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.

Links May 2 - May 15, 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Egypt in TV: Highlights and low points on the talk shows

Did you know letting non-rich Egyptian kids become judges could lead them to suffer from “depression and a lot of things”?

The former minister of justice, Mahfouz Saber was there to inform you. His knowledge and concern for the psychological well-being of the poor is the reason he argued that the sons (forget daughters) of trash collectors should not join the judiciary, regardless of how academically accomplished and gifted they may be.  A judge needs to grow up in an “appropriate,” “respectable” environment, and be able to cultivate the necessary “loftiness” of judges, he told Ten TV’s Ramy Radwan. Saber's remarks ignited a media debate and led to his forced resignation. 

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In Translation: Back to the Past in Egypt

In Translation: Back to the Past in Egypt

The team at Industry Arabic -- look to them for all your Arabic translation needs -- brings us the latest installment of our In Translation series. Abdullah al-Sinnawi is the editor of the socialist newspaper Al Araby and one of the many public intellectuals who supported Morsi's ouster and the ascension of Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, couching his support in terms of restoring the authority and prestige of the state. Now he harsh words for a regime that he describes as rudderless if not deeply disingenuous. The title used a particularly loaded term: the word "normalization" in Egypt usually refers to normalization of relations with Israel, something much of public opinion does not really accept and much of the leftist intelligentsia has always viewed as a humiliating capitulation. 

 

Normalization with the Past

Abdullah al-Sinnawi, al-Shorouk, 6 May 2015

“Why are we protecting Mubarak?....You’re accusing us of being traitors.”

With this unequivocal expression, he tried to dispel any suspicions as to why the Military Council was putting off trying a president who had been ousted by his people.

During the first weeks of the January 25 Revolution, public squares full of anger were calling for the past to be put on trial for its sins. They called for all issues to be opened to questioning and accountability, so that Egypt would not be governed in the future in the same careless manner as before.

This forthrightness was not customary in other leaders and gave the strong impression that the young general who made this statement might be the future of the military establishment.

It did not occur to him, during this lengthy meeting in April 2011 that was attended by six journalists and military figures, as he made this firm response to the questions and doubts raised by the protests, that the question of the past would rear its head again, with greater anxiety and more serious misgivings, four years later when he would be president of Egypt. 

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Links April 25 - May 1 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Fight For Yemen, Continued

The Fight For Yemen, Continued

In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.

Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.

Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been.[1] Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.

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The fight for Yemen, then and now

The fight for Yemen, then and now

This is the first installment of a two-part series by Arabist regular Paul Mutter on the history of conflict in Yemen. With some great quotes from the reporting of the day. 

“Order,” the New-York Tribune opined of Yemen in 1898, “will be supplied from outside,” and with the coming of foreign rule “there will be peace, and the Yemen will no more be the Yemen it has been for forty centuries.” Of course, this proved not to be the case even in the Tribune’s day, as Yemenis successfully threw off Turkish rule during the Arab Revolt (1916-18), pushing aside local collaborators in favor of a reinvigorated monarchy that soon found itself hard-pressed to impose central authority.

That has never been an easy task in Yemen. The 1962-70 civil war was fought between and among all of the tribes of “North Yemen” in large part to decide who would be allowed to wield such authority. The contest between the Houthis and the central government began in 2004 after decades of putsches and protests among the ruling Zaydi Shia clans against the Saleh family, whose patriarch, the 73-year old Ali Abdullah, held the presidency until 2011 and now conspires with his former Houthi enemies to return to power.

Alongside these long-running internal struggles to consolidate power or gain autonomy runs an intersecting line of outsiders’ efforts to impose their will upon Arabia Felix -- “Arabia the Lucky,” a name from antiquity that now seems cruelly ironic in light of Yemen’s perennial humanitarian and environmental crises. Saudi Arabia, the UK, Egypt, Russia, and most recently, the United States and Iran: all have done battle over southern Arabia. Yemen’s political history has been shaped by such interventions, though outsiders rarely got what they wanted. None have brought the sort of “order” the Tribune predicted would follow a benevolent foreign occupation.

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The weapons of the Islamic State

From the New York Times:

This picture carries a sobering reminder for anyone who believes that arming even the most accommodating militaries and rebel groups comes without grave risks. The data set shows that the Islamic State, like many irregular forces before it, has opened spigots from varied and far-ranging sources of supply, in this case on a grand scale. The group’s diversions include ammunition that Iran most likely provided to Iraqi or Syrian security forces; weapons formerly used in wars in Libya, East Africa and the Balkans; and equipment intended for the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad (or even for fighting the militants themselves) but that had been sold, traded or captured from unreliable rebels.
The list of the Islamic State’s inventory reads like a roll call of arms-exporting nations: cartridges from Russia and the United States; rifles from Belgium and a host of formerly Eastern bloc states; guided anti-tank missiles from MBDA, a multinational firm with offices in Western Europe and the United States. Moreover, some of the manufacturing dates on ammunition from Kobani were remarkably recent. Investigators found Sudanese, Russian, Chinese and Iranian small-arms ammunition made from 2012 to 2014 — showing that the militant organization is a long way from being logistically isolated, no matter the forces arrayed against it. (This is not to say that the Islamic State has all the weapons that it might want, or enough of certain types; its extensive use of locally produced rockets and improvised explosive devices shows that its commanders round out arsenals with workshop-grade weapons.)
As Conflict Armament Research’s catalog grows, the implications become familiar and uncomfortable. States that arm guerrillas, brittle government security forces and other proxies tend to assume they are making discrete policy decisions. But if arms migrate as freely from one conflict or fighting force to another as the data indicates they are in the Middle East, then conflicts cannot easily be viewed, in Bevan’s words, as “ostensibly distinct.” The weapons the Islamic State came to possess were in many cases originally exported with the intention of making the region more secure, and have instead been used by militants to remove parts of two countries from the map of the civilized world, setting the group on a path to becoming the largest and most gleefully violent jihadist organization of our time.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

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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Libyans don't need more weapons

My op-ed, with Claudia Gazzini on Al Jazeera English's website, on how the UN has recently re-opened the possibility of carrying a partial lifting of the arms embargo on Libya. Which would be a terrible idea:

The United Nations is walking a tightrope in Libya. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latest non-state actor to emerge in the current chaos. Because of this threat, pressure is mounting on the UN to relax a four-year-old international arms embargo to allow weapons to be delivered to the Libyan military to fight the group.
This would be a terrible move: It almost certainly would scuttle ongoing talks brokered by Bernardino Leon, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Libya; dash any hope of a peaceful solution; and create fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish.

Read the rest.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

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.

On migration in the Mediterranean

There has been an odd meme spreading around since the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last week. The idea, widely spread by the press and politicians, is that Libya is the source of all these problems. For example, in Politico:

One EU migration official spelled out just what would be needed to stop the flood of people seeking refuge in Europe.

“You have to stabilize the situation in the countries of origin,” she said. That means figuring out a way to return order to Libya, which has descended into civil war and chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. That was the result of a NATO bombing campaign led by EU countries.

Libya is not the country of origin or the source of the migration, for the most part. It is a largely a transit country, and if you look at the country of origin of migrants you will see that many of them are not just economic migrants. Many, perhaps most, appear to be fleeing conflict zones or repressive regimes – Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea (where many migrants say they are escaping military service). So surely EU officials should be thinking about addressing the conflicts themselves, or at least the humanitarian crisis they engender? This seems to be particularly the case in Syria, since the humanitarian response (with chronic recurrent shortfalls in funding for refugee camps) has been largely inadequate.

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Q&A: The Tentmakers of Cairo

Q&A: The Tentmakers of Cairo

For three years, film-maker Kim Beamish hung out with the tent-makers in the Khaimiya district of Cairo. Three turbulent years, spanning the aftermath of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the protests and coup that led to the presidency of military leader Abdel Fattah El Sisi. In Beamish' film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, all of this unfolds in the background -- most often, on a TV screen.  Although their contempt for the Muslim Brothers is palpable and their relief at the ascendancy of a strongman who can restore order is clear, the men in the alley focus largely on thei craft and their business. This is a movie in which very little happens, whose highlights are snippets of overheard conversation (my personal favorite is a father yelling at his young son, while the usual nationalist anthems blare on the TV: "Put down that book and watch TV! Don't you love your country?"). The ease with which these middle-aged, reasonable, well-intentioned men can be down to earth and funny, and then repeat silly rumors or put forth nonsensical arguments, is quite dispiriting. And as the film patiently documents their largely non-eventful lives, some may hanker for a bit more narrative, a bit more drama. But for those who are interested in what the January 25 uprising felt like to the majority in Egypt who watched anxiously and rather suspiciously on the side lines, this understated film offers many insights. 

The film will have its world premiere this Tuesday, 21 April in Nyon, Switzerland at the Visions du Reel Film Festival. Beamish is also hoping to organize screenings in Cairo in June or July. What follows is an email conversation between Beamish and myself. 

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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

Links April 4-17 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Why Terrorists Weep

Thomas Hegghammer offers the text [PDF] of a recent lecture on in his recent research - sounds fascinating:

My lecture today has a fancy title, but it is basically about what jihadis do in their spare time. Before you sneak out the back door and tweet “underwhelming”, let me say that this is the most interesting topic I have ever worked on, and it is much more important than it seems. My main message today is this: the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. In fact, I’ll go so far as claiming that this topic is one of the last major, unexplored frontiers of terrorism research, one that merits an entire new research program. Although I’ll be talking mainly about the culture of jihadi groups, the perspective and concepts I present can be applied to any type of rebel group.

Egypt's Leaderless Revolution

This piece by David and Marina Ottaway in the Cairo Review is not about Mohamed ElBaradei per se, even if it is illustrated with a picture of him, but delivers this assessment of his failings:

Mohamed ElBaradei, who emerged at various time as the great hope of Egyptian secularists, stands out as an apt symbol of the old elite’s political failings. He refused to run for president on the ground that Egypt was insufficiently democratic, but did little to make it more democratic. Nor did he seem upset when his supporters tried unsuccessfully to convince the military to name him president, skipping elections. He launched the Destour Party but also did little to build it into a viable force. After the July 2013 military takeover, he readily accepted an appointment as El-Sisi’s vice president. But ElBaradei resigned six weeks later, after the military dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo at a high cost in lives—Human Rights Watch reports that at least 817 were killed—apparently appalled by the violence that had been predictable ever since his appointment. Whatever ElBaradei’s commitment to democracy in theory, he was never ready to lead secularists in the hard struggle to make it a reality and was all too ready to accept unelected high positions in government.

Worth reading in full, as a an argument that the dominant position of the Islamists and failure of leadership all-around doomed the Egyptian revolution, although I think it has a few blind spots – such as ascribing too much intent to what those who rose up against Mubarak in 2011 wanted. 

Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome

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Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.