The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Notes on the #occupycabinet protest

Above, Jonathan Rachad's photography of the recent protests.

Some good narratives of the days of fighting:

Extremely graphic video of treatment of wounded, dying.

Al Jazeera English report by Sherine Tadros on the violence and SCAF's press conference.

Possibilities of a political solution:

There have been various initiatives to obtain a ceasefire between protestors and the armed forces, but to no avail. A number of public personalities are now gravitating towards another option: moving presidential elections even earlier to get SCAF out of power as soon as possible. A Facebook campaign has been started and obtained the backing of various personalities. The former prime minister, Essam Sharaf, is also backing earlier presidential elections (I say "earlier" because in mid-November, after the Mohammed Mahmoud St. clashes, they were just moved from sometime in 2013 to June 2012). 

Most political parties have remained silent on this matter. The Muslim Brotherhood has issues a series of messages condemning the clashes and the military's behavior, but only issued a vague call for investigations. Mohammed Beltagi of the FJP has however gone further in his critique and suggested a handover of SCAF's power to parliament instead of a presidential election (obviously this benefits them). Abu Ela Madi, the head of the al-Wassat Party (MB dissidents), has resigned from the SCAF's consultative council (he was deputy head) along with 10 other personalities and is now joining calls for SCAF to step down as soon as possible.

Other links: 

Links 13-19 December 2011

LinksIssandr El Amrani
The girl

The picture of this girl has been a major topic of debate on Egyptian talk shows tonight — with some SCAF defenders arguing it was photoshopped — and is on the cover of tomorrow's Tahrir newspaper. Below is the video that shows her and a companion being chased, then beaten by soldiers.

Egypt, Pakistan, the US and the "right side of history"

Congress is going ahead with plans to make aid to Egypt, including military aid, contingent on Egypt’s relations with Israel and a successful transition:

Reflecting concerns about uncertainty within the Egyptian government, the bill would restrict $1.3 billion in security assistance to Cairo and $250 million in economic assistance until the secretary of state certifies to Congress that Egypt is abiding by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, military rulers are supporting the transition to civilian government with free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.” 

These and other restrictions — notably on the Palestinan Authority and Pakistan — carry “national security wavers” — meaning the Secretary of State can easily lift them. ( Read more: Congress moves to restrict aid to Egypt, Pakistan )

Meanwhile Mamoun Fandy says Egypt could be come worse than Pakistan and underlines Tantawi’s experience in that country during the abominable reign of Zia al-Haq:

The past experience of three major players on the Egyptian political scene ― the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the US Embassy and Islamists ― suggests that Egypt may soon come to resemble Pakistan.

But why Pakistan and not Turkey? Though many have long hoped to implement the Turkish model in Egypt, Pakistan ― not Turkey ― seems to be the most plausible outcome. In fact, Egypt may turn out a worse version of Pakistan.

Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling SCAF, worked as a military attache in Pakistan and has made no secret of his admiration for civil-military relationship there. In Pakistan, he believes, politics is the job of politicians but the military maintains the right to change the power equation whenever it wants, because state affairs are too important to be left completely in the hands of civilians.

Over the last 40 or so years, Pakistan has seen military coups led by generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. In the Pakistani power equation, the army is the compass. 
> US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is also experienced in Pakistani affairs, following years of work there at a time when political tensions between the two countries ― in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan ― were at their peak.

Patterson is prepared to implement a similar plan in Egypt ― a currently unstable country that has important military and religious waves that need to be tamed to incorporate US interests into their agendas. Having successfully led a similar process in Pakistan, Patterson is the right woman for an Egypt that is transforming into another Pakistan, with the rise of the Salafi-led Nour and Brotherhood-led Freedom and Justice parties to power.

Fandy gloomily concludes:

We should therefore brace ourselves for the pakistanization of Egypt. Thinkers should get busy studying the Pakistani model instead of wasting their time examining a Turkish model that will never happen.

I don’t know where Fandy gets his info about Patterson’s approach, although it is certainly true that the US ambassador, who is in close contact with SCAF, has also had higher-level and more regular meetings with the Muslim Brothers than publicly acknowledged. The recent visit of John Kerry and his encounter with senior Brothers goes in the same direction.

Of course Egypt is currently too unstable and murky right now to discern any definitive direction. But a US-MB-Army triangle is one of the worst possible outcomes imaginable in my opinion, with built-in sources of recurrent tensions. Much better to have a weakened army and strong MB in the context of a system that, even if unstable, still has civilian rule at its core. The recent positions of the Obama administration emphasizing civilian rule suggest to me that at least part of the Obama administration is not yet committed to implementing a Pakistani policy in Egypt, but I fear CIA, CENTCOM and a good part of the State Dept. may very well be — and they can be more influential than a president, particularly in an election year.

Here’s a recent piece in al-Masri al-Youm that shows Egyptian civil society reactions to this perceived trend:

In the interim, it seems that the US, Egypt’s military and its ascendant Islamist forces are engaging in a precarious dance. The US’s uncertain posture has some Egyptians worried about what will come next in its relationship with the Western power.

“I’ve never seen Americans so confused and worried as I have ever since January,” says Hisham Kassem, a liberal political analyst who is in regular contact with American officials. “I know that security and stability are American interests, not civil rights, in the coming period in Egypt.”

American officials are saying otherwise, though, emphasizing Washington’s commitment to democracy in Egypt regardless of the elections’ outcome.

“Now, in Egypt, new actors will be seated in the parliament, including representatives of Islamist parties,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 6 December, a few days after it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was poised to dominate the coming parliament.

She also called for fair and inclusive elections, and said the United States expected those elected to uphold universal human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of religion, as well as maintain peaceful relations between Egypt and its neighbors.

On 11 December, US Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Cairo, where he met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and high-level representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“You can tell whom the American government thinks is the most important from the people Kerry met with and in this order: Tantawi, Ganzouri, the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “No civil society groups, no liberals were included.”

Read more in the story for reactions by a number of analysts and activist.

In a sense, from a realpolitik perspective, one can’t blame the US for dealing with those personalities and institutions that wield power both on the street and in practice. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fit that description, and the elections’ results so far confirm this trend.

Nonetheless, there is an alternative policy: criteria-based relations with Egypt that do not rely on who’s in power but how those in power wield it. It implies a withdrawal from Egypt and the region that is not palatable to the mainstream US foreign policy community and political class (Ron Paul aside). It means ending policies that have made Washington a domestic player in Egyptian politics — a policy that may have had its rewards but also high costs in terms of image, soft power, etc.

The relationships that the US has maintained with client states like Egypt and Pakistan for the past 30-40 years have demonstrably been disastrous, severely hindering natural political processes in these countries, contributing to the marginalization of non-identity based political movements, and creating a wide range of problems for the US and its citizens, notably exposure to terrorism. It is nothing worth reproducing.

All this is worth keeping in mind at a time when SCAF, which has rewritten the history of the Egyptian uprising of late January 2011 to make it about the army siding with protestors against Mubarak rather than shoot them, and the US, which demands credit for not backing Mubarak and pressuring the army not to shoot protestors, respectively deny reality and stay mum.

It is an inconvenient fact that the the latest Egyptian crisis is the culmination of a steady drift by the Egyptian military towards using unjustified, often gratuitous, force against protestors. starting with:

  • the forced “virginity tests” of March,
  • the first raid on Tahrir Square in April,
  • the panicked handling of the Maspero protests in October,
  • the events that led to the Mohammed Mahmoud St. protests of November,
  • and now the direct, unvarnished and senseless encouragement of soldiers to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at protestors, among so many other crimes.

Obama and Clinton tried to take credit in February for their role in preventing the Egyptian military from killing protestors (I’ve long thought the army was not ready to do so then, since it could simply get rid of Mubarak and was unsure that its own would follow orders — the situation and context nine months later is obviously different).

Well, now the army is killing protestors and all doubts about whether this is intentional or mere incompetence should have vanished — and with it, the narrative that the Egyptian military and US are on the “right side of history”. This could very well be the moment in which the “Egypt is the next Pakistan” theory is tested, with all its manyfold implications.

Another one for the virginity tests, perhaps?

Egypt, still the land of denial

Army officers beating protestors / watchers. (Stupid music unnecessary, particularly when in the background someone seems to be yelling “the journalist died” or something similar [1:20].

More beatings with truncheons, rock-throwing by soldiers.

Here you can clearly see uniformed troops throwing rocks from the top of the government building adjacent to parliament.

From the same rooftop, a uniformed soldier relieving himself on the roof — doing the Egyptian army proud.

The government would have you believe all of the above is untrue, did not happen, and was done by foreigners anyway: Ganzouri blames cabinet clashes on ‘foreign elements’:

Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri on Saturday accused “foreign elements” of stirring up riots outside Egypt’s cabinet building.

In a press conference, he also said military police have exercised self-control in dealing with protesters.

Eight people have died and at least 299 injured in the clashes, the Health Ministry reported earlier on Saturday.

“Elements that infiltrated the protest shot fire. Everything that is happening now has nothing to do with the revolution. This is intended to ruin the revolution,” Ganzouri said.

He went on to say that revolutionary youth are those who fight unemployment or seek to solve society’s problems, adding, “Those who carry out these acts are not revolutionaries and do not want the best for Egypt.”

“Once again I emphasize that military forces did not clash with them, and only guarded the parliament and cabinet building,” he said.

Someone — a behavioral psychologist perhaps — should do a study of the power of denial in Egypt, something I’ve long called the Egyptian Reality Distortion Field (ERDF — used in another with regards to Steve Jobs). The ERDF gives Egyptians, notably public officials, an uncanny ability to disregard what is plain for all to see and, with the utmost confidence, assure all comers of its opposite. Ganzouri today described people dying during the protests and then insisted “there was no violence” before storming out of his press conference. Last October the SCAF insisted no army truck ran over protestors despite much video evidence being available of exactly that.

The most incredible thing about the ERDF is that it seems to work on most of the population, giving many Egyptians the ability to assert one thing and then its opposite with no awareness of self-contradiction. You have to experience it to understand it. Much of it has to do with Egypt being the Blanche Dubois of the Middle East — a faded belle whose glory days have long gone but who keeps on pretending otherwise — and is all too often indulged (somewhat abusively) by those around her. Apparently, a country can suffer from post-menopausal hysteria.1

As Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter:

Since #Jan25, innocents continue to be killed & tortured while authority denies using force or violence. Orwell’s “Min. of Truth” reincarnated


  1. I only use the hysteria reference for theatric effect in the context of the Streetcar metaphor, with apology. Read this for debunking. ↩

On the #occupycabinet protests

I won’t recap here the events of this morning in which several protestors from the #occupycabinet sit-in on Magles al-Shaab St., where the prime minister’s office and parliament are located, were arrested, wounded and/or beaten. You can take a look at Aya Batrawy’s reporting for AP, excerpted at the end of this post, for context. Suffice to say that, from what appears to have been an accident (an activist entering the gardens of the parliament building to retrieve a football was arrested and mistreated) we now have a return to the kind of street warfare seen a few weeks ago on Mohammed Mahmoud St.

As you can see from the video above, which I shot this afternoono, it’s not quite as violent as that. But the battle is now blocking Qasr al-Aini St., one of Cairo’s major arteries, and has been stagnant for hours. No riot control police has been deployed, and you have a few hundred of protestors on one side vs. a few hundred plainclothes police and, possibly, some soldiers on the other. No decision has been taken all day to stop the violence, and those plainclothes police are engaged in the same rock-throwing and Motolov cocktail-throwing as the protestors. There does not seem to be any authority there, or chain of command, and my bet is that the SCAF are paralyzed about what to do. Send in Military Police or riot control police and you risk an escalation.

Of course, more protestors may join in tonight, and who knows how long this is going to last. There are no demands here, just anger at the police and army, and an absence of leadership on the government side. The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, could not enter his normal office and has set up shop at the Investment Authority. The Ministry of Interior is washing its hands of the whole thing, putting the blame squarely on Military Police. The army is nowhere to be seen, although SCAF head Field Marshall Tantawi has been reported to order that wounded protestors receive treatment. They’d been receiving treatment anyway at a field hospital set up by the usual volunteer doctors and nurses.

Who knows how things will turn out — I think it might peter out over the weekend — but these recurring crises are symptomatic of a deeper problem than police violence or a part of the protest movement that just wants to express anger. The behavior of police and army is appalling, they appear out of control and engaged in petty retaliation against the protestors while political and military leaders are absent. This is not state collapse, but those at the helm are asleep and the security services appear completely out of control. Why the hell are police and soldiers engaging in rock-throwing? Who is running this place? It's an abdication of authority and responsibility. Pathetic.

AP’s report, on WSJ.com:

CAIRO (AP) — Security forces stormed a protest camp outside Egypt’s Cabinet building, expelling demonstrators calling for an end to military rule, just as officials were counting votes Friday in the second round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

The clashes underlined simmering tensions between activists and security officers and threatened to ignite a new round of violence after two peaceful days of voting in an election considered the freest and fairest vote in the country’s modern history.

Clashes erupted as demonstrators were camped out in front of the Cabinet building, demanding that the country’s military rulers transfer power immediately to a civilian authority. The sit-in was in its third week.

One activist posted a photo online of a female protester beaten in the clashes, and others said they were briefly detained by military police. It was unclear how many protesters remain in military police custody.

The military took over after longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular revolt in February. Rights groups and activists charge that the military is carrying on the practices of the old regime, including arresting and beating dissidents. Protesters at the Cabinet building said the clashes began Thursday evening after soldiers severely beat a young man who was taking part in the sit-in.

Hundreds of people rushed to join the protest after online video and photos showed people carrying the wounded man. The pictures showed his face and eyes bruised and swollen, his head wrapped in gauze and blood dripping from his nose.

Witnesses accused military police of snatching the man from near the sit-in and beating him inside parliament, near Cabinet headquarters. Then protesters threw rocks and firebombs at military police.

Activist Hussein Hammouda said the military responded by throwing rocks and aiming water cannons from inside the gates of the nearby parliament building.

“Tensions between the people and security officers is so enflamed that anything that happens just blows up. There is no trust between the two sides,” said Hammouda, who resigned from the police in 2005 to protest police practices.

For the next time your local dictator shuts down the internet

The most traffic this blog ever got was on January 28. Shortly after midnight, I posted that the internet had been shut down in Egypt. The news spread on technology sites like Slashdot and Reddit, eventually bringing down the site. I had internet because I was not in Cairo: I was in the middle of a reporting trip in Tunis, but was spending all my time after the curfew still in place then making calls to Cairo. I had landlines for friends, and quickly confirmed that at least three major ISPs had been simply shut off. It confirmed my gut feeling that something big was coming, and as I flew back to Cairo the next day what became an uprising had begun, defeating the police state.

I still feel that shutting down the internet (and mobile phones) was the key, pivotal tactical mistake of the Mubarak regime that pushed so many to join the protests. It took several days for the internet to be re-established, but in those few days a sense of urgency had been created, galvanizing the protestors' spirit and giving the whole Egyptian uprising story a new angle.

All of this was brought back to mind by this Wired story (via Boing Boing) about a State Department-funded project to quickly deploy, basically, the internet in a suitcase:

The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.

In those early days, even a rapidly deployable intranet would have been useful — especially if you were able to use a Twitter-like service that was decentralized, working like P2P, and advertise services on it so they would be found automatically (like a central repository of some sort that would act as the intranet's home page). Even more useful would be a suitcase satellite internet, like a Bgan on steroids, that could immediately deploy wifi over a sizeable area and handle, say, 100 simultaneous users.  

Electoral dirty tricks

Egypt's elections: Dirty tricks | The Economist:

FIRST came unsigned leaflets claiming that the candidate for the Egyptian Bloc, a secularist group, was a communist atheist. Then pamphlets accusing him of being a capitalist crony of the disgraced former regime appeared. Other rumours swirled around the parliamentary district in rural Upper Egypt where he was standing. Some said the Egyptian Bloc was backed by Freemasons and Jews. Others fingered the Coptic Church. On the morning of the vote, pick-up trucks mounted with megaphones fanned out to deliver a coup de grace. Congratulations to the Egyptian Bloc, they blared. Its candidate has been appointed a cabinet minister in Cairo and has withdrawn from the race.

Politics is a rough game everywhere. As it happens the Egyptian Bloc won that seat anyway. But one might have expected a gentler touch from the Islamist parties contesting Egypt's first free parliamentary elections in decades, which enter the second of three regional rounds of voting this week. The Islamists claim the high moral ground, saying they want a return to the principles and values of the pure faith. Yet Egypt's two main Islamist political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the puritan Salafists, which together look set to capture as many as two thirds of parliamentary seats, are playing electoral hardball not only against their secular opponents, but against each other too.

What strikes me is that not more dirty tricks have been used against Islamists. The former regime use to be pretty good at it, and they are vulnerable to charges of working for foreign interests (Saudi, Iran...) as well as (perversely) accusations of religious heresy: Salafis as against traditional Islam (the Sufi line) or crypto-al-Qaeda, Muslim Brothers as being a secret society with a bizarre worship of Hassan al-Banna (a frequent Salafi line of attack), use their morality against them by staging sting operations, alleging affairs, etc. Granted some of this has been done by secularists complaining about the Salafis being Saudi-funded, but that's pretty minor compared to the Salafis' (illegal) use of mosques for electioneering, etc.

Post-uprising: what to do with secret police files?

This year’s uprisings have, in several countries, defeated the domestic spying apparatus, but there is yet little idea of how not only to reform these agencies, but what to do with all the data they collected (or indeed reveal the extent of this data collection).

In Libya, the chaos and sudden fall of Tripoli allowed, temporarily, access to files that revealed not only surveillance but collaboration with Western intelligence on various issues. The state of the intelligence apparatus in unknown, but it is likely that much of it collapsed alongside the Qadhafi state.

In Egypt, the very first days of the uprisings saw security agencies move to destroy many documents and recordings (this was seen in safehouses in different parts of Cairo, as well as in the offices of State Security), some capture of documents by protestors during the (possibly manipulated) break-in into State Security HQ in Nasr City, but no fundamental reform — indeed it appears that not only State Security is still operating as National Security (and lately returning to the streets), but General Intelligence is now at the peak of its powers, even without Omar Suleiman.

In Tunisia, in-depth police reform has yet to begin but the surveillance state has been partly dismantled already. They are now beginning to deal with the many years of work full accountability will take, as this fascinating post at Unredacted on the Tunisian debate of what to do with the former regime’s secret police files shows:

Operating out of the Interior Ministry and other federal agencies, the intelligence and security forces known collectively as the secret police, or political police, excelled in spying on citizens, infiltrating civil society groups, trolling emails and social media sites for information, and harassing, intimidating and torturing suspected opponents of Ben Ali’s regime. Conference participants agreed that no space, public or private, was safe from the surveillance state. As Farah Hachad, a lawyer and president of Le Labo’, recalled at the start of the conference, “Since I was born, even conversations inside our house would be silenced because of the fear inside our hearts that we would be heard and punished.”

Presenters at the conference and audience members had their own memories of the repressive power wielded by the political police. One man recounted how an agent showed up at his door to detain him, “And when I asked, do you have an arrest warrant?, he pulled twenty blank arrest warrants from his pocket, all signed by the Interior Minister, and said, I can have as many as I want.” Taieb Baccouche, the interim Minister of Education and president of the Arab Institute of Human Rights, remembered signing his name to a petition for democracy in the late 1960s along with dozens of other activists, artists and scholars. “That was the beginning of surveillance: they controlled my phone, my mail and all my movements from then on.” Everyone agreed that the political police still existed and still posed a danger to democratic change, despite the advances of the revolution.

More than the issue of disbanding the secret police, however, the conference was focused on how to seize their archives as a way of preserving collective memory and permitting informed public debate about the repressive past. There were strong differences of opinion about how to manage the archives. Some feared the impact on people’s lives of the release of personal information, whether true or invented by the regime. Others felt that Tunisia’s democratic transition could not be complete without access to the archives. As artist and activist Zeyneb Farhat put it, “These political archives were designed to devalue and damage the credibility of activists by spreading lies about them… They have to be opened now in order to create a justice-based relationship between police and citizens and to build trust, so that people understand the police are for protecting security, not for undermining change.”

Round two of Egypt's elections

The second round of Egypt's interminable elections for the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, began this morning with little trouble. Here's a few things to look out for, since the extended process means lessons are being learned from earlier rounds:

  • The SCAF has promised to be more vigilant about campaign violations, since hundreds of complaints (including about a dozen lawsuits to have the whole elections cancelled) have been filed. Let's see if they enforce things more stringently this time around — personally, I doubt it. But at least they will have had more time to prepare and get things right inside the polling stations.
  • Last round, there were long queues on the first day of voting and few people out the second. This time around, expect some voters to skip the first day expecting the second to be faster.
  • Attempts by secular forces to coordinate their strategies and pick winners in certain districts will be tried in some places, even if coalitions such as Revolution Continues haev expressed unwillingness to deal with Egyptian Bloc candidates with ties to the old regime. I expect very limited success for this strategy because it was too late to take candidates off the ballot, and no one has the reach to marshall voters into casting their ballot more strategically.
  • That being said, voters will take their own initiative. I suspect the Egyptian Bloc, being the big winner among the secular parties in the first round, will be the logical choice for tactical voting.
  • Expect the FJP-Nour battle to intensify, particularly for IC seats. Nour lost most of those in the runoff last time, while the FJP was taken off-guard by Nour's succcess in the first round. I wouldn't be surprised if we see tensions between FJP and Nour supporters, either.
  • Menoufiya is a stronghold for the Muslim Brothers, but also for the felool. Lookout for the races in the Sadat family strongholds in the south, in Menouf and near Ahmed Ezz's steel factory, in Bagour in Kamal al-Shazli's old fiefdom.
  • Beheira might also be interesting — expect it to go strongly MB with a possible sweet vengeance for local Damanhour son Gamal Heshmat, a member of the MB's Political Bureau and a victim of NDP machinations in the last decade (I'm not sure he's running, but in any case I expect FJP to get much sympathy for the past abuses they suffered there.)
  • Sharqiya is mixed, but I wonder if the Wafd will do well there as it has done in the past through the Abaza family. My hunch is that the new electoral system creates districts that are too big to be used in this way (which is why the "big families" have failed thus far)
  • Ismailiya and Suez: the former a conservative stronghold, would not be surprised if Nour does well there, the latter a strong working class and revolutionary presence — perhaps giving Revolution Continues a boost.
  • I fear a Salafi triumph in Beni Suef, one of the most neglected governorates in Egypt, and Sohag will give us more indications of the Upper Egyptian vote: good chances there for the Egyptian Bloc due to a sizeable Christian population, and a test for the "big families" that once were for the NDP. These did not do well in Assiut (partly because the FJP and Egyptian Bloc has strong candidates), but Assiut is cosmopolitan compared to Sohag.

Links 12-13 December 2011

 

The future (or lack thereof) of Hamas in Syria

Good reporting from Tobias Buck in the FT on Hamas' predicament in Syria:

The Syrian leader is outraged that Hamas, a movement he has sponsored and nurtured for years, is refusing to back his regime against the uprising that started earlier this year. Relations are reportedly at breaking point.

Fearful of retribution, and alarmed by the collapse of order, Hamas has evacuated many of its lower-level officials from Syria. “We feel that the situation is very dangerous for Hamas in Syria,” admitted one Gaza-based Hamas official. “They [the Assad regime] are very angry with us, they want us to give support just like Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shia movement] did. But this is impossible for Hamas. The Syrian regime is killing its own people.”

Hamas leaders are keenly aware it can be dangerous to pick the wrong side. “No one wants to make the mistake that [former Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat made in Kuwait,” said Mostafa Alsawaf, the editor of Alresalah, a pro-Hamas newspaper in the Gaza Strip.

Arafat backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and after Iraq’s defeat Kuwait took revenge by expelling some 450,000 Palestinian expatriate workers. Syria is home to about 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants – a potentially huge target for retribution.

The article goes on to note that neither possible alternative headquarters for the Hamas leadership, Egypt and Qatar, are ready to take them in. But that might change, in time, since the movement has friends there.

Last week, flying back from a trip in Rome, I noticed a group of of men dressed in suits with closely-cropped beards and Syrian flag pins on their lapels. Some seemed to be bearing Turkish travel documents — not a passport, but the kind of documents a country might give people without travel documents from their own countries, like political refugees. They spoke Shami Arabic. I suspect they were Syrian Muslim Brothers visiting Cairo.

One thing you can give Hamas credit for (unlike Hizbullah) is that they took a courageous decision not giving support to Assad. It's a dangerous one as the Syrian regime gets increasingly desperate.

Naguib Mahfouz: an appreciation

On December 11 it was the centenary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth.  

Mahfouz was dragged into the news recently when Salafi parliamentary candidate (and reliable crackpot) Abdel-Moneim Shahat said the great novelist and Nobel Laureate “encouraged atheism and debauchery.”

Mahfouz nearly paid with his life for such views of his work. In 1994, a young religious fundamentalist approached him as he was getting into a car, pretended to want to shake his hand and instead slashed his throat.  He just barely missed the writer’s carotid artery. The man had never read Mahfouz’s novels but had been told his work Children of our Alley (also known as Childen of Gabalawy) was blasphemous. 

I read my first Mahfouz novel -- The Cairo Trilogy, of course -- when I first arrived in Cairo. It opened historical and literary vistas for me.

I met Mahfouz in 2005, about a year before he died, at a hotel on the Maadi Corniche where he held a weekly salon. It was a gathering of a few eccentric hangers-on and old, devoted friends. Mahfouz was nearly blind and his hearing was very poor. But he still liked to meet people and have a coffee and one single cigarette. He also like to laugh and make laugh -- I came away from that meeting with the distinct impression of a very cultivated sociability, that great Egyptian gift for savoring the moment.  

Mahfouz very graciously signed my copy of the Trilogy (with his claw-like hands, the result of nerve damage from the attack). I remember he asked me whether I agreed with his fundamentalist critics that Children of the Alley was “against religion.” Oh no, I assured him, I didn’t think that. He gave me a sharp, questioning smile that made me feel I’d failed some test. 

Mahfouz lived through two great political upheavals, the 1919 revolution against British rule and the 1952 Free Officer’s Coup. A government employee famous for his love of routine, he was not romantic or revolutionary by temperament -- he took the long view, juxtaposing small human losses against the great sweep of history, its ever-repeating cycles. 

The impact of Mahfouz’s work cannot be overstated. He was an extraordinary writer. And as Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury once said, Mahfouz almost single-handedly gave Arabic literature every form of the 20th century novel, bestowing a modern literary heritage on the novelists that followed him and freeing them to experiment. 

Besides Mahfouz’ many novels, I highly recommend Gamal El-Ghitany’s Magalis Mahfouzia, from Dar El-Shorouk, a lovely and loving collection of anecdotes from a good friend and fellow writer. 

 

 

Egypt's Islamists and tourism

Halal tourism: summer fling anyone?

Read the passages below and you'll see a fundamental miscomprehension of what most European tourists (the bulk of those who visit Egypt) like to do on holiday:

"Tourists don't need to drink alcohol when they come to Egypt; they have plenty at home," a veiled Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Azza al-Jarf, told a cheering crowd of supporters on Sunday across the street from the Pyramids.

"They came to see the ancient civilization, not to drink alcohol," she said, her voice booming through a set of loudspeakers at a campaign event dubbed "Let's encourage tourism." The crowd chanted, "Tourism will be at its best under Freedom and Justice," the Brotherhood's party and the most influential political group to emerge from the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

. . .

Also, clerics like Yasser Bourhami, influential among hard-line Salafis, are presenting ideas for restrictions on tourism. Bourhami calls it "halal tourism," using the term for food that is ritually fit under Islamic law.

"A five-star hotel with no alcohol, a beach for women — sisters — separated from men in a bay where the two sides can enjoy a vacation for a week without sins," he said in an interview with private television network Dream TV. "The tourist doesn't have to swim with a bikini and harm our youth."

A leading member of Al-Nour, Tarek Shalaan, stumbled through a recent TV interview when asked about his views on the display of nude pharaonic statues like those depicting fertility gods.

"The antiquities that we have will be put under a different light to focus on historical events," he said, without explaining further.

If they truly feel that their religion really doesn't allow the sale of alcohol or use of beaches in swimsuits, fine — although I'd still like to see the whole religious argument for it, with sources, and particularly when it concerns non-Muslims. But at least be honest about the impact on a major source of revenue for the country. We are now at a point when the comfortable role of opposition no longer holds for Islamists, it's time to be serious about one's positions and their consequences.

A few years ago, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood MPs in parliament opposed a law that would tighten the ban on Female Genital Mutilation (a practice that has absolutely no basis in Islam, it's largely a Nile Valley thing) and also opposed a law banning child beatings. If they are just traditionalists, let them say that. But if they want to invoke religion, they better make their case with full theological and scriptural backing.