The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

In this week’s article selected from the Egyptian press, Islamist thinker Fahmi Howeidy highlights the recent wave of attacks against police and soldiers and condemns the government’s rush to blame the Muslim Brotherhood with scant evidence. The shadow of a wider insurgency against the regime looms large over Egypt, making comparisons with Algeria that recently seemed unthinkable more of a prospect.

Translation is provided by the excellent folks at [Industry Arabic][1]. Help them help us by using their translation services for your company!

A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 16 March 2014

This morning’s news hits us hard, as we learn that six Egyptian soldiers were killed yesterday in a terrorist attack. It is a crime of the type that sends us a message reminding us of what we hoped to forget. Whether Egypt’s campaign of terrorism of the 1990s that targeted top figures or Algeria’s “Black Decade” that took the shape of a struggle between armed groups and the army and the police: each possibility is more miserable than the next. In the “Mostorod” incident that occurred yesterday at dawn, I catch a whiff of the Algerian scenario – which I had previously ruled out. I had based that assessment on distinctions between the Egyptian and Algerian environment, both the political environment and the demographic and geographical character of the countries. But now I think that I was too optimistic and was mistaken in my evaluation, although I still have hope that this distinction prevails and that Egypt’s outcome does not repeat Algeria’s, recalling that the Algerian scenario lasted for ten years and led to around 100,000 deaths.[1]

It is true that the starting points in the two countries bear a resemblance, especially in the role played by the army in each country in aborting the democratic path – with the difference being that the popular support for this was more apparent in Egypt than in Algeria. However, I hope that the end point will be different and that those in power in Egypt have learned the lessons of the Algerian experience. Most importantly, the lesson is that a military/security solution is not enough to end the political conflict. This is what Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika realized upon taking power in 1999 when he adopted the policy of “Civil Concord,” which was the first step to achieving civil peace. With this, the period that Algerians call the “Black Decade” came to an end, a period that had plunged the country in a sea of blood and that was interspersed with massacres and crimes so horrendous they turn the hair white.

One of the important differences between Algeria’s and Egypt’s experience is that in Algeria both sides of the conflict were largely distinct. There was an open confrontation between the army that held power and the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) that had only been founded two years earlier. As a result, it had scattered bases of support rather than disciplined cadres. On the other hand, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is at the forefront of the opposing side and they have an “alliance” comprising other groups. And whereas the FIS adopted a policy of armed conflict, in their stated positions the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance have chosen the path of peaceful resistance, consisting of sit-ins and demonstrations. Despite the numerous violent incidents that Egypt has witnessed in the past eight months, it has not yet been proven that the Alliance and with it the Muslim Brotherhood has been behind any of them. Even the largest incident that has occurred so far – the bombing of the Cairo Security Directorate – was claimed by the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, even though fingers were pointing at the Muslim Brotherhood and this was the pretext for the Cabinet to label the group as a terrorist organization.[1] This decision was a hasty and ill-considered move that rested more on political calculations than on reliable security information.

It is worth noting in this context that 10 minutes after the news of the death of the six soldiers was announced, Egypt’s military spokesman rushed to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of responsibility for the crime. He did the same thing in the incident from two days ago and made a similar charge just a few minutes after a military bus was fired upon and two passengers were killed.

Despite the report at the time that the ones who opened fired were two masked men riding a motorcycle, the military spokesman hastened to make the exact same accusation, before any investigation took place – as if he alone could identify the masked men. Because the military spokesman represents a respected institution that has weight in society, he should be more careful and balanced, not just to strengthen the credibility of his statements and out of respect for the institutions he represents, but also to enable investigatory bodies to do their job seriously, so that this politicized accusation does not allow the real perpetrators to escape unpunished – whether they are from the Brotherhood or something else.

In facing such monstrous, awful incidents, we need to exercise responsibility and awareness, because getting carried away with emotion prevents us from finding out the truth, and keeps us from considering how to deal with the mounting indicators of violence. In this context, everyone should take note that what happened in Mostorod is not isolated from the crisis that Egypt has been facing since July 3 of last year, a crisis that has seen much bloodshed. Unless the roots of the crisis are dealt with, then its echoes and repercussions will continue, and the procession of shocks and outrages will not cease.

We do not want to keep waiting and we do not want more innocent blood to have to be shed and more destruction to occur before we realize that we need serious action to achieve the “civil concord” that the “road map” called for eight months ago. We have not yet seen serious action on this front, because in the torrent of emotion and the intoxication of zeal, many people have forgotten that it is the nation that must prevail.

  1. Howeidy is factually wrong here, the incident that prompted to the December 25, 2013, labeling of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization was the bombing of the Daqahliya Security Directorate in Mansoura on 24 December, 2013.  ↩

UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

The US and the UK have made it onto RSF's "enemies of internet freedom" annual list for the first time:

United States: This is the first time the US has made it onto RSF’s list.  While the US government doesn’t censor online content, and pours money into promoting Internet freedom worldwide, the National Security Agency’s unapologetic dragnet surveillance and the government’s treatment of whistleblowers have earned it a spot on the index.

United Kingdom: The European nation has been dubbed by RSF as the “world champion of surveillance” for its recently-revealed depraved strategies for spying on individuals worldwide.  The UK also joins countries like Ethiopia and Morocco in using terrorism laws to go after journalists.  Not noted by RSF, but also important, is the fact that the UK is also cracking down on legal pornography, forcing Internet users to opt-in with their ISP if they wish to view it and creating a slippery slope toward overblocking.  This is in addition to the government’s use of an opaque, shadowy NGO to identify child sexual abuse images, sometimes resulting instead in censorship of legitimate speech.

I have lost count of the ways what these two countries do with one hand completely undermines what they do with the other – and that applies to a whole range of policies aside from internet freedom.

Syria in Free Fall

The NYT's Anne Barnard delivers a tragic snapshot of the Syrian conflict that tells us a lot about the region's, and the world's, inability to resolve conflicts like these:

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.
The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

Years after the ADE was first deployed, explosions were still taking place with alarming frequency. The attackers’ weapon of choice was the car bomb, and sometimes several of these would go off in a dozen locations throughout the country within just a few hours. Clearly the terrorists were transporting significant amounts of explosives about with relative ease. Certainly the presence of army and police checkpoints every few hundred metres, and their heavy reliance on the ADE 651, did not appear to impede their movements. Many Iraqis and international observers began to question the device’s effectiveness.

Since ATSC was a UK company, and as its founder was based not far from London, the BBC took it upon itself to investigate the issue in 2010. In the presence of a BBC reporter, researchers from Cambridge University took one of the devices apart, the better to understand the technology and how it was supposed to work. The supplier would provide the purchaser with a number of cards, each of which was designed to detect a particular type of explosive. 

The cards fitted into a holder that was attached to the antenna. In front of the BBC’s cameras, university researchers took some of the cards apart and analysed their contents: they were empty. They contained no digital or electronic information whatsoever. There was no way that the ADE 651 could be used to detect anything. A number of other investigations were also carried out on the device, including by the US military. The conclusion was always the same. Some of the world’s leading scientists therefore confirmed what just about any Iraqi who has been through a checkpoint had known for years. 

Following the BBC’s investigation, UK law enforcement officials banned the ADE 651’s export to Iraq and Afghanistan. The affair led to criminal investigations and prosecutions in both Iraq and the UK. On 10 February 2011, al-Rasafa court of appeal in east Baghdad issued an arrest warrant against General Jihad al-Jabiri, who at the time was head of the counter- explosives department at the ministry of the interior and who had been responsible for purchasing the ADE 651 on the government’s behalf. On 4 June 2012, al-Jabiri was sentenced to four years in prison. The court’s spokesman said that the decision was motivated by the fact that the devices were overpriced and based on bogus technology. 

In July 2012, the UK Crown Prosecution Service charged six people, including James McCormick, with the ‘alleged manufacture, promotion and sale of a range of fraudulent substance detector devices’, including the ADE 651, to countries such as Iraq. During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that the ADE 651 had been modelled on failed golf- ball detectors that were on sale in the US. In May 2013, the court sentenced McCormick to ten years in prison and confiscated the property that he had accumulated, courtesy of his contracts with the Iraqi government, including several homes and a yacht. In his sentencing remarks, the judge addressed McCormick: ‘The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category . . . [H]otel security staff and many other users trusted their lives to the overpriced devices sold by you, which were no more than crude plastic components with a disconnected antenna and a capability of detecting explosives no better than random chance.’ 

News of these developments spread far and wide in Iraq, and many wondered how the government would react. Clearly, there were few available options – and none of them attractive. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had cultivated a public persona as someone who was strong on security. He had largely taken credit for the reduction in violence in 2007 and 2008 and, following the March 2010 parliamentary elections, he had assumed control of the security services, including the ministries of the interior and defence. Security was unquestionably his responsibility, and there were significant grounds for holding him personally accountable for the use of the device (among other failures). It is unheard of for senior officials in Iraq to hold up their hands and admit ‘mea culpa’, so nobody expected the government to apologize. Given the weight of evidence against the ADE 651, however, no one believed that it would keep them in use. It was most likely that the devices would be quietly withdrawn and the matter downplayed by senior officials. 

On 21 May 2013, two weeks after the UK court decision, several explosions ripped through the capital, killing dozens of people. The devices were still in use. The prime minister organized a press conference a few hours later with a large part of his cabinet. He solemnly condemned the violence. The first question from the packed hall of journalists was about the ADE 651: how could it be that it was still in use, given the recent court ruling in the UK? 

The prime minister’s reply left me and others dumbfounded. Despite international consensus on the issue, he stood before his audience and insisted that the devices did in fact work: 

We formed committees the day the claims [of corruption] and rumours took place. We formed three committees: a science and technology committee, a defence committee, and a mixed committee. The results were that the devices detect between 20 and 54 per cent under ideal conditions. ‘Ideal conditions’ means that the soldier has to have been trained in the use of the device, and that he knows how to use the cards, given that the card that is used to detect bombs does not detect arms, and the one that is used to detect arms does not detect bombs . . . Some Iraqi MPs are talking about corruption. The relevant people were taken to court and are now in prison. A court case was filed in Britain, and the person responsible for the forgery [is also in prison]. But what is the truth? The truth is that some of the devices were real and those devices do detect bombs, while the devices which the court case was about were fake. The problem lies with those that were fake. As for the devices that are real, their problem is that using them correctly requires experience

For al-Maliki, the problem was that some of the devices were fake and others were not. This was a distinction that no one else had made or recognized and was purely of his own creation. One wonders what the deputy prime minister, Hussein al-Shahristani thought of the comments: he has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto and throughout the press conference was standing with a poker face immediately to the left of the prime minister. 

Officials in Thi Qar, one of the country’s poorest areas, did not have the benefit of an advanced western education in science, but nevertheless they saw through the ruse and banned the ADE 651, committing themselves to purchase dozens of sniffer dogs instead. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, car bombs continued to rip apart the lives of the people that the government pretended to protect with a piece of plastic that was worse than useless. July 2013 witnessed more than a thousand security- related deaths. Still more people were maimed. Yet not a single senior official accepted any responsibility. I learned from a friend that an acquaintance of mine was among those killed. A few years back, he had lost his brother in another explosion and had taken in his brother’s children, who had nowhere else to go. Following this new wave of attacks, they were left fatherless for a second time. 

There were only two ways of interpreting the prime minister’s comments: either he believed what he was saying (which would mean that he was incapable of understanding what was painfully obvious to just about everyone else) or he was deliberately twisting the truth (which would mean that the security and wellbeing of Iraqis was for him secondary to protecting his own reputation). It was a perfect illustration of how Iraqis’ problems were caused not by religion and race, but by misgovernment. The question, for me and for many others, was how we had reached this point in our country’s history and what solutions existed.

Links 18 February - 16 March 2014

Above, the "Libyan navy" – actually Misrata militias loading their pickup trucks mounted with artillery weapons onto a barge – shoots at the Morning Glory, a tanker that loaded oil from the blockaded port of Sidra, controlled by "federalist" militias. The ship was later seized by US Navy Seals. And below, the long-overdue links.

LinksThe Editors
Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch with the FT: Prince Turki al-Faisal

On America:

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

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

Everybody knows

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

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

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


At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters -- the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based. 

Egypt has quite low rates of AIDS but the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world (due to a botched bilharzia inoculation campaign in the 1980s, in which needles were not properly sterilized). The disease affects an estimated 15% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases every year. 

At the event announcing the invention -- with Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and interim prime minister Adly Mansour sitting in the front row -- an army officer announced the country had “vanquished” the diseases and promised the new cure would be available in military hospitals starting June 30. In a 14-minute documentary broadcast on state TV, a doctor tells a patient: “You had AIDS, but now it’s gone.” 

The video that aired on State TV

General Ibrahim Abdel Atti , the seeming inventor of the devices (although when, where and how they were developed remains murky) has turned out to be quite a character. He said he had been offered $2 billion to sell his treatment but declined when the buyers refused to specify that it was the work of “an Arab Muslim scientist;” he also said he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian intelligence services (he seemed to take this as a compliment). He acquired instant fame by explaining the way his device supposedly cleans the blood of the patient of disease and turns it into nutrients, by saying it is as if  “I take AIDS from the patient, and give him back a kofta (ground meat) skewer.” 

General Kofta

The incident has been labelled Kofta-Gate on the Egyptian web. Egyptian newspapers have dug into Abdel Atti’s past. His military title turns out to be a recent honorific. His speciality is in alternative medicine. Two clinics he ran were closed by the authorities; several of his past patients have accused him of chicanery; and he has been prosecuted for impersonating a doctor. This has not prevented many from rushing to his defense, saying doubts cast on his work are part of a conspiracy by Western pharmaceutical companies. (The army has said it will not share its secret cure with the West). 

One of the president’s science advisors, Essam Haggy -- a young Egyptian currently working at NASA -- has called the announcement a scandal. 

The army has not responded to the skepticism surrounding its invention or to the allegations against Abdel Atti -- let alone to the question of how someone with his background could have ended up in a senior scientific positions in the army.

The announcement, which was clearly intended to reflect positively on the army and on General El Sisi (who is still predicted to announce his presidential run any day now) has had the opposite effect, making the institution look delusional and inept. It is truly terrifying to think that this is the level of scientific knowledge, critical thinking and political judgment in those running the country. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef has promised to bring the issue up on every segment of his satirical news show until there is an official response that proves the authorities aren't the ones "kidding around."

Egyptian commentators have drawn parallels between Kofta-Gate and the fanciful announcements, back in the 1960s, that Egypt had built the first Arab-made airplane and developed missiles that could reach the moon. Others have noted that Egypt joins a long list of African countries whose leaders have at one point or another -- often with devastating effect on public health-- claimed to have a “cure” for AIDS. 

From a Muslim Brotherhood Facebook Page, an image from a recent protest. Will the authorities outlaw meat skewers now? 

From a Muslim Brotherhood Facebook Page, an image from a recent protest. Will the authorities outlaw meat skewers now? 

Book review: Baghdad Central

I recently finally found the time to read friend-of-the-blog and esteemed Arabic literature professor and translator Elliot Colla's debut novel, the occupation/detective story Baghdad Central

The novel features a former Iraqi policeman (and, it turns out, a former former intelligence services officer) named Muhsin el-Khafaji, whose is mistaken for a namesake, a high-ranking Baathist official, and taken in by the Americans and tortured. When they realize their mistake, they put him in charge of re-organizing the Iraqi police force. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of several young female Iraqi translators, one of whom is his niece.

Khafaji is sympathetic, depressed, afflicted (he has lost a spouse and child) and guilty (that career in the intelligence services…) 

What makes Iraq a perfect setting for a noir is not just the deadly chaos there, but the extreme power imbalances.The genre requires the presence of a rich and oblivious upper-class, uncaring of the damage it leaves in its wake. In Raymond Chandler, they are ensconced in the Hollywood hills. In Colla's novel, they live in the Green Zone. Some of the best scenes in the book track the extraordinary disconnect between the Iraqi narrator -- whose daily decision are a matter of life and death -- and the Americans who blithely deliver lectures about the future of Iraq. At a typical pep talk, "Each time the interpreter comes to the work 'benchmark' he stumbles. At first he translates it as 'the sign of the bench,' then 'trace of the longseat,' then 'imprint of the worktable' and so on. Other words like 'synergy' and 'entrepreneurism' wreak even more havoc."  I actually wish Colla had mined his premise for more of its dark humor. 

Colla's writing is stripped-down and evocative. In the beginning the book has several very short sections narrated from different, ambiguous, sometimes collective viewpoints. When US patrols close in on a building to make a middle-of-the-night arrest, their radios "were clicking and chirping like little birds." After the raid goes awry, "the whole building could feel the silence. It was like getting a shock. That silence was an electric wire lying on the ground."

The plot involves a prostitution ring, terrorists, an alluring university professor, the potential jihadis that have moved into the ground floor of Khafaji's building, and much more. Colla weaves it all together confidently, mixing reminiscences, diversions and well-timed jolts. I was quickly hooked and read the book in a few days (although I wasn't quite satisfied by the story's denouement). 

Colla is a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University. His down-beat cop is a lover of poetry who makes identifying citations a game with his sick daughter (and meanwhile gives the reader a glimpse of Iraq's extraordinary poetic heritage). One of the poets that Khafaji, and presumably Colla, loves and quotes often is Nazik Malaika: 

I will hear your voice every evening

When light dozes off

And worries take refuge in dreams

When desires and passions slumber, when ambition sleeps

When Life Sleeps and Time remains

Awake, sleepless

Like your voice.

In the drowsy dusk resounds your wakeful voice

In my deep yearning

Your eternal voice that never sleeps

Remains awake in me. 

Colla even develops an analogy between police work and poetry reading that has to do with noticing rhythms and gaps (I'm not sure how most Arab poets will feel about the parallel). 

This atmospheric and gripping book creates a compelling mystery and predicament for its hero, and memorably evokes a time and place many in the US have all too quickly put out of mind. 

Obama's three Egypt policies

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

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

Mada Masr's Naira Antoun reports on the National Human Rights Council's report on the deaths in Rabaa last summer. Unsurprisingly, the report skirts condemning the overwhelming state violence that took place that day (one of the bloodiest in Egypt's history). 

The council also criticized security forces for not giving protesters sufficient time after warnings to evacuate and for preventing injured protesters from receiving treatment.


No mention was made of the army, however. When asked about this, Amin said that military forces secured the area but did not participate in the dispersal itself, and as such, “it is not relevant to mention the army.”

In the council’s account, the presence of armed individuals was the primary cause of the bloodshed that occurred on August 14.

“It was if the protesters killed each other,” one journalist said — to applause from other attendees.

While the council repeatedly emphasized its impartiality and integrity, and its commitment to documenting violence on all sides, journalists demanded to hear about the violations of the security forces. When Amin responded that it was all in the videos, journalists called for videos of the police.



Portrait of an Iraqi Person

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered. 

Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya

I see him here, or there:

his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes

his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres

his belly which grinded the wheat of madness

in Babylon’s mills

for ten thousand years

I see his portrait, which has lost its frame

in history’s repeated explosions

retrieving its features like a mirror

to surprise us every time

with its gratuitous ability to lavish

In his clear forehead you can see

as if on the pages of a book

a column of invaders passing through

just as in a black and white film:

give him any prison or graveyard!

give him any exile

any “here” or “there”

Despite that

we can see the catapults

pounding the walls

so that once again,

Uruk rises high

* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.

* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).

Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.

Kerry on Ukraine
"You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext," Mr Kerry told the CBS program Face the Nation.

When Bush and Cheney are put on trial for Iraq, I'll take note of John Kerry.

Civilian-military relations in Egypt

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

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

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