Saudi Arabia's changing foreign policy

David Ignatius brings an important point to his important audience:

Over this year of Arab Spring revolt, Saudi Arabia has increasingly replaced the United States as the key status-quo power in the Middle East — a role that seems likely to expand even more in coming years as the Saudis boost their military and economic spending.

Saudis describe the kingdom’s growing role as a reaction, in part, to the diminished clout of the United States. They still regard the U.S.- Saudi relationship as valuable, but it’s no longer seen as a guarantor of their security. For that, the Saudis have decided they must rely more on themselves — and, down the road, on a wider set of friends that includes their military partner, Pakistan, and their largest oil customer, China.

I wrote about this trend a few months ago, when the received wisdom still tended to be (outside of specialist circles) that Saudi Arabia was just sulking petulantly about the Arab Spring:

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NYC protest in solidarity with Egypt

There will be a march to the Egyptian consulate in New York tomorrow to protest this week's violence in Egypt. Details after the jump.


Stop Sales of Tear Gas to the Egyptian Military!

End All US Military Aid to SCAF!

Picket at Point Capital Lookout, Majority Stockholder of

 Tear Gas Manufacturer Combined Systems, Inc.

Friday, November 25th

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Ibn Kafka on why he'll boycott Morocco's parliamentary elections

As many readers know I am Moroccan-born and frequently spend time in my birthtown of Rabat. I am not politically involved in Morocco but have many sympathies for the February 20 movement and, over the past decade, have grown from being optimistic about King Muhammad VI and his regime to being disappointed, then cynical, and now disgusted. 

My friend Ibn Kafka, whose excellent blog is a must-read on Morocco, wrote an eloquent explanation for the boycott that I agree with entirely.

I'm translating the first part of his post below.

Thanks, but no thanks

I boycotted the masquerade of the constitutional referendum this summer, and I will be boycotting the election of the Chamber of Deputies on 25 November. Yet I am no fan of boycotts: every time I’ve had the chance to in Morocco, I always voted. During previous referendums, I voted no (I can’t remember having ever voted yes). I voted in the 2007 elections. I start from the principle that I am asked for my opinion only once every five years, and that have a duty to give it.

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Bibi panics

Netanyahu: Arab world moving backward, not forward - Haaretz

In his sharpest Knesset comment since the wave of uprisings swept out of Tunisia and across the Arab states in January, Netanyahu expressed his complete contempt for the Arab people's ability to sustain democratic regimes, and his nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. He said he feared the collapse of Jordan's Hashemite monarchy and also reiterated his absolute refusal to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

We think the world of you too. We have to concede that without the dictators, thing will indeed get much tougher for Israel and its current batch of political leaders.

He also says bad stuff about Obama but we're getting so used to that. I expect Obama will now have to apologize for not living up to expectations or something.


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,

Poll suggests Egyptian disillusionment with military was mounting

Via the Atlantic Council's Egypt's page, a Brookings poll carried in October showed that 43% of Egyptians believe the military was working to reverse the goals of the revolution. This suggests that the supposed silent majority that backs SCAF is much smaller than we think — just think how much those numbers must have changed in the last month alone, even before the current crisis. This suggests that the time is ripe for a major push against SCAF — and that it's been the political leaders, not the people, who have been trailing behind.

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,

Chart: Who stands where in Egypt

Click to enlargeAbove is a very, very approximate reading of various political actors position on the current crisis. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • The question of postponing elections is not particularly important to any actor — some are intent on holding them now, but very few have urged postponing them. We can either assume it's not a priority issue (apart from those who insist they take place) or people want them to go ahead.
  • SCAF has conceded on transition to civilian rule by next July and the formation of a new government. The real difference is (1) between those who insist on a firm date for the transition and (2) those who want a NUG now, want a NUG after election or want a not just a new government, but the transfer of SCAF's powers to this government. 

I am putting this up hoping for corrections, feedback, fine-tuning, etc. Let me know in the comments. Of course this chart is impressionistic and I am aware of divergences within the Egyptian Bloc, etc.

For reference on who's who, take a look at our chart of players in the elections (I've only included major coalitions and parties) and this list of Egyptian presidential candidates.

Video: "People have this thing called a remote control"

A wonderful appearance on Egyptian TV by my friend Ezzedine Shukri-Fishere, in which he pulls out a remote control out of his pocket and proceeds to explain that every one has one of these in their house and can switch the channel from State TV. He then says enough with accusations of foreign hands, spies and agitation, there are tactics from the 20th century and we are in the 21st. The presenter is quite defensive. He goes in to say State TV must be the television of the Egyptian people, not that of the Interior Ministry or SCAF.

Although State TV continues to be fairly bad, especially with the call-ins, I have to say it has improved tremendously even since Maspero last month. It may be partly because of rumored rebellions by its employees. And there’s still much, much room for improvement.

Egyptian rights groups call for indictment of senior police and military officials

This is a major taboo being broken, with the call of for the indictment of the head of the Central Command, General Ruweini (considered third most powerful person on SCAF) and the head of the military police:

Five human rights organizations said today that the past three days' brutal attacks on demonstrators, carried out by the Interior Ministry's security forces and military police forces under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailiya, Assyut, and other cities, constitute criminal offences. These offences are without a statute of limitations and the perpetrators and instigators must be brought before criminal trials.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, El-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information pledged to continue to identify the civilian and military officials involved in killing demonstrators, bursting their eyes and breaking their bones and skulls. These crimes have been extensively documented by these organizations and by the media over the past few days.

The signatory organizations stated that the list of officials it plans to prosecute so far includes: General Mansour al-Essawi, Minister of the Interior; General Sami Sidhom, Assistant Interior Minister for the Security Sector; General Emad al-Din al-Wakil, Assistant Interior Minister for the Central Security Forces; General Hamdy Badeen, head of the military police; and General Hasan al-Ruwaini, commander of the central military district. This is in addition to other civilian and military officials in a number of other cities which have seen similar criminal offences against demonstrators.

Here's the full press release.

The Egyptian Police

I have a piece up at The Daily Beast, looking at the Egyptian police force and the utter failure to reform it or hold it accountable in the 10 months since the revolution. If anything, the Ministry of the Interior -- whose purpose used to be defending the regime -- now feels it "is fighting for its survival," says one former high-ranking officer. 

The protesters seem to understand it that way too and at this point I think they are the ones attacking the police -- seemingly determined to reach the Ministry of Interior. But this all started because of some spectacular police brutality and because there has been a refusal (on the part of SCAF, of the government, of the Ministry of Interior) to hold any policemen accountable for the deaths during last January's uprising and for other abuses.

I spoke to activists who have been trying since the revolution to get real security sector reform on the agenda (to no avail) and to a former police officer and member of a small reform-minded group calling themselves The Honourable Officers. 

They all make the point that regular policemen are purposely kept poor, violent, corrupt -- under-paid, under-trained, threatened with severe punishments if they disobey orders (while high-level Ministry of Interior officials make salaries of up to $50,000 a month -- and God knows what else in bribes..). See, for example, this excellent portrait of a regular policeman by Jeffrey Fleishman in the LA Times. 

It is the leadership of the security forces that is responsible for cultivating the police force's hostility towards the revolution -- policemen are angry (ashamed and afraid too, I think); they feel they have lost the "respect" of society, because they can't imagine a respect that isn't founded on unaccountable power. 

The total impunity that the regime has been built on and has defended tooth and nail (because once you open that door, everyone can be held accountable) is what has led us here. If there is no rule of law, killings go unpunished, and the police are nothing more than a thugs-for-hire -- then people will take the law into their own hands, and they will fight the police in the street. 

Amnesty: Military crushed revolution

Egypt: Military rulers have 'crushed' hopes of 25 January protesters | Amnesty International:

Egypt's military rulers have completely failed to live up to their promises to Egyptians to improve human rights and have instead been responsible for a catalogue of abuses which in some cases exceeds the record of Hosni Mubarak, Amnesty International said today in a new report.
In Broken Promises: Egypt's Military Rulers Erode Human Rights, the organization documents a woeful performance on human rights by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) which assumed power after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

This is the most scathing indictment of the military's role during the transition I've seen from any mainstream group.

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,

Pelham on Jordan

Jordan Starts to Shake by Nicolas Pelham | The New York Review of Books:

To measure the sturdiness of King Abdullah of Jordan against the tide of upheaval sweeping the Arab world, go to Tafila, an impoverished town tucked into a sandy bowl encircled by the Moabite Mountains 110 miles south of the royal seat of Amman. Outside the courthouse where four youths recently awaited trial on charges of cursing the king, a crime punishable in this hitherto deferential kingdom by up to three years in jail, one hundred protesters continue cussing the king, until the order comes from on high to let the four go.

Such protests are growing in intensity and geographic reach, degrading the royal stature with every chant. Last season’s innuendo against his courtiers and queen has become this season’s naked repudiation of the King. In September, demonstrators chanted S-S-S, a deliberately ambiguous call for both the regime’sislah, Arabic for reform, and isqat, overthrow. The protesters outside Tafila’s courthouse dispense with such niceties, spicing the crude one-liners with which Egypt’s revolutionaries toppled Hosni Mubarak with cheeky Bedouin rhyming couplets: “O Abdullah son of Hussein/Qadaffi’s a goner, whither your reign?”

I must admit I would get a particular pleasure to see the king of Jordan fall. It would also tremendously upset the Saudis and Israelis, so it must be good.


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,

Transcript of Arabist Podcast #18 now available

A transcript of last podcast is now available, thanks to the efforts of Arabist reader Akkadia — thanks. Go to the original podcast post to read it.

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,

On the tear gas being used in Tahrir

A lecturer in neurology at Ain Shams University, Ramez Reda Moustafa, issued the following statement via Twitter:

To the doctors in the field (tahrir and elsewhere), my experience with the gas used by the police: It causes extra-pyramidal symptoms (involuntary jerks in extremities and trunk mimicking a convulsive seizure, occulo-gyric crisis, etc.) and little respiratory distress. The jerking is relieved by low-dose (3-5mg) diluted diazepam given slowly IV.

The type of gas used is still uncertain but it is certainly very acidic and is not the regular tear gas used in January. Please try to capture as many videos as possible of the symptoms for documentation (and eventually legal action).

There is mounting indication that it might be CR gas as opposed to normal tear gas which is CS gas:

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Tahrir: what next?

So, the Field Marshall has given his speech, and lo and behold, it was a dull speech that did not offer a clear way to pacify the crowds in Tahrir. It did make a significant concession, to be sure, in a quick mention that the SCAF was willing to hold the presidential elections by July. That should have been its centerpiece. It would have been better if announced by a credible new cabinet, or at least PM,who said there was real independence. And if it has offered a head or two to the angry crowds for the last few days' violence.

I went down to the area where the fighting is taking place today and I have an uncomfortable take on it: it's that the fighting is being sustained by the protestors, not by the police, who right now appear satisfied with holding the line to prevent the protests from reaching the Interior Ministry at Lazoughly Street. They may be violent, but they are not on the offensive, even if many protestors think they are preventing them from returning to the square. They are paying for the excessive force they used over the weekend. 

More than that, there is this ambience of martyrdom. Everyone is excited and wants to participate, to get their chance to be a hero. People are angry — and they have a right to be. But right now it's an open-ended process, and the crowds want the satisfaction of achieving what did they in January: to see the man in their sights fall.

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The Muslim Brothers are left behind, again

One of the interesting things about the gigantic turnout on Tahrir Square is that it is happening even as the Muslim Brotherhood has officially opposed the protests and most Salafists done the same, in the name of calming the streets before the elections. This decision is very reminiscent of January 25, when they refused to take part in the first protests leading to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The same goes for the Salafists, who apart from Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, have opposed protests and even tried to intervene to stop them in Alexandria yesterday.

This is not to say there are no Muslim Brothers or Salafists, or other religiously-inclined people in Tahrir today. There are.

But their leadership has failed them once more. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has shown that its basic essence has not changed: just as its leader in 2009 said he had no problems with a Gamal Mubarak presidency and had much respect for Hosni Mubarak, just as they rushed ton negotiate with president-apparent Omar Suleiman in late January, just like they preferred to cut a deal with the military in the transition's early days and accepted a slapdash referendum and constitutional declaration, the Brothers are once again swimming against the prevailing tide of the Egyptian people. They prefer to negotiate for their own maximum advantage rather take a principled position.

I often think the Brothers' biggest problem is not that they are fundamentalist, or out of touch with the Egyptian mainstream, or too radical. It's that they are perceived, rightly, as schemers by average people. It's true of their leaders, at least, and it's what has made so many bright young people leave them in recent years and so many others doubt their intentions.

Video: Dispatch and Triage in Tahrir, 2011-11-22

I shot this footage this afternoon, near the center of the fighting, concentrating on how the organization of medical services is taking place.


(This image circulated online. The lion statue is one of a pair that stand on either side of the Kasr El Nil bridge)

One of the effects of the police's policy of shooting directly at protesters' heads in the last 3 days has been that many of them have lost an eye.

Ahmad Harara, a dentist, lost one eye on January 28 and one three days ago, on November 19.

Over 11,000 people were injured (and 800 killed) during the January 25th uprising, and no one, to this date, has been held responsible. It's this combination of brutality and impunity that has brought people back to the streets.

And protesters are devising ways to protect themselves. Some have industrial-style goggles. Others are sharing ingenious ways to make home-made visors.

Just another indication (as if one was needed) of the extraordinary resolve of Egyptians to see their revolution through.

Video: Tahrir 2011-11-22

A stroll around Tahrir Square as thousands more join the protest, now in its third day.


I know these videos are a little surreal. I just take the camera with me where I go, film and then edit a bit when I get back home. I put them up to capture a little of the mood. I did not go all the way to the end of Mohammed Mahmoud St. at the end of the video, when it's hard to see what's happening. I like having both of my eyes.

Notes from Tahrir, 2011-11-22

✪ I walked around Tahrir Square tonight. Tons more people. A bizarre mixture of a carnival atmosphere and intensity. Fighting continues down Mohammed Mahmoud St. non-stop, with new frontline protestors replacing every wounded person coming out. The slogans are simple: they are all against SCAF, for a civilian government, and against Tantawi.

✪ Since yesterday evening there has been no new raid on the Square. Yesterday’s raid was aimed at destroying the encampment — troops withdrew afterwards. It’s simply not true protestors “retook” the square, they were allowed to return. The police today is holding Mohammed Mahmoud St., which leads to the Interior Ministry. Their numbers are few and they are simply holding a line. The situation is static, because while protestors may be wearing down units, these are being rotated. It’s not like January 28 when it was a full-blown war across the city. The army can of course take the square back (with huge casualties). But they have not decided to do so yet, either because they’re afraid of what will happen, or because of pressure, or because the present situation suits them. I doubt the latter: I’m betting that they don’t know what to do.

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