Links February 21-27 2015

He Whose Name Shall Not Be Written

A rather clever piece by the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, in the American Prospect:

I live a less blessed life. As an Israeli and a journalist, my aspirations are more limited, yet less within my own power to achieve. I aspire to be able to write about my country's politics without using the name of the current prime minister. I'd like to write my next 300 articles without the N-word. I'd like to think of him, if I think of him at all, as a vague faceless historical memory like, say, James Buchanan.

Israeli elections are a few weeks off. There should be reason to hope. Exhaustion with the prime minister, with his voice, with his confusion between the state and himself is widespread. Each day's news brings new scandals. He is the issue of this next national election—his relations with the Obama administration, his record devoid of achievements, his extravagant expenses billed to the taxpayers. "It's him or us," is the election slogan of the left-of-center alliance called the Zionist Camp, headed by Labor leader Isaac Herzog and indefatigable peace advocate Tzipi Livni.

And yet, I've come to realize that the focus on him is a strategic success for the prime minister's election campaign. It distracts voters' attention from minor questions such as the Palestinians, peace, housing prices, and poverty. It allows himto set the agenda as, "It's me or them," while defining "them" as anti-Zionist elitists who are allies of Iran, the so-called Islamic State and, heaven help us, Barack Obama.

The whole thing never mentions Bibi once.

'Take it' back please, Ramy Essam

Andeel, writing for Mada Masr, takes on the lyrics and imagery of a new music video (above) by the Egyptian revolutionary crooner Ramy Essam and artist Ganzeer:

The clip, in which a black-and-white Essam with long curly hair wields an electric guitar, is edited with notorious bits of footage from the revolution and ornamented with shaky, angry doodles, in Ganzeer’s signature style. Cartoon lightning and explosions burst off the guitar and Essam’s angry face, and speech bubbles are drawn on demonstrators’ faces. A Ganzeer drawing of a rifle appears every now and then, celebrating and emphasizing the straightforward call for action the song delivers.

If the justice scales are tipped upside down
honor can only be brought back by blood
when throwing stones no longer works
guns make more sense.

You either roll up your sleeves
and take it
or bend over
and take it.

So. In a country that elected a military president after three years of turbulence. In an area of the world sinking into armed sectarian fighting. After months of organized pro-regime mainstream-media brainwashing and xenophobia, two artists not living in Egypt (Ganzeer now lives in the US) make a video telling people that the best way to bring back justice is to carry guns. Or else, kneel down and be sodomized. I’m unable to see where the metaphor or artistic symbolism is in a message like this. I don’t think there is any.

Perhaps this piece is the natural result of a stupid, sentimental relationship with the revolution since it began. A relationship where the boring repetition of chants and quotes and values ended up emptying everything of meaning. The human values on which the revolution was meant to gain popularity get commercialized and abused until people make songs about carrying guns without even actually thinking about what that means. Yeah, because “guns” here don't really mean guns? No? The same way the word “martyr” no longer refers to a person with a life and a family and a choice as much as it refers to public ownership of the meaning of your death.

Saudis shaking hands with the royal family

I have watched this video 30 times and still cannot figure out what's going on except that every time it has me laughing so hard I cry. Maybe the Saudis can export this concept to the US presidency: rather than shaking hundreds of hands at meet-and-greets, Obama could just have a cardboard cutout of himself at the entrance, with a White House intern behind the cutout do the handshaking. Although I guess it makes more sense in a country whose leaders are all geriatrics.

Links February 8 - 13 2015

At least 19 died outside a soccer stadium in Cairo in February 8 after a stampede and clashes with police

At least 19 died outside a soccer stadium in Cairo in February 8 after a stampede and clashes with police

imprisoned and on trial activist Alaa Abdel Fattah reached 100 days on hunger strike 

imprisoned and on trial activist Alaa Abdel Fattah reached 100 days on hunger strike 

Sisi: "This love of the people is a new experience for me"

This interview of Sisi in Der Spiegel is worth reading in full.

SPIEGEL: You landed in this office because of a coup. That's what we call it when a democratically elected president -- even a lousy one -- is toppled with force.
Sisi: Your characterization of the situation is not clear and hence your understanding is inaccurate. You judge our experiences from your own cultural, civilizational and developmental vantage point and you cannot remove yourselves from this context. You need to understand what happened in Egypt in light of the circumstances, challenges and threats faced by Egypt.
SPIEGEL: You mean the country's increasing Islamization through the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Morsi?
Sisi: What you refer to as a coup was our second revolution. What if half of the population of Germany, France or Great Britain took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the government? If these governments were to plan the use of force and there was then no intervention …
SPIEGEL: … you mean through the military …
Sisi: … then even these countries would slide into civil war. If we had not intervened, we would not have fulfilled our historical and moral responsibility.
SPIEGEL: You felt summoned by the people?
Sisi: Even if only a million people demonstrate in the streets against a ruler, he should step down. But in our region, that hasn't yet registered in the consciousness of rulers.
SPIEGEL: Instead of preventing a civil war through Morsi's dismissal, you provoked it. Hundreds died and many more were arrested.
Sisi: No. And no, hundreds of people did not have to die. I am saddened by even the loss of a single life. However, let me put this in a different context. Just look at the magnitude of the loss of life over the past 10 years in Iraq, in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Egypt's population is almost equal to that of all of these countries combined. If you look at the number of people who died, you will realize the army protected the Egyptian people.

Sisi's jails

Excellent reporting by Tom Stevenson in the LRB on Egypt's disgusting, semi-clandestine prison system, and the tens of thousands of people being abused in it. 

It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.
Amn al-Markezi is almost entirely free from public scrutiny. But the Egyptian army is even less accountable, and it is from military facilities such as Azouly prison in Ismailia, Agroot prison in Suez and the headquarters of Battalion 101 in Arish that the worst testimonies come. One man detained at Azouly claimed in a letter dated 24 March 2014 that access to the toilet was permitted once a day, before dawn, that inmates were tortured with boiling water and even boiling oil, and that he frequently heard women screaming somewhere inside the facility. Letters and survivors’ accounts describe three distinct layers inside these army camps. The first floor is for military prisoners who are lawfully detained. The second is known as the ‘prosecutions floor’ and holds civilians who have been given a military trial. The third floor – the ‘investigations floor’ – houses people who have been ‘disappeared’.
Third-floor detainees are known to have been held for up to six months, and are sometimes blindfolded throughout their incarceration. They are later sent to an official prison – often with serious injuries – wearing the same clothes they had on when they were arrested, and bearing papers with forged arrest dates. Holding civilian detainees inside a military prison is illegal, but proceedings would in any case be difficult given that the very existence of Azouly and Agroot is not officially acknowledged. Unknown numbers of prisoners are being held. They are subject to punitive sexual assault; suspension from ceilings, doors and windows; waterboarding; and being burned with cigarettes. Research by Human Rights Watch shows that between the beginning of November and the end of December last year, 820 new civilian cases were referred to military prosecutors.
Men, women and even children who find themselves under arrest – whether they’re Muslim Brothers, students, labour activists, socialists, or just unemployed people protesting about their situation – are regarded as an army would regard captured combatants in a world without Geneva protocols. This is the essence of military dictatorship: a vision of the state and the population it rules as two opposing armies, the first better equipped but smaller than the second, which makes brutality an indispensable tactic.

The Tasreebat

Baheyya, in her first post in a long time, commenting on the latest of the extraordinary leaks from the inner sanctum Egyptian military laste year, before Sisi became president:

The recent leaks, however, take things to a new level. The generals don’t just rubbish their Gulf backers; scorn Egyptians as a starving, miserable mass; and generally ooze contempt for anyone outside their ranks. The recordings reveal how, in private, Egypt’s peak military officers see themselves. In frank, relaxed banter, they discuss how to milk the Gulf monarchs for more billions; rue the Nasser military’s non-profiteering mindset; and generally come off as money-grubbing hirelings ready to deploy military force anywhere in exchange for cash.

Thus in a five-minute conversation, the generals unmask their own elaborate self-mythologizing as nationalist, selfless public servants who have rescued Egypt and the region from an Islamist cabal. They reinforce critics’ longstanding claims that the Mubarakist Egyptian military defends not the national interest but its own sectional concerns.

. . .

Shortly before announcing his presidential bid, Sisi dictates to Kamel how to approach the Saudis for more money, making a clear distinction between the military’s own funds and the public treasury. “Look, you tell him we need 10 [billion] to be deposited in the military’s account. You tell him, that when God willing I win [the election], that 10 will then work for the state. And we want another 10 from the Emirates and another 10 from Kuwait. That’s in addition to a handful to be put in the Central Bank to balance the 2014 budget.”

When Kamel chuckles heartily and says that the Saudi head of the royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijri will faint on hearing of such huge sums, Sisi says, “Man, their money is like rice, man! Come on, ya Abbas ya Kamel!”

Wow. Just wow.

"The Republican Senator From Israel"

House Speaker John Boehner has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress (and presumably make the case against the White Houses's policy of engagement with Iran) two weeks before elections are held in Israel. The decision by the Republican-controlled US Congress and the Israeli Likud party to pursue their own joint foreign policy -- independent of their respective nations -- has angered the White House. It's also apparently not well viewed by much of Israel's political establishment and public.  From Forbes: 

According to Hatnuah leader, Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu is sabotaging israel’s critical relationship with Washington. [Ed. Note: Hatnuah is another political party in Israel running in a coalition with Labour.]
“A responsible prime minister who first thinks of the good of his country’s citizens does not do such a thing,” Livni said, adding, “A responsible prime minister would know to work with the president of the United States — with any president — and protect our most important interests.”
If the polls are to be believed, there are quite a few Israelis who share Livni’s take on the subject.
So, how did all this happen?
It turns out, the plan to have the Israeli Prime Minister speak to Congress, without first discussing with the White House, was the brainchild of Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer who has, for weeks now, been endorsing the re-election of Bibi Netanyahu on American television programs despite explicit Israeli Civil Service regulations prohibiting him from doing so.

He also didn't mention what he was about to do to John Kerry, who he met the day before announcing the invitation. The White House has said it will not meet with Netanyahu when he comes. Reuters reports that the Israelis are saying they were "misled" by Republicans into thinking it was a bipartisan invitation. 

Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic behind it

Hassan Hassan, one of the best analyst of the Syrian and Iraqi scenes, writing on ISIS’ doctrine of savagery for The Guardian:

Savagery is at the core of Isis ideology. But it is crucial not to play down that brutal acts have to be justified through sharia texts. Islamic fundamentalism is Isis’s ideology, so to speak, and every act has to be grounded in religious traditions. Muslim clerics who issue a “letter to al-Baghdadi” or a lengthy fatwa to delegitimise Isis miss the mark unless they understand the invigorating nature of this violent ideology. While Isis uses manuals such as Naji’s book, it references religious texts and stories. Muslim clerics should recognise that theoretical fatwas cannot sufficiently counter what I call “kinetic” sharia, consisting of stories and actions carried out by authoritative Muslim figures in early Islam, on which Isis relies heavily to justify its ideology. Statements such as “this hadith is weak” or “it is not permissible to kill prisoners of war” can be backed by religious texts, but how early Muslim leaders acted is similarly powerful, if not more persuasive.

The dilemma is that mainstream clerics sometimes steer clear of engaging in such stories because that has cross-sectarian implications. For example, critiquing immolation, killing captives and throwing people off high buildings risks arguing against Islamic figures at the core of the Sunni-Shia divide. Isis members claim these three acts were either carried out, or approved, by the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, whom Shia consider an illegitimate leader – although many Sunni clerics dispute the references to immolation. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the sheikh of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni learning, issued a generic statement addressing Islamic teachings about the treatment of captives and then called for “crucifying and chopping the hands and feet” of Isis members.

Moussaoui Calls Saudi Princes Patrons of Al Qaeda


WASHINGTON — In highly unusual testimony inside the federal supermax prison, a former operative for Al Qaeda has described prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family as major donors to the terrorist network in the late 1990s and claimed that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One with a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

. . .

He said in the prison deposition that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.

“Sheikh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money,” he said in imperfect English — “who is to be listened to or who contributed to the jihad.”

Mr. Moussaoui said he acted as a courier for Bin Laden, carrying personal messages to prominent Saudi princes and clerics. And he described his training in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

. . .

In addition, Mr. Moussaoui said, “We talk about the feasibility of shooting Air Force One.”

Specifically, he said, he had met an official of the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington when the Saudi official visited Kandahar. “I was supposed to go to Washington and go with him” to “find a location where it may be suitable to launch a Stinger attack and then, after, be able to escape,” he said.

Entirely plausible.

Links 14 January 2015

First link dump of the year, some dating from December 2014 – all Charlie-free, see recent posts and link roundups for that.

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The Egyptian deposed dictator email scam

A friend received this in his email inbox yesterday. It seems the Nigerian 419 email scam has evolved. Love the reply-to address:

From: "mubarak"
Date: January 8, 2015 at 7:27:34 PM GMT+1
Subject: HEI


I am Mr Hosni Mubarak   former leader of Egyptian   am  currently  released from  prison charges of complicity resulting from political turmoil during the 2011  the government has seized everything i have here and prevent us from traveling out of Egypt because  the released is conditional.

As a result of this, I need somebody outside Egypt to represent my interest to manage our reserved funds value (25,000,000.00 [U.SD] in long-term business venture especially in public and private business (including real estate investment,

I am willing to negotiate with you how much I will offer you to handle this for me after your acceptance. And all needed to proceed the legality and movement of the (25,000,000.00 [U.SD] shall or will be duly obtained in due course.

Yours Faithfully,
Mr Hosni Mubarak

Qatar and Egypt still at odds despite GCC reconciliation

David Kirkpatrick reports in the NYT:

CAIRO — Shaking hands and kissing foreheads, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf came together this month to declare that they had resolved an 18-month feud in order to unite against their twin enemies, Iran and the Islamic State.

But the split is still festering, most visibly here in the place where it broke out over the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president. “Nothing has changed — nothing, nothing,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomacy.

. . . 

But government officials on both sides of the gulf split now acknowledge privately that Qatar scarcely budged. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates suspended their anti-Brotherhood campaign against Qatar because of the more urgent threats they saw gathering around them.

A senior Qatari official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the joint communiqué supporting Mr. Sisi’s road map was merely a “press release” that carried little significance.

“We will always support the population of Egypt,” the official said. Al Jazeera was “editorially independent,” he said, adding that the other states “should not create political issues just because a channel is broadcasting what is happening.”

Although Qatar asked some Brotherhood members to leave Doha because of their political activities, only 10 or fewer have done so, according to Brotherhood leaders and Qatari officials. “We have not asked them to leave in any way, and we have not bothered them in any way,” the official said.

So what's really happened here, then, is that the the part of the al-Saud family that was very critical of Qatar because of Egypt got overruled by the part that's more concerned about Iran and Daesh, Qatar agreed to reduce the media infighting in the Gulf and perhaps participate to some extent in Saudi Arabia's calls for greater economic and military unity, and Abu Dhabi had to accept it because Riyadh said so. But I doubt they'll even be able to keep the media wars at bay for that long, so maybe it's more simply that the Saudis are finally learning to prioritize and not pick fights with everyone at the same time.

A lonely fight defending Egypt's jailed dissidents

Great profile of Egyptian lawyer Ragia Omran by the AP's Hama Hendawi:

Defending arrested activists is Omran's way of keeping the revolution alive.

"We are not going to accept that the police state will continue to run the country unchallenged. There have to be people who object to this, and we are going to be those people - I and the others who are with me," she said one afternoon after a court hearing for 25 young men on trial for breaking a draconian law effectively banning protests which was adopted a year ago.

"I cannot give up. My friends and family want me to leave the country. I cannot," she told The Associated Press in one of several recent interviews.

. . .

The 41-year-old Omran earns her living as a corporate lawyer. Defending activists is her volunteer work. That can mean punishing hours. One recent day, she attended the signing of a nearly $700 million loan deal that her firm helped work out. In the days that followed, she was in court representing jailed activists, tromping into police stations to find clients, and visiting prisons, trying to bring food and other supplies to detainees.

She often keeps clothes in her car so she can make quick changes out of her corporate business suit and heels. Her mobile gets a constant stream of texts and calls. Sometimes she herself cooks food to take to inmates - things that can go a few days without spoiling.

Standing only 5 feet tall (1.53 meters), she charges with determined steps into prisons, police stations and courtrooms, where she meets constant resistance from authorities.

"In the first two years after the revolution, police and the Interior Ministry were careful with us because they didn't want bad publicity," she said. "Now they don't care... This regime does not care about its image, the law or regulations."

Watching Cheney: He’s Got Nothing

Andrew Sullivan on Dick Cheney's defense of torture:

To put it more bluntly, Cheney’s response is unhinged. It is suffused with indiscriminate rage which is indifferent to such standards as whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, or even if he should be in a prison at all. He is acting out a revenge fantasy, no doubt fueled in part by the understanding that 3,000 Americans lost their lives because he failed to prevent it – when the facts were lying there in the existing surveillance and intelligence system and somehow never got put together.

What we have here is a staggering thing: the second highest official in a democracy, proud and unrepentant of war crimes targeted at hundreds of prisoners, equating every single one of the prisoners – including those who were victims of mistaken identity, including American citizens reading satirical websites, including countless who had nothing to do with any attacks on the US at all – with the nineteen plotters of one terror attack. We have a man who, upon being presented with a meticulous set of documents and facts, brags of not reading them and who continues to say things that are definitively disproved in the report by CIA documents themselves.

This is a man who not only broke the law and the basic norms of Western civilization, but who celebrates that. If this man is not brought to justice, the whole idea of justice in this country is a joke.