The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"
Curfew Chronicles

A passionate and beautifully written defense of the choice to live in Cairo (addressed to all the worried relatives and acquaintances who want the author to "come on home" now.)

I translate this paragraph below:

En dépit des difficultés connues de la capitale égyptienne (poussière, pollution, chaleur, harcèlement, instabilité politique), vivre au Caire n'est pas une lubie. Surtout si ce choix s'inscrit dans la durée. Les étés au Caire sont chauds mais ses hivers sont doux comme les printemps dans le sud de la France. Ses journées sont bruyantes et peuplées, mais ses nuits sont de loin les plus fabuleuses de la région. Paris se couche à 2 heures les soirs de week-end quand Le Caire veille jusqu'à l'aube tous les soirs, indifférente aux débuts, aux milieux et aux fins de semaine. Là où Paris se tasse dans des 2 pièces de 25 mètres carré, Le Caire se repait d'espace, d'appartements aux plafonds hauts, aux terrasses ensoleillées. Quand on a la chance d'y gagner sa vie en euros, on n'a pas à penser à l'argent au Caire, on n'est pas obligé de compter pour dépenser, et en plus, on se retrouve avec du temps sur les bras, pour écrire, lire, nager, repeindre le salon. Et puis il y a des gens au Caire, des gens que précisément on ne risque de croiser ni à Paris ni à New York, des gens qui ont à la fois quelque chose en plus et une case en moins, des gens qui ne se sentent à leur place nulle part, qui n'ont ni de certitude, ni d'aptitude au confort, ni peur d'être d'éternels débutants.

Despite the well-known difficulties of the Egyptian capital (dust, pollution, heat, harassment, political instability), living in Cairo isn't a whim. Especially if it's a long-term choice. Summers in Cairo are hot but winters are as mild as springs in the south of France. Its days are noisy and crowded, but its nights are by far the most fabulous in the region. Paris goes to bed at 2am on weekends while Cairo stays up till dawn every night, at the beginning, middle and end of the week. While Paris stuffs itself into two 25-square-meter rooms, Cairo revels in space, in high-ceilinged apartments with sunny terraces. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in euros, you don't need to worry about money in Cairo, and what's more you find yourself with time on your hands, to write, read, swim, repaint the living-room. And then there are people in Cairo, precisely the kind of people who you won't come across in Paris or New York, people who have a little something extra and a little something off, people who don't feel at home anywhere, who have no certainties, no aptitude for comfort, no fear of being eternal beginners. 

 

The question regarding Syria

A recent statement on the situation in Syria from the International Crisis Group:

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath.  Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 

 

AsidesUrsula Lindseysyria, ICG
In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

In the Washington Post, Mokhtar Awad puts the Rabaa sit-in and massacre in context, telling the story of Nasser City, the neighborhood where it took place. In Awad's telling it is one of Cairo's many unsuccessful attempts to "start over" with a new planned city in the desert, and it epitomizes both the aspirations of the military and Islamist middle-class and the shortcomings of the state. 

Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
[...] 

Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

 

The people, the church and the state | Mada Masr

Another good account of the sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt, and their interplay with national politics. 

It all started when a group of Christians in the village built a speed bump near their home to decrease car accidents. When a Muslim man hit it, not knowing it was there, he started swearing at them and insulting their mothers and fathers. On August 10, a Muslim man known to be radical came in person to threaten the village church. The following day, as Christians went to Sunday mass, Muslims were already sending calls via mosques to attack them, Nasrallah recounts.

 

Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Lee Keath of AP manages, miraculously, to tell a story from Damascus that doesn't make you hate everything.   

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

 

The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 

 

Brotherhood protests

The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for further protests tomorrow, and a campaign of civil disobedience. But the organization hasn't been able to mobilize successfully so far, and faces public resentment, as Nour the Intern, who attended some Islamist protests earlier this week, reports. 

The man in the blue galabeya was at loss. In one hand, he held a large poster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and in the other an icy cold bottle of water. He stood in the baking heat torn between setting down the poster to uncap his bottle for some much-needed hydration, or awkwardly holding it between his knees. He scanned his environment a clean surface to place the delicate poster. When he found none, he prayed for patience and put it between his knees. Behind him, the bearded men were growing restless.

The protesters' squabbles were interrupted by a sudden bang from above. An adolescent was beating a pot with a spatula in her balcony, proclaiming el-Sisi to be her president, drawing laughs and claps from the loitering passersby, and frowns and prayers for retribution from the protesters. An old woman excitedly poked her head out of her window, opposite to the balcony, to praise the girl and suggest she boil some water in that pot to clean the street.

As they stood there squinting their eyes at the balcony, frozen in anger and anticipation, waiting for the rain to fall so they could bring the building down, four men  shoved a middle-aged protester and his son for giving them a headache and ruining the country. With impressive speed and coordination, four large buckets of water were emptied from different buildings. The water was accompanied by insults, saliva and three slippers.

Shoppers came out of shops, mechanics out from under cars, and women out of their windows; teenage boys let their female counterparts walk without receiving a detailed description of their bodies, to join the fight, or sigh at it. Facepalms outnumbered kicks three to one.

Staring at his surroundings with undisguised disgust, the blue-galabeya man stalked off hugging his poster, leaving his followers to disentangle themselves from the grips of the residents and split up in disagreement. Half went left, half went right.

“That was the dumbest protest in the world,” the blue-galabeya man, el-Hag Ahmed, told his feet. He was resting his forehead on the no-longer-sacred, rolled-up poster at a nearby coffee shop. As someone whose neighborhood only protested once in March 2011 to support Gamal Mubarak and demand that their 15-men-and-one-an-amateur-bellydancer march be covered by Al Jazeera, I bit my tongue.

Earlier this week, an almost identical protest took place in Zamzam Street, Mohandeseen, where the complete lack of organization and leadership; hostile bystanders and residents forced the 90 men who marched in unison (incessantly arguing about whether to forward or backward more than chanting) to march away from each other 15 minutes later, some to Sudan St., others to Mohy Eldeen St.

These mini-rallies, which usually avoid major squares and where participation is limited to area Islamists, says Hag Ahmed (the blue-galabaya man), are all that can be done for now. Some are reluctant to venture out of their neighborhoods, he says, and so they content themselves with these symbolic short-lived protests to keep the fight going and retain self-respect.

The reasons for the complete disarray Brothers are in are many and obvious: the arrests or absence of their leadership (and their sons for can’t-be-good-reasons) and the possibility of violent dispersal and detention looming over any attempted protest have weakened their will to protest with fear and confusion. That and the news of Safwat Hegazi’s claim that he’s always had the political activity of a 9-year-old, while Mohammed Badie pointed his finger at Beltagy, which was met with silent shock and disbelief, was salt to their wounds. It’s not hard to imagine why the battered MB didn’t deliver the large marches they promised last Friday.

This understandably humbled the Brothers and lowered their expectations for this Friday, August 30th, the day of choice to reverse the consequences of June 30.

“Let’s not brag too much. If (the Brothers who brag) know something we don’t, then they should keep it that way, save the element surprise...let God decide if it’s going to be decisive or not,” el-Hag Ahmed advised, trying to mask perceptible dread with cool practicality. Even gutsy young Brothers like Ghofran Salah, who like to share pictures of clenched fists with fiery captions, have echoed strangely similar, if not identical, advice, asking his friends to stop building a hype for the 30th.

What’s far likelier than detention, and is now a genuine concern that many islamists calm by the use of Gillette, is street harassment at the hands of fellow Egyptians, two thirds of whom want them excluded from politics, according to Baseera. Not because of the list of valid reasons to oppose the Brotherhood, but to the new-found belief that all the Brothers -- including, if not especially, everyone that was at the Raba’a al-Adweya sit-in -- are terrorists, even though the official MOI report said that the 1118 Brothers they arrested in Raba’a had a whopping total of 20 weapons. (Kindly forget the fact that prime minister Beblawi offered those same terrorists posts in the new cabinet and that triumphant policemen showed us well over twenty guns that they found by the box loads of in their tents and in nearby buildings in pro-military videos that left one waiting for the bloopers.)

On the other hand, the Islamist media people seem to have skipped town and left a repetitive friend behind to act as anchor and keep the same footage spinning in a tireless loop, showing protests in some obscure little street in an obscure little town breaking the curfew that are often aired under the enlightening title: "The Governorates." This is either followed or preceded by pictures of Gen. AbdelFatah el-Sisi dripping blood from his mouth and a post-Jan 25 documentary about the importance, and lack, of media integrity and of course, the graphic pictures of the Raba'a victims, whose death interestingly didn't warrant the official promise to open an investigation and form a fact-finding committee, to be characteristically ignored along with whatever report they manage to hand in or leak to the press.

 

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

The more serious concern with these conspiracy theories is that they are being used to prepare the ground for a wave of further prosecutions, and this time not just of Islamists. The charge of تخابر takhaabir ("sharing intelligence" with foreign powers) which has been brought against Morsi but also against April 6 activists is so vague as to be applicable to almost any contact between an Egyptian and a foreigner.  

Sameh Naguib, a member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, has written an in-depth analysis of the "foreign plot" phenomenon: 

The objective of linking the Islamic movement and its resistance (whether armed or unarmed) to foreign conspiracies is not onlto demonise thIslamistanothers whoppose the counter-revolution. It is also a promotional campaign falsely claiming the army’s patriotism and its leader’s symbolic link to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the era of national liberation.Unfortunately many Liberals and those formerly on the Left are contributing to this campaign. An example is this statement from the Egyptian Communist Partythat refers to “Islamic terrorism and its links to the Zionist American alliance that aims to break-up and dismantle our nation and the region with the aim of redrawing the map within the framework of the Greater Middle East project that places the United States as the world leader, Israel the strongest nation in the region and weakenthstatof Egypt. Threst of thArab nationwoulsimply be tentacleof the Turkish-Israeli American alliance.” The statement also refers to the necessity of “standing by the police and the army in its war against terrorist religious fascism” etc. It is as though it were a battle of national liberation and Sisi had just nationalised the Suez Canal. 
The Socialist Popular Alliance Party suggests the same regarding “the conspiracy” and ends one of its recent statements with “working together to confront the Zionist American plot.” All the above is in stark contrast to events on the ground. The main backers of Sisi’s bloody campaign are the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the one hand and Israel on the other. In other words, the main centres of counter-revolution in the Arab worlds over the last six decades and the staunch backers of the Mubarak regime.

 

Dennis Ross' tortuous logic

Dennis Ross writes on the Room for Debate blog of the NYT, on the question Saudi support for Egypt:

For the Saudis, there are two strategic threats in the region: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis back certain opposition forces in Syria to weaken Iran and they support the Egyptian military to undermine the Brotherhood. We will not persuade the Saudis by arguing that the military is overplaying its hand.
If we want to move the Saudis on Egypt, we must address their strategic concerns; meaning, for example, that we must convince them that we are prepared either to change the balance of power in Syria or that we will, in fact, prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

That sounds more like what Dennis Ross wants the US to do (i.e. more hawkish positions on Iran and Syria) than something that the Saudis would genuinely take into consideration. For if they are concerned about the MB, why would they adjust that concern based on the Iran question? And why should the US decide to shift its positions on Iran simply because of the Egypt question?

Saudi thinking on Egypt

Saudi Arabia has taken a very strong stance in support of the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. The piece below, published in Saudi's al-Watan, has some glimpses on the al-Saud regime's thinking on this, and especially the role of the US. An experienced Saudi-watcher tell us that the interview, ostensibly with an analyst, actually conveys the views of very high-level officials, most notably their tiff with Washington over the handling of Egyptian crisis. Some interesting points on aid, allusions to Saud al-Faisal's recent trip to France, and more.

(I'm not sure who did the translation, though.)  

Saudi Expert Reveals to Elwatannews: King Abdullah to Obama: If Providing Aid to Egypt Burdens You, We Will Provide Double Your Aid”

Ahmed Al Ibrahim: Obama demands suspending aid to Egypt and the King refuses

By Mohamed Hassan Amer

“Obama dealt with the demands of Egypt as if they were demands of his hometown Chicago. He disregarded the interests of Egypt. It would be the Kingdom’s turn next should Egypt fall”. In these words, Ahmad Al Ibrahim, Saudi expert in Saudi-US relations described the Kingdom’s position on the events in Egypt and the pressure exercised by the US Administration following the dispersal of Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda sit-ins.

According to Al Ibrahim, KSA and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recognised that the “US fierce defence of the Brotherhood confirmed that they had made outrageous promises to the US against the interests of the region. It is therefore urgent to put an end to thisconspiracy.” Al Ibrahim reiterated that the Obama administration proved to be a failure and unworthy of the Kingdom’s trust. But having a wise man like al-Sisi in Egypt ushers in a huge, Arab political cooperation.

How do you explain the Saudi stance and the support the Kingdom has shown to Egypt in its current crisis?

The Kingdom’s stance is not a novel one, but reaffirms the natural historic relations with Egypt. KSA would never allow dividing up Egypt, as that would threaten the Kingdom. The Obama administration does not understand the Gulf region or its interests, and cares solely about Israel. There is no doubt now that the US administration is two-faced when it comes to elections, after having refused the results of Hamas elections in 2006 and considered Hamas a terrorist organisation, while accepting the elections of the Brotherhood in Egypt.

Didn’t the Kingdom fear that adopting this position might cause a conflict with the US?

The Kingdom has played along the US on more than one occasion, particularly in US policies in the region and the Gulf. KSA has sent more than one delegate to the US Administration to explain the situation in the region, particularly the Syrian crisis. However, the Americans always say one thing do another. If we kept on playing along, the conspiracy will be on us next.

Have there been any secret calls between the Kingdom and the US regarding the situation in Egypt?

King Abdullah told the US President more than once that “if the USD1.5 billion paid to Egypt in aid are a burden, leave Egypt be and we are prepared to pay double that amount. Just work in the interest of Egypt.”Obama called the King after June 30 and asked him to cut off the aid to Egypt, or at least delay delivering it, to which the King replied: “We gave our word to our brothers in Egypt, and we will not suspend aid.” This is a clear indication of a change in policy.

In your opinion, what is the limit of the Saudi aid to Egypt?

There is no limit for the aid provided to Egyptand it shall be provided until Egypt recovers. It is not just financial support, but a politicalone as well through Saudi involvement with Europe, France and the US. I think the Kingdom turned to France because high-ranking Saudi officials reached a dead-end with the US. Even though Egypt may not need it, we are prepared to provide military backup if need be, as well as support to Sinai since instigators there will wreak havoc to serve their own interests and provoke Israel. But the Kingdom flatly refuses that.

What is common between the Kingdom’s stance today and its support to Egypt back in October 1973?

I cannot say that they are similar, but this time the Kingdom stood in the face of most Western powers and all its allies to show them that the so-called democracy they are building aims at dominating Egypt and not instilling real democracy. The Kingdom will stand against anyone who seeks to control Egypt and it is clear now that there is a rift between KSA and the US. KSA wants to make it clear to the US and Europe that they do not understand the region and should leave the matter to the Arab states to solve their own problems.

Are we on the verge of a new Arab unity after the Saudi-Egyptian cooperation?

Perhaps. If we look at King Abdullah’s stance and the Saudi role which is firm on protecting Egypt against the West, and in the presence of General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, which everyone is describing as the “silent leader”, we may well be on the verge of a political Arab unity. But there are other Arab states with different views, among them an Iranian front in Iraq and another in Syria, so we are bound to face more challenges.

Do you think that the Kingdom’s stance and the events in Egypt have put the US administration in trouble?

The US is suffering from clear divisions regarding Obama’s foreign policies, as the President has made many enemies. There are two policies in one country and Obama is in a clash with the Republicans because of his policies. The crisis will aggravate if the Kingdom turned from an ally to a neutral party, after the US failed to appreciate the interests of Gulf and Arab countries and after Obama placed all his stakes on the Brotherhood. The US proved to be untrustworthy and unreliable.

What are the new facts that Obama has not realised yet in the Middle East?

The US sees the Arab Spring as an opportunity to spread Western democracy, but in fact it is just a means to dominate the region and the Gulf. As for Syria, every time we agree to supply the opposition with weapons, the US backs out, asking to provide medical aid whereas the Kingdom provides armament.  We cannot take them seriously anymore. It is high time that the US realises that the democracy they are so keen on has failed in Iraq, and led to the rise of Nouri al-Maleki, the Iraqi Prime Minister so similar to Saddam Hussein. The US has proven that it only has Israel’s best interests at heart, which prompted us to declare that “we work for our own interest as we see fit.”

Is the US aiming at changing the leaderships in Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, through the Muslim brotherhood?

I believe there is a bigger scheme in the works. America’s ferocious defence of the Brotherhood indicates that there is an outrageous, shocking deal at stake, with promises given by the Brotherhood for the US and Israel. I wonder why Obama is focusing only on Egypt and the Brotherhood, turning a blind eye on Iran, the nuclear issue, the violations in Iran, the threat of North Korea, terrorism and a plethora of other issues that used to be at the top of the US agenda. Accordingly, the Kingdom has called upon the US, as well as Qatar and Turkey, to leave Egypt alone.

Could the Saudi-Russian ties be a reference for facing the US pressure on Egypt?

The relations between the Kingdom and Russia are somewhat weird. They differ on the Syrian crisis but agree on Egypt. It is clear that the Kingdom wants its ties with Russia to be more balanced, especially after the latter proved to be more influential in the Syrian crisis than the US. Given the importance of Saudi-Russian ties in the recovery of Egypt, the Kingdom will hold on to them.

 

Go ahead and believe..

A good video by a new group working on exposing lies in the media. The coverage of the last 2 weeks has been mind-boggling, but as this reminds us, there has been an alternate reality created alongside every single major clash and massacre (and the uprising itself). Khalik Misadaq roughly translates as "Go ahead and believe.." or "Make yourself believe.." 

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

Egypt linkdump 23-25 August 2013
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