The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The unsaid in second round negotiations

There’s been some buzz over the last day or so over a proposal for a national charter by secular, liberal, non-felool forces (aka most of the small parties in the Egyptian parliament) as well as several ideas over some kind of deal with the remaining presidential candidates on the shape of government. I keep seeing stipulations such as “no MB prime minister” or “vice-presidents from outside the MB” that makes it clear that these initiatives are largely targeted at candidate Mohammed Mursi. I barely see anything about negotiating with candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

I also — and I believe this is a big omission — see no details about restricting the powers of the military, getting rid of SCAF and retiring the generals who currently serve on it, overhauling the General Intelligence Services, or anything else that has been considered largely beyond the pale of political and media discourse since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. It kind of reinforces the feeling that a) most political activists seem to think the greatest threat is the Islamists, since many of the points are about preserving a secular state, b) there is not much courage out there (at least among the professional politicians) about raising the issue of the deep state, the military and the security services. Is this resignation, perception of what's realistic, of lack of imagination?

While some of Egypt’s Islamists are certainly worrisome, and the country has a past of terrorist violence coming from the extreme fringe of a wide-ranging Islamist spectrum, most of the damage done to the country in the last 30 years came from the regime, not the Islamists. Of course some may make the argument that the average Egyptian is more interested in decent governance and a return of economic growth and security than some of these other issues. It’s an arguable point, but besides the point if we ask the question, what does the political class want? Right now, 15 months after Mubarak was removed from power, I am still not sure I know the answer to that question. I hope the full statement from these “liberal, secular, non-felool” forces that is supposed to come out tomorrow clarifies things somewhat, but it also seems that some of these questions should have been addressed a while back.

No more social buttons

I've decided to remove the tweet, like, g+ and what not buttons from the blog. To make things load faster, and because I came across this. (I am highly impressionable.) One day I might disable comments on the shorter posts too, when the Arabist redesign comes along (maybe this summer), and replace them with email.

Complain if you want.

New Book: The Journey to Tahrir

A new collection of articles about Egypt that appeared in Middle East Report in the last decade or so is now out. It's edited by Chris Toensing and Jeannie Sowers, and includes a piece by me as well as other blog contributors, friends, and leading Egypt experts (Mona El-Ghobashy, Tim Mitchell, Joel Beinin, etc.). It's a great way to review late Mubarak Egypt and the January 2011 uprising, as well support the excellent MERIP.

Get your copy now.


⇛ The International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre

The International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre : The New Yorker

Yesterday, Annan was back in Damascus calling on “everyone with a gun” in Syria to give it a rest—as if all parties were equally to blame for the country’s agony. By what honest argument, after Houla, can one deny Syrians who feel the need to take up arms against the Assad regime? And who can take comfort from what the spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, tweeted today: “Positive & constructive meeting between Annan & President Assad this morning. Details discussed to push forward the plan & end violence”?

Sounds a lot like the Middle East peace process in the last 20 years, doesn't it?

Philip Gourevitch has more on Syria here, in which he writes:

To Syria hawks, like Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, the solution to the crisis is simple: an American- and NATO-led air war against Assad. But, at the NATO summit in Chicago last week, there was no support for the idea. Proponents of intervention like to point out that Obama’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, was the co-author of a piece in Foreign Affairs which said that the “victory” in Libya should serve as a model for future interventions to prevent atrocity and support positive political change. But none of the conditions that worked to NATO’s advantage in Libya—its geographical and political self-containment, Qaddafi’s abandonment, the efficacy of the opposition forces, the ease of executing the mission from the air—pertain in Syria. Instead, the situation has all the makings of just the sort of quagmire that NATO is impatient to get out of: the main item on the agenda in Chicago was to declare the plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 “irreversible.”
Syria's atamans

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti—Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long—dead atamans. Despite the under—strength, under—armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti—Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissident Yassin al—Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al—salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al—taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one—way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter—intelligence obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

So far, it has worked within Syria. The Syrian Army, despite its setbacks and fear of defeat, continues to hold or contest the main population centers. Defections are reportedly limited, and the regime’s forces are (usually) better—armed and possess numerical superiority over their opponents. And the Ba’athist repressive machine still operates on a national scale. The fact that Syria has not collapsed entirely is, according to Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is because overall, the opposition’s “efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge—inspired violence” — that is, most activists’ refusal to play ataman themselves along the lines Yassin al—Haj Saleh has documented.

And most importantly, no single unified force exists domestically to organize resistance to Assad. Some of the severely divided opposition groups that exist, inside or outside of Syria, armed and not, have so far failed to secure support for direct foreign military intervention as occurred in Libya last year despite their lobbying for it.

Unlike Assad, who aside from Iranian largesse (and Russo—Chinese diplomacy) depends mainly on foreign inaction to stay in power, the armed opposition grows desperate for direct foreign assistance from NATO and the GCC. In the West, for some observers it is only a matter of time until the Iranian elephant in the CENTCOM situation room is cited to massively increase assistance to anti—regime militias, with all parties seeking out their favored agents of influence. Tokyo threw money, advisors and arms at its favored Siberian proxies — so too will the US and Saudi Arabia.

A political solution cannot occur without a military one, but a military solution alone — one that does nothing to address the constant disruptions of ordinary life, at the very least — does not guarantee stability or security, even in the short term.

While armed Sunni companies kitted out with the latest MILAN anti—tank missiles and liaising with officers from, hypothetically, SOCOM or the Saudi National Guard, may be able to fight better against Assad, the temptation for such groups to increasingly rely on their foreign support to supplant the state’s forces as the powers—that—be will be great. People could be effectively trading one national dictatorship for local ones when such armed bands roll into town.

However, for many Syrians this is a purely academic consideration. Support for the armed opposition, or direct intervention from, say, the Turkish Army, would be more than acceptable. It could mean an end to the shelling, torture and sniping carried out by Assad’s forces in their towns. It could mean the possibility of averting another Houla massacre — the recent murder of almost 100 Syrian civilians, reportedly by Alawite shabiha, in villages near Homs — that are regularly occurring throughout the country. Worrying over the SNC and Muslim Brotherhood’s bickering, Kurdish separatism and the machinations of Iraqi opportunists in Al Anbar, comes far behind the urgency of not being shot at while crossing the street, or finding ways to get local life return to some semblance of normalcy: food deliveries, electricity access, restoration of sanitation services.

But if NATO and the GCC members really did desire to give Syrians the space in which to advance their own self—determination, their civilian leaders would have prioritized far sooner offering international aid to the Syrian populace where and when they can. Factionalism within the Syrian political opposition is exacerbated by wartime exigencies — opposition councils in Syrian cities must manage much with very little while groping towards a cohesive national resistance. With clearer non—military logistical and diplomatic support, presented as fait accomplis to Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Yang Jiechi — Assad’s two greatest international assets right now — as the last stop before providing military support to anti—regime militias, the “Friends of Syria” would had a stronger hand to push the Assad regime’s supporters to chose among desertion, defection or defiance. Now, the US is trying to push a “Yemeni” outcome as the UN Supervision Mission looks even more irrelevant. It could be possible to avert “ten years” of festering civil war by pushing that choice. By making it so that it is not only a choice between a President Bashar al Assad or a General Mustafa al—Sheikh. But as the Dubai School of Government’s Fadi Salem noted, “‘The world’ does not exist. Individual powers have conflicting interests on Syria. The humanitarian lens doesn’t apply.”

The Independent’s Musa Okwonga likewise noted this weekend, despite “widespread knowledge of atrocities,” “vested interests keep the slaughter going.” That is the primary risk of escalating Syria’s proxy battles along existing ethno—sectarian fault lines. And should foreign support dry up and the anti—regime militias lose support among Syrians, then initiative may return to the Assads. When you eliminate all the alternatives, you are left with only one victorious force. In Russia, that was the Bolsheviks. And it was the Bolsheviks who, in the years after the victory over the atamans, unleashed industrial—scale pogroms and extortions that far dwarfed the puppet atamans’ own depredations. That is the price of arming the opposition — and then casting them aside once they’ve served the purpose their armorers had in mind: foils to Tehran, Salafist agents of influence, “humanitarian” success story — all of which fall well short of the stated goal of effecting a political transition in Syria. The final stretch of the 20th century has seen so many stillborn policies birthed from such interventions in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Iraq, in Somalia. Conflicts left to fester when attention moved on, or when the world grew tired of dashed expectations for “peace.” Syria would not be an exception, so once again, it is necessary for commentators to ask proponents of these policies where the “responsibility to protect” begins and ends. As Jillian C. York has noted, many of those in the Syrian Army are hardly serving there by choice or out of any sense of loyalty to the regime — any political solution must bear this in mind.

While foreign military intervention remains an extremely destabilizing choice, yet more and more Syrians may be willing to accept it, to accept anything that ends with Assad’s departure from Syria, one way or another. As a result, there are fewer and fewer avenues leading away from an incipient “Atamanischina”, actions that avert “Lebanonization”. But looking down what avenues are left, how much of a price can Syrians be expected to pay waiting for the “right” policy to appear on the horizon, and how long can all this go on as those “vested interests” move to arm their favored parties in order to secure “influence” in the country?

Muhammad Morrissey

A particularly elections-and-music obsessed friend of the blog writes:

Strategy for the next three weeks: Every time you hear Egyptians debating the merits of Morsi or discussing his platform, imagine that they are talking about the grim dandy crooner Morrissey. Egypt will seem to be a trippy place! "But don't you think that Morrissey will be able to work more effectively with parliament?" "Morrissey is an Islamist technocrat, he can't lead the largest Arab nation!" "Morrissey is the only man who can fix the Egyptian economy!" And, the most basic question: "Who are you going to vote for, Ahmad Shafiq or the preening lead singer of The Smiths?

And he sends us a treat after the jump.

Why accept these elections?

As I write these lines, a large group of people angry with the decision of the Egyptian Presidential Election Commission's decision to dismiss allegations of (massive) fraud in favor of candidate Ahmed Shafiq have ransacked set fire to his Cairo HQ, and more are protesting in Tahrir Square and in Alexandria. Only a few thousands have come out so far, but there are calls for larger protests tomorrow and Friday.

I can't say I particularly blame them.

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn't care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. They never received much backing from political leaders, however (including Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi until now, since they have rejected the PEC's ruling), unless you count Mohamed ElBaradei's boycott of the election and rejection of the transition process (but he too only half-heartedly called on the generals to step down). The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn't want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don't know whether they'll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid.

Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi are mediocre candidates — the former is quite shallow and too much a product of the Brotherhood to be the transformative politician he claims to be, the latter stuck in the morass of Nasserism and has a dubious past of links to Saddam, Qadhafi, and a present position towards the Syrian civil war ("it's an international conspiracy," he says) that is classic fourth-rate Arab paranoid populism. But someone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you're going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF, and the (officially) winning candidates. It's just good politics.

It's time for politicking

"You'll be late for the revolution!" - Some social science of the presidential elections:

Morsy is now trying to mobilise the revolutionary vote for him, and some (like the novelist Alaa El Aswany) are going along with that. But everything that the Brotherhood has done in the past year and so indicates that as soon as they gain power, they will drop, marginalise, and - if necessary - recklessly repress their former allies.

However tempted by an anti-Shafiq, pro-Morsi, vote, secular / progressive / revolutionary voters are in the second round, how many will actually do it in light of their perception of the MB's behavior in the last year? This is what the Brotherhood lost by some of its behavior over the last year, notably over the constitutional assembly and its refusal to seriously condemn crackdown on protestors: its claim to the leadership of the opposition. This is why Morsi's score, in most interpretations of the results, is seen as being against both the old regime and the revolutionaries: the Brotherhood is perceived as forming its own distinct group. Indeed, the prospect of a restoration of the old regime through Shafiq is not necessarily as terrifying to some to an unstable military-Brotherhood alliance like Sudan in the late 1980s (see how that ended?)

It is a tough dilemma: one might be tempted to block Shafiq by voting Morsi, but then think that Morsi will just turn around and negotiate with the army without any input from the "revolutionary" forces. I spoke about this to MB leader Khairat al-Shater the morning after the election; he seemed to think there was no need to bring in other candidates as VPs or promise them cabinet positions (or some policy impact) because even if their voters did not choose Morsi as their first choice, there is a reservoir of goodwill towards the MB among them.

But that's not how politics should work: candidates' endorsements should be in exchange of clear gains, most notably an actual position of influence in government (and in that case VP may not be the job to go for). Discussion of this in the Egyptian media makes it seems like it's some kind of dirty deal, but that's BS: the unlucky candidates that represent about 50% of the first round vote need to get something for their support. 

Update: While I think Hamdeen Sabahi should focus on his appeal for a recount and try to invalidate some of the Shafiq votes for now, his statement that he refuses any position under Morsi is non-sensical. The question should be what does he get from them — both personally and hopefully for what he thinks his voters represent. 

Random thoughts on early Egypt voting results

A few scattershot observations on Egypt's election results:

First -- voting behavior in transitional countries, when people's sense of political identity is still inchoate, is totally all over the place. What happened in "Islamist stronghold" Alexandria? Who are the Salafis For Sabahi?

Sabahi's surge notwithstanding, the run-off as of mid-afternoon still looks like it will be between the Brothers' Mohammed Mursi and ex-Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. If Hamdeen repeats his Alex performance in Cairo this may change.

[Update: It's Mursi vs. Shafiq. Sabahi did do very well in Greater Cairo, taking first place there as well. But it's not good enough to offset Shafiq in Delta provinces like Sharqiya and Menufiya.]

However, regardless of who pulls ahead, the margins for second place look like they're going to be around one or two percentage points -- meaning that the top two names indicate more about the randomness injected into the race by the pre-vote disqualifications than they really say about voter preferences. If Omar Suleiman were still in the race, for example, Shafiq and he might be relegated to vote-splitting also-rans. If Abu Ismail were still around, maybe Mursi would be a distant third -- or, alternately, maybe Abul Futuh or even Sabahi would have slipped down a few notches.

Pre-vote polls had suggested that the Brothers had lost considerable support since their parliamentary triumph last year. For the past several weeks I've talked to a lot of ex-FJP supporters, who voted for Brothers for parliament because they thought the group really cared about the masses or "feared God" and would not be corrupt. But they have decided since then that the Brothers are politicians like everyone else. I had thought that the leitmotif of this election might be Brotherhood voters going for Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (as a guy who speaks his mind) or for Amr Moussa (as a man with experience).

Actually, it looks like the leitmotif might be voters who went FJP for parliament but then didn't turn out at all on Wednesday and Thursday. People lost confidence in the Brothers. But the Brothers' excellent organization means that they still managed to produce enough pluralities where it counts.

[Based on final results, I see there was a big metropolis bias in my perception. Morsi's performance in Cairo was almost as bad as his performance in Alex. But he did very well in Upper Egypt.]

Some quick number crunching from's parliamentary summary and the excellent spreadsheet by @iyad_elbaghdadi and @GalalAmrG mirrored here by Moftasa. Math and errors are my own.

 Alexandria :

  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP: 754,000.
  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP plus Nour: 1,430,000
  • Presidential ballots for Morsi: 269,000
  • Parliamentary turnout:: 2.16 mn
  • Presidential turnout: 1.76 mn


  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP: 628,000.
  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP plus Nour: 1,181,000
  • Presidential ballots for Morsi: 245,000
  • Parliamentary turnout:: 1.88 mn
  • Presidential turnout: 1.32 mn


  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP: 606k
  • Parliamentary ballots for FJP plus Nur: 971k
  • Presidential ballots for Morsi: 407k
  • Parliamentary turnout: 1.463 million
  • Presidential turnout: 944k

The upshot is that this result -- the two most polarizing candidates winning -- does not reflect any particular polarization in Egypt over religion. There is a huge middle ground who are neither particularly attracted to nor put off by Islamists. They are willing to consider a vote for an Islamist if otherwise enthused by them, or for another candidate (or not vote at all) if they don't find an Islamist they like.

But, if the vote does come down to Shafiq vs Morsi, what happens next in Egyptian politics probably will be polarizing.

A couple of other random questions -- does Shafiq's apparently strong showing in Sharqiya and other rural provinces mean a revival of the old NDP patronage net? It did actually mobilize reasonable numbers of voters in Mubarak-era parliamentary elections, but seems to have been a bit shell-shocked from the 2011 uprising. Has it got back on its feet to support Shafiq?

Also, will anyone debate again? Viewers may have thought that the free-flowing trading of accusations between Moussa and Abul Futuh was "unpresidential," preferring someone lofty. Or, as both candidates were pitching to the center, maybe they got cornered into taking one stance too many.

The early results are in... and it's not good

(This was written earlier this morning, to be updated).

With about half of the polling stations reported, it looks like Egypt's presidential elections will go to a second round between Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood and former general Ahmed Shafiq. This is the most polarizing outcome possible, and is particularly unfortunate as the other candidates are not trailing too far from these two poll leaders — Aboul Fotouh and Sabbahi in particular amount together for about 40% of the vote, while Mursi is unlikely to get much higher than 30%. More about this later — I have to run off to a meeting but wanted to signal some good sources of info and raw data:

ArcGIS - EgyptVote2012 - a GIS color mapping of Mursi, Shafiq and Aboul Fotouh votes (click the middle icon on the sidebar for details and to cycle through the candidates).

#EgyPresElex - Google Docs - Iyad al-Baghdadi's amazing effort to note the results as they come in, per governorate.

And finally pics from Jonathan Rachad from the election itself:

Links 21-25 May 2012

Egypt presidential elections heavy...

My belated take on Egypt's elections

I have been incredibly busy in the last month, and then traveling and taking a break over the last week away from all the electoral folly, hence this blog has provided scant coverage of Egypt’s presidential election thus far. I hope to correct this in the next few days — and in any case there’s plenty of commentary elsewhere — and provide some opinion about the way this election might go.

But first, a few words about the big picture — what this election means and how to situate it in the post-Mubarak era. At a very simple level, this election is the beginning of the end of the transition period (if defined as return to civilian government). Its outcome will be a new president for Egypt, and — apart from the writing of a new constitution — the bizarre interregnum launched by the referendum on constitutional amendments that took place in March 2011, a little over a month after Mubarak stepped down. The electoral process is attracting a lot of media frenzy inside and outside Egypt, and a not inconsiderable (if often mixed) level of enthusiasm among Egyptians, since it is the first election in which the outcome is not obvious to all. No doubt turnout will be high, and hopefully the voting process itself not too flawed since one would think the military regime now in charge can’t afford to blatantly rig the poll. But, globally, we’ll see Egyptians excited about having a real choice before them rather than an obvious outcome, and a real sense of uncertainty about who might win.

That’s pretty much the only positive thing I have to say about the presidential elections, because everything else appears to have been rigged to put an end to a transformation of Egyptian politics that was the hope of the January 25 revolution. Like the parliamentary elections — readers will remember I thought last November they should be postponed because of the desultory preparation for them, among other things — these presidential elections are taking place amidst a process whose legitimacy is already undermined. Most significantly, Article 28 of the constitutional declaration currently in place makes it impossible to appeal the decisions of the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) running the poll. This practice — very unusual by global standards of free and fair electoral process — has already resulted in the elected parliamentary majority passing a law to exclude candidates tied to the former regime by law only to be overuled by the PEC. The “political exclusion law” would have applied to Ahmed Shafiq, who has experienced a late surge and now leads in many polls, the decision is important. Later too the PEC could make controversial decisions, notably about complaints of vote-rigging or other irregularities.

Then there is the political context. Parliament is being threatened with dissolution by a court ruling expected on June 6, which could have the electoral law used in the parliamentary elections declared unconstitutional. MPs rushed last week to prepare a law that would change the Supreme Constitutional Court’s regulations to make its opinions only binding on parliament with parliament’s approval, a move which provoked an outcry from judges (including the ones on the PEC), NGOs and SCAF. The SCAF is floating an addendum to the Constitutional Declaration currently in place, on the pretext that it needs to further define the powers of the president, although arguably its current powers should go to the president until a new constitution is written. It appears to be trying to insert the military as a fourth power with certain privileges in the system of government, which would be a bad precedent to set even if some informal privileges are expected to be kept. Most worryingly, clearly the SCAF sees its own existence as going beyond the transitional period, with its authority potentially clashing with that of the president. It has also been reported in the press that Tantawi expects to still be the head of the SCAF / Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces , although the new president should have the prerogative of nominating a new defense minister and become the new Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

In other words, Egypt may have a new president by the end of June but there will be plenty of confusion about what powers he has, and who’s really in charge.

Charting the candidates' progress according to the al-Ahram poll, considered to be the most reliable

We talk about all these problems and the guessing game of who might make it to the second round in our latest podcast, but let me expand on some things here. As I see it, the likely outcomes are all a runoff (although a couple of weeks ago I might have said there is a small chance of Moussa getting over 50% in the first round). The above chart shows the latest polling available. At this point it's worth stepping back and consider that electoral choices are dependent on what's available. Here's a chart I made of where the various candidates stand on two axes: Islamist-secularist and establishment-revolutionary (click for larger version).

In the center of that (unscientific, guesstimated) chart you have a big hole where I would place Mohamed ElBaradei. Basically, if he had been there, he would have taken votes away from Aboul Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi's alleged late surge would have probably not happened. I think ElBaradei is largely correct in his critique of the electoral environment and legally nonsense that has characterized the transition, but one does wonder whether his decision not to run because of that critique was the right one. There clearly appears to be a desire for a non-felool, non-Islamist but Islamist-friendly, middle-of-the-road, elite but not establishment, candidate. 

Now to what might happen next. At the end of last week, according to the polls, the likely runoffs would have been:

  • Moussa v. Morsi (Moussa probably favored to win)
  • Moussa v. Shafik (Moussa wins big)
  • Shafik v. Morsi (Morsi favored but who knows, potential rigging and large-scale boycott)

Less likely are:

  • Morsi v. Aboul Fotouh (Aboul Fotouh wins in a landslide)
  • Moussa v. Aboul Fotouh (Aboul Fotouh wins, unless MB does unthinkable and strikes a deal with Moussa as some speculate)

But to be honest it’s quite hard to tell. As I write this post on the second day of voting, while some exit polls speak of a Morsi surge, perhaps a more surprising phenomenon is that neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi is reportedly doing well, at least in the greater Cairo area. I suppose that’s the result of the hole left by Mohamed ElBaradei’s absence from the poll — Sabahi is the only non-Islamist non-felool candidate with decent name recognition left. I’m skeptical he’ll make it to the runoff, though, so his big impact is to take votes away from Aboul Fotouh and making the race about felool (Shafik), felool lite (Moussa), and MB (Morsi). Which won’t be to the liking of many revolutionary types: in the case of a Moussa-Shafik runoff or a Shafik-Morsi runoff (the nightmare scenario) you can expect more unrest and a delegitimization of the election.

Another interesting thing is that, according to the press, the candidates who are carrying out the most campaign violations (including vote-buying) are Morsi and Shafik, while both these and Aboul Fotouh have been cited by the Presidential Election Commission as having violating the electoral silence by holding press conferences (which means that, if one of them is elected, Egypt’s new president could theoretically face prison time!) The Morsi and Shafik supporters in particular seem to be engaged in vote-buying, and fights have erupted between them. That would hint at the intensity of the military vs. brotherhood standoff, and perhaps what we can expect if it ends up being those two in the second round.

Many observers reported lower than expected turnouts yesterday, which is odd as if anything there aren’t enough polling stations for the eligible voters. Today appears to have gone up a lot, and in any case the first day of voting was said to have shown a 25–35% turnout, which might lead us to expect a 50–70% final turnout for the first round. The government appears keen to ensure a high turnout, and even decided at the last minute to give civil servants the day off. Whatever disappointment prevails about these elections right now, I think it’s unlikely we’ll see a turnout substantially lower than 50%, though.

The vote-count starts tonight, probably around 10pm, and may last a long time as things are likely to be contested and closely scrutinized. It may take days for results to come out, although we’re likely to have leaks and some indications of the general direction. There’s going to be tensions in the next few days, and then more tension in the next few weeks before it’s all over. But I do get the feeling that Morsi is poised to dominate in the first round only to lose in most situations in the second. We’ll find out soon enough if I’m right.

In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on SCAF

For a variety of reasons, I was unable to put up a translated article about the early May clashes in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, that appeared earlier this month. The clashes may have receded into memory with the excitement of the presidential elections, but they’re still relevant — if only because more clashes might be expected if the results (as the polls predict) exclude revolutionary candidates or are seen to be rigged.

For a reminder of what happened in Abbasiya, check out this Storify stream compiled by Arabist contributor Paul Mutter, which he put up on FPIF. The column we’re featuring today deals not so much with the clashes themselves as the reaction from the SCAF, and their repeated lack of accountability and scape-goating in such incidents. It raises important questions about whether the next president will even to hold anyone accountable, since the army appears to have successfully buried the investigations with their cryptic talk of “third elements” and so on. In my mind, this is one illustration of why a presidential election should not have been held under military rule, as their record is far too flawed.

The column below was written by Fahmi Howeidy, who has had an interesting turn lately. A conservative writer often seen as close to the Muslim Brothers but also close to the Egyptian establishment, he has voiced doubts about the wisdom of the Brotherhood’s presidential run and is also increasingly critical of the SCAF. Since he is considered to be the most-read columnist in Egypt, his voice counts and speaks of the unease with the SCAF beyond revolutionary circles — and, if you read between the lines, the effort to distinguish between the military and the SCAF.

As always, this article provided by the translation gnomes at Industry Arabic, who do sterling work when it comes to putting out clear copy of your Arabic articles, reports, documentation, and much more into whatever language you want and vice-versa. Professional, bespoke translation with a fast turn-around — what more could you want?

They warned us, but did not understand us

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 5 May 2012

It is not enough for the Military Council’s spokesmen to say that the army is innocent of the Abbasia massacre, and it is not appropriate for one of the Council’s members to say that the protestors rejected an offer from the authorities to protect them. The former statement could be made by anyone, with the exception of those who run the country, while the latter should not be made by any state official.

There is nothing new in the statements that seek to exculpate the army – and often the police – from the charge of suppressing protestors and opening fire on them. We have heard this talk several times before. Not only did some official spokesmen not wash their hands of the incident, but they went so far as to deny that there were snipers in the first place, even though hundreds of thousands of people saw them standing on the tops of buildings shooting at them.

These repeat occurrences, however, cause the argument to lose its credibility. It may be possible to accept the official version once, and doubt what everyone witnessed and experienced, but it is nearly impossible to believe these statements every time. The country is supposed to have investigative agencies and bodies whose duty is not to exonerate people of crimes, but rather to lay their hands on the elements responsible and the people pulling the strings in order to hold them to account and prevent a reoccurrence of such incidents. In this case, the choice is either to follow the thread of the crime to reveal those who planned and executed it, or to admit their failure to do so, and step aside to clear the way for those who are more up to the task. But when neither of these two things takes place, and society is expected to be convinced by their statements, and to be satisfied with the continual attribution to hidden “unknown elements” every time, that is what is hard to accept. Furthermore, this leaves the door wide open to suspicion, which could lead some people to believe that there are elements concealing and protecting the perpetrators of these crimes, whether because the official bodies are happy with what these unknown actors are doing, or because they are collaborating with them, if not directing them outright.

When Military Council officials are intent on exonerating the army every time, and content themselves with that, they are acting like the guilty person with a “head wound” they want to hide. It is noteworthy that people did not accuse the army in the first place, but were just wondering who perpetrated, planned and had in interest in suppressing and killing protestors. They draw a fine distinction between the Military Council that is governing the country — and it is their right to criticize its governance and policies — and the army, which continues to enjoy the trust and respect of the people. They also distinguish between the combat army that defends and secures the country, and some of its arms that have begun to carry out domestic roles. Condemning these arms – the military police, for example – does not have to go along with condemnation of the army, since its place in the transition period almost corresponds to the role played by the apparatus of the Interior Ministry that citizens have constantly been clashing with.

We know that the “thugs” were the Interior Ministry’s weapon in confronting people demonstrating against Mubarak and his regime, and that link indicates that talk about their connection to the authorities is neither an insult nor a slander. When newspapers publish statements by protestors talking about the weapons and gas canisters in the possession of these thugs, and the meals sent to them by some official guest houses, our suspicions mount that the authorities are not far from the issue.

We want to believe that the Military Council has no connection to the massacre that took place in Abbasia Square, but the statements by members of the Council do not help us with that. Their words are trying to convince us that they are watching the country, not responsible for running it. It is a statement we got from one of them, who said that the demonstrators refused an offer by the authorities to protect them, as if protecting citizens was not the state’s duty, but a choice. This means that there is confusion between the role of the official and that of the average citizen, or between the official’s role and that of the foreign tourist, who has no sense of obligation toward the society he visits.

In summary, the previously mentioned statements do not encourage us to have faith in the current investigations into the Abbasia massacre. Would that the People’s Assembly would form a committee from its members to investigate the “thugs” and figure out who is doing this, like it did before for the massacre of al-Ahly fans in Port Said.

My final remark on the press conference in which representatives of the Military Council spoke is that it was a form of self-defense and an attempt to deny the existence of “thugs” or rule them out. Then, they aimed to warn us and frighten us out of concern for our safety, and to make us understand, or offer us condolences for what happened in Abbasia.

Because we promised a time of fear, I’m claiming that what they said showed that they did not understand us, and that their remarks were an example of the wrong words at the wrong time.

Googling Egypt's candidates

Google's Egypt elections doodle

Friend-of-the-blog Gabriel Koehler-Derrick does some really neat stuff with Google to track prominent personalities in religious currents, politics, and society in the Middle East. In this commentary he sent us, Gabriel looks at Google as an alternative indication of the popularity (or interest in) the various candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections. A PDF version of this article, which includes graphs that are tricky to transpose to the web, is here (275kb).

With the approach of Egypt’s presidential elections on Wednesday, a variety of polls have been published trying to anticipate the outright winner, or at least identify which two candidates are capable of winning enough votes to force a runoff election.  Given the challenges associated with polling in Egypt, the historic nature of the election, and a confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically shaken up the field of contestants, it is not surprising that the outcome remains unclear.  While far from perfect, data from internet search trends suggest a far less ambiguous outcome: Amr Moussa is comfortably in the lead and Muhammad Morsi is the candidate most likely to face him should there be a runoff. 

Anyone familiar with the telecommunications industry in Egypt might question the utility of using data derived from internet searches to better understand political developments.  While internet penetration rates have grown impressively, according to a recent survey conducted by A.C. Nielsen for Google’s MENA office, only about 39% of Egyptians have “regular access” (defined in the survey as logging in once a month) to the internet.  The data from the A.C. Nielsen survey also show that Egypt’s community of internet users are disproportionately male, and younger than average, with the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts being particularly well represented.  To the best of my knowledge, credible statistics about the income and education level of Egypt’s internet users are not publically available, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that typical internet users are skewed towards urban areas, and better educated and significantly wealthier than national averages. Because of these challenges, data derived from internet searches cannot be considered statistically representative of the Egyptian population.  

Despite these drawbacks, internet search data enjoys a number of advantages for examining the presidential race.  First, the number of data points for any time period is huge.  A back of the envelope calculation, based on the Nielsen survey and some basic population data from the UN, suggests that in Egypt, Google gets almost 26 million searches a day. While only a tiny fraction of these searches are politically related, nine out of the “top 10 rising people” in Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist survey of Egypt’s search trends were connected to the revolution or politics more broadly, indicating just how influential political developments in 2011 were  on search trends in Egypt. By way of comparison, none of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Turkey has anything to do with politics, and only one of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Canada , former leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) Jack Layton.  Data from Google AdWords, provides an updated 30-day average of the number of searches for a given term, shows some impressive averages for each of the top presidential contenders.  This is crucial because it provides a sense of scale for the Insights for Search data cited below, which uses normalized results not raw numbers to plot the trend lines for the various candidates.

By comparison, the soccer team “al-Ahly” is averaging 2,740,000 searches and pop-star Tamer Ashour 201,000 per month. Clearly, Google search in Egypt is not in any danger of being overtaken by politicians.  Nonetheless, these 30 day averages are significantly higher than historical trends for all but the most prominent individual political figures throughout 2011.    


In addition to providing a sense for how much attention the individual candidates are generating, Google’s Insights for Search tool allows us to see how the candidates stack up against one another over time.  Here the online data confirms the results of most polling: Amr Moussa is the candidate to beat.

Well ahead of the other major contenders the sharp spike in searches for Moussa in the graph shows that Egyptians were eager to learn more about his candidacy even prior to the debate and the highest number of searches amongst all the top candidates between February 1st and May 18th came in a surge of searches for Moussa on May 11th, the day of the debate itself.   The fact that the trend line for Abu al-Fatouh remained flat during the same period gives credence to those who interpreted his performance as somewhat lackluster.  At the very least, we can see from the search data that Moussa appears to be generated far more attention online than his debating rival both prior to the debate as well as after.   

A comparison of the geographic data associated with the trend lines for each candidate suggests just how far ahead of the other candidates Moussa is: searches for Sabahi, Shafiq, and Abu al-Fotouh are constrained almost exclusively to the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.  Morsi does only slightly better, generating significant levels of searches in the governorate of al-Sharqiya. While this is not in and of itself surprising, the search trends for the most influential and enduring figures during the revolution (for example Khalid Sa’id, Muhammad al-Baradei, Mona al-Shazly and Wael Ghonim) generated interest outside of the population centers of Cairo and Alexandria.  While it would be a mistake to presume that only those committed to Moussa are interested in information about his campaign, in fact many of those conducting Google searches for Moussa’s name may be undecided voters—but absent some indication that millions of Egyptians have already made up their minds and aren’t interested in further details about the candidates, it should probably be a source of worry for Abu al-Fatouh and the other candidates hoping to challenge Moussa that their campaigns are generating so few searches across the rest of the country.  If anecdotal reporting is correct, this is truly an impressive achievement for the Moussa campaign, because Abu al-Fotouh, and to a lesser degree Muhammad Morsi,  are the candidates you would anticipate young, wired, middle class Egyptians to search for online.  

Of course, simply ‘googling’ a candidate is hardly an endorsement.  But given the confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically impacted the field of candidates, one of the largest challenges facing each of the contenders is name recognition.  For example, although they are technically candidates, search data suggests that Abdullah al-Ashal, Hossam Khayr Allah, Muammad Fawzi al-Aysa, Mahmoud Hossam al-Din Galal, and Abu `Ez al-Hariri, are all virtually unknown outside of the capital.

So which of the candidates might challenge Amr Moussa? Muhammad Morsi, who seems to be separating from the pack, looks to be the one candidate who could challenge Moussa in a runoff, if there is no outright winner.  Nonetheless, Morsi faces a different problem from the other candidates.  As the only contender affiliated with an actual political party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), search data indicates that the FJP enjoys far more name recognition than Morsi himself.  This means that Morsi will have to work to distinguish himself from the FJP and the Brotherhood more broadly.  This presumably would have been much less difficult for a better known figure, like Khayrat al-Shatir, who generated enormous attention when he was nominated as the FJP’s candidate for the presidency before being barred in a controversial legal decision.  Likewise, the prominent Salafi candidate Hazem Abu Ismail provides another interesting example of what might have been.  Like al-Shater, his candidacy generated enormous amounts of attention online.  It is interesting to note that from February until mid-May 2012 both al-Shater and Abu Ismail generated higher search totals than Moussa and both barred candidates enjoyed a far more impressive geographic reach than any of the remaining candidates.

A look at the search trends for the candidates in the Republican primaries from May 2011 to April 2012, in which Ron Paul generated twice as many total searches as the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, suggest some of the reasons why it would be unwise to ascribe “predictive” powers to internet search data. Still, after a year of examining search data in Egypt, I have no doubt that search trends in Egypt accurately reflect attentiveness online, which in turn provides a unique window on the events and actors animating Egyptian society and political life.  While, as the Ron Paul example demonstrates in the American case, discrepancies between online and offline behavior exist, barring some totally unforseen event (far from impossible given the series of twists and turns in Egyptian politics since late February) Amr Moussa will almost certainly be the candidate to beat on Wednesday. 

If you are interested in tracking search trends for the major candidates in the days leading up to the election, sign into Google and click this link.

Gabriel Koehler-Derrick is an Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center and an Instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Mr. Koehler-Derrick holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.

Dispatch: Algeria's "nif"

Since there was a lot of interest in Abu Ray's recent piece on Algeria, I have asked friend-of-the-blog Geoff Porter if I could reproduce an email he sent me just before the parliamentary elections there. Geoff's take is quite unique, and while I'm not sure what to make of it (having not been to Algeria) I thought it was worth sharing. Let us know what you think of it.

Parliamentary elections on 10 May have provided commentators with another occasion to discuss why Algeria did not have an “Arab Spring” like so many other countries in the Arabic-speaking world and to prognosticate about why Algerian voter participation rates are likely to be so low. Not one to pass up an opportunity to share my own views, below is my take on what is at play in Algeria.

One well-worn explanation for Algeria’s lack of an Arab Spring is because the horrific bloodshed that followed Algeria’s first foray into multi-party politics in the 1990s left Algerians cagey and afraid. They watched jealously over the course of 2011 as their neighbors stood up to and toppled authoritarian regimes, but were too cowed by memory to do the same. And now presented with legislative elections and the opportunity to voice their political views post-Arab Spring, Algerians have become too apathetic to go to the polls to try to bring about political change. Voter participation is will be low, the argument goes, because Algerians think that they are impotent in the face of the deep state’s power.

A portrait of a defeated and timid population emerges from this interpretation. But anyone who has spent time in Algeria would quickly attest to Algerians’ pride and defiance. So how to explain the difference between the two profiles? One explanation is that the arguments about why Algeria did not have an Arab Spring and why Algerians are unlikely to vote are wrong.

To understand why they miss their target, it helps to go back to Algeria’s revolution against French rule in the 1950s and the early years of independence in the 1960s. The revolution was complicated, but one thing that it was not was an attempt to restore some form of government that had existed prior to France’s colonial conquest in 1830. There was no earlier form of government to restore. France ruled Algeria for 132 years and prior to that it had been ruled loosely by the Ottoman Empire. When Algeria won independence from France, the goal was to establish a republic, very much modeled along French lines only without the French. What emerged was an “Algerianized” version of the French republic, committed to the ideals of liberte¸egalite, et fraternite, and a very deep sense of citoyenneté, citizenship.

Of these, equality and citizenship are most deeply rooted. Equality manifests itself daily in Algerian life and Algerians are constantly on guard against violations of their equal status. In daily interactions, equality takes the form of respect – one does not look down upon or denigrate another. Unlike Morocco or Tunisia, there are no shoeshine boys in Algeria. No Algerian will kneel at another’s feet and clean grime off his shoes.

Algerians often talk of “le nif,” referring to pride and an unswerving adherence to principle. “Le nif” is something Algerians simultaneously boast about and somewhat disingenuously acknowledge as a shortcoming, like answering the job interview question about one’s greatest weakness by saying that one is “too truthful.”  Principles like honor and respect mean something in Algeria, but rigid commitment to them can also be a hindrance in day to day life, let alone in politics or business which are by nature fluid and malleable.  Despite its intangibility, “le nif” is real and permeates Algerian life.

The other enduring legacy of the war of independence is a strong sense of citizenship. Beyond the personal level of “le nif”, Algerians have a strong commitment to the state and its institutions. There may not be a commitment to the ways in which these institutions have evolved and how they function today, and in fact there is definitively not, but there is a commitment to the ideas and rationale that underpin them. On an institutional level, any Algerian can walk into a government office, declare that he or she is a citizen (“ana watani/ya”) and demand to be heard or seen. This may take time, sometimes an enormous amount of time, but the right to be there as a citizen is never in question. There is the belief shared by the citizen and the government functionary that the two are bound by a reciprocal bond. While they may diverge on how that bond should be acted upon and how quickly, the belief that there is indeed a bond is not challenged.

What do equality, “le nif” and citizenship mean in relation to the Arab Spring? Yes, Algerians are wary of abrupt political change, but as anyone can attest, Algerians do not shy from confrontation. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria not because Algerians were afraid. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria because Algerians did not want it. Yes, they protested against the state, as they have every week and every month for the last decade, and eventually the state acquiesced to enough of their demands. Yes, Algerians bemoan “le hogra” – the dismissive attitude of state officials to their complaints and petitions – but they see themselves as prideful citizens of the state and the messy, unruly protests in Tunisia and Egypt are unbecoming of them. It is impossible to imagine the scene from December 2011 in Cairo when supporters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urinated from the rooftops on to protestors below being reenacted in Algiers.

But what of the supposed apathy that will keep Algerians away from the polls? Yes, Algerians are unlikely to vote in large numbers because they do not believe that the parliament has enough power to implement new policies that will dramatically improve their lives. And yes, they likely feel that the political parties from whom they can choose have been coopted by the deep state. But instead of apathy, there is something more forceful at work. Many Algerians do not want to compromise their principles by participating in a process that they think unworthy. Their participation, the participation of the republic’s citizenry, would validate a process that is beneath them. It is not resignation that keeps Algerians out of the polls, but pride and principle.

Traveling from Algiers to Tunis to Tripoli last month highlighted Algeria’s distinct stance. While the air in Tunis was humming with excitement about the Jasmine Revolution, and Tripoli was a froth of euphoria and anxiety after the overthrow of Col. Muammar Qadhafi, Algiers was indignant and defiant. Algerians seemed to have a longer view of history, waiting for the Tunisian and Libyan Springs to turn inevitably to unwelcome winter, fraught with chaos and instability, and bereft of Algeria’s unique pride and sense of citizenship.  The refrain in Algerian pop songs – tahya Djazair (“live up Algeria”) – is not about institutions or about the state, but about the people, about Algerians. “Live up Algeria” is an expression of the potential power of “le nif,” quite apart from an Algerian Spring or parliamentary elections.