The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Translations
In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October, and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

Moroccans often see their country as something as an exception, distant from the violence of the Mashreq and unique because its monarchy has ancient roots. Like Egypt, it sees itself as a rare genuine state in a region of “tribes with flags”. It has its own political lexicon, in which the word “Makhzen” is central. The Makhzen is the regime, le pouvoir, al-sulta. These concepts are familiar across the region and elsewhere, but Morocco’s claims a uniqueness derived it being rooted in history. Makhzen means warehouse in Arabic, but it is also the origin of the French or English word “magazine” in an old (now largely deprecated) sense: the commissary or munitions depot of an army. In pre-colonal times, the sultan's army of "bled al-makhzen" (the land of the warehouse) collected tributes from unruly tribes in bled al-siba (the land of dissent). The Makhzen is not the monarchy, or at least not alone; it is also used to denote network of influence in public administration and in business that gravitates around the king. It is in a sense a storehouse of accumulated power, a method of redistribution and a network of influence. It is a slippery term, used to denote both “deep state” in a modern sense as well a perhaps invented, or at least exaggerated, historical pedigree the imbues it with a pseudo-legitimacy.

The Makhzen is a given in Moroccan politics, so the term around which of the pre-electoral debate has recently centered is a less often used one: tahakoum(التحكم), which literary means “control” but here denotes the exercise of parallel rule. (In this translation, I decided to leave it in transliterated Arabic.) In the article below, Mohammed Jabroun, a member of the PJD and academic, argues against his own party’s leadership that presenting itself as the best hope for democracy against the reactionary Makhzen is a sterile debate. He posits that this binary should be overcome, and with it the myth of “democratic transition” that the state and political actors officially adhere to – a democratic transition that can never be achieved, and thus creates tensions in society and among the political class, in which parties promising to lead the way to democracy have their credibility eroded by their compromise with the Makhzen. The article caused a stir in PJD circles and beyond, and Jabroun was decried as defeatist at best and echoing the regime’s tired clichés of reconciling “tradition and modernity” at worse.

Jabroun’s argument has its weakness, not least reducing tahakoum to the symbolic and political role of the monarchy and the Makhzen and ignoring their more materialist aspects: corruption and state capture. Still, at this juncture in the region’s history – one of revolutionary fatigue, reactionary backlash and a context of worldwide democratic retrenchment – it echoes a malaise about the failure to overcome authoritarianism in the region and disappointment with the Arab Spring’s meager harvest.

P.S. - a reader alerts me of an excellent response to Jabroun, here.

Many thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for enabling us to provide this feature. Please check them out if you need translation services.


The PJD, confronting “tahakoum,” and the need to abandon the idea of democratic transition

Mohammed Jabroun, al-Youm 24, 14 August 2016

For weeks, Morocco has been witnessing profound discussion and concern among its political actors about the return of “tahakoum” to political life and the future of the democratic transition, which entered into a new phase after the Arab Spring began in 2011. This is occurring ahead of the parliamentary elections due to be held on 7 October of this year. Although the other national parties all have an interest in this issue to varying degrees, the Justice and Development Party (Parti de la justice et du développement or PJD) shows far greater interest than the rest, to the extent that mounting a resistance to tahakoum has become is an existential battle for the party — or something close to it. You can hardly find anyone among the leadership who dares oppose the trend.
In terms of democratic principles, there is more than one sensible and valid reason lending legitimacy to the positions of the Moroccan national parties – including the PJD – in rejecting tahakoum and its mechanisms. Not least of these is the ideology of the party itself, which was founded on the idea of seeking power through elections. But applying this principle at this place and time in Morocco and amid the current regional and international circumstances poses several challenges and questions which, as a whole, make the idea of confronting tahakoum seem like a less than a rational approach, especially for the PJD, which is assumed to have a kind of authenticity in the political discourse.

On the nature of tahakoum:

Tahakoum is the intervention of anti-democratic forces in political life through various means with the aim of creating a “two-faced authority” which reproduces and modernizes authoritarian rule through the façade of democracy. This intervention, because of its recurrence in Morocco’s modern political landscape, has become conventional, and has been a cornerstone of most of the electoral and political milestones that Morocco has passed through since independence. From this perspective, tahakoum is one of the consequences of the forced political modernization upon which Morocco embarked at the time of independence amid conflict between the monarchy and the parties of the nationalist movement.
Although tahakoum in the current political lexicon is a term that describes actions and practices and intentionally omits discussion of the actors that stand behind it — for reasons that people interpret in various ways — it is undeniable that these actors are inseparable from the monarchy and the Makhzen apparatus which oversees them. They consist of the Ministry of Interior and its extensions in public administration; the partisan political field; and the various security agencies. Despite the novelty of this term in Moroccan political language and its connection with the experience of the PJD, the phenomenon it refers to is old, and its import has been expressed through other terms that carry same meaning currently in circulation. The most prominent of these terms and expressions are the “secret party”, the “party of the interior”, the “shadow government”, the Makhzen, and the “deep state”.
As a practice, tahakoum in its first inception emerged primarily from the regime, and reflected the failure of the Moroccan political elite to build a modern political system which could establish a strategic partnership between the nationalist movement and the monarchy — a partnership preserving the effective continuity of the Makhzen and the king as ruler on one hand, while on the other hand allowing the nationalist movement to exercise power.
From another standpoint — alongside authoritarian practices — this failure resulted from a lack of democracy. The parties of the nationalist movement, which found themselves cut off from power in the wake of independence, found that democracy was necessary to express their legitimate aspirations to wield power and confront absolute monarchy. Indeed, tahakoum in this sense is the objective antithesis of democracy and democratic transition. The extension and expansion of tahakoum clearly means a retreat of democracy, and aborting the hopes of a democratic transition. On the other hand, the resumption of the democratic process and the accumulation of its procedures means a retreat of the forces behind tahakoum. Moroccan political life from independence until today has been characterized by dispute and abortive negotiation between the two sides of this binary (tahakoum/democracy), although the victory has always gone to the forces of tahakoum for many reasons, which cannot be dealt with at length here.

The possibility of overcoming tahakoum:

Based on the above, overcoming the problem of tahakoum and entering a democratic era for both the regime and the political parties, appears nearly impossible under the premise of “democratic transition.” Over nearly 60 years, the nationalist movement and various Moroccan political factions have not succeeded in achieving major qualitative political progress within its framework, despite the serious sacrifices they have made. Whenever the dialogue of democratic transition is opened for one reason or another, or because of some domestic or foreign event (uprisings, coups, severe crises), it is quickly closed again at the soonest favorable opportunity when this reason is lifted. Perhaps the current generation remembers the reasons and circumstances for why the last initiative in this direction was aborted, with the “alternance” government of (1998-2002).[^1] Tahakoum in this sense is another expression of the Moroccan political character, which time has not succeeded in weakening or curtailing, and which many manifestations of the Moroccan nationalist movement have failed to include within and base their programs upon.
In this political assessment of the toll of the conflict and the dispute between tahakoum and democracy in Moroccan history, the discussion steers us to a central question: in independent Morocco, has the Moroccan political mind succeeded in developing a theoretical framework for a modern political system in line with the Moroccan character in its various dimensions? Were the nationalist movement and the monarchy aware of the sensibility and the strategy they were dealing with politically after independence? And from this question stem a number of other questions: Is the theory of democratic transition – as a theoretical basis for the national democratic parties’ political struggle – correct? And is it still valid as a way of framing the party-based political initiative? Is using confrontation with tahakoum as a banner for the current political phase a sound approach, taking into account the essence of tahakoum and the Moroccan character in its political-historical dimensions? Or does it indirectly serve the forces of tahakoum — whether they are aware of it or not — and facilitate their methods of shutting down democratic dialogue?
This conceptualization and analysis and its resulting questions leads us culturally and politically right back to the very beginning — that is, the moment of independence, which was the moment of an “innocent” search for a political partnership between the monarchy and the nationalist movement. It also restores our hope of getting out of the deadlock. Thirdly, it allows us to consider the possibility of building a political system consonant with Morocco’s political and traditional character and which is neither an absolute monarchy nor a parliamentary monarchy. This is what the first generation of the nationalist movement failed to do.
In answer to the central question posed above, it can be said with great assurance, based on the principles and experience of Moroccan political life, that both the monarchy and the nationalist movement have failed to build a modern political system in line with the elements of Morocco’s character. The relationship between them has remained tense, reflecting a clear contrast in their visions regarding the nature of Morocco’s modern governing system and its future status, during the period between independence and the Arab Spring (2011). The political discussions that Morocco saw on the sidelines of the constitutional consultations that defined them in the past have reflected some of this drastic contrast. The monarchy, through its extended apparatus, has always tried to put the brakes on democratic aspirations, while the democratic parties have run counter to it and tried to expand the margin of democracy.
This failure is not explained by traditional political factors such as conflicts of interest and ambitions. It goes back to deep reasons related to the cultural reference points that framed the modernization efforts after independence. It therefore reflects, in our view, a clear failure to manage Morocco’s character within the context of building a modern nation-state between one faction seeking political conservatism, characterized to a large extent as reactionary in its political concepts (the Makhzen), and a party striving for modernity and modernization, characterized to a large extent as progressive in its concepts (the parties of the nationalist movement). In this context we can reference two highly significant ideological documents: L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine (1967) by Abdullah Laroui and Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique) (1949-52) by Allal al-Fassi.[^2] Both were foundational to a progressive political ideology completely at odds with the desires of the conservative Makhzen. It should be noted that this discussion began before independence.
This polarity, based on a misunderstanding of Morocco’s character and a poor use of it in political life, is rooted in the severe cultural divisions which Moroccan political culture suffered in the wake of independence, when Moroccan political actors were split between three primary movements: the progressive movement (the National Union of Popular Forces), a Salafi movement (the Istiqlal Party)[^3] and the traditionalist movement (the Makhzen). This prevented the emergence of unified concepts for the reference points and nature of the appropriate political system for Moroccans at the time the modern nation-state was constructed.
Accordingly, the concept of “political transition” is the main manifestation of this failure. In large part it reflects the ruptures of Moroccan political thought over the last 60 years. When it was based on a progressive concept or “Salafism” (the Salafism of Allal al-Fassi), it did not take into account the extensive role played by tradition in Morocco. This made it into a point of contention and not an answer in terms of politics or struggle at a particular stage.
Consequently, building a modern political system in Morocco and finally getting past the bilateral democracy/tahakoum deadlock and making a break with the history of conflict does not require and will not be achieved by once again reviving the idea of “democratic transition.” It requires a creative synthesis between political tradition and modernity that preserves the effective presence of the monarchy and allows citizens to participate in power through their representatives.

The PJD and the need to reconsider the idea of democratic transition

The question that poses itself in this analytical context is: Do the nationalist movement parties, including the PJD, understand this cultural impasse that Moroccan politics has reached, and are they ready to bring about the necessary intellectual shift it demands? None of this seems likely in reality; however, for many reasons the PJD is qualified to do some of this.
The sweeping attack that a number of the nationalist parties have carried out against tahakoum, led by the PJD, confirms that Morocco is gradually approaching the moment where democratic dialogue will be shut down and that what Morocco has suffered over the last 60 years has not changed anything in the political class’s understanding of the tahakoum/democratic binary. The PJD in this respect, for instance, is similar to a number of nationalist movement parties that have entered this conflict. It has exhausted its reformist energies in its battle and is on the way to reviving the same traditional battle which caused Morocco to miss an excellent opportunity for progress and revival. (Prime Minister and PJD leader) Abdelilah Benkirane is the latest parallel to Allal al-Fassi, (historic USFP leader Abdelrahim) Bouabid, and (former USFP leader and Prime Minister Abdelrahman) Youssoufi and so on. It is likely that if tensions continue in this direction, it will result in the same price for the PJD that was paid by its predecessors in the same battle. The party leadership’s statements about the methods and tentacles of tahakoum and their militancy in confronting it do not indicate a new or qualitative understanding of the phenomenon of tahakoum, and it does not establish a new phase of political action in the kingdom. Naturally, the question that occurs to more than one reader after this analysis is: Is there a way to overcome the chronic political deadlock and then escape the pressure of the idea of tahakoum? And is there any role for the PJD in this regard?
Yes there is. I think that the opportunity to overcome this chronic deadlock exists. It is possible for the PJD to participate forcefully in overcoming it. Perhaps the first position/opener that needs to be offered as an avenue to settling this problem for good is a reconsideration of the idea of democratic transition, which has framed the political struggle for the Moroccan nationalist movement from independence up until today, with the bulk of these parties’ concepts just an echo of that idea.
Moroccan party politics today demands the shuttering of the debate about the nature of the political system, and at the heart this debate lies the question of the distribution of power between elected and monarchical institutions. It is not possible for this resolution to ignore the realities of recent history and Morocco’s historical character. Today, it is no longer comprehensible for the national Moroccan parties to continue with their original ideology, which was established by the circumstances of independence. Today, it is necessary to invent new political ideas that move beyond the “democratic transition” quandary to political, developmental and economic challenges in a real and responsible partnership with the monarchy. No doubt in such a transition, tahakoum would lose its political and strategic value and would be made into a mere political obstacle with no political benefit to be derived from it.
Abandoning the idea of democratic transition would lead to qualitative changes in Moroccan political thought. On one hand, it would confer political and democratic legitimacy upon the political system, and would make the historical and religious dimensions of Morocco’s character (the ruling monarchy) into another manifestation of its individuality and uniqueness. On the other hand, the Moroccan political system would consciously escape the political instability which reverberates through the continuous discussion of the transition project.

In conclusion:

The PJD, as a qualitatively new current in Moroccan political life, has the cultural and political credentials to carry out this revolution in Moroccan political thought. It has come close at several moments, but events in the Moroccan political scene in recent months and the tactics they necessitated pushed it away from this goal. The exaggerated discussion of tahakoum among the PJD is indeed not without strategic or reformist depth. The ambition of this party since its return to political life in 1996 has been to reconcile with the monarchy and avoid conflict with it.
The aim of this discussion is to alert the PJD leadership, led by their secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane, to the danger they have courted in recent months with their constant talk of confronting tahakoum, although this runs counter to their primary beliefs. Tahakoum is more than a party or a figure — it is a political phenomenon linked to the monarchy with its own objective rationale. We have tried in the above to clarify some of this rationale. Consequently, it is not possible to eliminate this phenomenon except by addressing its underlying causes. In particular, it is necessary to abandon the premise of “democratic transition” and help ensure stability by crafting an authentic and exceptional political system.

[^1]: The government of “alternance” headed by historical opposition leader Abdelrahman Youssoufi marked the first time that an opposition party democratically arrived in power in the Arab world. It was negotiated between Hassan II (who knew he only had a few years to live and wanted to prepare a safe transition to his son) and the USFP in the mid-1990s.

[^2]: Abdallah Laroui is Morocco’s pre-eminent modern historian and an intellectual who had great access to both Hassan II and the Moroccan political class more generally. Allal al-Fassi was conservative intellectual, a leader of the Moroccan nationalist movement and the founder of the Istiqlal party, which together with its more progressive offshoot, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), dominated the country’s political life after independence.

[^3]: The author refers to the Istiqlal as Salafi in part because its leader, Allal al-Fassi, was inspired by the Salafi renewal led by Mohammed Abdou and Rachid Reda in Egypt, especially in the interwar period. It should not be seen as equivalent to contemporary Salafism, and the Istiqlal Party, while conservative, is neither Salafi nor Islamist in the tradition of the Muslim Brothers (the PJD is closer to this).

In Translation: Egypt's foundering economy

Last month, the Egyptian pound reached EGP13 to the US dollar for the first time, highlighting the massive stresses on the Egyptian economy and the inevitability of a further devaluation (long expected by the markets) despite the Central Bank of Egypt’s efforts to have controlled re-evaluation of the pound. Also last week, Egypt announced that it was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement for as much as $12 billion in loans (which will of course come with policy conditions) from the IMF. Yesterday, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi warned that austerity measures are coming. All of this points to the continuing fall of the purchasing power of average Egyptians, from the poorest segment of the population (only partly sheltered by price controls on basic goods) to the middle class (perhaps the most dramatically affected).

These developments have appointed once pro-Sisi commentators to lash out. Like many once pro-establishment Egyptians I have met in the last year, it is not so much that they blame Sisi for the alarming economic condition of the country (that after all is a long-term trend) but his lack of vision for the economy and indulgence in wasteful prestige projects and the lack of transparency with what is being done with money raised from the Egyptian public and foreign backers. In the piece below, the Nasserist columnist Abdullah al-Senawi (who in 2013-14 was said to have Sisi’s ears and was a major supporter from the “nationalist left” through his TV show and writings) skewers the Sisi regime for his and more, predicting that such poor economic stewardship may very well spell its downfall.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for the translation. Do check them out for your Arabic translation needs - we’re very happy with them, and the New York Times recently used them to translate an excellent piece on Saudi Arabia by our friend Ben Hubbard.


The economic crisis and Its repercussions

Abdullah al-Senawi, al-Shurouk, 29 July 2016

In the face of an ominous economic situation, if there is no recognition of the causes there can be no avoiding the serious consequences. The collapse of the Egyptian pound against the American dollar is just one aspect of the crisis, not its core. The rising prices of basic goods are another manifestation, but they are not the whole of it.

There is near consensus among Egyptian experts that there has been no clear, well-understood economic direction. Nor has there been management competent enough to grasp the necessities and priorities. Thus, we have arrived at a disastrous failure that is now undeniable: the markets announce it and the numbers confirm it.

If there is not a serious reconsideration, we are heading for tough days with no hope of escape. When there is no way of reviving the markets except by resorting to the International Monetary Fund, this means that the economy is teetering and on the brink of collapse.

The first question is: what exactly is the underlying problem? Why were there no policies able to create plans for production that would pump investment into the sclerotic arteries of the economy?

The second question is: to what extent are the grand projects adopted by the state responsible for depleting the country’s foreign currency reserves, without feasibility studies to examine likely revenues in the foreseeable future?

The third question concerns the aid and loans that Egypt obtained since 30 June 2013: how were they spent and according to what priorities?

The fourth question: is there an opportunity to correct and review the roots of the policies that led to this difficult economic situation?

Frank discussion of the facts is an essential step in overcoming a deep-rooted crisis, and it is legitimate and normal to raise questions. If there are no feasible ways to correct the situation, there is no hope of any social cohesion to prevent sudden collapses. Here is one indicator from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics: 27.8 percent of Egyptians live under the extreme poverty line and cannot afford the basic essentials of human life. That number is an indication of the dangerous level of poverty, which in the countryside of Upper Egypt rises to 57 percent.

That is a store of suppressed anger that is likely to explode if the suffering becomes unbearable and the state remains completely irresponsible. The state could take some degree of action to ease the suffering of the poorest parts of society, regardless of its capacity.

The same suppressed anger in the middle classes – the main victim of the economic crisis – could lead to unrest, which nobody can predict when or where it will begin. The declining purchasing power of the Egyptian pound, along with the forecasted steady rise in prices for commodities and services and the imposition of new taxes such as the VAT, all represent a dangerous fall in real income and an unprecedented erosion in living standards that cannot be compared with any previous period. When society is on the edge of despair, everything is possible and an explosion can be expected at any time.

Around four decades ago, on 18-19 January 1977, million-strong protests filled the squares and streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. This became known as the “bread intifada.” It followed the announcement of price hikes on basic goods such as bread, gas, sugar and rice after an agreement with the IMF to tackle the budget deficit.

Those protests, in terms of their size and momentum, resembled the protests of January 25, 2011, but their aim was limited to cancelling the decision to raise the prices of basic goods. President Anwar Sadat was forced to announce a curfew and send the army into the streets to impose order after the police were unable to face down the public anger. What is more important is that the decisions were all cancelled.

The lesson stayed ever-present, particularly in the memories of the security services. The interior minister at the time, Hassan Abu Basha, published a memoir about the “bread intifada.” But the passing of time creates the temptation to forget experiences. If the same factors are present, the results are likely to be the same.

If the security services are ever tested in this way, the results are pre-determined. The worst thing that happened after the 30 June Revolution was the way the security services were given a free hand in public life, allowing them to interfere in an unprecedented way in party politics, parliament, university and economic life.

That was one reason for the state’s weak will to carry out its functions. Every institution has functions that differ from those of other bodies, and it is unfair to ask the security services to take on functions other than its natural duties.

Security solutions have a ceiling of what they can achieve, however extreme their shows of force. They can work for a week or two in stopping speculation on the dollar in the black market, but they do not build a basis for relative stability in the markets and trading activity. Excesses can lead to economic paralysis that cannot be sustained for long. The issue is not one of stopping a few speculators or closing some foreign exchange bureaus, but rather changing the whole environment and revising the policies of economic failure.

The first aspect of this economic crisis is that production has almost ground to a halt and factories have almost stopped, investment has declined enormously, tourism has hit its lowest levels and transfers from Egyptians abroad have fallen to abnormally low levels.

The second aspect is that projects haven taken precedence over policies, and that is a fundamental error. Assuming that projects are undertaken due to some necessity, what are those necessities, and which of them must be postponed for the sake of other needs that are directly linked to production and operations, according to a studied plan with well-defined priorities? After the IMF loan, another question is: where is the money going exactly? It is certain that loans place constraints on future generations through accumulated debt, and no one is entitled to deprive them of their natural rights.

The third aspect is the absence of any equitable distribution of burdens. The government’s policies are similar, but less competent, than those followed by the Policies Committee1 chaired by Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former president. All the burdens are borne by the middle class and the poorest parts of society, without any readiness to impose progressive taxes on businessmen and owners of large companies, based on their profits and income, despite the fact that the constitution requires it.2 The crisis of the Mubarak regime was the lack of any type of social justice despite that economic growth reached nearly 7 percent a year.

The fourth aspect of the crisis is the poisoning of the political environment, the human rights situation and public freedoms. The economy cannot move, investments cannot be implemented and tourism cannot return to its normal high levels in a climate where politics is taken off the map and freedom deleted from the dictionary. The bad state of human rights in Egypt is one reason for the escalation of the economic crisis, as are the deteriorating levels of transparency and integrity.

There is now a fear that Egypt will be seen as a country rife with corruption – which has become more ingrained now after the sentencing of Egypt’s chief auditor Hesham Geneina following statements he made about the cost of corruption in Egypt.3 Where corruption takes hold, the opportunities for investment retreat.

That is a truth that cannot be forgotten. Egypt is looking at its future through the prism of the economic crisis and its repercussions.


  1. The Policies Committee (legna siyasat of the National Democratic Party was a vehicle through which Gamal Mubarak rallied a number of technocrats and policy intellectuals and sought to promote liberal economic policies in the mid-2000s. ↩︎

  2. Article 38 of the 2013 constitution stipulates that “The taxes imposed on the incomes of individuals are progressive multi-tier taxes that according to their tax capacity.” ↩︎

  3. See “Egypt's former top auditor Geneina sentenced to 1 year in jail for 'spreading false news’.“

In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup
Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.


Is President Assad the biggest winner after the failed Turkish coup? What is the surprise Erdogan is preparing to unleash on Wednesday? How do we explain the chilliness and confusion of the Saudis toward Ankara? And why is Jubeir suddenly more optimistic about solving the Syrian crisis?

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-rai al-youm, 20 July 2016

Let us leave aside the failed Turkish coup and all the consequent purges, which have included tens of thousands of judges, teachers, imams, security officers, state employees and both high and low-ranking officers — let us leave all of that aside, even if temporarily, and try to explore the steps President Recep Tayayip Erdogan is preparing to embark on at the regional and international levels.
Surprises from President Erdogan these days are many and various — you need to stop and catch your breath every now and then while trying to keep up with him — but the most prominent may be “reconciliation” with Syria, entry into negotiations with it, and a shift in Turkey’s attitudes toward it, politically and militarily.
We’ve spoken about this issue here more than once before, and have quoted more than one statement from Mr. Binali Yildirim — the prime minister, and the second man in Turkey — in which he spoke about the futility of the war in Syria and the need to stop the bloodshed and return to “zero problems” with neighbors. What is new this time is that assurances in this direction came from Erdogan’s own mouth the day before yesterday. This may be the biggest surprise, and could gladden the hearts of some while giving others heart attacks.


In video and audio, President Erdogan told a group of his supporters on Monday evening that “his country would put all its disputes with neighboring countries behind it,” and revealed that his country would take an important decision after the National Security Council meeting which will be held tomorrow (Wednesday).
We do not know what important decision the Turkish national security leadership — with the participation of the prime minister, senior state officials, and the military and security establishments — will take, but we do know that the biggest disputes with neighboring countries, which it will put behind it, are with Syria, the source of all the problems Turkey is enduring these days, including “terrorism” and its bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, and Kurdish aspirations to establish a “state” taking shape along its northern border.
Of course we do not deny the existence of disputes with Iraq, as well as others with Egypt, and third, to a lesser extent, with Iran, and fourth with Russia, which are on their way to being resolved. However, all of these disputes are secondary, or are directly related to the Syrian issue, and will all melt away if there is a change in Turkish policy toward this issue.
In this article, we will try to read between the lines of Erdogan’s statements and see what they involve in terms of meanings and indicators on this or that issue and what we can deduce through these readings. We can summarize them in the following points:

  1. There has been an accelerating political and media trend by President Erdogan’s government to review its friendly relations with Washington, as well as a lack of concern with European threats to stop negotiations to include Turkey in the European Union if it reinstates the death penalty. There is a chance of a rupture between the two sides on the grounds of the American government’s refusal to extradite US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been officially accused of being behind the failed coup.
  2. A state of “chill” has prevailed over Turkish-Saudi relations since Mr. Yildirim’s statements about the possibility of restoring his country’s relations with Syria. The confused reaction of Saudi media toward the failed coup reflected this chill, as Saudi channels, including the official Al Ekhbariya and semi-official Al Arabiya, appeared at first to sympathize with the coup, and then corrected this and timidly welcomed its failure.
  3. A strange statement was made by Mr. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, on the sidelines of the European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council Ministerial Meeting in Brussels yesterday. He said, “There is hope of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis,” while adding at the same time that, “the support of his country for the Syrian opposition will continue, as well as the war on ISIS.” What made this strange was that Mr. Jubeir was uncharacteristically optimistic about a political solution in Syria and did not mention the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, whether peacefully or through war, at all.

We do not want to preempt events or jump to hasty conclusions, however we do not hesitate to say that President Assad could be the biggest winner to emerge from this failed Turkish coup, whether it was real or fabricated, for several reasons, listed below:

  1. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement will be definitive, and could enter a stage of unprecedented strategic cooperation if US-Turkish relations collapse. Two days ago, Sergei Lavrov confirmed there was close cooperation between Moscow and Ankara around the Syrian issue.
  2. The phone conversation initiated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with his counterpart Erdogan — and which was greatly welcomed and appreciated by the Turkish president when Rouhani offered congratulations on the failure of the coup and readiness for cooperation between the two countries — could be a prelude to joint Iranian-Russian mediation to resume Turkish-Syrian relations.
  3. The Syrian opposition has disappeared from the political scene over the last three days. So far, no delegation representing it has arrived in Ankara to at least show solidarity with Erdogan.

The Turkish landscape is changing, and Turkey will be different after the coup, as we said in a previous article. So is it the case with President Erdogan. We are less than 24 hours from finding out about the biggest transformation, which the Turkish President will announce after the National Security Council meeting. These are long hours to wait, at least for us.

In Translation: Of Egypt, Qatar, and Libya

I am quite late in posting the translation below, which was published in May soon after the Vienna ministerial meeting on Libya in which Western powers announced that they were prepared to put in place an exemption to the arms embargo to provide weapons and training to the fledging Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj. The piece below is interesting, as an op-ed by a newspaper that while London-based is funded by Qatar. It signals the continuing exasperation in Doha with Egypt’s foreign policy, a precursor to this week’s diplomatic spat follow the sentencing of deposed President Mohammed Morsi on charges of having spied for Qatar. And, some might say, the odd kind-of-proxy war between the Egypt/UAE-backed Haftar forces and those Islamist forces in Libya closer to Qatar (who once again clashed in recent days.)

As always we bring you this translation through our partners at Industry Arabic, a professional translation service that specializes in Arabic documents of all kinds. If you or your company has an Arabic translation need, please check them out and tell them The Arabist sent you.


Cairo Uses Haftar to Prevent Libyan Reconciliation
Editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 19 May 2016

The Libyan crisis has witnessed a new development: The United States and the countries of the European Union have announced that they are prepared to arm the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, the option of direct Western military intervention has receded (despite the presence of American and European special forces on Libyan territory). After the GNA took over most ministry headquarters, it announced the names of its ministers. Then, forces loyal to this government began to clash with “Islamic State” forces—the main point of focus for Western powers—and to retake areas, checkpoints and border posts. The major difficulty that the GNA faces, though, is approval of its legitimacy by the recognized Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Despite a majority of representatives agreeing to this, having signed statements and announcing their explicit desire to recognize the GNA, the House of Representatives continues to refrain from doing so, for reasons that are quite clear.

The matter is related, of course, to the military control that the Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, enjoys over the eastern region of Libya, where the House of Representatives is located. From a regional perspective, it is also related to approval by the authorities in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—the actual sponsors of General Haftar—of the international plan to move from civil war to reconciliation.
In a recent statement made by General Haftar to a Libyan television channel, he said, “It is unheard of for a government to be established during a time of terrorism.” He means by this, of course, the GNA. He further stated that he “has nothing to do with political dialogue” and that what he is interested in is “imposing security and stability and ridding Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he argued that “democracy will come to pass over the generations,” but that he believes in it because he experienced it for 25 years in the West! Haftar’s statements contradict one another and undermine any credibility he has.

Collectively, his statements clearly express his enormous disdain for his supposed partners in Libya in his rejection of political dialogue and his acknowledgement of only one solution, the one that he imposes with his military forces and that eliminates the Muslim Brotherhood. After he establishes security and stability, he sees nothing wrong with promising Libyans (or those that are left) with democracy, which “he alone knows because he lived for 25 years in the West,” but in the generations to come!

In their cartoonishness, these statements made by General Haftar do not diverge from those of another general, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This is the man in whose footsteps Haftar had hoped—and continues to hope—to follow in moving from military control on the ground and over the government and the House of Representatives to the Libyan presidency. This has eluded him, however, for the simple reason that Libya is not Egypt and because the éradicateur solution did not work. This is what pushed the United Nations and the international community, in the end, to resort to the current compromise scenario.

Support for the Haftar option for Libya has led, in practice, to significant tragedies inflicted on the Libyan state and society. This has strengthened the hardline Salafist movement, as represented by the Islamic State. Furthermore, it has contributed to destabilizing the security of countries both close by and in Europe and to enabling gangs of smugglers to traffic across the Mediterranean those seeking refuge in Europe.
The only reason for this option to remain active on the Libyan scene is that its collapse would reveal the absurdity of the Egyptian model on which it was founded – something that Cairo is trying to postpone as much as possible.

In Translation: Five Years On.. Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

The Egyptian authorities were so worried about the anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that they reportedly inspected hundreds of apartments Downtown and forced young people to show their social media accounts. They also shut down many cultural venues that are gathering places (being young, being online, and hanging out Downtown are now explicitly grounds for suspicion). 

A lot of media is publishing eulogies of the 2011 Egyptians uprising, asking those who supported it to reflect on its disappointing denouement. It can be painful and a bit frustrating to read these pieces (I think media professionals themselves -- and I include myself -- as well as pundits and Western politicians, could just as well be asked what they got "terribly wrong"). That said we have one of our own, translated as usually by the professional team of Industry Arabic

Rabab El Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She was also an active participant in post-2011 politics, notably when she acted as an advisor to the presidential campaign of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (El Mahdi herself is a staunch leftist). This piece takes a brooders view at the current moment of crisis, not just in the Middle East but in the world's economic and political systems. 

FIVE YEARS ON.. DID THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION FAIL?

Rabab El Mahdi, al-Shorouq, 21 January 2016

A mixture of suppressed anger, sorrow and fatigue engulfs the city known as “victorious,” [Ed. Note: One of the meanings of Cairo] a rough but vibrant city. Over the past five years the city has changed – and, to my mind, not necessarily for the worse, as the followers of the “good old days” school of thinking like to put forth. However, it has changed and I am almost certain that it will never be the same. Those who supported the revolution and thought that something better was possible have become frustrated and dispersed; those who followed the revolution with interest and anticipation have become fatigued; and those who opposed the revolution and continue to do so, believing it to be a conspiracy, are still afflicted by the fear caused by that earthquake in 2011, whose consequences, though they have temporarily subsided, remain present. The question shared by all these groups, whatever their political orientation, is: What next? This question is on everyone’s minds, even if it is not spoken aloud. But the question that remains of particular concern to the majority of those who dreamed of and believed in the 2011 revolution in Egypt is: Did the revolution fail?

I do not think that any one of us, whatever they claim, can definitively answer this question, and anyone who attempts to do so is just showing that they are not aware of the limits of their knowledge. However, there are in my opinion some necessary starting points, even if they are not enough for us to be able to understand what happened and therefore—most importantly—what can happen in the future.

We must realize that what Egypt has been going through over the past five years is not just a political movement or even an aborted attempt at a revolution, it is a historical process of change that involves society as a whole, including its political and even its cultural structures. Therefore, this process could last for decades. The post-colonial state that was formed in the middle of the last century has reached its end. In its current form, it is no longer able to fulfill its various roles managing society or even to achieve the requirement of being accepted by new generations, who are no longer satisfied with the idea of exchanging freedom for a non-existent economic security or to relinquish their personal dignity in a police state under the pretext of security and national autonomy. We are in the midst of a battle to redefine and to question what had previously been a given.

The fervor surrounding the idea of national independence and international conspiracies is no longer enough to subdue the generations of the new millennium, especially those whose political awareness was formed by the revolution, even if they did not participate in it. The concepts of the nation, pride and dignity have become part of the public debate and are linked to personal lives and no longer merely abstract concepts. Thus, the famous song lyric: “Don’t say, ‘What has Egypt done for us?’” is no longer a sufficient response to their questions and aspirations to a better individual and public life. Just as the project of the independent state was the dream of  20th century generations, the dream of a free society is the project of 21st century generations. From another perspective, the welfare state capable of providing social advancement through education and employment—even if that state is authoritarian—has ended. With the crisis of global capitalism and of the ambitions to build of the Gulf states, the Egyptian state is no longer able to meet the needs of its citizens. It cannot do so by way of an “industrial renaissance,” as in the era of Nasser, by offering a model like Sadat’s “Infitah” or even by way of the rentier state model (exporting labor to the Gulf and relying on their remittances), as was the case during the Mubarak era. For global and regional reasons, all of these economic models have been exhausted.

At the same time, society is experiencing these labor pains not only at the level of the relationship to the state, but also at the level of social and cultural patterns and individual relations. Towns and villages have evolved into small cities; the state’s domination over local media, education and cultural institutions is being confronted by the ungovernable openness of the internet and the diversity of resources for self-education; control by the religious establishment is being confronted by the rise of religious currents that may be worse and more extremist, but that are disrupting the idea of religion being monopolized or dominated by a single institution. The struggle among these views is reshaping society and the individual in a historic sense not seen since the late 19th and early 20th century with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the concept of Arab nationalism and the emancipation of women, etc. This is a struggle that surpasses the idea of a political movement, which has become merely the outer layer of the deeper changes that society is experiencing.

Furthermore, the region and the world are witnessing rapid transformations that affect us, though some had thought that they didn’t. The regional scene has come to resemble what Europe and the world went through during the period of the first half of the 20th century: world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the end of the old colonial powers and the Ottoman Empire, the rise of national movements, the drawing of borders for new states and the beginning of the Cold War. With the rise of non-state actors, such as ISIS and even Hezbollah as regional actors and the shift in the network of state alliances -- with the emergence of Iran and Turkey and the rise of China and Russia as states with international ambitions particularly focused in the region -- the set and the nature of regional actors has changed, as has the game itself. Thus, it is no longer possible to restrict oneself to long-term, low-level conflict management. On the contrary, what we see is an intensification and escalation, up to the moment of an imminent explosion that will redraw the map of the region – that may redraw even the nature of the states and their borders as we have known them over the last century and the concept of the state’s control over the instruments of legitimate violence and fixed territorial borders, which we studied in political science.

At the same time, the world has been witnessing successive crises, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis and through the recent crisis in Greece. These crises threaten the nature of the global economic system as we know it or at least indicate the scale of the crisis created by the global capitalist system. In parallel, we see the rise of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the demise of political parties as the principal instrument for managing conflicts and political competition as well as the rise of far-right discourse in Europe and the Arab world (though their tools and motivations differ). These variables reflect the magnitude of the change that is overtaking to the world as a whole, and even those ideas and concepts the world had thought settled, such as the optimal political form and the meaning and administration of democracy.

In sum, we are at the beginning of the end of a historic phase domestically, regionally and globally, even if that does not mean that this phase will end tomorrow. The starting point is to understand the nature of this phase and then to begin to pose questions about what we, as individuals and as groups, hope for in order to shape the future and to draft preliminary plans for how to achieve it, while keeping in mind that both state violence and non-state violence are an unsustainable situation. In this sense, judging the outcomes of the Egyptian Revolution or what is called the Arab Spring is premature. We are witnessing the beginning of the final chapter of a stage in the evolution of human society, but how this final scene will end has yet to be decided. May God have mercy on all the martyrs, refugees, prisoners and all those who came out and took action, only wanting a better future for humankind.

In Translation: A modest proposal to fix Egypt's economy

Economist, former government minister and rare voice of reason Ziad Bahaa Eddin presents a list of sensible suggestions for what Egypt should do, undo, and not do to right its sinking economic ship. Pity that they will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. This installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Recommendations for Dealing with the Economic Crisis

El Shorouk newspaper, October 20 1015

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin

One cannot describe the current economic situation as only a minor bump, one that we can deal with using the same tools and methods the state has grown accustomed to using over the past years, and which exacerbated the crisis in the first place. I am not referring here to the disturbances in the exchange market that recently grabbed the media’s attention: they are a symptom of an underlying sickness, the expression of deeper problems in the management of the economy. The principle of these problems are weak levels of investment, exports and employment and the rise in both internal and external public debt. The most important of these problems, though, is the government’s lack of clarity in its economic policy and the direction it intends to pursue. For citizens, the steady price increases, especially in food, the continuing decline in public services and the scarcity of employment opportunities are the real indicators of the Egyptian economy’s performance. For them, these issues are more important than figures for growth, reserves and the public debt.

We can, of course, blame the slowdown in world trade, global conspiracies, or the regional situation. None of these, though, are sufficient to explain the rapid worsening of the economic situation over the past few months. We can also demand that minister after minister step down or cabinet after cabinet be replaced every time there seems to be a slowdown or a failure or every time the media calls for an immediate change. However, the gravity of the current situation requires us to stop and reassess our position and to build a minimum of consensus around certain important priorities instead of searching for a scapegoat or trying to satisfy the media’s thirst for a new victim. Here is what I propose:

Over the short-term, the government must make decisions on various issues that remain unclear and that cause persistent anxiety within the investment community. Most importantly, the government must explain what taxes and fees it intends to impose in the short and medium term, the future of energy pricing, what the forthcoming agreement with the World Bank contains and, last but not least, what measures it plans to adopt to deal with the exchange rate. Even if some of these are hard choices with a high social cost, lack of clarity is, in all cases, is more damaging than decisiveness. Lack of clarity leads one to imagine the worst possibilities and paralyzes investment and production. Furthermore, it is necessary for there to be complete agreement on a shared position among members of the government. Contradictory statements made by officials causes the government to lose credibility. As for the exchange rate, no statements or forecasts should be made, except by the Central Bank, as it is an issue that is negatively effected by any rumor or poorly thought-out statement.

In the short-term, as well, there is a great need to review many recent faulty decisions and to courageously acknowledge their shortcomings rather than stubbornly persisting in them. It is no longer up for debate that the Investment Law issued at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference was a big mistake. It further complicated the investment environment, opened up space for corruption and manipulation of land allocation and promised investors things that it could not guarantee. There is agreement among experts in law, economy and business that this law set us back ten years. So why do we not repeal it? The same applies to the policy of promoting global investment without giving sufficient, let alone similar, weight to small and medium-sized national ventures, older industrial zones and local investors’ associations that represent tens of thousands of small producers.

In the long-term, it will be useful to reexamine the utility of large national projects in light of the continuing lack of clarity and of contradictory statements made by officials about their cost, economic impact, funding and mechanisms of implementation. No one hates the idea of a new capital for Egypt, nor of adding millions of acres to the available agricultural land. Yet, due to the scarcity of resources, urgent needs in all areas of social expenditure and the need to upgrade existing public utilities, we must reconsider our priorities. There must also be dialogue within the community about the utility of such projects: which should be implemented now and which should be delayed or even set aside entirely.

Likewise, we must return to the issue of social justice, which has been neglected recently despite remaining, over the past four years, the Egyptian people’s clear, repeated demand. Though it represented for a time the core concern of the entire state, social justice has become again an overlooked issue, only pursued by the Ministries of Social Solidarity and Supply through the tools available to them. These tools -- pensions and social security through the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and ration cards and food subsidies through the Ministry of Supply -- are not enough to achieve the prosperity that people seek. We must transition from a concept of “social solidarity,” achieved by means of granting additional pensions and subsidized food supplies, to a concept of “comprehensive social protection” that gives all citizens proper education, the chance to become qualified for the labor market, healthcare and the opportunity to compete and advance. After this comes the role of social security: to protect the weak and those who cannot compete in the work market. Successive governments have made substantial efforts in this area, but a political decision needs to be taken to reinvigorate interest in completing this process, begun many years ago.

Finally, both in the short and long-term, there is a need to broaden the circle of discussion surrounding decision makers both in the Presidential Palace and the Cabinet. I speak here not only of the need to ask for assistance from Egyptian experts both inside and outside the country who could make valuable additions. More importantly than that, there must be an institutional dialogue. Economic policy should not be set solely by the group of people that surround the president, no matter how competent they are. Instead, it should be set through dialogue between the government, the Federation of Egyptian Industries, the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, investors’ associations, professional associations, workers’ unions, political parties and civil society organizations. Each of these bodies represents a force in society and an interest that we must listen to and involve in the decision-making process so that they do not become spectators waiting to see what surprises the government throws their way. A sound economic policy should be designed with their support and participation and should represent a balance between their various interests.

In Translation: Egypt's president reads the constitution, sees a problem

 

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation. 

Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!

Online magazine 18+, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.

The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.

First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.

Of course, a military ruler who has no interest in democracy, in legislative branches, in the rule of law or in any such talk cannot quite swallow this. “After all, we’re doing fine without a parliament. The people are happy. This measly little constitution would only cause me a headache, or possibly even put me out on the curb – when we are only just getting started!”

Then the president took another look at the constitution and found another stab in the back. What sort of constitution is this? It allows the parliament to be involved in the formation of the government alongside the president of the republic, and even allows it to review the president’s selection for prime minister and to withdraw its confidence from the prime minister as well. You mean to say that after the president has worked tirelessly to find ministers that he can actually put up with, the parliament can simply come along and send them packing? I’m afraid not!

The third thing that the president had no desire to hear is that the constitution states that the parliament must review all laws issued by the president of the republic, even those which were issued when there was no working parliament. What’s more, they must approve these laws or else they become null and void retroactively. Meaning that after all the effort of issuing these lovely laws, like the anti-protest law, the counter-terrorism law and the terrorist entities law, some amateurs can come along and amend them! It’s positively scandalous.

Since one way or another we’ll end up amending the constitution in order to extend the presidential term or to make it open-ended altogether, then why not fine-tune it from the get-go? This way we won’t have to keep making small amendments and we can just put out a whole new package at once.

Unfortunately, no one seems to learn from history. The more the president plays with the constitution, the faster his time will come to an end. In this regard, Sadat’s “extensions” and Mubarak’s amendments of 2007 offer a lesson: In matters such as these, tinkering with things leads to disaster. So I ask, please, that no one mess around with the constitution. Whoever does tamper with it is bound to get seriously screwed.

 

IN TRANSLATION: WESTERN SUPERIORITY AND ARAB DENIAL (Part 2)

Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Arab Civilization Has Lost Its Purpose

 Khaled al-Dakheel, Al-Hayat, Sunday 6 September 2015

To deny the facts of history is a form of stubbornness that may lead to a departure from history altogether. This is what seems to be happening in the Arab and Islamic world (with the exception of Malaysia and Indonesia). If the Arabs reject wholesale the civilizational superiority of the West, they are doing so on the basis of moral and political arguments, some or all of which may be correct, but which in reality have no connection to the issue of civilizational superiority. On the other hand, the Arabs are clinging to an Arab-Islamic civilization that ruled the world until the end of the 13th century. In both cases, the Arabs are guilty of an unjustified obstinacy. The facts of history say that Arab-Islamic civilization has come to an end and its aims are exhausted, while Western civilization has inherited from it and replaced it through an unprecedented superiority.

The first testimony to the decline of Arab civilization appeared at the end of the 14th century in the famous Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun. He writes: “In this age, the end of the 8th century (Hijri), the situation in the Maghreb, as we have witnessed, has been turned upside down and completely altered…This was the situation until, in the middle of the 8th century, civilization both in the Arab East and Arab West was swept by a plague that devastated nations and carried off an entire generation. It swallowed up and obliterated many blessings of civilization. It overtook nations when they had grown decrepit and reached their utmost limit. It lessened their influence, undermined their power and led to their extinction. Civilization declined with the decline of mankind. Cities and buildings were destroyed, roads and landmarks vanished, estates and homes became vacant, nations and tribes began to falter.” 

This is what was happening to the Arab West at the time. And what about the Arab East? Ibn Khaldun says: “The Arab East seems to have suffered the same fate as the Arab West, though in in a degree and manner proportionate to its civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for apathy and gloom, and the world obeyed. God inherits the earth and whoever is upon it.” (Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun, v. 1, p. 325-326).

Leaving aside the plague that swept the region at the time, it would seem that the author of the Muqaddima was describing the current situation in the Arab world, particularly Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, not to mention the threats the rest of the region is facing. But hold on a moment. Our own age suffers from its own plagues, such as extremism, sectarianism, dictatorship, corruption and terrorism. It is as if in our own age the Arab East and Arab West were complying with the voice of existence when it calls for “apathy and gloom,” albeit for factors and reasons that did not exist in Ibn Khaldun’s time.

What does this mean? It means that the process of decline described by this historian in his lifetime was completed long before our own time. The Arab world is now living through its aftermath and repercussions, and it is still paying the price. And why? Because Arabs and Muslims are resisting the fact that history has advanced, and that Arab civilization reached its peak before the 14th century. Since that time, history has progressed to an age of a different nature and aspect, and with different motives, requirements and variables. The features of decline are still with us and beset us on every side: the same religious thought, sectarianism, tribalism, crisis of governance and absence of scientific thinking. The Arab refusal to acknowledge the superiority of the West acts as a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of Western superiority, rather than being born of conviction. Without a doubt, the Crusades and later the Western colonization of many Arab countries, as well as the question of Palestine, helped solidify this complex. Although the attitude toward these Western incursions is justified, it is really strange that after centuries, we have yet to realize that fear is the weakest and worst defense mechanism, particularly on the level of nations and civilizations. Fear is a natural reaction at the beginning, but afterwards it should be an incentive to create a real defense mechanism that leads to innovation and does not remain a defense mechanism for its own sake. However, this is impossible without first admitting that a decline has taken place, that the aims of Arab civilization have been exhausted, and that history has passed into a new era that emerged in the garb of a different civilization: Western civilization, with its capitalist foundations. Moreover, it is necessary to recognize the technological superiority of this civilization not only on the scientific and material level, but on the cultural and moral level as well. It does not help and will not help to cling to the opposite contention -- that this new civilization suffers from cultural and moral decadence -- since this involves judging the culture of a civilization on the basis of cultural standards that belong to a different civilization whose logic and standards have already collapsed.

What are the features of the cultural and moral superiority of Western civilization? It consists of just about everything: the various branches of art, literature, political, social and philosophical thought, and the scientific method. It also consists in the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the inviolability of constitutions, a political system based on the principle of participation and that governing is not a privilege but rather a service and responsibility that is in theory open to all. The cultural and moral superiority in all this is the framework by which Western civilization as such should be judged – by the standards and logic on which it rests – rather than according to external standards and logic. It was within this framework that the foundations were laid for the achievements of this civilization in various fields: administration, education, architecture, engineering, medicine, technology, space exploration, physics, civil and military industries, etc. Admitting the superiority of this civilization by no means requires copying it, especially the details of its culture and values, in order to apply it in a different cultural and historical context. In any case, this would be impossible. Nonetheless, such an admission is the first step to a true awareness of the actual Arab situation: that the Arab world has departed from its civilizational context and entered a different one that it is no longer wise to deny. To admit this fact is to accept the challenge posed by the end of Arab civilization and its passing from history, and the challenge of the current civilizational framework with its never-ending achievements.

It is startling that the Arabs have neglected Ibn Khaldun’s observation. More than 700 years ago, this Muslim Arab thinker, historian and jurist recognized that in his time Arab civilization had fallen into stagnation and collapse. The Arabs, however, did not recognize this. They did not realize that their history continued from that time in a state of never-ending regression and breakdown. This being the case, is the situation in the Arab world after the Arab Spring any surprise? These revolutions did not achieve their desired goals, but their opponents were also unable to stop them or offer an alternative to supplant their underlying rationale. All they could resort to were conspiracy theories and talk about external plots to divide the region. Do you think that the Arab East and Arab West were victims of the same conspiracies and plots in the time of Ibn Khaldun? If that were the case, there would be no Arab civilization in the first place! In any case, the Arab world in our day has reached a state similar to that sketched by Ibn Khaldun in his own time. When you place this continued regression of the Arab world side by side with the emergence of a new civilization, it can only mean one thing – that Arab civilization as it was before the 14th century entered into a state of continuous decline and regression, and all that remains of it is what we are seeing now. Meanwhile, since the 16th century, the West has not ceased to grow and develop. That century was the start of a new civilizational era that came to be called “capitalist civilization.”,

When you realize this transformation -- that the Other is superior to you and outpacing you -- over time you become victim of the delusion that you are equal to him or close behind in accomplishment, on the pretext of moral superiority. The effect of this delusion is to prevent you from understanding the real challenge posed by the Other’s superiority, and to eliminate the internal inclination to face this challenge and respond to it as necessary. The aspiration to equality with the Other, and the attempt to vie with him in accomplishmen, is a poisonous goal. But when this goal turns into a delusion, then the real disaster begins.

In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

Western Superiority and Arab Denial

Khaled al-Dakheel, Al-Hayat, 30 August 2015 

Most Arabs and Muslims will not grant that the West’s civilization is superior. They will admit that it is more technologically or materially advanced, but they deny that the West has achieved any cultural or ethical advance or superiority. There is a half-deliberate, half-incidental disregard for the West’s political and legal achievements, which are sometimes dismissed by referring to the contradictions that seem to undermine their foundation. This is abundantly clear when we hear acknowledgements of the West’s tremendous industrial capabilities alongside descriptions of its cultural decadence and lack of moral discipline. Most currents and schools of thought in the Arab world agree on this point, even if they differ in their explanations, descriptions and details. None of them have ever asked themselves: Could a decadent and morally undisciplined culture have provided the basis for tremendous industrial capabilities? Maybe for this reason time will show that the Arab-Islamic attitude toward the West is mistaken in its outlook, justifications and conclusions. This attitude reveals that the Arab-Islamic perspective (with the possible exceptions of Malaysia and Indonesia) continues to be in thrall to a past that could only ever be resurrected through destructive means. But its error is even more dangerous than that, because it expresses a civilizational impotence and exhaustion more than it expresses any coherent political stance, civilizational vision, or alternative civilizational project. The greatest evidence of the incoherence and injustice of this vision is that you find Baathists, Nasserists, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalists and leftists all joining together to mock the West, deride its ethical incoherence and despise or disregard its political achievements. This comes at a high cost, because it does not reflect a real consensus as much as it represents an empty opportunism void of political substance and the least amount of moral probity.

This attitude brings together such disparate figures as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Julani, head of the Change and Reform bloc Michel Aoun, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is incidentally also the Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – Syria Region). Ranged alongside them are other figures who have since left this world, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif, and many more. They are also joined by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs and sheikhs from various other schools of thought. Lately Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi has joined the list as well. What is striking – and significant – is that whereas they concur in this coarse opportunism, they disagree on everything else. They are engaged in brutal, bloody clashes on the battlefields of religious wars in Iraq and Syria, fighting on the basis of a sectarianism that they have no shame in avowing.

Consider with me this landscape that has now prevailed for more than a century: political leaders, religious clerics, intellectuals, journalists, religious thinkers, artists, and different schools of thought relentlessly mock the West and downplay its civilizational superiority without offering an alternative. Instead, their own views always lead to infighting and wars between them, or to justifications for endless wars and battles. What is strange is this seeming consensus to disparage the West and its civilizational achievement has never bolstered what they call the “united [Arab-Islamic] front,” but rather has always led to fissures and disintegration. Ironically, it always increases the pretexts for war and strife between these factions, which still never tire of their superior attitude. The more they mock the West, the more their disputes and divisions escalate. How strange is it that the more they mock, the more the mockers have cause to fight one another! What does this mean? Before you answer, consider these three points: first, in most countries, the Arab Spring (which cannot be said to have ended) has turned into a gelid and deadly Arab Autumn or even Winter. This outcome has seemed to many an occasion to revisit conspiratorial thinking about plots to divide the region – as if the Middle East were a dish of chocolate or fruit just waiting to be divvied up from the outside. Was Muammar Gaddafi part of the conspiracy to divide Libya? Is Bashar al-Assad a part of the current conspiracy to divide Syria? Are Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdullah al-Houthi part of a conspiracy to divide Yemen? You will not find an answer to this among conspiracy theorists. Not because there is not an answer, but because like those who mock, they are preoccupied with pinning the conspiracy on the West. The conspiracy is comforting and it relieves them from the difficulties of analysis, painful self-reflection and accepting responsibility.

The second point is that the people most committed to and loudest in their mockery, disparagement and resistance to the West are the most politically backwards, the most sectarian, and the most brutal against Arabs and Muslims – and in particular, toward the people that they themselves belong to and govern. Leave ISIS aside for the moment, since that is a self-evident example. There is an example older than ISIS that is similar to it and which paved the way for its emergence, an example that combined these qualities of mockery of the West, sectarianism and brutality: the Syrian regime itself. Since 1963, the feature that has most distinguished this regime has been combining brutality with mockery of the West, while claiming to resist the West. It is no surprise then that Syria’s current president led Syria to the most vicious civil war in its history. After the death of 300,000 people, and the displacement of more than half of the Syrian population, Bashar al-Assad has the gall to claim that he is fighting terrorism. In the same context, you find Hezbollah – which is the loudest proponent of “resistance” – to be the most drenched in the blood of Arabs and Muslims in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, while it is trying to do the same in Bahrain and Yemen as well. Who is trying to divide Syria in this case? Russia? The Americans? The EU? Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey? Or is it Iran and its Shiite militias? Or the leadership of the Syrian regime itself and its foreign and domestic allies?

The third point is that the vast majority of Arab migrants who are fleeing Arab civil wars do not go to other Arab countries or to Iran. Could you imagine Syrian refugees going to Iran, especially when most of them are Sunni, not Shiite? In the same way, could you imagine Shiite refugees from Iraq or Alawites from Syria going to Jordan or Saudi Arabia? When some refugees went to Jordan and Lebanon, it was a textbook example of a hostile reception, bad housing and lack of services, alongside a loss of dignity and rights. This is despite the fact that the Arabs talk most of “dignity,” rather than rights, and despite the fact that the “Party of Resistance” – whose supporters found a generous welcome in Syria in 2006 – dominates Lebanon. Do you see the irony (according to the logic of Arab-Islamic mockery of the West) in the fact that Syrian refugees in Turkey, Europe and the US are much better off?

These points clearly show that mockery of the West and disparagement of its superiority are a flight from reality and a shameful self-justification and excuse for an inability to succeed. It is an excuse for bigotry, religious obscurantism and sectarianism – and first and foremost, for authoritarianism. Over time, this mockery and disparagement has turned into a political and ideological mechanism for reproducing an outworn and obsolete culture that props up authoritarianism and incubates authoritarianism’s fellow henchman: sectarianism. What is unclear is how this mockery of the West and disparagement of its superiority turned into a civilizational complex that over time has become an insurmountable obstacle for the Arab themselves. In next week’s article, I will try to answer that question.

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks
Rally on August 29, AFP

Rally on August 29, AFP

In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

Some people are invoking the statements of US Ambassador David Hale, who told Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam that the US backs his government but also supports the right of protestors to express their opinion and not face repression. It is possible that some countries are pushing for the Lebanese authorities to respond to the protesters’ demands so that a deteriorating situation or even collapse of Lebanon is not added to the list of priorities to address, at a time when the countries of the region do not have time for this. Meanwhile, some actors are afraid that the deterioration of the situation or the fragmentation among political actors will lead to hasty solutions that might favor the interests of some over others. Although all politicians are at least paying lip service to the popular demands, most of them are worried either about those they consider to be behind the mobilization of civil society, or that their rivals will piggy-back on this movement and steer it toward their own ends.

The organizers of this movement have tried to steer clear of the slogans of one faction or the other, and they have tried to prevent these forces from claiming them for one side or accusing them of being in the opposite camp. The strategy has first and foremost been to target the Minister of the Environment and call for the Minister of Interior to be held accountable. However, if the protesters’ firm demand leads to the election of a new president, it could clear the way for other measures that the Lebanese are demanding, such as a new government and an electoral law for new parliamentary elections. If the government cannot respond to demands, this could create real pressure not only on Lebanese factions but also on international actors.

To see the protesters hold up pictures of officials accusing them of corruption and calling for all of them without distinction to depart has been embarrassing for many politicians, but their reactions have differed. General Michel Aoun [the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and a key political ally of Hezbollah seeking the presidency, which under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing arrangement is reserved for Maronite Christians] was not pleased to see his picture among those that the Lebanese are fed up with and want to see depart from the scene. He is trying to distance himself from the others, casting accusations of corruption on them and continuing to present himself as the sole candidate for the presidency.

The response to Aoun was the slogan “All of them means all of them” and other calls by the protesters to bar him from reaching the presidency, on the grounds that he is another one of the figures whom the Lebanese are sick of. It would be hard for a man to be elected president who the people have already called on to depart like the rest. There is a stark contradiction in the fact that Aoun has handed over the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement to a young person but is not allowing young people the opportunity to become president. Meanwhile, with regards to some of those that General Aoun is trying to sideline, their names were previously unheard, and now the situation arising from the protests could snowball and impose a reality that would go against Aoun, especially if the army is forced to respond. General Aoun fears a scenario that could lead to this result, while his opponents fear another scenario – one cooked up by Aoun’s allies in an attempt to award him the presidency now that all other attempts have failed. As MP Mohammed Raad has said, “If you go after Aoun, you’re going after Amal and Hezbollah.” The challenge is now to pry Speaker Nabih Berri away from his understanding with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and return him back to the March 8 camp. [March 8 is the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led movement of which Aoun is also an ally. It arose in response to the March 14 movement, which called successfully for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. An-Nahar newspaper is pro-March 14.] 

Nor does Hezbollah like seeing the picture of its Secretary-General among the pictures of Lebanese politicians whom the Lebanese are blaming for the deteriorating situation. Hezbollah has only been embarrassed into grudgingly accepting the image of head of [pro-Hezbollah] Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc Mohammed Raad among such protest pictures. Like Aoun, Hezbollah does not accept any responsibility, and although it has objected to decisions taken by the “majority” in the past, this was only for well-known political reasons; it did not actually object to decisions pertaining to people’s day-to-day affairs. They have all continued to sit around the Cabinet table nonetheless.

Other factions have expressed appreciations of the popular movement only in order to absorb it, by working with it on the basis of a road map or an action plan that would restore respect for the people’s wishes and interests, in the absence of parliamentary elections that require politicians to court votes. This situation is a unique opportunity for young people to take the initiative and prove their ability and willpower to create change. So why don’t we let them develop their own action plan to achieve whatever can be achieved?

In Translation: April 6's Ahmed Maher on Egypt under Sisi

Last month, Huffington Post launched its Arabic edition in London to great fanfare. Like other spin-offs of the American website, HuffPo Arabi is a joint venture, not under the direct editorial control of the original. It is not the first Arab world edition to launch – HuffPo Maghreb has French-language Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan sites – but it is the first Arabic edition one. It has generated some controversy already (update: meant to link to this critical Buzzfeed piece), in part because the site is far from the liberal leanings of the HuffPo mothership, but also because of its pro-Islamist leanings. One of the key people behind HuffPo Arabi is Wadah Khanfar, a former director-general of al-Jazeera known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood trend. The site has predictably taken the kind of positions generally associated with the Qatari-funded media (i. e. anti-Assad, anti-Sisi, pro-Erdogan, etc.)

Among one of its early coups is to secure an interview with the imprisoned leader of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, sentenced to prison last year for violating the draconian protest law approved by interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour and enforced with gusto under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. The interview does show some criticism of the Brotherhood, even  if most of the vitriol is reserved for Sisi, and paints an alarming picture of the radicalization taking place in Egypt's over-flowing prisons.

We bring you this translation through our friends over at Industry Arabic – we heartily recommend them for any Arabic translation job big or small. Check out their website to get a quote for your needs.

Ahmed Maher to Huffington Post Arabic: Every Justification Now Exists for a Revolution against Sisi

Moataz Shamseddin, Huffington Post Arabi, 29 July 2015

For more than 20 months, Ahmed Maher, the general coordinator of the April 6 Movement, has been locked up in solitary confinement on the charge of violating the protest law. Despite the possible dangers, he has agreed to answer questions for Huffington Post Arabic and speak about his broken dreams and regrets.

In this interview, Maher states that all the reasons that justified revolution against Mubarak exist for Sisi as well. He believes that the Arab Spring is not dead, and that the period we are going through is the start of change and not the end. It resembles to a great extent the intellectual transformations before the Renaissance in Europe or before the French Revolution.

Maher describes here the harsh conditions of his solitary confinement and what occurs during his occasional encounters with Muslim Brotherhood members. He insists that Egypt’s prisons will be an incubator for radicalism and that the “autocratic” regimes of the Arab world – and not the uprisings of the Arab Spring – are what gave the impetus for ISIS, while casting blame on Western nations for backing these regimes.

First off, we would like to know about the conditions of your imprisonment currently. Have you suffered from any rights violations?

I haven’t suffered any physical violations, but the hardship is increasing day by day because of the increasing psychological pressure on me. Things have gone from bad to worse over the 20 months or so that I have spent in prison. I have been in solitary confinement for around 20 months. This in itself is a sort of psychological pressure. Isolated from the outside world, I live in complete isolation under maximum security and deprived of personal contact and correspondence with anyone, including family and friends. Newspapers, TV, and news sources are forbidden, and sometimes even food, on the pretext of emergencies in the prison or the country. It’s also forbidden to pray the Friday prayer. I was also forbidden from breaking the fast or eating sohour with the others during Ramadan. My personal belongings were also stolen.

Up until a year ago, [prominent young revolutionary activists] Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma were in the same building as me, and despite the fact that we were all in solitary confinement, we would meet for several hours every day and talk. But then about a year ago, each one of us was suddenly transferred to a different prison and I don’t know anything about them. Currently, I’m in intense isolation under maximum security and deprived of the most basic rights. Meanwhile, felons have much better conditions and enjoy rights that I could only dream of, such as TV, letters, newspapers, Friday prayer, and listening to music.

Does Sisi’s regime deserve a revolution or attempts at reform?

From the start of his rule, Sisi rejected any path toward reform, and he rejects any advice. He doesn’t respect democracy, politicians or political parties. He wants to lead by himself like in the army. Anyone who tries to draw his attention to any error is accused of treason because they dare to criticize him.

Sisi is ruling in the same manner and with the same rules as Mubarak. Mubarak was actually more flexible, whereas Sisi is driving people away from him and the anger against him is mounting, even if it is muffled now. Sisi is ruling in the same manner, with the same stubbornness and with the same stupidity as Mubarak – but worse.

What are the chances of and conditions for a reconciliation between the regime and the revolutionary youth?

The current regime, structured as it is around the military and security apparatus, is cutting all ties with youth and treating them with hostility. The current regime is under the control of a number of Mubarak’s cronies who want revenge against young people and especially anyone who had a prominent role in the 25 January 2011 revolution – even though most of these youth also rose up against Mohammed Morsi in 30 June 2013, and I was among them.

However, those in power now don’t want a rapprochement with young people; they just want revenge. The current regime is the one who started the hostility with the revolutionary youth and with everyone. The proof of this is that it imprisoned the revolutionary youth, then harassed them inside the prisons. It refused to repeal or amend the anti-protest law or pardon young people, even though they are not terrorists and did not bear arms. All they did was defend their right to freedom of expression and opinion and freedom to protest peacefully. These are things that the military regime considers a crime.

Is there a chance that the revolutionary forces will come together once again and work to change the situation?

Some groups that played a major role in the 25 January 2011 Revolution are coming together and they still do stand by the demands of that revolution, such as freedom, dignity and social justice. However, the past few years have caused changes, fissures and deep transformations in concepts and positions.

I don’t think that anyone who is calling for a religious state could join the revolutionary youth, nor could anyone who supports authoritarianism, military rule or who dreams of a return of the oppressive Nasser regime join the revolutionary youth. The revolution was not launched for religious rule or authoritarian rule, and so there are a lot of deep divides that have emerged after all these events.

Before talking about rapprochement, we have to re-define who are the revolutionary forces, which revolution are we talking about and what are its goals, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that were made after Mubarak was ousted.

Is there anything that you regret on the personal level that you wish you could change?

Of course there are things that maybe I would decide to do differently if I knew the outcome. For example, I think that trusting the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was naïve, because each of them have a plan and their own interests. They each tricked us and broke all their promises. Each of them are authoritarian and think that they have the absolute truth.

When I re-read about the events or read about the history of revolutions, I realize that the radical demands were sometimes excessive, romantic or unrealistic, especially since our camp was not united and did not have sufficient power. Many revolutions only succeeded in agreeing on peaceful transition between two sides or after transitional justice, or after agreement on a gradual transition of power. I’m not speaking about a specific situation, but I think I was very romantic and a dreamer. I think that if I knew that truth about the regime or the truth about certain people, I certainly would have thought differently.

Have any politicians or participants in the revolution lost your respect? If so, why?

Certainly, there are those who have lost my respect. I don’t want to mention current figures, but I have lost respect for all those who claimed to support the January 25 Revolution who now support authoritarianism and repression, who support the anti-protest law, who take part in lying and obfuscation, who distort the January 25 Revolution, who promote sick conspiracy theories, or who circulate rumors against us knowing that they’re false, anyone who justifies authoritarianism and human rights violations, or who used to defend human rights but after the military took power dropped everything they were calling for and started to justify human rights violations in order to curry favor with the authorities. I have lost respect for all young people, academics and human rights activists who have changed their stripes and now started to defend authoritarianism and human rights violations.

Have you had any discussions with the Muslim Brotherhood in prison? Do you see any benefit in dialogue?

Despite the extreme isolation imposed on me, sometimes I am able to speak with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In general, they refuse to recognize that they made any mistakes while in power. They are saying that the protests of 30 June 2013 were not due to popular outrage but to a Western Crusader conspiracy against Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are still in denial about what happened. On the whole, I don’t think that there is serious reflection or any flexibility among the Brotherhood. This means that the solution is still far off. How can there be a solution without serious reflection – not just about their practices while in power, but also a reconsideration of the theory itself? This is what they refuse to do. They claim that they did not make mistakes but rather that the world conspired against them.

The Muslim Brotherhood is talking about human rights violations against them inside the prisons – did you see any of that?

Violations against the Brotherhood and the Islamists are taking place every day in all prisons. I met some of them by chance and I heard many stories of torture, maltreatment and harassment in every prison. In general, the treatment of political prisoners is bad, and there is psychological and physical punishment, but the treatment of Islamists is worse.

Has prison become a breeding ground for extremist ideas?

Prison has really become a breeding ground for extremists. It has become a school for crime and terrorism, since there are hundreds of young men piled on top of each other in narrow confines, jihadists next to Muslim Brotherhood members next to revolutionaries next to sympathizers. There are also a large number of young people who were also arrested by mistake and who don’t belong to any school of thought.

Everyone is suffering oppression and punishment inside the prisons. Everyone is accused of being either a terrorist or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is turning the people arrested by mistake who don’t belong to any movement into jihadists. Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood members are gradually becoming radicalized, since they suffer from inhumane treatment in the prisons. The authorities treat the prisoners like slaves, and this inspires a thirst for revenge, not to mention the undignified treatment that the families face when they visit.

The Arab Spring is dead, while ISIS is thriving – who is responsible, in your opinion?

The Arab Spring isn’t dead. I think this phase is the beginning of a change, not the end. It is similar to the intellectual transformations that took place before the Renaissance in Europe, or before the French Revolution. Concepts of democracy are still new in the region, and there are those who are resisting it in order to stay in power.

Meanwhile, ISIS has exploited the situation. The Arab uprisings are not the cause, but rather the bloody authoritarian regimes that resisted change and resisted democracy, true justice, and concepts of tolerance, co-existence and freedom. This is what gave rise to ISIS and continues to drive it.

ISIS found fertile ground because of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria, Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism in Iraq, Iran’s ambitions in the region, and the oppression and authoritarianism that people are suffering from. So long as authoritarianism and sectarianism exist, you will find extremism as a response.

Extremism found a foothold in Egypt because of Sisi’s brutality and authoritarianism. The more the oppression and authoritarianism increased and the more freedom and democracy vanished, the more justifications ISIS and al-Qaeda have. ISIS is saying that your regimes are corrupt, unjust failures and we’re the alternative. This is a disaster, because injustice generates extremism. For this reason, neither the coalition’s strikes nor Sisi’s raids will stop ISIS. Defeating ISIS requires freedom, democracy, justice and a culture of tolerance, co-existence and acceptance of the other.

But I also do not excuse the revolutionary youth from the mistake that they made, since they rose up against oppression without putting forward an alternative project to the authoritarian regimes. We now face two choices, each of them disastrous: either religious fascism or a return to authoritarianism.

The West is warmer toward Sisi despite the violations. Do you have a message for US President Barack Obama and Western governments about this?

Western governments are now warming to Sisi because of economic or military interests. In my opinion, this is short-sighted and a repeat of past mistakes. US support for Mubarak over 30 years did not stop the spread of radicalism or lead to stability. The West’s support for authoritarian regimes and dictatorships is damaging its credibility. The West should not repeat the same mistake of backing authoritarian regimes, since supporting military regimes in South America, Africa and the Middle East has only led to popular outrage against the US and the West. It has only increased radicalism and violence due to the repressive climate. This is what causes instability. I’m saying to government leaders: Don’t support authoritarianism in Egypt just to preserve old economic and military interests with the regime, because the perseverance of authoritarianism and repression is what leads to violence, extremism and instability. The Egyptian government has signed agreements to respect human rights – so why do you reward authoritarians in Egypt despite flagrant human rights violations, especially against young people? International treaties and international values of human rights make clear that basic rights may not be violated, rights such as freedom of opinion, belief, expression, decent and humane treatment, and a refusal to use torture regardless of the emergency or exceptional situation. Thus, the war on terror is not a justification for the violations committed by the Sisi regime. It actually creates terrorism through oppression, corruption and injustice.

It appears that the April 6 Movement has been completely absent from the streets lately. How do you explain that?

I am not up to date on all the details due to my isolation in prison, but in general, the political climate in Egypt is more stifling than during the Mubarak era. It has become easy for the authorities to abduct or kill any young opposition member without any legal accountability. Also, in the absence of a parliament, the post-July 30 regime has also modified the laws so that young people spend years in prison under investigation just for a trivial police report or on mere suspicion. Then there is also the anti-protest law, under which I have been sentenced to three years in prison. Some of my colleagues were sentenced to five years or more just for opposing the anti-protest law. Meanwhile, some were abducted and still have not resurfaced. On the whole, we are going through a period of repression worse than anything under Mubarak. We feel like we’re back to square one and we have to start from scratch and develop mechanisms according to developments.

The April 6 Movement, for its part, will continue to work for democratic transformation, even though the idea of starting a political party and engaging in conventional politics is not feasible right now. The current authorities do not respect political parties, and all means of creating change through parties or conventional political activity are blocked.

The current authorities do not respect the constitution or the law – not to mention the fact that we currently don’t have a parliament. The current authorities, which are just an extension of the Mubarak regime – have arranged it so that the next parliament will not be a source of trouble or an effective opposition.

Was the April 6 Movement organizationally affected by the arrest of its leaders?

Of course the imprisonment of its leaders affected the movement’s performance, but the movement is carrying on despite repression, imprisonment, torture, slander in the media, the spread of false rumors about it and its founders, harassment, terrorism, persecution, and the lack of either local or foreign funding. The fact that it continues to persevere is cause for hope. The April 6 Movement has not been broken despite this dirty war waged against it.

Why have the members of April 6 been singled out for special treatment in the prisons and isolated from everyone else?

The harassment and isolation in the prisons is so that we don’t think together and so that we can’t come up with any new ideas. It’s also so we can’t access any news, communicate with members or plan any new events.

Another reason for it is so we can’t rally together and demand our basic rights inside prison, or encourage others to demand their rights.

Being together made it easier for us, since when we were together our worries were shared. It seems that the authorities want to inflict the greatest possible psychological harm on us, to the point that even meeting people who have the shared interests is now a luxury.

Finally, support for civil, democratic values is the solution. Support for democratic transformation is what will stop the spread of radicalism and jihadism and not the reverse. If authoritarianism and tyranny continue, it will lead to the spread of ISIS’ ideology as an alternative or a reaction.

In Translation: Back to the Past in Egypt

The team at Industry Arabic -- look to them for all your Arabic translation needs -- brings us the latest installment of our In Translation series. Abdullah al-Sinnawi is the editor of the socialist newspaper Al Araby and one of the many public intellectuals who supported Morsi's ouster and the ascension of Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, couching his support in terms of restoring the authority and prestige of the state. Now he harsh words for a regime that he describes as rudderless if not deeply disingenuous. The title used a particularly loaded term: the word "normalization" in Egypt usually refers to normalization of relations with Israel, something much of public opinion does not really accept and much of the leftist intelligentsia has always viewed as a humiliating capitulation. 

Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's son -- a free man again -- visited the pyramids recently with his family. 

Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's son -- a free man again -- visited the pyramids recently with his family. 


Normalization with the Past

Abdullah al-Sinnawi, al-Shorouk, 6 May 2015

“Why are we protecting Mubarak?....You’re accusing us of being traitors.”

With this unequivocal expression, he tried to dispel any suspicions as to why the Military Council was putting off trying a president who had been ousted by his people.

During the first weeks of the January 25 Revolution, public squares full of anger were calling for the past to be put on trial for its sins. They called for all issues to be opened to questioning and accountability, so that Egypt would not be governed in the future in the same careless manner as before.

This forthrightness was not customary in other leaders and gave the strong impression that the young general who made this statement might be the future of the military establishment.

It did not occur to him, during this lengthy meeting in April 2011 that was attended by six journalists and military figures, as he made this firm response to the questions and doubts raised by the protests, that the question of the past would rear its head again, with greater anxiety and more serious misgivings, four years later when he would be president of Egypt.

It is natural for radical transformations to raise major questions.

It is not a sufficient response for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to say time and again that the past will not return. Pledges must be given shape through policies and confirmed by solid stances. This is what is sorely lacking in Egypt at a time when the public’s anxiety has almost reached a breaking point.

A quick glance at the current mood in Egyptian society reveals that its great gambles have been frittered away and its confidence in the future has fallen; that it does not know what priorities govern politics or where we are headed.

There is no discourse that interprets or explains the causes of crises or the nature of issues.

There is no coherent policy put before public opinion and no free media able to address the public mind.

There is an abject poverty in the public discourse that is unparalleled in Egypt’s modern history.

It is as if Egypt “the sorrowful” is a sail without a ship, in the words of the late Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi in his last rubaiyat. The crisis of public discourse results from the lack of any vision of the future that determines the main goals.

It is impossible for any regime to advance one step forward and solidify its legitimacy without declaring where it stands and what its commitments are.

The return of the past to the forefront of the political, economic and media landscape is a complete tragedy for a country that launched two revolutions to claim its right to social justice, human dignity, and the transition to a democratic society and modern state.

The country paid a heavy price in terms of its security, stability and the blood of its children, and it did not reap any rewards either time.

The first revolution was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the second one has almost been hijacked by the party of the past.

Based on past experience, a second hijacking of a revolution will have a steep price, as it will tarnish a regime that bases its legitimacy on the revolution and on a commitment to the constitution that emerged from it.  It will make a dent in the popularity of the regime and exhaust its political capital.

This will lead to renewed political tumult that Egypt cannot bear, and to chaos that will confound any attempts to end violence and terrorism.

Like any crisis of this sort, breaking the cycle takes time.

Any claims to the contrary are ignorant of history and the progress of societies.

The issue is not that Mubarak appeared on a private satellite channel talking about how proud he is of the role he played in war and government, and praising the current president’s wisdom. Nor is it that the media carried coverage of his 87th birthday celebration with the song “May you long live as the leader,” while other media went further afield to follow the social news of his family attending funerals and visiting the pyramids.

The real issue is not about what certain media does as much as it is about the reality of certain policies.

What is the nature of the current regime?

There are two main hypotheses.

The first is that it supports normalization with the past and its policies and figures.

This hypothesis has its logic, as the current economic policies are almost entirely copied and pasted from those adopted by the Policies Committee headed by Gamal Mubarak, youngest son of the former president.

Lots of talk about investment, the private sector and growth rates, without any plan that makes social justice a priority, even though it is a pressing need.

The Hosni Mubarak issue is above all a political one. He was the head of a regime who was overthrown by his people without being held accountable for the mistakes of the thirty years that he ruled Egypt. The issue of Gamal Mubarak is just as serious, since he symbolizes a project to bequeath the republic as an inheritance without the least constitutional basis, as well as policies that married power to wealth in a way that led to the largest plundering of public funds in Egypt’s history.

Certainly, the former president is the preferred example for a class of influential businessmen and his youngest son, their economic leader. Their influence in visual and print media continues to be felt.

Their first and last concern is to whitewash the past and subject the present to the same choices, as if matters had resumed their natural course after July 2013 and as if the January 2011 Revolution were nothing but a “conspiracy.”

Promoting the past lends legitimacy to violence, which is a terrible tragedy in any political or ethical sense of the term.

The most serious crime against this country is that the July 2013 Revolution is being portrayed as a “counter-revolution.”

This is a responsibility borne by the current regime before history.

Power cannot handle a vacuum of vision and direction.

In the absence of vision, the past steps forward to fill the vacuum and enlists the present to its cause.

When the public sphere narrows, politics retreats and security come to the fore.

The most dangerous part of this is that the political vacuum extends to the media in a manner that forebodes a potential collapse. It must not be forgotten that half of politics is talk.

This means that exchanging information and opinions is a vital necessity for any society.

A society deprived of politics and a country with a barren media landscape will descend into crisis at the first dangerous juncture.

Everything is hanging over an abyss; a collapse isn’t far-fetched.

On the other hand, the second hypothesis is that the current regime has nothing to do with all this celebration of the past and with the attempts to whitewash Mubarak’s reputation.

This hypothesis rests on semi-confirmed information that the president is perturbed by this media  coverage.

In this context, the president’s statement that he does not intervene in the judiciary or the media is worthy of note.

The statement in itself is positive, but the president’s responsibilities require that he declare his position and solidify the constitutional legitimacy of his regime.

Slipping into the past – which means opening war on the future – is more dangerous for the country than terrorism’s bullets and explosive devices. If society's discontent starts to reach the boiling point then political equations are likely to be completely overturned.

No one has the right to gamble with the country’s future.

In Translation: Aboul Fotouh on culture wars and patriotism

For the last few weeks – not for a lack of more serious things to talk about – the Egyptian media has fixated on two different aspects of the longstanding culture wars the country has fought over religion and public life. One is the brouhaha caused by TV personality Islam al-Beheiri and his frontal attack on al-Azhar for needing reform; the other is the lament by the writer Cherif Choubashi that Egyptian women should take off their veils. These type of storms in teacups have been standard for decades, they used to be a favorite issue for the Muslim Brotherhood to champion and embarrass the government under Mubarak. But what now that the Brotherhood is exiled and underground, and that current strongman Sisi is himself issuing calls for religious reform?

In the piece below, former presidential candidate, pre-2011 Brotherhood leader and head of the Strong Egypt party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gives a stab at an answer, from what we would venture to say is a somewhat post-Islamist perspective. Translation from the original Arabic is provided, as always, by the stupendous team at Industry Arabic. Please give a go for your translation needs, you won't be sorry.


Freedom: Between “Compulsion” and a Culture of “Non-Compulsion”

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Al-Shorouq, 21 April 2015

Some people may be surprised to hear that the culture of “non-compulsion” is essentially a religious one. It constitutes one of the things that I have learned and come to understand from our great religion Islam. Religious texts clarify this beyond any debate or discussion, in a manner wide enough to embrace the meaning of freedom in its intellectual, behavioral and social understandings and applications. Matters of belief and disbelief are of prime importance due to their intimate association with man’s life and afterlife. Such matters are left to freedom of choice and free will: {Then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve}.[1] Because religion always wants man to attain the highest possible perfections of his humanity, freedom of choice and free will are among the primary things that unite religion to human reason.

Egyptian women are currently on the receiving end of an aggressive assault to compel them to choose their dress and appearance in accordance with the preferences of certain figures who have used the media and particularly satellite channels in a provocative and incomprehensible manner. They have turned their discussion about such choices from being about a personal opinion to a social and national issue, ignoring the fact that social phenomena have their own determinants and circumstances that shape them and contribute to their perpetuation or disappearance. And indeed, various studies have dealt with this subject at an advanced level of understanding and interpretation.

However, those in the media who shrilly discuss the clothing of Egyptian women ignore these scientific facts and avoid approaching the matter from a scientific and cultural angle, because clothing is a social and cultural manifestation. For example, the sari worn by Indian women is a social manifestation of Indian culture, but the noble anti-imperialist leaders in India considered it a symbol of independence against British occupation – which not only sought to occupy the land, but also people’s minds and thoughts. And this is what has happened with some intellectuals here in Egypt, unfortunately.

Here I would like to raise several points:

  • Today, Egyptian women are becoming the object of ideological and political conflict. But women have full capacity and ability and freedom of choice just like men, and it is shameful and extremely degrading for society as a whole and not just women for a woman’s personal matter (her manner of clothing) to be exploited to settle political and ideological scores. Egyptian women have heard one man speak about the pain and bitterness he has felt seeing Egyptian women veiled since the late 1960s, and that the time has come to put an end to this pain and bitterness. But it is not clear what the Egyptian woman’s freedom to choose her own clothes has to do with this man’s pain and bitterness.

  • Every day confirms that there are many intellectual currents that do not understand the meaning of freedom and only apply or exercise it according to their own whim and choice. This is something disgraceful and shameful for us all. Societies have advanced and made great strides in their understanding of democracy and secularism to the level that they recognize free will and the freedom to embrace, advocate and implement ideas so long as they do not conflict with the freedom of others.

  • Intellectuals are still setting their own priorities on the basis of their intellectual and ideological choices and not national or patriotic grounds. In this context, I feel the need to raise the idea that national allegiance is an absolute priority, even amid various other affiliations and loyalties.

  • The nation is now going through a critical phase with regards to the unity and coherence of its ranks amid regional dangers that are multiplying and expanding every day.

  • Al-Azhar enjoys great prestige in the eyes of all Egyptians, as a mosque, university and national historic institution. This prestige has amplified the stances taken by it as an institution and by its renowned scholars, particularly with regards to the concept of moderation and refusal to excommunicate any Muslim whatever his political and intellectual positions. Attempts to impugn and assail Al-Azhar, its Grand Imam and its scholars are far outside the nation’s prevailing mainstream views.

  • Intellectuals and those with different views should lay their secondary disputes aside so that the entire national community may rally around matters, aims and choices of supreme importance. Of course people’s clothes are not among such crucial issues, especially at this decisive moment in history where we are engaged in building the political structure of the nation (strong political parties and a strong parliament), its economic structure (GDP growth and development), its social structure (eliminating illiteracy and hunger), and its intellectual structure (education and scientific research).

I will close by calling on everyone – the authorities, political forces, intellectuals and intellectual movements – to consider that the last group that engaged in exclusion, score settling and escalation of disagreement brought about a great loss that was suffered by only one side: the nation as a whole.


  1. Quran 18:29  ↩

In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

The discussion of Yemen in the Egyptian press, for once, has been more interesting than than the gung-ho jingoism in much of the Gulf media. The Yemen crisis has triggered both anxiety about a repeat of the failed Egyptian intervention in Yemen of the 1960s (itself a precursor of the great defeat of 1967) and a wider discussion of whether Cairo's dependency and debt to Saudi Arabia may not be too costly in the long run. In the piece below, Abdallah al-Senawi – a well-connected Nasserist writer who was very anti-Mubarak but until recently a cheerleader for Sisi – presents Egypt's dilemmas in the Yemen crisis. Most notably, that the choices it faces are limited and likely to be very costly if the crisis cannot quickly be addressed politically.

This translation is possible through the support of our pals at Industry Arabic, which is a really, really good bespoke Arabic translation service. If you have a translation job you need done by professionals, help them continue to help us by trying them out.

The Predicament of Military Intervention in Yemen

Abdullah al-Sennawi, Al-Shorouk, 6 April 2015

Nearly half a century after the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, it is almost certain that another intervention is imminent. Even though the circumstances are fundamentally different today, we cannot disregard the lessons of history or underestimate the dangers posed by military involvement.

In the 1960s, the wagers made were consistent with that era in the choice to support liberation movements and defend Egyptian national security in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. However, this coherence came head on against a ferocious struggle for influence and power in the region, and where there was progress, there were also setbacks.

At the beginning of the military intervention in 1962, Egypt was still reeling from the shock of separation from Syria on September 28, 1961 and the failure of the United Arab Republic unification experiment, which only lasted for around three and a half years. The impact of this enormous rupture was not mitigated by the inspiring success of the revolution in Algeria in July 1962 that involved the sacrifice of one and a half million martyrs -- a revolution that had received Egypt’s full political, military and media backing.

The defeat of the unity project struck a profound blow to Nasser’s vision. Thus, he was not ready to accept the collapse of the Yemeni revolution by counterstrikes from the remnants of Yemen’s monarchist regime and its neighboring allies. Perhaps he also sought to infuse a new spirit in the Pan-Arab movement that he was leading, following the victory in Algeria.

The matter now is different. There are no liberation movements and no intention to move towards a serious change that would transform Yemen from tribe to state. The best argument put forth seeks to save Yemen in order to prevent it from slipping into a civil war that will totally consume it. This is putting politics ahead of the military option.

In the 1960s, political and military estimations projected that the intervention would be limited in the number of boots on the ground as well as temporary in its operation. Its aim was to reinforce the Yemeni revolution. However, it went from a limited engagement to 70,000 soldiers, and from a temporary mission to a five-year war that drained the Egyptian army amid harsh terrain.

The lesson of the past should guide the present. It is difficult to presume that these kinds of wars will be limited—unless you attack and expand operations, those you are fighting will attack you in your strongholds.

Yes indeed, the purposes were noble. Saving an illustrious Arab country from the darkness of the Middle Ages where the simplest modern tools like the electric iron was not heard of and the most basic human rights were not recognized. But this noble act seemed to other actors an opportunity to grind down the Egyptian military in Yemen before grinding it down in Sinai several years later. If we do not calculate every move and evaluate consequences, we would be a people who discards their own historical experience with all it holds of promises and frustrations.

It is clear from the words of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the decision for military intervention has been taken decisively and the constitutional procedures according to Article 152 of the constitution (Declaration of War and Dispatching Armed Forces in a Combat Mission outside the Borders of the State) have begun. The first step according to the constitution in the event that there is no parliament is “to ask for the opinion of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” which is precisely what happened. The next two steps are “the approval of both the Cabinet and the National Defense Council.” And in effect, the President announced that he is going meet with them for this purpose.

This extraordinary meeting of the Egyptian military command was preceded by one in Riyadh—the very timing of which raises eyebrows—between the chiefs of staff of the armies participating in what is called “Operation Decisive Storm.” Apparently, this meeting was in preparation for intervention on the ground after airstrike operations failed to destroy the capacity of the Houthi forces and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to threaten Aden. If the second capital – Aden – falls now that the first capital of Sanaa has already fallen, then this would mean that any storm or any decisiveness had been defeated even before returning to the negotiation table.

It will certainly not be long before the resumption of negotiations. The international and regional consensus embraced by the United States and the European Union as well as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Iran are all in agreement upon this option. Here the main question is: under which balance of power will the expected negotiations occur and what will be their political contours? No answer has been offered to this question in Egypt that takes into account public wariness and seeks to build a national consensus before sending troops abroad.

To be completely frank, Saudi Arabia is weighing the consequences of a political defeat before the expected negotiations. It is seeking for the military balance on the ground be to its advantage before any political milestone is implemented under the suspended results of the Yemeni national dialogue. It is also seeking legitimatization of an international presence before any recognition of the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, Saudi forces are not qualified for a ground intervention and they know that it is costly and that its effects could expand into its own territory. The Saudis are counting on a new Egyptian military role in Yemen, which would practically lead the other allied forces.

There is semi-confirmed information that Egypt had no involvement to speak of in planning or executing the airstrike operations against the positions and strongholds of the Houthis and President Saleh’s supporters. Moreover, Egypt was notified about these operations only shortly before the strikes were launched in advance of the Sharm el-Sheikh economic summit. At the same time, the United States has managed the airstrike operations by providing logistics and intelligence support and by playing other roles that might be regarded as more central.

It is worth noting that the words of President Sisi did not indicate or mention explicitly at any time that ground forces would be sent or that there is any tendency towards military intervention in Yemen, despite the clear meaning of what lies behind his words. This lack of a direct admission reflects a certain unease regarding the possible consequences and implications, as well as some wariness towards anxious public opinion. He is totally correct in his unease and the reason for caution. He is facing the most dangerous decision since he became president. He is between a rock and a hard place, but he has almost no choice but to choose.

The first choice would be to heed public anxiety and act cautiously by deciding not to send any ground forces to Yemen. However, this choice would cost him the loss of his allies in the Gulf, who, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, doubled down on Egypt as a counterbalance to the rise of Iran in the Middle East and an insurance policy for the countries of the region. The effects of this possible loss go beyond the Gulf region. It severely diminishes the possibility of a new rise of Egypt in the region within the foreseeable future, at a difficult moment in which the heft of the regional players is being sized up following the great breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear program crisis.

The second choice is for President Sisi to submit to the pressure and arm-twisting beyond what Egyptian national security can handle at a time where a fierce war is already underway against terrorism in Sinai. This choice would lead to a new exhaustion of military forces in the Yemeni quagmire. Indeed, it must be recognized the Houthis constitute one component of Yemeni society, and regardless of the Iranian role in supporting their military rise, they are among the poorest Yemenis and they severely lack any health or education services in the Sa’dah mountains where they hail from. Obviously, the Houthis are not the enemy -- nor is Iran, for that matter. The real enemy is Israel. Confronting the crisis requires that the political possibilities be clearly articulated.

Regional balance is necessary. Confronting any infringement on Arab rights and lands should not be taken lightly, seeing as Arab weakness has become a matter of public and general ridicule. Even so, this requires that Egypt not get involved by any means in sectarian conflicts—which are virtually unknown during its modern history—or in any way engage in an open war against Iran.

In other words, it is not possible for Egypt to isolate itself from the Gulf and refuse its security requirements, lest we act in complete foolishness; nor is involvement in the Yemeni quagmire once again an acceptable option, or we will have learned nothing from history. Before any military action, a political solution is the first priority.

In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab press. This column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

Usually I humor the speaker, as if  saying that we are both from a region where rulers believe that they have no choice but the palace or the grave. And usually the coy response comes that rulers must learn from the experiences of others, and that some days you’re up, and some days you’re down…and if someone else lasted forever in power, you would never get a turn. Sometimes I say that journalists do not find an interesting story in modest people but in those who cling to power with their teeth.

The Houthis would not have taken over Sanaa and besieged the president there and then pursued him to Aden if Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh had not put most of the Yemeni army at their disposal. It reeks of revenge. Saleh left the presidential palace burned and injured – when he reached Saudi Arabia after the explosion that targeted him, he could do nothing more than blink his eyes. He felt as if he had been kicked out of his house, where he should have stayed until he passed the palace down to his son Ahmed.

Journalists may forget facts, but computers are petty enough to remember. Yesterday I went back to three interviews with Saleh.

In 2006:

Q: Do rulers retire in the Arab world?

A: Of course.

Q: You don’t think that the title “former president” would be hard for you to bear?

A: Why would it be hard? The best title I hear now in Lebanon is “former president.” Why can’t we be like our brothers in Lebanon?

Q: Doesn’t the idea bother you?

A: Not at all, to the contrary.

In 2009:

Q: There’s talk of a possible agreement for you to serve another term?

A: I abide by the constitution. As far as I’m concerned, I will not run. I will not accept to be nominated by anyone.

Q: Why?

A: You have time and you use up your youth and use up your experiences over thirty years. If God grants me health, I will finish the remaining constitutional period. God willing, Yemen will produce many men like Ali Abdullah Saleh to take the place of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Q: You don’t want to hold on to power?

A: No, no.

Q: Is it tiring to be president in Yemen?

A: I always say that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.

In 2010:

Q: You said last year that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes: did the snakes wake up now?

A: If you want to change the expression, you could say vipers.

Q: Aren’t you scared of the vipers’ sting?

A: The snakes have grown up and become vipers. Me and my people, God willing, are able to deal with them and tame them. We’re not afraid.

Q: Is it possible that there will come a day when we see you allow someone else in the presidential palace?

A: (Laughs) A Yemeni president, of course.

Before bidding farewell, Ali Abdullah Saleh said that he would like to play with his grandchildren. Would that he would do so.