BBC: Lancet study on Iraq credible, advised top UK government scientist

I've been skeptical myself about the incredibly high figures for mortality in Iraq since the invasion quoted by the Lancet study -- they are after all several times higher than other sources -- but the BBC has obtained (through a freedom of information request) a formerly confidential report from the UK's top government scientist who said the methodology used in the Lancet article is credible:
The British government was advised against publicly criticising a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the war, the BBC has learnt. Iraqi Health Ministry figures put the toll at less than 10% of the total in the survey, published in the Lancet. But the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the survey's methods were "close to best practice" and the study design was "robust". Another expert agreed the method was "tried and tested". The Iraq government asks the country's hospitals to report the number of victims of terrorism or military action. Critics say the system was not started until well after the invasion and requires over-pressed hospital staff not only to report daily, but also to distinguish between victims of terrorism and of crime. The Lancet medical journal published its peer-reviewed survey last October. It was conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health and compared mortality rates before and after the invasion by surveying 47 randomly chosen areas across 16 provinces in Iraq. The researchers spoke to nearly 1,850 families, comprising more than 12,800 people. In nearly 92% of cases family members produced death certificates to support their answers. The survey estimated that 601,000 deaths were the result of violence, mostly gunfire. Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate. He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole. President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report." But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."
While this is not necessarily conclusive about the Lancet study, it is pretty damning about the mendacity of Tony Blair's cabinet. But then again we knew that already. Here is another BBC analysis, dated October 2006, that looks at the competing estimates of Iraqi deaths.
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Mubarak wants military appeals court

The plot thickens:
Egypt's president wants military appeals court
Wed 28 Mar 2007, 12:41 GMT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has proposed a law to set up an appeals court for suspects tried before military tribunals, known for their tough and swift verdicts, a cabinet statement said on Wednesday.

Mubarak has sent the draft bill to both houses of parliament, dominated by his ruling National Democratic Party. Under the present law, only the president can reverse verdicts of a military court.

"This will provide more guarantees for those transferred to the military judiciary," the statement said. It did not say how judges will be selected for the new court.
Could this be a response to the criticisms about Article 179? If so, it's a pretty limited one.
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looking in

Interesting to be on the outside looking back into Egypt at the moment. BBC is still airing that great Egypt tourism ad—the one with the scantily clad babes emerging from the pristine sea and the romantic (I suspect CGI) shots of Cairo, while at the same time the news is of another rigged referendum and more of the usual quasi-anonymous violence. A bit depressing to hear that the demonstrations of discontent have been relatively minor. Looks like the vast majority are going to lay back and take it. Supine, apathetic, depoliticized and broke, they still deserve better than the steadily darkening political horizon promises to bring them. Gamal Mubarak’s smug little press conferences and earnest evocations of "reform" and "progress" may have the same reality value as ever (about as much as that tourism ad) but are somehow harder to laugh off when you’re in a country where the words have coinage. Yesterday I went for a haircut and the hairdresser asked me if Egypt is dangerous. I gave her my standard answer: the only people you have to be afraid of in Egypt are the police. I thought for a moment of trying a new answer. Something about that shifty grasping little shit with his wheedling lickspittle sycophancy to Big Dick Cheney, his bully’s sense of when to put the boot in, his receding hairline and blonde beard, his pilot’s license and his polyester clad demo-breakers. But that would have take taken longer than the haircut.
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White House statement on referendum

The strongest statement thus far?
Statement on Egyptian Referendum Vote Yesterday Egypt concluded a popular referendum on a package of amendments to its constitution. While the approval of these amendments is a question for the Egyptian people to decide, it is evident that the vast majority of Egyptians did not choose to participate. Many voices in Egypt have criticized the abbreviated process which led up to this referendum, and have criticized the amendments themselves as a missed opportunity to advance reform and a step backwards. We also took note of significant discrepancies between the estimates of voter turnout provided by the Government and by both Egyptian and foreign media and observers. As the Middle East moves toward greater openness and pluralism, we hope that Egypt will take a leading role as it does on many other regional issues. Secretary Rice was recently in Egypt and discussed political reform with senior Egyptian officials. We will continue to raise these issues at the highest levels in an effort to help the Government of Egypt fulfill the aspirations of the Egyptian people for democracy and meet the standards of openness, transparency, and reform the Government has set for itself.
But, as always, no consequences.
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On security services

The June 2006 of the Arab Reform Bulletin contained an excellent short essay by Amr Hamzawy urging for a closer look at the role of security services as a barrier to democratic change in the Arab world. I have been working on similar issues myself and think his point is highly relevant to explaining, for instance, why the amendment to Article 179 of the recent Egyptian constitutional amendment essentially constitutionalizes the Emergency Law. The infiltration of parties and state administrations by security types, especially, deserves a closer look. More on this (much) later, but here's Hamzawy: Arab States: Security Services and the Crisis of Democratic Change Amr Hamzawy The lack of democratic breakthroughs worthy of mention in Arab countries has spurred debate about barriers to change. Much of this debate has focused on economic, social, and cultural factors, or on the fragility of political forces demanding democracy. The debate would be incomplete, however, without a discussion of the means by which the authoritarian Arab regimes control their societies, namely the critical roles performed by security services with their quasi-military (police and interior ministries) and intelligence (internal and external) components. First, the security services restrict opposition political mobilization with a mixture of preemptive and repressive practices. Opposition groups often cannot hold mass meetings or demonstrations and get their supporters to polling places, and are prohibited from legitimate gains by falsified electoral results. The degree of oppression, and whether it is constant or episodic, varies from Syria to Egypt to Morocco. In any case, the result of the security services' oppressive role is the continuation of ruling regimes, many of which lack popular support, and a culture of fear and aversion to political participation amongst citizens. Second, a cursory glance at the Arab regimes reveals the hegemony of the security services over the executive authority. This phenomenon is not limited to modern republics, founded by militaries that view the security apparatus as an extension of the regular army, but also extends to monarchies. While the unchecked hegemony of the security services in Saudi Arabia and Libya results from the almost complete absence of a political apparatus, in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen the same phenomenon can be explained by the relative weakness of the ruling parties in the face of the organizational efficiency of the police and intelligence agencies. Moreover, the proliferation of emergency laws and special tribunals frees the hand of the security apparatus from judicial restraints in dealing with domestic political matters. Recent experiences in Egypt—the regime's reliance on security brutality against voters in order to salvage the 2005 elections in the face of Muslim Brotherhood gains, and the vicious manner in which the security services dealt with liberal opposition figure Ayman Nour—illustrate the phenomenon. Because Arab regimes lack effective political tools for exerting influence over society, even when claiming reformist intentions they often resort to their most effective weapon, oppression by security forces. Third, officials with security backgrounds are overrepresented among the Arab ruling elites in comparison to other groups such as technocrats, businessmen, and university professors. Although there are fewer ministers with security backgrounds than there used to be in many Arab countries (with the important exceptions of Syria and Algeria), their penetration is still clear. One need only look at the provinces of Morocco, the governorates of Egypt, or the Saudi local councils to witness their heavy presence. Even more insidious is the fact that security services have been able to exercise influence—in some cases veto power—over appointments to leadership positions in legislative or judicial institutions. This security veto creates a structural bias within the Arab elite to the benefit of those desiring to preserve the status quo and against reformist elements, even those essentially loyal to the regime but striving to reform its institutions. The mentality of the security apparatus fears nothing on this earth more than the call for change. The security veto, which represents a fundamental block to movement and renewal within the Arab elite, leaves Arab regimes either with a fragile band of true reformers with no real power, or with larger groups of phony reformers who advance in proportion to their adherence to the security mentality. Understanding this phenomenon can explain in large measure the schizophrenia of the Moroccan, Egyptian, and Jordanian political elites in recent years. There remains the question of whether the security services are themselves beset by the same crushing social and economic crises that beset the majority of Arabs, and whether they too are lured by the siren call of political Islam. Or are security services merely a blind instrument for autocratic control, perpetually removed from society itself? Outsiders can venture only a few modest observations, based on limited evidence, as security apparatuses are generally a black box. Despite differences between low- and high-ranking members, security personnel all enjoy higher pay and better services than other segments of society, and are thus protected from unemployment and poverty. In addition, despite recent stories of Saudi security personnel belonging to radical Islamist organizations and of the sympathy of some Egyptian officers for the Muslim Brotherhood, in both cases those involved were either killed or purged. Thus far, it seems that opposition inroads are extremely limited and that security apparatuses continue to serve as an effective tool for the authoritarian control of society. Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham.
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Final Schedule: 5th Cairo Anti-War Conference and 3rd Cairo Social Forum جدول الندوات واللقاءات بمؤتمر القاهرة الخامس والمنتدى الإجتماعي الثالث

The final schedule for the Conference and Forum meetings is now available in Arabic and English. Click on the poster below to download it... Time table of the Cairo Conference I'll be speaking in two meetings. The first is on the fight against police torture in Egypt... Sorry, some last-minute rearrangements... I won't be speaking at the anti-torture forum. Blogojournalist and friend Abdel Moneim will be kindly replacing me. Cairo 3rd Social Forum Raise your Voices against Torture Activists against Torture Friday 30th of March 2007 3.30 – 6.00 pm Press Syndicate – 3rd floor Slide show: Victims and Tormentors Interventions by activists against torture Testimonies by survivors and their families Join us with testimonies and recommendations for an international movement against torture منتدى مناهضة التعذيب And the other one on "Citizen Journalism," scheduled Saturday, 6pm, at the Press Sydicate 4th floor, Room 5.. I'll be speaking on the Egyptian blogosphere, part of the following forum: "Young Journalists: State Oppression and Violation of Economic Rights, Saturday from 3.30-5.30 pm, The Press Syndicate's 4th floor, Room 4 Blogs and political change in Egypt The conference should be a golden opportunity for us ya shabab to exchange experiences with international and local activists. I hope to see as many of you there. Click on the cartoon below to download the invitation and a background on the conference in Arabic, English, and French... Invitation to the 5th Cairo Conference & 3rd Cairo Social Forum
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300

Late last night, friends and I engaged in post-referendum relaxation by watching "300," the film about the epic battle between Sparta and the Persian Empire. While the fight scenes are admittedly cool, the movie as a whole is a rather ridiculous fascist ode to Western supremacy against the barbarian hordes. I am sure that a lot of LGF readers must be incredibly excited about the parallels with W's crusade against the evildoing Muslimers. I'm a Frank Miller fan, but this film neither innovates visually (it's really a combination of Miller's dark ink drawings as showcased in Sin City with the cartoonish bloodletting and fighting styles of Kill Bill and epic martial antics of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) nor artistically (all "acting" is done by shouting as loud one can while retaining a steely gaze and taut abs). So all you have left is basically what will be interpreted by many to be a propaganda film for the war on terror, although it's probably more telling of frat-house mentality. That has been picked up by today's Persians -- as the New Yorker's review notes:
In Tehran, after pirated copies hit the streets there a few weeks ago, the movie was quickly denounced by an Iranian government spokesman as an act of “psychological warfare” that was intended to prepare Americans for an invasion of the country. “American cultural officials thought they could get mental satisfaction by plundering Iran’s historic past and insulting this civilization,” he said. The complaint was echoed by President Ahmadinejad, who said, “They are trying to tamper with history . . . by making Iran’s image look savage,” and a Time correspondent reported that many Iranians assumed that the movie was produced by an American government conspiracy. It is perhaps unfair to expect the Iranians to develop a sense of humor about American pop culture. They may also have trouble understanding that commercial American movies are ordered up not by “cultural officials” but by studio officials. The film is, of course, less an act of psychological warfare than an act of capitalism. It was called into being not by a hunger for war but by the desire to exploit a market—professional-wrestling and X-treme Fighting saturnalias play into the movie’s atmosphere. Everyone screams at everyone, and specialized Persian warriors wearing masks and other freakish regalia turn up to do battle. Pop has always drawn energy from the lower floors of respectability; this movie, in which fan-boy cultism reaches new levels of goofy chaos and sexual confusion, draws energy from the subbasement. Still, the Iranians have a point: though first planned years ago, “300” is a political fable that uneasily engages the current moment. An all-volunteer expeditionary force of Spartans ventures forth, the warriors sacrificing themselves to stop the invading hordes from killing their wives and children, which may be an allusion to the Bush Administration’s get-them-in-Iraq-before-they-hit-us-here rationale. The Spartans also fight, as a lofty narration informs us, “against mysticism and tyranny.” Against mysticism? How many ancient armies went to their deaths with that as their battle song? And how many men have died, as the Spartans do, to defend “reason”? A whiff of contemporary disdain for the East—what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”—arises from the mayhem: “300” turns into a dawn-of-democracy epic in which violence is marshalled to protect the future of Western civilization. Made in a time of frustration, when Americans are fighting a war that they can neither win nor abandon, “300” and “Shooter” feel like the products of a culture slowly and painfully going mad.
Luckily American popular cinema is a very, very varied thing. As a counterpoint to 300's glorification of Western superiority, there's some good-natured self-parody in Mike Judge's Idiocracy, when an average American of today wakes up 500 years into the future and finds that everyone is incredibly stupid and speaks a mixture of frat-boy wooos and valley girl slang. The joke is not just that this is the way Western consumerist culture is headed, but that it's not that far off now anyway. An Occidentalist argument? Perhaps, but then again one gets the feeling that the characters of Idiocracy are the kind of people that 300 is intended for.
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Amendments passed at 75.9% "yes" votes, 27.1 participation

Surprise, surprise: the amendments passed, officials say.
CAIRO, March 27 (Xinhua) -- Egyptian Justice Minister Mamdouh Mohieddin Marai announced on Tuesday that 75.9 percent of voters in Monday's national referendum said yes to constitutional amendments, the official news agency MENA reported. Marai said the turnout reached 27.1 percent, which meant that some 9.6 million of Egypt's 35.4 million eligible Egyptian voters went out and made a vote on Monday's public referendum.
The opposition and monitoring NGOs are skeptical, saying it couldn't have been more than 10% of voters at most. Low turnout for Egypt referendum: al-Jazeera
Anas al-Fiqi, Egypt's information minister, said turnout on Monday stood between 23 and 27 per cent, according to early estimates. The independent Committee for Democracy Support, which deployed 300 observers, said overall turnout was no more than three per cent by 5pm (15:00 GMT).
More stories are coming out on this, casting doubt on participation and highlighting apathy -- AP, LA Times, WaPo. In other news, a friend was given a voting ballot by a taxi driver last night. The driver was furious that he had gotten it as payment for a half-hour cab ride -- presumably with a NDP or election official actually the friend just confirmed that it was given by a police officer. In a voting station near the Pyramids, another friend reported that NDP activists were only letting in people who said they would vote "yes" -- just some of the many usual stories of electoral fraud we've come across yesterday.
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HRW on arrests of anti-referendum protesters

Full thing after the jump. Egypt: Don’t Enshrine Emergency Rule in Constitution Protesters, Journalists Assaulted on Eve of Referendum (Cairo, March 26, 2007) – Proposed constitutional amendments approved by the Egyptian parliament on March 21 effectively remove basic protections against violations of Egyptians’ rights to privacy, individual freedom, security of person and home and due process, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament overwhelmingly approved amendments to 34 articles of the constitution on Tuesday in a vote that closely followed party lines. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scheduled a referendum on the amendments for today, weeks ahead of the expected date. Opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood said they would boycott the referendum. Last night, security forces arrested at least 13 activists on their way to a protest against the proposed amendments. Eyewitnesses and victims told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes officers supported by riot police surrounded two groups of activists and bloggers in downtown Cairo at around 7 p.m. The plainclothes officers kicked and punched activists, assaulted a number of female protesters, and confiscated memory cards from three foreign photojournalists’ digital cameras. Two of the 13 were subsequently released, but the authorities have not provided any information on where the remaining activists are being detained. A spokesman for the opposition al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party today told Human Rights Watch that security forces surrounded their offices in Cairo, Alexandria, Kafr al-Shaikh, Buhaira and Port Said last night, and that authorities had detained six Ghad Party members. Activists were protesting proposed changes to article 179 of the constitution that would have the effect of removing constitutional safeguards requiring the government to obtain judicial warrants before searching a citizen’s home, correspondence, telephone calls, and other communications, when the government deems activity being investigated is terrorist-related. In such cases the president would also be allowed to send cases to special “exceptional” courts or military tribunals, whose decisions may not be appealed, instead of the regular courts, thereby jeopardizing individuals’ fair trial rights. The amendments would also mean security forces would be authorized to exercise powers of arrest that could lead to arbitrary, and potentially indefinite, detentions. “No referendum can legitimize these constitutional amendments, or bring them in compliance with Egypt’s international obligations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The right of Egyptians to be protected from arbitrary searches and seizures and the right to appeal judgments are basic human rights that the government can’t legislate away.” While Egypt has a right and a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence and to prevent terrorist attacks, the Egyptian government has a decades-long record of abusing human rights in the name of combating terrorism, and of referring politically sensitive trials to exceptional courts. Human Rights Watch said the amendments to article 179 were particularly troubling in light of the overly broad definitions of terrorism in Egyptian law. For example, article 86(bis) of the Penal Code, part of antiterrorism legislation adopted in 1992, makes it an offence for any person to belong to, or possess and distribute publications of any group that calls for suspension of the constitution or laws or is considered to be “impairing the national unity or social peace.” Egypt’s Emergency Law, in place without interruption since 1981, already suspends important constitutional protections of fundamental rights, but President Mubarak has repeatedly pledged to abolish the Emergency Law and to replace certain provisions with antiterrorism legislation. The proposed amendments to article 179 would allow this antiterrorism legislation to bypass constitutional guarantees of the rights to privacy and to due process. “Shifting the exceptional powers that the Emergency Law grants the Executive into the constitution won’t make them more legitimate under international law,” said Whitson. “The proposed amendments to article 179 of Egypt’s constitution would eviscerate President Mubarak’s promises to repeal the Emergency Law.” Several provisions of the constitution guarantee the right to freedom from arbitrary search and seizure and the privacy of the home and private communications. Article 41 of the constitution affirms: Individual freedom is a natural right not subject to violation except in cases of flagrante delicto. No person may be arrested, inspected, detained or have his freedom restricted in any way or be prevented from free movement except by an order necessitated by investigations and the preservation of public security. This order shall be given by the competent judge or the Public Prosecution in accordance with the provisions of the law. Article 44 of the Egyptian constitution states that, “homes shall have their sanctity and they may not be entered or inspected except by a causal judicial warrant as prescribed by the law.” Article 45 states: The law shall protect the inviolability of the private life of citizens. Correspondence, wires, telephone calls and other means of communication shall have their own sanctity and their secrecy shall be guaranteed. They may not be confiscated or monitored except by a causal judicial warrant and for a definite period and according to the provisions of the law. Proposed amendments to article 179 of the constitution would effectively waive these guarantees in cases the government designates as terrorism-related, and could grant security forces unfettered authority to detain persons, search homes and monitor communications without a judicial warrant. They would further allow the president to refer any suspect to any court of his choosing, including exceptional or military courts. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Egypt ratified in 1982, Egypt is obligated to ensure that everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. Article 9 states that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.” As a party to the ICCPR, Egypt also has a legal obligation to ensure that, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” (article 17). The changes proposed by the amendments to article 179 of the Egyptian constitution violate both these obligations. “Egyptian law enforcement officials have all the tools they need to combat the threat of terrorism without altering the constitution to undermine Egyptians’ basic rights to protection of their home, privacy, liberty, security and a fair trial,” Whitson said. “President Mubarak should propose new amendments that explicitly safeguard Egyptians’ fundamental rights.” According to lawyers from the Hisham Mubarak Center, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and the Nadim Center for Victims of Violence, among those detained on March 25 in Cairo were: 1. Omar al-Hadi (blogger) 2. Muhammad Gamal (blogger) 3. Ahmad Drubi (environmental consultant) 4. Malik Mustafa (released hours later) 5. Karim al-Sha`ir (blogger) 6. Omar Mustafa (blogger) 7. Muhammad `Abd al-Qadir (communications employee) 8. Midhat Shakir (released hours later) 9. Adham al-Safati (film director) 10. Muhammad Rashid 11. Khalid Mustafa 12. Ahmad Samir (student) 13. Mohsin Hashim (political activist) 14. Jano Charbel (Lebanese journalist, briefly detained)
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More referendum fraud reports

Below is a press release from a woman's NGO whose monitors witnessed fraud in today's referendum. Those with access to al-Jazeera English may also want to look at their coverage, in which an Egyptian-American reporter working for the channel got to vote despite not having the appropriate ID by merely telling staff at voting booths that he was born in Egypt. They also interview an illiterate woman who is convinced she is voting for President Mubarak and doesn't know about the amendments. The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights Referendum Day: March, 26, 2007 Initial Report Entering on the Condition of Voting YES Applying the Constitution's Amendments Before the Referendum Women and NGOs as the Main Tools Three of ECWR's poll monitors for today's referendum on amendments to 34 articles of the Egyptian constitution, reported that voters were allowed to enter only on the condition that they vote YES to the amendments. Although many polling places were quiet since the polls opened, ECWR monitors in the governorates of Cairo, Qalyoubya and Giza reported that voters were only allowed to enter the polling places of referendum conditionally upon voting YES. In El-Sanya School for girls in El Sayida Zeynab (District 12) there were youth in front from the NDP checking if people entering the polling places were voting yes and mobilizing women to vote in more than one polling place (for people who live outside of their district), without identity cards or using the ink. Also in front of some polling places such as: - El Khdawy secondary school (District 62), Khalil Agha Secondary School for Boys (District 6), Bab El Sharya and El Naser Primary School (District 46) - El Qalyoubia governorate (Banha) no ink was used and no judges were supervising on the ballot boxes The NGOs used for their beneficiaries and resources in violation of the NGO Law No 84 of 2002: - Abo El Enen Charity: gathered women in buses in front of El Sadya Secondary School for Boys where there were representatives wearing armbands with the name of Abou El Enan chanting "YES." Also, in front of El Zerra'a Collage they gathered students in governmental Minibuses in Giza District 1104, and had banners entitled "No to damaging Egypt's reputation …. Together towards better development" - The Merciful Hand Association: gathered women in buses no 2744 and 3348 to vote Yes for the amendments - Representatives of the NDP gathered people in front of Naser Institutional Hospital that worked in each department in the hospital. They took them in buses to Qalubeya (No. 24273) with posters for the NDP.
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MERIP on Egyptian workers' strikes

Our friends Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy have a MERIP piece on the recent strikes in Egypt, looking at some of the biggest strikes of recent months, the workers' fight against union bureaucracy, and the historical context of the Egyptian labor movement. It's a long piece with many interesting subsections, so I will just post the conclusion here:
The regime is especially wary of the Mahalla workers’ challenge to the leadership of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, because the federation is its primary means of mobilizing support in the street. The “National Democratic Party supporters” bussed to provincial polling places to stuff ballot boxes during the November 2005 parliamentary elections were mainly miserably paid public-sector workers, rounded up by NDP-affiliated union bureaucrats. Labor bosses also turn out the “spontaneous” cheering crowds who greet presidential visits to outlying towns and “mass demonstrations” like the regime-approved protest against the Iraq war in Cairo Stadium in February 2003. In the past, the General Federation (together with the Arab Socialist Union, the NDP’s predecessor) supplied the foot soldiers for the “mass” pro-Nasser gatherings following Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, and the “popular” rallies against the January 1977 “bread intifada.” In public meetings and private interviews, labor activists and strike leaders in the textile and railway sectors frequently mention the phrase “independent parallel national labor union.” Various leftist organizations are talking about building such a thing: the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists, the Nasserist Karama Party, the remnants of the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Rights, and the Workers’ Coordination Committee. (Nearly absent from these deliberations is the “legal left” Tagammu‘ Party.) As of yet, however, there are no concrete plans. The success of such endeavors will depend on whether industrial militancy is sustained, whether political activists can intervene in the strikes and whether workers can establish effective coordination among themselves. It will also depend on whether the Misr Spinning and Weaving workers indeed manage to withdraw from their government-dominated union. If they do score a victory against the union bureaucracy, other workers will be encouraged to emulate them. It is no secret that there is tremendous frustration with union leaders among the rank and file in the railways and other sectors. Because of the high price of oil and receipts from the sale of public-sector firms, the government has significant cash reserves and can afford to meet workers’ bread-and-butter demands. It has done so in the hopes that workers will return complacent to their jobs. But some workers, and it is not yet clear how many, have begun to connect their thin wallets with broader political and economic circumstances -- the entrenchment of autocracy, widespread government incompetence and corruption, the regime’s subservience to the United States and its inability to offer meaningful support for the Palestinian people or meaningful opposition to the war in Iraq, high unemployment and the painfully obvious gap between rich and poor. Many Egyptians have begun to speak openly about the need for real change. Public-sector workers are well-positioned to play a role if they can organize themselves on a national basis.
Read the whole thing.
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One city, two newspapers

Ever since the Washington Post started its campaign against the Mubarak regime three years ago, it has been the leading critic of Cairo and of Washington's stance towards Cairo. Strange that its erstwhile rival, the Washington Times (once a bastion of conservative critics of Egypt), has turned into a Mubarak defender. Just see the two articles below: Washington Post op-ed editorial: Constitutional Autocracy
The administration's weakness has emboldened the aging autocrat. In late December he unveiled a series of constitutional amendments that purport to follow through on his 2005 promise but in fact do the opposite. Last Monday they were rubber-stamped by the parliament; the next day Mr. Mubarak abruptly announced that the referendum needed to ratify them would be held six days later. No one believes that tomorrow's vote will be free or fair, and opposition parties have announced a boycott. The package essentially will make the "emergency laws" that have underpinned Mr. Mubarak's regime a permanent part of Egypt's political order. One amendment would write into the constitution the authority of police to carry out arrests, search homes, conduct wiretaps and open mail without a warrant and would give the president the authority to order civilians tried by military courts, where they have limited rights. Other amendments would ban independent political candidates as well as parties based on religion, which would eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from parliament. Only parties with parliamentary representation would be able to nominate presidential candidates; since the government has refused to register most opposition parties and rigged parliamentary elections, there would be no alternative to the ruling party's choice. The opposition and outside groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have rightly described the amendments as the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century. Yet the Bush administration has barely reacted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting Egypt this weekend, said Friday that "it's disappointing" that Egypt hasn't proved to be a leader of liberalization. But the State Department is downplaying the constitutional amendments. While acknowledging some "concerns," a spokesman said last week that "a process of political reform has begun in Egypt" and that "you have to put this in the wider context." Here's the wider context: The Bush administration used its considerable leverage over Egypt to force some initial steps toward democratic change two years ago. Then it slowly reversed itself and now has come full circle, once again embracing a corrupt autocracy. It's a shameful record, and one that Egyptians -- who, then as now, mostly despise their government -- won't quickly forget.
Washington Times op-ed by Egyptian ambassador to US Nabil Fahmy: A more plural Egypt
Today, Egyptians will vote on the most far-reaching package of constitutional amendments since the adoption of Egypt's current constitution in 1971. This will constitute a defining moment in the course of our nation's history, an endeavor that will provide a greater clarity to Egypt's vision of itself and its framework of governance. . . . Egypt's reformers know well the backdrop to this effort. A system of single-district majority representation has favored individual candidates at the expense of political parties, and local issues over national politics. The result is the current bipolar standoff in parliament between the ruling party and the independents with only a minimal representation for the secular parties, many of which have enjoyed a long and rich tradition in Egypt's history. By moving toward some form of proportional representation system, as well as lowering the threshold for candidates from political parties to compete in presidential elections, the balance will be restored in favor of greater representation for political parties that will compete on the basis of national agendas that can address Egypt's many challenges. Taken together, these amendments will institutionalize a more plural and competitive political process in Egypt, while strengthening the system of checks and balances necessary for good governance. In short, it is a constitution that will chart a transition for Egypt's future, which is precisely why it is engendering such intense debate. Significant as it is, it is by no means the culmination of Egypt's reform. Needless to say, it is a process that will be confronted with obstacles and resistance, even setbacks. Yet because it realizes their aspirations for a more open, democratic polity, it is a course that Egyptians are determined to pursue.
One interesting in the language coming out of Egyptian officials is this recognition that "there will be setbacks," that things are not perfect but it's a process that will eventually lead to democracy. Sounds remarkably like the Middle East peace process, in fact: the point is not getting there but staying in the process.
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Nicolas Sarkozy, Al Qaeda and Israel

Alain Gresh has a post on his blog about how French presidential candidate and tough guy Nicolas Sarkozy was asked whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shia and could not answer.
Cela m'avait échappé. Il ne me semble pas l'avoir lu dans les grands quotidiens et il a fallu une remarque en passant pour me lancer sur la piste des déclarations de Nicolas Sarkozy sur Al-Qaida. Seuls quelques blogs les ont reprises et quelques sites de journaux (Marianne) et nouvelobs.com). Voici comment ce dernier en parle : « Invité sur RMC lundi 26 février, Nicolas Sarkozy a été testé sur ses connaissances en matière de terrorisme international. Le journaliste de RMC, Jean-Jacques Bourdin, lui a demandé si les combattants d'Al-Qaïda étaient sunnites ou chiites. "Il est impossible d'y répondre (...) parce qu'Al-Qaïda, c'est une nébuleuse", a rétorqué Nicolas Sarkozy. A trois reprises, le ministre de l'Intérieur a refusé de répondre à la question. "On ne peut pas qualifier Al-Qaïda comme ça", a-t-il insisté. "Je vais d'ailleurs vous donner un exemple : le GSPC algérien a rejoint Al-Qaïda il y a quatre ans à peine. On ne peut pas réduire Al-Qaïda à un problème sunnites-chiites. Al-Qaïda, c'est une mouvance", a encore déclaré le candidat de l'UMP. Jean-Jacques Bourdin a toutefois tenu à lui faire remarquer que "tous les chefs d'Al-Qaïda sont des sunnites". "Nous demanderons à des spécialistes", a conclu le journaliste. ». Que le ministre de l'intérieur français, en charge de la lutte contre le terrorisme, soit aussi ignare pose un véritable problème : comment peut-il mener cette lutte s'il n'est pas capable de faire la différence entre les groupes chiites et sunnites ? de comprendre le fossé qui sépare, par exemple, Al-Qaida des groupes chiites, même les plus radicaux.
So it's not just American politicians -- as Gresh says, quite worrying coming from a minister of the interior. Gresh also has a long examination of Sarkozy's pro-Israel leanings (including a reference to a Sarkozy speech given in Israel in which he praises the 1956 tripartite aggression against Egypt). One remark by a Le Monde reporter says it all: "On Israel, he has the same language that an American presidential candidate would adopt."
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US op-eds against Egypt's constitutional coup

The Washington Post, the leading anti-Mubarak publication in the US, says:
The opposition and outside groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have rightly described the amendments as the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century. Yet the Bush administration has barely reacted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting Egypt this weekend, said Friday that "it's disappointing" that Egypt hasn't proved to be a leader of liberalization. But the State Department is downplaying the constitutional amendments. While acknowledging some "concerns," a spokesman said last week that "a process of political reform has begun in Egypt" and that "you have to put this in the wider context." Here's the wider context: The Bush administration used its considerable leverage over Egypt to force some initial steps toward democratic change two years ago. Then it slowly reversed itself and now has come full circle, once again embracing a corrupt autocracy. It's a shameful record, and one that Egyptians -- who, then as now, mostly despise their government -- won't quickly forget.
They also have a story about Rice's trip to Egypt and the Egyptian reaction to her mild criticism. Andrew Exum and Zack Snyder of WINEP call the US "a willing accomplice" of the Mubarak regime:
The United States is the only external power that can exert any meaningful pressure on Egypt, but, to do so, Washington must grasp the significance of these inherently antidemocratic amendments to the Egyptian constitution. Should the administration issue strong, forceful statements in opposition to such purported "reforms," it will help the cause of civil society groups across the Middle East. On the other hand, should it continue to maintain this indifference toward a fundamental assault on key political rights, it runs the risk of inviting Congress to weigh in on the issue. Most opposition parties in Egypt are not, it must be said, friendly to U.S. interests in the region. But they -- like the Egyptian government -- closely follow the statements that come out of Washington. So too do democracy activists in the region, and it is for them as much as anyone that the United States ought not allow this encroachment on political freedom to go unchallenged.
Last week the Financial Times called Mubarak misguided and called for military aid to be leveraged:
The regression in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, is part of an attempt by despots across the region to regroup and consolidate their power. With the US giving up on the freedom agenda and reverting back to its old policy of backing autocratic regimes as long as it likes their foreign policy, the first stirrings of democracy witnessed two years ago are fading. But the US has leverage: it provides $1.3bn every year to Egypt's army, for example, the backbone of the regime. It should use this influence to end, rather than promote, repression. The European Union too should raise its voice, particularly after having recently agreed with Cairo an aid package ostensibly tied to political reforms. Western governments might be entertaining the fantasy that weakening Egypt's Islamists would open more space for secular parties to prosper. But Mr Mubarak's scorched earth record towards all dissent, secular or Islamist, shows he will brook no challenge. Not long ago his government's main target was the liberal al-Ghad party, whose leader ran against him for the presidency and now languishes in jail. Egypt's western friends should by now know that Mr Mubarak's moves are likely to backfire, radicalising the Islamists and boosting their popularity.
If the opposition in this country is going to get serious, then it may be time for it to start a campaign for all US military aid to be converted to civilian aid. It's an approach that would find much support in the US Congress and would place Cairo in a position where it would have to refuse this aid or accept wherever USAID wants to spend it. Aside from democracy-promotion programs, there are plenty of work they could still do in infrastructure development, health and education. The question is whether the US military and US arms companies that sell to Egypt (one of the US' best customers) would be happy with that. But there would be a clear moral appeal to such a campaign, and it could focus attentions both in Egypt and the US as well as involve the last interest group the Mubarak regime wants to have involved in politics: the military.
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Stacher & Shehata: US should talk to MB

Joshua Stacher and Samer Shehata have an op-ed in the Boston Globe about how the US should engage with the Muslim Brotherhood:
Opening a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood would signal to ruling regimes and opposition groups in the region that the United States is committed to promoting democracy -- not just to supporting those who are friendly to US interests. Democracy requires a broader commitment to political participation, inclusion, reform, moderation, transparency, accountability, and better governance. Furthering contacts with the Brotherhood would not constitute a drastic departure for American foreign policy. Despite the lack of a relationship now, American officials have had occasional contact with the Brotherhood in the past. American government officials last held talks with the organization in late 2001, under the current Bush presidency. Although the Egyptian government has occasionally expressed displeasure at such meetings, the American-Egyptian relationship has not suffered as a consequence. Egypt receives billions of dollars a year in aid from the United States, and Washington has a responsibility to meet with all of Egypt's relevant political organizations. After the Brotherhood's success in the 2005 parliamentary elections and the increasing popularity of other Islamist groups in the region, the United States needs to consider an open and frank dialogue with moderate, nonviolent Islamist groups. And there is no more important moderate Islamist group in the region than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
But I wonder: if the US were to engage the MB, what would they talk about?
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