Roger Cohen on the Leveretts' book on Iran

Pretty devastating opening paragraph in Roger Cohen's review of Flynt and Hillary Leverett's new book on Iran:

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are unusual among former staffers of the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council in their deep affection for the Islamic Republic of Iran. This attraction, which knows few bounds, finds its apotheosis in Going to Tehran. Their stated goal is “the most objective analysis of Iranian politics.” Yet they find that Iran embraces, “more fully and openly than Turkey, the project of building a state that is simultaneously Islamic and democratic.” (The greater openness of Tehran than Istanbul should, they seem to think, be apparent to any objective analyst.) Iran’s government “of the Shi’a, by the Shi’a, and for the Shi’a,” they suggest, may well produce “a wider range of choice for Iranian voters than the United States’ two-party system offers American voters.”

Not a book you want to have out when the religious Supreme Leader of Iran has just decreed that the two top presidential candidates from outside his own network should not be allowed to run. Cohen writes a little further down: "The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity."

Ouch. 

Should the Egyptian army and police get to vote?

That is the question that has riled Egypt over the past week, as the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), in its latest bout of judicial jujitsu, has decreed that – in accordance with the new constitution – since the electoral franchise is supposed to be universal, the previous ban on uniformed services from voting should be lifted. This has triggered howls of outrage by Islamists, who see the judiciary giving the police and army the right to vote as tantamount to vote-rigging, and has been welcomed (to various degrees, and not by all means unanimously) by their opponents.

​The recommendation came as part of the SCC's review of a new elections law and a law on parliament – a review that itself is mandated by the new constitution. The SCC's ruling appears correct: since the new constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens, and makes no mention of an exemption from voting for employees for conscripts, officers, and/or policemen, it stands to reason that they should not be denied the right to vote. Of course, there were no provisions preventing the military and police from voting under the previous constitution, so the SCC appears to have, in this case, made a recommendation that went against longstanding practice – or perhaps more simply it had never had the occasion to rule on this issue before, since it did not get to review legislation under the previous constitution.

​A first take to this decision is that it shows, yet again, how foolish the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were to rush ahead with a constitution that has already come back to bite them in many respects. And their reaction is proving yet more foolish, notably in the shape of calls for the SCC to be abolished altogether because it is seen (despite having been purged by the new constitution of many of its most anti-Islamist components) that are escalating the crisis between the government and the judiciary (judges are now threatening a national strike in response to a draft judicial reform law).

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Saudis like to share

For people whose society is organized into a rather extreme public/private divide, Saudis turn out to love sharing information about themselves online. It turns out they share the most of any country on earth.

From a slideshow by Mary Meeker, a renowned analyst on internet trends whose annual presentation at the D11 Conference is a geek favorite:

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In Translation: Sinai has been kidnapped

I often choose Fahmy Howeidy's articles to translate in this series not because they are particularly brilliant, but because they are widely read, generally pretty cogent and quite influential on elite opinion. The kidnapping (and subsequent release) of six policemen and one soldier in Sinai last week is one occasion for Howeidy to do what he does well: provide a bigger framework on an issue, analyzing in passing the way the media has handled a crisis while providing some long-term perspective. In the piece below, he looks at the situation in Sinai in the context of Egypt's lingering political crisis, its unresolved strategic approach to the Sinai (and therefore the Israel) question, and more. While elements of the column show his usual moderately pro-Islamist bias (he rightly raises the conspiracy theories and Morsi-bashing of the press, but does not mention that just has some saw a MB-Hamas hand behind the kidnapping, senior MB leaders chose to blame Muhammad Dahlan), what's more significant is his take on the need to restore full Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai and thus revise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. As he puts it:

the only way to deal with such issues in Sinai is to restore Egypt's complete sovereignty over its territory, while the only way to do that is to re-examine the peace treaty to make it serve Egypt’s security interests, and not just Israel’s. 

​That, of course, would suggest a renegotiation between the two states. Which means an explicit endorsement of the treaty by the current president, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and presumably an Islamist-led parliament. 

Our In Translation​ series is made possible with the support of the industrious Arabists over at Industry Arabic. Do try them out.

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Art in Cairo

The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.

The piece discusses the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival and an installation by Ganzeer and Yasmine El Ayat.

I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece. 

Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo. 

"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces,  without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "

Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).

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The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection. 

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it. 

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Rebels without a pause

I just wrote something for the NYTimes' Latitude blog about the Tamarrud ("Rebel") campaign -- a petition calling for early presidential elections, which according to the youth groups behind it has gained 3 million signatures.

In my piece I noted that the petition has no legal power to end Morsi's term. I consider it part of the ongoing tug of war between revolutionary and conventional politics, and evidence of how dissatisfying and alienating the political process of the last 2 years as been for so many. I did note how extraordinary it is that "Egyptians today can organize a street campaign to dismiss the president — a president they freely elected last year."

I may have spoken too soon, however. This morning there are reports that Rebel campaigners were shot at in Beni Suef (several others have already been detained and attacked) and that Morsi's prosecutor general has opened an investigation into whether the organizers are  "inciting and mobilising people to overthrow an elected government, inciting hatred against the regime, and promoting a group suspected of violating the law." 

Qatar and Syria

From an FT editorial:

However, the Qataris’ intervention in Syria, while boosting the revolt against Assad, has also created confusion. The Saudis support the handful of secular rebel factions and Salafi groups fighting the Syrian regime. The Qataris, by contrast, are less discriminating over who they support, and work through the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to Riyadh. As a result the Qataris and Saudis last year created separate and competing military alliances, a rivalry that has undermined the rebellion against Assad – and may have led to weapons ending up in the hands of jihadi militants.

 

Syria’s chemical weapons: The other red line

Mr Obama’s other red line—the passing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into the hands of jihadist terrorists—is, according to intelligence sources, in real and possibly imminent danger of being breached. According to these sources, the past few weeks has seen a flurry of nervous activity that could result in intervention of some kind but which is also giving new urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

 

Still desecrating the memory of Mohammed al-Dura

This NYT report by Isabel Kershner is titled "Israeli Report Casts New Doubts on Shooting in Gaza", but if it were another country one suspects it might be titled "Government report spins  boy's death as trial verdict looms". The Israeli government has made hasbara about the al-Dura shooting one of its signature image campaign, regularly seeding doubt about the version recorded and witnessed by France 2 cameramen which became an iconic image of the occupation of Palestine. It has had little difficulty in recruiting the help of online pro-Israel activists who launched this site (linked to by the NYT without identifying its ideological, propagandistic character — e.g. "Europeans, who repeatedly ran this footage, unwittingly waved the flag Jihad (sic) in front of their Muslim populations.") and mainstream media journalists like James Fallows of The Atlantic who ran a repulsive long piece in 2002 that tackled the al-Dura affair entirely from an Israeli perspective.

The new findings published on Sunday were the work of an Israeli government review committee, which said its task was to re-examine the event “in light of the continued damage it has caused to Israel.” They come after years of debate over the veracity of the France 2 report, which was filmed by a Gaza correspondent, Talal Abu Rahma, and narrated by the station’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Charles Enderlin, who was not at the present at the scene.
The Israeli government review suggested, as other critics have, that the France 2 footage might have been staged. It noted anomalies like the apparent lack of blood in appropriate places at the scene, and said that raw footage from the seconds after the boy’s apparent death seem to show him raising his arm.
“Contrary to the report’s claim that the boy is killed, the committee’s review of the raw footage showed that in the final scenes, which were not broadcast by France 2, the boy is seen to be alive,” the review said. “Based on the available evidence, it appears significantly more likely that Palestinian gunmen were the source of the shots which appear to have impacted in the vicinity” of the boy and his father.

Except there is not much debate about the "veracity" of the report anywhere else, and France 2 and the national union of journalists has stood behind Enderlin. This is not an investigation, this is a government propaganda operation timed ahead of a court verdict that may further damage Israel's image and an ongoing attempt at damage control by attempting to muddy the waters of a case that is iconic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine precisely because children are so often its victims.

Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform

www.cuipcairo.org is a new website that acts as a central repository of information on events, initiatives, organizations and more that have to do with Cairo's built environment. Bookmark them, there's an events calendar function that has recently been added and is very handy for tracking what's going on about town. More info available in this PDF.

Carrothers: Egypt’s Dismal Opposition: A Second Look

Thomas Carrothers of Carnegie had a good piece on the over-dissing of Egypt's opposition:

Overly harsh views of the Egyptian opposition—combined with a lack of recognition that many once-weak opposition actors in countries emerging from authoritarian rule have gone on to win elections—fuel the unhelpful idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt for the foreseeable future. And that idea in turn encourages the problematic belief evident in U.S. policy in the past year that no alternative to the Brotherhood is likely to be viable for many years and the resultant tendency to downplay the Brotherhood’s significant political flaws.

The United States and other Western powers should not make it their business to actively support the opposition. But they should at least approach Egypt’s new political landscape with an open mind, informed by experiences from elsewhere.

Listening to U.S. officials and political analysts pillory the Egyptian opposition, it is hard not to wonder what gives American observers so much judgmental self-confidence. The United States has more than two-hundred years of democratic history, the finest institutions of higher education in the world, and one of the highest standards of living, Yet, in last year’s U.S. presidential elections, the country produced a slate of political opposition figures that as a group did not compare favorably to Egypt’s major opposition leaders in intelligence, integrity, or capability.

He makes many good points, but the central one — that the Egyptian opposition is complete mess, but that this is not unusual in these situations and that it's not as hapless as its critics contend — is very much worth bearing in mind. US and EU officials I've heard complain about "whiny liberals" who are "useless" are putting out self-serving arguments that attempt to excuse their support for SCAF and, later, Morsi during the constitutional declaration crisis of November 2012. One American diplomat, I remember, condemned some in the opposition for having supported Ahmed Shafiq's candidacy — perhaps unaware that the government he represented had supported Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. I've been critical of this opposition's often tenuous hold on reality, but they're not the only one with the problem.

Houdaiby: The Bureaucracy Wins

Ibrahim Houdaiby writes on the "bureaucratization of Morsi" (I prefer to use "statification" to mean the same thing), the success with which the Egyptian state has imposed its rules on the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the reverse. But he makes an even stronger point in discussing the Brotherhood's response to being in power — creating the impression that it is in fact under siege by an opposition it at once inflates and belittles:

Today, the focus on survival, the tendency to resort to vague formulae, a lack of political savvy, and a willingness to compromise are key factors in Morsi’s positions. Maintaining unity requires no more than the (re)creation of an external threat to divert attention from political and strategic failures and deficits. The group’s new threat is created through the reintroduction of the notion of conspiracy. The organization has attributed its failure to push forward a relevant legislative agenda to deal with questions of economic development and distribution, judicial reform, and security sector reform to the government’s “irresponsiveness,” which it says is meant to embarrass the Brotherhood-led parliament.

The Party’s parliamentarians also blamed SCAF for misusing its de facto presidential legitimacy to counter democracy, claiming that filing a presidential candidate became the only remaining solution to curb the military’s power. After Morsi became president and dismissed senior SCAF leaders and abolished the declaration that gave SCAF legislative authority, he continued to blame the judiciary for his failures though he retained both executive and legislative powers until the new constitution was ratified in December 2012. Even now—with the presidency, a majority in the legislative body, and the ratification of its approved constitution—the Brotherhood blames the opposition and the media for its lack of achievement.

Worth reading, keeping in mind that Houdaiby is a former member of the Brotherhood once close to its leaders (Khairat al-Shater in particular) and comes from a family that has produced two General Guides.

In Translation: Hamzawy on the West's double standards

One of the odd outcomes of the Egyptian uprising is the disenchantment, not to say anger, of part of the secular opposition with the West in general and the US in particular. These have, the idea goes, betrayed democratic ideals by encouraging, even boosting, Muslim Brotherhood rule after the fall of Mubarak. The US Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, is widely believed to have told Washington that the MB are "the only game in town" (as have a number of analysts). Many voice disappointment with the silence of the Washington and Brussels over abuses by SCAF or Morsi, or the muted response to the recent constitutional declaration crisis.

Thomas Carrothers, in a recent Carnegie piece (to be discussed separately later), mentions this malaise between diplomats and policymakers. His former colleague Amr Hamzawy, a political analyst turned revolutionary politician, turns the tables around and accuses the West, in the piece below, of reinforcing the "shadow government" of the Brotherhood at the expense of the formal government controlled by the Morsi administration and the Freedom and Justice Party. 

As always, our In Translation ​series is made possible through the support of Industry Arabic, whose friendly and efficient services we urge you to try out.

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Of Gaza and KFC

Of Gaza and KFC


What started out as a blurb on the Xinhua news site this week on the smuggling of KFC for US$30 an order into Gaza via Egypt - a tunnel trek that can take between 3 and 7 hours - has gone viral, prompting several other outlets to send correspondents into Gaza to report on the Al Yamama delivery company’s entrepreneurial niche. The tunnels have been used to deliver everything from rockets and rebar to TVs and fiancées - up to 30% of all the strip’s imports come through them, says Reuters - so fast food is not a stretch, even at the prices quoted.

Unfortunately, most social media responses to it have focused on the novelty at the expense of the context, even though the two fullest accounts I have read, from the NYTand Christian Science Monitor, do address the environment of the Israeli blockade and the tunnel economy that the Egyptians have been cracking down on so hard these days to try and interdict Sinai arms smuggling.

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The legacy of minority-based regimes

The question of what to do about former elites haunts countries that have undergone a radical political transformation. Retain them in office, and dissidents will complain their revolution has been "betrayed." Purge them, and the inevitable fall-off in state services, even if it is temporary, will feed instability and spread nostalgia for the fallen regime. This dilemma has recently surfaced in Libya, where militias made up of mostly working-class ex-rebels have backed a law to purge from office anyone -- including their wartime middle class allies -- who held even a minor government position under Qaddhafi. Similar laws have been drafted in Tunisia and contemplated in Egypt, and will almost certainly figure in an aftermath to the Syrian conflict.

The United States faced this dilemma in Iraq. May 16 is the ten-year anniversary of the decision it took: Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the decree that removed top-ranking members of the Baath party from their positions in Iraqi state institutions, swiftly followed by CPA number 2, which dissolved the military to be rebuilt anew. As Sunnis tended to rise more easily to top posts than Shiites, both decrees affected Sunnis disproportionately. Collectively they are often termed "de-Baathification."

Today, CPA Order 1 is one of the most universally condemned American foreign policy decisions of this generation Even proponents of the war tend to describe it as a terrible mistake. With Iraq's legacy under review, both because of the 10 year anniversary and because of contemplated intervention in Syria, CPA Order 1 has been invoked by both sides in the debate: one side frequently depicting it as an indication of the headstrong mindset by which the Americans helped plunge Iraq into the chaos, the other side seeing it as a mistake that, because it can be avoided in the future, does not necessarily condemn intervention as a doctrine.

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