Saudi Arabia's insecurity

From an essay by Alain Gresh titled "Saudi Arabia's great fear", in Le Monde Diplomatique:

L’appui aux rebelles syriens fait consensus dans l’opinion saoudienne (sauf au sein de la minorité chiite) ; en revanche, le soutien au renversement du président égyptien Mohamed Morsi, en juillet 2013, suscite plus de controverses. « Pour la première fois, nous entendons des critiques, confie, sous couvert d’anonymat, un journaliste influent. “Pourquoi soutenons-nous le renversement d’un président qui se réclame de l’islam ? Pourquoi engloutissons-nous des milliards de dollars en Egypte à l’heure où nos problèmes de logement ou de pauvreté sont si importants ?” » Naguère inaudible, ce malaise s’exprime sur les réseaux sociaux que les autorités cherchent, sans grand succès, à brider. « Dans un monde arabe où les puissances traditionnelles que sont l’Irak, la Syrie ou l’Egypte s’effacent, absorbées par leurs problèmes internes, de plus en plus de forces se tournent vers nous. Et nous ne sommes pas capables de leur répondre. Nous sommes impuissants à régler les crises en Irak ou à Bahreïn, sans même parler de la Syrie », poursuit notre interlocuteur.

The article is also available in English, here. The article notes intra-GCC tensions (not just with Qatar) and the hesitation in much of the region with the Saudi position on the MB, as well as the Iran and US issue.

Patrick Seale: A Remembrance

A tribute of Seale by Adam Shatz for MERIP, as fascinating as the man: 

After his studies with Albert Hourani at St. Antony’s, he moved in 1963 to Beirut, where he befriended Philby. (Philby later claimed that Seale worked for MI6, which Seale denied.) It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue. The “Arab cold war” was at its height, and there was no better, or more pleasurable, listening post for a foreign correspondent than Beirut. The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.

Great details in there (I never realized he was married to Mahmoud Darwish's ex-wife, who is also Nizar Qabbani's sister) and a fair appraisals of his failings too.

Al Jazeera sues Egypt for $150m

Clever strategy by Qatar, and an interesting case – might go further than simply claiming censorship, although a state's ability to retain control of broadcasting or to control what it sees as hateful or incitement speech on its airwaves is unlikely to be challenged. One might also ask why al-Jazeera has not filed suit with other governments that have temporarily banned it, such as Morocco: 

Lawyers for Al Jazeera on Monday notified the Egyptian government that they would be seeking compensation under the investor/state dispute mechanism included in a 1999 investment treaty between Egypt and Qatar.
The lawyers argue that by arresting and attacking Al Jazeera journalists, seizing the broadcaster’s property and jamming its signal, the Egyptian government has violated its rights as a foreign investor in the country and put the $90m it has invested in Egypt since 2001 at risk.

Read the rest at the FT.

It Wasn’t Just a European War

Shehryar Fazli, in the LA Review of Books, looks at new books commemorating the anniversary of World War I and highlights the war's Middle Eastern importance:

Certainly, World War I was a European war in its authorship, and it is true that the number of dead in Europe far exceeded casualties anywhere below the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in the way the war began and its outcome. If Europe was to be recast, so too was the Middle East. If the war and its aftermath prepared the ground for Hitlerism and a second world war, so too did it beget the Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
In one sense, the story of the First World War begins with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Not only did this decline produce the vital game piece of an independent Serbia, but Italy’s successful 1911 war with Turkey over Libya, a major Ottoman province, left the bleeding empire vulnerable to further attack, and ultimately inspired the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece to launch what came to be known as the First Balkan War in October 1912. This in turn led to a Second Balkan War in June 1913. The resulting new order in southern Europe created, in Clark’s words, “a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.” As for the war itself: the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, launched in June 1916, became anything but “a sideshow of a sideshow.”

Rais 2014

Here's an interesting new project by Hend Aly and Moritz Mihatsch – Rais 2014, a website devoted to news about Egypt's presidential race and its two candidates. It's in English and Arabic and contains news and background information about the poll. All in a neat design that reminds me of 1980s Mac computers. Bookmark it (and for your convenience we'll have their logo on the sidebar of this blog for the rest of election season.)

Middle East Eye

This is a new website with broad coverage of the Middle East and a range of new and established talent that has launched with the following manifesto: 

Too often, websites are launched in a blind haze of optimism. They will speak truth unto power. They will bridge increasingly entrenched lines that criss-cross the political landscape. They will be honest, transparent. And too often, after a gallant run, they fail. Owners make their agendas felt and journalists collectively know when and where not to ask the questions they know their readers expect to be answered.

Over some key event, they too fall silent or look the other way. It's only a matter of time before every media outlet discovers its red lines and no-go areas. The Middle East Eye will be different. It serves no political master, movement or country. It has no agenda other than the belief that what happened three years ago in Tunisia and in Egypt was not an abberation. It was not a spring that turned to winter, but the first stirrings of a fundamental change that will affect every country and every people in the Middle East.

The TV presenter who was proud of working for security

Quite a remarkable intervention by Egyptian TV presenter Ahmed Moussa, responding so some allegation by journalist Hamdi Qandil (if someone has a link or can explain in the comments, I'd be grateful) in which he says he is proud of working for security, that it's not a shame of working for the police of your country but the real shame is working for "foreign embassies."

I think more people like him should come out, or perhaps to make it easier, they could present their shows in uniforms.

[Via Elijah]

The Carter Cables

Wikileaks has released the now declassified record of State Dept. dating from President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, which were obtained through FOIA requests. The Carter Library had also released earlier this year a range of administration documents, but Wikileaks makes them searchable through its (much-improved) database. The cables cover 1977, including the January bread riots in Cairo and Alexandria. One early take on the protests sounds strikingly similar to the protests seen in 2011-2013:

3 - OUR IMPRESSION IS THAT VIOLENT ELEMENTS WHICH LAST EVENING THREW ROCKS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AND ROAMED IN SMALL GANGS THROUGHOUT CENTRAL CAIRO WERE ALMOST ENTIRELY COMPOSED OF YOUNG BOYS OF HIGH SCHOOL AGE. SIGNIFICANTLY, OLDER PEOPLE DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO MOST OF VIOLENCE. WE UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER, THAT OLDER WORKERS CONTRIBUTED TO VIOLENCE WHICH ERUPTED IN WORKING CLASS SUBURBS, ESPECIALLY SHUBRA.

4 - SITUATION AT 1030 LOCAL (0830Z) JANUARY 19: WHILE TAHRIR SQUARE STILL CLEAR, THOUSANDS HAVE BEGUN DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH AND EAST, ESPECIALLY NEAR CENTRAL BANK. ROCK THROWING AND PROVOCA- TION OF POLICE ARE PRIMARILY BY MOST YOUTHFUL OF RIOTERS. POLICE CHARGING CROWDS USING TEAR GAS. MOST SHOPS ARE CLOSED AND PRIVATE CARS ARE BEING KEPT OFF STREETS. POLICE HAVE SEALED OFF MOST OF DOWNTOWN CAIRO. ALL UNIVERSITIES AND SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. MOST BUSES AND TAXIS ARE OFF STREETS. FOR FIRST TIME SINCE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, ARMY UNITS WITH RIFLES ARE SPOTTED THROUGHOUT METROPOLITAN CAIRO AND WE HAVE HEARD LOUD REPORTS WHICH MIGHT BE RIFLE SHOTS. WE HAVE NOT, HOWEVER, SO FAR SEEN CRACK SECURITY RESERVE FORCES.

There are also some amusingly laconic Cold War artifacts, such as the following:

1 - CAIRO PRESS REPORTS THAT KHALID MUHI AL-DIN, LEADER OF EGYPT'S NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY (MARXIST), HAS LEFT FOR MOSCOW TO ATTEND PEACE COUNCILS MEETING AS HEAD OF EGYPTIAN COUNCIL.

2 - AS NOTED PARA 2 REFTEL, KHALID HAS BEEN DOING WHAT HE CAN BOTH TO BURNISH SOVIET IMAGE HERE AND TO PRESS FOR IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS. AS EGYPT'S "RESPECTABLE" COMMUNIST HE HAS KEPT HIS COMMENTS IN CHARACTERISTICALLY LOW KEY. MATTHEWS

Probably worth digging through if you have a specific enquiry about events taking place in 1977. Of course I chose Egypt as a search term but the cables are worldwide. Can't wait till they get to 1979 and those on the Iranian revolution, hostage crisis and siege of Mecca are released.

In Cairo, one family's story shows rise of radical threat

Grimly fascinating report from Reuters' Tom Perry on a radicalized family in Egypt: 

CAIRO (Reuters) - Fahmy Abdel Raouf and his 13-year old son had been missing for months when their family got word they had been killed in a gun battle with security forces and hailed as "martyrs" by the most dangerous militant group in Egypt.
"If his intention was jihad, I hope God accepts his deed," said Abdel Raouf's wife, dressed head-to-toe in black with only her eyes visible behind a conservative Islamic face veil as she spoke at their family home in Cairo.

The story of the father and son from a working class neighborhood of Cairo offers a glimpse into the militant threat facing Egypt, which has increased dramatically since the army overthrew Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi last year.

The pair were members of the group spearheading Islamist attacks in Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, according to both the authorities and a statement from the organization.

Abdel Raouf, 38, had fought alongside Islamists in the Syrian civil war. His son, radicalized by the state's bloody crackdown on Islamists that followed Mursi's overthrow last year, was a much newer convert.

They symbolize the growing complexity of a problem that will face Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who became Egypt's de facto leader when he deposed Mursi. Sisi is expected to win a presidential election in May.

Armed groups are drawing in both established militants, such as Abdel Raouf, and the recently radicalized, such as his son.

Their reach has extended well beyond the Sinai Peninsula - birthplace of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis - to the capital. At least four members of the cell targeted on March 19 came from the same Cairo neighborhood.

"You are not talking about long-standing or known organizations," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

"We are talking about the third generation of radical jihadists that emerged from the Arab Spring," he said. "This is a generation that nobody has control over."

Also this little tidbit:

After Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011 and the Islamist Mursi elected the following year, the police left Abdel Raouf alone. But he found no satisfaction in Muslim Brotherhood rule. He viewed the mainstream group as too soft on Islam and said they were promoting "half religion".

"He never liked them," his wife said.

Podcast #46: "His program is the crisis"

Issandr El Amrani and Steve Negus are back with Ursula Lindsey to geek out on Egyptian politics. Does the presidential election matter? Are Sisi and Sabahi just two variants of Nasserism? Does anyone know what's going on anymore? These and other questions are considered, and Steve tell us about his trips to deep Upper Egypt, where sectarianism is never very far below the surface, echoes of the 1980s and 1990s are pondered and the shockwave of the counter-revolution crashes on some much deeper problems.

The title of this episode, “His program is the crisis,” comes from former Nasser advisor Mohammed Hassanein Heykal’s recent comment on that Sisi does not need an electoral program.

Show notes:

Email us with your feedback at

Too soon to embrace Sisi

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

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

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

Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker, in the New York Review of Books, reminds us of the growing violence, corruption and authoritarianism that is unraveling Iraq. The damage that the US invasion of that country -- based on fraud and arrogance -- has done, to them and to us (strategically, morally, financially, and of course in terms of a damaged and blighted generation of Iraqis) can still stagger sometimes. 

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.

 

Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation ‘unprecedented in living memory,’ U.N. says

Starvation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Damascus. Enough to make you hate the world and yourself. 

And then, 12 days ago, after the Syrian authorities cut off food shipments into the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, everything became more dire. More than 48 hours have now passed since the United Nations says food ran out for nearly 20,000 people dependent on aid in Yarmouk, which has suffered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war. Today the community, which sits on the outskirts of Damascus, is little more than a warren of bombed-out buildings long on rubble and short on everything else.

 

What to do about Syria

This thought-provoking, morally challenging piece by Scott Long -- on what the Western left can actually do about Syria -- is worth reading it is entirety. 

It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

Links 28 March - 21 April 2014

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Ahmed Mansour interviews Youssef Nada

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

Part two of the interview here.

In Egypt, a corruption watchdog hit by backlash

Detailed article about the corruption investigations that Hesham Genena, head of the Central Auditing Office, has been trying to pursue -- and the judicial and media backlash against him.

In one case, Genena told AP, investigations revealed that some $3 billion dollars was misappropriated in land deals by officials from the police, intelligence agencies, the judiciary and prosecutors.

In another, he reopened a 3-year-old case over allegations that members of an advisory board for the state national communications regulator - which included the justice minister at the time - had received some $14 million in financial compensation.

What is unprecedented in Genena's move is his willingness to investigate so-called "sovereign agencies," the term referring to the most important and unquestionable arms of the state, such as the police, intelligence, judiciary and the presidency. He has been empowered by the constitution passed this year, which encourages the fight against corruption and supervision of state bodies.

There may be limits, however.

Notably, Genena has not made allegations against the most powerful state body of all, the military. The military took the unheard-of step of allowing the CAO under Genena to review the accounts of its extensive business holdings. Speaking to the AP, Genena said that his review had found no violations in the military's books.

His other moves have brought a heavy backlash. The former justice minister, who left office in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, accused Genena of insulting him, prompting prosecutors in February to refer Genena to trial.

After Genena publicly criticized the Judges Club, an association of judges, for not allowing its employees to be inspected, the head of the club accused him of insulting the judiciary, prompting another trial for Genena, which holds its next session next week.

If convicted in either case, it could fuel a drive by his opponents to impeach him.

In the media, a chorus of government supporters accuse him of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, which was branded by the government as a terrorist organization since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer.

Prominent pro-military journalist and former lawmaker Mostafa Bakry said Genena was spreading "lies" tantamount to "blatant incitement against state institutions for the benefit of the Brotherhood."

Ahmed Moussa, a TV presenter known with strong ties to security establishment, said Genena's allegations "sabotaged the economy."