Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

Rare, grim, first-hand reporting from Sinai by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Egypt's army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region's villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world's biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants - a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth - have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.

"The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter," said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

"Even when the army's armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks."

Many residents say that the authorities' military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004-2006 debate about regular military vs. counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq.

Lunch with the FT: Prince Turki al-Faisal

On America:

“For the Kingdom, it is a matter of putting our foot down, where in the past we did not. It is a matter of accepting reality. You have to acknowledge the world has changed. Obama’s speech to the UN last September made it clear that America will be concentrating exclusively on Palestine and Iran, and for everywhere else – Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Mali, Iraq, Egypt, and so on – you will have to fend for yourself. So whether it is collecting your [Saudi Arabia’s] own resources to do that, or reaching out to others in the area to help you overcome these challenges, we are adjusting to the reality of a retreating America.”

Also reminded me that he stepped down after 24 years as head of intelligence only 10 days before 9/11.

Everybody knows

I wish that rather than "everyone knows", the title and refrain of Alaa Abdelfattah's latest, most explosive, prison missive had been translated as "everybody knows". Because then it would have fit perfectly with the Leonard Cohen song. An excerpt from its end is below, but read the whole thing:

Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them. 

Everyone knows that there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except through you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do?

Obama's three Egypt policies

The FT's Edward Luce, in a piece on the challenges to the US that the Ukrainian crisis represents, has this side note on Obama's Egypt policy – or policies:

Too often, Mr Obama’s stance has been to say the right thing but with little follow- through. Just ask the people of Egypt, who remain confused about whether Mr Obama supports democracy or not. His administration has three policies on Egypt – the Pentagon, which wants to maintain US-Egypt ties come what may; the Department of State under John Kerry, which backed last year’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; and the White House, which condemned the coup but has left day-to-day decisions to the first two. On Egypt, Mr Obama has been absent even inside Washington.

Civilian-military relations in Egypt

This quote from an AP story on the reshuffling of SCAF (because some of its members have become ministers) and the creating of the National Defense Council (a body combining civilian ministers and generals) is very telling of the state of civilian-military relations in Egypt:

Retired Maj. Gen. Abdel-Rafia Darwish, a military analyst, said the reshuffling of the council prevents the president from interfering in military affairs.
"What if the president is a civilian?" he asked. "He might take a decision that is wrong and that could harm the military." However, other experts described the changes as no surprise and in line with the new constitution.

In most other places, of course, the conversation is more about protecting the civilians from the military.

Female party head doubts Egypt path

Hala Shukrallah, the new leader of the Destour Party (and the first Coptic woman to head a political party in Egypt) gave AP a great quote on the path of the current regime:

"It is not only pulling us back to before Jan 25, (referring to the anti-Mubarak uprising) it also brings us back to Morsi's rule, when critics were described as infidels."

Update: she also gave an interview to Mada Masr, saying on the presidency: "We won't support someone representing a state institution and making use of its resources for his candidacy."

In Translation: Why don't activists have armed forces?

Last month, as the hit documentary film The Square hit silver screens, there were several reviews that used its heart-wrenching footage of Egypt’s revolutionaries to address the failings of the mostly young protest movement. Some American commentators like Eric Trager (in the New Republic) and Max Fischer in the Washington Post argued that the protestors were “incoherent”, that they “practically never leave Tahrir Square”, naively “too principled for politics”, that they “so alienated their fellow Egyptians as to actually engender sympathy for security forces” to take The Square’s director, Jehane Noujaim, to task for “never really addressing the many errors of the liberal protest movement.” Similar sentiment was echoed elsewhere, most recently (and prominently) by the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote in a piece generally despairing of the state of Egypt,

There is plenty of blame to go around — for Obama, for the hapless Morsi, for the paranoid power-grabbing Muslim Brotherhood, for the controlling military. But above all I blame the squabbling Egyptian liberals who fought for Mubarak’s ouster but did not give democracy a chance.

In our view, these observers of the situation in Egypt compound mistake after mistake, in both their analysis and their taxonomy. Reducing the protest movement of 2011 to an ineffectual, middle class, left-wing group people detached from more profound realities of a poor country is not just unfair, it is simply inaccurate. Like so many observers of the “Arab Spring”, they confuse the media depiction of the protestors with their complex, at times surprising, reality. They also repeatedly make the mistake of labeling those people were neither members of Mubaraks’ regime nor Islamists as “liberals”, rendering the word meaningless in a country where that group actually includes many illiberal leftists, nationalists, progressives, and, yes, conservatives. But much more fundamentally, their decision to appropriate blame at the weakest component of Egypt’s polity (rather than the two strongest actors on the scene, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its backers in the business elite) appears not just misguided, but grotesque. This is not to say that these “liberals” did not make mistakes – no one has escaped unscathed from Egypt’s tragedy. But these are arguments are so specious (yet so widely propagated, most often by Western liberals – a category of people that itself hasn’t exactly shone in the last decade or two) it as if these commentators come from another reality.

This why the text below, by noted Egyptian activist and writer Amr Ezzat, packs such a punch. His indignation is fully understandable (even if he is somewhat unfair towards Trager, whose article does contain some worthy insights) and it amounts to a powerful rebuttal of the simply bizarre current trend of assigning blame on a generation of Egyptians that, tentatively but bravely, dared to imagine that their country could be different.

Many thanks to Industry Arabic for translating the article below (please use their services to make it possible for them to continue providing us with content only available in Arabic!), and KK for suggesting it to us.

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Podcast #45: Underdogs

Note: The original posting of this podcast linked to an older episode. This has been corrected – we apologize for the mistake.

Arabist podcast hosts Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil talk to Khaled Dawoud, a prominent Egyptian reporter and activist. Dawoud campaigned to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013 but resigned as spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a secular political coalition, in protest over the killing of Islamist demonstrators on August 14. Dawoud has been attacked from all sides of the political spectrum as he continues to argue for a poliitically negotiated solution rather than the ongoing cycle of violence and repression. He looks back on his last three years of activism; the role of the revolutionary; the secular movement and whether, in ousting the Brotherhood, it became the pawn of the former regime and the military.

  • Mohamed Morsi's November 2012 constitutional declaration - link
  • Family of Al-Hosseini Abu Deif alleges he was assassinated - link
  • National Salvation Front Statement on August 14, 2013: "Today Egypt holds its head high..." - link
  • Constitution Party's Khaled Dawoud Stabbed by Pro-Morsi Supporters - link

The Crooks Return to Cairo

Bel Trew and Osama Diab, writing for FP on the potential exoneration of former spook, Sinai magnate and Mubarak moneyman Hussein Salem:

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem's fortunes -- and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen -- may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt's generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: Cancel my convictions and I'll give Egypt millions.
Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.
"Mr. Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen ... your initiative is really appreciated," said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. "Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country."

The pro-Mubarak belly dancer's talk show and other internet detritus

Nour Youssef writes to us regularly with a mix of legitimate, useful information and things I wish I'd never seen. I thought I'd put her latest missive up as a taste of the current ambient Egyptian insanity:

Reasons to at least limit ability to upload videos on Youtube:

Things that maybe interesting:

  • Bassem Youssef is coming back. On MBC.
  • The transcript of the absolutely ridiculous interrogation of Ahmed Abdelaty, head of the presidential office under Morsi, and one of the defendants in the espionage case. What's funnier than the fact that their "evidence" of the "crime" that is talking to people out of Egypt -- or worse, not even Egyptian people in Egypt, or even worse out of it -- comes from hacking his email is that they a) don't care/understand that that is a crime and so don't react to his emphasis on that and b) el-Watan picked this up and ran with it like it proved that Mohamed Badie surprised the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Egyptian MB youth in 2012, completely indifferent to or unaware of the fact that the word Libya was not mentioned in the interrogation, that the man denied all charges and that the investigative bodies are a).  

Al-Sisi, the presidency, and the officers

Hesham Sallam, writing in Mada Masr, hits on the central point of yesterday's announcement by SCAF endorsing Sisi as president:

If the purpose behind the general’s quest for the presidency is to afford the political status quo and the military’s dominant position the façade of democratic legitimacy, then yesterday’s announcement makes little sense. Notwithstanding the burdens Sisi has taken on and imposed on the military by entering into the presidential race, kicking off his bid with a formal mandate from the military proves and underscores the very realities that the general is supposed to conceal. Specifically, this development leaves no doubt in the minds of observers that political outcomes in Egypt are dictated by the military and not by a supposedly unpredictable, free-for-all democratic process that is responsive to popular will. By failing to unilaterally resign from his position and announce a presidential candidacy from a place of institutional independence, Sisi missed a perfect opportunity to dispel the claim that he is running as the military’s nominee. Instead, he chose to present his nomination as a direct response to the call of his own peers.
It is tempting to blame these missteps on sheer political incompetence. Yet more compellingly, this move seems to be highlighting Sisi’s insecurities about potential chatter among the officers’ rank and file that he is taking the military into risky political adventures for the sole purpose of personal gain. In such a context, yesterday’s statement signifies the publicized approval that Sisi needed from the officers in order to protect against possible backlash from within the military. By obtaining such a public endorsement, moreover, Sisi in effect made the whole military, as an institution, complicit in his personal bid for power. Such a measure makes it challenging for the officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy in the future. It makes it difficult for them to wait on the sidelines conveniently and strike a pact with whoever wins, as they had done in the 2012 presidential elections when former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi competed in the runoff vote.

What Killed Egyptian Democracy?

Continuing today's reflection on the failure of Egypt's revolutionaries, do not miss the sequence of essays in the Boston Review on this issue, starting off with Mohammed Fadel who argues revolutionary purity was the enemy of pragmatic progress:

The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

P.S. Fadel has more grim reflections on the state of Egyptian society on his blog, where he doubts the very existence of Egyptian liberals or revolutionaries. 

"Our sin was pride"

From a long essay by imprisoned revolutionary activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, in which they reflect on what went wrong:

Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.

To read alongside Steve's post on the revolutionary's need for self-examination – can't really say it's not happening, just that it's happening too late.

New book: The struggle for Iraq's future

Our friend Zaid al-Ali, constitution-watcher extraordinaire (see the podcast we did with him last year) has a new book out the disastrous path Iraq has taken since the 2003 US invasion. From the publishers's blurb:

Many Westerners have offered interpretations of Iraq’s nation-building progress in the wake of the 2003 war and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country, but little has been written by Iraqis themselves. This forthright book fills in the gap. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer with direct ties to the people of his homeland, to government circles, and to the international community, provides a uniquely insightful and up-to-date view of Iraq’s people, their government, and the extent of their nation’s worsening problems.   The true picture is discouraging: murderous bombings, ever-increasing sectarianism, and pervasive government corruption have combined to prevent progress on such crucial issues as security, healthcare, and power availability. Al-Ali contends that the ill-planned U.S. intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have made their own. And yet, despite all efforts to divide them, Iraqis retain a strong sense of national identity, al-Ali maintains. He reevaluates Iraq’s relationship with itself, discusses the inspiration provided by the events of the Arab Spring, and redefines Iraq’s most important struggle to regain its viability as a nation.

The Franchising of al-Qaeda

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

NYT's Ben Hubbard, on al-Qaeda's second wind:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits.”

Egypt's Hobbesian moment

Thomas Hobbes. From Shutterstock.

Noted Egyptian rights activist Karim Ennarah, writing on Facebook:

January 25th might be defeated, but January 28th--I mean that Hobbesian moment that characterises everything in Egypt today--is not, and I doubt that anyone could put an end to this Hobbesian moment and turn this into a governable country. This revolution has changed things fundamentally, in a way that is irreversible (and I don't necessarily mean positively nor am I talking about democracy or rule of law) and the social crisis that remains of it is bigger than anything or anyone, despite those who think it's intellectually fashionable to use the term "uprising" instead of revolution in their headlines. As for us, those who are defeated, bruised and humiliated (for the time being, at least); I don't have the faintest hint of regret. If this nation does not progress in the future--if that social process cannot be geared towards a better life, then at least I, almost every one in this country, has changed forever. I used to have one existential crisis, no I have multiple, now this society is questioning everything--things we used to take for granted like democracy, rule of law, legitimacy, "the people", religion, and the concept of progress itself. Something's going to give, and at the very least, I know that my generation that is defined by this revolution will prevail some day, even if it takes twenty years..

The question now is, what will be the cost of all this?

There are multiple ways to use the phrase "Hobbesian moment" – one in terms of the use of brutal politics, in the usual sense of "Hobbesian" as that borrowed from Leviathan and meaning the absolute power of the sovereign, and its ruthless use, to subdue selfish or unruly citizens. It can apply to state repression or even revolutionary terror. Another, though, comes Hobbes' Elements of Law. It is about a fight to define, or frame, the future:

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future; or rather, call past, future relatively. Thus after a man hath been accustomed to see like antecedents followed by like consequents, whensoever he seeth the like come to pass to any thing he hath seen before, he looks there should follow it the same that followed then. As for example: because a man hath often seen offenses followed by punishment, when he seeth an offense in present, he thinketh a punishment to be consequent thereto. But consequent unto that which is present, men call future. And thus we make remembrance to be prevision, or conjecture of things to come, or expectation or presumption of the future.

For the last three years, the future of Egypt has looked hopeful at times and bleak at others (and of course looked different to different people). But it has always looked very uncertain, and that has not changed. This fight to define the future is likely to be long and bloody.

Alaa's letter to his sisters

The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept. And what is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution. The people that are in ongoing negotiations despite the fact that they are not in jail aren’t worth the reality that I am deprived from spending even one hour with my son. The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain. Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.

It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt. To be honest, one hour with Khaled is more beneficial. I don’t even understand how I can live without him and I don’t understand how I can live without Manal. When I got the order to appear before the Prosecutor, Manal began to pragmatically prepare so that our work would not be delayed and I became so unsettled at her and a visit I had with Maysara to delegate some of my work and determine who will take on the rest of the responsibilities. I knew that I would be imprisoned, but I didn’t want to think about how our lives would go on while we are no longer together. At the end, life goes on. Just because my willpower and control on time has stopped, does not mean that time itself has stopped.

The thought is scary, I am facing two felonies and it is clear that they have decided that we must be handed down sentences. It is clear that the revolution is in poor shape. We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.
— Letter dated 24 December 2013 by political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah

Note: Khaled is Alaa's two-year old son, Manal his wife. He is in prison and facing charges of inciting protests. Thousands of Egyptians – almost all Islamist activists – have been arrested since July 2013. Alaa, a prominent leftwing activist, has been investigated and/or arrested by every regime since Mubarak.