The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links late August - September 16, 2013
Much overdue bookmarks dump...

LinksThe Editors
On the Coptic diaspora

Michael Wahid Hanna has a long essay on American copts and their political influence in MERIP, in which he examines the sometimes radical (or outright fanficul) positions the diaspora has taken, its interplay with the government and others in the "old country." He concludes:

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

A good piece to read along this post by Magdi Atiya on the always worth reading blog Salama Moussa.

 

Dickinson on Bahrain: "Who shot Ahmed?"

Friend of the blog Elisabeth Dickinson, a correspondent for The National , has a Kindle Single out today about the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and its subsequent repression. From the blurb: 

Who Shot Ahmed? recounts the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolution. On a small island Kingdom swirling with political, economic, and sectarian tensions, Ahmed’s murder epitomized everything that had gone wrong since 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in droves. Drawing on dozens of testimonies, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson traces the tale of Ahmed’s death and his family’s fearless quest for justice. Darting between narratives and delving into characters, it is a tale of a life lost and the great powers—from Washington to London, and Riyadh to Manama—that did nothing to stop the crisis. Dickinson has a deep knowledge of the region, but she brings a story from a foreign land straight back home: Ahmed could be any of our sons.

You can find out more about the book on the publisher’s page, its Facebook page or on Twitter at @WhoShotAhmed. I just bought my copy, get yours by clicking on the cover above!

Sinai journalist in military court

The Sinai journalist and fixer Ahmad Abu Daraa (who worked for Al Masry Al Youm and with most foreign reporter traveling to the peninsula) is facing a military trial for publishing false information about the army, filming and photographing in a military zone, and having contacts with terrorist groups. 

According to this article, the charges are based not on any published articles by Abu Daraa but on a Facebook post in which he contradicted army account of the bombing of the villages of al-Toma, al-Mokta'a and al-Sheikh Zuwayed. The army says they killed and injured terrorists there; Abu Daraa said they injured four civilians and destroyed half a dozen houses and a mosque. His note has been removed from FB. 

Both local and international press is facing significant harassment in Egypt these days. 

Note: Thanks to Nour Youssef for looking into this story.  

Egypt: Nothing was inevitable

At Ahram Online, Ibrahim El Houdaiby analyzes the poor political choices on the Brotherhood's part that led to the alienation of revolutionary forces, the opportunity for a return of the ancien regime and the MB's downfall. Whether you believe the MB could have charted a different course or you think its very structure and belief system made its mistakes inevitable, this kind of analysis -- rather than the unsubstantiated accusations of terrorism, the class prejudice, the wholesale demonization one hears so often -- helps explain June 30th. (The English translation is not always smooth; the original Arabic article is here). 

The Muslim Brotherhood appointed the first Cabinet with many ministers who were Mubarak’s men because the president did not want to make concessions to his political opponents so they could participate in purging and reforming state agencies. He chose to share power with those already in power, including the military and remnants of the former regime, and also because of the limited abilities of the Cabinet members he brought in.

All of this made him gradually lose the support of revolutionary forces. No popular support could have stood up to the interest networks in state agencies that sought to thwart him (even before his election, I and more knowledgeable writers than myself often wrote that the president would face challenges in electricity, services, national security and social peace that would be instigated by those who wanted to restore former conditions. The only way to overcome these challenges was to build a popular alliance based on genuine concessions by Morsi that realise the gravity of these challenges. The only way was to rely on general grassroots support, not the Muslim Brotherhood group’s base).

 

The Israeli debate over Syria's chemical weapons and Iran

Israeli officials complain that the delay of American military action on Syria will be detrimental to their national security, and that Obama has left them holding the bag yet again. And while the removal of Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices would benefit Israel, it does not benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates' position on Iran -- where they would like to see military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. 

"Israel provided intelligence to the Obama Administration on Syria. Now, [there is] a debate over what they have to show for it," writes Sheera Frenkel. What Israel will "get" at present for its intel on the weapons is the (temporary) tabling of the military option against the regime - much to the chagrin of many Syrians opposed to Assad's regime, who had placed high hopes that the threat of strikes would lead to something more than this, a hope that has dimmed every day the U.S. has refrained from an attack. Now, a deal is tentatively in place for these weapons to be removed from Syria under international monitoring by 2014. So the U.S. has legitimized the regime it has simultaneously (though not even half-heartedly) been trying to remove.

In Netanyahu's mind, containment and monitoring has been tried and has been failing for years against Tehran. The Russian proposal will at best be spotty to enforce and could take years to achieve. Unsurprisingly, all of the Persian Gulf states feel exactly the same way, though their support for a strike goes beyond mere shared animus towards Iranian influence. And unlike Israel, they have decided who they want to "win" the war. For Israel, no endgame in particular is necessarily desired. Since the start of the conflict, the IDF has used the civil war to weaken the "Axis of Resistance" whenever possible by striking targets of opportunity and not interrupting their enemies while they make mistakes. Israeli officials are not thrilled with the prospect of a rebel victory in Syria - there are too many "known unknowns" about potential postwar rulers and Assad has shown that he is more responsive to the security concerns of Israel's government than the Syrian opposition. 

But they also do not relish the idea of Assad retaining power, strengthened by renewed international recognition, because this will benefit Iran. Up until a U.S. military operation became an option, this posture explained why there was so little pressure from Israeli officials or AIPAC on the White House to do much more than what it was already doing. 

A compromise solution involving international monitors is the second-best outcome in Netanyahu's view. Loose sarin and VX stockpiles, potentially trading hands among pro-Assad militias, Republican Guards, Free Syrian Army brigades, or al Qaeda pledges, are a frightening prospect for Israeli officials. Unlike the (still non-existent) Iranian nuclear bomb, these nerve agents exist and can be deployed by those who know how to use them. But a U.S. strike to "deter" or "degrade" Assad's capabilities is still the preferred choice because 1) the Israelis (justifiably) do not believe Assad will really surrender all his weapons and 2) Obama will have set a precedent for Iran in Syria if he uses direct force instead of hedging bets on third parties. Winning that debate is a gamble for the Israeli PM, because his main pillar of support in the U.S. - Congressional Republicans - have split on the Syrian Civil War, as has the American right in general. 

In Netanyahu's view, if the U.S. does not strike, Syria will end up keeping some quantity of its nerve agents, and Iran will be emboldened to accelerate its nuclear program to achieve a bomb-making capability. Enforcing deterrence is the Israeli priority - even if in the near term, an American sortie over Damascus would not physically eliminate the proliferation threat that Syria's chemical weapons pose. 

Joel Schalit notes that "the Syria strikes are the best chance yet for Netanyahu to prevail in his struggle with Israel's military leadership to deal with Iran. And ironically, it's Obama [who] made that possible." He may regain the initiative on Iran from his generals as a result of the Syrian crisis -- an initiative he lost last summer when a series of leaks in the Israeli press exposed how isolated the PM was from many of his ministers and security chiefs, and the grey cadre of retirees from those offices, on Iran. 

As Schalit suggests, this was not an intentional development. Netanyahu did not win a promise from Obama to set a Syrian red line last year and, in a Xanatos Gambit, plan five turns ahead so that any choice the U.S. made would help him sell a war with Iran. Instead, Obama put himself in this situation all by himself, and Netanyahu now realizes it can benefit his perennial campaign to win a concrete American promise of hitting Iran. Only now is it an opportune time to broach the matter: the Israeli government was doing its best to avoid commenting on Syria's chemical weapons - in contrast to its usual bluster on security issues involving Egypt and Gaza.

There are two main factions at work within the Israeli government: the Prime Minister's Office and the military-intelligence community, specifically the Mossad and the General Staff of the IDF. The former is still angling to get the U.S. to commit to a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, while the latter, more or less united behind IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, continues to balk at the ideas of either a unilateral operation or a diplomatic effort that puts the U.S. in a position where it will "have to" support Israel on short notice in bombing Iran. 

Early last August - only a few weeks prior to when Obama made his redline comment on Syria, in fact - the Hebrew-language headlines blazed with military and intelligence community leaks broadcasting Israeli generals' discontent with Netanyahu's handling of the Iranian nuclear debate going into the U.S.' presidential election. That these reports emerged at the same time U.S. military officials were warning against a "premature" strikes was by no means a coincidence. Neither countries' militaries are enthused about the prospect of such a war.

As I reported at PBS on August 1, 2012: "Anonymous [Israeli] officials have leaked information that key members of Israel's top military brass oppose an attack on Iran." This dissent was aired quite openly earlier in 2012, and former security officials publicly cautioned against an attack. Less than two weeks later, Israel's leading news outlets again revealed further names of the establishment against a strike, and dissension within the Defense Ministry. Combined with the defeat of Mitt Romney in November and the PM's earlier failure to place his former military secretary at the helm of the IAF, this meant that Netanyahu had nothing left to use against his domestic critics on Iran as 2013 began. 

But after Israel's "top men" revolted against their C-in-C by going to the press, Obama inadvertently gave renewed life to Netanyahu's favored policy of preemption by making chemical weapons a red line last August.

Now that the Administration is trying to escape it predicament through the Russian proposal - one that I am not convinced the White House sought to evoke by making threats to strike, but arrived at in a state of distress - it remains to be seen if Netanyahu can rebuild momentum for military action against Iran with the gift that Obama's Syria inconsistencies have given him.

  

The cult of Sisi

In my latest column for the New York Times Latitude blog, I try to explain Egypt's current love affair with its armed forces, and their leader, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi

The public had soured on the military after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, under the disastrous rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But then it soured on the Muslim Brotherhood even more, and when following the June protests the military removed Morsi from power, the moment was treated like the end of a foreign occupation. Protesters waved flags — some had been helpfully airdropped by army helicopters — and army pilots drew hearts of smoke in the sky above Tahrir Square. Months later, children still stop to have their picture taken next to the tanks stationed on my street.

The Egyptian Army hasn’t fought a war since 1973, and the U.S. Embassy judges that its capabilities have “degraded.” But that’s not the point. People don’t love their army because of how powerful it is, but because of how much they want to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness. To the great majority of Egyptians, the army is synonymous with the country, and supporting it is a way of wishing that Egypt will become all the things it currently isn’t: strong, independent and prosperous.

Arguments on Syria

I understand misgivings about US military action in Syria, but I don't understand skepticism over the regime's use of chemical weapons. You don't need to argue that the rebels gassed themselves to be against intervention. The specter of Iraq hangs over us; but in this case there seems to be wide-spread agreement that the regime had the weapons (it's offering to give them up now, after all), the opportunity and the motive. Here for example is Human Rights Watch's report:

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces.

Meanwhile the Italian journalist Domenico Quirico -- just released after 152 days in captivity in Syria -- has this dispiriting description of his captors:  

"Our captors were from a group that professed itself to be Islamist but that in reality is made up of mixed-up young men who have joined the revolution because the revolution now belongs to these groups that are midway between banditry and fanaticism," he said.
"They follow whoever promises them a future, gives them weapons, gives them money to buy cell phones, computers, clothes."
Such groups, he said, were trusted by the West but were in truth profiting from the revolution to "take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets".

But in the pages of the New York Times, Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh argues that jihadism isn't an argument against intervention, and is a by-product of the Assad regime's brutality: 

In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.
Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.
It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad’s downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West’s position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

Then there is this contribution to the argument against intervention, which I embarrassingly did not at first recognize as satire: 

"Someone needs to explain to me why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing," she replied. "I mean aren't these the same people that attacked us on September the 11th? Look, the system is working. Arabs are killing Arabs and that means in the future there will be fewer of them trying to kill us.
"I say we send them all the chemical weapons we have, and let them sort it out amongst themselves. Hopefully when it's all over we'd be left with some empty space to colonize. Personally I'd like to see megachurches and Home Depots outside Damascus."

This was too much even for a Fox anchor, who asked:  

"Yes, but these are innocent human beings caught in the crossfire of a terrible civil war," Kilmeade persisted. "Don't you feel any empathy for them at all? I mean Arabs are just as human as we are and should be entitled to the same level of dignity and respect, right?"

  

The Squid
octopus vulgaris via Shutterstock

octopus vulgaris via Shutterstock

Meet Adel Mohamed Ibrahim aka Adel Habara (meaning Squid - a reference to his resourcefulness and ability to reach anyone he wants) aka the al-Qaeda Chief in Sinai. The police says he is responsible for the second Rafaah attack that left 25 soldiers dead. They also think he is involved in the first attack that left 16 dead.

Habara reportedly confessed his involvement and reenacted the crime for them after he was arrested on September 1. This is a video of Habara  that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 2 (by a certain Emad El Ramadi, who appears to reside in the UAE) and circulated on talk shows, in which Habara tells his side of the story with state security before the revolution up until his escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison in January 2011. It's not clear where or when this was recorded, and Habara does not refer directly to the Rafaah attacks in it.

Dressed in white, with a blanket covering one leg, Habara explains that he has been a committed, religious man for ten years, minding his own business and with no connection to islamist groups, which is why state security informers showed no interest in him. Except for a strangely candid one agent.

“Give me your ID, so I can make a file about you in SS,” he says officer Ali Ameen asked him. Ameen, Habara says, has long harbored a grudge against him and was the source of all his troubles with the police.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” Habara said, but Ameen insisted. He tried to solicit his sympathy, telling him about his one-armed wife and the two daughters they have take care of, but to no avail.

Some time later, Habara traveled to Libya hoping distance would blunt Ameen’s obsession with him. It did not. In the following months, Ameen kept harassing his wife and family, prompting him to return and speak to Ameen’s superior, an officer named Essam. After interrogating him, Essam let him go and asked him to work as a police informant. Habara said he would, but he wasn’t going to because it’s haraam to point out the sins of Muslims.

Eight months later, Ameen vindictively added Habara’s name on the wanted list for the next security crackdown. When they came to arrest him, Habara was not home. He was later tipped off that the police was looking for him and decided to lay low and look for employment in Cairo.

By some unfortunate stroke of luck, Habara went to fix his motorcycle at a mechanic, whose shop was juxtaposed next to the state-security-affiliated the Future Association, whose owner is a good friend of none other than Ali Ameen himself.

Shortly after Habara left the mechanic, three toktoks carrying armed men and Ali Ameen came out of nowhere. They attacked him, forcing him to defend himself with a knife. After they broke his nose, badly hit his head and his arms, they took him into custody.

There he was told by another oddly honest officer called Ahmed el-Lamhawy that they, the state security officers, were not Muslims. They were Jews.

Habara admitted to assaulting the officers, in self-defense, and so was sent to Al Wadi Al Gadeed prison, where he was kept in a 160 x 250 cm room for 49 days, before he was moved to a solitary cell in the wards, where he spent 11 months and was not allowed to have visitors. He refused to comment on the food and water quality, or lack thereof.

He tried to explain to the judge at the Supreme State Security Criminal Court that he was not a threat to national security, just an imagined one to a hateful informer. However, the judge sentenced him to one more year in Wadi Al Natrun prison (where deposed president Morsi was held before he became president and pardoned Habara among others, according to Ibrabim Eissa). There Habara was told that since he had served two thirds of his sentence, he was eligible for early release and that they had already sent a request to the prison authorities. He was going to be out any day now, they said.

But then the revolution happened, and the prison was open for all to leave, so he did. Now the same informer, Ali Ameen, is using his escape to frame him for further crimes, namely, the Rafaah attacks. But here the video-taped narration ends. 

According to Al-Ahram, al-Watan and Alyoum7, Habara's neighbors in Sharqiya are very much pleased with his arrest because he has been terrorizing them, with the help of his armed, white-galabya-clad friends, since the revolution.

You can watch Habara's narrated arrest over here, where two officers impressively climb a flight of stairs two steps at a time, while a confused on-the-ground colleague strains his neck to look for Habara in the sky and another looks in drawer. There are dramatic sepia shots to inspire awe near the end.

Sexual harassment and super-heroines

The online comic Qahera shows an avenging munaqaba fighting  sexual harassment in Cairo. It is a very powerful work, which captures perfectly the social dynamics surrounding harassment (the police officer who tells the victim: "Honestly, you have to look at what you're wearing, too," and that if she files a charge against her harasser, "you'll ruin his future.") 

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.30.14 AM.png

Although I tend to think that vigilante fantasies (and I have many) -- and real vigilantism, like that of some anti-harassment groups, who catch and beat and spray-paint offenders -- far from being empowering are actually the expression of despair and rage. Sexual harassment is so pervasive that we can only counter it in extreme, even fantastical, ways. 

Syrian rebels and refugees

In the Guardian, Martin Chulov reports from rebel-held towns in Syria on the tensions between different anti-Assad groups and the preparations of jihadis for the US attack. The best part is this incredible description of a restaurant patronized by rebel fighters:  

Kalashnikovs are laid across tables next to salt and pepper shakers, which the waiters gently rearrange to serve plates of grilled chicken and salads. "Let him have it," joked one hulking Libyan as a waiter shifted a rifle to find space for a plate of hummous. "We can take him outside and show him how to use it."

Meanwhile, Karl reMarks is trying to help Western powers find the moderates among Syrian's militias (although "It’s not even clear why moderates would join a revolution, but let’s not pull on that string"). Among the groups he identifies:

The Red Unicorn Brigade
The red unicorns are the true visionaries and utopians of the Syrian revolution. They are the most radical moderate group intellectually, even though their fighting skills leave much to be desired. The unicorns’ slogan is ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ which their vicious enemies have attempted to portray as a rhetorical question. 

And the plight of Syrian refugees in Egypt -- who have fallen victim to the rabid anti-Islamist sentiment (because the Brotherhood was welcoming to them, suddenly now they are accused of being terrorists) and xenophobia of the moment -- is getting increased attention. In the Washington Post, Abigail Hauslohner reports that: 

Syrian refugees say they are insulted and taunted on the streets, charged double for commodities and services, increasingly mugged and robbed, and are harassed by police. Many said they hope to leave.

This petition says many, including children, have also been arrested. 

 

Understanding Cairo

Lovely piece by Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplomatique on how Morsi and other Egyptian presidents did not understand Cairo, unlike Nasser who made it the centerpiece of his modernist societal project: 

Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.

Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.

Islamists Seize Town in Southern Egypt and Attack Christians

An account from Dalga, in Upper Egypt, where things seem to be totally out of control.  

“The fire in the monastery burned intermittently for three days,” Father Yoannis said. “The looting continued for a week. At the end, not a wire or an electric switch is left.”

The monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel was stripped of ancient icons, and the ground was dug up in the belief that a treasure was buried there. “Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around,” Father Yoannis said.

 

The New Yorker: The Battle of the Archives

In which Egyptian "intellectuals" conjure a non-existent threat to possibly non-existent documents to justify the crack-down on the Brotherhood. Ridiculous. 

“This is one of the ones I was most worried about,” she said, as we approached a colorful Persian astrology book. It was open to a page depicting the Zodiac goddess Virgo, dressed in a bright, purple flowing robe. “They don’t believe in this, so who knows what they would do.” We moved on to some hand-drawn history books with knights riding on gold-painted horses, and a book of early fables that had been translated from Sanskrit. One told the story of a group of white rabbits who teamed up to “seek revenge on a herd of elephants who had thoughtlessly trampled upon them.” In another room, there was a giant, Mamluk-era edition of the Koran, from the fourteenth century. “I wasn’t really worried about this one,” Ezzeldin said with a wink. Then she added, “Although, I didn’t want them to give it away to their friends in Qatar.”
Neither Ezzeldin or any of the other people I spoke to were able to cite any specific evidence that the Brotherhood had plans to dismantle or interfere with Egypt’s historical artifacts—just vague warning signs, and a personal sense of certainty. “If you are traveling to an area that you know is full of thieves, you have to take precautions,” Ezzeldin said when I asked. “You don’t have to wait until you are robbed.”