Why the Muslim Brothers will brook no dissent

The news that the leading Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is being expelled from the movement should come as no surprise. It's true that in doing so, the MB is losing a widely respected figure that many see as the more moderate, acceptable face of the Brotherhood. Aboul Fotouh frequently appears on television, and has influence as the head of the Arab Medical Union, a professional syndicate. He is also a leadership figure for the vocal minority of young Muslim Brothers and their sympathizers who want to see the group change with the times. But is he becoming a major thorn in the Brotherhood's side for his desire to run for the presidency.

This is not primarily because the MB feels it is too early to field a presidential candidate, even if that's part of the picture. It is first and foremost about electoral strategy and a long-term plan to increase its political influence.

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Hesham Sallam on Egyptian workers' plight

There's a very good article by Hesham Sallam, called Striking Back at Egyptian Workers in the new issue of Middle East Report. It details the hostile rhetoric and actions by the military, interim government, and many commentators against the wave of industrial action and strikes that have taken place since the revolution.

This part of Sallam's piece on the treatment of strikers post-revolution is spot on:

Shortly after the resignation of Husni Mubarak on February 11, Egypt witnessed the rise of what Egyptian authorities and media outlets began describing as ihtijajat fi’awiyya or small-group protests. The Arabic term fi’a simply means “group,” but has acquired negative connotations and might be compared with how the term “special interest” is used to disparage American labor. 

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The return of the Arabist Podcast

Back in 2009, I recorded a couple of long interviews with some friends who are old Middle East hands, and thus began an attempt to get a podcast going for this website. I wasn't satisfied with the format, though, or the sound quality. A couple of years and a revolution later, I have a better mike and (after listening to a lot of podcasts) a better idea of what a good podcast sounds like. And, most importantly, co-hosts.

Ursula Lindsey, Ashraf Khalil and I will be doing a weekly podcast about (hopefully) the kind of stuff that you'd like to hear about: some well-informed people for whom Middle Eastern politics and culture is not just a job (we're all journalists) but a passion. You all know Ursula from her contributions the blog, so let me introduce Ashraf: he's a long-time friend (we worked together on the late, lamented Cairo Times) with experience covering the region for all sorts of prestigious publications, from the LA Times to the Wall Street Journal. We hope to get a bio page up for him soon. The idea of the podcast is that it's a casual discussion of the week's news between us three (with occasional guests). Like this blog, a lot of it might be on Egypt because we live here, but we will try to follow the region more generally.

This podcast will be a work in progress till we hit our stride. We're hoping to get feed back from you at podcast[at]arabist.net on the topics you discuss, feature requests and more. 

So give it a listen — this week we talk about Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Khaled, ask whether reforming Egyptian media is possible, discuss the Israeli spy scandal and Saudi women's campaign for the right to drive, and preview a great book called "Messages from Tahrir." See the links below for references to the topics we discuss and more. 

Play / Download 

[20MB - or download to low-bandwith .ogg version, 10MB]

You'll also be able to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes soon (the latest episode will be there shortly).

Links for this week's episode:

The Arabist Podcast #3

Videogames for the rebellious masses

I was gratified to read that Libyan rebels in Misrata have been using the video game Call of Duty as a primary resource for tactical knowledge. Computer games are actually an extremely useful way for civilians with no military training (such as myself) to pick up a little bit of familiarity with military practices and problems that can be extremely useful in trying to function in a combat zone. 

Even the most serious of videogames is no substitute for actual military training, so one shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that you know too much -- ie, concluding that if the tank down the street can't see you in the game, it can't see you in real life. But like any theoretical model of a complex situation, they are invaluable in helping you place yourself in an unfamiliar analytical mode -- to be aware of variables, and consider problems, that you would not otherwise consider. Middle East-focused journalists like myself spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to get close to battlefields, so we ought to have as much of a theoretical framework as possible to try to understand them. Plus, some of these games are really, really cool.

That being said, I’d suggest that the Libyan rebels should delve beyond Call of Duty, if they get the chance (I am aware that those in Misrata might have more pressing concerns). It's a great series, but it's not intended to be as serious as a simulation as other games on the market. So, here's a quick set of recommendations for games which I think are useful for all of us civilians in trying to understand Libya and other conflicts. Warning: extreme geekiness follows.

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Iran, a model for Egypt?

Don't get me wrong: Iran is absolutely not a model for Egypt in terms of its bizarre, unelected Ayatollah-led Islamic republic, or in terms of its nasty and repressive security apparatus. But it might be in terms of economic policy, if the IMF is anything to go by. Here's a statement from the latest IMF Article IV consultation for Iran, the annual "inspection" of economic policy and performance review it does in every country:

“The mission reviewed recent economic developments and revised its macroeconomic estimates and projections in light of new data and discussions with the authorities. Real GDP growth recovered to an estimated 3.5 percent in 2009/10 despite the drop in oil prices, reflecting strong non-oil growth and an exceptional agriculture crop. The positive growth momentum continued in 2010/11. The authorities’ monetary policy successfully brought down annual average inflation from 25.4 percent in 2008/09 to 12.4 percent in 2010/11. Gross external reserves also remain comfortable with improved prospects for the external sector on the back of higher oil prices.

The mission commended the authorities for the early success in the implementation of their ambitious subsidy reform program. The increases in prices of energy products, public transport, wheat, and bread adopted on December 19, 2010, are estimated to have removed close to US$60 billion (about 15 percent of GDP) in annual implicit subsidies to products. At the same time, the redistribution of the revenues arising from the price increases to households as cash transfers has been effective in reducing inequalities, improving living standards, and supporting domestic demand in the economy. The energy price increases are already leading to a decline in excessive domestic energy consumption and related energy waste. While the subsidy reform is expected to result in a transitory slowdown in economic growth and temporary increase in the inflation rate, it should considerably improve Iran’s medium term outlook by rationalizing domestic energy use, increasing export revenues, strengthening overall competitiveness, and bringing economic activity in Iran closer to its full potential.

Cutting energy subsidies and rationalizing other subsidies so that they target the poor better is exactly what Egypt needs to be doing. Mohamed ElBaradei is the first Egyptian politician who had the courage to bring it up, to my knowledge, in last night's appearance on the Amr Khaled "Boukra Ahla" show. Rather than borrowing money from financial institutions to finance increases in its budget, Egypt should cut the subsidies. It will be politically unpopular but it's necessary.

The previous government knew it and the next one better know it. An economic policy that delivers better social justice and poverty reduction doesn't just have to create jobs, improve infrastructure and deliver better social welfare — it also has to finance itself without systematically resorting to debt and to be efficient and fair in the way it delivers subsidies. The businessman who lives in a villa in Maadi and drives a gas-guzzling Range Rover should not be getting subsidized fuel — better to spend that money on the poor villagers who need affordable cooking gas. So perhaps there is something to learn from Iran after all.

Egypt graffiti


One of a series of murals in Zamalek

One of the great visual after-effects of the January 25 Revolution has been the proliferation of graffiti on the streets of Cairo (and other Egyptian cities). It's not just the scrawls of "Down with Mubarak" that remain as reminders of that first surreal morning when we all woke up to a city whose reality had been shattered. Street art in in full bloom today, ranging from beautiful murals to stencils of martyrs to clever visual jokes and swipes at the military council.

Hussein and Hosni, sittin' on a tree... 

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The old Egypt-US aid fandango

Jaroslav Trofimov of the WSJ has a piece highlighting linguering opposition to USAID funding of NGOs and recognition of the democracy promotion outfits NDI and IRI in Egypt:

CAIRO—A U.S. plan to fund the democratic transition in Egypt has led to a confrontation with the country's new rulers, who are suspicious of American aims and what they see as political interference in the aftermath of President Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Senior Egyptian officials have warned nongovernment organizations that taking U.S. funding would damage the country's security. The Egyptian government has also complained directly to the U.S.

"I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us—or worse, to force it on us," Fayza Aboul Naga, who has been Egypt's minister for planning and international cooperation since before the revolution, told The Wall Street Journal.

Ah, that old chestnut. Why not make it more simple and just cut off all economic and military aid altogether? A lot of people in DC think that would be rather weird — backing an autocratic Mubarak regime but not its successor. But these things should not be thought of in terms of Egypt, they should be thought of in terms of the US. Money could be better spend at home, and aid to Egypt and Israel has for decades used to a large extent to maintain autocratic regime (the one in Egypt and the one that rules the Occupied Territories.) Cut them both off and let's stop listening to their complaints. 

Of course, that's not the way these things work out. It looks like we're set for more passive-aggressive drama as the US goes ahead with disbursing the aid anyway and the Egyptian government whines about it. At least it's better than accepting restrictions on some aid distribution the way the Bush administration did for years

And one more thing: why does Fayza Aboul Naga, who is widely seen within the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a loose cannon, still have a job?

Column: the plot against Egypt

I picked a funny time to write a column about the various conspiracies that are being sprung against noble Egypt, apparently.

I wrote it a couple of days ago, before the news about Ilan Grapel, the alleged Israeli spy who was everywhere broke. It seems this guy managed to be in Tahrir, at the church arsons in Sol in March and Imbaba in May, and various other occasions. He's a real troublemaker, oh yes, and served in the IDF in Lebanon 2006 so is guaranteed to be an asshole.

There's much skepticism circulating about this story, of course: the previous regimes kept accusing people of the most unlikely of conspiracies, would quickly eke out a confession with torture, sent them to be tried by a crooked judge and then the whole affair would be quickly forgotten if they were lucky and acquitted on appeal. I remember the young Islamists who were supposed to have dangerous banned literature, according to the police, until the judge pointed out that he owned copies of the same books which were academic theological treatises. The Israeli spy who infiltrated the revolution, brought to you by the country with the Mossad sharks. It's easy to be a skeptic. 

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Bahrain: A year in jail for a poem


On Sunday a court in Bahrain sentenced Ayat Al Qurmazi, a 20-year-old education student, to a year in prison for insulting the king and inciting hatred. Al Qurmazi became famous after reciting poetry Pearl Square that includes the lines such as:  

We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery 
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice 
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams 

You can see her reciting her poetry -- dedicated directly to the king -- here.

According to the Associated Press, while in detention Al Qurmazi was lashed in the face with electrical cables and forced to clean toilets with her hands. Here is a Facebook page dedicated to her case. 

For journalists covering Morocco

The pro-reform collective Mamfakinch has put together a press kit to encourage Western journalists to cover Morocco. It's reproduced below.

Mamfakinch (which in Moroccan Arabic means: we won’t give up) is a group of Moroccan activists and bloggers who support the pro-democracy movement “February 20.” Our group includes several online activists who speak French and English, in addition to Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). Mamfakinch is at the disposal of international journalists to answer their questions and put them in touch with local activists and committees affiliated with the “February 20” movement
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Al-Erian demands apology from West

I've known Dr. Essam al-Erian, a prominent Muslim Brother and long one of its spokesmen, for ages. I see often for the simple reason that his office is around the corner from where I live (a small area that also includes Alaa al-Aswani's dentistry cabinet, so I have a good range of the political spectrum). He used to be known as one of the "moderate" Brothers until 2009, when it seemed he joined the more conservative faction. Since the revolution, those who know him have noted how much more abrasive he's become, and much less conciliatory in his approach to secularists. Many would say he's become quite arrogant in his public statements. 

Helena Cobban had this interview with him during which he expresses the opinion that the West (whatever that is) should apologize to Egypt. I've heard him say similar things in off-the-record situations, including get into a big row with a Western ambassador a couple of months ago. Anyway here it is:

"I am asking Europe and America for an apology. For the last 150 years they have blocked any development in this area... We believe that we have a lot to contribute to world civilization in terms of spirituality and values, but we want the help of the west in allowing our democracy to flourish. We want an apology that they supported dictatorship here for so many years, and then when the revolutions challenged the dictators, they tried to find a safe exit for some of the dictators...

"So please don't intervene in ways that corrupt our new politicians. Westerners corrupted so many of our local NGO's and even human-rights organizations in the past. (But I want to note that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch did a great job! They are my friends!)

Should the West apologize for its treatment of Egypt? Does this blaming the West amount to an exculpation of the local elites (include the likes of the MB) that are responsible for Egyptian backwardness and authoritarianism? The West contributed to the perpetuation of authoritarian regimes, but it did not create them. Following this logic, should Egypt apologize to Sudan for years of dominion? How does this work exactly?

I do agree on one thing: it'd be best for Egypt is Western governments stayed out of its affairs. It doesn't have to accept the aid, either. 

History for the people

A flyer from the committee to document the January 25 Revolution, found on the website www.tahrirdocuments.org

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new committee led by historian Khaled Fahmy in collaboration with Egypt's National Archives to create a digital, accessible archive of the January 25 Revolution. To understand how groundbreaking this could be you have to realize to what an extent all official archives in Arab countries are treated like secrets of state, accessible only to specialists (if and when they pass an endless security clearance process). And that official documents about the most important decisions and events of the 20th century have simply never been made available: 

The country's modern rulers have created a near-total information vacuum about their decision-making.

By law, documents are supposed to be stored in the relevant ministries for 15 years, then held at the National Archives for another 15 years before being made public. In practice, however, only the most mundane administrative papers are ever deposited in the archives. Official documents dealing with wars or policy decisions of any import are simply never made available. "At this point," says Mr. Fahmy, "we don't even know if they exist."

Egyptians are rarely if ever afforded a glimpse into the deliberations of their presidents, ministers, and military commanders. And that is the case across the autocratic regimes of the Arab world. The Arab-Israeli wars, for example, have been documented almost entirely on the basis of Israeli archives.

That's one reason the committee will "try to gather as much as possible for future generations," says Mr. Fahmy, "to make available to them what hasn't been available to us."

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A few links on Morocco

The February 20 movement continues to challenge the monarchy in Morocco, on the eve of the unveiling of a royal commission's proposal for constitutional reform. Adl wal Ihsan, the country's largest Islamist movement and a key supporter of the reform movement, has called for a civil state (rather than a religious one) as the regime launches a campaign to tar February 20 has having been taken over by Islamist and leftist radicals. Rachid Nini, Morocco's most influential journalist, is sentenced to a year in prison, while the police begins to crack down on protestors, killing one last week. This and more in the links below, and analysis of Morocco will come at some later point. Do check out of the first link, which is an interactive website to debate, article by article, the constitution — it's a great model to follow and someone in Egypt should do the same.

  • Pour un debat sur la reforme de la constitution
  • AFP: Morocco's Islamists say not pushing for religious state
  • Le 20 février, mieux pour le foot?
  • Al Adl wa Alihsane et le 20 février
  • Une conjoncture politique délicate
  • Old Makhzen Never Dies « The Moorish Wanderer
  • Appel "Mamfakinch" pour "un référendum démocratique" - Comme une bouteille jetée à la mer!
  • 1 an de prison pour Rachid Nini : l'échec de toute une époque.
  • A Martyr in Morocco - By Betwa Sharma | Foreign Policy
  • 20 février. Al Adl wal Ihassane dit (presque) tout
  • Laenser et Benkirane : «le projet de constitution répond aux aspirations de la rue»
  • Lion fighting

    Thank goodness, in these fraught and complicated times, for interviews such as this one, with an Egyptian strongman who plans on reviving the tourism industry (and sending a message to Israel) by engaging in bare-handed combat with a lion. The young man's fantastical confidence, and interviewer Ali Abdel Mohsen's polite persistence, takes this interview almost immediately into wonderful, surreal territory: 

    Essawy: That’s because they don’t understand what I’m going to do. They think I’m going to kill the lion. I’m not going to kill it, nor will I be armed with a sword or dagger - those are all false reports circulated by the media for reasons I don’t understand.

    Al-Masry: So, you’re not going to kill the lion?

    Essawy: No. Unless it’s a matter of life or death, in which case I will be forced to kill it.

    Al-Masry: When is fighting a lion not a matter of life or death?

    Essawy: It’s up to the lion. If he chooses to withdraw, or surrender, and lets me tie him up, then I will not kill him and the fight will end. But, like I said, if it comes down to either me or him, I will have to kill him. But I don’t want to kill the lion, nor am I planning on it. I want to make that clear.

    .....

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    Kal on Arab-American life

    In response to my post about the ADC's banning of a pro-Syria uprising song at a recent event, Kal of The Moor Next Door wrote a long comment that I thought was worthy if highlighting. It's reproduced below. 

    I share Issandr's view of the major "Arab American" organizations. I think the point on the community (and it's organizations, frankly) being divided on sectarian and national lines is very important. What I'm going to write here is based on my own experience growing up in the Arab community with an immigrant and US born set of Arab parents (and a mixed Christian/Muslim family). And I won't say I'm giving the best informed comment but this is my personal observation/sentiment.

    The failure of large Arab American associations to be politically effectual in defending the civil rights of Arab Americans or to be of any relevance as the US political discourse has grown more anti-Arab and sectarian over the last decade, I think, speaks to this. As a secular progressive myself (and an Arab American) it is distressing that the most prominent groups led by or including Arabs are sectarian religious organizations which define how Arabs and Muslims are treated and defined in political discourse.

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    Links 9-10 June 2011

  • 7 Economic Ideas for a new Egypt
    Sandmonkey special mix.
  • How new is Egypt's 'new' foreign policy? - Al Jazeera English
    "Egypt's new leaders have inherited Mubarak's dilemma – how to realise the country's aspiration to lead the Arab world without angering its Saudi benefactors"
  • Jorge Semprún obituary | The Guardian
    A fantastic writer.
  • Review & Outlook: Egypt's Backward Turn - WSJ.com
    The Rand-Hayek view of subsidy spending.
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