In Translation: The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

Ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne a few weeks ago, the Arab press has been rife with speculation that he intends to reset Saudi foreign policy. Some, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are speculating rather wildly that Riyadh wants to make peace with political Islam after financing the Sisi regime in Egypt that decimated the Brotherhood and encouraged similar anti-Islamist clampdowns elsewhere. Others have pointed to a Saudi refocusing Iran, rather than Islamism as the chief threat – particularly as the Arab Islamists have retreated in many countries. The idea of a Saudi push for a "united Sunni front" against Shia Iran and its regional clients makes some sense after the Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sanaa, leading Riyadh to once again reach out to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers as a counterbalance. 

The Sisi regime and its media has reacted quite badly to all this, particularly since so much of what stands as "ideology" of this regime is based around building the Brotherhood into some all-powerful bogeyman. The dependency of this regime on Gulf financing makes it doubly nervous to see a rapprochement between Salman and Turkey's Erdogan, who is perhaps the only regional leader that continues to call Sisi a putschist. In cutting through all the wild speculation surrounding Salman's intentions and the dual summits he held over the weekend with Erdogan and Sisi, some of the more plausible readings of Saudi intentions have come from Saudis themselves. Khaled al-Dakheel, a prominent columnist in al-Hayat, penned an interesting piece on this a few days ago, which we translate below. Note in particular the paragraph in which he lambasts the Sisi regime's obsession with scapegoating the Brotherhood and its inability to build a coherent alternative around which Egyptians could rally. 

Our In Translation series is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a full-service Arabic translation service staffed by experienced Hans Wehr ninjas. Please help them support us by hiring them for the next translation job you or your company has.

Read More

Partisan leader: President is not interested in parliament elections

Via Egypt Independent, striking quotes (for him) from Social Democratic Party leader Mohammed Aboul Ghar on the (yet again) postponement of parliamentary elections in Egypt because a the Supreme Constitutional Court found the electoral district law to be unconstitutional. Aboul Ghar was an important cheerleader for Abdelfattah al-Sisi's coup in July 2013, only find his party and others like it sidelined by an electoral setup that favors a fragmented parliament with small electoral district to favor local notables and vote-buying (both tend to be more difficult/expensive in larger districts, where it is more helpful to have a party machine to organize) with strong control by the presidency. Many will say it's too little too late for a system that has gone from (allegedly) "one man, one vote, one time" to "one man (Sisi), all the time, no vote", but considering Aboul Ghar and his ilk have been largely to cowed by the return of the security state to express even a semi-coherent political discourse, this should be welcomed. After all, if no one is asking for anything better, it's hardly likely to come.

A renowned politician has said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi does not want parliamentary elections to be held at the current period, days after a verdict was handed down by the Supreme Constitutional Court against the constitutionality of the law regulating the polls, causing its postponement.

“The president does not want a parliament right now, hence the delay in the official invitation for voting and the large number of unconstitutional legislations adopted by the state in the absence of the parliament,” said Mohamed Abul Ghar, chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, adding that many laws enacted over the past period turn Egypt into “a police state”.

“The general atmosphere suggests that the president and the state either do not want a parliament at all, or seek a fragile, divided parliament that is unable to make a decision or practice oversight on the executive authority.”

Abul Ghar, however, said that the court’s verdict against the constituencies law has nothing to do with the regime’s disinterest in elections.

“The court ruling, in my judgement, was independent and objective, addressing an unconstitutional law,” Abul Ghar said.

Asked whether the postponement of elections has any benefits, Abul Ghar replied, “If the electoral system is not changed entirely, there would be no gains, just losses, it is a futile postponement.”

The Islamic State through the looking-glass

The Islamic State through the looking-glass


The long essay below was contributed by friends of the blog Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. A previous essay from a year ago can be read here. 

They will say, "Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched."
Surat al-Hijr (15:15)

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.    

Read More

Recordings Suggest Emirates and Egyptian Military Pushed Ousting of Morsi

The NYT on the latest leaked recordings, suggesting Tamarod received foreign funding. If all this is true, one of the ironies would be that the senior ranks of the Egyptian military and intelligence services engaged in exactly what they frequently accuse the revolutionaries of 2011 of doing: fomenting political strife with foreign financing. Generally speaking, when military officers take foreign money to undermine their commander-in-chief, that's called treason.

They appear to record Gen. Abbas Kamel, Mr. Sisi’s office manager and top aide, speaking by telephone with Gen. Sedky Sobhy, who was then the military chief of staff and is now defense minister.

They appear to be discussing a bank account controlled by senior defense officials that had been used by Tamarod, a movement that called for protests on June 30, 2013, to demand an early end to Mr. Morsi’s presidency.

“Sir, we will need 200 tomorrow from Tamarod’s account — you know, the part from the U.A.E., which they transferred,” General Kamel appears to tell General Sobhy in the recording.

General Sobhy’s side of the conversation is not heard. But he apparently brought up the Egyptian intelligence services, or mukhabarat.

“What do you mean by mukhabarat, sir? The mukhabarat guys?” General Kamel appears to say. “Do you remember the account that came for Tamarod?”

He then apparently says to General Sobhy, “We will need only 200 from it — yes, 200,000.” If that sum was in Egyptian pounds, it would have been equivalent to about $30,000 at the time.

If the date on the recording is accurate (and it's not clear that it is, as other reports place it in early 2014, in which case Tamarod would have received financing after Morsi was deposed, not before) it would suggest the wiretapping of Kamel Abbas' office go back a long time, since this would be the earliest recording aired to date.

Lure of the Caliphate by Malise Ruthven | NYRblog

Malise Ruthven on ISIS' millennialism:

Though these ideas are not given prominence in most contemporary practice, the leaders of the Syrian jihad are not the first Islamic movement to give them special weight. In 1881, for example, the Sudanese Muslim cleric Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, conquered Khartoum, and created a state that lasted until 1898. And in 1979, an apocalyptic movement led by several Islamist extremists brought Saudi Arabia briefly into crisis with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud; the group claimed one of its own leaders as the Mahdi.

In fact, there is a strong pedigree for this ideology in classical Islamic thought. Like Christianity, Islam seems to have begun as a messianic movement warning that the Day of Judgment was imminent. The early suras (chapters) of the Koran are filled with doomsday menace, and the yearning for a final reckoning is deeply encoded in some of the texts. A central figure in this tradition is Dajjal—the one-eyed false messiah who corresponds to the Antichrist of the New Testament. The details vary but most versions agree that the final battle will take place east of Damascus, when Jesus will return as messiah, kill the pigs, destroy Dajjal, and break the cross in his symbolic embrace of Islam.

. . .

For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East today. One of the arguments ISIS and al-Nusra put forward in their apocalyptic rhetoric is that the Bashar al-Assad regime—dominated by the minority and Shia-affiliated Alawite sect, with its killings of children and repression of Islamists—is a “sign” of this departure from fundamental Islamic values that is supposed to precede the final battle.

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.

Read More

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