The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged #occupycabinet
Notes on the #occupycabinet protest

Above, Jonathan Rachad's photography of the recent protests.

Some good narratives of the days of fighting:

Extremely graphic video of treatment of wounded, dying.

Al Jazeera English report by Sherine Tadros on the violence and SCAF's press conference.

Possibilities of a political solution:

There have been various initiatives to obtain a ceasefire between protestors and the armed forces, but to no avail. A number of public personalities are now gravitating towards another option: moving presidential elections even earlier to get SCAF out of power as soon as possible. A Facebook campaign has been started and obtained the backing of various personalities. The former prime minister, Essam Sharaf, is also backing earlier presidential elections (I say "earlier" because in mid-November, after the Mohammed Mahmoud St. clashes, they were just moved from sometime in 2013 to June 2012). 

Most political parties have remained silent on this matter. The Muslim Brotherhood has issues a series of messages condemning the clashes and the military's behavior, but only issued a vague call for investigations. Mohammed Beltagi of the FJP has however gone further in his critique and suggested a handover of SCAF's power to parliament instead of a presidential election (obviously this benefits them). Abu Ela Madi, the head of the al-Wassat Party (MB dissidents), has resigned from the SCAF's consultative council (he was deputy head) along with 10 other personalities and is now joining calls for SCAF to step down as soon as possible.

Other links: 

The girl

The picture of this girl has been a major topic of debate on Egyptian talk shows tonight — with some SCAF defenders arguing it was photoshopped — and is on the cover of tomorrow's Tahrir newspaper. Below is the video that shows her and a companion being chased, then beaten by soldiers.

Egypt, Pakistan, the US and the "right side of history"

Congress is going ahead with plans to make aid to Egypt, including military aid, contingent on Egypt’s relations with Israel and a successful transition:

Reflecting concerns about uncertainty within the Egyptian government, the bill would restrict $1.3 billion in security assistance to Cairo and $250 million in economic assistance until the secretary of state certifies to Congress that Egypt is abiding by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, military rulers are supporting the transition to civilian government with free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.” 

These and other restrictions — notably on the Palestinan Authority and Pakistan — carry “national security wavers” — meaning the Secretary of State can easily lift them. ( Read more: Congress moves to restrict aid to Egypt, Pakistan )

Meanwhile Mamoun Fandy says Egypt could be come worse than Pakistan and underlines Tantawi’s experience in that country during the abominable reign of Zia al-Haq:

The past experience of three major players on the Egyptian political scene ― the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the US Embassy and Islamists ― suggests that Egypt may soon come to resemble Pakistan.

But why Pakistan and not Turkey? Though many have long hoped to implement the Turkish model in Egypt, Pakistan ― not Turkey ― seems to be the most plausible outcome. In fact, Egypt may turn out a worse version of Pakistan.

Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling SCAF, worked as a military attache in Pakistan and has made no secret of his admiration for civil-military relationship there. In Pakistan, he believes, politics is the job of politicians but the military maintains the right to change the power equation whenever it wants, because state affairs are too important to be left completely in the hands of civilians.

Over the last 40 or so years, Pakistan has seen military coups led by generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. In the Pakistani power equation, the army is the compass. 
> US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is also experienced in Pakistani affairs, following years of work there at a time when political tensions between the two countries ― in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan ― were at their peak.

Patterson is prepared to implement a similar plan in Egypt ― a currently unstable country that has important military and religious waves that need to be tamed to incorporate US interests into their agendas. Having successfully led a similar process in Pakistan, Patterson is the right woman for an Egypt that is transforming into another Pakistan, with the rise of the Salafi-led Nour and Brotherhood-led Freedom and Justice parties to power.

Fandy gloomily concludes:

We should therefore brace ourselves for the pakistanization of Egypt. Thinkers should get busy studying the Pakistani model instead of wasting their time examining a Turkish model that will never happen.

I don’t know where Fandy gets his info about Patterson’s approach, although it is certainly true that the US ambassador, who is in close contact with SCAF, has also had higher-level and more regular meetings with the Muslim Brothers than publicly acknowledged. The recent visit of John Kerry and his encounter with senior Brothers goes in the same direction.

Of course Egypt is currently too unstable and murky right now to discern any definitive direction. But a US-MB-Army triangle is one of the worst possible outcomes imaginable in my opinion, with built-in sources of recurrent tensions. Much better to have a weakened army and strong MB in the context of a system that, even if unstable, still has civilian rule at its core. The recent positions of the Obama administration emphasizing civilian rule suggest to me that at least part of the Obama administration is not yet committed to implementing a Pakistani policy in Egypt, but I fear CIA, CENTCOM and a good part of the State Dept. may very well be — and they can be more influential than a president, particularly in an election year.

Here’s a recent piece in al-Masri al-Youm that shows Egyptian civil society reactions to this perceived trend:

In the interim, it seems that the US, Egypt’s military and its ascendant Islamist forces are engaging in a precarious dance. The US’s uncertain posture has some Egyptians worried about what will come next in its relationship with the Western power.

“I’ve never seen Americans so confused and worried as I have ever since January,” says Hisham Kassem, a liberal political analyst who is in regular contact with American officials. “I know that security and stability are American interests, not civil rights, in the coming period in Egypt.”

American officials are saying otherwise, though, emphasizing Washington’s commitment to democracy in Egypt regardless of the elections’ outcome.

“Now, in Egypt, new actors will be seated in the parliament, including representatives of Islamist parties,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 6 December, a few days after it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was poised to dominate the coming parliament.

She also called for fair and inclusive elections, and said the United States expected those elected to uphold universal human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of religion, as well as maintain peaceful relations between Egypt and its neighbors.

On 11 December, US Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Cairo, where he met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and high-level representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“You can tell whom the American government thinks is the most important from the people Kerry met with and in this order: Tantawi, Ganzouri, the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “No civil society groups, no liberals were included.”

Read more in the story for reactions by a number of analysts and activist.

In a sense, from a realpolitik perspective, one can’t blame the US for dealing with those personalities and institutions that wield power both on the street and in practice. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fit that description, and the elections’ results so far confirm this trend.

Nonetheless, there is an alternative policy: criteria-based relations with Egypt that do not rely on who’s in power but how those in power wield it. It implies a withdrawal from Egypt and the region that is not palatable to the mainstream US foreign policy community and political class (Ron Paul aside). It means ending policies that have made Washington a domestic player in Egyptian politics — a policy that may have had its rewards but also high costs in terms of image, soft power, etc.

The relationships that the US has maintained with client states like Egypt and Pakistan for the past 30-40 years have demonstrably been disastrous, severely hindering natural political processes in these countries, contributing to the marginalization of non-identity based political movements, and creating a wide range of problems for the US and its citizens, notably exposure to terrorism. It is nothing worth reproducing.

All this is worth keeping in mind at a time when SCAF, which has rewritten the history of the Egyptian uprising of late January 2011 to make it about the army siding with protestors against Mubarak rather than shoot them, and the US, which demands credit for not backing Mubarak and pressuring the army not to shoot protestors, respectively deny reality and stay mum.

It is an inconvenient fact that the the latest Egyptian crisis is the culmination of a steady drift by the Egyptian military towards using unjustified, often gratuitous, force against protestors. starting with:

  • the forced “virginity tests” of March,
  • the first raid on Tahrir Square in April,
  • the panicked handling of the Maspero protests in October,
  • the events that led to the Mohammed Mahmoud St. protests of November,
  • and now the direct, unvarnished and senseless encouragement of soldiers to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at protestors, among so many other crimes.

Obama and Clinton tried to take credit in February for their role in preventing the Egyptian military from killing protestors (I’ve long thought the army was not ready to do so then, since it could simply get rid of Mubarak and was unsure that its own would follow orders — the situation and context nine months later is obviously different).

Well, now the army is killing protestors and all doubts about whether this is intentional or mere incompetence should have vanished — and with it, the narrative that the Egyptian military and US are on the “right side of history”. This could very well be the moment in which the “Egypt is the next Pakistan” theory is tested, with all its manyfold implications.

Another one for the virginity tests, perhaps?

Egypt, still the land of denial

Army officers beating protestors / watchers. (Stupid music unnecessary, particularly when in the background someone seems to be yelling “the journalist died” or something similar [1:20].

More beatings with truncheons, rock-throwing by soldiers.

Here you can clearly see uniformed troops throwing rocks from the top of the government building adjacent to parliament.

From the same rooftop, a uniformed soldier relieving himself on the roof — doing the Egyptian army proud.

The government would have you believe all of the above is untrue, did not happen, and was done by foreigners anyway: Ganzouri blames cabinet clashes on ‘foreign elements’:

Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri on Saturday accused “foreign elements” of stirring up riots outside Egypt’s cabinet building.

In a press conference, he also said military police have exercised self-control in dealing with protesters.

Eight people have died and at least 299 injured in the clashes, the Health Ministry reported earlier on Saturday.

“Elements that infiltrated the protest shot fire. Everything that is happening now has nothing to do with the revolution. This is intended to ruin the revolution,” Ganzouri said.

He went on to say that revolutionary youth are those who fight unemployment or seek to solve society’s problems, adding, “Those who carry out these acts are not revolutionaries and do not want the best for Egypt.”

“Once again I emphasize that military forces did not clash with them, and only guarded the parliament and cabinet building,” he said.

Someone — a behavioral psychologist perhaps — should do a study of the power of denial in Egypt, something I’ve long called the Egyptian Reality Distortion Field (ERDF — used in another with regards to Steve Jobs). The ERDF gives Egyptians, notably public officials, an uncanny ability to disregard what is plain for all to see and, with the utmost confidence, assure all comers of its opposite. Ganzouri today described people dying during the protests and then insisted “there was no violence” before storming out of his press conference. Last October the SCAF insisted no army truck ran over protestors despite much video evidence being available of exactly that.

The most incredible thing about the ERDF is that it seems to work on most of the population, giving many Egyptians the ability to assert one thing and then its opposite with no awareness of self-contradiction. You have to experience it to understand it. Much of it has to do with Egypt being the Blanche Dubois of the Middle East — a faded belle whose glory days have long gone but who keeps on pretending otherwise — and is all too often indulged (somewhat abusively) by those around her. Apparently, a country can suffer from post-menopausal hysteria.1

As Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter:

Since #Jan25, innocents continue to be killed & tortured while authority denies using force or violence. Orwell’s “Min. of Truth” reincarnated

  1. I only use the hysteria reference for theatric effect in the context of the Streetcar metaphor, with apology. Read this for debunking. ↩

On the #occupycabinet protests

I won’t recap here the events of this morning in which several protestors from the #occupycabinet sit-in on Magles al-Shaab St., where the prime minister’s office and parliament are located, were arrested, wounded and/or beaten. You can take a look at Aya Batrawy’s reporting for AP, excerpted at the end of this post, for context. Suffice to say that, from what appears to have been an accident (an activist entering the gardens of the parliament building to retrieve a football was arrested and mistreated) we now have a return to the kind of street warfare seen a few weeks ago on Mohammed Mahmoud St.

As you can see from the video above, which I shot this afternoono, it’s not quite as violent as that. But the battle is now blocking Qasr al-Aini St., one of Cairo’s major arteries, and has been stagnant for hours. No riot control police has been deployed, and you have a few hundred of protestors on one side vs. a few hundred plainclothes police and, possibly, some soldiers on the other. No decision has been taken all day to stop the violence, and those plainclothes police are engaged in the same rock-throwing and Motolov cocktail-throwing as the protestors. There does not seem to be any authority there, or chain of command, and my bet is that the SCAF are paralyzed about what to do. Send in Military Police or riot control police and you risk an escalation.

Of course, more protestors may join in tonight, and who knows how long this is going to last. There are no demands here, just anger at the police and army, and an absence of leadership on the government side. The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, could not enter his normal office and has set up shop at the Investment Authority. The Ministry of Interior is washing its hands of the whole thing, putting the blame squarely on Military Police. The army is nowhere to be seen, although SCAF head Field Marshall Tantawi has been reported to order that wounded protestors receive treatment. They’d been receiving treatment anyway at a field hospital set up by the usual volunteer doctors and nurses.

Who knows how things will turn out — I think it might peter out over the weekend — but these recurring crises are symptomatic of a deeper problem than police violence or a part of the protest movement that just wants to express anger. The behavior of police and army is appalling, they appear out of control and engaged in petty retaliation against the protestors while political and military leaders are absent. This is not state collapse, but those at the helm are asleep and the security services appear completely out of control. Why the hell are police and soldiers engaging in rock-throwing? Who is running this place? It's an abdication of authority and responsibility. Pathetic.

AP’s report, on

CAIRO (AP) — Security forces stormed a protest camp outside Egypt’s Cabinet building, expelling demonstrators calling for an end to military rule, just as officials were counting votes Friday in the second round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

The clashes underlined simmering tensions between activists and security officers and threatened to ignite a new round of violence after two peaceful days of voting in an election considered the freest and fairest vote in the country’s modern history.

Clashes erupted as demonstrators were camped out in front of the Cabinet building, demanding that the country’s military rulers transfer power immediately to a civilian authority. The sit-in was in its third week.

One activist posted a photo online of a female protester beaten in the clashes, and others said they were briefly detained by military police. It was unclear how many protesters remain in military police custody.

The military took over after longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular revolt in February. Rights groups and activists charge that the military is carrying on the practices of the old regime, including arresting and beating dissidents. Protesters at the Cabinet building said the clashes began Thursday evening after soldiers severely beat a young man who was taking part in the sit-in.

Hundreds of people rushed to join the protest after online video and photos showed people carrying the wounded man. The pictures showed his face and eyes bruised and swollen, his head wrapped in gauze and blood dripping from his nose.

Witnesses accused military police of snatching the man from near the sit-in and beating him inside parliament, near Cabinet headquarters. Then protesters threw rocks and firebombs at military police.

Activist Hussein Hammouda said the military responded by throwing rocks and aiming water cannons from inside the gates of the nearby parliament building.

“Tensions between the people and security officers is so enflamed that anything that happens just blows up. There is no trust between the two sides,” said Hammouda, who resigned from the police in 2005 to protest police practices.