King Hassan of Morocco and the Queen

I found this video fascinating, and a reminder that, far from what remains prevalent thinking of Morocco, King Hassan was neither particularly sophisticated nor charming (he could be on occasion, perhaps) and little more than a tinpot despot who enriched himself on the back of his country. Not to mention, of course, his disastrous Sahara policy, his human rights abuses, his debasement of politics, etc.

Aronson on the US-Egypt NGO debacle

This opinion piece on the US-Egypt NGO crisis was sent in by Geoffrey Aronson. Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington and author of From Sideshow to Center Stage – US Policy towards Egypt.

There is an increasing chorus of US voices among the policy cognoscenti and Congress threatening to stop over 1 billion in US aid to Egypt or to make it dependent upon some politicized certification of Egypt’s democratic bona fides. This course risks undermining the foundations of a core relationship at the very moment when the promise of building a new and reinvigorated partnership is on the horizon. However good it may feel, being right about what the State Department has described as Egypt’s “persecution” of US employees of the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House for assisting local civil society groups is not as useful as being smart. The emotive issues highlighted by their conflict with the Egyptian government cannot be permitted to become the centerpiece of bilateral relations. Doing so plays into the hands of counter-revolution, creates the impression that US-Egyptian relations are simply a test of wills, and feeds Egyptian suspicions that the West is using “democracy” as a cynical tool to short-circuit the revolution.

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In Translation: The "Tintin" of the Arab uprisings

Despite another installment of our “In Translation” series being long overdue, allow me an indulgence: the article our friends at Industry Arabic translated this week is nothing topical. It’s an attack on this site and myself. And what a deliciously absurd attack it is!

Its author, Sobhi Hadidi, a Syrian writer (I don’t know much about him), seems to be quite upset that I am aping the orientalists of old. One of his main gripes: the banner on top of this site, which he describes as a rather nasty throwback to old stereotypes of the Arab world. I’ve added footnotes to rebut the factual mistakes in the text (the banner is not from Tintin, for example), but on this point let me say this: the choice of a banner from one of my favorite comic books is not intended to spread the view of an ossified, stereotypical Arab world — it’s just that I like comics and loved that long panel from the 1940s which is recognizable even today and depicts the area of Cairo I’ve called home for over a decade. Chill, dude, it’s just a cartoon.

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A point of clarification on US aid to Egypt and peace with Israel

It has been much-reported that Muslim Brotherhood spokesman / head of parliamentary foreign relations committee Essam al-Erian threatened to review the peace treaty with Israel should aid be cut. See for instance:

In the clearest of multiple Brotherhood statements on the subject, Essam al-Erian, who is chairman of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said the aid was ''one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement, so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties''.

 

''We will be harmed,'' he added, ''so it is our right to review the matter.''

Other Muslim Brotherhood leaders have repeated the argument that a cut in aid could lead them to review the treaty, or that such a cut would be in breach of the treaty.

To my knowledge, this has no basis in law. The MB may want to review the peace treaty, as many others in Egypt want to, in order to renegotiate the degree to which the military can operate in Sinai. There are good reasons to do so in order to gain better control of the Peninsula. But the aid has nothing to do with the treaty. This was confirmed recently by Jimmy Carter when he was in Cairo, and you can check the text of the treaty itself.

Generally speaking, there is a confusion of terms on this issue.

  • The 1978 Camp David negotiations led to the drafting of a broad set of principles known as the Accords, that would look at a global solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis, including its Israeli-Palestinian component. While signed by the US, Egypt and Israel, the accords were never implemented, largely because the Israelis did not want them to be.
  • The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt delineated borders, paved the way for the return of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and imposed restrictions on military activity in Egypt. It does not contain any provisions for aid.
  • An aid relationship exists between Israel and the US and Egypt and the US (with the latter since 1975). It was informally framed after Camp David as partly a reward for the peace, and partly to ensure that Israel would get proportionally more aid than Egypt and be helped by the US to retain a military edge. These terms were negotiated, and later renegotiated between the militaries and governments of the three countries, but there is nothing in the treaty itself that obliges the US to disburse aid of any kind to either country.

So when the Brothers make threats about a cut in aid leading to the collapse of the treaty, they either don't know what they're talking about or are making baseless threats. And moreover, by linking aid to the treaty, they are in effect suggesting that Egypt's policy towards Israel is indeed up for sale, and that they will gladly take the money to remain quiet on Egypt-Israeli relations. Is this what they meant to say, after having spent much of the last three decades denouncing the treaty and Egypt's slavish acquiescence to pro-Israel US policies?

Enquiring minds want to know.

What Anthony Shadid gave American journalism on the Arab world

As'ad AbuKhalil put up a note that Nir Rosen sent him about Anthony Shadid — it's very true about, great journalism aside, the function that Shadid played in the US media over the last decade:

"his death is not only a catastrophic personal tragedy for his family or friends (of which i was one and i'm still in shock from it), its a huge setback in a struggle we are all part of. nobody else in the mainstream, let alone the new york times, had the clout to humanize arabs or let them speak directly to white people in the US, and to even challenge, if subtly, the dominant narrative, not only by what he wrote, but by what he didnt write, because he did not have to always refer to zionists or white "experts" for quotes and analysis. and his existence also allowed other journalists in the mainstream a bit more space, it showed the value of having somebody like him and made it easier for great journalists like leila fadel, or hannah allam, to do their job. and he had the imprimatur of the pulitzer and other prizes that protected him from criticism. i dont think we can fully appreciate what his loss will do to the way the arab world is reported and understood and as a result dealt with as well, but he is irreplaceable for us and it marks the end of an era".
A few years ago, before Shadid joined the NYT, a friend who is of Arab origin was interviewed by them for a Middle East correspondent position. The friend was told, "we want our own Anthony Shadid". The NYT saw the quality of his coverage and understood that affinity with the people of the region (and language skills) were assets, alongside his talent.
But when they did finally manage to get him, Shadid was not domesticated by the NYT. He domesticated them, expanding the subtleness and scope of his coverage in an area where the NYT has an uneven record (to say the least) and is under extreme scrutiny. And as Nir says, he paved the way for others to follow.

Zine al-Arab

Remember the very inventive campaign in Tunis, when a huge poster of Ben Ali was put up again and then, when angry residents took it down, turned out to contain a warning that dictatorship can return? (See the making-of here.)

I missed it when it first came out, but a new e-zine by a group of Egyptian and Arab artists and designers, including Ganzeer with whom we recorded podcast #7, has the great following cartoon inspired by that. In Egypt though the end is different. You can get Zine al-Arab here, and they may still be accepting submissions for the second issue. They have great comic art.

Update: an event feat. Ganzeer tonight at the Townhouse Gallery:

Feb 19, First Floor, 7 pm

Artist Talks
“In Print”

“In Print” concludes with an evening of artist talks by each of the participants (Ganzeer, Mohamed Shenawy, and Mohamed Elshahed) discussing the development of their projects during this 3 week period in Townhouse's First Floor Space.

For more info: 
www.ganzeer.blogspot.com , www.toktok.com , and www.cairobserver.com

Who is escalating the US-Egypt NGO crisis?

To me, the answer has been clear for two weeks or so and more so in the last week, when Tantawy's reassuring words in a cabinet meeting were followed by the launching of an extremely aggressive state media campaign led by al-Ahram. And guess what is supposed to have happened today: the editor of al-Ahram was replaced.

The state media in Egypt has been fragmented, but state television and major organs like al-Ahram have long been the province of General Intelligence. Their men ran these places, and perhaps they still do.

The only logical alternative explanation would be that SCAF is consciously playing a good cop-bad cop routine where they set themselves up as the nice guys but point to bad guys (and public opinion, and the Brothers) who can be much more trouble than just dealing with the military.

The other interesting point here is that senior US officials have discreetly made the rounds in Washington in the last week saying that SCAF was not responsible for the crisis (which may be to protect SCAF from Congress, but is still telling.) More likely in my opinion is that this is partly true, and we are dealing with a fragmented regime today much as we were in the last years of the Mubarak era. Or a mixture of both good cop/bad cop and inner-regime intrigues. 

The FT puts it well here:

Some analysts, however, argue that there is more to the argument than distraction, suggesting that forces in the unreformed security services that underpinned the Mubarak regime could be laying the ground for an attempt to torpedo the country’s political transition.

“I am hearing assertions that the military council does not want this fierce [anti-American] campaign,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat and an analyst. “This is something that is organised but within a more general situation of chaos ... The army and the council care about the military aid, but not so the security ­services.”

Especially if the security services are worried that SCAF will sell them out to the incoming civilians to win their own immunity.

Games, and games within games. If this goes on Egypt's politics will start to resemble Algeria's.

Morocco Dispatch: No faith in the system

Moroccan Traffic

This was sent in by our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, whose wrote many dispatches from Iraq a few years back, and now lives in Morocco.

The police officer finally looked up from behind the ancient, hulking Arabic-language typewriter with which he’d been hunting and pecking out the report for what seemed like an hour.

“You know, it would have been much easier for everyone if he’d just sorted things out on the side of the road and left us out of it,” he said with exasperation to my Moroccan friend.

It was a striking admission of the total lack of faith in a system by someone charged to uphold it.

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Hamza Kashgari, social media and the Saudis' dual monarchy

Hamza KashgariThe National reports that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has “issued a fatwa against Twitter, demanding that ‘real Muslims’ avoid it, calling it a ‘platform for trading accusations and for promoting lies’.”

The pretext for this condemnation of social media is the case of the Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who was extradited from Malaysia to the Kingdom after tweeting about the Prophet Muhammad in a manner that the religious authorities deemed blasphemous. If the Saudis wish to make an example, he will be facing blasphemy charges, and possibly death, rather than a lesser (though still absurd) sentencing that would end in him paying a fine. There’s also talk of taking action against anyone who retweeted his messages.

But considering that thousands of Twitter users called attention to Kashgari’s tweets, literally demanding his head, it’s ironic that the Grand Mufti says Muslims should stay off Twitter, since clearly, many salafis are using, and policing it.

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The domestic and external politics of Palestinian reconciliation

In theory, the unity agreement announced in Doha by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the outgoing Khaled Mashaal of Hamas is still going forward, now that Hamas’ Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has accepted the provision that will make Abbas the interim prime minister of the unity government. Abbas and Mashaal have further agreed to meet in Cairo later this month to set a date for a presidential election and new legislative elections for the Palestinian National Council. This would be third major attempt by the two parties to pursue a reconciliation agreement since their violent split in 2007. An effort announced in 2008 never materialized, and another round of talks that began after Operation Cast Lead collapsed in November 2010; this current round of talks comes from a May 2011 agreement.

The political calculus that has led to this latest handshake between Mashaal and Abbas is succinctly summarized by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal: Abbas “is now convinced that the negotiations with the Netanyahu cabinet are nothing but a waste of time,” while Mashaal “believes that his political future is now directly connected to the implementation of the reconciliation.” Or, as Tobias Buck simply puts it, Hamas is grasping at a chance for “international legitimacy and leadership of the Palestinian movement.”

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Podcast #26: The Aalam Wassef Episode

We're back after an unexpectedly long absence (we moved Arabist HQ to a new secret location last week.) Our special guest in this episode, Aalam Wassef, was an underground guerrilla video artist and activist who went by the pseudonym Ahmed Sherif. He continues to make videos and launch activist projects under his real name, except now the target is SCAF rather than Mubarak. We discuss his work, the call for a general strike to boot SCAF out, Egypt's military-industrial complex and the NGO crisis between Cairo and Washington. I really think it's a fantastic episode.

Show notes:

Podcast #26

The Brothers and the Interior Ministry

(Note: I just want to stress again that this story is unconfirmed — will try to add details in the next few days.)

This, if true, is scary:

Freedom and Justice Party lawmakers have asked the interior minister to devote six-month intensive courses in the Police Academy to law school graduates to help fill the national security void, security sources told Al-Masry Al-Youm Wednesday.

The MPs also asked that most of those chosen for the courses be FJP or Muslim Brotherhood members, according to the same sources. The request came during a parliamentary committee hearing with Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim over the Port Said football violence earlier this month.

That hearing was held in a closed-doors session. If this is true it looks like as well as purging the Interior Ministry of known torturers (and presumably people against the MB), they also want to make sure that in a decade’s time or so mid-ranking and senior Interior Ministry officials will be Muslim Brothers. This — appointing officials from a dominant political party and its affiliated organization — should be a top concern. There is absolutely no reason for the Interior Ministry to recruit in any other manner than an ordinary examination.

The article goes on:

The sources said that FJP members met with former Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy when he was in office and both sides agreed that Brotherhood students should comprise 10 percent Police Academy students. Senior group leaders have denied any agreement exists.

The son of senior Brotherhood official Essam al-Erian was recently accepted into the academy.

A little caution has to be exercised here because this could very well be a counter-attack by security figures to discredit the Brothers as they try to “cleanse” the ministry — something that all political forces have asked for. But it also highlights the need for greater scrutiny of the Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to operate as a semi-secret society with no transparency on its finances and membership with little justification now.

Egyptian NGOs condemn foreign orgs crackdown

A large number of Egypt's leading human rights and social development NGOs have issued a statement condemning the indictment of 44 NGO workers that has created a diplomatic crisis between the US and Egypt. This is the first concerted condemnation of the manufactured NGO crisis, and comes as the Egyptian media in recent days (despite SCAF head Tantawi's conciliatory statements towards the US after meeting with Pentagon officials) unleashed a campaign against the US and NGOs more generally (as being foreign pawns, etc.). I consider this a very positive development, and a courageous move for these NGOs that have a lot more to lose from a crackdown on civil society.

Here's the opening part of the statement:

February 15, 2012

Orchestrated campaign against human rights organizations: Facts absent; the public intentionally misled

The undersigned organizations strongly condemn the ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups, and note that the referral of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals to a criminal court is politically motivated. The affected institutions have been operating for several years without being asked to suspend their activities and without their offices being shut down. Moreover, in October the Egyptian government asked two of these organizations to monitor the parliamentary elections, although Article 2 of Decree 20/2011 regulating the role of civil society in monitoring elections - issued by the chair of the Supreme Elections Commission - specifically bars non-Egyptian NGOs from monitoring elections unless they present a permit from the Foreign Ministry authorizing them to do so in Egypt. Although this permit is limited to election monitoring, it nevertheless legitimizes the licensed organizations, insofar as a permit to engage in such a specific activity necessarily assumes the organization’s legal, legitimate presence in Egypt.

In a sudden disregard of these facts, the raiding the offices of these and other Egyptian organizations with armed forces and their referral to trial raise numerous questions. Indeed, it makes one question whether this development is in fact based on considerations for “the rule of law” and “judicial independence,” as senior government officials claim. 

Here's the full statement in PDF.

Meanwhile in the two Sudans

The post below, on the worsening relations between the two Sudans and the Northern regime's domestic worries, was contributed by Abdullah Ahmed. I had missed these alarming developments, which before the Arab uprisings would have been major news. 

While much attention is currently being focused on Egypt, there is much to learn from the current oil dispute between Sudan and its former territory, South Sudan. South Sudan’s oil shutoff reveals that it is not willing to bargain for permission to export oil.

With the other issues yet to be settled between the two governments, including final demarcation of the border, the SPLM-led South Sudanese government is taking the situation very seriously. The National Congress Party’s “take no prisoners” attitude in dealing with South Sudan’s government is strongly reflected in Omar al-Bashir’s actions and words. For example, the undersecretary of Sudan’s foreign ministry gave an interview just over a month ago in which he referred to the South Sudanese as “brothers” and the border issue between the two countries as a minor issue. Yet, Sudan’s actions have been much louder than the words of her paid employees, as the recent bombing of the Jau area on the border illustrates.

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Finally, PA kicks back against Israel's Hasbara

A Jerusalem-based correspondent forwarded me the email below — it's a new initiative by the PLO Delegation to the United States to track anti-Palestinian incitement in Israeli media and society and publicize it to American journalists, officials and politicians. Let's hope this works and gets some attention on the issue — or will the politicians decide to ignore this?
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Egypt: Abu Ismail's campaign against US aid

The above graphic is from the Facebook page of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, aka the world's cuddliest Salafi. It says "Buy your dignity for only LE72".

The calculation it makes is that Egypt's $1.3bn in US military aid amounts to about LE6bn, which divided by 84 million Egyptians makes just about LE72. What a bargain! Of course Sheikh Hazem — a Salafi from the Muslim Brotherhood (the MB-Salafi distinction becomes irrelevant away from syndicate and national politics) — is always full of brilliant ideas. His entry on Wikipedia says he "has presented 10 great national projects in all fields to overcome most of the Egyptian people problems." I'll have to do a fuller profile at some point.

Yet another sign that the US-Egypt NGO crisis is plumbing into new depths of facile populism. Of course, not only on the Egyptian side.