Trends in Egypt

Life in Egypt these days is an exhausting process of constant evaluation: Are things going in the right direction? What are the good signs? What are the bad? What is the balance?

Every day, I'm compiling a mental a chart with pro and con, or "revolutionary" and "counter-revolutionary," columns. It sort of reminds me of those "What's Hot/What's Not" charts you find in magazines. 

What's Hot:

The movement against the constitutional amendments. Or at least heating up. A lot of respected figures in the country -- judges, activists, politicians, Amr Moussa and ElBaradei -- have spoken out against the rushed, half-assed constitutional reform on which Egyptians are expected to vote in one week (which, among other things, does not diminish the powers of the presidency and discriminates against women and Egyptians who have a foreign passport, wife, or grandparent). Instead, they are calling for the creation of a constitutional assembly that genuinely represents all Egyptians to draft the new constitution Egypt deserves. In one poll by Al Masry Al Youm, 59% of respondents said they would vote no in the referendum (in another poll, it was a tie). The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly supports the amendments. 

What's Not:

Sectarianism. After church burnings in villages and clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Cairo slum of Manshiyat Nasr that left 13 dead, there were demonstrations against sectarianism in Tahrir and a lot of the usual "national unity" talk. The sectarian clashes were sparked by a tragic Muslim-Christian romance, but many have been eager to blame then on the hidden hand of  remnants of the regime. Meanwhile, Ahmad Abdalla traveled to Atfih and discovered the villagers there burnt the church when rumours spread that Christians were practicing magic (on Muslim women, to make them divorce their husbands--because only black Christian magic could explain such behaviour). This blog post is obligatory reading

Read more of my list of promising and dispiriting recent trends in Egypt after the jump..


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Links 11 March 2011

  • Looks like the king is sacrificing his best friend...
  • "En revanche, on pouvait observer de multiples mises en cause du gouvernement et, plus encore, de l'injustice sociale : confusion du pouvoir et de l'argent, corruption, holdings privés, telles étaient les cibles principales. Incontestablement, le régime dispose d'une large marge de manœuvre fondée sur le pluralisme même du mouvement et sur son absence de polarisation. Il paraîtrait raisonnable d'en profiter."
  • Yikes.
  • On Tunisia.
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    Egypt's State Security officers get Flickr'd

    Hossam el-Hamalawy, my old friend who started blogging here and now blogs at, has just put up this archive of portraits of State Security officers on his Flickr account. There must be at least 50 officers there, with multiple portraits, each identified by name. Hossam writes:

    When we stormed State Security Police headquarters in Nasr City, which hosted one of Mubarak's largest torture facilities, on Saturday I found two DVDs in one of the offices, both titled "أرشيف السادة ضباط الجهاز" The Agency Officers' Archive. The DVDs included profile pictures of State Security officers, organized in folders. Each folder had the officers' name. Some however did not have the names. There were also sub folders that included pictures of those officers in social events like weddings.

    I don't know what was the purpose of these two DVDs, but I sincerely thank the State Security officials who gave us this present on a golden plate. I've uploaded the profile pictures to this flickr set and added them to the Piggipedia. I urge you all to circulate them. And if you have any more information about those officers please come forward.

    Each member of SS has to be brought to justice. This was an agency devoted to spying, surveillance, torture and murder. Every member of this organization from the informer all the way up to the generals should be prosecuted. SS has to be dissolved. It cannot be "restructured" like what the current PM is calling for.

    Although those torturers violated our private lives on a daily basis, bugging our phones, offices, and even our bedrooms, I will respect the privacy of their families and will not publish the photos of their social events that included family members.

    Just wow.

    Update: Yesterday flickr pulled these pics off on the grounds that the pics were not created by Hossam. The pics will resurface, but Hossam, myself and others will cancel our Flickr Pro accounts.

    BBC crew tortured in Libya

    The Libyan regime thinks it's a good idea to do this to journalists:

    Three members of the BBC Arabic team in Tripoli were detained and beaten while reporting on the situation in Libya. They were arrested on Monday (07 March) and taken to various barracks where they suffered repeated assaults, were masked and handcuffed, and were subject to a mock execution.

    There's a full transcript from the BBC on Christopher Dickey's blog, pretty harrowing stuff:

    G: "there was a big iron gate. It looked like a film set, like an execution place. They took us out of the car and the middle of the compound there was a cage, they put three of us in the cage and the last thing I saw before the door shut they hit Feras with an AK 47. We started hearing him groaning. They turned up the radio, all Qaddafi songs."

    C: "They were wearing uniforms with no badges of rank. Some of then had their faces covered."

    F: "they were kicking and punching me, 4 or 5 men. I went down on to my knees. They attacked me as soon as I got out of the car. They knocked me down to the ground with their guns, AK-47s. I was down on my knees and I heard them cocking their guns. I thought they were going to shoot me. It was a fake execution. Then they took me into the room."

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    Links 9 March 2011

  • Don’t deal with despotic regimes: EU must learn its lesson - Amnesty International

    Don't deal with them at all?

  • Bin Laden against attacks on civilians, deputy says | News by Country | Reuters

    A big deal I missed earlier, even if it only applies to Muslims.

  • Libya regime treating journalists like idiots – but ones who are useful to them | World news | The Guardian

    "A government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, speaking to a scrum of journalists ahead of an anticipated speech by Gaddafi at the hotel warned photogrtaphers not to go up to the first floor to take photographs, saying: "If you go upstairs, you'll be shot dead immediately. I'm just warning you. I'm tyring to be helpful.""

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    Arabist on Wikileaks @ SXSW

    I'll be taking part in a panel on Wikileaks at South by SouthWest's Interactive Festival in Austin, TX, on 15 March. The panel will include Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian; Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat; Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair; Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica and myself:

    Wikileaks began as an audacious idea, a statement about the potential of the internet to speak truth to power and to open governments. Barely four years later, the whistleblower's website finds itself at the centre of an unprecedented global storm over the leaking of hundreds of thousands of confidential cables from US embassies around the world. To many WikiLeaks's founder Julian Assange is a hero who has shone the bright glare of public scrutiny into places governments would rather keep hidden; to others he is a vandal, taking a sledgehammer to the secrecy all states need to maintain to function. Is Wikileaks just one expression valve for the web, one that would be replaced by others if it was closed? Has it changed the public's understanding of and relationship to government in any real and lasting way, or is it a media preoccupation?

    And of course I'll also be hanging around SXSW for a few days starting Sunday. Happy to meet any Arabist readers in Austin.

    Column: This is more of a revolution than you think

    I have a new column up at al-Masri al-Youm, reflecting on the State Security raids, which made me think that Egypt needs some sort of reconciliation process to deal with the magnitude of what is being discovered and chart a way forward. Every day, more evidence of corruption, torture and abuse is being uncovered. The Egyptian judicial system will take decades to deal with it. While it needs to play a role, there also needs to be something akin to a truth commission to hear people's testimony — both victims and abusers — and then move on to building a better Egypt. 

    While ministries shuffled paper and red tape, state security kept tabs on people. This goes beyond the issue of torture, which it certainly practiced abundantly, or the racketeering, blackmailing and other schemes its officers carried out with impunity. What those who gained access to its offices discovered is that, much like the Ministry of Transport might keep an inventory of its buses and trains, State Security maintained an elaborate database on citizens, the threats they represented, their weaknesses, relationships and other every little detail of their lives.

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    Links 8 March 2011

    International Women's Day in Cairo

    I have an account of what happened with the women's protest in Tahrir today up at The Daily Beast.

    Protesters were attacked and driven out of the square, accused of being “foreigners” (quite a few foreign women and journalists were present), and had their flyers and posters torn up.

    There was tension from the beginning, with throngs of male hecklers outnumbering the hundreds of female protesters.

    “A man tried to rule us and failed—will we let a woman?” an middle-aged man yelled at the crowd of Egyptian women holding banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The men around him burst out laughing.

    Egyptian women had called for a demonstration demanding that their demands and rights be taken into greater consideration by the military currently running the country.

    People's impressions of the protest varied a lot, in terms of atmosphere. I left right before things turned ugly, and didn't sense they would. There were lots of obnoxious hecklers, but I actually witnessed quite a few substantive and civil arguments (no one was aggressive to me). I actually thought that depressing as many of the men's point of view was, it was at least a good thing that people were arguing these issues openly. I was very troubled to hear about the violence. I would say -- and this is purely a strategic observation, not meant in any way to blame -- that the organizers might have been better served by biding their time and getting a much larger coalition of supporters involved (where were the opposition parties? why wasn't this publicized by the Kullena Khaled Said group?) so that the protest might have been larger and not mainly made up of women's rights activists. I hope this doesn't discourage them from organizing something else in the future. 

    Egypt and Tunisia's unfinished revolutions

    My column in Time magazine:

    It's been just seven weeks since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and just over three weeks since Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dumped from the presidency by the Egyptian military — but both countries have already unseated their interim prime ministers. Egypt's Ahmed Shafiq on Wednesday followed last week's decision by Tunisia's Mohammed Ghannouchi to step down, heeding the will of those who had taken to the streets to oust the autocrats who had appointed them. The two countries have chosen different models for their transition to democracy: Tunisia has a civilian government supported by the military; in Egypt, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken charge and has suspended the constitution. But in both countries, the interim rulers face a crisis of legitimacy, with controversy surrounding some of the personalities now in charge and their transition plans contested by many of the same forces that took to the streets to demand political change. And at the same time, they must deal with the mountain of problems left behind by the dictators, from corruption and cronyism to collapsing state authority and anemic economic performance.

    I suggest there are four key issues to bear in mind: 

    1. Winning the confidence of the street
    2. The media matters
    3. Islamists stand to gain, but so does the left
    4. There needs to be a balance between justice and economic recovery

    Read the whole thing here.

    The cat and the coup

    The Cat and the Coup - Trailer from Peter Brinson on Vimeo.

    Now here's an unusual computer game:

    The Cat and the Coup tells the story of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. More specifically, the game presents events from Mossadegh’s life in reverse-chronological order, beginning  on his death bed following the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in 1953. The coup was brought about by Mossadegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil fields – an event I wasn’t aware of until playing the game. The game’s historical events play out in a way that takes the player back in time to the moment he was elected Prime Minister.

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    On the State Security secret file leaks

    Over the weekend, as everyone knows, activists started posting documents they found in State Security offices online. I've read a fair number (there are good collections here and here) and just wrote something about them for The Daily Beast

    The heading at The Beast, which I didn't write, gets a few things wrong--I'm not sure if there are "thousands" of documents out online yet (?), and I haven't seen SS documents directly discussing kidnapping and torture (although of course we know from other sources that it took place). In fact:

    The documents made public do not discuss the rendition program that Egypt operated for the United States; there is no documentation of secret detention facilities, no transcripts of interrogations, no information about how informers were bribed or blackmailed into collaborating. These documents may have been destroyed already; or they may be in secret, secure locations.

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    Let's buy democracy

    A high-powered delegation of U.S. officials visited Cairo last month to find ways to support the revolution. They, along with diplomatic and development officials, have been working quietly, meeting with residents, activists and the leadership, and asking how best to spend the $150 million that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said would soon be available to help shore up the economy and provide technical assistance in the move toward democracy.

    By the time the U.S. delegation departed, no Egyptian pro-democracy organizations had asked for assistance.

    No doubt in due time they'll find the usual opportunistic organizations that only exist because aid has been earmarked to suck at their teat. But I find nothing more sordid than the idea of "political party development" — if a political movement is not organized enough to launch a party, of which there have been plenty in Egypt's history, then it does not deserve to be a party. Let it fail, others will succeed. If any aid has to be accepted, I'd much rather see it go to a NGO dedicated to collecting, assessing and conserving State Security documents (and linking them with US ones through Freedom of Information requests.)

    In the meantime aid money is much better spent on restoring the world's support in the economies of Egypt and Tunisia — guaranteeing loans, working on improving risk ratings, etc.

    Links 7 March 2011

  • US group fights ban on Israel 'war crime' bus ads (AFP)

    "The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SMAC) vowed to pursue a lawsuit, despite a judge's refusal to force officials who run the bus system in Seattle and surrounding suburbs to allow the posters to be displayed."

  • Private Eye | Official Site

    The Tories and Bahrain's al-Khalifas.

  • Free of Qaddafi, Town Tries to Build New Order -

    Anthony Shadid.

  • William Hague approved botched Libya mission, PM's office says | World news |

    Why did they need to sneak in when Benghazi port is rebel-controlled and open?

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    On Egypt's Gaza policy

    After the recent cabinet change, Egypt now has a Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who argue against Egypt's role in the Gaza blockade. Nabil al-Arabi, the new FM, in particular is on record has criticizing that policy on the grounds of international humanitarian law. Will we see a change in the policy anytime soon?

    In some sense, it already has changed. Palestinian officials from Hamas have been allowed to travel from Rafah. The border crossing has also been re-opened after a month-long shutdown following January 25, although it is still only taking 300 people a day. But fundamentally, the official position is the same for now. It's based on a legal reality that the siege of Gaza is Israel's responsibility, since it is the occupying power, as well as more convoluted legalism that the border cannot fully be reopened until Gaza is part of an independent Palestinian state. The real reasons for Egypt's participation in the blockade were a mixture of anti-Hamas sentiment, legitimate concern that Egypt could be held responsible for Hamas' actions by Israel, American and Israeli pressure on Cairo, and a fear that the Israelis were maneuvering to dump the Gaza problem onto Egypt's lap.

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    Kristof glosses over colonial era

    There's a strange cultural phenomenon — perhaps part of the return of conservatism in the West following the social revolutions symbolized by May 1968 — that has made apologia for colonialism popular again among liberals. I know where it once came from: my maternal grandfather, a man I loved dearly, came from a Belgian colonial family (his father was among the first Europeans to go into deep inner Congo, looking for gold and diamonds in Katanga) would often complain that critics of colonialism forget that Europeans built hospitals and roads and so on where none existed — but would rarely mention the hundreds of thousands of people killed or the exploitation that took place. I didn't like what he said and attributed to his age and conservative mindset, as well as his own experience as a settler in Morocco, which was not at all the exploitative model seen in Congo.

    I'm a bit puzzled to read this tidbit in Nick Kristof's latest column:

    Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long pergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”

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