The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 7-13 February 2017

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The tradecraft of a political analyst

My friend Peter Harling – whose fantastic essays have appeared on this site before before they moved over to his new outfit, Synaps – has put together a wonderful collection of advice for people in our line of work, that is researchers, academics, policy writers, journalists and others who do fieldwork and then write about their findings. He's done so for Synaps, where he is training young researchers from the region, but has decided to make his advice open-source. It's a treasure trove of excellent recommendations derived, among many things, from his many years as director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group. I saw how effective he was at training analysts there (and it's a demanding place to work). There's a lot in there, so here are a few examples.

On note-taking:

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts. Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.

Sharing with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth, everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.

On interviews:

I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.

Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions.

You can find the whole collection here.

The last report from Egypt's El Nadeem Center

The El Nadeem Center is an extraordinary Egyptian NGO that documents police torture and counsels its victims. After a long period of groundless legal harassment, the center has now been forcibly closed by security forces. Just a few weeks ago it issued the following statement, alongside its annual report on torture -- which as its authors note is culled from media reports and statement on social media, and therefore under-estimates the phenomenon.   

"We release this Archive on the 6th anniversary of the 25th of January revolution, when the so called Police-Day turned into a day of revolution against that same police force and against all the atrocities it committed and continues to commit. We have no doubt that the news items we have managed to collect from the various media channels are but the tip of the iceberg.. below the surface or out of our reach and that of the media are many more crimes which we failed to access news about. For that we apologize for the people afflicted by them.

This archive begins with some official quotes made during 2016, beginning from the head of state to one of its main media spokespersons.. Most of which are quotes that deny and condemn those who oppose that denial.. According to those officials Egypt lives its best democratic eras, its prisons are akin to hotels to the extent that prisoners sometimes do not want to be released.. talk about forced disappearance is a lie that targets to defame Egypt's image in front of the work.. No torture is practiced in prisons or police stations.. and detainees are receiving the best medical care!!!

This media archive testifies to the opposite. The archive does not include testimonies taken by doctors working at El Nadim clinic, but includes only testimonies published on the various media channels, including social media. At the end of each testimony there is a link to the original publication for whoever would like to check.

We have classified statistics into killing (extrajudicial, although we oppose all killing even if ordained by law), death in detention, individual torture, collective maltreatment and torture, medical neglect in detention, forced disappearance, reappearance and finally acts of state violence outside places of detention.

Although we believe that every case of forced disappearance is most likely a victim of torture (for why else would security forces would deprive a detainee from every contact with the outside world if not to seize confessions under duress) the listed number of torture cases does not include those who have disappeared unless they have spoken about their torture after reappearing. In addition, we have also published the numbers of those who have reappeared according to the collected news. All of them reappeared in state institutions, none in Syria or with ISIS, as some claim.

The archive also has sections of letters sent from prisons, testimonies of former detainees as well as testimonies of their families during their time of detention. Those sections, we believe are the most valuable part of this archive. They testify to an era as well as to the resilience of individuals who, although deprived of their freedom, hold on to their humanity and belief in human values and solidarity.

2016 was a heavy year. At about this time in 2015 El Nadim released its 2015 archives of oppression, upon which the government made two attempts at its closure.. the only clinic - unfortunately - that provides psychological help to survivors of violence and torture. Some state institutions, in Egypt as well as some of our embassies abroad, claimed that the clinic is closed and that it no longer received clients. Despite the heaviness of the year and the challenges facing El Nadim and other civil society organizations and especially human rights organizations, we assure our constituency and supporters that the clinic has not closed, not for a single day. As long as there is a need for the service provided by the clinic it will continue providing it, even if it is forced to take other formulas and continue receiving survivors of violence and torture. Until then 3A Soliman el Halabi street, 2nd floor remains open.

This archive is not produced by the clinic. It is produced by an independent Egyptian NGO, El Nadim.

Let us hope that 2017 be more merciful to us all. "

Taking a page from Cossery on Trump and Bannon

There are reports that Donald Trump is annoyed by Steve Bannon’s high profile (the jokes about #PresidentBannon, the SNL skit, the Time magazine cover etc.) 

The idea of our pathologically narcissistic president being troubled by the prominence of his lieutenant seems very plausible. It also reminded me of the plot of Albert Cossery’s La Violence et la derision (translated as The Jokers). Cossery was born in Cairo to a Greek Orthodox Levantine family. He left Egypt for Paris in 1945. But all of his brilliant, satirical novels — whose antiheroes are vagabonds, dandies, thieves and hashish smokers — are set in the Arab world (mostly in Egypt). 

InThe Jokers, a group of men in Alexandria, annoyed by the city’s stupid and incompetent governor, decide to undermine him by heaping inordinate praise on him, printing flyers that glorify him and writing letters to the newspaper full of over-the-top compliments. The idea is that such praise will render him ridiculous and that he will be forced to resign for seeming to aggrandize himself. 

There have been a number of comparisons between Trump and Arab dictators (the love of gilded fixtures, the contempt for the press, the allegations that all protesters are paid stooges). Another resemblance is the way he loathes being mocked and being upstaged. The Resistance should take a page from The Jokers and work to put Bannon on the cover of many more magazines.

A new look

I was messing around with the blog yesterday and accidentally clicked the wrong button, breaking the old design. Rather than recreating it the way it was, I thought it was an occasion to begin a redesign of the blog that I had long wanted to do – to make it more simple, more adapted to today's mobile devices and high-resolution screens, to improve the typography and countless other things. That means that the old banner (in place, if I remember correctly, since the second redesign around 2005) has gone, or rather has been replaced with the fez logo above left. I know some readers will miss it, but it does not really make sense in an era of tiny vertically-oriented screens.

So I am starting slowly with this sparse look and will gradually refine it over the next few weeks. I hope that at the very least it will load faster, be more pleasant to read, and will have fewer distractions now that the sidebar is no longer there. Some elements will gradually come back. Some older posts that worked well with the previous design might be a little broken. But I am taking this as an incentive to start blogging a little more often, and perhaps a little differently, than before. 

Also – more news soon to come, something that many of you have asked for in the last few years. Stay tuned.

Hillary Clinton, Michigan and Arab-Americans

Quoted in the Independent by Robert Fisk, Nick Noe thinks that Clinton might have won the election, or at least done better in states like Michigan, had she put more effort into courting Arab voters:

Nicholas Noe was Hillary’s senior man in Michigan, the beating heart of 186,000 residents who claim Arab ancestry. Noe also lives in Beirut where he runs Middle East Wire, which translates the Arab media, and writes long – sometimes over-wordy but often all too accurate – analyses of the Arab world. “We lost Michigan with its 16 electoral votes – and we lost it by a little more than 10,000 votes,” Noe says. “We were never able to get Hillary herself in front of the Arab community to listen to them. She went to Detroit but she never came to see this community – even though she was nearby.”
It’s easy to think that Hillary, whose sense of entitlement never stopped her currying up to the wealthiest or most powerful lobby groups in Washington and New York, was frightened of offending the pro-Israeli lobby and thus avoided Dearborn and its residents’ questions on "Palestine" and Israel. But so far as Noe is concerned, “most pundits believed that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric would be sufficient to give the Arab-American vote to Hillary – but they needed to hear from the candidate herself.”

Who knows how much difference this might have made – the Arab-American vote is far from united and often goes Republican – but this kind of thing reinforces my view that Clinton was not only the wrong candidate for the Democrats, but also ran a poor campaign.

In Translation: Egyptian minister, the worst job in the world
This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

Poor Egypt. Amidst all of the misery heaped on it in recent years — drastic curtailing of freedoms, terrorist attacks, military rule, unprecedented human rights abuses, a general descent into media vulgarity and irrelevance, grotesque injustices dished out daily, a hapless and disconnected elite, the list goes on and on –– it is in a mind-boggling economic mess. The Egyptian pound has broken all expectations after November’s devaluation and lingers at the LE18-20 to the USD level, compared to LE8.8 at the official rate a year ago and until recently never much more than LE15 on the black market. 2017 will be brutal for ordinary Egyptians of all classes, and the optimistic take that such painful austerity is a prelude to recovery leaves one wondering: where is this country headed? How will this end?

President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, when not coming up with innovative solutions to these economic challenges, faces a dilemma. Like Donald Trump, he knows he is the best man for the job of making his country great again — everyone says so on TV. But he is surrounded by incompetents and saboteurs. So yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time since he took power in July 2013, a cabinet shuffle appears imminent. Except it’s so hard to find good help these days! For weeks, the Egyptian press has reported that prospective ministers are turning down offers to join the cabinet led by Prime Minister Ismail Sherif (whose job is reportedly safe, although probably just till the next shuffle in a few months). Amazingly in a country where it seems everyone seems to aspire to be a wazir, there are no takers. 

The columnist Ashraf al-Barbary, in the piece below, has a courageous and eloquent explanation why. A little background may be necessary: under Sisi, most if not all key decisions are made in the presidency. A kind of shadow government run by intelligence officers holds the real files. And the president – as seen in the long-postponed decision to devalue the currency – waits until the very last moment to make vital decisions, wasting time, public confidence and opportunity in the process. All of this is well-known. For a writer to express himself so forthrightly in today’s Egyptian press (al-Shorouk being an upscale daily broadsheet) would have been unthinkable a year or two ago, but things are changing fast and people are fed up. The various lobbies (big business, civil society groups, political parties etc.) that would normally influence policy under the Mubarak era have no way in. Decisions are made in mysterious ways. Ministers have little leeway to implement their own vision and see no coherent plan coming from the top. No wonder Sisi’s headhunters are having trouble.

This translation is brought to you by the industrious arabists at Industry Arabic, bespoke manufacturers of fine translations. Please give them your money. 


Blessed are those who turn down ministerial posts

Ashraf al-Barbary, al-Shorouk, 25 January 2017
If there is truth to the reports from government sources that many candidates have excused themselves from taking up ministerial positions, then we are right to ask the government to reveal the names of these people so that we can praise them. 
Someone who would give up a ministerial post — which so many hearts long for — must be one of two types of person: a straightforward person who does not believe that he would be able to tackle the disastrous situation the country has come to due to the irrational policies that we have been following for years, and who therefore chooses to forego rather than to accept a position where he is not qualified to succeed; or a person who is sufficiently qualified to succeed but respects himself and refuses to be made into a mere “presidential secretary” who carries out instructions from above in accordance with our ancient political legacy. 
Of course, the political and media militias loyal to the ruling regime will come out to heap charges of treason and of abandoning the country in a difficult time on these honorable people who have refused to take up these “high-level positions” in order to avoid certain failure, either because they do not have the qualifications and abilities to help them confront disasters they did not create, or because they know that their qualifications and abilities would not bring success amid failed policies they have no means of changing, because they have come from who-knows-where. 
The opposite is entirely true: A person who refuses to play the role of extra at the ministerial level — not knowing why they brought him to the ministry or for what reasons they would remove him — is a person who deserves to be praised in comparison with a person who accepts a ministerial role while knowing that many high-level posts in his ministry and its agencies have been transformed into end-of-service benefits, which some obtain after the end of their term of service, compulsory by law, without any consideration for standards of competence and training. 
The last three years have seen more than one cabinet shuffle. However, the situation has deteriorated at all levels, meaning that the problem may not be the minister or even the prime minister, but rather in the policies and ideas which are being imposed on those who accept these appointments. Accordingly, the insistence on carrying out cabinet reshuffles without any serious attempt to review the overarching policies and decisions that have led the country into economic and social catastrophe — indeed, the current policies — will not yield anything positive. 
Nothing underscores the absurdity and superficiality of the cabinet shuffle and the fact that everything is coming from above more so than the status of the parliament. In theory, the new constitution gives the parties and blocs in parliament the highest word in forming the government; however, we see them waiting for whatever ingenious cabinet lineup the executive authority is so kind as to bestow upon them, just to rubber stamp it even before the lawmakers know all the names of the new ministers — as occurred when they voted to appoint the current supply minister within a few minutes. 
If the authorities had the slightest degree of seriousness about reform or the desire to form a government that had the slightest degree of independence, the prime minister would have gone to the parties at the heads of large blocs in parliament for them to give him candidates from among their members for ministerial posts. This would contribute toward developing political and democratic experience on the whole, and also offer the benefit of ministers who do not owe their presence in the ministry solely to the satisfaction of a higher power, but rather to their parties, who may later seek to form an entire government, as occurs in any rational country. 

 

Links 25 January - 6 February 2017
David Lynch's unjustly maligned (and actually quite good) 1984 adaption of Dune.

David Lynch's unjustly maligned (and actually quite good) 1984 adaption of Dune.

I don't know about you, but the most exciting news for me this week is that there may yet be another movie adaption of Frank Herbert's Dune. In other news:

LinksThe Editors
The Egyptian Muslim Brothers' media war

Mokhtar Awad, for POMEPS, on how the divisions inside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have played out onto their media outlets:

Both traditional and new media have been critical tools in this internal struggle. Different satellite channels compete to “set the tone” for the group’s struggle against the regime and the rhythm of the organization through their programming and guests they allow on air. Rival factions now operate two different websites and have two different spokesmen on social media. Each first and foremost concerned with securing the loyalty of the MB rank and file. Senior leaders post rival statements on websites and followers instantly react on their Facebook walls, sometimes arguing with each other. Other members have also set up independent Facebook pages to assert their demands or act as privateers on behalf of one faction to land blows against their rivals.

This fascinating new environment naturally allows forces outside the MB’s traditionally rigid structure to interfere in this internal struggle with either their financing or through media activism. This has significant consequences for the organization and the Egyptian Islamist movement overall as different Imams and ideologues—ranging from the “moderate” to the outright Takfiri—can compete for ratings and as a consequence possibly influence. The new diverse media environment also provides a useful tool to help analyze internal MB dynamics and help answer the fundamental question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s dissident Islamists.

In Translation: Russia's Army of the Levant

One of the big questions about Russia's involvement in Syria is how it intends to turn its geopolitical and strategic victory – edging out the United States as the key international actor in the conflict and helping the Assad regime's forces recapture Aleppo – into something that doesn't turn into a quagmire. Even if the Assad regime is able to retain control of the main cities of "useful Syria" (and look how it yet again lost control of Palmyra), the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years in the countryside. So as the Astana negotiations begin (and will probably produce few results) and Russia struts its diplomatic clout, it is stuck having to manage a weak ally in the regime and an unreliable one that is potentially a rival in Iran, the regime's other major outside backer.

For several weeks, there have been reports that the Assad regime is trying to raise a new force that would effectively be under Russian command. Its purpose is unclear, and it might simply be to counter increase its influence over Assad (whose forces are likely exhausted and more concerned with internal regime politics) and provide a counter-veiling force to Iran's more effective presence on the ground troops in Syria. That, at least, is what much of the (Assad-hostile) Arab press is speculating. The dramatic moves to recruit this "Fifth Corps", as the new formation is called,  spell more suffering for ordinary Syrians (see details below). The idea is that the regime will corral reluctant men (including deserters, civilians, former rebels etc.) into the Fifth Corps – which hardly seems likely to be an effective force to counter a highly-motivated and well-trained pro-Iran Syrian and foreign militias.

The piece below, by al-Hayat's longtime Syria correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi (who was jailed by the regime in the early 2000s) draws a parallel between the Fifth Corps and France's Army of the Levant, which consolidated its hold on the country after the First World War. 

Thanks to Industry Arabic for providing this translation - they make this feature possible and you should give them your consideration for your Arabic translation needs.

The Fifth Corps: Russia’s “Army of the Levant” to Suppress Comrades-in-Arms and Impose Peace

Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat, 9 January 2017

The Russian army continues to pressure its allies in Damascus to move quickly to form a “Fifth Attack Troop Corps” as a military pillar of Russian penetration into Syria, which would largely resemble the Army of the Levant founded by France during the Syrian Mandate at the start of the past century. It is possible that this new formation would be aimed at confronting the increasing influence of the National Defense Forces and militias supported by Iran and keep the peace after the remaining pockets of resistance are suppressed.

At the end of 2012, with the retreat of many regime forces due to defections and the evasion of compulsory enlistment by up to 100,000 individuals, Tehran succeeded in convincing Damascus to organize the Popular Committees into “national defense forces” supervised, trained, and funded by the Basij. They were eventually deployed to most regime-held areas and front lines, their number reaching about 70,000 Syrians and non-Syrians, including Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis, under the direct supervision of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which contributed to halting the progress of opposition factions in several regions.

Following the direct Russian military intervention at the end of September 2015, the Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army, Gen. Ali Ayyoub, announced in October from the Russian military base at Khmeimim the intention to form a “Fourth Attack Troop Corps” with the aim of “liberating all towns and villages.” However, Moscow’s attempts to incorporate some 18 detachments supported by Iran into the Fourth Corps did not succeed, and military coordination remained at the bottom of differing priorities.

In November, in pace with the infiltration of the Russian army’s officers into the civilian and military governmental institutions in Damascus and the cities of “useful Syria,” a statement was distributed announcing formation of a “Fifth Corps” with “financing and training from Russia.” It will include roughly 45,000 individuals deployed as infantry, engineering, mechanized, and assault forces, “after training in guerrilla warfare in areas protected by Russia,” according to an official examining the project.

The high command of the army and armed forces then announced the “formation of a new unit of volunteer combatants, under the name ‘Fifth Attack Troop Corps,’ with the goal of eliminating terrorism.” The high command called for “all citizens wishing to join the corps to consult the recruitment centers in the provinces, which are located at the headquarters of the southern region, the headquarters site in Damascus, the headquarters of the Tenth Division in Qatana, the headquarters of the central region in Homs, the headquarters site in Hama, the College of Administrative Affairs in Masyaf, the headquarters of the northern region in Aleppo, the headquarters site at Tartus, the headquarters of the coastal region in Latakia, the headquarters of the Fifth Division in Daraa, and the headquarters of the Fifteenth Division in as-Suwayda,” without including areas under the control of the Syrian opposition or ISIS. The call included “those not obliged to serve under conscription, deserters, those who are over 18 years of age, those wishing to join who have completed their national service – from all ranks, commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men – as well as state employees wishing to join under a one-year contract, which can be renewed subject to the agreement of the employing agency.”

Instructions

Alongside the issuance of presidential decrees pardoning army “deserters” and those who have not enlisted for military service, tightening leave procedures for young men, and dispatching street patrols to drag youths off to the front without full training, instructions have been issued to the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, government institutions, the army, mobile-phone companies, and the media to urge enlistment in the new force. In a memorandum, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments has called on the imams of mosques to “speak from the pulpits and urge citizens to enlist in the Fifth Corps, and highlight the advantages of doing so.” Among these are “regularizing the status of those who are absent from reserve service and of deserters and state employees absent from work, while a person can earn 100,000 lira per month.” (The U.S. dollar is worth 500 lira). Another memorandum from the dean of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Giana Eid, calls on employees to “register their names with the Director of Administrative and Legal Affairs.”

The governor of Latakia urged government institutions in the province to compel their employees, and especially displaced persons (seven million are displaced within the country) to “join the Ba‘ath Vanguards camp in al-Raml al-Janubi,” including people from 18 to 50 years “In the event of non-enrollment, employees’ assignments will be terminated,” he added. The Directorate of Education requested that teachers under the age of 42 be “encouraged” to enlist in the Fifth Corps and stated that there is a “need for displaced teachers to be forced into the corps within 48 hours,” noting that estimates indicate there are 1.5 million displaced coming from Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs now present in Tartus and Latakia. News has also circulated of a trial plan to repatriate refugees from countries neighboring Syria (some five million people) on condition that they agree to fight in this corps.

Moreover, general managers in Damascus have gathered their employees to explain the advantages of enlisting in this force, including “keeping half of one’s monthly salary while earning another monthly salary of up to 300 dollars.” Syrians have received text messages on their mobile phones such as “Be one of the shapers of victory,” “Sign up for the Fifth Attack Troop Corps,” and “We invite you to join the Fifth Attack Troop Corps and share in shaping the victory,” while new businessman have been informed of the necessity of financing this force as a condition for their being granted new financial benefits

In addition to some pieces of news from the tribes in the country’s east, Moscow – engaged through officers at the Khmeimim base in “reconciliation talks” – is wagering on the incorporation of opposition fighters whose “status has been regularized” into the new force, where “they will fight their former comrades-in-arms, especially Jabhat al-Nusra cadres and ISIS.” It has been noted that among the elements of the draft agreement proposed to settle the status of three towns south of Damascus is the formation of a force to fight al-Nusra and ISIS, something which has happened before in other areas such as al-Tall, northeast of the capital. Given that thousands of those who have not signed such “settlements” have moved with their families to Idlib province, the coming period may see direct clashes between “former comrades-in-arms” – battles between members of the Fifth Corps and those who refuse “settlements,” especially on the fronts of Idlib, which Damascus wants to retake “at any cost.”

Army of the Levant

Experts have linked the latest changes in the Syrian army to the new formation’s prominent forthcoming role and to Moscow’s eagerness to expand and transform the Tartus base into something resembling the one at Khmeimim. Experts in Western institutes and specialist publications, including Stratfor, have noted that one of the reasons for the creation of the Fifth Corps is to counterbalance the influence of Iran, especially since Moscow, having reached agreements with Ankara after the ceasefire in some parts of Syria, will provide most of the support. This will include arms, training, and a monthly salary amounting to $750 for members of “its corps.”

Syrian historians liken this force to the Army of the Levant formed by France after its assumption of the Mandate over Syria in 1920. As one said, “After the idea of dividing Syria into statelets, France recruited the minorities of Syria and some fighters from colonized countries like Senegal to form the Army of the Levant in order to crush Syrian nationalist movements, including that of 1925-1927. The leaders of this army were Frenchmen, while its members were the poor and marginalized of Syria.”

He added: “The reception of the Army of the Levant was more successful on the Syrian coast where the people had been historically marginalized, and where the Army of the Levant offered authority and influence. This was the basis for the beginning of the military ideology among the oppressed sons of the coast, a matter which became evident later in Syrian history” with the taking of power in Damascus. After independence in April 1946, the Army of the Levant became the nucleus of the Syrian army amidst efforts by the “Damascus elite” to sideline it, which was one of the reasons for the nakba of 1948. Some members of the army, such as Husni al-Za‘im and Adib Shishakli, were behind military coups, and Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, along with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was behind the foundation of the “security state.”

The number of individuals in the Army of the Levant rose from 13,000 in 1920 to more than 100,000 in order to suppress the Great Syrian Revolt of 1927. Those are also the goals Russia seeks in forming the Fifth Corps one year after its direct military intervention via the eastern Syrian coast, along with the organization of an army outside the “authority of the state,” according to a Syrian historian. He wonders: “Does Moscow’s recognition of Islamist factions and acceptance of them as partners in the ceasefire and political solution reflect Russia’s intention to rely on the majority in cooperation with Turkey?”

Links 10-24 January 2017
LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Do al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahri still got it?

The leader of al-Qaeda since Obama bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a new speech on 5 January that was chiefly targeted at asserting his jihadist credentials and denouncing the Islamic State. Since 2014 (when the Islamic State announced it has established its “caliphate”) especially, the rivalry between the two groups in Syria and Iraq has expanded to other fronts; this rivalry is not only based on theological disputes but also strategic ones, particularly concerning what are acceptable levels of violence against Shias and non-Muslim minorities and the order of priorities between fighting the taghout (local despots) and the West. Moreover, they have tended to be eclipsed by the Islamic State, whose spectacular brutality and control of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya (until recently) had made everyone’s public enemy number one.

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a top Jordanian expert on jihadist groups, dissects Zawahiri’s message in the piece below. He is rather scathing about what he sees as Zawahiri’s desperate plea for relevance. I certainly do not have his level of expertise, but I am not sure I share his view of al-Qaeda’s decline – the issue may be that the autonomisation of various AQ groups, especially Jabha an-Nusra, AQAP and AQIM – has now made “AQ Central” less relevant. But it is true that Zawahiri comes out as defensive in this latest video. Because I’m tempted to make analogies with hip-hop on just about every topic, one might say that this mirrors the discourse in Dr. Dre’s return to gangsta rap in his (fantastic) album 2001, in which he bemoans that people Forgot About Dre and that would do well to remember that he is Still D.R.E.. Except, you know, Dr. Dre is effortlessly cool and Dr. Ayman, well, a loser.

Thanks to the OGs at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Check them out for your Arabic translation needs.


Zawahiri and the Delusional Fight over Baghdadi’s Legacy

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, Arabi 21, 8 January 2017

It is indisputable that al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri is nothing like it was under Osama bin Laden. In his lifetime, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was an icon for jihadists and a guiding model for global jihad. Every jihadist movement and organization strove to obtain its blessing and the honor of joining its structure and putting itself under its leadership. On the other hand, Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda lacks the legitimacy to represent global jihad.

Unlike Bin Laden, whose charismatic personality enabled him to preserve a cohesive bureaucratic organization and strong ideological discourse, Zawahiri has failed to maintain the group’s unity. There have been many defections during his reign, with increasingly dynamic rebellions and acts of disobedience, while his rhetoric has been plagued by contradictions, shifts, and disorder.

As the Islamic State group, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, faces a comprehensive, universal war and is occupied with repulsing the attacks of the international coalition led by the US (whom Zawahiri routinely describes as “Crusaders”), regional and local Shia forces (typically described by Zawahiri as “Persian Zoroastrian rejectionists [rafidah]”) and Islamic-Arab forces (which Zawahiri makes sure to accuse of blasphemy, apostasy and collaboration), Zawahiri has appeared in a new speech distributed by the As-Sahab Foundation under the title, “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow,” in which he attacks the Islamic State group and Baghdadi.

Zawahiri has been preoccupied with pushing back against what he calls a campaign of distortion, intimidation and demoralization waged against the “mujahideen.” Among those who have participated in this campaign, according to Zawahiri, are the “liars” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has accused Baghdadi of deception and slander aimed at distorting the image of al-Qaeda and its activities, and has stressed that the priority of jihad should be to strike America.

It seems that Zawahiri’s reading of the conditions of global jihad are extremely confused and wrapped up in a state of denial which has made him unaware that the age of al-Qaeda has ended and that the world is now living in the age of ISIS – which has become the preferred model for new jihadists. Zawahiri’s speech is based on a wishful reading that predicts the decline and demise of ISIS, whose mantle will then be taken up by a new iteration of al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri’s speech did not mention any feelings of solidarity or any desire to reconcile with the organization, and instead carried out a relentless campaign against the group and against Baghdadi, without mentioning the disintegration, weakness and collapse that has befallen al-Qaeda.

In an attempt to restore and revive al-Qaeda at the expense of the Islamic State, Zawahiri has fallen into the Islamic State’s trap. By opposing ISIS for standing its ground, his speech lapsed into self-contradiction.

Instead of emphasizing the difference between al-Qaeda’s discourse and that of the Islamic State, he identified with it at the same time that he claimed to oppose and criticize it. He said that the “liar” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has claimed that al-Qaeda does not denounce un-Islamic regimes as blasphemous, falls in line with the majority opinion, has praised (ousted Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi, and has even called for Christians to share as partners in power. He added that Baghdadi’s followers have claimed that al-Qaeda does not practice takfir against Shias.

Thus, Zawahiri, instead of saying, “Yes, we affirm our differences with ISIS about these foregoing issues,” pretended that al-Qaeda had held these positions since its inception — and this is, without a doubt, completely untrue.

These issues and others have been matters of contention between al-Qaeda and ISIS from the time of Zarqawi’s network up to Baghdadi’s state. In particular, al-Qaeda entered into a new phase upon the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011, which coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions.

At that time, Al-Qaeda inaugurated a number of transformations to adapt to the new circumstances. With the failure of the democratic transition process, al-Qaeda’s positions became contradictory, and it began to focus on building alliances with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist forces, and changed its priority from confronting America to fighting local regimes.

Leaders in the most active branch of al-Qaeda, in Syria, announced through the Nusra Front that they would refrain from confronting or striking America or the West in any foreign operations and limit their priorities to fighting in Syria and building ties with local forces – an approach which was also followed by al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab [in Somalia].

In his speech, Zawahiri attempts to revive the rhetoric of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow” — the title of his speech — belongs to a different era, when al-Qaeda saw itself as the vanguard of the Ummah.

However, Zawahiri’s fantasy of the Ummah belongs to an imaginary Ummah that does not see therein a representation of its aspirations regarding state and society. Even the groups closest to Zawahiri, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ahrar al-Sham movement, blame him for dividing and distracting the Ummah.

Even Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani broke ties with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda and founded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with his blessings and commendation from his aides, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj al-Masri, notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri considered the calls for al-Qaeda to stay out of Syria “flimsy.”

In his speech, Zawahiri revealed the extent of the contradictions and divisions inside al-Qaeda and its branches. In response to calls for al-Qaeda to be kept out of Syria in order to free Syrian groups from the “terrorism” label, Zawahiri said: “It is as if pleasing America was the purpose or path to victory in jihad, and as if al-Qaeda has become criminal because it antagonizes America and its corrupt agents in our lands. It is as if America was not annihilating Muslims before and after al-Qaeda was established.”

It is as if Zawahiri was indicating his dissatisfaction with al-Nusra Front cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a fact that came to light as a number of leaders rejected this decision, such as Abu Julaybib, Abu Bilal, Abu Hamam and others.

Zawahiri, in his latest speech, does not appear to be more than an observer and ideological guide with no real connection to the al-Qaeda organization and its branches. He does not issue orders or instructions, but incites, hopes, and beseeches. He is directing speeches at an imaginary Ummah, calling for the revival of jihad to liberate the Muslim nation from occupation by the infidels, as he puts it, saying that America and its allies are the primary target and reciting so-called crimes committed by the US that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s mission, such as the eradication of five million Vietnamese, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan, the killing of 60,000 Germans in the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, and so on.

Zawahiri, as if he was in an introductory college course on refuting conspiracy theories, deflected accusations from al-Qaeda, saying: “Those with (hidden) purposes have accused al-Qaeda of different forms of collaboration. They have said that we are agents of the Americans formed in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. They have said that we are Saudi agents formed with their financing. The rafidah, the new Safavids, have accused us of being American and Israeli agents. Their propaganda tools, in pure lies, say that the attacks of September 11 were a Zionist conspiracy and that they were a pretext for an American attack on Iran (which has not happened) even after 15 years of attacks — rather, their relationship has strengthened and they have become allies against Muslims in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria. The propaganda tools and servants of American bases in the Gulf have accused us of being agents of Iran working in their interests, and finally they warned against us because we are America’s enemies, and those who side with us inherit our crimes.”

Zawahiri, in his attempt to prove al-Qaeda’s legitimacy, falls into a historical ideological and moral dilemma. In attempting to delegitimize ISIS and Baghdadi, he says that the figure Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi[1] was “a role model for veterans of Saddam’s army officer corps and his intelligence services, who awarded the caliphate to Ibrahim al-Badri [the real name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], who used to kill his rivals in Kufa if they did not testify against themselves as infidels.” But Zawahiri himself, during the time of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, never tired of deflecting accusations away from that same organization, singing the praises of ISIS and the same men, and attacking those who fought against the organization as members of the Sunni Awakening and collaborators.

I believe that, in his speech, Zawahiri revealed a major disruption affecting al-Qaeda with his leadership — not only because of his loss of legitimacy to ISIS, but first and foremost because of his dwindling legitimacy among al-Qaeda and its branches.

Among his followers and supporters, accusations have been mounting that he is unable to confront ISIS, hesitant in dealing with it, indecisive in his positions, unable to maintain al-Qaeda’s appeal and ability to galvanize, and of losing control over the organization’s branches, which pushed him to rehearse al-Qaeda’s guide for action, “code of conduct” and aims — most importantly to impose sharia, unite the Ummah, release prisoners, etc. — and emphasize that the principles had been developed after consultation with all branches in order to hold them responsible.

It seems that Zawahiri’s legitimacy has been lacking among al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, even moreso than among other jihadists, at a time when it had been possible for Zawahiri to recover something of al-Qaeda’s appeal by summoning Osama bin Laden’s charisma by appointing his son, Hamza bin Laden, whom the United States recently placed on its terrorist watch list. In a speech last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri presented Hamza as “son of the lion of jihad,” before going on to call upon the youth of Islam to fight against the “Americans, Jews, and the rest of the West.”

However, Zawahiri has appeared unable to understand the transformations at work and unable to control al-Qaeda. The group, which had depended for its organizational structure and ideological aspirations on both Saudis and Egyptians, has now become, in the age of Zawahiri, basically Egyptian. Everyone was surprised by the announcement through the Nusra Front’s media platform, Al-Manara Al-Bayda, that Zawahiri’s deputy would be Abu Khayr al-Masri.

It is no small irony that the announcement was not made through the As-Sahab Foundation [al-Qaeda’s media production unit]. The Nusra Front’s step of breaking ties with al-Qaeda revealed how weak and fragile Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has become, and showed the dispute among various wings, leaders, origins and nationalities. It is no longer possible to play the Bin Laden card or enforce the Saudi line.

Before that, it had been possible for Hamza bin Laden to become “the new face of al-Qaeda.” His latest speeches had revived the image of his father. Last July, his words were consistent with his father’s when he said: “Al-Qaeda will continue to carry out its attacks inside your country and abroad in response to the repression suffered by the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim countries.” He was decisive when he threatened America and the West and promised to avenge the death of his father, Osama bin Laden.

The bottom line is that, in his speech, Zawahiri appeared unable to comprehend the current transformations and was preoccupied with defending his choices, despite saying that al-Qaeda’s policies were not sacred writ. His concerns appeared largely narcissistic, as he was preoccupied with his own reputation and tried to place the blame on others — from the Islamic State and from his own group — for the organization’s dissolution and weakness. He took no notice of the campaign faced by ISIS, was unconcerned by the defeat of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition groups and their expulsion from Aleppo, and did not touch upon the state of his crumbling branches in Yemen and the Maghreb, which are being dispersed and losing effectiveness.

The Ummah that Zawahiri claims to represent has disappeared and withdrawn into itself – and in that sense it is not very different from what Zawahiri himself has become. Are we waiting in anticipation for another speech? I think not.


  1. A governor of Iraq under the Ommeyyad dynasty (seventh-eighth century) reputed for his ruthlessness.  ↩

Links 20 December 2016 - 9 January 2017

Happy new year - this is a short link dump as there was not much linking during the holidays.

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brothers

Over the last two years much has been made of the splits within the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and prospects, or lack thereof, for reconciliation between the group and the military regime in Egypt. Many obstacles stand in the way of reconciliation: the regime’s official rejection of anything short of total surrender, an elite Egyptian opinion that can be more intransigeant than that of security leaders, splits within the Brotherhood including some radicalization, the often-voiced preference of some Brothers that Sisi’s departure should be a precondition for any deal, the legacy of the Rabaa Massacre and the brutal crackdown on the organization, and more.

The article below, from the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbullah, pro-Assad/Iran/Russia, anti-Saudi and vaguely “anti-imperialist left”, whatever that means) has a scoop that, through the auspices of Saudi intelligence, members of the Brotherhood’s “organizational” wing (an older generation of leaders who control the bureaucratic structures of the Brotherhood, have a history of accommodation with successive Egyptian regimes and care mostly about the long-term survival of the group) met with Egyptian intelligence to discuss reconciliation prospects. The news is surprising in the context of the current chill in Egyptian-Saudi relations, and of course predates the recent attack on Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral last week (after which the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based “Crisis Office”, the more revolutionary trend opposed to the old leadership, put out an ill-worded statement essentially accusing the Sisi regime of having carried out a false-flag attack) which makes such reconciliation even more unlikely.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation story never quite dies down, and it is likely that channels of communication remain open, through proxies or directly, between the Sisi regime and some Brothers. The time may come when it will be needed, as both the military regime that has ruled Egypt in one form or another since 1952 and a Muslim Brotherhood that has reinvented itself several times since its founding in 1928 are nothing if skilled survivors. Watch this space.

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Brotherhood moving towards "painful" settlement with Sisi: Preserving what remains of the organization

Mahmoud Ali, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 29 November 2016

At a time in which media discourse is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group is seeking reconciliation or settlement with the Egyptian state and is having repeated meetings outside Egypt with Egyptian intelligence chiefs in order to look for a settlement satisfactory to both parties. Such activities may well cause surprise within Egyptian public opinion in the coming days.

The Muslim Brotherhood was forced to disclose a few details regarding the nature of the communications between it and the Egyptian authorities over the past few weeks, in light of the controversy that has arisen following statements last week from the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Munir. Munir, who lives in London, had stressed that "there shall be no reconciliation with the Sisi regime that has killed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and there shall be no concessions regarding Mohamed Morsi's return to power, not to mention the return of the Shura Council and the People's Assembly, which were dissolved following the decision of then Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi."

However, two days ago the «Brotherhood» published a report that was more like a press statement on a site close the London office, in which they stated "communications have been received from figures close to the regime, and others from within it, in order to attempt to envisage an end to the crisis in some shape or form, or at the very least, to achieve de-escalation between the different parties." The group said in the message that these communications were conducted with prominent Brotherhood leaders inside Egypt and also with some of the major leaders outside the country, revealing that there have been communications undertaken by former and current military figures in relation to this.

The Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood and his delegate Mahmoud Ezzat have striven over the past few days to stamp out opposition movements led by the organization’s foreign office to take control of the organization. He has conducted elections through which he has been able to increase the power of all of those obedient to him and those who prefer a settlement with the regime in exchange for de-escalation, the release of prisoners and an end to the current zero-sum conflict.

More than one leader of the Brotherhood has revealed the "news" -- details of the meetings and communications that have taken place with them during the past few days inside and outside Egypt. According to a Brotherhood leader from the office of the Brotherhood in the Saudi city of Jeddah, it was an official from the Brotherhood office in Riyadh that met a delegation from the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate in the past few days to discuss a political settlement.

Although Saudi Arabia did not publish any details of those meetings, the Brotherhood leader made it clear that the meeting was sponsored by Saudi intelligence services, while the Brotherhood delegation consisted of three members, headed by an official from the Riyadh office who was following directives from the Brotherhood office in London. At the forefront was Ibrahim Munir, a supporter of Mahmoud Ezzat's stance in Egypt.

At this time, Egyptian government sources have said that there is conflict between security factions within the regime regarding the settlement with the Brotherhood. Despite difficult political conditions and the shutdown of the general political climate in Egypt, security factions close to Sisi think that the Brotherhood will eventually submit to authority and that there is no need for attempts at reaching a settlement with them. In contrast, other security factions think that the Brotherhood issue needs to be resolved with a settlement in light of the domestic situation, as well as European and American pressure on Sisi to put the Brotherhood back on the political agenda, including an end to the execution of "Brotherhood" members. Mohamed Morsi was a product of American pressure, especially that of Secretary of State John Kerry to involve the Brotherhood in political life, as was the case in the days of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Given the fierce reactions of the Brotherhood’s base regarding the meeting, which provoked insults and accusations of treason directed at the organization’s old guard, Saudi Arabia believed that the news leak was to its detriment, especially as it had included the Muslim Brotherhood on terrorism lists for more than a year. This is what prompted the Kingdom to threaten Brotherhood leaders in Saudi Arabia with deportation in the event of similar leaks regarding Saudi efforts to sponsor a Brotherhood settlement with the regime in Egypt, according to the leader of the Jeddah office.

Domestic supporters of the Brotherhood were not far from the scattered details regarding the crisis and the efforts of historical leaders to seek a political settlement with Sisi's regime. As news of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian General Intelligence delegation in Riyadh came in, large sections of Brotherhood supporters in the Middle Delta, Greater Cairo and some Upper Egypt governorates such as El Minya, Qena and Sohag expressed their support, on the condition of prisoners being released and an end to the current state of suffering endured by those being pursued and the organization as a whole, according to an account given to al-Akhbar by a Brotherhood leader in a Middle Delta district in Northern Egypt.

A Brotherhood leader in Istanbul went even further than this, saying that Saudi media personality Jamal Khashoggi has met with Brotherhood leaders in Turkey in the past few months, commissioned by Riyadh to gauge the attitude of the Brotherhood regarding a settlement with the regime. This is in addition to Saudi Arabia's advice to the Brotherhood to disappear completely from the forefront of the political scene and allow liberal or even independent Islamic personalities to occupy this position in Egypt so that the Brotherhood can avoid provoking regional and international parties.

Although the efforts by historical organization leaders to clear up the current crisis could be considered a positive step, there are obstacles between the Brotherhood and the regime that will serve as sticking points, blocking any attempts at a settlement in the near future. That is, unless the Brotherhood is able to accept a large number of losses. Of course, chief of these is its withdrawal from the political landscape, as well as accepting Sisi in power, and remaining silent regarding the Rabaa massacre and the thorny issue of Mohamed Morsi's trial.

With regard to the precise timing of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian intelligence delegation in Saudi Arabia, a Brotherhood leader from Menufiya in northern Egypt told al-Akhbar that the meeting took place at the condolences for Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz, the brother of the Saudi King Salman, who died on 12 November. This leader revealed that the Egyptian delegation asked the Brotherhood’s representatives to let the historical leadership know that the Egyptian security services would like to meet and discuss a solution satisfactory to all. This was welcomed by the Brotherhood delegation, which admitted that it had gone to the condolences on the orders of Ibrahim Munir after communicating with Saudi intelligence.

In this context, the Crisis Office abroad – which is more in touch with the youth current within the Brotherhood – is glaringly absent from the question of settlement with the Egyptian regime. As such, it seems that Ibrahim Munir is heading toward a settlement that is “painful” for the Brotherhood in order to preserve what remains of the organization within Egypt and guarantee the return of fugitive brothers to their homes without facing prosecution from the regime.

Links 19 November - 21 December 2016
LinksThe Editors