The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Al Raqqa: military brigades, the city administration and the revolutions to come

A detailed, fascinating read on the various brigades (their funders, relations to each other, and relations to civilians) operating in the liberated Syrian city of Al Raqqa in July and August. Also, very well written:

Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.

The author is Mohammed El Attar, writing for a site that describes itself as a volunteer, non-partisan effort on the part of Syrian researchers and writers to document and analyze the revolution.  

 

The cruel optimist

A lovely portrait of labour activist Haytham Mohamedeen (whose recent detention caused a stir) by Sarah Carr at Mada Masr. Like many other activists of his generation, his life story is also an account of every major protest movement of the last decade. 

The factors that ignited the January 25 revolution — “social injustice, the narrowing of political freedoms, Interior Ministry repression” — still exist, and Mohamadeen thinks this will create a “new anger.” But the danger to the revolution now comes from groups that have allowed themselves to be fooled by the “smokescreen of war on terrorism,” he cautions.

“All the leftist forces that have been fooled by this slogan are, in my opinion, involved in a disaster and stupidity of historical proportions. [The Revolutionary Socialists] have as much enmity as other groups towards the Brotherhood, but we are not allowing ourselves to be fooled by a smokescreen called the war on terrorism, behind which Mubarak’s state is reinstating itself and revolutionary gains swept away,” he argues.

“Today, Brotherhood members are being locked up arbitrarily; sooner or later, that will spread to other political forces.”

At the end of the interview, I ask him to clarify whether he was in a microbus when he was arrested in Suez, or in a private car as had been reported — a very un-Haytham-like mode of transport.

“Of course I was in a microbus,” he responds with a wink. “Do you think I would be doing this job if I could afford to buy a car?”

 

Reach of Turmoil in Egypt Extends Into Countryside

Great reporting in the NYTimes on the tensions and the harassment of MB families outside Cairo. On the funeral of one MB member:  

In this small, close-knit and rural Nile Delta town, it is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets — someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

Meanwhile, another Times article gives a more complex picture of the recent operation to "liberate"Dalga, a town near Minya where Christians have been terrorized by local Islamists (and opportunistic thugs). 

But the security forces did not bring such heavy weapons to protect Christian residents. Interior ministry officials said the expedition was an attempt to capture a single fugitive Islamist, and it may depart soon. The overwhelming force, they said, was merely for self-protection: the surrounding province of Minya is still considered a bastion of Islamist support for Mr. Morsi.

 

Mubarak's last chuckle

Private newspaper Alyoum7 has been publishing a series of audio recordings on its website of Mubarak and some unknown voices (reportedly recorded by one of his doctors) in which the erstwhile president comments on events throughout the summer. The sound clips are crudely edited, creating a lot of awkward pauses where there probably were none. 

That being said, the voices sound over-rehearsed and sometimes border on hostages trying to keep calm and entertain a mad gunman.

Clip 1:

Mubarak and friends express admiration of el-Sisi. His unknown interlocutors tell lame jokes about the Brotherhood, eliciting gruff chuckles from the former president. 

Clip 2:

Mubarak and friends say the MB is stupid and crazy for going head to head (more like knee to head) against the military, the police and the people. One voice likens them to a mindless CSF soldier who just follows orders and can’t think for himself. They predict that things will calm down and fondly reminisce about Habib el-Adly’s good ol days when the Brothers were “collected.”

Clip 3:

One voice tells the story of an MB relative who makes noises about Morsi’s legitimacy and the likes. This brainwashed, failed dentistry student protester stayed in Raba’a and didn’t visit his dying mother, the voice says. Mubarak interjects to remind him that, of course, the failure won’t leave since he is getting paid to stay there.  

Clip 4:

Mubarak and friends discuss possible leaders. It has to be a strong man from the army, Mubarak says. One of the leaders who is left, but not Sami Anan. He can’t handle Egypt.

Clip 5:

Mubarak’s June 30: The army might intervene and “make (the MB) leave.”

Clip 6:

Mubarak reiterates the  theory about Morsi breaking out of prison with Hamas help -- hence his inability to say anything critical of them or curb their activities in Sinai.

Furthermore, Mubarak says he felt the revolution coming a while back. The US has been plotting to remove him since 2005, impatiently working on “making the revolution," despite the fact that he told them that he was planning to hand over power in 2011 -- not to pass it down to his son, an idea they created and sold to the people.

Clip 7:

The unrest in Sinai began when Morsi pardoned certain prisoners, according to Mubarak. Also, the tribal leaders in Sinai are decor; the youth is running the show. Speaking with obvious pride, Mubarak recalls how Habib used to detain the little rascals.

Sinai needs careful thinking, Mubarak wisely adds, since Israel still wants to push the Palestinians into Sinai. Benjamin Netanyahu spontaneously told him as much six months before his ouster, but Mubarak firmly told him to forget about it.

 

PostsNour Youssefmubarak, egypt
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.