The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?”

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?” asked Nivine, a 36-year-old with chronic kidney disease – non-rhetorically. Ever since she has heard about the bustling human trafficking and organ trade in Sinai back in 2011, Nivine wondered where she could get her hands on a kidney, should she need one later. And later she did and was forced to resort to post a Facebook note with her blood type and cell number to find a donor. (Donor here means someone who will “donate” their kidney to her, if she donates 30-50,000 Egyptian pounds to their bank account.) 

Nivine’s question, though horribly misdirected and intentioned, is a pertinent one. After all, there are only 35 hospitals licensed and (in some cases barely) qualified to perform organ transplants nationwide and those 35 only transplant kidneys, livers and corneas (which happen to match the organs stolen from the refugees); and there is presumably a limited number of surgeons with the know-how to remove organs without damaging them and access to ambulances with refrigeration units to preserve them; how difficult could it possibly be to track down the doctors involved?

The police, however, seem to have done nothing to ascertain the level difficulty. According to the coordinator of the liver transplant surgical teams of Kasr Al-Aini and Dar Al-Fouad, two of the biggest hospitals in Egypt, Mohamed Negm, the  police never so much as paid them a visit. Except for the times they needed to arrest and track down injured protesters after clashes, of course.  Apart from that and allowing the self-righteous TV host, Reham Saeed, yell at an alleged organs’ broker in their presence, the police continue the same hands-off, indifference-dripping policy the newspapers who run the “donation” ads and the hospitals inside which they take place follow. 

Most of the organs used in transplants, in Cairo at least, seem to come from Egyptians. About 60% of those organs are supplied by generous strangers the same way McDonald’s gives away Happy Meals in exchange for banknotes and the rest are donated, in the conventional sense of the word, by relatives, according to Negm. Anything better than educated estimations is impossible to find given the general aversion to counting and archiving that seems to permeate some sectors of government. These donations cost anywhere between 20-50,000 pounds (if it is a kidney and the patient is not obviously wealthy and  believed to be capable of paying more) and 30-70,000 (if it is a liver lobe and the patient is not obviously wealthy and believed to be capable of paying more), but it can vary considerably depending on how desperate both the patient and the donor are, explains Omar Safwat, another Kasr al-Aini surgeon. “Sometimes (the donor) would wait until last minute, when he is in the surgical gown and (then threaten to) back out unless he gets more money,” he said, going on to note that people can be very greedy.

That being said, a dismissive Negm maintains that the new law regulating organ transplantations has kept the practice clean and claims to the contrary are more or less “tabloid talk,” despite the fact that according to him the majority of them are still bought and that having that knowledge and operating anyway should, theoretically, earn him up to 25 years in prison and debarment, according to article 5 of the very law he is praising. “The donor signs a consent form saying they are donating, not selling, in the presence of a witness! Who also signs [a statement corroborating that]!” Negm continues, shrugging confidently as if the idea of someone lying is unfathomable. “The surgeon is there to work, where you get the organ from is not his problem,” he concluded.

“It doesn’t matter what the law says,” said Salma, the wife of a liver patient, with a hand wave. Chewing gum like it crossed her, Salma went on to paraphrase Negm, saying that doctors don’t care where you get the liver from so long as they can pretend to not know and charge you 230,000 pounds for it. Sitting next to Salma in the corner-turned-waiting-room for liver patients in Kasr Al-Aini, was an old woman who didn’t know how much the operation her husband needs costs until Salma disclosed the price. The woman asked Salma to repeat the figure slowly, but slapped herself before she did. Meanwhile, her yellow husband sat next to her with childlike stillness only moving his arm to insert biscuits into his mouth and his head to follow the behinds of every female that walked in front of him with curious disinterest. Sometime before the woman slapped herself, another patient came very close to doing the same after his organ broker informed him that the 70,000 he was paying him was not enough – in hallway full of doctors and nurses.

As time crawled by, more and more patients got up, switched seats and tried to find out who had it worst. Salma’s husband lost mobility six months ago and the donor she got after posting an advertising in a national newspaper turned out to have too fat a liver. Rania’s father shut his eyes and faked sleep every time he was addressed. Mariam knew her family would ask for money to donate a lobe and was scandalized by my neckline. The old man with the distended belly looked like he was about to pitch his story when a woman with round cheeks squeezed red by a purple scarf demanded to know who I am and if I was there to make it look like Egyptians are selling their organs and that the government is incompetent and the hospital is mistreating them. Because, for my information, they haven’t been waiting here for long. In fact, they came four hours early on purpose. “There is a trend in the media trying to defame Egypt out there [in the West, presumably],” she told her friend and a passing doctor who tried to explain that I was not a spy, before turning back to me to inquire about the nationalities of my readers. 

“For the last time [it wasn't], who sent you?” She fired one question after the other ignoring the person who mumbled something about my not needing to make Egypt look bad, because it is bad, and denying her supporters the chance to echo her questions and me the chance to answer them. After a few forceful denials, the woman eventually settled down to being a glaring, rather than a shouting, cylinder of anger. 

Something that might facilitate matters for the Paranoid Cylindrical Lady and other patients, Safwat suggested over shisha earlier, would be resorting to the organs of beating heart cadavers (brain dead patients) without needing a written permission from said patient prior to their death, which the government will never agree to because they know that doctors would be declaring patients brain-dead left and right, he says.

There was a similar arrangement in the early nineties that involved death row inmates. They would be asked for permission to resuscitate them after their execution to remove their organs and it worked for a short while before al-Azhar pulled the plug on it, arguing that the inmates are in no condition to give consent. 

This, of course, is not the only bone al-Azhar had to pick with transplants. The most popular arguments they made, which still exist now even among doctors are: “Your organs are Allah’s gifts, they are not yours to give away,” “sanctity of the dead > saving lives” and “brain death is a lie doctors tell to kill patients they don’t like and save the ones they like and get rich.” However, these arguments are largely ignored after Al-Azhar officially approved it, much like the stray cats that run wild and feed on placentas in the maternity ward.

In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

Last week, the stodgy flagship of Egypt's state press, al-Ahram, published an op-ed by one of its regular contributors, Nader Fergany – a leftist intellectual who runs al-Mishkat Center, a think-tank, and is best known internationally as the editor of the original Arab Human Development Report. The op-ed contained a type of critique of then Minister of Defense Abdelfattah al-Sisi (this was a few days before he stepped and down and announced he would run for president) rarely seen in any part of the Egyptian media (at least those newspapers legally printing), never mind al-Ahram. It triggered speculation as to what it meant: how would the editors of al-Ahram allow this? Is it a feint of openness to distract from the fact that the presidential election is essentially being rigged – that we are returning to the late Mubarak-era model of opposition existing through the pen but never given a chance at the ballot box? Or a sign of genuine splits inside the establishment?

Our friends at Industry Arabic translated Fergany's piece below. Please give them consideration if you have any type of translation project, it helps them keep on helping us with this In Translation series. 

The Field Marshall… and the Direction of the Revolution

Dr. Nader Fergany, al-Ahram, 24 March 2014 

Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's logic regarding Egypt's economic crisis (which has been widely discussed in the media) seems like an echo of Hosni Mubarak's rhetoric, especially that of his later years. It is as if the ousted ruler has come back to address the people – or perhaps, this is simply the mentality of Egypt’s military leadership, even those in civilian attire. 

The first similarity between the two is their complaints about the increasing population, and the oft-repeated question: "How am I supposed to provide for you?" This points to a failing in his understanding of development, and that there are fundamental problems with his understanding of the relationship between the ruler and the people. 

First, there is the misperception of the people as consumers, or as empty mouths to be fed – and not as the nation's most important potential wealth. Building human capacity well and employing people effectively – particularly in knowledge production – are benchmarks of progress in this current stage of human progress. Population increase has always posed a problem for the leaders of states that are failing in development. These leaders suffer from a lack of knowledge, and furthermore, they lack the boldness and ingenuity necessary to create a national project that would effectively employ people so they can fulfill their potential. If countries like Japan, South Korea, China, or India had espoused a weak outlook like this, they would still be failing to develop, like Egypt is today.

Here, we might remember that during Mohamed Ali Pasha's reign, Japan sent a delegation to Egypt, to study our education system. That in 1950, Egypt was doing far better than China. That in 1960, development indicators in Egypt were better than those in South Korea. That the first plane to break the sound barrier over Cairo in January 1967 was a joint Egyptian-Indian production. The reader may indeed be surprised to learn that Egypt's contribution to the project at the time was the production of a jet engine – the most technically advanced component of the project. I don't want to reopen old wounds, asking what these countries have become in contrast to Egypt.

The second failing is that the ruler imagines himself to be the nation's cashier: standing atop a treasury he personally owns, spending its money on the people who overburden him with their demands. This reflects an inverted, paternalistic logic, wherein the man responsible for the nation spends money from his own pockets on the people. In reality, it is the people who pay the ruler with money from the treasury, which is owned and financed by the people. Furthermore, this is only after the people have chosen the leader, granting him a limited, fixed-term mandate to manage the country's affairs, under the supervision of the people and their representatives.

Al-Sisi also cautioned that two generations – i.e, nearly six decades – of sacrifice would be acceptable for the sake of the rest of the population. This rhetoric is reminiscent of Stalin, the cruelest tyrant despot in all of Russian history. But who has given el-Sisi a mandate to make decisions for Egypt and determine the country's future for the next 60 years? Even if elected president, his term would not last more than eight years, and so he shouldn't make decisions that determine the country's future in the long-term. That is, unless he intends to relive Mubarak's experience and that of his predecessor (both of whom came from military backgrounds) by removing the term limits set out in the constitution.

Al-Sisi called upon the weak and the poor to ‘tighten their belts’ and embrace austerity measures in order to help their country, warning that higher prices are around the corner. Earlier, he had promised to lift subsidies all at once, announcing in a prior speech that everyone receiving basic commodities should pay the full price. It was a direct reference to his intention to eliminate all subsidies on essential commodities, which Egypt's poor depend on. This, all while letting the wasteful government and wealthy Egyptians, including military leaders, strut about in blissful and sometimes ill-begotten luxury, never asking them to do something for their country.

Thus, al-Sisi's statements seem to indicate his opposition to social justice, even though it was foremost among the great popular revolution's demands. He has not asked anything of the rich, instead placing the burden entirely upon the downtrodden and vulnerable. Yet according to Forbes, some of the world’s richest are wealthy Egyptian families. Forbes revealed that just eight Egyptians possess 156 billion Egyptian pounds, 30 billion more than last year, when the economy was deteriorating and most Egyptians were harder hit than ever. Four-fifths of Egyptian families spend less than 2000 pounds per month.

Forbes published its annual list of the world's richest people, in which Egypt was represented more than any other Arab country. There were eight billionaires, seven of whom belong to just two families. One of them was a minister, combining his position and his personal funds, under the purview of the ministry. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia came in second, with seven billionaires on the list.

On the other hand, official statistics indicate that the poverty rate in Egypt has risen steadily, reaching 26.3% in the year 2012-3, 1.1% higher than in the previous year. Yet these estimates underestimate how widespread poverty is in Egypt. It is enough to know these figures are based on a poverty line of 327 pounds per person per month, an amount worth less and less every day. Who can live on ten pounds per day? If we used a reasonable poverty line like 2000 pounds per family, we would see that the vast majority of Egyptians would be counted among the poor.

It seems that Field Marshall al-Sisi only cares about pampering the rich and securing the loyalty of security service personnel, just like all the heads of state who preceded him before the popular revolution. After all, ruling Egypt has always depended on the dominance of the security services. The salaries of the military and the police have been raised four times in three years, making a policeman's salary is higher than a doctor's. This situation has pushed doctors in Egypt to begin the most recent wave of strikes, as several of their leaders have said. Among other suggestions, al-Sisi suggested that people walk instead of driving cars, a good idea to help solve the traffic crisis, the pollution crisis, and the fuel crisis, and would furthermore improve one’s health. So why doesn't al-Sisi start doing so himself, to start the year off right and set a good example for us all?

The above observations illustrate that el-Sisi, or whoever has designed his platform, does not possess a full vision for a real plan to revive Egypt's economy and achieve the goals of the popular revolution. Instead, he depends on the logic of “shocks,” taking advantage of the armed forces' potential. We must hope that these “shocks” are not a source of disappointment like the device [claimed] to diagnose and cure all chronic diseases in the world. While this device remains shrouded in mystery, it has been called everything from a scandalous fraud to overblown self-promotion.

Egyptians have suffered at the hands of deceptive illusions before, with the great Renaissance Project under the Islamist right, led by the errant Muslim Brotherhood. They have woken up to ever more misery and strife under the rule of the very regime the revolution arose to overthrow. Meanwhile these days, the drums ring out, and many dance to the raucous tunes of el-Sisi's presidential electoral campaign – before he has announced his platform, or even that he will run for office. The descriptions above outline the disappointment to come, which may unleash a third great wave of popular revolution.

At the very least, we can thank al-Sisi for not making things seem better than they really are.

Dennis Ross and the Saudis

Dennis Ross' call for Obama to "soothe the Saudis" is hardly surprising for this pre-eminent supporter of the status-quo in US Middle East policy since the 1990s, with of course the usual focus on Iran (i.e. against the nuclear talks). But the bit about Egypt is telling too: 

Egypt and Syria will be harder nuts to crack. But focusing on our common strategic objectives is a starting point: preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, ensuring that jihadis cannot gain footholds in Egypt or Syria, and stopping the genocide in Syria. Perhaps, on Egypt -- where the Saudis cannot afford to be Egypt's ATM forever -- the president could offer to lift the hold on key weapons in return for the Saudis using their influence to get Egypt to finalize an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

If you think what's most important to achieve in Egypt these days is an IMF agreement, you're not just cynical, you're delusional. Ross is as toxic on Saudi Arabia as he is on Israel.

Links 17-27 March 2014
LinksThe Editors
A Palestinian Bantustan won’t end the conflict

Daniel Levy, writing in Haaretz:

The logic of the current U.S.-led effort is apparently predicated on the assumption that by offering Israel unprecedented security deliverables within a two-state deal (under a package put together by U.S. General John Allen), together with front-loading recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that Netanyahu would then be unable to dodge a serious negotiation on territory. That logic, combined with the ever-present American unwillingness to deploy any leverage viz its Israeli ally. Predictably enough, the Israeli leadership has pocketed the American concessions, demanded that the Palestinians follow suit, and asked for more.

Read the whole thing for details and insights on the negotiations.

Egypt's Judges Strike Back: The New Yorker

My take on the sentencing of over 500 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to death in a single case tried in the southern town of Minya. (The same court is set to hear similar mass cases with over 900 defendants in the coming month). 

It was alarming, at the end of the largest mass sentencing in Egypt’s modern history, to see five hundred men held responsible, so expeditiously and so severely, for one murder, when there have been no convictions—in fact, there has not been a criminal investigation—related to the deaths of the twelve hundred civilians killed in August. More than eight hundred protesters died during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in 2011; not a single police officer has been convicted for their killings. (Mubarak himself was convicted only of failing to prevent their deaths, and has won the right to a retrial on that charge.) Although cases against senior officials of the Mubarak regime have meandered through postponements and appeals for years now, the verdict in Minya was handed down after two brief sessions. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations that monitored the proceedings, “Witnesses were not called, evidence was not presented in court, and the accused were unable to defend themselves.”


It is unlikely that the sentence will be carried out. A majority of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia; the defendants who were in custody, and their lawyers, were not even present when the verdict was delivered. If the conviction is not overturned on appeal, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a government-appointed cleric, must ratify the decision to put the prisoners to death. But his assent does not guarantee that the penalty will be imposed: during the nineteen-nineties, when the state waged a brutal campaign against Islamist militants, some were held for years in prison, with death sentences hanging over their heads, as a kind of leverage. The judgment in Minya may be a similar deadly warning, but it represents something even more significant: it is a sign of how deeply Egypt’s judiciary has been compromised by the government’s onslaught against the Brotherhood.

Read the rest here

Egypt's unprecedented instability by the numbers

Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson write for Carnegie:

Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi. The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks.

This is based on data from WikiThawra, reinterpreted below in graphic format:

They conclude:

Egypt’s rulers have already earned two dubious distinctions in less than a year: since 1952, no Egyptian regime has been more repressive, and no regime in more than a generation has confronted a more intense terrorism challenge.

In Translation: A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

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

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

A whiff of the Algerian Scenario

Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 16 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

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

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

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

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

Syria in Free Fall

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links 18 February - 16 March 2014

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

LinksThe Editors
Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch with the FT: Prince Turki al-Faisal

On America:

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

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

Everybody knows

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

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

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