Baher Mohammed, Al Jazeera English producer who has know been in detention for four months now: "I want to bow before all those who are fighting for freedom of expression, a free press, and an end to our detention."
Interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the limitations and blind spots of so-called liberal Islam and proponents such as Tariq Ramadan.
Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.
Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures.
In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.
For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt.
ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use.
Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives.
Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.
At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters -- the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based.
Egypt has quite low rates of AIDS but the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world (due to a botched bilharzia inoculation campaign in the 1980s, in which needles were not properly sterilized). The disease affects an estimated 15% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases every year.
At the event announcing the invention -- with Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and interim prime minister Adly Mansour sitting in the front row -- an army officer announced the country had “vanquished” the diseases and promised the new cure would be available in military hospitals starting June 30. In a 14-minute documentary broadcast on state TV, a doctor tells a patient: “You had AIDS, but now it’s gone.”Read More
I recently finally found the time to read friend-of-the-blog and esteemed Arabic literature professor and translator Elliot Colla's debut novel, the occupation/detective story Baghdad Central.
The novel features a former Iraqi policeman (and, it turns out, a former former intelligence services officer) named Muhsin el-Khafaji, whose is mistaken for a namesake, a high-ranking Baathist official, and taken in by the Americans and tortured. When they realize their mistake, they put him in charge of re-organizing the Iraqi police force. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of several young female Iraqi translators, one of whom is his niece.
Khafaji is sympathetic, depressed, afflicted (he has lost a spouse and child) and guilty (that career in the intelligence services…)
What makes Iraq a perfect setting for a noir is not just the deadly chaos there, but the extreme power imbalances.The genre requires the presence of a rich and oblivious upper-class, uncaring of the damage it leaves in its wake. In Raymond Chandler, they are ensconced in the Hollywood hills. In Colla's novel, they live in the Green Zone. Some of the best scenes in the book track the extraordinary disconnect between the Iraqi narrator -- whose daily decision are a matter of life and death -- and the Americans who blithely deliver lectures about the future of Iraq. At a typical pep talk, "Each time the interpreter comes to the work 'benchmark' he stumbles. At first he translates it as 'the sign of the bench,' then 'trace of the longseat,' then 'imprint of the worktable' and so on. Other words like 'synergy' and 'entrepreneurism' wreak even more havoc." I actually wish Colla had mined his premise for more of its dark humor.Read More
Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered.
Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya.
I see him here, or there:
his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes
his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres
his belly which grinded the wheat of madness
in Babylon’s mills
for ten thousand years
I see his portrait, which has lost its frame
in history’s repeated explosions
retrieving its features like a mirror
to surprise us every time
with its gratuitous ability to lavish
In his clear forehead you can see
as if on the pages of a book
a column of invaders passing through
just as in a black and white film:
give him any prison or graveyard!
give him any exile
any “here” or “there”
we can see the catapults
pounding the walls
so that once again,
Uruk rises high
* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.
* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).
Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.
There has been a lot of speculation lately over what is holding up the seemingly impending announcement of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi's presidential campaign. Commentators and analysts have been -- rather un-persuasively -- reading the tea leaves of the latest cabinet re-shuffle (which retained Sisi as Minister of Defense and Mohamed Ibrahim as the Minister of Interior while shedding most of the "liberal" ministers that had given the June 30th coalition some credibility) and of recent presidential decree making the minister of defense, rather than the president, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. All that has been clear to me is that there is an awful lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and some trepidation before this big step. Thank goodness, though, Egyptian tabloid El Watan can reveal the real reasons behind the delay (the following is an abridged translation of the article):
Intelligence sources have revealed to El Watan that Sisi will make the announcement around March 10-12, after the new law regulating presidential elections is issued. He will tell the public the reasons for his delay, which are: 1) the need to detect and foil plans by the Muslim Brotherhood, some Western countries, Turkey and Qatar, to commit terrorist attacks following Sisi's announcement 2) genuine fears that the Field Marshall will be personally targeted, after the detection of such plans on the part of the American intelligence services and those of some neighboring countries 3) putting the final touches on the international and regional alliance Sisi is shaping to face the American moves in the region, and which consists of Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to face the Western alliance headed by America and including the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Qatar. The sources revealed that Egypt is lobbying the Chinese dragon to join its alliance.
Once again, the team at Industry Arabic brings us a new installment in our In Translation series. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a Brotherhood leader who left the organization to run as a moderate Islamist candidate in the 2012 presidential election. He is the leader of the Strong Egypt party. His party campaigned both against the Brotherhood's constitution, and against the one that recently passed (a few of its members were just given 3-year sentences for handing out flyers encouraging a No vote). We include the original headline and introduction, although it is rather inaccurate and tendentious -- Aboul Fotouh spends most of the interview criticizing the army's intervention and does not actually suggest that the Brotherhood is supporting potential presidential candidate General Sami Anan, just that they would sooner vote for him than for Aboul Fotouh himself.
Aboul Fotouh in a conversation with Al-Ahram: “I reject the participation of the religious current in the political process…Morsi is a failure…what happened at the Presidential Palace was a crime”
Interview – Zeinab Abdel Razzak and Karima Abdel Ghani
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party, has announced that he will not be running for presidential elections. [He stated] along with this announcement what he felt were strong justifications, while others feel they were a cover for the decline in popularity of the Islamist current on the Egyptian street. Others still went so far as to say it was part of a prior agreement to clear the field for Sami Anan to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
However, in his conversation with Al-Ahram, Aboul Fotouh asserted that his popularity in the Egyptian street had doubled, and that if he were to run in the upcoming elections, he would receive many times more votes than he had in the previous election. He stated that he rejects the Islamist current’s support for him and outright opposes the presence of Islamists in political life. Concerning the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh confirmed that the organization is “prepared to stand behind Sami Anan and not behind me.” As for reconciliation, he indicated he had made efforts in this regard, but was met with intransigence from both sides, though he is continuing his efforts.
The heated discussion with Aboul Fotouh revolved around these and other thorny issues, rubbing him the wrong way at times. In any case, however, frankness is the overarching quality of this interview.
Why are you not running in the upcoming presidential elections?
I made this decision early on, more specifically when I called for early presidential elections. At that time I made it known that I would not be running, as the Muslim Brotherhood had harshly attacked me because I called for the early elections. They accused me of seeking to run myself. However, my call was prompted by President Mohammed Morsi’s weak performance and failure to keep his promises. I felt it necessary to save our country and our nation from chaos. This is what I had been calling for throughout the three months leading up to June 30. We were rushed and I was personally shocked on July 3, thus I differentiate between June 30 and July 3.
Don’t you think that the army's intervention at the request of the masses protected the country from a civil war and all-out massacres?
Claiming that what happened on July 3 transpired in order to face down the prospect of a civil war is untrue. I reject such claims, since we don’t have Sunnis and Shiites or Christians and Muslims that are going to kill each other.
We do not deny that the people had rejected Morsi. I shared this opinion with them; however, there are democratic mechanisms through which to express this rejection.
There is a difference between political and judicial accountability. This does not mean that every time we get a failure of a president we call on the army to come in and remove him.Read More
I wrote something last weekend for the LRB blog, about journalism in Egypt these days. We had to cut some passages, for length, that I'm adding back here on the blog.
I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.
The trial began yesterday of three al-Jazeera journalists. On 2 February, the private satellite channel Tahrir TV broadcast a video filmed by the Egyptian security services of their arrest. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Thor: The Dark World, the video pans past the frightened face of the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and then over laptops, tripods and cameras in a room at the Marriot Hotel (the arrested men are known as the ‘Marriot Cell’ in the press here). To an ominous crescendo, it zooms in on cell phones, power cords, recording devices and notes on night stands. The off-camera policemen make Fahmy count out the $700 dollars in his wallet. Then they interrogate him and the Australian correspondent Peter Greste, badgering them for the names of colleagues and interviewees.
The al-Jazeera English crew was working in Egypt without official permits, after the authorities had shut down their offices. But the prosecutor filed much more serious charges against them: He claims they and 17 other journalists were part of a terrorist cell, intent on ruining Egypt’s image by broadcasting fabricated news. Al-Jazeera is reviled here, considered a mouthpiece of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (to whom the Arabic channel is, indeed, overly sympathetic). There are no al-Jazeera journalists left at liberty in Egypt, yet again and again someone in a crowds points and yells ‘Jazeera!’ at a reporter whose look or questions they don’t like, leading to a mass beating and citizen’s arrest. At the end of January, someone on an Egyptian TV crew posted cell phone footage to YouTube in which, as they attempt to approach clashes between protesters an police, an officer can be heard saying: ‘Get out of here. Get out of here or I’ll say you’re Jazeera.’