Attack on a church in Imbaba leaves 12 dead, hundreds injured

Many are angry, horrified and anxious in Egypt today after a (at least partly Salafi) crowd attacked two churches in Imbaba last night, and fighting took place that left 12 people dead and over 200 (!) wounded. 

Zeinobia has a good account of the way the rumour that a Muslim woman was being held in the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba started online. This rumour appeared just hours after the appearance of Kamelia Shehata (another alleged Muslim convert supposedly being held by the Church against her will, her case a Salafi rallying cry) on a Christian satellite TV station to try to lay the furor over her case to rest. 

Sarah Carr has penned a good eye-witness account for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. She explored the neighborhood a bit and found other violence and looting taking place around the church. 

A lot of people are wondering why the army and the police didn't do a better, more aggressive job of controlling the mob. Today the army has announced it has arrested 190 people who will be referred to military courts and that it will protect houses of worship. 


Egypt's foreign policy and Palestinian reconciliation

I have a new Masri al-Youm column on Egypt's foreign policy and its recent midwifing of Palestinian reconciliation here. I argue that the deal is not enough to talk about a new foreign policy just yet, but we're seeing signs of a move in the right direction.

The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that was inked in Cairo on 4 May is important mainly for Palestinian reasons: For the first time since 2006, an opportunity exists to form a united Palestinian position to address the impasse of the peace process. But the deal also reflects a new style of Egyptian foreign policy and, with time, perhaps a new direction too.

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New books on Egypt: Alaa Al Aswany and David Sims

Imbaba, an informal neighborhood of Cairo that was agricultural land a few decades ago, seen from the skies.

The National has just run my joint review of two interesting new Egypt books. One is Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt -- a collection of his newspaper columns from the year and a half or so preceding the revolution, which is a good introduction to both the tenor and substance of many of the big cultural/political debates preceding (and in some cases laying the groundwork for) the uprising.

One of the things about the Egyptian revolution is the way it gave so many -- famous and unknown -- their chance to shine. I open the piece with what I believe was Al Aswany's moment: a now-historic TV debate in March, in which the novelist wiped the floor with then prime minister Ahmad Shafiq (Shafiq resigned the next day). 

The other book I discuss is David Sims' original, measured and hugely informative reference on Cairo, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. The book delves into how and why the capital's staggering informal neighborhoods have come into being; into the patronage and speculative networks that explain the city's heedless expansion into the desert; and into the way governance (of traffic systems, municipal authorities) just barely functions in a "minimalist" city in which officials have little independence, authority or accountability. 

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Why Turkey is still worthy of emulation

There's been some commentary lately about Turkish foreign policy faltering in the face of the Arab spring: Turkey first opposed NATO intervention in Libya, tried to mediate out of the impasse and then recently turned around to say Qadhafi must go. It has acted hesitantly over Syria, where it has considerable interests. Anthony Shadid in the NYT and Steve Cook in Foreign Policy have highlighted the problems the AKP government have faced in dealing with these issues. But I think they go too far in talking about Turkish incompetence in the face of a turbulent Middle East.

This is only the case if you feel that a foreign policy success for Turkey is about getting what it wants all the time. It's quite reasonable for Turkey to believe, with its considerable interests in Libya, that backing the rebels outright was not the best course of action, and that negotiations with the Qadhafi regime were worth a try. When it didn't work, they moved on. Likewise, I'm not convinced when Cook writes:

Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to “implement [reforms] without further delay” and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad’s efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, “What democratic reforms?” The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad — a distinct possibility — then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.

The criticism about Assad not implementing reforms is fair, but taken in the context of decades of American and European praise for "reform" in the dictatorial regimes that fell in Egypt and Tunisia (and others that may be about to fall elsewhere), some humility may be needed: let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It reminds me of the Obama administration's ridiculous posturing on Iran supplying Syria with riot control supplies — the irony won't be lost on many Egyptian protestors who found themselves gassed and shot with US-supplied weapons last January.

Turkey may indeed carry cynical moves, and deserves moral condemnation for it. But it doesn't mean its foreign policy is a failure. The real achievement of Turkey's foreign policy is not so much its success in achieving its goals, but its independence: it acts like a sovereign state, not a client state. In the face of a tough and unpredictable regional situation that directly affects its interests, it may have faltered, but it has retained its autonomy. That is what Arabs ruled by Quislings and acquiescent puppets have admired, not necessarily the policies themselves. 


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

AIPAC, a Not-So-Benign Night Flower

Below is an article by one of the organizers of the Move Over AIPAC campaign, which will gather Americans in Washington, DC later this month to protest US foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nefarious role played by AIPAC in ensuring aid to Israel and support for its occupation of Palestine continued unchecked.

AIPAC, a Not-So-Benign Night Flower

By Janet McMahon

One could be forgiven for thinking that the last three letters of AIPAC stand for “political action committee.” But since the American Israel Public Affairs Committee does not itself make campaign contributions to political candidates, technically it is not a PAC.  Curiously, however, the 30-odd “unaffiliated” pro-Israel PACs, most with deceptively innocuous names, all seem to give to the same candidates—almost as if there were a guiding intelligence behind their contributions. In the eyes of the Federal Election Commission, AIPAC is a “membership organization” rather than a political committee. This means that, unlike actual PACs, AIPAC is not required to file public reports on its income and expenditures.

Not for nothing, however, did Fortune magazine once name it the second most powerful lobby in Washington. So it’s easy to understand why, like a night flower that blooms in the dark and dies with the light of day, this particular organization which advances the interests of a foreign government has fought long and hard to ensure that its funding sources and expenditures are not exposed to public scrutiny.

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Those angry Iranian women

From a recent RAND poll of Iranians:

  • A majority of respondents view the economy as being “average” or better, though many may have hesitated to express their dismay with the economic situation.
  • In general, gender and education level were important predictors of attitudes. Women and less-educated respondents tended to voice views on security and overall relations that were unfavorable to the United States. Men and those with greater social means tended to be more favorably inclined.
  • A majority of respondents expressing an opinion opposed the reestablishment of ties with the United States. Women and less-educated respondents were least likely to favor the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but those most comfortable with the survey were more likely to favor such reestablishment.
  • Respondents were divided on the issue of nuclear weapons, with a significant portion favoring their development. Those most comfortable with the survey, men, and those with the highest level of education expressed the most opposition to development of nuclear weapons. The lower classes and those with the lowest level of education supported the development of nuclear weapons. 
  • A majority of respondents did not view sanctions as having a negative effect on the economy, though a significant number viewed sanctions as having a negative impact.Women, poorer respondents, and those most comfortable with the survey rated the impact of sanctions as most negative. 

Like all surveys, take with a grain of salt. It's interesting that the higher the education level, the least in favor Iranians are of developing nuclear weapons. Perhaps it's because they understand better that, officially, Iran is not trying to develop weapons but secure its right (according to the NPT) to enrichment. Of course at the popular level on all sides of this conflict it's become about nukes, even when the real matter at hand is enrichment and inspections. I also don't quite understand why the pollster is making guesses about the willingness of Iranians to criticize the state of the economy (reported by some to be quite dire) and not take them at their word on this issue when they do on the other issues.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Links 3 May 2011

  • Rafah Today
    Full text of Palestinian factions agreement.
  • Weekly Wire Arabic Registration | POMED
    Excellent newsletter covering Mideast in Washington now available in Arabic.
  • No Exit | MERIP
    The excellent Sheila Carapico on Yemen.
  • Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Sticks With Bin Laden - Eric Trager - International - The Atlantic
    This is a bizarre reading of what the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood said about Bin Laden
  • Investigative report: Escape from Marg prison | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt
    Great reporting.
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    Daniel Levy: US "irresponsibly indulgent" toward Israel

    A great passage in this interview of Israeli-British former diplomat Daniel Levy, in America as Obstacle | Souciant:

    We need to acknowledge that American domestic politics will not allow the US to lead on this issue in a way that is conducive to advancing a breakthrough. Most people would look at this as being patently obvious, this administration included. US leaders are sufficiently boxed in politically and lack maneuverability to carry the peace process forward. If that is the case, for anyone caring about Israel’s future and the Palestinians, it is worth considering what would get us out of the impasse, whether it is the UN or Quartet playing a more active role.

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    Donald of Arabia

    I just came back from a few days in New York. As always when in the US, I watch Fox News in the hotel room (not because I think it's representative, but because it's so jaw-droppingly fascinating). On Fox and other channels, Donald Trump is very much the flavor of the moment, as well as an unlikely early leader for the Republican presidential primary. It's a good indication of how weird the Republicans have become, and how the Tea Party crowd has turned it upside down. 

    In the video above, the Donald makes some quite insane comments about the Arab world. Some are refreshingly honest, like when he says he would only go to Libya "if we get the oil", and then some very ignorant ones, like how without the US, the Arab countries "wouldn't exist". (My favorite piece of Moroccan-American trivia: the Sultanate of Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the United States in 1777). I tend to think that Trump's bizarre candidacy is a good thing, hoping that it will weaken the Republicans, but then again who knows if the alternative is that much better...

    [Via Zeinobia]


    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

    Remember that moment

    I had missed this entry on the Economist's Democracy in America blog on February 11, 2011:

    Whether or not Egypt flowers into a model democracy, whether or not Egyptians tomorrow live more freely than Egyptians today, today they threw off a tyrant. The surge of overwhelming bliss that has overtaken Egyptians is the rare beautitude of democratic will. The hot blush of liberation, a dazzled sense of infinite possibility swelling millions of happy breasts is a precious thing of terrible, unfathomable beauty, and it won't come to these people again. Whatever the future may hold, this is the happiest many people will ever feel. This is the best day of some peoples' lives. The tiny Dionysian anarchist on my other shoulder is no angel, but I cannot deny that there is something holy in this feeling, that it is one of few human experiences that justifies life—that satisfies, however briefly, our desperate craving for more intensity, for more meaning, for more life from life. Whatever the future holds, there will be disappointment, at best. But there is always disappointment. Today, there is joy. 

    It's worth remembering that moment, not so long ago, coming back to it periodically.

    [via Shehab]


    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

    The more things change...

    A note on the arrest (and subsequent release) of AUC law professor Amr Shalakany over the weekend. According to his lawyer, Shalakany was arrested after getting into a verbal argument with a police officer in Sharm El Sheikh. The officer accused him of "insulting the police and the army" (my emphasis) and referred him to a military court. While he was being held overnight in jail, someone in his cell started a small fire (a common strategy here to get wardens to move prisoners out of over-crowded cells) and Shalakany was then also accused, for good measure, with "incitement to burn down a police station."

    In the end, a military court and then a civilian one both declined to pursue the charges. Shalakany is a well-known academic, with many friends and supporters, and a contributor to The New York Times blog. His arrest was quickly and indignantly reported. I saw someone on Twitter rejoicing that the army "heard us." To me what happened sends a different message: if you get in a fight with a policeman, he will think of a trumped-up charge against you (nothing new) and try to refer you to a military trial (new and even worse than before). Just as under Mubarak, if you're not someone wealthy, well-connected or well-known, watch out. As Shalakany's lawyer, Ashraf Abbas told me: "At first they thought he was just anybody." Someone like the 5,000 "anybodies" they've already tried

    On Bin Laden's death and the Arabs

    I had just woken up when I wrote the earlier post on Bin Laden's death, after a long flight from New York back to Cairo yesterday, so I just commented on the news. A few hours later — and after receiving some calls from journalists — there some other things worth pointing out with regards to Osama Bin Laden's place in the Arab political imagination.

    There's no need to ignore that, for a time, Bin Laden had a superficial role to play as a symbol of resistance to American or Western imperialism. So did Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qadhafi or the Assads at various points. But I never thought that feeling ran very deep for the vast overwhelming majority of Arabs, or indeed Muslims. But the sentiment Bin Laden evokes today is probably indifference. Bin Laden simply wasn't an important figure in recent years, and was particularly irrelevant to the Arab uprisings.

    Al Qaeda could have been important, perhaps, if it had scored some major military victories against the West, particularly after the Iraq war when anti-Western sentiment ran its highest. Indeed, Bin Laden's greatest achievement may have been to enable the neo-cons to carry out their loony agenda, which has done more than anything to discredit the US in the region. Between Iraq '03, Lebanon '06, Gaza '09, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib there were plenty of occasions in which the US (or its allies) discredited itself.

    The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US "reformist" option of the "moderate" Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak's Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don't want reform, they want rupture.

    The trends that are winning out in recent years are the radical-resistance ideologies of Hizbullah (and to a lesser degree Hamas) and the radical-centrist view that fueled the uprisings. And in the longer-run, it is the latter rather than the former that have a vision of societies that are not constantly mobilized towards an external (or internal) enemy. The views of Hamas and Hizbullah address the problems of war and occupation, but not those of these societies beyond those problems. Bin Laden never really addressed either, his fight was for the glory of the impossible and in the hereafter. 


    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

    Tunisia's Nahda and Islamists post-revolutions

    There's a good piece on Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, by Graham Usher at MERIP which is a good antidote to some of the more alarmist "the Islamists are coming!" stuff:

    Compared with other parts of Tunisia’s new political order, however, Nahda looks well placed. Analysts say the movement came out well from the tumult of Tunisia’s second revolution. Its national structure gives it an edge over the dispersal of votes likely to be caused by the spread of new parties. “Nahda has a base,” says the trade unionist Abdelkifi, who is no Islamist. “Tunisians are religious. It will attract those who do not know where to go.” Ghannouchi says if Nahda "gets a 30-35 percent vote for the constituent assembly, we’ll be very happy." Others will be alarmed by such a proportion, and not only in Tunisia. The 35 percent figure is probably hype, say observers, though 25 percent is possible. But the truth is that nobody really knows the depth of Nahda’s base, or that of any other party, due to the extreme de-politicization of Tunisian society during the Ben Ali era.

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    On Egypt's minimum wage

    Rashad Mahmood, an independent consultant and journalist who until last year was based in Cairo, sent me his thoughts on the campaign for a new minimum wage in Egypt. I agree with him that the inflationary impact of arbitrarily increasing the minimum wage is not being talked about enough. Nor are other issues: for instance, if the minimum wage is drastically increased, why not end the bonus system in place in many workplaces? And optional extra like additional months of wages that are paid out by some employers? A new wage system cannot only be about a living wage, it should also be about a clearer, enforceable system that provides labor flexibility and increases productivity. That's something missing from the public discussion thus far.

    For a little background on the minimum wage in Egypt, last year an administrative court ruled that the government had been negligent in not holding a meeting of the Supreme Council for Wages, which sets the minimum wage, since 1984. The official minimum wage had thus been frozen at the ridiculous level of LE36 per month. The NGO that had filed the suit meanwhile issued a report that, based on cost of living estimates, the minimum wage should be LE1200. Business associations countered that it should be LE400, the government agreed, and I had bet that, were it not for the revolution, Hosni Mubarak would have decreed that the government should set it at LE500-600 as a pre-electoral populist measure. After the revolution, some labor activists even called for a new minimum of LE1500. For the moment, different wage levels are set for the public and private sector (which does not make sense to me) and many workers earn a good part of their income not from salaries but from bonuses. 

    Here are Rashad's thoughts:

    While it may sound appealing to institute an LE 1200 minimum wage in Egypt to ensure prosperity for all Egyptians, there are better ways to help the poorest, and it would lead to rampant inflation and reduce employment when Egypt needs to be hiring. As economists like to say, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and this is a clear case of that. 
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    Bin Laden finally dead

    A bittersweet moment: he deserved to die, but it took so long  to track him down, despite all of the billions spent in intelligence and high-tech defense gear, that by the time he died it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region. Also, to think of all the time and lives wasted, and the unnecessary, criminal ventures like the war on Iraq that were justified in the name of fighting Bin Laden. But I'm a believer in revenge, and symbolically this is important for the US, and for the families of the victims of 9/11. Let's hope this might be used as an occasion to turn the page in US foreign policy. 
    Several things do strike you, though. First, outside of Pakistan and the US this won't be much of a big deal — and it probably wouldn't have been either at any point in the last decade, which goes to show how the alarmism about Bin Laden being some kind of popular figure in the Muslim world was misplaced. Secondly, where's Ayman Zawahri? And thirdly, the amount of Pakistani complicity with Bin Laden really seems beyond the pale. From the NYT:

    The strike could exacerbate deep tensions with Pakistan, which has periodically bristled at American counterterrorism efforts even as Bin Laden evidently found safe refuge on its territory for nearly a decade. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has ordered significantly more drone strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan, stirring public anger there and prompting the Pakistani government to protest.

    When the end came for Bin Laden, he was found not in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border where he has long been presumed to be sheltered, but in a massive compound about an hour’s drive north from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He was hiding in the medium-sized city of Abbottabad, home to a large Pakistani military base and a military academy of the Pakistani Army.

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