The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Who wants to be an Egyptian Chalabi?

A friend recently sent me the most ridiculous article I have ever read. It appeared, of course, in the National Review, the conservative US magazine that serves as a publication of choice for the conservative movement's intellectual mercenaries. This one deserves a bit of background to explain to the uninitiated why it is so ridiculous and full of falsehoods.

When I was starting out as a reporter for the Cairo Times in 2000, I became fixated with a man whose story, I believed, represented everything that went wrong with the Egyptian economy in the late 1990s. Rami Lakah was a businessman who had borrowed an enormous amount of money from Egyptian banks in the mid-1990s to expand his medical services empire and constitute a sizable private wealth. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, he ran and won in Cairo's Ezbekiah district. Lakah flirted with several parties, including the NDP, but no one wanted him. It was clear that he had run because he was unable to repay his debts and that he was only interested in parliamentary immunity. He probably spent more on his campaign than any other candidate, although there is a spending limit set at a measly LE10,000. A few years later, his parliamentary immunity was stripped because he had dual French-Egyptian nationality (officially) and because the NDP wanted the seat for its own candidate (the real reason). Around that time, he fled the country as he was being threatened with jail for defaulting on his debt. He moved to Paris, did some business there as well as London and Algiers--he seemed to be happy outside of Egypt, although rumors surfaced every now and then that he was negotiating with the regime about his debts and assets. To be fair, it is true that Lakah's construction and medical business was owed money by the government, which was very slow in paying in debts at the time. But the man's character is still notoriously flawed.

And then a few days ago a friend sends me this incredible piece from Nina Shea that recasts Lakah as an Egyptian Chababi:

Brave leaders who are committed to individual civil and political freedoms exist within Egyptian society. Ramy Lakah can be added to the list of heroic Egyptian dissidents who include Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour — they are the Andrei Sakharovs, Vaclav Havels, and Natan Sharanskys of their day.

That's hilarious. It's true that Lakah was on the board of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, but he never was part of those who went out of their way to fight for human rights in Egypt. As for the other attributes she gives him, most are ridiculous. In her attempt to depict Lakah as a Christian leader (she has a long history of manipulating discrimination against Christians and formerly visited Egypt as a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body stacked with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists like Shea and Elliott Abrams), she even makes the mistake of saying he is Coptic--he's actually Catholic. But that is the least of many mistakes and outright lies. The problem is, considering where it is coming from, these are dangerous lies. If Lakah was even a tenth of what Chalabi is, the problem would be different, but in this case either she is an idiot or Lakah paid her a fat sum to write what she did.