Ghannouchi on HardTalk

The Ennahda leader on the BBC's interview show. A critique of the interview is here. Ghannouchi makes some controversial comments about Chokri Belaid's accusations of Ennahda tolerating violence, made shortly before his assassination.
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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.

Khaled Fahmy on police reform

Khaled Fahmy asks What doesn't Morsi understand about police reform?, looking at a landmark 1861 decision to end beatings by the Egyptian police.

After I spent many years exploring the National Archives, I concluded that torture was repealed from the Egyptian criminal code in the 19th Century because of a decision from within the state apparatus itself, specifically the police which reached an advanced degree of professionalism. It was also a reflection of a high degree of centralisation, strength and self-confidence of the state’s administrative apparatus, at the heart of which is the police.

It is disappointing to watch the serious regression of the Egyptian state over the past 30 years; a regression back to torture practices at police stations and locations of detention in Egypt.

Even more upsetting is that those in power today do not recognise the dangers of continuing to ignore this explosive issue, especially after a revolution which – in my opinion – primarily occurred to end torture and other systematic abuses by police against citizens.

The president has not said a single word about torture; the prime minister went to the headquarters of Central Security Forces after recent clashes in Port Said to promise them he would give them more weapons; the government has brushed aside all initiatives to reform the police; the minister of justice denied torture existed under President Morsi, and has often said the police cannot be reformed except from within and based on initiatives by its leadership. And so it seems, President Morsi’s government has made up its mind on this matter and does not wish to address police violations, and at the same time cannot force police leaders to change their ways in dealing with the people.

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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.

Rural Egypt's anger

A good report from Kafr al-Sheikh by al-Jazeera's Rawya Rageh. This undermines the notion that unhappiness with the Brothers is mostly urban, some of the current crises — notably shortages in diesel — are actually more deeply felt in the countryside.

Update: This report highlights growing anger elsewhere, mostly in provincial towns rather than strictly rural areas.

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.

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

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Egypt: Brothers get routed in student elections

Results for student elections taking place in Egyptian universities this week suggest the Muslim Brotherhood, normally one of the best-organized and most successful political movements in student politics, has lost much ground. This tends to confirm and accelerate trends first seen last year of new political movements on campus becoming more popular, as well as some good coalition-building between radicals, leftists, liberals and others to face challenges by Brothers and the Salafis. The trend has also been seen in professional syndicates over the last year, and may also grow this year. This should be striking, as one would expect the Brotherhood to reap the benefits of being the party in power. But the opposite is happening, and the failure of the Brotherhood to win a majority in a single election yesterday (although of course there will be more) is telling of the discontent with them.

Three things stand out to me other than the Brothers' relatively poor performance:

  1. Coalitions of non-Islamist political trends seem to work quite well, suggesting it is worth it for them to contest elections;
  2. I think the formation of Salafi factions on campus is a new thing (someone tell me if I'm wrong — Update: Assiut of course had strong Gamaa Islamiya presence in university), and they are doing well in places (like Minya in Upper Egypt), possibly at the expense of the MB.
  3. In several places the Destour Party (of Mohamed ElBaradei) is running in coalitions or alone and doing quite well — which shows that contrary to the prevalent armchair punditry that they are getting out there and mobilizing to some extent.

How does this translate in a national election? It's not clear. Obviously university students are more educated and live in an urban environment (although many, of course, will come from a rural background — or what passes as rural in one of the mostly densely populated countries in the world.) They are not that representative of the national whole, and vote for different reasons. The Brotherhood's electoral machine alone, depending on who else is running, makes its goal of winning an outright majority in the upcoming parliamentary within reach — although I think it's a longshot.

Below are results of elections in various university faculties, culled by Nour The Intern from the @afteegypt Twitter account which has been doing some sterling coverage of student politics.

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The speech ElBaradei could have made after meeting Kerry

Much has been made about the refusal by National Salvation Front leaders, aside Amr "I never miss an opportunity to show I'm a big shot" Moussa, to meet incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry. I'm not sure not meeting him was that much of a missed opportunity, because I'm still not sure what the NSF exactly has to say for itself. Beyond, that is, describing Washington's urging for the opposition to compete in the upcoming elections as a form of foreign interference, thus echoing both the Mubarak regime and SCAF's (and the Brotherhood regime's) hysterical accusations and hyperventilation every time someone outside the country suggests something.

Imagine ElBaradei (or Sabahi, or whoever) coming out of a meeting with Kerry and, at the press conference, making a speech that begins along these lines:

We just had an honest and forceful exchange of views with John Kerry, whom we welcome to Egypt and wish good luck as he begins his tenure as Secretary of State. The United States has a long history of relations with Egypt — not always good relations, it is true, but relations that have nonetheless been pivotal to the region and its future. I told Secretary Kerry that as he begins a new job, and the Obama administration begins a second term, many Egyptians will be watching him for what direction America takes.

Under the Mubarak regime, many of us felt that the US had made the wrong choice in backing a president and a regime that grew more authoritarian and unjust over the years. We hoped such a mistake would not be repeated again, and were optimistic to see President Obama speak of the need for democracy in the region in 2011. But, more recently, some of us have been sorely disappointed.

We have a hard time understanding how the country of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Adams — a country whose people, perhaps more than any other in the world, takes great pride in its founders' framing of its constitution — stayed silent when a new constitution was shoved down the throats of Egyptians. We wonder whether Americans would find it acceptable that the majority party of the day rush the approval of their nation's covenant in less than 24 hours. Or that their Supreme Court be fettered by an all-powerful president. 

We do not believe that the Egyptian people deserve any less a constitution than the American people. And we were puzzled to hear Washington call for consensus only after the recent referendum, precisely after the opportunity to create a wide consensus had evaporated.

We hear Secretary Kerry's calls to focus on our foundering economy, and could not agree more: it has been terribly mismanaged by an administration that decided to sacrifice Egypt's economic and social well-being for short-term political gain. But we ask Secretary Kerry: was Egypt ever likely to be able to tackle its challenges and take painful decisions for the sake of reform without establishing a genuine consensus? Where was America's advice in December, when the decisions that have led to the current economic crisis were taken?

Secretary Kerry, a long time ago you fought against your president's decision to prolong an unnecessary war in Vietnam, and more recently you had the wisdom to speak out against another president's policies in Iraq. Some called you unpatriotic, but history proved you right. When Egyptians denounce their president today, they do not do so out of spite — they do so out of concern for their country and their future. We believe history will prove us right — but fear the costs we will have to pay in the meantime.

Secretary Kerry, we will not take part in the next elections not because we are afraid of losing, but precisely because we do not think the consensus that is necessary to set Egypt on the right path politically, economically, and socially has been created. We will not legitimize an administration that believes winning one or two elections gives it the right to single-handedly write the rules of the game and treat other parts of our great nation in an arrogant and humiliating way. We know this might be a risky proposition — but we must stand by our principles. And we ask: what are America's principles?

. . .

The point is not the content of the speech, in which I echo what I see as potential NSF talking points rather than my own opinion. The point is, as an opposition leader, why not leverage such an occasion to make a speech that might send a strong message to the US, play to concerns of some American groups (some in Congress, parts of the media, civil society, elements of public opinion, etc.) that can put pressure on the Obama administration? That also sends a message to a domestic audience that it has leaders that are able to stand next to an American Secretary of State and sound both statesmanlike and defiant — but without being petulant? Why not take every opportunity to score political points?

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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 Arab uprisings and climate change

Via a perfectly reasonable and non-annoying column by Thomas Friedmanune fois n'est pas coutume! — a new Center for American Progress report posits that climate change and market variations in wheat prices were a key "stressor" contributing to the Arab uprisings:

All of these authors are admirably cautious in acknowledging the complexity of the events they are analyzing and the difficulty of drawing precise causal arrows. But consider the following statements:

  • “A once-in-a-century winter drought in China contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer.” (Sternberg, p. 7)
  • “Of the world’s major wheat-importing companies per capita, “the top nine importers are all in the Middle East; seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011.” (Sternberg, p. 12)
  • “The world is entering a period of ‘agflation,’ or inflation driven by rising prices for agricultural commodities.” (Johnstone and Mazo, p. 21)
  • “Drought and desertification across much of the Sahel—northern Nigeria, for example, is losing 1,350 square miles a year to desertification—have undermined agricultural and pastoral livelihoods,” contributing  to urbanization and massive flows of migrants. (Werz and Hoffman, p. 37)
  • “As the region’s population continues to climb, water availability per capita is projected to plummet. … Rapid urban expansion across the Arab world increasingly risks overburdening existing infrastructure and outpacing local capacities to expand service.” (Michel and Yacoubian, p. 45)
  • “We have reached the point where a regional climate event can have a global extent.” (Sternberg, p. 10)

These assertions are all essentially factual. None of them individually might be cause for alarm. Taken together, however, the phenomena they describe weave a complex web of conditions and interactions that help us understand the larger context for the Arab Awakening. Indeed, as Johnstone and Mazo argued as early as April–May 2011, in an article written just at the outset of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, it was already possible to see that climate change played a role in the complex causality of the revolts spreading across the region. They called it a “threat multiplier.” It significantly increased the interactive effects—and hence the overall impact—of political, economic, religious, demographic, and ethnic forces.

I have yet to read the full report but it sounds fascinating — although I think there is a link to be made, too, with global commodity market manipulations by traders as seen in the precursor crisis in cereal prices to the 2010-11 spike, which came in 2008.

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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.

Clean streets, first sign of elections

Only 15 minutes away from where I live, right off Gisr El-Suez, there is a garbage dump. The all-encompassing pile of trash is routinely picked up in the morning by the government's waste collection truck, only to reappear again the same night, at the same spot, thanks to the same truck that whisked it away earlier. According to local popular belief, the government no longer knows what to do, or where to put, the trash it collects, so they simply transport it from one location to the other; creating a temporary illusion of cleanliness and sparing everyone the sight of street children fishing for anything to eat or sell in the elusive dump.

One day about two weeks ago, the truck picked up the trash for its usual tour of Cairo, only this time they didn't drop it back off. 

“Look there, turns out we've got a sidewalk! But doesn't the street look naked?” said Ramadan, the owner of a kiosk overlooking the dump. The following day, Ramadan was surprised to see that the now naked sidewalks were growing sickly-thin trees, and the wall behind them was freshly painted. Slogans in bright green, red and blue, were drawn on it, one of which informed passersby that "A true revolutionary rebels against corruption, and once he removes it, calms down to build and prosper." Further down the road, a bench that was installed during the last parliamentary elections was replaced by a new one and a sign that said "Brought to you by the Freedom and Justice Party." 

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The Brothers crave legitimization more than aid

What the U.S. can do for Egypt - By Tamara Cofman Wittes | The Middle East Channel

Tamara Coffman-Wittes gets where America's leverage over Egypt lies:

It's true that, with all their flaws, the Brotherhood won the freest and fairest elections in Egypt's modern history -- and may win the next elections too. But electoral victory does not absolve the group of the obligation to adhere to democratic rules and norms -- not if it wants to be recognized, and it most certainly does, as a democratically legitimate actor in Egypt and on the global stage. This is Washington's real leverage -- that the Brotherhood-led government wants U.S. recognition, and seeks U.S. partnership and support. Love it or hate it, there is simply no substitute for that photo-op in the Oval Office to signal to the world that you have arrived.

One wonders, though, whether the new Secretary of State's first acts should be in a visit to Cairo in this case.

Iraq 10 years on

Loved this article about Iraq by Peter Harling, The new normal in Baghdad:

While Iraqis wait for a genuine normalisation that is too long in coming, they cobble together an everyday existence, and manage surprisingly well to navigate their way through a convoluted political system, a shattered society, a dislocated city and an economy complicated by numerous forms of predation. For example, most homes use three different sources of electricity: the government network for up to a few hours a day, then the local private generator, and their own small back-up motor to cope with the many breakdowns. It is an absurd system that works perfectly well. Corruption at checkpoints — some of which have no other purpose — has become part of life. New expressions are entering everyday language to label and handle these incongruous phenomena. For instance, the untranslatable term hawasim, stemming from Saddam’s propaganda of 2003, in which the war was to be “decisive” and “definite”: it has since been used to refer to the wide variety of unlawful behaviour made possible by disorder. Humour is not in short supply either. But all this creativity does not detract from the resilience of the old landmarks to which Iraqis seem more attached than ever — the good bakeries and classic cafés remain unchanged, and masguf-style grilled fish has become more than a tradition, almost an obsession. 
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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.

Why Aaron David Miller is lame, cliché and offensive

Yesterday, I posted a snide tweet suggesting that Aaron David Miller’s latest FP column Tribes With Flags was “lame, cliché and offensive.” I was asked for further explanation, and here I oblige, although I will keep it short since Karl’s ReMarks has already written a good critique.

The lame

The whole concept, really, that Arab states are on the verge of collapse, and that the powerful Arab state is an illusion. Miller posits:

In the wake of the Arab Spring, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion – the functional and coherent Arab state.

Forget democracies. What’s at stake here is basic coherence and governance.

… In much of the Middle East, the situation looks far worse today than a year ago. The question facing these troubled countries right now is not whether they can become democracies or resolve fundamental identity questions. It is much more basic: Can they produce a minimum of competent governance and order, so that they can begin to deal with the galactic political and economic challenges they face?

This entire passage shows little appreciation of Middle Eastern history on the remarkable growth in the strength and coherence of the state in every Arab country, including places like the Gulf where most states can genuinely be described as “tribes with flags” since ruling families are tribally rooted and the wider political system based on a historic balance of power between tribes. Yet even in a relatively recent state like the UAE, whose premise is entirely tribal since it is an alliance of tribes, the state is effective and strong. Same in Saudi Arabia where the domination of a single tribe, the al-Sauds, has nonetheless create a strong state whose role in central in both administration and creating a strong identity beyond tribalism. Even Qadhafi’s dysfunctional state in Libya has created a new reality of a strong Libyan identity (despite some resurgent regionalism) that is now serving as a base for the reconstruction of a central state, although perhaps one that will adopt a federal model (in comparison, under the monarchy Libya has several official capitals). It’s nonsense to confuse the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state. In Egypt, where the role of the state is being challenged and the authorities have proved unable to govern effectively in the last two years, the demand is also an improved state, not a rejection of the state.

Miller’s chief sin here is falling into the stupid trap of being “disappointed” that the Arab uprisings haven’t matched the “spring” label many gave it. Everywhere I go these days someone with a smirk on their face, often Israelis, make some remark about an Arab “winter”. Sure, the situation in Syria is ugly, and Egypt and Tunisia are going through some rough patches. But it’s more complicated than a seasonal label, and it’s not about how good or bad you (i.e. observer from outside the region) you feel about it.

The cliché

The resort to Tahseen Beshir’s quip that, aside Egypt, Arab states are “tribes with flags” — intended as a put-down of the Gulf states, Egypt’s chief Arab rivals in the late 1970s when Beshir said this — is tiresome. It belongs with other clichés of Middle Eastern politics, like Abba Eban’s “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” because a) its bias is clear and b) it obscures more than it explains.

And then there’s the lazy writing that characterizes much of the piece, with gems like this:

President Mohamed Morsy’s first allegiance isn’t to the notion of an inclusive nation, but to the Muslim Brotherhood’s conception of Islamist governance. And let’s be clear, membership in the Brotherhood isn’t like joining a health club: It requires years to gain entry, and it’s a way of life that demands a comprehensive worldview. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave.

The offensive

There’s much to be miffed about, but this paragraph in particular struck me:

The state of Palestine is split between Hamas and Fatah, creating a kind of Noah’s Ark with two of everything – security services, constitutions, prime ministers, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And Iraq, far from being the coherent whole the Americans dreamed of is a mishmash of Shia authoritarianism, Sunni grievances, and Kurdish autonomy.

Considering that Aaron David Miller as an important figure in the Clinton administration’s Middle East team and presumably has read a book or two about the region, it can’t be ignorance that’s the problem here — it’s arrogance. To speak of the lack of a state in Palestine without mentioning Israel’s occupation, or the sad state of Iraq without mentioning the sanctions (up to 1.5m dead) and the invasion of Iraq and its inept administration (based on a sectarian division of the country far from the “coherent whole” he thinks was dreamt up by US policymakers) by the US military (some 850,000 dead according to more recent estimates) is outrageous, even if of course local actors had their role to play in that too.

The piece does not have deserve much more analysis than that, and marks — among the often excellent coverage of its Middle East Channel — a tendency for Foreign Policy magazine to commission and publish third-rate articles by “names” in US and slap a provocative headline on them. One wonders whether it’s link-bait of the kind we saw last year’s with the Playboy-like cover that illustrated Mona El-Tahawy button-pushing article.

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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.