that it is hard to understand how Shias (who are, for better or for worse, mostly represented by Hizbullah nowadays) can make a push for a greater role within a sectarian system without going after some entrenched interests. Power is taken, not given freely. Update: Landis has published a response to Young's column.
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New ARB out, Enani article on MB

The latest issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin is out, with as always several interesting articles. I have only had time to read the one on Egypt by Khalil al-Enani, in which he puts the ongoing crackdown on the MB in the context of the coming presidential succession:
There are several ways of understanding the regime's current attack on the Brotherhood. First, the regime wishes to deflate the Brotherhood's expectations after the past two years of emboldening political victories, which perhaps led to the miscalculation evident in the “Al Azhar Militias” incident. Second, Mubarak's regime has relentlessly eliminated any potential alternative to itself for the past quarter century, which explains much of how it deals with any group possessing social legitimacy. Third, the regime is determined to guarantee a quiet presidential succession, whether after the end of Mubarak's term in 2011 or in the event of any alternative scenario. The current crisis seems to be the labor pains accompanying the birth of the Fourth Republic (since the 1952 coup), which means that Egypt is entering a critical stage of political suffering as its rulers put their house in order.
For those in Egypt, pick up today's al-Wafd for al-Enani's op-ed titled "Burn it!" It's about the constitutional amendments, and seems to capture a lot of the feelings about them in the opposition. Also check out Florian Kohstall's piece on education reform in Egypt and Morocco.
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Egypt names first female judges

Egypt names first female judges - International Herald Tribune:
CAIRO, Egypt: Egypt's judiciary chief has named the country's first female judges despite opposition from conservative Muslims, according to a decree published Wednesday. Mukbil Shakir, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, gave 31 women judge or chief judge positions in Egypt's courts, the official Middle East News Agency said, quoting Shakir's decree. The move is expected to give a boost to President Hosni Mubarak's political and social reforms that have been widely criticized as too restricted. But others said the announcement still falls short of providing women equal opportunities.
There has been a rather depressing debate about why women are unfit to be judges, notably among judges themselves -- turns out they are not the guardians of liberalism some thought they were. But that is the point, isn't it, as Baheyya pointed out in her last post:
The third strategy portrays the regime as the progressive, courageous champion of women’s rights valiantly resisting sexist, exclusionary judges who preach democracy and reform but refuse to allow women entry into the judiciary. Women’s accession to the judiciary in Egypt has been a hot button issue among judges for at least 10 years, eliciting very strong feelings, with a minority of ardent supporters and a majority of variously motivated detractors. Marei has already selected 124 women legal officers for qualifying exams and training in the National Center for Judicial Studies in preparation for their admission into the profession. By playing the woman card, the regime burnishes its own reputation, casts doubt on the integrity of its judicial critics, and drives a wedge between pro- and anti-women judges within the judicial reform movement that the regime hopes will block further collective action.
This brings us back to another missed opportunity in the current constitutional reform process (it hardly deserves such an august title, mind you), to get rid of the reference to Sharia in the constitution which gives judges like the one quoted in the above AP story an opportunity to say naming women judges is against Sharia law, which is currently enshrined about the constitution. There was a brief flirting with changing Article 2 to either remove the reference to Sharia or make the text say Sharia is a source of legislation rather than the source of legislation. In today's papers the government confirmed what's been known for days -- that there would be no change to Article 2 -- but not before a populist storm was brewed up about the regime attacking Islam itself. One independent MP, in fact, says he is starting a "Popular Movement Against Secularism" to combat the ruling party's notions of "citizenship" and the ban on religious parties. You can thank Anwar al-Sadat's 1980 amendment to introduce Sharia as the source of legislation in the constitution and years of state Islamism under Mubarak for that kind of attitude in the political elite and society at large.
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Failure to communicate

Yet another story of greed, corruption and incompetence in the privatization of the US occupation of Iraq: Radar has an interview with a former private Arabic instructor who barely spoke Arabic:
The lack of Arabic translators in Iraq appears to stem from a Bush Administration decision to outsource translation services to private contractors. Called "linguistic support," these companies, two of the largest of which are Titan Corporation and DynCorp International, have received billions of dollars to provide language interpreters to the Iraq reconstruction effort. But many of the supposed "translators" sent to Iraq were untrained, had poor language skills, or couldn't speak Arabic at all. In many cases the contractors appear to have conducted no screenings or interviews with prospective translators. And Titan Corporation interpreters are accused of involvement in two cases of prisoner abuse in Iraq and one case of espionage at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. . . . So you had been out of Arabic from the mid-'90s to 2002 when they hired you to teach soldiers Arabic prior to their Iraq deployment. That's right, with zero experience. I'd never been to a Middle Eastern country. Do you feel you were qualified for the job? Was I the right guy to teach the course? No. Did they give you any instructions? I asked them, "What do you want me to do?" And they said, "You're the expert." Look, it was that REEP got the contract and then they sent an e-mail to me, because it looked like I spoke Arabic, asking me if I would come teach the course. That was it. There was no interview. There was no anything. No accountability. Nothing. How did they know you really spoke Arabic? Because it said so on my resumé. Because I said so when they asked me.
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White man discovers Arab Orwell

London Times columnist (and Tory MP) Michael Gove waxes lyrical about Alaa al-Aswany's Yacoubian Building, comparing him to Orwell making a parallel between the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Arab world today:
The tragedy of Arab life haunts many hearts but has remained, apparently, insoluble. For those counted wise in the West the state of the Arab world now is like the existence of the Soviet Union in the Eighties — a durable fact that one has to learn to accept. The idea that democracy, or anything like it, can take root in the arid soil of the Middle East is a mirage — and pursuing it will end only in misery, as Iraq’s tragedy is proving. But now new voices are challenging that assumption. A work has recently been produced that lays bare the ugliness of contemporary Egyptian society — the staggering level of business corruption, the ruthlessness with which political power is manipulated by the elites to consolidate their own position, the sexual hypocrisy which stifles genuine freedom and deprives women of basic rights, the crushing of individual initiative and ambition by cronyism and the rise in extremism fuelled directly by the regime’s own flagrant defiance of the common good. The work is not a polemic for a neo-con think-tank but a novel, The Yacoubian Building, by the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany. What makes it remarkable as a work of fiction is the manner in which al-Aswany combines his devastating hatchet job on the current Egyptian regime with a touching and humane narrative that engages the reader as charmingly as Armistead Maupin or Alexander McCall Smith.
In other news, white man discovers social critique in Arab literature. Wait until he finds out about Sonallah Ibrahim! [Thanks, S.]
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Online Censorship Suit

Hossam has linked to Judge Abd al-Fattah's lawsuit here. It's riddled with factual errors. More on that later. It's still not clear if this is going anywhere, but as commenters on Issandr's original post on the topic noted, we have early warning in this case, and we should take advantage of it. A list of the URLs the judge is asking the government to censor follows. Since a court has yet to rule on whether these are libelous, archiving them in Egypt may be risky. So people outside of Egypt who might be interested in hosting mirrors, here are the urls. They include the sites of some of the most prominent human rights organizations in Egypt: http://www.hrinfo.net/ The Web site of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (hrinfo) http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/hmcl The page of the Hisham Mubarak Center for Legal Aid, hosted on hrinfo's site http://www.afteegypt.org Web site of the Nur Center http://wwwshamsannews.net/newsdetails.asp?id=402http://www.eipr.org The Web site of the Egyptian Inititative for Personal Rights http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/hmlc A typo leads to a 404 page, but it's named in the suit. The correct URL for the Hisham Mubarak Center is named above. http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/elmarsd/ The Urban Center [lit. "Observatory"] for Human Rights http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/eojl/ The Egyptian Center for Justice and Law http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/nadeem/ The page for the Nadim Center for Victims of Violence, hosted on hrinfo http://www.hrinfo.net/egypt/eaat The Egyptian Association Against Torture http://elsaeedi.katib.org/node/48#comment A page from a blog concerned with human rights issues http://harakamasria.org/node/9062#comment-7416 From Kifaya's Web site http://gharbeia.net/ar/judgebookreview Blog that has campaigned for democracy, human rights, and respect for the environment http://www.alghad.org.eg Purportedly the Web site of the Ghad Party's newspaper. Incidentally, this URL was inaccessible from Egypt March 14 using the ISP LINKdotNET. http://www.gn4me.com/nahda The Egyptian Renaissance site http://www.gn4me.com The Good News company's site, named as the owner of The Egyptian Renaissance, above. http://www.alnoor.se/othernews.asp?year=200 Web site of the Nur Center http://www.shamsannews.net/newsdetails.asp?id=402 Shmasan News http://www.wna-news.com/inanews/news.php?item3699.6 Web site of the Iraqi News Agency http://mohamed.katib.org/node/34 Blog post http://taranim.wordpress.com/2006/02/22/kareemyagod/#comments Blog post http://bentmasreya.blogspot.com/2007/02/blog-post_14.html Blog post http://www.hrinfo.net/reports/net2004/egypt.shtml The Egypt chapter of HRinfo's 2004 report on Internet censorship in the Middle East http://www.hrinfo.net/reports/re2006/re06-2.shtml HRinfo report on April-May 2006 crackdown http://www.hrinfo.net/reports/re2006/#egypt HRinfo report on Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt http://elsaeedi.katib.org/node/ Blog http://gharbeia.net/ar/judgeBOOKReview#comment Blog post
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Send Spiders

Did a little digging into Judge Abd al-Fattah Murad's lawsuit to get the government to censor 21 Web sites and blogs:
  1. Abd al-Fattah Murad will likely not be the judge in Abd al-Karim Sulaiman's appeal. This would too nice a present to the defense team, who are engaged in a separate legal dispute with the judge and so could clearly not get a fair trial from him. If Judge Abd al-Fattah is on the stand next session, we can all start believing the rumors that the government never wanted to imprison Kareem in the first place. Or we should all be very scared because the government will have dropped its last shred of shame.
  2. The only source for the suit's existence remains Egypt's finest, Rose al-Yusef. Lawyers have had no communication from the courts. A scanned copy of the Rose al-Yusef article is here. It's possible the lawsuit won't progress, and that this article (in a paper whose meager readership consists mostly of those who have a professional interest in trying to guess what Security is thinking) is another shot over the bow. [Update: AFP cites "a judicial source" and "sources" to confirm the story]
  3. His honor reportedly has very good wasta in the Interior Ministry—but less so in the Judge's Club. It's unclear whether he has the clout to get the government to change its current policy of not censoring the Internet.
Let's hope this one dies on the vine. In the meantime, reason enough to be vigilant and for techies abroad to start archiving sites. Release the spiders. And if anyone from the ICT or information ministries is reading, please read Nart Villeneuve's excellent discussion of the pitfalls of Internet censorship for governments. To these I would add economic ill effects. Egypt's perception as a friendly country for ICT investment, a perception the government has spent millions on fostering, rests in no small part on its policy with regard to online censorship, which is free... and costs nothing. All the Smart Villages, slick IT projects at the Alexandria Library, and UN-prize-winning Web sites will seem like so much expensive window dressing if the government starts censoring blogs, newspaper Web sites, and the Web sites of human rights organizations. Telecom Egypt is looking for a partner to modernize the country's Internet backbone, at a cost of US$1 billion. And let's face it, Egypt isn't China. China will become the largest broadband market in 2007, with 79 million broadband users. When Egypt launched a program to expand broadband access in 2004, it set itself an initial goal of 50,000 users. The difference in GDP is about US$2.13 trillion. Bad publicity ought to seem like more of a liability here. For the sake of the greater good, Judge Abd al-Fattah, and for the sake of the rights to impart and receive information, please drop this lawsuit. Your good reputation will be better served if you're known as the man who forgave an insult than if you're known as the man who censored the Internet. The same president whose honor you're so anxious to defend has himself spoken about the importance of ICT in "supporting national efforts toward more freedom, democracy, and respect of human rights." So, your honor, for the sake of the president and patriotism, for the sake of the next generation of honest, hardworking Egyptians from Aswan to Alexandria, and for the sake of your good reputation, please drop this lawsuit.
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the Ides of March

000019_vl.jpg Coming up on the anniversary of the liveliest expression of popular dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime in recent memory--the March 2003 demos--it seems like the moment to wheel out some old photos. I've scanned a (rathered battered) roll of negatives, and strung them together with some captions here. I think the moral of the story is this: if there's a dozen guys dressed up like little Darth Vaders chasing you, run like hell.
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URGENT: Lawsuit to be filed to block 21 Egyptian blogs

The head of the very same Court imprisoned blogger Kareem Soliman will be appealing to next week is launching a lawsuit to get 21 blogs and websites blocked in Egypt. Un-f#$%g-believable:
Rumors have been reaching me for days now, and I received confirmation only today from lawyer Gamal Eid, executive manager of Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. It seems that Judge Abdel Fattah Morad, head of Alexandria Appeal Court, has started a lawsuit against the government in Egypt’s Administrative Courts in order to block a number of Egyptian websites. The list, 21-websites-long, includes the blogs and sites that took part in the discussion around the book the Judge has written, and the wide plagiarism evident in the book copying HRInfo’s report on Internet Freedoms in the Arab World, and a how-to-blog guide written by blogger Bent Masreya. 
Of the 21 blogs and website, I was able so far to confirm Kifaya’s and HRInfo’s websites, in addition to the blogs of Bent Masreya, Yehia Megahed, and my own. The lawsuit is started by Abdel Fattah Mourad, one of Egypt’s most senior judges–and head of the Alexandria Appeal Court, where imprisoned blogger Abdul Kareem Nabil Soliman’s case is heard next week.
Follow this story as it develops at Arabawy, where the full email is posted. This is the most serious development against bloggers to take place in Egypt, and if a court rules in favor of the lawsuit it will not only be difficult to overturn but also encourage more lawyers to make a name for themselves by filing lawsuits against other sites. As Amr says:
What worries me, however, is that this is a judge whose ruling cannot be appealed. He can silence, imprison or execute people, and he oversees our elections. Once the blogs are found offensive by the court, then in light of the Egyptian’s regime reputation, it is automatic to prosecute the bloggers. This is an early warning.
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New head of IMA is Zionist

The new head of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, one of the finest cultural center dedicated to the Arab world in the world, is Dominique Baudis, a prominent figure of France's pro-Israel movement. The IMA is financed mostly by France but also by several Gulf states -- and I hope they act soon to stop rewarding people who have fought against Arab causes. French-Moroccan blogger Ibn Kafka has more. [Via Angry Arab]
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Constitutional amendments looking bleak

I am very much working on this issue but don't have time to comment, so read Reuters' take on the constitutional amendments:
Amendments to the Egyptian constitution, as drafted by a parliamentary committee, would weaken the role of judges in monitoring elections and make it almost impossible for Islamists to seek the presidency. The draft amendments would deprive non-party independents of the right to stand for the presidency and ban all political activity based on any religious reference or basis weapons the authorities could use against the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in the country. The amendments give responsibility for monitoring elections to a committee on which judges may not necessarily be in the majority. Opposition and civil society groups have prized the existing requirement that judges supervise elections as one of the best ways to discourage the abuses which have marred voting in Egypt. In the 2005 elections several judges risked their careers by speaking out against electoral practices that they witnessed. The parliamentary committee is expected to approve the amendments this week.
There is even worse stuff, but more on it when the amendments are in their final form. In the meantime, Muslim Brothers have launched a "We refuse the constitutional amendments" campaign across campuses.
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Reading about the Ikhwan

Here are a few reading notes on some recent articles on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB): What Islamists Need to Be Clear About: The Case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - high-caliber work by the Carnegie Endowment's excellent Amr Hamzawy and Marina Ottaway, essentially giving recommendations to Islamists on what they need to to convince the rest of the world that they are not a Trojan Horse. Many will have problems with this paper, but it clearly lists the issues that Western policymakers have problems with. The MB or other groups don't have to agree with, most notably the provisions on international agreements. I also wonder what foreign policymakers would make of the fact that the most thorough intellectual work by Islamists on social justice is probably Sayyid Qutb's "Social Justice in Islam." Let's hope they continue with other examples from other countries. The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood - like most Foreign Affairs articles, pretty bland aside from making the suggestion to the wonk crowd that "a conversation with the Muslim Brotherhood makes strong strategic sense." The article should have been less broad in scope, better sourced and referenced, though, and does not come up with any serious analysis of MB discourse and practice. It also, in my opinion, exaggerates the links between the Egyptian MB and various affiliates in Europe that are dealing with entirely different circumstances. It is however a refreshing change from the Daniel Pipes line that there are no differences between moderate and extremist Islamism. Parties of God - Ken Silverstein's Harpers piece covers a lot of ground, from the Egyptian MB to Hizbullah to the resistance to discussing Islamism with an open-mind in the US. Because of this it's hard to see his point, even if, for its audience, much of the material will be new and interesting. He devotes some space to his own experience dealing with pro-Israel bias with his former editors at the LA Times when reporting on Hizbullah, something that would make a great article on its own (looking at pro-Israel bias and fear of retribution in American newsrooms) but has ultimately little to do with Islamist parties. - at-tarikh as-siri li-jamaa al-ikhwan al-muslimin (The Secret History of the Association of the Muslim Brothers) is a re-edition of a controversial book by Alaa Ashmawy, who claims to be a former member of the tanzim al khass, the MB's paramilitary wing that operated mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. The book has been reissued by Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Center and makes the argument that the MB retains some kind of paramilitary wing, which is not accepted by many Egyptian and other scholars. I mention it because I was recently given a copy, but I have not had time to read it seriously nor can I comment on its usefulness. The issue is very topical though, particularly after the (inflated) concerns about the al-Azhar martial arts demo and last summer's claim that the MB was willing to send 10,000 fighters to Lebanon. - I'd like to also mention an undergraduate essay a reader sent me about the MB along with a message about the "On Freeloaders" post from a few days ago. The essay was written by an Australian student who has never been to the Arab world, does not speak Arabic and relied only on previously published English-language material. While obviously it isn't ground-breaking, it provides a nice introductory summary and more importantly a decent bibliography of recent academic, policy and journalistic work on the MB. You can read the essay here, and it author has a blog called Jovial Fellow. If someone who had done that much reading contacted me for help on further research, I would have no problems helping them.
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Various items pertaining mostly to Egypt

There haven't been many posts lately because I am quite busy on a project at the moment, and I am spending a lot of time chasing people on the phone and in meetings. There is tons of stuff I'd like to post about but don't have the time -- such as the recent controversial (and problematic) Seymour Hersh article, Egyptian political news such as constitutional "reform" and the ever-growing number of strikes (covered so well by Hossam), developments within the Muslim Brotherhood (see the interviews on Helena Cobban's blog). So here are a few quick links, mostly on Egypt: - How Barack Obama learned to love Israel by Ali Abunimah, Obama's groveling AIPAC speech is here. - Arabs reiterate 2002 initiative, Israel says no to return of Palestinian refugees. - Egypt in diplomatic row over alleged execution of Egyptian war prisoners by Israeli forces in 1967. - Lebanese journalist Serena Assir has a blog, Freespace Beirut. - Marc Lynch has a Guardian piece on the Brotherhood of the blog. - Lawrence Pintak follows up on the US/Egypt tiff over the Iraqi insurgent channel Zawraa. - Maria Golia on The subsistence math of Egypt's neglected workers. - Last but certainly not least, Baheyya on the perils of the succession, hammering the point that I've been telling anyone who'll listen about the fundamental uncertainty and risk of the Gamal scenario. As is increasingly argued, there is an analogy to be made with the crisis of 1951-52 -- most notably the Cairo fire -- and a growing risk of political violence (both spontaneous and calculated) in the next few years. Some even hope for it, thinking it will be the last straw that forces army intervention. I find this line of reasoning among some radical activists, but the other night at a dinner I heard a wealthy, well-connected, pro-regime, prominent society woman say "This country is on the brink of a crisis. The army has to intervene. We won't democracy, but we'll have order." Like Baheyya, I don't think we're about to see the Mubarak regime collapse but the degree of uncertainty has grown tremendously. I am also concerned about the long-term impact of the exclusion of the Brothers from political participation and the ongoing rape of the constitution. But more about that later.
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This man is dangerous

Picture 1-3

Thomas Friedman talks to Mamoun Fandy, reads poetry translated by MEMRI. Conclusion: Muslims and Arabs, as a group of humans, are cowardly and have no moral fiber. They don't feel sorry for Iraqis. They have an irrational hatred for Americans. Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda have the same discourse. I have a suggestion. Can someone get the mustache a subscription to a serious Arab press translation service like mideastwire.com? Or even point him towards those Arab publications that translate their articles into English, like al-Hayat? Perhaps point out to him that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are at war over the former's participation in elections and commitment to non-violence? Perhaps even email him a few of the many articles that appear in Arabic doing exactly the things that Friedman (and his native informant Fandy) says do not happen in the Arab/Muslim world? This man is becoming dangerous. He obviously has influence, you can't get the NYT to fire him even though its own correspondents (I hope) could probably tell him that he is full of shit. Someone has to give Thomas Friedman an education before he makes the view that Arabs and Muslims are congenitally amoral subhuman hordes completely mainstream. (The full op-ed is after the jump. Prepare yourself, it's one of the worst in a while.)

New York Times March 2, 2007 Pg. 17

The Silence That Kills

By Thomas L. Friedman

On Feb. 20, The A.P. reported from Afghanistan that a suicide attacker disguised as a health worker blew himself up near “a crowd of about 150 people who had gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open an emergency ward at the main government hospital in the city of Khost.” A few days later, at a Baghdad college, a female Sunni suicide bomber blew herself up amid students who were ready to sit for exams, killing 40 people.

Stop and think for a moment how sick this is. Then stop for another moment and listen to the silence. The Bush team is mute. It says nothing, because it has no moral authority. No one would listen. Mr. Bush is losing a P.R. war to people who blow up emergency wards. Europeans are mute, lost in their delusion that this is all George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s fault.

But worst of all, Muslims, the very people whose future is being killed, are also mute. No surge can work in Iraq unless we have a “moral surge,” a counternihilism strategy that delegitimizes suicide bombers. The most important restraints are cultural, societal and religious. It takes a village — but the Arab-Muslim village today is largely silent. The best are indifferent or intimidated; the worst quietly applaud the Sunnis who kill Shiites.

Nobody in the Arab world “has the guts to say that what is happening in Iraq is wrong — that killing schoolkids is wrong,” said Mamoun Fandy, director of the Middle East program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “People somehow think that killing Iraqis is good because it will stick it to the Americans, so Arabs are undermining the American project in Iraq by killing themselves.”

The world worries about highly enriched uranium, but “the real danger is highly enriched Islam,” Mr. Fandy added. That is, “highly enriched Sunnism” and “highly enriched Shiism” that eats away at the Muslim state, the way Hezbollah is trying to do in Lebanon or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Al Qaeda everywhere.

One result: there’s no legitimate, decent, accepted source of Arab-Muslim authority today, no center of gravity “for people to anchor their souls in,” Mr. Fandy said. In this welter of confusion, the suicide bombers go uncondemned or subtly extolled.

Arab nationalist media like Al Jazeera “practically tell bin Laden and his followers, ‘Bravo,’ ” Mr. Fandy said. “The message sent to bin Laden is that ‘You are doing to the West what we want done, but we can’t do it.’ This is the hidden message that the West is not privy to. Unless extreme pressure is applied on Muslims all over the world to come up with counter-fatwas and pronounce these men as pariahs, very little will happen in fighting terrorism.”

“The battleground in the Arab world today is not in Palestine or Lebanon, but in the classrooms and newsrooms,” Mr. Fandy concluded. That’s where “the software programmers” reside who create symbolic images and language glorifying suicide bombers and make their depraved acts look legitimate. Only other Arab-Muslim programmers can defeat them.

Occasionally an honest voice rises, giving you a glimmer of hope that others will stand up. The MEMRI translation Web site (memri.org) just posted a poem called “When,” from a Saudi author, Wajeha al-Huwaider, that was posted on Arab reform sites like www.aafaq.org.

When you cannot find a single garden in your city, but there is a mosque on every corner — you know that you are in an Arab country.

When you see people living in the past with all the trappings of modernity — do not be surprised, you are in an Arab country.

When religion has control over science — you can be sure that you are in an Arab country.

When clerics are referred to as “scholars” — don’t be astonished, you are in an Arab country.

When you see the ruler transformed into a demigod who never dies or relinquishes his power, and nobody is permitted to criticize — do not be too upset, you are in an Arab country.

When you find that the large majority of people oppose freedom and find joy in slavery — do not be too distressed, you are in an Arab country.

When you hear the clerics saying that democracy is heresy, but seizing every opportunity provided by democracy to grab high positions — do not be surprised, you are in an Arab country. ...

When you discover that a woman is worth half of what a man is worth, or less — do not be surprised, you are in an Arab country. ...

When land is more important than human beings — you are in an Arab country. ...

When fear constantly lives in the eyes of the people — you can be certain you are in an Arab country.”

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