Iran to Egypt: "You complete me"

Iran to Egypt: "You complete me"

From Al-Monitor's Iran Pulse:

Khabar Online, close to Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani reports Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s comments in his meeting with Foreign Minister Salehi that “no problem exists between Iran and Egypt”. During their meeting in Cairo Salehi expressed the “warm greetings” of President Ahmadienajd, and thanked Morsi for his attendance of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran. Salehi also congratulated the president on the “victory of the revolution of the Egyptian people”. According to the report, Morsi reciprocated and asked the Iranian Foreign Minister to offer his “warm greetings” to the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad.

Salehi also expressed Iran’s readiness for cooperation with the Egyptian government on the development of Egypt’s industrial infrastructure, adding that the two countries “complement one another”.

Among the Alawites

Among the Alawites

Nir Rosen in LRB, with another angle on the question of sectarianism in Syria's civil war:

What becomes of the Alawites if the regime falls, and what becomes of Bashar’s support base as a whole, are not the same question. Bashar’s following includes other minorities besides the Alawites, not to mention Sunnis. From the outset the government has described the opposition as motivated by sectarianism – an accusation that encourages the very tendency it claims to deplore – but it has carefully refrained from any show of sectarianism itself, even if its Alawite supporters are less fastidious. Loyalists say that they are diverse while the opposition is almost entirely Sunni. Yet Sunni officers and soldiers belong to some of the most elite army units such as the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, and many opposition intellectuals have admitted that if the government’s base was confined to Alawites, it would have fallen long ago. Were this struggle to be reduced to a bald conflict between Sunnis and Alawites the government would lose its Sunni support and be left with only 10 per cent of the population behind it, plus a few stragglers from the other minorities.

In Translation: What is "Brotherhoodization?"

This translation of an Arabic press article is brought to us by Industry Arabic, a great service that provides bespoke translation services to and from Arabic. Check them out.

Over the last few weeks — prior to the silly distraction of “Innocence of Muslims” — Egypt’s commentariat was obsessed with one word: ikhwana, or “Brotherhoodization”. President Muhammad Morsi’s greater authority since he sacked the heads of SCAF, his appointments of several governors and other public officials, and the composition of the new government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil (who, incidentally, is getting more positive reactions after the initial “who dat?”), had led many to complain that the Muslim Brotherhood is implementing a majoritarian, winner take all, attitude to democracy. Former ruling party officials often alleged that the Muslim Brothers did not just want to replace the government, they want to replace the state. This debate has now returned.

Ziad Bahaaeldin, a former MP and leader of the Social Democratic Party, writes below in a piece that captures — and criticizes — some of the haziness of the term as used by some hysterical elements of the place, as well as where it might be legitimate.

What is “Brotherhoodization of the State”….and Why Are We Afraid of It?

By Ziad Bahaaeldin, al-Shorouk, 11 September 2012

The “Brotherhoodization” of the state is the current issue of the day and a source of apprehension for many who worry that the Muslim Brotherhood is on its way to taking over Egypt and Egypt’s institutions. What is the meaning of this? Is there really any reason to worry?

If what is meant by “Brotherhoodization” is that the ministers, governors, and those who occupy supreme executive posts belong to or are close to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Freedom and Justice Party, this is normal and does not constitute a deviation from the right path to democracy or a cause for worry. The winner of parliamentary and presidential elections (even by a slight margin) has the right and duty to govern and try to apply the policies and platform that it promised people. Otherwise, there would be no democracy, elections, responsibility or accountability. Therefore, consternation at the “Brotherhoodization” of the government is out of line.

The problem is that the government is one thing, and the state something else entirely. If appointing ministers and governors from among the ruling party constitutes a sound application of democracy, then striving to take over the press, civil, judicial and security institutions of the state – among others – has no connection to democracy at all. It abolishes the independence and impartiality of public institutions and paves the way for a single political ideology to maintain its hold on power and exclude its competitors.

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The Agony of Syria

The Agony of Syria by Max Rodenbeck | The New York Review of Books

Max writes of fundamentally sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war:

The scale of suffering reflects the fact that the Syrian government, uniquely among countries swept up by the Arab Spring, represents not merely a corrupt and oppressive ruling clique. It baldly represents the interests of a small, fearful, well-armed, and organized sectarian minority, set against the wishes of a majority that has remained inchoate, politically divided, and powerless. The fact of this polarization, long elaborately disguised by hollow pageantries, has only become clear to many Syrians now that the underlying nature of the state has been exposed and the violence implicit in the country’s neocolonial power structure has been made dramatically explicit.

Sectarian because the regime thought of it in sectarian terms, and because part of the opposition has risen within the context of that sectarian framing (hence foreign jihadists financed by the monstrously sectarian Gulf regimes come to fight the Alawites as subset of Shias, etc.)

The government’s early charges that rebels were Sunni Muslim fanatics or al-Qaeda agents were equally spurious, but they have become similarly self- fulfilling. Syria’s intelligence services had a firm hold on the jihadist subculture before the uprising, having themselves sponsored jihadist radicals in Iraq, then later unleashed them to stir trouble in neighboring Lebanon. In the cynical world of the regime, the bearded radicals were simply another card for Syria to play, and so it has during the uprising. The state has worked overtime to sustain the notion that it faces an Islamist sectarian threat. Damascenes have often noted with wonder, for instance, that whereas ordinary antigovernment protests tend to be quickly and ruthlessly dispersed, demonstrators chanting such baldly sectarian slogans as “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the tabout”—meaning “to the grave”—march unmolested. Opposition activists suspect that at least some bomb blasts attributed to jihadist cells have been instigated by the intelligence services themselves.

Syria: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?

Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming? | World |

Great reporting by Rania Abu Zeid for TIME:

As TIME reports here, disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons — Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups – including various shades of secular and Islamist militias–under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

. . .

According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafik). The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.

However, Sakr appears to have been in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, theLebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades – to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others – a selectivity that led to much chagrin.

. . .

The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives. (There are at least 10 military councilsscattered throughout the country.) Goods would be delivered to a council, and then distributed to the brigades under its umbrella. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy, or smooth. “We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province. However, the Saudis – via Okab Sakr – appear to only want to support certain groups within the councils, but not others.

Soon there will be more — the Americans, French, etc. will also have their favorites, which does not bode well for if and when Bashar falls.

The colonial-era division of spoils draws a map of Syria's uncertainty

The colonial-era division of spoils draws a map of Syria's uncertainty - The National

Charles Glass in The National draws parallels between the French domination of Syria post-WW1 (aided by Arab allies) and foreign backing for some of Syria's rebels, writing:

In 2012, a new armed force, calling itself the Free Syrian Army, is rising in Syria. It has taken temporary hold of many Syrian towns and parts of its main cities. Like Feisal's volunteers, its members are a mixture of idealists and opportunists.

There are other similarities: they receive weapons, training and commands from outsiders; they have no idea what demands the foreign powers - among them the old imperialists Britain and France, as well as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - will make of them if they should seize power in Damascus; and they do not know where their insurrection will lead the country.

When the rebellion's foreign patrons discuss Syria's fate, their own interests will inevitably prevail - as Britain's and France's did in 1920 - over the desires of a "native government".

But in this case, who will be calling the shots? Far away Western powers or closer powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar? And does this make a difference?

Voices and faces of the Adhan: Cairo

Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo | Trailer from Scott F. Busch on Vimeo.

This film about the call to prayer in Cairo sounds cool — it looks at the project to unify the Adhan (on the grounds that the cacophony of different mosques was disagreable, I suppose). I actually love hearing the dissonant Adhans of Cairo, particularly when in the medieval part of the city (which has a high density of mosques with high minarets) — it can be a very beautiful thing to hear all of these calls, precisely because they are not in sync. I wonder if the question of noise pollution might not be better handled by improving the quality of speakers mosques use (the distortion they cause can be awful) or better yet, not using amplification altogether.

The directors have a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the film — help out here.

Sabra and Shatilia and the US

A Preventable Massacre -

Seth Anziska on Sabra and Shatila:

While Israel’s role in the massacre has been closely examined, America’s actions have never been fully understood. This summer, at the Israel State Archives, I found recently declassified documents that chronicle key conversations between American and Israeli officials before and during the 1982 massacre. The verbatim transcripts reveal that the Israelis misled American diplomats about events in Beirut and bullied them into accepting the spurious claim that thousands of “terrorists” were in the camps. Most troubling, when the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it failed to do so. As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians, whom America had pledged to protect just weeks earlier.

Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels

Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels

This story from last week, by the WSJ's Charles Levinson (a blog alumni!), hits the sweet spot of what journalism should be in a difficult situation like Syria, where solid information is scarce. It doesn't try to impose a point of view, it guides you through a complicated situation and puts the reader in a place where they can try to understand the multiple narratives that might exist for the people covered. It doesn't spin. It presents the necessarily subjective facts, and the reporter never gets in the way.

Essential reading.

The sheer gall of Dick Cheney

The sheer gall of Dick Cheney

From a NYT piece on how the embassy riots are effecting the US electoral debate:

In recent days, Republican critics like former Vice President Dick Cheney have opened up a new line of attack by accusing Mr. Obama of not paying enough attention to intelligence briefings. Mr. Obama receives the briefing in writing every day, but does not always sit down for an oral presentation, as President George W. Bush did. “The hubris of a president who believes he does not need to meet regularly with them is astounding,” Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, wrote in The Washington Post.

The amazing balls former Bush administration officials have about the president not reading intelligence memos. How about the ones they decided to ignore on an impending attack on the US by al-Qaeda or the absence of a WMD weapons program in Iraq?

A century from now, American historians just won't understand why these people were not impeached and put on trial. 

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

Good comments by Tarek Ramadan on the struggle for who's going to be the biggest defender of Islam:

And the second thing that we have to say—and this is important because you were talking about Mohamed Morsi and people, the Islamists in Muslim-majority countries—there is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, "We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West."

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak | World |

From a really great TIME piece by Ashraf Khalil :

Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

Read the whole thing.

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

Gleen Greenwald in the Guardian:

Given the history of the US in Egypt, both long-term and very recent, it takes an extraordinary degree of self-delusion and propaganda to depict Egyptian anger toward the US as "ironic" on the ground that it was the US who freed them and "allowed" them the right to protest. But that is precisely the theme being propagated by most US media outlets.

He cites examples, too. 

Another depressing aspect of this affair: seeing the same kind of articles pop up about "Muslim rage" as after 9/11. I don't know about all the countries where the protests took place, but in may Arab countries a small number of protestors took part. The idea of a spontaneous surge of anger does a big disservice to understanding what happened, especially when the initial events (Egypt/Libya) are likely to have been planned by small fringe groups and then widened as they were relayed by the Salafi international where local allies of that current stirred up more protests. That's the interesting story, even if does not excuse the very real dysfunction that causes many to go apoplectic (without attending protests) about this stupid trailer of a movie that might not even exist and the security lapses that occurred — not surprising in Libya, perhaps, but perplexing in Egypt and Tunisia.

Update: Bassam Haddad comments rather nicely on this: "Was the Arab Spring Really Worth It?": The Fascinating Arrogance of Power.

That line in between the quotation marks was on CNN. What morons.

Tunisian journalist run over by ex-cop media boss

Kamel Labidi writes:

Dear Friend,

The war on independent journalists in Tunisia suddenly intensified on Thursday when Journalist Khalil Hannachi of the daily Assabah  became the victim of a "murder attempt" perpetrated by the CEO of Dar Assabah media group Lotfi Touati, said journalists and two media unions.

Hannachi stood in front of Lotfi Touati's car earlier today, in an attempt to argue with the controversial and former police officer, whose appointment in August as CEO of the country's oldest media group spurred an unprecedented wave of protests among journalists and civil society advocates. But Touati started his car and moved ahead at full speed throwing Hannachi hundreds of meters away and inflicting on him severe injuries currently treated at Charles Nicole Hospital in Tunis, said the same sources.

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Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region

Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region

From a new Carnegie paper by Wolfram Lacher:

The Sahel and Sahara region is far from a pivotal area for transnational organized crime. The importance of organized criminal activity there stems from the fact that there are few alternative activities that produce similar profits and rapid enrichment. This particularly applies to three undertakings that have expanded significantly since around 2003: smuggling of Moroccan cannabis resin, cocaine smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom. Individuals and networks involved in these activities have converted their wealth into political influence and military power. Contraband trade in licit goods, which had developed across the region in previous decades, laid the institutional basis for the development of these high-profit activities.

This kind of drug networks have their origins in cigarette trafficking that took off in the 1980s and were instrumental in financing Algeria's jihadists in the 1990s.

Cigarette smuggling in particular has greatly contributed to the emergence of the practices and networks that have allowed drug trafficking to grow. The smuggling of cigarettes to North African markets began to thrive in the early 1980s, and it developed into a large-scale business controlled by a few major players. Cigarettes, imported through Mauritania, supplied a large portion of the Algerian and Moroccan markets, while those imported through Cotonou in Benin and Lome in Togo were routed through Niger and Burkina Faso to Libya and Algeria. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated cigarettes smuggled along these routes accounted for around 60 percent of the Libyan tobacco market (or $240 million in proceeds at the retail level) and 18 percent of the Algerian market (or $228 million).

The key actors in this trade are legal cigarette importers and distributors, who import their merchandise from free trade zones such as Dubai. The trade is therefore best interpreted as a deliberate strategy by tobacco companies to circumvent tax regimes or break North African state monopolies on cigarette distribution.

Funny to think that something as technocratically banal as a Maghreb customs unions would have discouraged such things.

A few words on embassy riots

I've had a couple of very busy days here and am about to return to Cairo after a couple of months of absence. Id did write this op-ed for The National which captures some of my initial thoughts about what I'm calling, for shorthand, the embassy riots. Needless to say I find these very depressing, and as my thinking evolves about them (being quite far away from them at the moment) I am not satisfied that I know enough about the evolution of the protests — how they started, who initiated them, etc. 

It appears very likely that the Benghazi attack that killed US diplomats was a pre-planned attack by a group probably trying to avenge the death of Sheikh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader. And it seems that the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group led by Mohammed Zawahri (Ayman's brother) and a few fellow travellers, and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That these protests expanded and got out of hand speaks volumes of the complicated, chaotic situation in Egypt. (I'll pass on the government's reaction, or lack thereof, for now.) I think it is important to see who involved in getting the ball rolling — and particularly the international network of Islamist activists who amplify and spread this manufactured outrage (I say manufactured because why now and not, say, at the time of the scandal over the desecreation of Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan or other incidents?)

I'll write more in the next few days, but here is an excerpt from The National op-ed:

Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week's case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts.

This, perhaps, is what has changed between the 1988 Rushdie fatwa and more recent examples of Islamist outrage: thanks to the internet, a regional Danish newspaper or an amateur film have become targets just as much as a celebrated, best-selling novelist.

Not that these protests, riots and killings are entirely about insults anyway: that the protesters chose to target US embassies has as much to do with other grievances (US-led wars, support for Israel, etc) and the convenience of having a prominent address, since protests outside the filmmaker's house, say, are out of the question.

One can certainly question why protest organisers chose the embassies, as if the US government was responsible for a film made by one of its citizens. And why do organisers sometimes lie, as when Nader Bakkar - who speaks for Egypt's Salafi Nour Party, a partner with President Mohammed Morsi's party - told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the film had been broadcast on US channels?

And why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?


Islamists vs ex-colonels: Will radicals take over the Syrian insurgency as they did in Iraq?

The deadly attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi by presumed radical Islamists operating in Libya's post-civil-war vacuum are likely to make a significant impact on views of Syria's ongoing civil war. They will probably deepen concern over the rise of Islamists within Syria's rebel movement and the threat this will pose to post-war stability should the Assad regime fall.

Charles Levinson writing in the Wall Street Journal from northern Syria gives a fascinating glimpse at the interplay between rebel factions, particularly the social divide between them. I found it especially intriguing in light of my experience in a third Arab country, Iraq, where like Libya and Syria an insurgent movement was divided along Islamist and non-Islamist lines.

Levinson profiles one Syrian rebel, Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Ughaidy, whose CV is almost identical to the commanders of groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, or many smaller tribal militias: a mid-ranking former officer with close ties to the urban middle classes. Despite names that often sounded religious and some ties to organizations like the Muslim Brothers, these Iraqi groups did not have a particularly Islamic agenda, they had little apparent interest in radical Salafist theologies, and their commanders were drawn from the secular Saddam-era elites.

Col. Ughaidy's rival for the loyalties of the fighters in his part of Syria is Abdel Aziz Salama, a former honey merchant who leads the Islamist wing of the local rebel movement. Socially, if not necessarily ideologically, he resembles Iraqi al-Qaida commanders like Ahmed al-Dabash, a small-time preacher in a Baghdad slum blamed for carrying out the 2004 Ashura bombings in Karbala, or Omar Hadid, a former petty criminal who found religion and ended up leading the Islamists in Fallujah.

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