Look who's talking

 

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

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A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

 

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

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The Fallacy of Crushing The Brotherhood

Couldn't agree more with this analysis by Amro Ali: 

The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule: the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.

 

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.

 

Squabbling over religion

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Before Jan 25, mosques had been hunting grounds for the MB. In the post-Jan 25 days, mosques evolved to become a place where they can meet, organize, mobilize, campaign, and more recently, treat fallen followers, count bodies and hide leaders. They also become the scene of political squabbles. At the time of the controversial Islamist-backed constitution, there were dueling campaigns to 1) challenge imams who used their sermons to support Morsi/the constitution (نزله من المنبار, "Get him down off the minbar") or 2) physically restrain worshippers who challenged the imam (ربته في العمود, "Tie him to a column"). 

The last thing the Brothers needed, after the eventful summer they've had, was to have their comfort zone fall back under government control and, now, the perked ears of pro-military residents, who would report an imam faster than he could compare what soldiers did to Muslims protesters in Raba’a al-Adaweya to what they haven’t done to the Jewish soldiers in Israel.

With the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) resolved to tighten its grip on mosques by passing a number of laws to substitute the much-criticized MB monopoly over religion with its own, many lips had been chewed and prayers for patience muttered.

Now there is a noticeable change in the khutbah (friday sermon). For the most part, it is  shorter, just like the minister wanted (because the men have other things to tend to) and no longer connected to politics, not even by way of metaphors or anecdotes. A considerable number of imams have been contacted by the ministry and told specifically to stay off politics or else they might be considered a national security threat, inciting violence and possessing illegal weapons. Many imams sense danger and have begun self-censoring in case a  housewife cooking in a nearby building hears the khutbah and doubts their patriotism, or in the not-unlikely-event that one of the new faces in the crowd turns out to be an informant.

Even though the great majority of MB imams have kept fiery sermons to a minimum and seem to have contented themselves with neighborhood night marches against the military in the meantime, some allow themselves a fit of rage and lead a protest out of mosques, three times a week, in areas too densely populated for police officers to be coaxed into visiting, like Ain Shams.

“You can tell (the MB supporters) are unhappy when they hear me preach about patience and generosity rather than comment about the situation,” said licensed Sheikh Emad, who is not Amr Moussa or something and should not be expected to talk politics. In the past month, Sheikh Emad was heckled out of his Ain Shams mosque when he tried to close it between prayers (another ministry rule).

But the fact remains that there are well over a 100 thousand mosques in Egypt and about half of them are manned by state-approved Azhar graduates. The rest are freelancers. The feared anti-military extremists can be either one of them. The new Awqaf minister has suspended the license-to-preach of all freelancers,  said the must re-apply, and that only Azharis -- as representatives of middle-of-the-road, official sanctioned Islam -- will get one. 

The ministry is also trying to limit the activities of zawiyas (unofficial very small neighborhood mosques). This may be why its list of four “conditions”  regarding zawiya operation are closer to requests than rules. Laughable requests, according to Sheikh Gamal, a zawiya imam, shopkeeper, and occasional gas cylinder seller.

The conditions are that there be no (big) nearby mosque, or if there is one that it be full full; one can pray in a zawiya so long as it has a written permission to hold prayers or a licensed imam, as if people are going to walk in and ask for ID and licenses like a traffic cop. Anyway, what happens if people don’t abide by these conditions? What kind of legal consequences, if any, could one face for praying in zawiya?

For all its worth, most people under 45 like to skip the khutbah, if not physically, then mentally, and just wait for the iqaamah (the beginning of the prayer), Sheikh Gamal said with a knowing smile. Youngsters like to loiter by a kiosk and appear the moment the prayer starts in the back rows and the old sit inside and ponder life and prices.

The only people really listening to the khutbah now, Sheikh Gamal suspects, are those who wish they could deliver it and those who are there to make sure they don’t.

Head-butt in Qatar

Qatar has installed a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidan's infamous head-butt (after Italian player Marco Matterazzi allegedly said something rude about his mother) which may have cost France the World Cup in 2006. Zidan's outburst was criticized and defended at the time. Here is an impressionistic version of the statue (called "Coup de Tete," which in French means both header and whim, impulse) by contributor Paul Mutter, who also notes: "Now if only I could photo-shop something representing the Western left walking off the playing field.."  

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The statue has apparently rankled quite a few Qataris.

Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim

A while back, I expressed some misgivings about the great Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's seemingly uncritical support for the military leadership. I ended up paying him a visit and conducting a rather distressing interview. Despite my admiration for Ibrahim, and his friendliness to me, we were almost immediately disappointed with each other's grasp of what is going on in Egypt these days, and unable to agree on the meaning of words like "massacre" and "nationalism." I was surprised with Ibrahim's willingness to accept repression in the name of abstract, hard-to-achieve and easy-to-manipulate goals like "fighting terrorism" and "standing up to the West."

MM: I can't help feeling that there will never be security sector reform. It's very good for [the security services] to be fighting terrorism. Nobody is going to push them to change. Do you see what I'm saying?
SI: It takes time. The fundamental thing now is, if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him.

The full interview is at Mada Masr, which also has lots of coverage of Egypt's celebrations of October 6 and of popular sentiment to the army.  

Only room for one general

 

There has been much media focus lately on the ongoing, growing campaign to get defense minister and commander of the armed forces Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to run for president -- a bandwagon on which we can expect see many more flatterers and opportunists jump. El-Sisi's candid discussion with other officers on how Egyptian need to get used to paying more for services and talk on the phone less, how the army can get the media to practice some self-censorhip, and how military personnel will never be held responsible for killing protesters were recently leaked, and seen as evidence of his nefarious dictatorial tendencies by Islamists and of his economic genius and straight-talking by army supporters. 

 It is also instructive to see the reaction to another possible military contender. Nour Youssef has this report. 

While it is generally good to be a soldier rather than another weakling civilian in Egypt, it has not been so for former Chief of Staff General, Sami Anan.

After news of Anan’s announcement of his run for president spread, and despite it being followed by a quick denial, the pro-military media began airing his dirty laundry and then tried to suffocate him with the clotheslineSo far Anan, aka  The Bringer of the Brotherhood (or at the very least:  Key Person Who Helped Make Mistakes That Lead To MB Rule), has been accused of having an under-qualified son as head of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, wasting state land (200 acres of it by Cairo-Alexandria desert road on himself and his wife), having grandchildren born in the US for the citizenship, buying a whole floor in a fancy hotel, among other things.

Although many, like Mahmoud Saad, perfunctorily expressed their respect for Anan's constitutional right to run before all but telling him not to, much of the talk about Anan has been focused on his newly published memoirs and his past.

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A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles. 

 

What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?

Very nice, nuanced analysis of the different and shifting positions towards the Brotherhood, the army and civil liberties of Egypt's various non-Islamist groups and parties by Sharif Abdel Kouddous in The Nation: 

Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”

The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.

The biggest surprise for me was to read this account of what rabidly pro-military Tamarrod leader Mahmoud Badr said five weeks before Morsi's ouster:  

In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod’s founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—which directly ruled the country following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. “We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics,” he said emphatically. 

Badr supports a Sisi presidency now (and generally giving the army whatever it wants). One of the most frustrating things about following and analyzing politics in Egypt is how utterly irresponsible and inconsistent political actors are, how often they go back on previous positions and statements and break their commitments. 

 

Slaves of Babylon

Frequent contributor to this blog Paul Mutter follows up on the recent Guardian report on the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar with a detailed account of migrant labour in the Gulf.   

A third of the Gulf’s total population today consists of guest workers. Primarily South and Southeast Asian in origin, they have replaced the Arab guest workers of the 1980s who departed – or in the case of 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, were expelled – during the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf states increasingly opted for non-Muslim and non-Arab workers in the years that followed. Two million guest workers are present in just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, out of six million altogether. South and Southeast Asian migrants actually outnumber the native populations of several Gulf states: 70% of the UAE’s population, and 69% of Kuwait’s population, consists of guest workers nowadays. Saudi Arabia hosts tens of thousands of workers – it issued 700,000 new visas for maids alone in 2013 – and now fines or shut downs employers in the Kingdom who employ more migrant than domestic workers.

Qatar is even more heavily dependent on migrant workers than Saudi Arabia. 87% of the population consists of migrants, and 94% of the entire labor force is from overseas – which means that only 6% of the workforce, as native Qataris, can legally form a union or leave a job without their employer’s permission. Qatar is planning a major expansion of its guest worker population in order to build twelve stadiums, along with subway lines, hotels, and causeways, to support the planned city of Lusail that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

 

Another blow to independent Moroccan journalism

In late September, the Moroccan police arrested Ali Anouzla, the editor of the independent online Arabic-language site Lakome. His crime? Publishing a story that linked to a story in the Spanish paper El Pais that featured a jihadist video in which members of Al Qaida in the Maghreb threatened the Moroccan king, Mohamed the VI. Even though the Lakome story condemned the video, Anouzla may be charged with encouraging terrorism. 

This is from an Amnesty International statement:  

“We fear Ali Anouzla is being punished for Lakome’s editorial independence and criticism of government policies, in what signals a worrying setback for freedom of expression in Morocco. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

No kidding. Lakome is one of the only voices of serious critical journalism in Morocco. The  authorities of this supposedly liberal monarchy have systematically harassed the country's small independent press (the editors of the two best independent magazines of the last decade -- Le Journal and Tel Quel -- both live outside the country now, after being the targets of endless litigations, and Le Journal closed down).

Historical perspective on Egypt's army

From Bernard Lewis' autobiography, Notes on a century , a vignette about Nasser requesting Pakistan's help to restructure the Egyptian military in 1960: 

The government of Pakistan was willing, but on condition that it be permitted to send a small feasibility mission to examine the situation and then advise on what, if anything, Pakistan could do. It told Nasser that the mission must be allowed to go wherever it wanted, and its questions must be answered truthfully and honestly. Nasser agreed, saying that there would be no point otherwise.
A small group of Pakistan officers was then sent to Egypt. they toured the country, spoke to many people and reported that they were not told the truth. The reason that they were not told the truth is that nobody knew the truth. In the Egyptian armed forces, they said, "The corporal lies to the sergeant, the sergeant lies to the lieutenant, the lieutenant lies to the captain, the captain lies to the major and so on all the way up the chain of command. By the time it reaches the high command or the Ministry of Defense, they haven't a clue what is going on." The Pakistan general heading the mission concluded that the high command in Cairo was sitting on top of a pyramid of lies. The Pakistan government therefore declined and said it was sorry but could not help.  

 

Egypt and the Gaza tunnels

Jared Malsin, reporting for Mada Masr: 

“On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side,” says Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist, describing the scene in Palestinian Rafah. “There is quite tight control. The Egyptian military are controlling across the borderline, which means they [the smugglers] cannot really operate, even if they can operate freely from the Gaza side,” he says.

On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s current operation has paralyzed the vast majority of the tunnel system. Of an estimated 300 tunnels operating before June 2013, approximately 10 were operating on September 21, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs. The quantity of goods moving through the tunnels is 15 percent of what it was in June.

Under Morsi, Red Lines Gone Gray

Jonathan Guyer, in Jadaliyya, looks at political cartooning under Mubarak, Morsi and the military. His very interesting article (based on a year's worth of Fulbright research) confirms my sense that there was more freedom of expression under Morsi than before or after -- not because the Brother's weren't authoritarian, but because they weren't able to impose their control. All those cases brought against journalists and others for insulting the presidency were also the result of the fact that the presidency was getting mocked and criticized as never before. 

The most significant change in Egyptian caricature since 2011 is the implicit permissibility of satirizing the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohamed Morsi’s year in office, the same penal code article maintained that “whoever insults the president… shall be imprisoned.” Yet, according to Judge Yussef Auf, it does not clearly stipulate what insulting the president means or what the precise penalty should be.[3] Additionally, nearly seventy other articles limit freedom of expression. These range from prohibitions against “insults” to the parliament, army, courts, and other public authorities, to injunctions against the reporting of false news. Nonetheless, mocking these institutions became a core part of cartooning even in government-run newspapers, in spite of—or because of—these regulations.  

 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

Qatar's World Cup 'slaves'

The Guardian conducted an investigation into working conditions at construction projects -- some of them related to the 2022 World Cup -- in Qatar. And what they found is deeply disturbing but not surprising if one is familiar with the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf. 

According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between 4 June and 8 August. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents.

The investigation also reveals:

• Evidence of forced labour on a huge World Cup infrastructure project.

• Some Nepalese men have alleged that they have not been paid for months and have had their salaries retained to stop them running away.

• Some workers on other sites say employers routinely confiscate passports and refuse to issue ID cards, in effect reducing them to the status of illegal aliens.

• Some labourers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat.

• About 30 Nepalese sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal conditions of their employment.

 

Bye Bye Brothers?

Last week a Cairo court issued an injunction that seems to pave the way for a new ban on all the Muslim Brotherhood's activities. Meanwhile, the new constituent assembly is discussing banning all political parties based on religion. 

In my latest contribution to the NYTimes' Latitude blog, I argue that banning the Brothers -- rather than really addressing the question of the relationship of politics and religion in Egypt, and of the appeal and contradictions of political Islam -- is hypocritical and short-sighted.  

The Brotherhood — and other Islamist parties — should have been required to open their activities to outside scrutiny and to commit to basic democratic principles over two years ago, just after Mubarak was brought down. But back then, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was afraid of how far the revolutionary fervor might go and turned to the Islamists to help it stabilize the country.
The current legal cases against the Brothers are selective and politically motivated. Serious violence has taken place at the hands of Islamists in recent months — police officers and military conscripts have been killed, churches attacked — but the direct responsibility of the Brotherhood’s leadership for that violence has yet to be proved in court. And while the organization is being tried for inciting violence, in case after case police officers are being acquitted of shooting protesters.
Why is the judiciary only examining the organization’s legal status now? What of other Islamist groups, some of which have more violent pasts than the Brotherhood and hold more odious positions on women or Christians?
The Islamist organization needs to be held accountable, but as part of a broader process of transitional justice. Instead, the goal of Egypt’s interim authorities now seems to be to punish the Brotherhood for getting into power and ensure it never does again. Egypt’s non-Islamist political parties have uniformly welcomed the idea of banning the group, even though that would in effect disenfranchise its hundreds of thousands of members and its millions of supporters.

 

A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 

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From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”

 

'Sexual Jihad' in Syria

Sana Saeed tries to trace the "Tunisian women are going on sex jihad in Syria" story to its roots -- which turn out to be tangled and possibly non-existent. As Saeed notes, any story with the words "sex" and "jihad" in the title is going to be catnip to the international press. And making an accusation like this (which Tunisia's Minister of Interior did recently) may be an easy way to embarrass/discredit Islamists. 

Despite the story having gained traction of the viral variety, and despite the concerns and facts expressed by Tunisian officials, there seems to be actually very little evidence to suggest that the so-called sexual Jihad is actually a thing (and Jihad al-Nikkah is not a thing in Islamic jurisprudence).

The story of Tunisian women returning from waging sex on holy warriors (thanks RT) in Syria impregnated with future warrior babies itself is, at best, just incredibly questionable and many, from the onset of the story’s break into the English press, expressed deep skepticism. In a civil war that has had many ideological fronts, the most pernicious in is salience has perhaps been that of information. Syria has been a cluster of misinformation, misattribution and propaganda. O’Bagygate and Mint Press-gate are two of the most recent headlines to highlight the problems in not only reporting on the conflict but also how easily questionable, untrue, unverified information is gobbled up to serve ideological biases and wishful thinking.