In Translation: Egypt's president reads the constitution, sees a problem

Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!

Online magazine 18+, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation. 

Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.

The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.

First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.

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"We told you our shitty Syria policy would fail"

This (from the NYT) is pretty disingenuous from the Obama admin:

WASHINGTON — By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

. . .

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

. . .

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

If it was convinced this was the wrong idea, then it should not have done it and come up with another alternative. This kind of half-assed abdication of responsibility seen in Syria and Libya (support the overthrow of the regime, but in the first case don't do anything serious about and in the second pursue regime change with no day-after strategy) is really a disgrace. Foreign policy is one matter where the president usually has to compromise less, particularly with his own cabinet. If he disagreed with Clinton and others inside the administration then Obama should have told them to stuff it, not meet them half-way.


Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

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In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

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In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks


In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

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The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis, writing for the Boston Globe about food riots and the dependence on imported grain in Arab countries:

THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.

I don't think he gets it quite right. Apart from the poorest states, Arab states have largely been able to cover their grain imports – either by spending a lot of their budget on it, or with aid. And the era of regular food riots (even if cost of living – in Egypt for instance a poor household will spend a disproportionate part of its income on food – was part what spurred of the Arab uprisings) is over. Morocco used to have these food riots on a regular basis until the early 1990s, they were often brutally suppressed. The last major for riot in Egypt was in 1977, even if there were clashes over the malfunctioning of bread distribution in 2010-2013. The sharp rise in commodity prices of 2008 was handled in the short-term by these governments, even if it may have contributed to the 2011 uprisings.

In other words, states are actually able to sustain food subsidies. Moreover, there are interest lobbies that want them maintained, particularly since traffic in subsidized flour is lucrative. Better management of bread supplies is clearly needed; and arguably delivering on that makes you popular – in Egypt, since 2011 the army's (partial) takeover of bread distribution was widely seen as successfully putting an end to shortages. The point here is that local droughts are less important than fluctuations in commodity prices and the ability of the state to raise funds to cover these or insure against them, since essentially many of these states import not just their calories but also their water in the form of grain. And that is more sustainable than it seems, because these governments do have access to funding (and it is far more sustainable than spending on fuel subsidies). In fact, droughts may be more important how they impact the agrarian economy than how they affect the food supply – arguably the long drought of the late 2000s in Syria, and the rural-urban migration it caused notably in the north-east, was an important cause of the rebellion there but not because it disrupted food supply at a national level.

Israel's Iran Deal Enthusiasts

Daniel Levy, in Foreign Affairs, points out that most experts and security apparatchiks in Israel like the Iran deal, but very few politicians. There are some real zingers in this piece, such as:

In main, the Israeli leadership has focused on castigating the deal for what it was never designed to address, namely Iran’s role in the region. That must be particularly irksome to the P5+1 powers. It was, after all, Israel’s leaders who insisted that the nuclear file be addressed first and on its own, and who pushed back hard against any attempt to forge a more comprehensive understanding or grand bargain with Iran (an idea explored over a decade ago in back-channel talks during the term of President Mohammad Khatami). Last summer for instance, when Iran and the West found themselves on the same side against Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq, senior Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was head of the Iran file at the time, noted that Israel had pushed for and received commitments from “the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans—that a total separation will be enforced,” that is, the West would not negotiate with Iran on regional issues until the nuclear question was dealt with. Israel, in other words, demanded that the nuclear file be treated as a standalone issue—the very thing that it now criticizes about the deal.

So basically it seems that Israeli politicians feel about the Iranian nuclear deal the same way they feel about Israeli-Palestinian peace: a nice idea to pay lip service to, but something they'll do everything to oppose in practice. Levy's analysis of what stands for Netanyahu's opposition in Israeli politics, and their repositioning as not only against the deal but also against the way Netanyahu has opposed the deal, is enlightening to read inasmuch as what it tells you about the chronic short-termism of Israel's political leaders.

The conclusion on Israel-US relations is fascinating, too:

More than the Iran deal itself, it is this Netanyahu-led campaign against the White House that is so controversial, both in Israel and in the United States. The Israeli center–left, the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, and the security establishment have all condemned Netanyahu on that score. Stateside, Bibi has the competing pro-Israel lobbies—AIPAC and J Street—duking it out, and Jewish community centers, federations, and synagogues are all being pulled into the fray. American Jews are being asked to ditch the Democrat president they have overwhelmingly voted for (twice) in favor of a Republican-aligned Israeli prime minister, who previously pushed for the Iraq war and is now engaged in a deeply partisan struggle, in which he wants the Israeli interest (as he interprets it) to be placed above the American interest. Many American Jews are uncomfortable with being put in this predicament. Polls suggest that a clear majority back Obama and his Iran deal. To be sure, at this point, it is unclear who is using whom more—Israel the Republicans or the Republicans Israel.

In Translation: April 6's Ahmed Maher on Egypt under Sisi

Last month, Huffington Post launched its Arabic edition in London to great fanfare. Like other spin-offs of the American website, HuffPo Arabi is a joint venture, not under the direct editorial control of the original. It is not the first Arab world edition to launch – HuffPo Maghreb has French-language Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan sites – but it is the first Arabic edition one. It has generated some controversy already (update: meant to link to this critical Buzzfeed piece), in part because the site is far from the liberal leanings of the HuffPo mothership, but also because of its pro-Islamist leanings. One of the key people behind HuffPo Arabi is Wadah Khanfar, a former director-general of al-Jazeera known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood trend. The site has predictably taken the kind of positions generally associated with the Qatari-funded media (i. e. anti-Assad, anti-Sisi, pro-Erdogan, etc.)

Among one of its early coups is to secure an interview with the imprisoned leader of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, sentenced to prison last year for violating the draconian protest law approved by interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour and enforced with gusto under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. The interview does show some criticism of the Brotherhood, even  if most of the vitriol is reserved for Sisi, and paints an alarming picture of the radicalization taking place in Egypt's over-flowing prisons.

We bring you this translation through our friends over at Industry Arabic – we heartily recommend them for any Arabic translation job big or small. Check out their website to get a quote for your needs.

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The Farce Behind Morsi’s Death Sentence - The New Yorker

Jon Lee Anderson:

As its leaders present and former grapple with their legacies, Egypt, no longer a regional leader of any sort, is mired in a miasma of self-made miseries, a nation best known for its corruption, poverty, and the absence of the rule of law. The 2011 “revolution” that seemed to have pulled it briefly from its steadfast implosion seems not only to have come and gone but to have been a mirage.

Tragically, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is likely to be remembered as a place where hopes were raised for democratic change, only to have those hopes dashed by the country’s perennial powers-that-be. The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to kill Morsi is not only a crudely cartoonish attempt at the implementation of justice; it defies even the kind of canny political logic that one might expect from a military élite like Egypt’s. If Egypt’s generals thought that brutality would buy them control, they didn’t get it. In the Sinai, ISIS now runs amok, seizing police posts and massacring captives. As for the heroes of the country’s Arab Spring, so vaunted by the West during that fateful spring of 2011, most have left the country, been killed, or are themselves in prison. The farcical show trials, in which Morsi and other former senior officials are exhibited in courtrooms in cages, covered with soundproofed glass so that they cannot be heard shouting, must be seen for what they are, alongside a myriad of arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of journalists.

Links 8 - 19 June 2015

Ramadan Kareem. Get your Moroccan Harira recipe here (the secret is lots of celery btw). Photo by Shutterstock.

Ramadan Kareem. Get your Moroccan Harira recipe here (the secret is lots of celery btw). Photo by Shutterstock.

I am ready to be held accountable by the people: Al-Sisi

As reported in the Daily News Egypt:

Sunday evening, titled “A year of achievements: the president’s untraditional activities,” in which it listed 24 activities as achievements. With the exception of the international Economic Summit held last March, the report did not tackle other economic steps, nor was there a mention of the ambitious New Suez Canal project.

Furthermore, the 24 attainments in the report included seven meetings with different social factions and organisations, excluding any politician, where potential projects had been discussed. The report also counted Al-Sisi’s participation in a bike marathon and Cairo Runners’ marathon as achievements.

“Al-Sisi’s first phone interview” was also the title of one of the president’s achievements.

The banality of the Islamic State

Interesting post by Reyko Huang about "the Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency", over at Monkey Cage:

The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it. Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism. To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands. Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.

Well worth reading the whole thing, particularly as the Islamic State is being used by so many in the region as a boogeyman to advance their own agenda, from Sisi in Egypt to the Iranian regime to Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the very IS-like (ideologically) Saudi regime. 

"Frank discussions"

These State Dept. press briefings on Egypt regularly have some telling exchanges (I bet the journalist here is AP's Matt Lee.) On the sentencing to death of former President Morsi:

QUESTION: I have a question on Egypt --


QUESTION: -- and whether or not you have any reaction to the sentence handed down to Mohamed Morsy and whether the U.S. has shared any of those thoughts or concerns with Egyptian officials.

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Diary: In Sanaa

A must-read piece on the Houthis by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad:

The Houthis’ supreme military commander, Abu Ali al-Hakem, is a delicate and compact man, one of the original 75 who fought alongside Hussein in the first battle in the mountains of Marran and one of the few who survived. In Sanaa one evening I watched him enter the Houthis’ headquarters accompanied by two gunmen; his arrival caused a flutter among even the most senior apparatchiks. He wore a dark blue coat over a crisp white dishdasha, with a leather pistol holster strapped to his chest. He spoke of his memories of the war, of a day of heavy battle, it was the third or fourth war, he couldn’t remember. The Houthis had lost many men and they were besieged. ‘At dawn the fighting stopped and I decided to take a break. I switched on the TV. I wanted to see what the world was saying about us: the whole world would be speaking of this battle. I flipped through the channels. There was nothing, even from countries we call our friends, nothing in Iranian or Arabic. There was no mention of us. We were alone and there was no one to help us.’ He spoke in the language of good and evil. ‘How can we not win if we have God with us?’ The Houthis – from Abu Ali al-Hakem to the lowliest fighter – all spoke in the same terms, a logic developed after a decade of war and siege in the mountains. They were the pure and all their enemies or those who raised their voice to oppose them – leftists, the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadis – were all Daesh, or Isis, or agents of the US and the Saudis. Their enemies in turn portrayed them as an Iranian militia, alongside those of Bashar al-Assad and the Sadrists in Iraq.

In Translation: Aboul Fotouh on culture wars and patriotism

For the last few weeks – not for a lack of more serious things to talk about – the Egyptian media has fixated on two different aspects of the longstanding culture wars the country has fought over religion and public life. One is the brouhaha caused by TV personality Islam al-Beheiri and his frontal attack on al-Azhar for needing reform; the other is the lament by the writer Cherif Choubashi that Egyptian women should take off their veils. These type of storms in teacups have been standard for decades, they used to be a favorite issue for the Muslim Brotherhood to champion and embarrass the government under Mubarak. But what now that the Brotherhood is exiled and underground, and that current strongman Sisi is himself issuing calls for religious reform?

In the piece below, former presidential candidate, pre-2011 Brotherhood leader and head of the Strong Egypt party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gives a stab at an answer, from what we would venture to say is a somewhat post-Islamist perspective. Translation from the original Arabic is provided, as always, by the stupendous team at Industry Arabic. Please give a go for your translation needs, you won't be sorry.

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The phoney ‘enlightenment’ battles in Egypt

Khalil al-Anani has a scathing column on the debates taking place in Egypt over religion, the veil, etc.:

It is funny how none of the "enlighteners" or the media outlets covering their discussions and "debates" can utter a single word about the deteriorating political situation in Egypt, or to comment on the systematic repression and human rights violations; the brutality of the security forces against civilians; the corruption that has flooded state institutions; the poverty that has struck the country from north to south; or the inflated prices and the lifting of subsidies for the poor, who deserve them most. None dare call for an end to the arbitrary executions of anyone opposed to the government, nor can they stand in solidarity with the dozens of prisoners who have been on hunger strike for months. These "enlighteners" can't demand fair trials for the government's political opponents or condemn the ongoing torture and murder of innocent citizens in detention. The enlighteners are "custom-built" and act according to the mood of the general controlling their actions and their minds. He guides their thoughts, forms their consciousness and directs their moral compass.
The phoney enlightenment battles reflect what Egypt, its culture, intellectuals and thinkers have become. One hundred years ago, Egypt fought true enlightenment battles, most of which occurred between great intellectuals and literati, such as Taha Hussein and Abbas El-Akkad, El-Akkad and Mostafa Al-Raf'i, and Al-Raf'i and Ahmed Shawqi. These were serious intellectual and literary battles in a big country that was aware of its cultural and civilisational role. However, nowadays, our intellectual battles are shrunken, not only because of the trivial nature of the issues and their distance from priority matters, but also because of the shallowness and superficiality of those engaged in them.
It is true that Egypt has many intellectual and cultural problems, but they are all symptoms of a serious illness called "tyranny". This is what the "modern enlighteners" fail to say. All of the genuine and original enlightenment experiences emerged for the purpose of freedom. No country has been able to achieve a genuinely effective enlightenment without true freedom. Freedom was a basic requirement for the European Enlightenment, with a deep desire to break away from absolute monarchy and weaken the power of religion.

Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States - NYT

Good report on all the possible upside of regional chaos for the U.S. arms industry:

American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”

Remember, this is what Obama recently made quite clear about his Middle East policy: it's about selling more weapons