The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Belal Fadl chats with a general

This translation of a column by Belal Fadl in El Shorouk newspaper is courtesy the professional translation service Industry Arabic

Chat with a Modern Major General

Belal Fadl

Sir Major General -- rather, sir Lieutenant General -- that is, sir General of the Army sir! [1] You majestic pillar of strength, you Colonel of distinction, Our Father, who art in all sorts of investigations and secret services… you really don’t realize what you’ve done to the country, do you?

To make a long story short -- and just in case you forgot, in your ecstasy over what you imagine to be a landslide victory --  there once was a failing gang who came into power [2]. They betrayed their promises, allied themselves with you, and I thought they would buy your satisfaction by leaving your special privileges just the way they are. This gang bit off more than they could chew, and acted like a man who hasn’t seen meat in a year - they took one look at power, and made a fool of themselves. So of course, they failed spectacularly. They went down in flames and the people rose up against them, demanding that the gang leave and early presidential elections be held, so they could choose someone more respectable and appoint him as president instead. But of course, you’ve conveniently forgotten the part about those early elections, and instead imposed a roadmap that guarantees your immediate control of the country. And you’ve brilliantly taken advantage of the Brotherhood’s appalling foolishness - all of it. First they offered you their necks - and they didn’t wake up until it was too late; meanwhile, you’re reaping the benefits of their crimes: their loathsome sectarian discourse; allowing armed men in their sit-ins; shouting words that they can't back up; and depending on people like Safwat Hegazi and Essam Abdel Maged, men who would cause civilization to sink entirely.

So after you won people over and they came out in the millions to remove this gang from power, instead of finishing up right and keeping your eye on the prize for the first time in your life… you decided to give this group CPR, so they could play the role of the oppressed, and gather their scattered members underground, just like in 1954 and 1965. And thanks to your politics, you’ll find that people will sympathize with them once again -- not out of love, but out of hatred, after their behinds are handed over to your men in the security headquarters, to be electrocuted once again.

Just as greed was the Brotherhood’s downfall, believe me - your policies will be your undoing. Your desire to take everything will lead you to lose everything. We will discover that an iron fist rules over this generation of revolutionaries, and they have turned a blind eye to it because they want to see where it will lead. Trust me, believe me, it’s not a misunderstanding; they are testing what you do. See how you decided to ruin that man with pure intentions, a stutter, and a clear stance [3] -- the one who agreed to work with you in hopes that you might have learned a lesson from those who came before you? And when he refused to do what you wanted, you mistreated him, forcing him to follow you. Even al-Azhar, which has consistently spoken about respect for you -- why did you circumvent it, cast it aside, and force it to issue a statement saying you didn’t consult their opinion on the massacre you committed… and as for the respectable people who agreed to work with you in government, you overpowered them, bullying them until they had second thoughts before taking a respectable position, and those thoughts multiplied a thousand times over. And of course, in the midst of all this, you are quite pleased with the media, working in your service, without thinking of the price society might pay for embracing hatred, violence, and anger, for vilifying others and accusing them of treason, for its lust for revenge.

Of course, you must feel quite safe sitting in the middle of your security, your servants, and your entourage, protecting yourselves and your children’s futures. Each of your men is protecting himself and his children’s futures; he does it in his own way, and with whatever it takes. In the end, it will be the average people who pay the price, the honorable citizens. Or to be more accurate: it will be the people you boast about when they join your ranks, and who you call fools as soon as they are against you. Because to you, they’re just numbers - just like to its leaders, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood are just numbers of martyrs and victims. Unfortunately, in the end it will be the little man -- the original inhabitant of Egypt  -- who pays the price, led by the officers and the army recruits. And on the day he is killed, they’ll come to have their photos taken at his funeral. They’ll use his blood to quash and suppress others, and to cover up your political failure. And in the end, unfortunately, no one will care about him other than his family and loved ones.

I can’t blame you if you don’t understand what you’ve done to this country - the consequences get more and more dire as you march on with the same policies. There are many people who have read countless books, and who have taken respectable positions their whole lives. We figured they were savvy intellectuals… but the most important men and women keep on applauding you. And making excuses for you, just as the generations of intellectuals before them applauded and justified the actions of those before you, and those before them. It must be said that the generations who have applauded before were much more cultured and talented… but applause hasn’t prevented us from stupidity, nor protected us from defeat, nor stopped the wheel of regression from spinning onward. If you’re pleased that the people whose phones you used to tap in the past have now opened up a hotline between you and them, you won’t be able to enjoy it for long, because this land is teeming with people, and even if they swallow bullshit when forced or tricked, you eventually discover that no people can live off bullshit. Because of this, you’ll be faced with it all again, until you or those after you have tamed them - or until those who come after them defeat you, and get this country its rights. It will all continue, again and again, until a majority of the people discover that we can be more pure and more beautiful without those who squander our freedoms and dignity, our principles and our humanity.

Of course, you don’t realize that while you’ve solved one problem, you’ve created more problems in its place. These problems are just beginning to take shape, problems that nourish injustice, bitterness, and vile hatred, problems that will blow up in all of our faces one of these days, and without warning. I hope it disturbs you and you alone - I’ve had it in for you. You’ve opened the gates of hell, thinking you wouldn’t burn -- because after all, hell’s flames don’t sear the devils who live there. But you don’t understand that once hell’s gates are opened on earth, the destiny of hell’s guardians is to burn -- no matter how much they think they are protected, or secure, or seated on an eternal air conditioner.

Finally, as our good friend Ibn Arous [4] said: “It is inevitable that on a given day, grievances will be redressed.” Many people thought that this day had arrived, but it turns out that it's still on its way. We will work for it, and we just might see it -- us, or those who come after us, or those who come after them. In the end, this day will come, because Egypt isn't going anywhere -- and Egypt is the only one among us that is everlasting.

 

1. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

2. The Muslim Brotherhood.

3. Mohamed ElBaradei.

4. Ibn ‘Arous is an Egyptian poet, though whether he was a real person or a fictional character is debated. The verse continues: “White on all the oppressed / Black on all the oppressors.”

 

Egypt and its patrons
Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony

In a long piece on the New York Review of Books's site, Yasmine El Rashidi gives a painstaking account of the escalating intransigence and violence that led to Rabaa and concludes: 

Although I have heard well-informed people insist that Egyptians will no longer accept a state that monopolizes power or abuses them, at this moment, the primitive calculation is one of relative safety—which is far from being assured. Faced with the choice between armed militants and armed men in uniform, Egyptians, by a large margin, are choosing the latter. And yet it was these same forces of state that were responsible for the discontent that led to the uprising against Mubarak; many of those forces have remained intact since his reign. The real coup in Egypt was the one of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak left office, and one wonders when the real revolution might come.

 

Posts, AsidesUrsula Lindseyegypt
More on Syria

Damascenes were clearly taking the threat of U.S. bombardment seriously this past week. As the UN CW investigators were leaving for Lebanon, Syrian state television replaced its usual diet of fashion and food puff pieces with talk show coverage on whether or not the U.S. would strike, as well as emergency broadcasting information (such as whether or not bakeries would be kept open).

But after airing Obama's speech in which he announced he would seek Congressional approval first, the tone of Syrian state newscasters changed to a much more buoyant mood, as did government officials' pronouncements.

Then, the army reportedly renewed artillery strikes against rebel positions near Damascus.

The President's speech, combined with the telegraphing of U.S. plans beforehand defanged the underlying political message that operations like these are meant to convey: there will be more, much more, of this unless you agree to our terms.

The larger problem with that kind of message, though, is that the U.S. does not seem to have any idea what terms it will dictate to Assad. Forty-eight hours to leave his bunker? Accept a 100,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission? New diplomatic talks fully involving the Iranians? A no-fly zone?

For Syrians, the debate has made little difference on the the ground since the CW attacks took place. Many activists, bystanders, and fighters will not lose sleep over how squeaky clean U.S. motives are or are not if a two-day cruise missile bombardment gives Assad a moment of pause (or leads to something bigger) as his forces grind down rebel-held towns.

While some activists fear that further intervention will only worsen the conflict:

"In the course of the revolutionary process, many other actors have also appeared on the scene to work against the struggle for self-determination. Iran and its militias, with the backing of Russia, came to the aid of the regime, to ensure the Syrian people would not be given this right. The jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and others, under the guise of “fighting the Assad regime,” worked against this right as well. And I feel the same way about any Western intervention."

Others are at the end of their ropes:

"it’s not like they’re unconscious of the pros of nonviolent resistance that they began revolting with, … or don’t know about what amerikkan military occupation means after years of hosting traumatized iraqi refugees … it’s a matter of desperate, last resort, life or death yearning for some kind of international reaction, some where, some how."

Despite the promised influx of foreign military assistance, there is little evidence that all of this promised aid has brought the rebels much further than where they have gotten themselves (with some help from the Saudis and Jordanians) in northern Syria, and near Damascus itself, where the CW attack(s) took place.

It is likely that the Syrian regime will frown and bear the cruise missiles just as it has on the occasions this past year when the IAF attacked targets of opportunity. Lebanon is the country most likely to pay a new price in such a scenario of escalation - as Syrians continue to pay an ongoing, very heavy price.

The reason Iran and Russia hold an advantage in this regard is because they have no compunctions about supporting the Assad regime, which is not the case with the rebels, given that there is no comparable rebel government to support, and US allies in the region are worried about further spillover, don't trust each other (Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular) or some of the rebels themselves (Turkey and Israel especially). Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Assad (and Assad's domestic supporters) want the regime to win, to stay in power. The alternative to that is not agreed upon by any of the other non-Syrian players - most of whom would prefer the U.S. do most of the work for them, while the U.S. itself would prefer the "good" fighters sort things out and take care of the "bad" fighters themselves.

What we are seeing here in the Western capitals are the aluminum tube and yellowcake chickens coming home to roost. Everyone has Iraq on their mind. While it is the use of WMDs that has prompted the impetus for direct action, it is precisely because WMDs are being cited that the debate has led to the UK's stated abstention from a future attack and to President Obama seeking political cover from Congress.

Right now, the way the Administration is putting its foot forward makes clear that the strike (if it happens) will be more like President Clinton's bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in 1998 than his air war over Kosovo in 1999, or even the NATO campaign in Libya two years ago.

Kosovo is a model under discussion in the news, but it is not the one this Administration appears to be considering. The ceasefire terms in Kosovo that ended the 78-day bombing campaign included the deployment of 50,000 peacekeepers. Intervening was a multi-year, multi-national deployment that required setting up checkpoints, monitoring disarmament, and guarding IDP camps with the implied threat that this force's existence presented to the Serbian regime. Doing something similar in Syria would require an undertaking on par with the Occupation of Iraq, or bigger.

The Administration is having a hard time ignoring the "red line" Obama declared a year ago on chemical weapons - but it is now qualifying its promise that it "will" take action as "should" and "can" take action. No Western power has hinted, either through leaks or public declarations, it is up for much beyond punitive strikes and arms/training missions via Jordan.

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PostsPaul Muttersyria, strikes
Syria as seen in Egypt

While Emad Adeeb was trying to  jolt his guest out of his stupor to tell us whether or not a US attack on Syria is in Egypt’s best interests and whether those interests are aligned with American interests, the overwhelming majority had already decided they were not.

Some for the reasons Amr Hamzawy offered Adeeb, which were, to be brief: It is dangerous to allow the  US to fashion itself as an international “Rambo” conducting military operations without international consent - again; there are no happy post-military intervention examples in living memory to cite in order to make the case for Syria, which needs a political solution, regionally and internationally, and; one of the main goals of Jan 25 was to end Egypt’s subordination to the US, which should afford it the right to oppose the US when it disagrees with it.

But not everyone was as Syria-focused about Syria as Hamzawy. Hamdeen Sabahi, for example, tweeted that history teaches us that an attack on Egypt always began with an attack on Syria, hence the need to oppose this barbarism. Identically, Kardy Saeed thought the main reason why Egypt shouldn’t condone an attack on Syria was because it would open the door for an attack on Egypt. Amr Adeeb screamed at a colorful map of a divided Syria and then moved on to compare between our Qatari and Emirati brothers,  while others saw the attack as a US consolation prize to the MB for  failing to tame Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Given that the belief that the West has conspired against the strong Arab armies to destroy the region is all but drafted into Egypt’s new constitution as the state-sanctioned worldview, it’s unsurprising that its anti-Islamist believers support the Syrian army. They also think that Jan 25 was mostly, if not wholly, a conspiracy crushed by el-Sisi and the true revolution of June 30. And that the gullible/complicit youth should rue that day since they helped the islamists frame it as a revolution and caused this mess -- but I digress.

An especially outspoken advocate of that theory is the wife of the head of state TV under Mubarak, Abdel Latif al-Menawi, Rola Kharsa, an appreciator of all Arab armies who is extending her propaganda services to “the Egyptian army’s extension, the Syrian army.” To her, Bashar al-Assad is a “symbol of the Syria,” which is the “Eastern Gate” that Western invaders will march through to occupy the pearl of the Middle East and Milky Way, Egypt.

Granted, Bashar can be a ruthless dictator sometimes, and maybe his people do want him gone, Kharsa concedes, but it’s not like Obama isn't a dictator too. One need not support Bashar for the sake of Bashar, she explains, one must do so for Syria, because he is the only guarantee of unity (something Syria enjoys right now and fears to lose). If one is still squirmy about supporting the Syrian army, one is free to draw a line between the arguably bad Bashar and the inherently good Syrian army if they want, Kharsa offers not unkindly, a line similar to the one between Mubarak and the SCAF.

Too consumed with the existential threat they are facing, the MB has nothing but a criminally long, repetitive article to offer Syria, which cites the same tired theory the liberals are touting (with the victims and traitor roles reversed, of course) as the real reason why the US wants to intervene, dismissing humanitarian obligations because why not intervene Burma, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan (?), Iraq (?!) and Egypt (since apart from the over-one-hundred-thousand discrepancy in the death toll, there is very little difference between the conflicts in Egypt and Syria).

The author also believes that the attack on Syria will serve as an international media distraction to allow the coup-supporters in Egypt to slaughter the MB and will generate profits for the US from traitor Gulf states, who support  its military economy.

It's worth noting that some TV hosts began their segments on Syria stressing the importance of letting Egypt's supreme interests, and only those, dictate how we see and deal with the Syrian conflict -- and then perfunctorily bemoaned the absence of Arab unity near the end.

 

Can strikes reduce civilian deaths in Syria?

One of the main arguments against US missile strikes to punish Syria's regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons is that such attacks will be of little immediate use in protecting civilians. This is only one aspect of the debate: others center around whether strikes are likely to lead to a stable negotiated ceasefire , or whether they will deter use of chemical weapons in future conflicts, or whether they fit American strategic interests. But it is an important one: the question of whether strikes will have a direct impact on civilian deaths in Syria is a key component of their legality under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

A study published by the Journal of Peace Research currently making the rounds suggests that external intervention in civil wars is actually likely to increase civilian casualties. War is unpredictable, which makes comparative studies of this sort that show general patterns extremely valuable. But any set of comparisons will have outliers. Syria’s differences from most civil wars, and the unusual nature of the proposed intervention, show how strikes -- if they can deter future chemical weapons use -- might not fit this pattern.

The differences are:

1)    Chemical weapons are used extremely rarely in war. When they are used in populated areas, they are disproportionately deadly to civilians

2)    In Syria, unlike many civil wars, the rebels control large swathes of territory and government forces are extremely circumscribed in their movements

3)    Syria is already seeing large-scale external intervention by President Bashar al-Assad’s allies

Firstly, chemical weapons are a devastating but haphazard way of making war. Civilians can often take cover from conventional artillery, even if fighters actively defending an area cannot. Chemical weapons on the other hand are silent, disperse over a large area, seep into places like basements which provide shelter against other sorts of attacks, and linger, killing rescue workers and others who enter contaminated zones, either by accident or necessity. (Reportedly, all but one of the activists who rushed to document the Ghouta attack died doing so.) The deadliest conventional artillery bombardments in Syria’s war, such as those that struck Homs in February 2012, usually killed 50-100 people in a day. The low-end estimates of the Aug. 21 strikes in Ghouta outside Damascus are around 400-500 dead, and the US estimate runs over over 1,400. Many writers have pointed out that, even if strikes deter chemical weapons use, artillery and airstrikes will continue to kill civilians. They will, but about five to ten times less efficiently.

Secondly, the military stalemate in Syria’s civil war makes some kinds of killings of civilians less likely, and some kinds more likely. Most civil wars are relatively fluid: either territory changes hands, or the weaker side is small enough and mobile enough to enter territory controlled by the stronger side. The weaker side has an incentive to use fear to force civilian populations with divided loyalties to comply with them or to keep their whereabouts secret. The JPR study suggests that when intervention tips the balance for one side, the other's incentive to use terror increases.

Syria, however, is at this stage an unusually static civil war -- particularly for the government. It has lots of heavy weapons but limited infantry, and is probably outnumbered by Syria’s highly decentralized rebel forces. The government generally knows where to find the rebels; it just can't always hit them. The rebels usually have the sympathy of civilians in the areas where they are entrenched. In the last year, territory has changed hands very slowly, usually requiring months-long sieges. Government forces generally prefer to stand off and bombard areas with artillery or airpower, and chemical arms dramatically increase the amount of deaths that they can cause over time. Of any recent civil war, this military situation is perhaps most comparable to Bosnia, where US airstrikes against Serbian artillery were effective in reducing civilian deaths.

Thirdly, the JPR study argues that civilian deaths spike when a local balance of power is upset. The Syrian civil war’s balance has already been tilted in recent months in the government’s favor by Russian and Iranian arms transfers and an influx of Hezbollah fighters to make up for its infantry shortcomings, allowing it to retake some rebel enclaves. While rebels can still besiege and capture isolated bases deep within their territory, it is unlikely that they will be able to make lasting gains in territory where support for the government is strong. A limited US strike if anything will tip the war back toward equilibrium.

If the government feels comfortable using chemical weapons on a large scale, on the other hand, this would be a new element that could change the pace of the war. Assad cannot end the conflict -- he doesn't have the troops to occupy all the small towns of northern Syria with large enough garrisons that they cannot be overrun. But attacks on the Damascus suburbs or rebel-held parts of Aleppo may kill many thousands who might otherwise have survived the war, while sending tens of thousands more fleeing from their homes and leaving behind depopulated cities for the government forces to recapture, opening up new relatively secure rural areas to attack.

The question remains as to whether US strikes can deter large-scale chemical use. Syria until now has not made full use of its arsenal -- most previous alleged attacks were on a small scale, and even the Ghouta strike seems to have made use of water-down chemicals and homemade munitions in an apparent attempt to muddy the evidence and prevent a smoking gun. This suggests that Assad was somewhat deterred by Obama’s “red line” declaration, but not so deterred that he didn’t decide to push the envelope. A strike that costs Assad less than it benefits him to use chemicals, or one that has such a messy aftermath that Obama is unlikely to strike again in the future, may well embolden the regime to use chemicals more often. But so could doing nothing at all.

Steve Negus {@} Comments
"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"
Curfew Chronicles

A passionate and beautifully written defense of the choice to live in Cairo (addressed to all the worried relatives and acquaintances who want the author to "come on home" now.)

I translate this paragraph below:

En dépit des difficultés connues de la capitale égyptienne (poussière, pollution, chaleur, harcèlement, instabilité politique), vivre au Caire n'est pas une lubie. Surtout si ce choix s'inscrit dans la durée. Les étés au Caire sont chauds mais ses hivers sont doux comme les printemps dans le sud de la France. Ses journées sont bruyantes et peuplées, mais ses nuits sont de loin les plus fabuleuses de la région. Paris se couche à 2 heures les soirs de week-end quand Le Caire veille jusqu'à l'aube tous les soirs, indifférente aux débuts, aux milieux et aux fins de semaine. Là où Paris se tasse dans des 2 pièces de 25 mètres carré, Le Caire se repait d'espace, d'appartements aux plafonds hauts, aux terrasses ensoleillées. Quand on a la chance d'y gagner sa vie en euros, on n'a pas à penser à l'argent au Caire, on n'est pas obligé de compter pour dépenser, et en plus, on se retrouve avec du temps sur les bras, pour écrire, lire, nager, repeindre le salon. Et puis il y a des gens au Caire, des gens que précisément on ne risque de croiser ni à Paris ni à New York, des gens qui ont à la fois quelque chose en plus et une case en moins, des gens qui ne se sentent à leur place nulle part, qui n'ont ni de certitude, ni d'aptitude au confort, ni peur d'être d'éternels débutants.

Despite the well-known difficulties of the Egyptian capital (dust, pollution, heat, harassment, political instability), living in Cairo isn't a whim. Especially if it's a long-term choice. Summers in Cairo are hot but winters are as mild as springs in the south of France. Its days are noisy and crowded, but its nights are by far the most fabulous in the region. Paris goes to bed at 2am on weekends while Cairo stays up till dawn every night, at the beginning, middle and end of the week. While Paris stuffs itself into two 25-square-meter rooms, Cairo revels in space, in high-ceilinged apartments with sunny terraces. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in euros, you don't need to worry about money in Cairo, and what's more you find yourself with time on your hands, to write, read, swim, repaint the living-room. And then there are people in Cairo, precisely the kind of people who you won't come across in Paris or New York, people who have a little something extra and a little something off, people who don't feel at home anywhere, who have no certainties, no aptitude for comfort, no fear of being eternal beginners. 

 

The question regarding Syria

A recent statement on the situation in Syria from the International Crisis Group:

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath.  Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 

 

AsidesUrsula Lindseysyria, ICG
In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

In the Washington Post, Mokhtar Awad puts the Rabaa sit-in and massacre in context, telling the story of Nasser City, the neighborhood where it took place. In Awad's telling it is one of Cairo's many unsuccessful attempts to "start over" with a new planned city in the desert, and it epitomizes both the aspirations of the military and Islamist middle-class and the shortcomings of the state. 

Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
[...] 

Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

 

The people, the church and the state | Mada Masr

Another good account of the sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt, and their interplay with national politics. 

It all started when a group of Christians in the village built a speed bump near their home to decrease car accidents. When a Muslim man hit it, not knowing it was there, he started swearing at them and insulting their mothers and fathers. On August 10, a Muslim man known to be radical came in person to threaten the village church. The following day, as Christians went to Sunday mass, Muslims were already sending calls via mosques to attack them, Nasrallah recounts.

 

Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Lee Keath of AP manages, miraculously, to tell a story from Damascus that doesn't make you hate everything.   

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

 

The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 

 

Brotherhood protests

The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for further protests tomorrow, and a campaign of civil disobedience. But the organization hasn't been able to mobilize successfully so far, and faces public resentment, as Nour the Intern, who attended some Islamist protests earlier this week, reports. 

The man in the blue galabeya was at loss. In one hand, he held a large poster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and in the other an icy cold bottle of water. He stood in the baking heat torn between setting down the poster to uncap his bottle for some much-needed hydration, or awkwardly holding it between his knees. He scanned his environment a clean surface to place the delicate poster. When he found none, he prayed for patience and put it between his knees. Behind him, the bearded men were growing restless.

The protesters' squabbles were interrupted by a sudden bang from above. An adolescent was beating a pot with a spatula in her balcony, proclaiming el-Sisi to be her president, drawing laughs and claps from the loitering passersby, and frowns and prayers for retribution from the protesters. An old woman excitedly poked her head out of her window, opposite to the balcony, to praise the girl and suggest she boil some water in that pot to clean the street.

As they stood there squinting their eyes at the balcony, frozen in anger and anticipation, waiting for the rain to fall so they could bring the building down, four men  shoved a middle-aged protester and his son for giving them a headache and ruining the country. With impressive speed and coordination, four large buckets of water were emptied from different buildings. The water was accompanied by insults, saliva and three slippers.

Shoppers came out of shops, mechanics out from under cars, and women out of their windows; teenage boys let their female counterparts walk without receiving a detailed description of their bodies, to join the fight, or sigh at it. Facepalms outnumbered kicks three to one.

Staring at his surroundings with undisguised disgust, the blue-galabeya man stalked off hugging his poster, leaving his followers to disentangle themselves from the grips of the residents and split up in disagreement. Half went left, half went right.

“That was the dumbest protest in the world,” the blue-galabeya man, el-Hag Ahmed, told his feet. He was resting his forehead on the no-longer-sacred, rolled-up poster at a nearby coffee shop. As someone whose neighborhood only protested once in March 2011 to support Gamal Mubarak and demand that their 15-men-and-one-an-amateur-bellydancer march be covered by Al Jazeera, I bit my tongue.

Earlier this week, an almost identical protest took place in Zamzam Street, Mohandeseen, where the complete lack of organization and leadership; hostile bystanders and residents forced the 90 men who marched in unison (incessantly arguing about whether to forward or backward more than chanting) to march away from each other 15 minutes later, some to Sudan St., others to Mohy Eldeen St.

These mini-rallies, which usually avoid major squares and where participation is limited to area Islamists, says Hag Ahmed (the blue-galabaya man), are all that can be done for now. Some are reluctant to venture out of their neighborhoods, he says, and so they content themselves with these symbolic short-lived protests to keep the fight going and retain self-respect.

The reasons for the complete disarray Brothers are in are many and obvious: the arrests or absence of their leadership (and their sons for can’t-be-good-reasons) and the possibility of violent dispersal and detention looming over any attempted protest have weakened their will to protest with fear and confusion. That and the news of Safwat Hegazi’s claim that he’s always had the political activity of a 9-year-old, while Mohammed Badie pointed his finger at Beltagy, which was met with silent shock and disbelief, was salt to their wounds. It’s not hard to imagine why the battered MB didn’t deliver the large marches they promised last Friday.

This understandably humbled the Brothers and lowered their expectations for this Friday, August 30th, the day of choice to reverse the consequences of June 30.

“Let’s not brag too much. If (the Brothers who brag) know something we don’t, then they should keep it that way, save the element surprise...let God decide if it’s going to be decisive or not,” el-Hag Ahmed advised, trying to mask perceptible dread with cool practicality. Even gutsy young Brothers like Ghofran Salah, who like to share pictures of clenched fists with fiery captions, have echoed strangely similar, if not identical, advice, asking his friends to stop building a hype for the 30th.

What’s far likelier than detention, and is now a genuine concern that many islamists calm by the use of Gillette, is street harassment at the hands of fellow Egyptians, two thirds of whom want them excluded from politics, according to Baseera. Not because of the list of valid reasons to oppose the Brotherhood, but to the new-found belief that all the Brothers -- including, if not especially, everyone that was at the Raba’a al-Adweya sit-in -- are terrorists, even though the official MOI report said that the 1118 Brothers they arrested in Raba’a had a whopping total of 20 weapons. (Kindly forget the fact that prime minister Beblawi offered those same terrorists posts in the new cabinet and that triumphant policemen showed us well over twenty guns that they found by the box loads of in their tents and in nearby buildings in pro-military videos that left one waiting for the bloopers.)

On the other hand, the Islamist media people seem to have skipped town and left a repetitive friend behind to act as anchor and keep the same footage spinning in a tireless loop, showing protests in some obscure little street in an obscure little town breaking the curfew that are often aired under the enlightening title: "The Governorates." This is either followed or preceded by pictures of Gen. AbdelFatah el-Sisi dripping blood from his mouth and a post-Jan 25 documentary about the importance, and lack, of media integrity and of course, the graphic pictures of the Raba'a victims, whose death interestingly didn't warrant the official promise to open an investigation and form a fact-finding committee, to be characteristically ignored along with whatever report they manage to hand in or leak to the press.