Too soon to embrace Sisi

Some wise words from the FT's Roula Khalaf about the rush to embrace Sisi:

Mr Sisi’s election will give western governments a necessary justification to turn the page on the July coup and all the bloodshed and repression that followed. Since the military intervention that the US could not bring itself to call a coup, western policy towards Egypt has been on hold. Essentially it was outsourced to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which loathe the Muslim Brotherhood and have deployed their petrodollars to keep Cairo financially afloat.
In western capitals we have heard very little public criticism of the Egyptian authorities, even if officials privately acknowledge the country is headed on the wrong path. The most notable reaction in recent weeks has been in the UK where, to the delight of the Egyptian regime, the government in London announced an inquiry into Muslim Brotherhood activities in Britain. The EU, meanwhile, is sending observers to monitor the presidential vote, as if it were a real contest.
True, Egypt is too important to be ignored and, for western governments, the return of the old order after three years of confusion carries a certain appeal. Democracy in the Arab world has proved too messy. That autocracy provided only a veneer of stability that eventually shattered under the weight of festering grievances has already been forgotten.
Mr Sisi might have staying power because the military and security state that helped to eliminate Mr Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist president, are firmly on his side. His oil-rich backers, too, are determined to see him succeed. But a word of caution against a rush to embrace him: over the past three years Egypt has proved unpredictable, its popular mood fickle and its people unforgiving. Egyptians have turned against everyone who has tried to rule them.
With time, the limits of Mr Sisi’s ability to improve Egypt’s faltering economy will become apparent. As will the flaws in his policy of eradication of Islamists. Political Islam can be countered only with a combination of inclusion of mainstream Islamists and promotion of more liberal-leaning political alternatives – a pluralism that Mr Sisi has been unwilling to countenance. Nothing suggests that, once “elected”, he will transform into a democrat.

That message should be hammered in, particularly with some ambassadors in Egypt who are already talking of Sisi as a promising democrat. 

Links 28 March - 21 April 2014

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Ahmed Mansour interviews Youssef Nada

MB-watchers may be interested in Al Jazeera's Ahmed Mansour interviewing, in two parts, Muslim Brotherhood financier Youssef Nada. Not exactly a hostile interview considering Mansour's pro-MB leanings, but some interesting tidbits including on Nada's role in the MB, his views of Saudi Arabia ("how can entire people be named after one family?") and Sisi (his followers are "slaves").

Part two of the interview here.

Sisi vs. Sabbahi

Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi recently requested the chance to debate former defense minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi (whose propagandists have done quite a bit of Nasser-invoking themselves recently), prompting treasured local wit Sarah Carr to ask: "So will there be a public debate between Sisi and Sabahy. Will it just revolve around who loves Nasser harder?"

This sent contributor Paul Mutter down an imaginary wormhole from which -- courtesy this classic SNL sketch -- the following emerged: 

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

In Translation: Letter to Sisi

The talented team at the professional translation service Industry Arabic brings you this installment in our regular In Translation series.

Letter to Sisi: Why do they object to your candidacy?

Moataz Bellah Abdel-Fattah, al-Watan, March 28, 2014 

A statesman is like someone driving a very large vehicle with many mirrors and gauges; he has to pay attention to all of them at once and to pick up on warning signs in time. All of this he must handle with the requisite wisdom. 

Presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi began his electoral campaign Wednesday and many – I believe the majority – celebrated his announcement of candidacy. However, it is a poor political and strategic calculation on the part of candidate Sisi and his team to not pay attention to those rejecting his candidacy, some of whom have said outright: “He’s entered the trap” and “He’ll drink from the same cup.” 

The efficiency of Sisi’s campaign will come from its ability to deal with the objections raised against him by his opponents. He and his campaign must answer these questions and prove the soundness of his position. 

For example, when I asked what the main reasons advanced by some of those rejecting Sisi’s candidacy are, I got the following responses: 

1. He’s a billionaire who has not and will not feel the pain of the vast majority of the people suffering every day. This is evidenced by his statement that people should “tighten their belt and go to work”, which indicates a mindset far from that of the people and their reality. 


 2. All of his experience is with the military. He hasn’t worked in any other fields -- political, social, or economic. This is no time for experiments and learning on the job in a country whose economy is on its last legs and whose infrastructure is collapsing. 


3. He’s not an independent decision maker. Just as Morsi was a deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi will represent and take orders from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Thus SCAF will be the true ruler, and all state institutions will exist merely for appearance’s sake and as a cover for oppressive military rule. 


4. He’s connected to the interests of Mubarak’s corrupt regime and the National Democratic Party (NDP). He appointed [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Mehleb, a member of the NDP’s Policy Committee and assistant to Gamal Mubarak, to be Egypt’s prime minister—after two revolutions. This is the biggest catastrophe of all, and shows the orientations and intentions of Sisi as well of those close to him once he takes power.

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In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

Last week, the stodgy flagship of Egypt's state press, al-Ahram, published an op-ed by one of its regular contributors, Nader Fergany – a leftist intellectual who runs al-Mishkat Center, a think-tank, and is best known internationally as the editor of the original Arab Human Development Report. The op-ed contained a type of critique of then Minister of Defense Abdelfattah al-Sisi (this was a few days before he stepped and down and announced he would run for president) rarely seen in any part of the Egyptian media (at least those newspapers legally printing), never mind al-Ahram. It triggered speculation as to what it meant: how would the editors of al-Ahram allow this? Is it a feint of openness to distract from the fact that the presidential election is essentially being rigged – that we are returning to the late Mubarak-era model of opposition existing through the pen but never given a chance at the ballot box? Or a sign of genuine splits inside the establishment?

Our friends at Industry Arabic translated Fergany's piece below. Please give them consideration if you have any type of translation project, it helps them keep on helping us with this In Translation series. 

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Dennis Ross and the Saudis

Dennis Ross' call for Obama to "soothe the Saudis" is hardly surprising for this pre-eminent supporter of the status-quo in US Middle East policy since the 1990s, with of course the usual focus on Iran (i.e. against the nuclear talks). But the bit about Egypt is telling too: 

Egypt and Syria will be harder nuts to crack. But focusing on our common strategic objectives is a starting point: preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, ensuring that jihadis cannot gain footholds in Egypt or Syria, and stopping the genocide in Syria. Perhaps, on Egypt -- where the Saudis cannot afford to be Egypt's ATM forever -- the president could offer to lift the hold on key weapons in return for the Saudis using their influence to get Egypt to finalize an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

If you think what's most important to achieve in Egypt these days is an IMF agreement, you're not just cynical, you're delusional. Ross is as toxic on Saudi Arabia as he is on Israel.

A Palestinian Bantustan won’t end the conflict

Daniel Levy, writing in Haaretz:

The logic of the current U.S.-led effort is apparently predicated on the assumption that by offering Israel unprecedented security deliverables within a two-state deal (under a package put together by U.S. General John Allen), together with front-loading recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that Netanyahu would then be unable to dodge a serious negotiation on territory. That logic, combined with the ever-present American unwillingness to deploy any leverage viz its Israeli ally. Predictably enough, the Israeli leadership has pocketed the American concessions, demanded that the Palestinians follow suit, and asked for more.

Read the whole thing for details and insights on the negotiations.

Egypt's unprecedented instability by the numbers

Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson write for Carnegie:

Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi. The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks.

This is based on data from WikiThawra, reinterpreted below in graphic format:

They conclude:

Egypt’s rulers have already earned two dubious distinctions in less than a year: since 1952, no Egyptian regime has been more repressive, and no regime in more than a generation has confronted a more intense terrorism challenge.

In Translation: A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

In this week’s article selected from the Egyptian press, Islamist thinker Fahmi Howeidy highlights the recent wave of attacks against police and soldiers and condemns the government’s rush to blame the Muslim Brotherhood with scant evidence. The shadow of a wider insurgency against the regime looms large over Egypt, making comparisons with Algeria that recently seemed unthinkable more of a prospect.

Translation is provided by the excellent folks at Industry Arabic. Help them help us by using their translation services for your company!

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UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

The US and the UK have made it onto RSF's "enemies of internet freedom" annual list for the first time:

United States: This is the first time the US has made it onto RSF’s list.  While the US government doesn’t censor online content, and pours money into promoting Internet freedom worldwide, the National Security Agency’s unapologetic dragnet surveillance and the government’s treatment of whistleblowers have earned it a spot on the index.

United Kingdom: The European nation has been dubbed by RSF as the “world champion of surveillance” for its recently-revealed depraved strategies for spying on individuals worldwide.  The UK also joins countries like Ethiopia and Morocco in using terrorism laws to go after journalists.  Not noted by RSF, but also important, is the fact that the UK is also cracking down on legal pornography, forcing Internet users to opt-in with their ISP if they wish to view it and creating a slippery slope toward overblocking.  This is in addition to the government’s use of an opaque, shadowy NGO to identify child sexual abuse images, sometimes resulting instead in censorship of legitimate speech.

I have lost count of the ways what these two countries do with one hand completely undermines what they do with the other – and that applies to a whole range of policies aside from internet freedom.

Syria in Free Fall

The NYT's Anne Barnard delivers a tragic snapshot of the Syrian conflict that tells us a lot about the region's, and the world's, inability to resolve conflicts like these:

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.
The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

Links 18 February - 16 March 2014

Above, the "Libyan navy" – actually Misrata militias loading their pickup trucks mounted with artillery weapons onto a barge – shoots at the Morning Glory, a tanker that loaded oil from the blockaded port of Sidra, controlled by "federalist" militias. The ship was later seized by US Navy Seals. And below, the long-overdue links.

Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

Rare, grim, first-hand reporting from Sinai by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Egypt's army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region's villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world's biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants - a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth - have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.

"The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter," said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

"Even when the army's armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks."

Many residents say that the authorities' military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004-2006 debate about regular military vs. counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq.

Lunch with the FT: Prince Turki al-Faisal

On America:

“For the Kingdom, it is a matter of putting our foot down, where in the past we did not. It is a matter of accepting reality. You have to acknowledge the world has changed. Obama’s speech to the UN last September made it clear that America will be concentrating exclusively on Palestine and Iran, and for everywhere else – Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Mali, Iraq, Egypt, and so on – you will have to fend for yourself. So whether it is collecting your [Saudi Arabia’s] own resources to do that, or reaching out to others in the area to help you overcome these challenges, we are adjusting to the reality of a retreating America.”

Also reminded me that he stepped down after 24 years as head of intelligence only 10 days before 9/11.

Everybody knows

I wish that rather than "everyone knows", the title and refrain of Alaa Abdelfattah's latest, most explosive, prison missive had been translated as "everybody knows". Because then it would have fit perfectly with the Leonard Cohen song. An excerpt from its end is below, but read the whole thing:

Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them. 

Everyone knows that there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except through you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do?

Obama's three Egypt policies

The FT's Edward Luce, in a piece on the challenges to the US that the Ukrainian crisis represents, has this side note on Obama's Egypt policy – or policies:

Too often, Mr Obama’s stance has been to say the right thing but with little follow- through. Just ask the people of Egypt, who remain confused about whether Mr Obama supports democracy or not. His administration has three policies on Egypt – the Pentagon, which wants to maintain US-Egypt ties come what may; the Department of State under John Kerry, which backed last year’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; and the White House, which condemned the coup but has left day-to-day decisions to the first two. On Egypt, Mr Obama has been absent even inside Washington.

Civilian-military relations in Egypt

This quote from an AP story on the reshuffling of SCAF (because some of its members have become ministers) and the creating of the National Defense Council (a body combining civilian ministers and generals) is very telling of the state of civilian-military relations in Egypt:

Retired Maj. Gen. Abdel-Rafia Darwish, a military analyst, said the reshuffling of the council prevents the president from interfering in military affairs.
"What if the president is a civilian?" he asked. "He might take a decision that is wrong and that could harm the military." However, other experts described the changes as no surprise and in line with the new constitution.

In most other places, of course, the conversation is more about protecting the civilians from the military.