Egypt in TV

Another entry in our contributor Nour Youssef's avidly followed Egypt in TV column. 

"El Sisi just doesn’t want to disclose any information about his plans. He is not stupid. He is smarter than you and your father," the red-faced, middle-aged woman seated next to me in a restaurant told her son, who coolly alternated between sipping Pepsi and asking if she was done talking, provoking her to throw dripping straws in his face.

What caused the fight across the table was a discussion of the nearly four-hours-long interview Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave Lamis el-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa on CBC last week, where he repeatedly expressed love, admiration, respect and all things synonymous for the straw-thrower’s demographic.

"(I don’t want) anyone to get me wrong, but I love the Egyptian woman," he told Ibrahim Eissa, who wanted to know why the Marshal’s metaphors are always related to or directed at women. This followed el-Sisi’s request for caution from the public while choosing their representatives in parliament and the president -- the same caution an Egyptian mother exercises when checking the backgrounds of her daughter's suitors.

To be fair, el-Sisi’s flattery was not limited to women. The rest of the population is also exceptionally smart and more patient than any other nation.

When not complimenting the population, el-Sisi ducked numerous questions -- literally. Questions about the nature of his policy towards Hamas and Qatar were met with a lowered head and a close-lipped smile. And when he depended on words to answer questions, the Marshal made certain that they were so vague that I had to re-watch segments of the interview multiple times to make sure I was not missing some vital transitions that would put things in order and reassure voters about our future president's attention span.

When they asked about the weapons deal with Russia and whether or not the next parliament will monitor the military and its budget, el-Sisi dispensed words about "leaving the army alone." After a long pause, he said: "The army is a very great institution, to an extent that Egyptians can't imagine. God willing all of Egypt could be at that level." The two journalists sitting across from him smilingly accepted his answer without further questions.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.

Israel won't stop spying on US, which won't stop it

Some interesting reporting on Israel's extensive spying on the US in two pieces by Newsweek's Jeff Stein this week - Israel Won’t Stop Spying on the U.S. and Israel’s Aggressive Spying in the U.S. Mostly Hushed Up. From the first piece:

“I don’t think anyone was surprised by these revelations,” the former aide said. “But when you step back and hear…that there are no other countries taking advantage of our security relationship the way the Israelis are for espionage purposes, it is quite shocking. I mean, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that after all the hand-wringing over [Jonathan] Pollard, it’s still going on.”

And this anecdote from the second, follow-up report:

When White House national security advisor Susan Rice’s security detail cleared her Jerusalem hotel suite for bugs and intruders Tuesday night, they might’ve had in mind a surprise visitor to Vice President Al Gore’s room 16 years ago this week: a spy in an air duct.

According to a senior former U.S. intelligence operative, a Secret Service agent who was enjoying a moment of solitude in Gore’s bathroom before the Veep arrived heard a metallic scraping sound. “The Secret Service had secured [Gore’s] room in advance and they all left except for one agent, who decided to take a long, slow time on the pot,” the operative recalled for Newsweek. “So the room was all quiet, he was just meditating on his toes, and he hears a noise in the vent. And he sees the vent clips being moved from the inside. And then he sees a guy starting to exit the vent into the room.”

Did the agent scramble for his gun? No, the former operative said with a chuckle. “He kind of coughed and the guy went back into the vents.”

To some, the incident stands as an apt metaphor for the behind-closed-doors relations between Israel and America, “frenemies” even in the best of times. The brazen air-duct caper “crossed the line” of acceptable behavior between friendly intelligence services – but because it was done by Israel, it was quickly hushed up by U.S. officials.

And the reason it goes on unchecked, of course, is that American lawmakers are protecting Israel:

Always lurking, former intelligence officials say, was the powerful “Israeli lobby,” the network of Israel’s friends in Congress, industry and successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, ready to protest any perceived slight on the part of U.S. security officials. A former counterintelligence specialist told Newsweek he risked Israel’s wrath merely by providing routine security briefings to American officials, businessmen and scientists heading to Israel for meetings and conferences.

“We had to be very careful how we warned American officials,” he said. “We regularly got calls from members of Congress outraged by security warnings about going to Israel. And they had our budget. When ... the director of the CIA gets a call from an outraged congressman–’What are these security briefings you're giving? What are these high-level threat warnings about travel to Tel Aviv you're giving? This is outrageous’ – he has to pay close attention. There was always this political delicacy that you had to be aware of.”

When a Kidnapped Journalist Is a Freelancer

Good piece on the risks freelancers take covering conflicts, by Jaron Gilinsky for Medium:

A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.

Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.

Gilinsky gives tons of examples of journalists and especially photographers risking their lives, with little protection, under this system. This, regrettably, is the typical example of photographer Ali Mustafa, who died in Syria:

Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.

Is Egypt one of Obama's worst foreign policy failures?

A worthwhile editorial in the NYT on Obama's foreign policy that I largely agree with – and where one of the most critical bits is not about Ukraine or Syria, but Egypt:

More than anything else, perhaps, the revolutions in this region have demonstrated the limits of American influence when countries are in turmoil. Egypt is the most important and difficult case. While it is an example of the realpolitik that some of his critics say Mr. Obama lacks, Egypt is Exhibit A in the case against his claim to be supporting democracy in the Middle East. The Obama administration finds itself defending and continuing to finance a repressive military government in Cairo that comes nowhere near to fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring and that recently ordered more than 1,000 political prisoners put to death.

It may not last (in fact I doubt it will), but the sentiment these days is does appear to be shifting in the American establishment. Also worth reading is a partial defense of Obama by Tom Friedman

April 6 tells EU to cancel election observer mission

From a letter written on behalf of April 6 to the European Union:

On 10 February 2014, the Foreign Affairs Council Meeting concluded in point 8: "The EU also reiterates its readiness to observe the upcoming elections, if conditions are met, and calls on the Egyptian interim authorities to ensure an environment conducive to inclusive, transparent and credible elections, including a level playing field for the election campaigns. In view of the recent developments, the Council recalls that no political groups should be excluded or banned as long as they renounce violence and respect democratic principles".

 

In times in which more than twenty thousand prisoners are detained since the military intervention/coup on 3rd July, political movements, Islamist and Secular, are being banned, extreme nationalistic propaganda are widely diffused through the State apparatus, it is quite evident that the "conditions are hardly met". It is certain that Mr. Sisi will win the show, whether in presence or absence of the EU elections observation mission. Suspending the mission, however, would send a clear message to Mr. Sisi as well as to the European and Egyptian public opinions that the EU can hardly accept and even participate in legitimizing the current practices in Egypt.

More on this at Middle East Eye.

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:

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