Where Egypt is at

The #May 27 "Second Revolution" came and went this weekend without the drama that many had expected. Turnout was pretty good — good enough to show that the ranks of those unsatisfied with the current state of affairs is plenty big, and big enough to show that the Muslim Brothers' participation is not essential to getting a decent number of people protesting. Impressive also was that the protests took place across the country, as Zeinobia points out with her gallery of videos. Get more videos and an account at Jadaliyya. It may not be a second revolution but it's enough to keep the SCAF on its toes and give media traction to multiple grievances: high-ranking corruption, insecurity, slow justice, heavy-handedness of the military, etc. 

Although many of these grievances are indeed worthwhile, this opposition movement should start coalescing over one or two core demands with regards to the transition. It has already been a tragedy of Egypt's revolution that the revolutionaries did not have a clear aim beyond the removal of Mubarak and that the post-Mubarak transition has been handled poorly, to say the least, by a SCAF that is guilty of bumbling incompetence perhaps more than malice. In particular, the transition process could have been more along the lines of Tunisia's, with an elected constituent assembly rather than one appointed by parliament and independent commissions to investigate corruption as well as violence. The real drama, it seems to me, is that right now transitional justice consists of immediately going after certain persons (those close to Gamal Mubarak) yet only going after older apparatchiks (NDP apparatchiks, etc.) after popular pressure forced the SCAF to. And, most of all, a piecemeal approach to trying former officials: consider that Hosni Mubarak has just been fined for cutting off the internet, and may only be tried for the violence during the revolution, while not being held accountable for 30 years of autocracy.

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Tantawi, eating his words

From the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, in a report on Wikileaks US Embassy cable reports on Pakistan: 

The dismissive attitude towards Pakistan is, however, not limited to Western governments. In a cable dated December 21, 2009, Egyptian Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi told US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair that Egypt encountered the same suspicions from Pakistan as the US did. Pakistanis, he said, “don’t trust Egyptians either.” He went on to say that “while the Pakistanis were ‘difficult’… Egypt was still trying to ‘work with them.’” According to the cable, Mr Tantawi, who has previously served as the Egyptian Defence Attache to Pakistan, also pointedly noted that “any country where the military became engaged in ‘internal affairs’ was ‘doomed to have lots of problems.’”

Priceless.

Tantawi's history as Egyptian Defense Attaché in Pakistan in the 1980s — probably as a major conduit in the Saudi and US-led effort to send mujaheddin to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — deserves a closer investigation. The relationships Tantawi must have developed with key actors in that semi-covert war (which Egypt backed, with even al-Ahram carrying advertisements to "join the jihad" in Afghanistan) such as Prince Bandar. Hence the long-held rumor that not only Tantawi has close relations with the al-Sauds, but also that he is a religious conservative whose views would not be out of sync with the Muslim Brothers. 

Palestinians revolt too

A good piece on the evolution of the Palestinian movement outside of the Fatah-Hamas duopoly: A Palestinian Revolt in the Making? | The Nation:

The Nakba protests have been the largest so far of a growing Palestinian youth revolt. The protests—launched with unity protests on March 15 in the Palestinian Authority–controlled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza Strip—are the Palestinian response to the outbreak of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. While it is a new development, this manifestation of popular anger against Palestinian Authority concessions in the failed negotiations process—shockingly revealed with Al Jazeera’s January release of top-secret negotiation minutes, known as the Palestine Papers—and Israel’s practice of divide and rule has been simmering under the surface for the past three years.

“The unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas gave people hope to be here today and continue with this new phase of struggle,” said Fadi Quran, a founding organizer of the March 15 movement, amid the clashes with Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia checkpoint. “It showed us that something was possible and we must continue,” he added, coughing from tear gas.

The March 15 movement marks a generational shift in Palestinian politics. Demanding that Palestinians shape their future through full democratization of the PLO, March 15 has sought to reshape national identity through unity and the relaunching of a popular struggle.

 Read the whole thing.

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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, www.arabist.net.

The Saudi-led counter-revolution

The NYT covers the Saudi-led counter revolution, starting with a lede that is a hodgepodge of bombastic adjectives and mixed metaphors:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

The NYT is obviously suffering from editorial cuts. OK, now that my writerly criticism is out of the way, to the meat of the story:

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

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Bibi Pro Americano

By the Israeli guys who did the Zenga Zenga Qadhafi video.

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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, www.arabist.net.

On when to hold post-revolutionary elections

There has been a debate in Tunisia and Egypt on when elections should be held. In Tunisia, the electoral commission itself suggested that the July 24 elections should be postponed till October, although the interim government has refused to budge. In Egypt, the debate started immediately about when the referendum should be held, although these were ignored, and some persist in asking more time before parliamentary elections are held (they were already postponed from June to September). On both sides of the argument, people have many reasons. Some seem entirely valid to me, and others much less so.

The first reason for postponement is often that early elections will lead to the return of elements of the previous regime. I can understand the worry, but in Tunisia and Egypt, where the ruling parties were dissolved, I don't think there is much of a chance of that happening. The RCD and NDP have been stripped of their assets and are thoroughly discredited. Tunisia went further and barred RCD members for running (Egypt has yet to do something similar, and probably won't.) Some of the same people (notably in the countryside) will be elected under a different party name or as independents, for sure, but a wholesale replacement of the political class was always unrealistic. I'm not too worried about it.

The second reason is because early elections give the advantage to Islamists. Again, I don't think it's a very good reason, and that three months or so won't make a difference. Furthermore, changing the dates on the ground that they benefit a particular party seems plainly wrong to me, particularly as there is an actual urgency is restoring parliament so that it can pass laws, etc. Otherwise you continue to have weak transitional governments (Tunisia and Egypt) and/or military rule (Egypt). Islamists will do much better than they have in the past, the question seems to me to be how to ensure that they operate within a national democratic consensus: i.e. no right to participate in elections unless there is an adherence to common principles: equality for all under the law, rotation of power, etc. Only extreme Islamists like Salafists would be denied the right to participate under such procedures. Tunisia is already doing a better job at that, despite rumors of a coup in the case of a Nahda victory (that would obviously be a disaster).

The third reason is about ensuring a reform of the electoral system before the election. This seems to me to be the most valid reason of them all. Egypt's referendum was held under a system in which it was impossible to ensure that people did not vote twice — staining thumbs with ink simply is not enough. Not enough is being done in both countries to ensure the electoral procedures are beyond reproach, and in Egypt there is too little consultation and transparency on the forthcoming electoral law. The governments of Egypt and Tunisia should be spending much of its time to make sure Egypt has the cleanest, most irreproachable election in its history. Tunisia is off to a better start — both in terms of political consensus and governance — but the incompetent management of the transition by the SCAF (as Sandmonkey points out) puts Egypt is a more uncertain place. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good in the first post-revolution elections in the Arab world, but we have to at least get to good enough. I'm not sure things are there yet.

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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, www.arabist.net.

Amer Group and the threat to Fayoum

Fayoum seen from the desert

Environmentalists currently represent a small subsection of activists in Egypt, but like everybody else they've received a boost from the revolution, as well as more problems to deal with. The former comes in the sense that people are generally more willing to pay attention to the kind of political, economic, ecological and community problems environmentalism attempt to deal with — everyone is more empowered and has a great sense of community belonging. Yet, at the same time, the partial collapse of the state has led to many abuses (most notably illegal construction) and many people prioritize security or party politics ahead of environmentalism. Many are trying to bring attention to this issue oin political gatherings, on Twitter and blogs, and elsewhere.

Hopefully they'll be able to achieve more than they ever could have under Mubarak. This could be the case of Nature Conservation Egypt, a NGO that is currently focusing on plans for the Amer Group, a major developer, to build a resort on Lake Fayoum, an area of outstanding natural beauty that is a major waypoint for bird migration between Africa and Europe. It's also geologically very rich, with the desert plateau behind the lake full of fossils. The Amer Group has been in the news lately as part of the investigation into corrupt land deals under Mubarak — it has already returned some of the land it has acquired. But what it threatens to do to Fayoum's desert shore may be worse than what it has already done to the North Coast with its gaudy resorts:

The Amer Group, the Egyptian real estate developer responsible for Porto Marina and Porto Sokhna, massive tourism developments along Egypt’s North and Ain Sokhna coasts, plans to build “Porto Fayoum” on 650 acres in the Lake Qarun Protected area near Fayoum Oasis.

Former President Hosni Mubarak’s government sold the Amer Group this land for only $28,000 ($.05 per square meter), according to Egypt’s American Chamber of Commerce. This is the first development of such huge proportions to be allowed in an Egyptian protected area.

This and other tourism developments planned for a 10-kilometer stretch of coastal land along the northern part of Lake Qarun will undoubtedly wreak untold damage to this pristine, scenic desert area, known as Gebel Qatrani. This area contains one of the world’s most complete fossil records of terrestrial primates and marshland mammals and remains critical to our understanding of mammalian–and human–evolution.

Read more about it here, where you can listen to a podcast featuring NCE activists.

David Bromwich on Obama

Last post on Obama's speech last week on the Middle East, I promise. I followed the speech on Twitter, then read it, and was invited soon after to comment on it by the BBC (I happened to be in London, next to their studio at the time.) I had also written a column previewing the speech as I disappointment (it wasn't exactly clairvoyance). But then work, traveling and seeing friends took my attention and I spent no further time on it. This piece by David Bromwich is a careful and thoughtful look at Obama's speech, which picks up on many things that struck me but then quickly faded as I read it:

In many of his public comments on the Arab Spring, during February, March, and April, Obama wielded a peculiar grammar of imperative commandment whose precise authority was unclear. He worked himself into a corner—-and appeared to render inevitable a military intervention—-when he said several times that “Qaddafi must go.” Of course, he had said something akin to that, more gently and vaguely, when he spoke about the “transition” Hosni Mubarak was expected to lead in Egypt, which “must be peaceful” and “must begin now.” He may have believed that the simplicity of his command was a cause of Mubarak’s eventual abdication.

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Hospitalized for heckling Bibi

The Emperor’s clothes are still on, for now (while his heckler is roughed up, hospitalized):

There on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu still has friends like Senator Chuck Schumer, who told a Jewish radio program that “One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer [guard]—to be a or the shomer Yisrael [guard of Israel]. And I will continue to be that with every bone in my body." With friends like these wrapped around his little finger, no wonder Netanyahu’s forcible denunciations of international law were met with such rapturous approbation by Members of Congress who applauded his rejectionism dozens of times.

This bonhomie was punctuated only once during Netanyahu’s hour-long speech, when a lone and courageous activist—Rae Abileah—from CODEPINK, disrupted it. CODEPINK organized a series of events and protests—“Move Over AIPAC”—to coincide with the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last weekend. From the gallery, Abileah shouted “No more occupation, stop Israel[i] war crimes, equal rights for Palestinians, occupation is indefensible.”

Her protest was quickly shut down in a “hey rube” moment by AIPAC attendees in the gallery who assaulted and tackled her before she was hauled away by police, causing injuries to her neck and shoulders requiring hospitalization. At the same time, Members of Congress joined the AIPAC carnie thuggery by shouting down Abileah with boos before quickly resuming to feed out of Netanyahu’s hand.

Pillar on Netanyahu

Exposing Netanyahu | The National Interest Blog:

Probably the most significant take-away from the past few days of U.S.-Israeli dialog is to shed light on the true intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding peace with the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu finally allowed the phrase “Palestinian state” to pass his lips for the first time almost two years ago, this past week in Washington provided further confirmation of what had been apparent all along: that whatever conception Netanyahu may have of such a “state,” it is not a formula having any chance of becoming the basis for—to use Netanyahu's own words from his joint appearance with President Obama on Friday—“a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” or probably even what most of the rest of the world would consider a state. Netanyahu is smart enough to realize this, which is to say he is content to let the status quo endure indefinitely. Israel will maintain that status quo through brute force—military force within the territories, and political force in Washington.

Read the whole thing. This is what shows you there is no Israeli desire for peace, and the deeper reality is that this is the case whether Likud, Kadima or Labor is in power. With Netanyahu, you get it unvarnished — that's the difference.

[Thanks, AG]

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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, www.arabist.net.

A Star Trek theme park in Jordan

I'm a big fan of Star Trek, but the profitability of this seems dubious:

The Rubicon Group, Paramount Recreation and CBS will all collaborate on the $1billion project.

The Star Trek themed centre will 'deliver a variety of multi-sensory 23rd-century experiences, culminating with a state-of-the art space-flight adventure.'

The Red Sea Astrarium in Amman, Jordan will ‘prominently feature’ an attraction inspired by the 2009 reboot of Star Trek.

It may be no small coincidence that King Abdullah is a big Star Trek fan and even did a cameo in an episode of Star Trek Voyager in the 1990s.

 

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, www.arabist.net.

Obama's AIPAC speech

It's interesting that a lot of people who follow Israel lobby issues think that Obama's speech to AIPAC was actually a tough one, once you strip away the usual "unbreakable bond" stuff. I'm less excited about this because I think in their enthusiasm that Obama is making it clear to the Lobby that they are imperiling Israel's future (and America's ability to guarantee it) they oversee the fact that the Lobby is winning the tactical fight — even if it may be at the cost of longer-term strategy. Netanyahu will once again get away with running circles around an American president. People might be growing increasingly bitter about this, but American politics is structured in such a way that it resets frequently. A new PM in Israel or a new president in the White House and we might be back, for all intents and purposes, to zero while we wait for the long game of delegitimizing AIPAC and the lobby more generally. 

Anyway, here are some of these takes.

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Egypt's first female presidential candidate

Recently, I met Buthayna Kamel, TV-presenter-turned-activist and the first woman to announce she will run for the presidency her. Here's a bit about it from a profile I wrote up for The Daily Beast:

She, like women across the country, was an enthusiastic participant in the January 25 Revolution.

“Women are always at the front of revolutions,” she says. “But then men want to take all the results.”

But, she insists, “I’m not just women’s candidate. I am a candidate for all of Egypt.” She is running for “the peasants, the workers, the women, the handicapped, the Copts, the Nubians, the Bedouin”—all of whom are marginalized, all of whom have been denied their rights. To change women’s status requires changing all of Egyptian society, she says, learning to “accept others and accept criticism.”

In the piece, I discuss Kamel's recent appearance on State TV, which led to accusations of "insulting the army." I mistakenly say the show was pulled off the air. Actually, it ordered off the air but the presenter continued to the end, when he told the audience he'd been receiving calls from the director of Radio and TV to shut down, and wasn't sure he would be on the air again(!)--watch the end of this clip. As to what got Kamel in trouble, it appears to be her ballsy comments in the beginning of the program, in which she condemns the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for their dealing with the sectarian clashes in Imbaba, for torturing demonstrators and for carrying out military trials of civilians while Mubarak regime figures have yet to be prosecuted. 

Links 18-23 May 2011

Once again, I was traveling last week so links were fewer. Also, for the past month or so I have integrated tweets into the links (it allows me to collect links from multiple sources more easily.) This makes the links sometimes messier. Does anyone mind? A design refresh will take place this summer when I look at these issues, suggestions on links and other questions welcome. Am thinking of moving towards a more date-centered, Instapundit-like or Daring Fireball-like format that will show case the content of links more (i.e. there will be more content on the home page, but only full posts will have their own headlines). Don't worry, the links wrap-up will also be there, perhaps in the form of the "daily wraps" that Andrew Sullivan uses.
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Naguib Sawiris in London

I recently returned from London (more from there later), but unfortunately missed an event at SOAS last night at which Naguib Sawiris, the founder of the Free Egyptians party, spoke. Arabist reader Dalia Malek was there, though. For background, Sawiris is the wealthiest man in Egypt, with his family playing major roles in the telecom, construction, cement and tourism industries. He also owns OnTV, which is post-revolution Egypt has become a must-watch channel for its political talk shows and interviews of political and military figures. Sawiris has moved fast, using his wealth and influence to make the Free Egyptians the first new liberal, secular party to get going.

Naguib Sawiris and the Free Egyptians Party in London

by Dalia Malek

Last night, Naguib Sawiris gave a talk on the aims of the Free Egyptians Party at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Sharing the panel with Essam Samad from the Egyptian Association in Europe, they discussed the party’s strategies before a large and animated audience.

Sawiris engaged the audience with friendly, casual banter, making a joke about female drivers while driving a more serious point about upholding the rights of women. He spoke about education and poverty, suggesting that Egypt look toward European countries like Germany as a model.

He also derided attempts at isolating Egyptians with dual citizenship or non-Egyptian spouses from political participation.

Sawiris stated that the Free Egyptians Party does not intend to counterbalance the Muslim Brotherhood, and that his disagreement with them is strictly within the context of democratic debate. He indicated that the parties only disagree on two fundamental points: the rights of women and the rights of Copts.

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The NYT on Dennis Ross

When George Mitchell resigned last week, a PA official suggested it might have been because he had been elbowed out of his role as US envoy for the Middle East peace process by senior White House advisor Dennis Ross, the longtime peace-processor of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Some were skeptical when it came from a Palestinian, but the NYT runs a rare story basically confirming this take on Ross' role in the White House as an advocate for Israel. In a sense it might be seen as a positive step that the NYT is talking about this: Ross is a major figure pro-Israel figure of the Democratic establishment with strong ties as a "centrist" or "moderate" in the Israel lobby.

One thing that's signicant in the article is that Jordan's King Abdullah chimes in on the criticism of Ross:

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

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Assad's propaganda

The Syrian state media is engaged in a no-holds barred propaganda campaign, described here by this rare report from inside Syria by a foreigner. It reminds me of the insanity on Egyptian TV during the 18 days of the revolution. From the Beast:

The protests in Syria have caused the world's media to focus on this autocratic state and its brutal response to the latest development in the Arab Spring. Foreign journalists are not being allowed into Syria. As a result, conspicuously lacking from international coverage is the response of Syrians themselves to the protests. And key in understanding this response is the "media war" that the Syrian regime has openly declared.

The extent of distortion and disinformation, of efforts to control Syrians' opinions, is mind-boggling, and terrifying. Here is a brief sample:
  • Armed terrorist groups are trying to destabilize Syria. Televised confessions and discoveries of weapons caches prove this.
  • Syrian citizens welcome the arrival of the army into their cities to protect them from these armed groups. Scenes of women throwing flowers over advancing tanks prove this.
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