Oil and Sand


In Search of Oil and Sand Trailer (French subtitles) from wael sayedalahl on Vimeo.


Issandr and I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary In Search of Oil and Sand. This is an extremely personal, suprising and charming glimpse of Egyptian history. Narrator Mahmoud Sabit -- a neighbor of ours here in Garden City in Cairo, who lives in an astonishing crumbling old villa that belonged to his family -- is the son of a cousin and chief of protocoal for Egypt's last king. 

In the weeks before the 1952 Officer's Coup, his father and many of the other young glam royals were running around making a movie they'd written and cast themselves in ("Oil and Sand") about...a coup d'etat in an unnamed Arab country. The movie also featured actual US and UK Embassy officers (and likely intelligence operatives) playing the part of...American and Brittish spy-masters. 

The actual film was destroyed after the coup, but Sabet found the black and white rushes. This "royal home movie," as the trailer calls it, gives a sense of the (incredibly glamorous, perhaps heedless) lifestyle of the Cairo elite just before the revolution. When the faces of the Free Officers appear on camera towards the end of the movie, you understand how much they are coming from a completley different world. 

You don't have to be nostalgic for the monarchy -- or to agree with Sabet's argument that the US, in supporting the Free Officers, ushered in authoritarianism -- to find the film fascinating.  

Most of the people in the movie lost everything and were treated with what seems like remarkable pettiness by the Nasser regime. What's saddening aren't such personal losses and upheavals, but how little was gained from them. It's striking -- knowing what we know now -- to hear General Mohammed Naguib declare that the 1952 Revolution's goal is to "end corruption" in Egypt.

In a country whose modern history has been clumsily papered over and cordoned off, and that has yet to deal with the legacy of the Nasser regime (let alone the Mubarak one), this is a beautifiully shot and edited, modest but lyrical, act of historical recovery. 

In Translation: The crisis of the political Islamists

Khalil El-Enani, an Egyptian scholar of Islamist movements, has long criticized these movements intellectual stasis and their authoritarian internal structures. Post-Arab Spring, as these movements reached power through elections, he argues the question is whether they are able to retain any ideological coherence as they become ruling parties. In the piece below, he argues that the chief threat to the Islamists comes from this rather than non-Islamist rivals.

In my view, one of the striking thing about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt is the extent to which they were unprepared for power. This is both in the sense that they still seem lack the cadres (i.e. policy and government professionals able to run things) and that they have shown a surprising lack of vision when one has been expected to turn the country in a new direction. And they have also become much vaguer about the religious content of their discourse, in part because the Islamist field is divided on these issues, and in part because they have first sought to compromise on their ideology to anchor themselves in power. But does the “crisis of the Islamist political project” described below by El-Anani, or any “failure of political Islam” as Olivier Roy puts it, mean anything significant in their ability to rule? The previous regimes were ideologically void, but held on to power for many years. Failure of ideology does not mean failure of government or regime. So when I read about the crisis of Islamists, I do not think of an endpoint but a situation that may be with us for a long time, lingering and unresolved .

This translation is made possible by the support of Industry Arabic, which offers a wide range of professional translations services. Please check them out for your personal, NGO or business translation needs.

The Crisis of the Islamists’ Political Project

Khalil El Anani, al-Hayat, October 17, 2012

According to the Islamists’ opponents, the Islamists’ arrival to power was neither pure chance nor a stroke of luck offered by the Arab Spring but rather a result of long decades of opposition to existing regimes, which provided them with legitimacy and organization that others lacked. The Islamists cannot be blamed for this as much as their opponents, who busied themselves – and continue to do so – with attacking the Islamists and attempting foil their project more than they busied themselves with building the organizational and social structures necessary to compete with the Islamists on the political and the popular level. However, contrary to what some think, the danger the Islamists – or more specifically the Islamist project – face does not come from the outside but rather from within the Islamists’ political and ideological project itself.

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"The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain's Victory?"

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain’s Victory?

So asks Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler in a post on September 30 regarding the state of the protests there that began on February 14, 2011 in the island nation, where despite an ever-growing dearth of international media coverage, tweeps are still being arrested for criticizing the ruling family, the riot police are surrounding entire villages to go after “enemies of the state,” whether they are dissidents or street thugs, and jail sentences are upheld against doctors who treat injured protestors:

[T]he uprising proper has ended.  Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain’s effective “sectarianism as security” political strategy.  In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and “major combat operations,” as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

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To get Western support, Arab secularists need to stop being stupid

Borzou Daragahi has a piece in FT titled Arab liberals need the west’s support (and a companion report here). He argues:

Close watchers of the Middle East knew the Islamists would be a major factor once Arab tyrannies were toppled. They have organisational capacity, popular support and international connections lacked by their rivals.

But what is most surprising, given the gutting they suffered at the hands of Arab dictators for the past few decades, is how strong, vital and persistent liberals, secularists and leftists in the region are becoming.

. . .

The challenge for the west and for the next US president, and a worthy subject for the next debate, is how to support liberal and secular political forces as well as the tolerant wings of the ascendant Islamist forces so that they pursue the pragmatist course of Turkey rather than the harsh, repressive vision of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I'm all for greater Western support for like-minded people in the Arab world — rather than the betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the new normal that has characterized, for instance, part of the Obama administration's approach. But it's not a one-way street. Arab secularists, leftist, liberal or conservative, have to not only be better organized and able to perform well in elections, but also stop having moronic attitudes towards the West.

Having lunch yesterday with a Western diplomat, he complained that for instance labor groups and other leftist forces refused to meet with him because they feared being accused of collaborating with Western forces. The MB, of course, has used the charge that secularists are Western-funded to tar them. The Mubarak regime used to do the same. But considering that Muslim Brothers spent much of the past 18 months ingratiating themselves with the West, they have to move beyond these fears and push back on these charges. And there is absolutely no reason for them to refuse to meet with Western officials, or form partnerships with like-minded political parties, trade unions, and other organizations in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly impervious to attacks on having foreign ties, either, after all.

I believe in the electoral viability of non-Islamist parties, even if I despair of their divisions and organizational abilities. These things will improve. But I am simply dumb-founded by the stupid pseudo-nationalist positions some cling to. They need to multiply foreign ties and leverage them for political advantage. That's what the MB has been doing, even before it was in power. Why should secularists be any different?

Corporatist Egypt: The intellectuals

Corporatist Egypt: The intellectuals

Just a note on my ongoing obsession with the pervasive corporatist aspects of Egyptian politics and the way different institutions perceived their role and demand recognition from power-holders. From Egypt Independent, a somewhat nauseating press release:

The Writers Union issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood for marginalizing intellectuals because the draft of the new constitution does not include articles on their role.

The statement said intellectuals are the soft power that strengthens Egypt in the Arab and international arenas.

The draft gives the president the power to appoint a quarter of the members of the Senate from officials, ministers and former ambassadors, but did not mention writers, thinkers and artists and intellectuals, the statement added, who are the nation's conscience and mind. 

Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

NYT's Anne Barnard and Rick Gladstone report on UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's attempt to secure a cease-fire between the government and rebels in Syria:

Both Turkey and Iran publicly endorsed Mr. Brahimi’s effort on Wednesday. Those endorsements were significant because Iran is the most influential regional supporter of Mr. Assad’s, while Turkey supports Mr. Assad’s armed adversaries, is host to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has repeatedly called on Mr. Assad to resign.

In the past few weeks Turkey also has banned Syrian aircraft, moved armed forces close to its 550-mile border with Syria and engaged Syrian gunners in sporadic cross-border shelling, raising fears that the conflict in Syria could turn into a regional war.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who met this week with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at a regional summit meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, was quoted by Iran’s state-run news media on Wednesday as saying he supported the Syria truce proposal and “any group that derives power through war and means to continue war has no future.”

Sounds like the Egyptian initiative to engage Iran on Syria is fast becoming a Turkish initiative. 

Update — Also, this from the Turkish paper Zaman:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday he had suggested to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad three-way talks including Egypt on the Syria crisis, given the apparent Saudi objection to Iranian involvement in a current quartet.

So who's doing the leading here? Not sure Cairo would have so easily dismissed a Saudi role.

Jihadists Receiving Most Arms Sent to Syrian Rebels

Jihadists Receiving Most Arms Sent to Syrian Rebels

David Sanger in the NYT:

WASHINGTON — Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.

In related news, from this FT report: "The sense that Qatar has bitten off more than it can chew is a widespread topic of conversation."

How Egypt Can Learn from Iran’s Subsidy Mistakes

Breakfast Wrap: How Egypt Can Learn from Iran’s Subsidy Mistakes

Good post asking the right questions about Egypt  subsidy-busting plan. The biggest question I have is, considering that the approach is introducing quotas per family (all income levels having the same quota), is how quickly can this system be implemented? Sounds like a plan for in a  year or two at best, not something you can implement now to deal with an urgent budget deficit.

Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

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The president, the prosecutor, and the press

Over the weekend in Egypt, as if the fighting that took place in Tahrir Square between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (or impostors) and their detractors was not enough, a major institutional type of Mortal Kombat also took place between, on the one side, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other, Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud and the judicial establishment. On the latter’s side — out of convenience as much as principle, as Mahmoud is not a popular figure — were secular political parties who seized on this to denounce what they saw as the Brother-President’s all-out attack on the rule of law.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the lowdown.

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How textbooks protect the al-Sauds

How nasty textbooks protect the al-Sauds

From piece on textbooks around the world in The Economist:

Other people’s textbooks have long been a source of worry. After the first world war, the League of Nations sought to make them less nationalistic. Anxieties increased, though, after the attacks on America on September 11th 2001, when some in both America and Saudi Arabia, including officials, supposed that Saudi Arabia’s curriculum of intolerance was responsible, at least in part, for the emergence of al-Qaeda’s brutal brand of jihad. Buffeted by the criticism, Saudi rulers promised reform. From King Abdullah down, Saudis have insisted repeatedly that the intolerant bits of their teaching materials have been removed. But in a stubbornly autocratic country that adheres to a puritanical Wahhabism, there is a lot of intolerance to go round.

The Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), a think-tank and human-rights lobby in Washington, DC, reports that much of the material that provoked fury in the West after September 2001 is still used in Saudi classrooms today. Ali al-Ahmed, director of the IGA and author of a forthcoming work on Saudi textbooks, cites such examples as “The Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers”, and “The Jews occupied Palestine with the help of the crusaders’ malevolence towards Islam… But the Muslims will not remain silent”. The Saudi education minister says the books are being revised—but that it will take another three years. Mr Ahmed says change is not happening sooner “because the state would be putting its survival at risk. The purpose of education is to ensure social obedience to the ruler.”

Long reads — special Morocco edition

Morocco - Marrakech: Mystery

I did not put out Long Reads like last week. Will try to make this new feature work.

But I've accumulated a few links to long pieces of journalism and think tank reports on Morocco, and having generally felt guilty that I don't write about Morocco as much as I should (for instance, the UN recently stated that torture in Morocco "is systematic in Morocco for cases involving anti-government demonstrators and those accused of terrorism", belying the idea of a radical improvement under Mohammed VI.) I thought I'd highlight them here.

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Cordesman: Give Syrian rebels weapons with off switch

A Technological Fix for Safely Arming Syria's Rebels

Strategic studies wonk Anthony Cordesman advocates giving Syrian rebels advanced weaponry that is time-limited or can be remotely shut off to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. It's a Dr. Strangelove of insurgency moment:

At the same time, the risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups-as has the U.S. inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan. The leakage of such weapons to extremist groups in Libya and outside it is a major ongoing threat.

Another clear risk is that extremist networks centered around al Qaeda or the Iranian Al Quds Force could rapidly transfer such weapons far outside the region in which they were originally supposed to be used: allied territory or that of the United States. The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of "incidents" than extremists and dictators if things go wrong.

There do, however, seem to be technological solutions that could largely reduce the risk of transferring such equalizers. As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated. If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.

Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

Given today's solid-state technology, all of these functions could be built into an MANPAD or ATGM. A rocket or mortar might be somewhat more difficult to modify, but building in such capabilities seems possible. The same seems true of remote triggering devices that can be used in bombs or the equivalent of IEDs or in providing antiarmor capabilities like explosively formed penetrators.

I'm not sure how you make these tamper-proof, or produce them fast enough to be useful, or what it means about the future of  warfare by proxy. Imagine weapons with a GPS tracker: you could arm the rebels, no matter how nasty they are, and then track and kill them once they are no longer useful. So not happy with the current government of South Sudan, for instance? Just arm the Lord's Resistance Army with these and let them at it until you change your mind. Handy to see Bashar al-Assad go because it hurts Iran? Give al-Qaeda fighters MANPADs (which are not a hygiene product for men) that can be turned off when they're done wrecking the kind of havoc you don't have too much of a problem with. If they don't sell them to an unknowing PKK fighter who wants to use them in Turkey first! It'll be turned off eventually, right? 

In his last paragraph, Cordesman writes:

One thing is clear. The United States should not remain trapped in the dilemmas it faces in Syria or remain forced into the kind of hollow posturing both U.S. presidential candidates now bring to dealing with this issue. We need practical answers for both the military and political dimensions of what promises to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy," and these are tools that would be cheap and often help do the job.

 Why does it have to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy" at all? If the lesson of the last decade of interventionism is that it's better to develop technologies that allow us more control over the mercenaries, proxy groups and occasional loonies we get to do the job, we are in trouble.

How kind: IDF may reinstitute Arabic translations in West Bank military courts

IDF may reinstitute Arabic translations in West Bank military courts

From Haaretz, just a reminder of the banality of evil and life under occupation:

The IDF is willing to resume its one-time habit of translating into Arabic the indictments it submits to military courts in the West Bank, but insists there is no need or duty to translate other documents, such as verdicts or court transcripts.

The IDF's position was included in the state's response to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice by four Palestinian attorneys, who claimed that the fact that all documents in military courts are exclusively in Hebrew damages defendants' rights to due process.

On Egypt's Syria policy — and the end Morsi's honeymoon

I have two new pieces — I take a closer look at Egypt's Syria policy, which some interesting old and new ideas in it, in The National. And ponder Morsi's recent speech and the schedule ahead (constitutional referendum, new parliamentary elections) that has put him in campaign mode just as the reservoir of post-election goodwill he had begins to evaporate. That's in the IHT blog, Latitude