Syria's chemical weapons

Brian Whitaker continues to follow the strange case of a widely circulated article alleging chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels -- one of whose alleged authors has been vainly trying to remove her byline.  

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications"). 
The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work drew a blank.
Yesterday, however, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Meanwhile the Sunday Telegraph publishes an interview with a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army:

Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.

He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.

Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.

 


 

 

An overnight project

A friend recently quoted the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila (An overnight Project) and then I read this profle in the Guardian and belatedly discovered them. It's a nice article, but I wish the focus was less on the lead singer's sexual orientation and more on the fact that they rock. Which they absolutely do. 

Living as I do at the moment under the psychic bombardment of full-throttle Egyptian nationalism, I just love the way the song and video Lel Watan ("For the Homeland") punctures everything fake, grandiloquent and sinister about the way the supposed good of a nation is used against the actual good of its people. 

Here is my very awkward translation (please share corrections and suggestions for improvement in the comments): 

Others domesticate hurricanes to govern destiny

We fly off with the breeze and return to destruction

Dare to ask about the worsening situation

And they silence you with talk of all the conspiracies

The herd accuses you of betrayal, if you call for the homeland to change

They make you despair till you sell your freedom, as the homeland is lost

They tell you

Come on smile, come on, dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

They taught you the anthem, they said your struggle is good for the homeland

They numbed your veins, they said your sedation is good for the homeland

They tell you

Come on smile, come dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

 

 

The Lost Land of Egypt

An important article by Maria Golia on land in Egypt, covering the loss of agricultural land to real estate speculation; the dearth of affordable housing; and the looting of heritage sites.  

In Egypt, land is power. The military is the largest landowner, and the Mubarak regime’s undoing was partly owed to sweetheart deals for choice locations, particularly on Egypt’s coasts. Large tracts of land that might have been developed as new towns or institutions serving the public instead enriched a handful of real estate investors interested primarily in upscale tourism or residential compounds. The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ESCR), an NGO, reports that a minority elite, around 250,000 families, typically owns several residences including a seaside villa or two, while 18 percent of Egypt’s lesser privileged families share a single room.[4]

 

Why I quit my job as an editor in Egypt

Very interesting interview by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with Hisham Allam, a former editor at El Watan newspaper.  

The situation in Egypt is very complicated, and the Western media sees the scene as a military coup against a democratically elected president who did not complete his presidential term. Meanwhile, the view within Egypt is completely different. The citizens do not care about the process of democracy as much as they care about how it will be implemented.

The president they voted for a year ago had committed numerous errors which created feuds between him and most of the state institutions. Consequently, both state owned and private local media volunteered to defend the new regime against the former.

In such a complicated situation, most of the local media have become unprofessional. They are biased against the ousted president and his supporters. They are deliberately avoiding the publication of any reports or news which condemn the ministries of interior and defense who led the coup.

It has become compulsory that events get covered from one angle, which condemns the ousted president's supporters and make them appear criminals, while local media ignore completely all the brutal killings and arbitrary arrests committed against the former regime supporters.Most respected journalists have decided to leave their media institutions temporarily for the fear of being exposed to pressure or being obligated to deceive the readers and audiences.

I quit my job as an investigation editor for this reason.

Apparently Allam is one of the reporters who covered Hamas' role in the prison break-outs (including of Mohammed Morsi) during the uprising against Mubarak. I always thought that story wasn't serious. But Allam also reported on other important stories, like the fatalities in a terrible train crash under Mubarak (and apparently faced harassment for it). He has good advice for young journalists in Egypt:

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Don’t follow the mainstream. It is safe to follow, but it takes courage to lead.
What advice would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Doubt what you hear, analyze and respect the intelligence of your opponents. Last advice: don’t trust anybody.

 

Constitutional Disorder

In my latest column for the New York Times' Latitude blog I look at the writing of Egypt's new new constitution -- a process that despite offering some promise of improvement, is rather dispiritingly familiar.   

The last assembly was drawn overwhelmingly from Islamist parties that had just performed well at the polls. Non-Islamists didn’t have the numbers to exercise veto power and complained about their marginalization; eventually almost all of them withdrew. The new drafting committee looks like a photo negative of the old one: It contains a single delegate from an Islamist party, and he has already walked out in protest over being ignored.

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable to beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

 

What this terrible article in the Atlantic Monthly means: nothing

I don't generally have the time or inclination to go after bad writing on the middle east, but this absurd "analysis" on the Atlantic Monthly's site is just too much, starting with the first paragraph, which states: 

Astute observers of recent pro-Morsi protests in Egypt will note a new symbol cropping up in photos of the protesting crowds: Demonstrators are now holding four fingers in the air. Many carry yellow posters emblazoned with the same gesture.

How "astute" do you have to be to notice a hand gesture that is directed at every camera in the vicinity, and as the author says "emblazoned" on bright yellow posters? 

The gesture that is here referred to as "the Rabaa" apparently "signals both a conscious shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus from a global audience to an Arabic one and a rejection of the ideals of the Arab Spring." Unlike, the author argues, the V for victory that was used by earlier demonstrators and that "allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination."

Where to begin? The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that bid Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi an un-fond adieu used a panoply of slogans and symbols. The most common, meaningful and trans-national chant associated with the Arab Spring has to have been the Arabic chant "The People Want the Fall of the Regime." Not only is the argument that the V sign epitomized the Arab Spring extremely debatable; the comparison between the huge heterogenous masses in Tahrir and elsewhere almost three years ago and the mostly Brotherhood supporters protesting today doesn't make sense. They're different groups of people, in different circumstances, saying different things. 

 

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Al Raqqa: military brigades, the city administration and the revolutions to come

A detailed, fascinating read on the various brigades (their funders, relations to each other, and relations to civilians) operating in the liberated Syrian city of Al Raqqa in July and August. Also, very well written:

Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.

The author is Mohammed El Attar, writing for a site that describes itself as a volunteer, non-partisan effort on the part of Syrian researchers and writers to document and analyze the revolution.  

 

The cruel optimist

A lovely portrait of labour activist Haytham Mohamedeen (whose recent detention caused a stir) by Sarah Carr at Mada Masr. Like many other activists of his generation, his life story is also an account of every major protest movement of the last decade. 

The factors that ignited the January 25 revolution — “social injustice, the narrowing of political freedoms, Interior Ministry repression” — still exist, and Mohamadeen thinks this will create a “new anger.” But the danger to the revolution now comes from groups that have allowed themselves to be fooled by the “smokescreen of war on terrorism,” he cautions.

“All the leftist forces that have been fooled by this slogan are, in my opinion, involved in a disaster and stupidity of historical proportions. [The Revolutionary Socialists] have as much enmity as other groups towards the Brotherhood, but we are not allowing ourselves to be fooled by a smokescreen called the war on terrorism, behind which Mubarak’s state is reinstating itself and revolutionary gains swept away,” he argues.

“Today, Brotherhood members are being locked up arbitrarily; sooner or later, that will spread to other political forces.”

At the end of the interview, I ask him to clarify whether he was in a microbus when he was arrested in Suez, or in a private car as had been reported — a very un-Haytham-like mode of transport.

“Of course I was in a microbus,” he responds with a wink. “Do you think I would be doing this job if I could afford to buy a car?”

 

Reach of Turmoil in Egypt Extends Into Countryside

Great reporting in the NYTimes on the tensions and the harassment of MB families outside Cairo. On the funeral of one MB member:  

In this small, close-knit and rural Nile Delta town, it is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets — someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

Meanwhile, another Times article gives a more complex picture of the recent operation to "liberate"Dalga, a town near Minya where Christians have been terrorized by local Islamists (and opportunistic thugs). 

But the security forces did not bring such heavy weapons to protect Christian residents. Interior ministry officials said the expedition was an attempt to capture a single fugitive Islamist, and it may depart soon. The overwhelming force, they said, was merely for self-protection: the surrounding province of Minya is still considered a bastion of Islamist support for Mr. Morsi.

 

Mubarak's last chuckle

Private newspaper Alyoum7 has been publishing a series of audio recordings on its website of Mubarak and some unknown voices (reportedly recorded by one of his doctors) in which the erstwhile president comments on events throughout the summer. The sound clips are crudely edited, creating a lot of awkward pauses where there probably were none. 

That being said, the voices sound over-rehearsed and sometimes border on hostages trying to keep calm and entertain a mad gunman.

Clip 1:

Mubarak and friends express admiration of el-Sisi. His unknown interlocutors tell lame jokes about the Brotherhood, eliciting gruff chuckles from the former president. 

Clip 2:

Mubarak and friends say the MB is stupid and crazy for going head to head (more like knee to head) against the military, the police and the people. One voice likens them to a mindless CSF soldier who just follows orders and can’t think for himself. They predict that things will calm down and fondly reminisce about Habib el-Adly’s good ol days when the Brothers were “collected.”

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On the Coptic diaspora

Michael Wahid Hanna has a long essay on American copts and their political influence in MERIP, in which he examines the sometimes radical (or outright fanficul) positions the diaspora has taken, its interplay with the government and others in the "old country." He concludes:

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

A good piece to read along this post by Magdi Atiya on the always worth reading blog Salama Moussa.

 

Dickinson on Bahrain: "Who shot Ahmed?"

Friend of the blog Elisabeth Dickinson, a correspondent for The National , has a Kindle Single out today about the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and its subsequent repression. From the blurb: 

Who Shot Ahmed? recounts the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolution. On a small island Kingdom swirling with political, economic, and sectarian tensions, Ahmed’s murder epitomized everything that had gone wrong since 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in droves. Drawing on dozens of testimonies, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson traces the tale of Ahmed’s death and his family’s fearless quest for justice. Darting between narratives and delving into characters, it is a tale of a life lost and the great powers—from Washington to London, and Riyadh to Manama—that did nothing to stop the crisis. Dickinson has a deep knowledge of the region, but she brings a story from a foreign land straight back home: Ahmed could be any of our sons.

You can find out more about the book on the publisher’s page, its Facebook page or on Twitter at @WhoShotAhmed. I just bought my copy, get yours by clicking on the cover above!

Sinai journalist in military court

The Sinai journalist and fixer Ahmad Abu Daraa (who worked for Al Masry Al Youm and with most foreign reporter traveling to the peninsula) is facing a military trial for publishing false information about the army, filming and photographing in a military zone, and having contacts with terrorist groups. 

According to this article, the charges are based not on any published articles by Abu Daraa but on a Facebook post in which he contradicted army account of the bombing of the villages of al-Toma, al-Mokta'a and al-Sheikh Zuwayed. The army says they killed and injured terrorists there; Abu Daraa said they injured four civilians and destroyed half a dozen houses and a mosque. His note has been removed from FB. 

Both local and international press is facing significant harassment in Egypt these days. 

Note: Thanks to Nour Youssef for looking into this story.  

Egypt: Nothing was inevitable

At Ahram Online, Ibrahim El Houdaiby analyzes the poor political choices on the Brotherhood's part that led to the alienation of revolutionary forces, the opportunity for a return of the ancien regime and the MB's downfall. Whether you believe the MB could have charted a different course or you think its very structure and belief system made its mistakes inevitable, this kind of analysis -- rather than the unsubstantiated accusations of terrorism, the class prejudice, the wholesale demonization one hears so often -- helps explain June 30th. (The English translation is not always smooth; the original Arabic article is here). 

The Muslim Brotherhood appointed the first Cabinet with many ministers who were Mubarak’s men because the president did not want to make concessions to his political opponents so they could participate in purging and reforming state agencies. He chose to share power with those already in power, including the military and remnants of the former regime, and also because of the limited abilities of the Cabinet members he brought in.

All of this made him gradually lose the support of revolutionary forces. No popular support could have stood up to the interest networks in state agencies that sought to thwart him (even before his election, I and more knowledgeable writers than myself often wrote that the president would face challenges in electricity, services, national security and social peace that would be instigated by those who wanted to restore former conditions. The only way to overcome these challenges was to build a popular alliance based on genuine concessions by Morsi that realise the gravity of these challenges. The only way was to rely on general grassroots support, not the Muslim Brotherhood group’s base).

 

The Israeli debate over Syria's chemical weapons and Iran

Israeli officials complain that the delay of American military action on Syria will be detrimental to their national security, and that Obama has left them holding the bag yet again. And while the removal of Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices would benefit Israel, it does not benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates' position on Iran -- where they would like to see military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. 

"Israel provided intelligence to the Obama Administration on Syria. Now, [there is] a debate over what they have to show for it," writes Sheera Frenkel. What Israel will "get" at present for its intel on the weapons is the (temporarytabling of the military option against the regime - much to the chagrin of many Syrians opposed to Assad's regime, who had placed high hopes that the threat of strikes would lead to something more than this, a hope that has dimmed every day the U.S. has refrained from an attack. Now, a deal is tentatively in place for these weapons to be removed from Syria under international monitoring by 2014. So the U.S. has legitimized the regime it has simultaneously (though not even half-heartedly) been trying to remove.

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The cult of Sisi

In my latest column for the New York Times Latitude blog, I try to explain Egypt's current love affair with its armed forces, and their leader, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi

The public had soured on the military after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, under the disastrous rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But then it soured on the Muslim Brotherhood even more, and when following the June protests the military removed Morsi from power, the moment was treated like the end of a foreign occupation. Protesters waved flags — some had been helpfully airdropped by army helicopters — and army pilots drew hearts of smoke in the sky above Tahrir Square. Months later, children still stop to have their picture taken next to the tanks stationed on my street.

The Egyptian Army hasn’t fought a war since 1973, and the U.S. Embassy judges that its capabilities have “degraded.” But that’s not the point. People don’t love their army because of how powerful it is, but because of how much they want to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness. To the great majority of Egyptians, the army is synonymous with the country, and supporting it is a way of wishing that Egypt will become all the things it currently isn’t: strong, independent and prosperous.

Arguments on Syria

I understand misgivings about US military action in Syria, but I don't understand skepticism over the regime's use of chemical weapons. You don't need to argue that the rebels gassed themselves to be against intervention. The specter of Iraq hangs over us; but in this case there seems to be wide-spread agreement that the regime had the weapons (it's offering to give them up now, after all), the opportunity and the motive. Here for example is Human Rights Watch's report:

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces.

Meanwhile the Italian journalist Domenico Quirico -- just released after 152 days in captivity in Syria -- has this dispiriting description of his captors:  

"Our captors were from a group that professed itself to be Islamist but that in reality is made up of mixed-up young men who have joined the revolution because the revolution now belongs to these groups that are midway between banditry and fanaticism," he said.
"They follow whoever promises them a future, gives them weapons, gives them money to buy cell phones, computers, clothes."
Such groups, he said, were trusted by the West but were in truth profiting from the revolution to "take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets".

But in the pages of the New York Times, Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh argues that jihadism isn't an argument against intervention, and is a by-product of the Assad regime's brutality: 

In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.
Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.
It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad’s downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West’s position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

Then there is this contribution to the argument against intervention, which I embarrassingly did not at first recognize as satire: 

"Someone needs to explain to me why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing," she replied. "I mean aren't these the same people that attacked us on September the 11th? Look, the system is working. Arabs are killing Arabs and that means in the future there will be fewer of them trying to kill us.
"I say we send them all the chemical weapons we have, and let them sort it out amongst themselves. Hopefully when it's all over we'd be left with some empty space to colonize. Personally I'd like to see megachurches and Home Depots outside Damascus."

This was too much even for a Fox anchor, who asked:  

"Yes, but these are innocent human beings caught in the crossfire of a terrible civil war," Kilmeade persisted. "Don't you feel any empathy for them at all? I mean Arabs are just as human as we are and should be entitled to the same level of dignity and respect, right?"

  

The Squid

The Squid

Meet Adel Mohamed Ibrahim aka Adel Habara (meaning Squid - a reference to his resourcefulness and ability to reach anyone he wants) aka the al-Qaeda Chief in Sinai. The police says he is responsible for the second Rafaah attack that left 25 soldiers dead. They also think he is involved in the first attack that left 16 dead.

Habara reportedly confessed his involvement and reenacted the crime for them after he was arrested on September 1. This is a video of Habara  that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 2 (by a certain Emad El Ramadi, who appears to reside in the UAE) and circulated on talk shows, in which Habara tells his side of the story with state security before the revolution up until his escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison in January 2011. It's not clear where or when this was recorded, and Habara does not refer directly to the Rafaah attacks in it.

Dressed in white, with a blanket covering one leg, Habara explains that he has been a committed, religious man for ten years, minding his own business and with no connection to islamist groups, which is why state security informers showed no interest in him. Except for a strangely candid one agent.

“Give me your ID, so I can make a file about you in SS,” he says officer Ali Ameen asked him. Ameen, Habara says, has long harbored a grudge against him and was the source of all his troubles with the police.

 

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