The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Media
Protests as seen by the FJP's newspaper

In an attempt to report public opinion towards all the protests that took place in the past eight months since Morsi came to power, the Freedom and Justice Party's newspaper, al-Horreya wa al-Adala, published this news article on 15 March in its Youth and Sports section.


Despite the fact that people are clearly divided about everything from Morsi to the weather, MB’s report shows a uncharacteristically unified image of society. From the Ettihidiya clashes and Tahrir sit-ins to Port Said protests and the Ultras’ attacks; the Egyptian people who had one collective view on the matter: Protesters are thugs.

The article, which is merely a collection of tweets and FB status updates by ungoogleable individual(s), begins with this headline: What do you want to be? A thug.

The sub-headline then goes:“It's a great job, gets you fame and money..."And if you get caught, you're an activist!"

Sohila Mahmoud on Facebook: "I don't see any reason to block the roads, why is everyone silent about these continued acts of thuggery against the average Egyptian citizen, who wakes up to make a living, only to go back home empty-handed?"

According to the article, “activists,” on Facebook have unanimously confirmed that these protests Mahmoud is referring to are "crimes" which can only be committed by "thugs."

"This is a crime against society. Thugs who throw rocks at the police, or Molotov cocktails, carry guns or knives should be immediately shot, so that we'd get rid of the National Damnation Front's thugs and the toppled president's as well," hopes Mohamed Abdullah in his FB status.

"What are these demands they are making? Don't they see our economic situations? Can't they feel our foreign enemies just glaring at and stalking us? Or are you the domestic enemies, as we have describe you since all the evidence is against you. Have mercy on your country, it's not just for you, but for all the Muslims and Christians inside of it. So we have the right to fear for it and hold you accountable for any mistake you make that harms Egypt for it is really the Mother of the World," said Hamid Rashid, another representative sample from the heart of Cairo.

Further down the FJP reporter's newsfeed, a status, by an Abu Osama Shehab, said: "This is a crime by all standards committed by failed politicians to burn Egypt and bring down the president, but they will fail, God willing."

"The goal of these acts is to destroy the country's economy and waste state prestige. It's about pushing certain groups to destroy the police, and force owners to sell their properties - to completely destroy tourism - and get in the way of the country's interest. And to make matters worse, the Public Prosecution's pushing the citizen's right to arrest into effect, will be abused, which will push the country towards civil war," Abdo Mosad said.

A thug, not a revolutionary.

Others like Ibrahim Abu Attia found the labels the "feloul media" gave these vandals weird.

"Are those who block the roads, burned, vandalize, steal and call for chaos and strikes called protesters? All of these people are nothing but enemies of the revolution, outlaws. Are those who burn the Football Association called protesters? Are those who burn the Police Club called protesters? Those serve no one but the supporters of the counter-revolution,” he said.

Then another member of Egypt's homogeneous society, Mostafa Shokry, tweeted: "They're just some thugs, and the media and the parties call them protesters, they have no goal but chaos."

Followed by a Hany Zahdy: "When you hear the media call a thug a protester, know straight away that it is funding thuggery or financially benefiting from it."

"It's a crime, of course. What's the rest of the people's fault? What's the patient who's going to the doctor for treatment's fault, the patient who could die on the way there because thugs blocks the roads. What about tired people who are going home from work, people who want to go home early to rest, shave and go to their second job to provide for themselves and their families? What's their fault?"  wondered Ahmed Kamal.

"Blocking the road was never a protest tactic in any time or in any place. I think the person blocking the road knows that that's barbaric, even if his demands are legitimate, because he's blocking the average citizen's way, who may have demands that are more important and more pressing than his own, but is behaving and expressing himself respectfully and peacefully. I think Egyptians have a background they can't forget about stating their demands, which they learned in the revolution's days," said Ahmed Mahmoud, the only person in the article so far to have used the words "I think" when expressing personal views.

"This is a barbaric and thuggish way, it is a blatant violation of the citizen's freedom. This is a way only someone who wants to distort the country's reputation and image in front of the world to force the president to take his orders, which are impossible to establish. From this point forth, there will be bloodshed and intentional vandalism," warned Medhat abu Talab.

For those who haven't yet understood what thuggery is, who is doing/funding/covering it and why, an “Egyptian mother” reminded the FJP that "thuggery is the work of gangs."

"This is the counter-revolution lead by the feloul and the Damnation Front, which is given media coverage by the lying media, which is owned by the feloul," she reasoned.

"These thugs are very well financed  and they along with the street children are working very well and making a lot of money. They are protected by the NSF lawyers who wait by police departments to bail them out and defend them day after day," revealed a Nasser Ahmed, who didn’t need to provide any evidence to support his claim, since no one wanted to refute them.

Why Aaron David Miller is lame, cliché and offensive

Yesterday, I posted a snide tweet suggesting that Aaron David Miller’s latest FP column Tribes With Flags was “lame, cliché and offensive.” I was asked for further explanation, and here I oblige, although I will keep it short since Karl’s ReMarks has already written a good critique.

The lame

The whole concept, really, that Arab states are on the verge of collapse, and that the powerful Arab state is an illusion. Miller posits:

In the wake of the Arab Spring, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion – the functional and coherent Arab state.

Forget democracies. What’s at stake here is basic coherence and governance.

… In much of the Middle East, the situation looks far worse today than a year ago. The question facing these troubled countries right now is not whether they can become democracies or resolve fundamental identity questions. It is much more basic: Can they produce a minimum of competent governance and order, so that they can begin to deal with the galactic political and economic challenges they face?

This entire passage shows little appreciation of Middle Eastern history on the remarkable growth in the strength and coherence of the state in every Arab country, including places like the Gulf where most states can genuinely be described as “tribes with flags” since ruling families are tribally rooted and the wider political system based on a historic balance of power between tribes. Yet even in a relatively recent state like the UAE, whose premise is entirely tribal since it is an alliance of tribes, the state is effective and strong. Same in Saudi Arabia where the domination of a single tribe, the al-Sauds, has nonetheless create a strong state whose role in central in both administration and creating a strong identity beyond tribalism. Even Qadhafi’s dysfunctional state in Libya has created a new reality of a strong Libyan identity (despite some resurgent regionalism) that is now serving as a base for the reconstruction of a central state, although perhaps one that will adopt a federal model (in comparison, under the monarchy Libya has several official capitals). It’s nonsense to confuse the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state. In Egypt, where the role of the state is being challenged and the authorities have proved unable to govern effectively in the last two years, the demand is also an improved state, not a rejection of the state.

Miller’s chief sin here is falling into the stupid trap of being “disappointed” that the Arab uprisings haven’t matched the “spring” label many gave it. Everywhere I go these days someone with a smirk on their face, often Israelis, make some remark about an Arab “winter”. Sure, the situation in Syria is ugly, and Egypt and Tunisia are going through some rough patches. But it’s more complicated than a seasonal label, and it’s not about how good or bad you (i.e. observer from outside the region) you feel about it.

The cliché

The resort to Tahseen Beshir’s quip that, aside Egypt, Arab states are “tribes with flags” — intended as a put-down of the Gulf states, Egypt’s chief Arab rivals in the late 1970s when Beshir said this — is tiresome. It belongs with other clichés of Middle Eastern politics, like Abba Eban’s “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” because a) its bias is clear and b) it obscures more than it explains.

And then there’s the lazy writing that characterizes much of the piece, with gems like this:

President Mohamed Morsy’s first allegiance isn’t to the notion of an inclusive nation, but to the Muslim Brotherhood’s conception of Islamist governance. And let’s be clear, membership in the Brotherhood isn’t like joining a health club: It requires years to gain entry, and it’s a way of life that demands a comprehensive worldview. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave.

The offensive

There’s much to be miffed about, but this paragraph in particular struck me:

The state of Palestine is split between Hamas and Fatah, creating a kind of Noah’s Ark with two of everything – security services, constitutions, prime ministers, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And Iraq, far from being the coherent whole the Americans dreamed of is a mishmash of Shia authoritarianism, Sunni grievances, and Kurdish autonomy.

Considering that Aaron David Miller as an important figure in the Clinton administration’s Middle East team and presumably has read a book or two about the region, it can’t be ignorance that’s the problem here — it’s arrogance. To speak of the lack of a state in Palestine without mentioning Israel’s occupation, or the sad state of Iraq without mentioning the sanctions (up to 1.5m dead) and the invasion of Iraq and its inept administration (based on a sectarian division of the country far from the “coherent whole” he thinks was dreamt up by US policymakers) by the US military (some 850,000 dead according to more recent estimates) is outrageous, even if of course local actors had their role to play in that too.

The piece does not have deserve much more analysis than that, and marks — among the often excellent coverage of its Middle East Channel — a tendency for Foreign Policy magazine to commission and publish third-rate articles by “names” in US and slap a provocative headline on them. One wonders whether it’s link-bait of the kind we saw last year’s with the Playboy-like cover that illustrated Mona El-Tahawy button-pushing article.

Jazeera loses audience share in Egypt, Tunisia

The recently relaunched independent Moroccan website Lakome has an interesting piece [Fr, original Ar here] up today based on an internal al-Jazeera report on what channels are watched around the Arab world. Some of their findings:

 

  • Al Jazeera is still the most watched Arab television channel across the region, with overall growing market share ahead of pan-Arab competitors such as al-Arabiya and (way ahead of) Sky News Arabia.
  • ONTV (a liberal channel owned by billionaire Naguib Sawiris — Update: recently sold by Naguib Sawiris to a Tunisian businessman — that hosts some of the best-regarded talk shows in Egypt, notably Yosri Fouda's Akher Kalam) has taken over al-Jazeera in popularity in Egypt.
  • In Tunisia, Jazeera's audience size went from 950,000 in January 2012 to 200,000 in December 2012, perhaps reflecting the growing anti-Qatar sentiment in the country because of the ruling Ennahda Party's close connections to the emirate. Local channels such as Hannibal are preferred by local TV watchers.
  • Al-Jazeera's bias in its Syria coverage is believed to be one of the reasons for the drop on popularity of the channel

 

What strikes me in this is not so much that al-Jazeera is growing unpopular because of its pro-Islamist slant (which varies across its various channels) but that locally produced and targeted content is getting more attention. This is entirely normal, and reflects the growth in country-specific satellite channels in recent years that can offer more targeted content to viewers and more targeted audiences to advertisers. 

Insulting the president

More 'insulting president' lawsuits under Morsi than Mubarak - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online

I have a hard time believing this but Gamal Eid is a serious guy:

There were four times as many 'insulting the president' lawsuits during President Mohamed Morsi's first 200 days in office than during the entire 30-year reign of former president Hosni Mubarak. This is the claim made by Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Moreover, the number of such lawsuits during the Morsi era is more than during the entire period dating back to 1909 when the law was introduced (originally for 'insulting the king'), Eid said via Twitter.

They will have a full report on it tomorrow with the list of names.

On "Homeland"

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland « Christian Christensen

I watched the newish TV show Homeland a few months ago, and stopped after a few episode. It wasn't because I found it lacking in its depiction of Islam (caricatural approaches are so rife that I'm pretty oblivious to that) as much as that I did not think it was that entertaining. But here's a take on the show and its treatment of Islamic fundamentalism and that perennial classic of American popular entertainment and political paranoia, the enemy who looks like one of us (for this I prefer the "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" movies):

When critics hail Homeland, they would do well to ask themselves how they would react to a program where a Muslim captive at Guantanamo Bay succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, converts to Christianity, returns to Kabul/Tehran/Riyadh, rises through the political ranks to a position of authority, and, with the help of a radical Christian CNN journalist, plots a campaign of terror in his home country at the behest of a Christian extremist. I think I can guess some of the words used to describe such a program, but “nuanced” and “grounded” would not be among them.
Bassem Youssef gets the NMA treatment

This morning I wrote about the Bassem Youssef case — I have a couple of updates about it. One is so funny it deserved its own post — the above NMA.tv rendition of the case. I particularly love the conspiracy theorizing bit.

Also, from Moftasa, a worthwhile post on President Morsi's foreign policy advisor's move to distance the presidency from the lawsuits being filed left and right to defend Morsi — in some cases by third parties, but also by officials themselves. And that this may only be coming because the State Dept. is raising the Bassem Youssef issue.

"It's time for Bassem Youssef"

I was at a very nice Zamalek dinner party on Friday evening (thanks HS!). As the sumptuous meal (which included what I am reliably told are the best warrraq 3einab in town) reached its end, the guests began to agitate. It was 11pm. "It's time for Bassem Youssef!" exclaimed one of them.

Everyone got up from the dinner table and made their way to the coach to watch Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart launch the 2013 season for his "The Show Show", whose late 2012 performances have already gotten him into trouble with the authorities — he is being sued for showing insufficient respect to President Morsi in his, er, satire. To this pretty anti-Morsi crowd, Bassem Youssef has become an icon — as the NYT picked up upon in a recent piece. Youssef has already done some great satire on the Muslim Brotherhood's apparently meaningless Nahda program and occasionally stops the jokes to say some quite serious things, such as telling Salafi sheikhs that they are not religious figures in the eyes of many outside of their followers. (Indeed, most of them are clowns, albeit dangerous clowns.)

Abu Jamajem has some translated segments for those who don't speak Arabic, but follow this YouTube account for someone going through the trouble of subtitling every episode. If there's one place to get the pulse of the liberal view in Egypt, Bassem Youssef's show is it. I wonder how long it will be, though, when like Jon Stewart he starts taking occasional aim at his own side — after all political satire only keeps its edge when it accords equal ridicule to all who deserve it. Although of course one must note that even in the US there is no conservative Daily Show — only a fake conservative spinoff in the Colbert Report. The Salafis, like the Tea Party, are simply too naturally ridiculous to be intentionally funny.

On freedom of the press in Egypt

What future for free speech in the new Egypt? - Index on Censorship

Ashraf Khalil writes: 

Aside from the occasional journalist prosecution, there’s a disturbing new trend emerging in the past few months: direct intimidation of and violence against journalists in Egypt. Hazem Abu Ismail — a charismatic ultraconservative Salafist preacher has repeatedly rallied his slightly fanatical followers (known locally as the Hazemoon) against journalists who criticise him. They recently held a noisy several day-long sit-in outside Media Production City — where many of the most popular satellite talk shows are broadcast — openly intimidating the hosts and station employees as they came to work. Even more disturbingly, Abu Ismail’s followers were alleged to have recently attacked the offices of a heavily anti-Islamist opposition newspaper with petrol bombs, though the preacher took to Facebook to deny any involvement.

It’s not just the Islamists who are targeting journalists they dislike. Egypt’s secularist protestors are guilty of the same crime. The anti-Islamist forces absolutely despise the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, regarding it as completely biased towards the Brotherhood. That antipathy came to a head in late November during a string of violent protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The anti-Islamist protestors firebombed a street-level studio of Al Jazeera Live Egypt — an offshoot Al Jazeera channel devoted to 24/7 Egypt news.

Another thing to note, just in the past week, is that the presidency has been very rapid to launch lawsuits against journalists it deems have insulted President Morsi. 

Morsi's effrontery, according to Bloomberg

Egypt’s Mursi Poses Dilemma as U.S. Assesses Power Grab - Businessweek

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi poses a quandary for the Obama administration as it struggles to respond to the democratically elected Islamist leader’s power grab -- which he made without any advance notice to Washington.

The effrontery of making a dictatorial power-grab without consulting with Washington first! How dare he?

The FSA's new media-military offensive in northern Syria

Enduring America, a useful sources for media summations on Syria and (highly-debated) FSA claims of successes suggests that FSA forces are indeed increasingly gaining ground against Assad:

For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

The spread of the rebellion throughout the country means that even the vaunted internal security forces have to weigh whether moving one force to Point A will weaken Point B fatally, is surely impacting developments on the ground – desertion and heavy casualties continue to mount for the state’s forces. And Syria’s unwillingness to pursue the fight all the way to the Turkish or Iraqi borders for fear of igniting a wider conflagration must give breathing room not just to refugees, but to arms smugglers and militiamen:

For more than a week … that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

While these are triumphs that have been documented by the FSA and its sympathizers — and as such must be taken with grains of salt — some of them have been corroborated by other media, such as Ben Hubbard of the AP, on location at the site of a key base the FSA has just captured from an elite Syrian Army unit. 

But the fact that so much of this appraisal of the Syrian Civil War relies on the rebels’ own reporting — which essentially makes it a propaganda effort, not that what the Syrian state news agencies show is anything less than that — should remind all observers to bear in mind the wording of the latest missive posted to the Facebook feed of Aleppo Now and the picture choice for this post: 

“When confrontation is imposed on us, then all of you are asked to act, [and in taking action, to stand] side by side.”

That the pen and the flash drive — symbolic of how important a role social media now plays in this conflict — are included with the bullet again signifies that for the FSA, this is a war on all fronts. Media is part of the war effort too. Not just for international support, but for recruitment and morale boosting efforts in country. It certainly is not the same as the AP on the ground doing independent fact-checking, but the line of thinking Aleppo Now puts forth would not look out of place to a veteran of Eritrea or Lebanon’s civil wars forty years past, or for Libya’s own uprising. It is the nature of modern warfare.

A war effort the FSA hopes (and hopes to convey) is now going it’s way up north, along an axis from Aleppo to Latakia that takes in one of their earliest strongholds and battlegrounds, in Idlib, and encroaches on Alawite coastal bastions. These are, one senses, less decisive battles for control than they are pit stops on the path of an increasingly “successful” war of attrition:

Two trends are clear - The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves - and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating.

Is it a state of collapse? Perhaps it’s too early to say, and we’re not predicting a sudden collapse even if that were true. Regardless, it is my conclusion that we have been too cautious in estimating the strengths of the insurgency, and this is saying something because we have been consistently more hawkish (and I would argue more accurate) than many media outlets who assess the strength of the Syrian insurgents.

In the last four days, the Free Syrian Army has won clear victories in Aleppo province, capturing the 12 kilometer long base belonging to the regime’s 46th regiment, and capturing many pieces of important weaponry in the process. There are many reports that the FSA siege of the Wadi al Daif base near Ma’arrat al Nouman has intensified, and the insurgents have destroyed more key equipment there in recent days. There are also reports that the FSA is pushing further northeast on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. Meanwhile, all the FSA forces that have been sieging the 46th regiment’s base will be free to push south towards Idlib and east towards Aleppo. The trend is clear - eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. 

…. In 4–5 days the FSA has captured Al Bukamal, the Hamdan air base outside of it, and another major airbase near Deir Ez Zor. 

…. in Lattakia, the FSA continues to push deeper into the mountains, slowly working its way towards the coast, and in Daraa there are now daily reports of battles between the regime and insurgents. The FSA is not yet in a position to directly establish control of either region, but these battles will distract the Assad regime and eat away at the Assad military. Furthermore, if the FSA is not taken seriously in both places, it is possible to have a relatively small force of insurgents capture territory, which would significantly broaden the fronts.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reports, Islamists in Aleppo who criticized the new Syrian National Coalition — now recognized by both France and the UK — have taken a more conciliatory tone, probably suggesting their initial furor was aimed at ensuring they get their place at the table, which is pretty stacked with Syrian National Council members despite the Council’s limited reach inside Syria and increasing unpopularity among the powers aiding the rebels (the US made quite clear the Coalition was being organized in Doha because State has written off the Council).

A commenter on the EA article, though, notes that a different situation prevails on the border with Lebanon, citing a dispatch from the Christian Science Monitor. Though it suggests rebel gains in the north, it notes that counting on “a relatively small force of insurgents [that can] capture territory” is sure to lead to disappointment for FSA-boosters, given the seesawing the FSA has already experienced in Syria’s towns and cities:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacks the weaponry it needs to hold ground in the face of the regime forces’ air strikes. Instead, it attacks Syrian Army positions along the southern border, takes them over just long enough to rush supplies and fighters in from Lebanon, and retreats before the regime planes arrive.

The rebels farther north have managed to take and hold a solid bloc between Aleppo and the Turkish border, which they have dubbed “Free Syria.” (Read this story about the “uneasy normal” of life in rebel-held Syria.) But it is a very different story between Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and the border with Lebanon, some sparsely-populated 20 miles away.

The endless battle for turf underscores the challenges the rebels face simply holding ground as the conflict enters its 21st month. 

For every airbase or battalion the FSA has claimed to have captured, their gains are still reversible in the absence of a stronger military organization, and sufficient efforts to maintain popular support and encourage defections.

Extrajudicial killings of POWs and fighting amidst the rubble of towns caught between them and the Syrian Army’s tanks are not serving that strategy — but some support is there, though perhaps less for further battling as for expanding the non-violent popular demonstrations that seem so distant now but are nonetheless still going on. 

With that in mind, it should be said, for all its optimistic predictions regarding the FSA, EA has no illusions about what intense street fighting would bring to Damascus – or other Syrian cities – in the coming weeks:

>[T]he fact that the FSA is bringing the fight to Damascus is a military blow to the Assad regime, but it spells disaster for the residents of Damascus. The FSA will not be able to take the capital for many many months, at least. This will bring huge amounts of suffering to the people on the ground in these areas.

PostsPaul MutterMedia, Syria, fsa
In defense of Egypt's Gaza spin

This interesting NYT report by David Kirkpatrick tries to spin the story here as Egypt defending Hamas while brokering. 

CAIRO — While holding itself out as an honest broker for truce talks between Israel and Hamas over the Gaza conflict, Egypt’s new government sought on Monday to plunge into the battle over international public opinion on behalf of the Palestinian cause — an arena where the Israelis, more experienced in the world of the free press and democratic politics, have historically dominated.

In Egypt’s most concerted effort to win more global public support for the Palestinians, advisers to Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been an outspoken supporter of Hamas, invited foreign correspondents in Cairo to a background briefing at which a senior Egyptian official sought to blame Israel for the conflict while at the same time maintaining Egypt’s role as an intermediary pressing both sides for peace. “We are against any bloodshed,” the official said repeatedly, arguing that Egypt sought stability and individual freedom for all in the region.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting the talks with the Israelis, the Egyptian official argued that the West, which supports Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza, was essentially blaming the victim.

“It is so strange people are talking about the rights of self-defense,” he said. “The self-defense of whom? Of the occupied people? Of the besieged people? Of the hurt people? No, the self-defense of the most powerful state in the region and the self-defense of the occupying force of Gaza and Palestine. This is what some of the international community are talking about.”

The Egyptians are right to be pissed off, because another alleged "honest broker", the US, is doing less than they are to try to get a ceasefire. The Egyptian are trying to get both Israel and Hamas to a ceasefire, that is the point of their brokering. The US, meanwhile, makes statements calling on Hamas to end its rocket fire but makes no parallel demands on Israel. Take a look at a press release I received today from the US Embassy in Cairo:

November 20, 2012

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

November 19, 2012

Readout of President Obama’s Call with President Morsi of Egypt

Following the dinner tonight, President Obama called President Morsi of Egypt.  The two leaders discussed ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza, and President Obama underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel.  President Obama also offered condolences for the terrible loss of life in the recent train accident in Egypt.  President Obama then called Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, and received an update on the situation in Gaza and Israel.  In both calls, President Obama expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and agreed to stay in close touch with both leaders.

The sentiment of regret about the civilian lives lost is nice, but why not ask both sides to implement a ceasefire, rather than just the one side?

There are other important elements in this NYT story, such as this:

Echoing an account presented by President Morsi, the Egyptian official said that Israel’s killing of Mr. Jabari had broken an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement that both sides had accepted the day before Mr. Jabari was targeted.

An account of this ceasefire was not just put forward by the Egyptians, it was also explained in detail by Israeli mediator Gershon Baskin in… the NYT. That might be worth a mention.

The story ends with a gibe at Egypt for amateurish spinning. Perhaps. But Egypt has never been a neutral party in this, it always officially favored the Palestinian narrative, under Mubarak it collaborated with Israel against Hamas and now it may be closer to Hamas. The old Egypt played honest broken in Palestinian reconciliation talks but backed Fatah against Hamas, now it may very well do the reverse. The odd thing about the article is that the headline and lede in particular is that it hints at a duplicity and spin, yet in mentioning Israel's own spin casts it as a result of being "more experienced in the world of the free press and democratic politics". This is odd to say the least.

Egypt, while brokering, is trying to engage the PR fight and cast blame on the root cause of the conflict — the occupation. And what is wrong with that? It's not like the Israelis are going to have their feelings hurt and leave the talks because the Egyptians have blamed them. They're not there because they consider Egypt an "honest broker", they're there because Egypt has access to Hamas and they're trying to influence the Egypt-Hamas relationship as much as Hamas itself.

The whole article is particularly odd consider the NYT's tendency, like many American publications, to make heavy use of anonymous Israeli officials and their spin. 

The president, the prosecutor, and the press

Over the weekend in Egypt, as if the fighting that took place in Tahrir Square between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (or impostors) and their detractors was not enough, a major institutional type of Mortal Kombat also took place between, on the one side, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other, Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud and the judicial establishment. On the latter’s side — out of convenience as much as principle, as Mahmoud is not a popular figure — were secular political parties who seized on this to denounce what they saw as the Brother-President’s all-out attack on the rule of law.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the lowdown.

On Wednesday, a verdict in the trial of the officials and former regime bigwigs alleged to be involved in the February 2–3, 2011 “Battle of the Camel”, one of the bloodiest episodes of the 2011 uprising, were acquitted. The public reaction was fury, partly at the judge who made the ruling but especially at prosecutors for doing such a poor job in preparing the case. The following day, Morsi asked Mahmoud to step down from his position and take the sinecure of a post as Egypt’s ambassador to the Holy See (one of the most prized posts in Egyptian diplomacy, apparently because there’s not too much work and yet you get to live in Rome). Mahmoud refused to step down, on the grounds that the president does not have the authority to sack him — only a judicial institution called the Supreme Judicial Council does. Opposition politicians and many luminaries of the judiciary condemned the move as a brazen attack on the independence of the judiciary — precisely at a time when tensions are already high between the judiciary and the Muslim Brotherhood, over a new judicial reform law and the part of the new constitution that will define the powers of the judiciary. Later, Mahmoud revealed that he has received threatening phone calls from the vice-president and senior Brotherhood figures, including hints that it would be a shame if his life was put in danger by popular fury. The president’s side initially holds its ground, but soon backtracks as the Judges’ Club holds a meeting and comes out saying sacking Mahmoud would be a coup against the independence of the judiciary. Within 48 hours, Morsi and Mahmoud meet, begin to downplay the entire episode as a misunderstanding — that Morsi was just making an innocent proposal, or that his intention was to protect Mahmoud, etc. Judges, in the meantime, say that there will be “no Tantawis in their rank”[1] and even pro-MB legal luminaries like Tarek al-Bishri condemn the whole episode.

The irony in all this is that sacking Mahmoud was a demand of revolutionary groups since just after Mubarak’s fall. But, either because Morsi did it in apparent contravention to the laws and traditions of the Egyptian judiciary (exactly how that is the case still escapes me, but I’m sure Nathan Brown will explain it all), or because it was seen as intolerable executive encroachment, it could not fly. Perhaps, overall, it was because this did seem like a brazen, over-confident attempt to leverage an unpopular verdict to get a man who, in recent months, had allowed many cases against the Muslim Brothers’ political interest (some of them absurd or frivolous, such as the case to judge on whether the Brotherhood is legal — does it matter when it party is definitely legal?) to get to court. And to send a message of toughness to the judiciary. On Mahmoud’s side, it appears what initially was an easy way to get out at a time when he has multiple cases against him and risked to face the revolutionary music became unfeasible when it became the center of attention. Quietly going to Rome is one thing, doing so in this manner is another. His calculus must have been that taking such an offer would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.

I thought it was worth recapping all this as I glanced at today’s headlines in the main Egyptian newspapers. I think the headlines tell us a little something about where the papers stand in today’s Egyptian political spectrum, and about their professionalism.

Government press

  • Al-Ahram (new editor is close to Brotherhood): The president reconsiders his decision, the prosecutor-general is maintained
  • Al-Akhbar: End of the prosecutor general crisis; The president cancels his decision to appoint him as ambassador
  • Al-Gomhouriya: Prosecutor general crisis: The law and legality triumph
  • Rose al-Youssef (formerly fiercely anti-MB): Prosecutor general crisis: Victory for rule of law

Private press

  • Al Masri al-Youm: Morsi reconsiders his decision; the prosecutor general wins
  • Al-Shorouk al-Gedid: The president of the republic loses his fight against the prosecutor general
  • Al-Tahrir (Anti-MB, pro-revolutionary): Justice comes out victorious in fight over prosecutor general

Partisan press

  • Al-Wafd (Anti-MB party): Morsi reconsiders his decision to sack the prosecutor-general
  • Al-Horreya wa al-Adala (Muslim Brotherhood newspaper): The president accepts a petition to maintain the prosecutor in his place[2]

  1. In reference to the sacking of army chief Hussein Tantawy on August 12, 2012.  ↩

  2. That headline appears to be a lie — by the newspaper and by the presidency.  ↩

Weekend long reads

This is an experimental new feature — every weekend, links to some long articles and essays worth reading. Some of these articles may be behind subscription walls.

1. Sinai: The Buffer Erodes 

Nic Pelham writes for Chatham House on the deterioration of security in Sinai:

For over 30 years, the Sinai peninsula has served as a near-empty territory cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians. With the changes brought about in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, that buffer is in doubt. The state security apparatus that underpinned the Egyptian regime collapsed, creating a vacuum that the territory’s sparse Bedouin population quickly filled with coping mechanisms of its own. Captivated by the prospect of acquiring power, local irregulars reacted fiercely to the regime’s efforts to regain control over its periphery, culminating in the August 2012 operation that targeted an Egyptian base, killing 16 soldiers, and perforated Israel’s border defences at the intersection of its border with Egypt and Gaza. Security officials, police stations, government buildings and Cairo-based institutions have all come under attack. In the eyes of its neighbours, Egypt is losing its grip over Sinai, transforming the peninsula into a theatre for the region’s competing new forces.

2. The Politics of Security Sector Reform in Egypt 

Dan Brumberg and Hesham Sallam, in a report for USIP:

The most pressing priorities for SSR in Egypt entail disengaging military institutions from political and economic activities that are not relevant to their mission of national defense and subjecting these institutions to meaningful oversight by elected civilian bodies, and transforming the police establishment from a coercive apparatus into an accountable, politi- cally neutral organization that upholds the rule of law and protects human rights. These challenges may seem conceptually distinct, but they are interrelated in a broader politi- cal context, in which the military establishment and other entrenched bureaucracies are attempting to limit the scope of institutional reform. Military interest in attenuating civilian control in a post-Mubarak Egypt seems to have deepened its reliance on the coercive capac- ity of the ministry of interior, which has taken the lead in suppressing popular mobilization. Civilian security forces, sometimes in coordination with the military, repeatedly used deadly force in confrontations with protesters calling for ending SCAF’s rule. The intertwining of institutional interests between the military and the police impedes SSR.

On a related note, see this NYT piece by Kareem Fahim on the issue of police reform, and this report by the One World Foundation on the same topic.

 3. The Revenge of the East? 

David Shulman asks some tough questions on Pankaj Mishra's much-praised book From The Ruins of Empire [Amazon US, UK], on Rabindranath Tragore, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Ling Qichao the intellectual roots of "Eastern revival":

Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate. But can we even speak of a broad “Asian” response to the West and the newfangled technologies and concomitant power equations that the West brought to the East—“printing presses, steamships, railways and machine guns,” as Mishra lists them? Living in Jerusalem and traveling often to India, I find it hard to think of Asia as a cultural unit with any integrity. There is, however, one experience that was indeed shared by the Islamic world, India, China, and Japan in the nineteenth century—that of predatory intrusion and sustained economic violation by the Western powers. The forms this intrusion took varied from place to place, but its traumatic effects were common to all the great Asian states and cultures.

4. Indecision as Strategy 

Adam Shatz reviews Israeli historian Avi Raz's The Bride and the Dowry [Amazon US, UK], a book about post-1967 Israeli strategy in the Israel-Arab conflict which uses new material to argue that "Israel's postwar diplomacy was deliberately ineffective because its leaders preferred land over peace with its neighbors":

The story of Israeli policy in the late 1960s has been told before, by Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg among others. But no one has provided as thorough – or as damning – an account as Avi Raz, a former reporter for Ma’ariv who has read every pertinent document in every available archive, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Bride and the Dowry is a work of meticulous scholarship, but it is also an angry book, burning with the sort of righteous (and sometimes repetitious) indignation to which native sons are particularly susceptible. It covers only the first 21 months after the 1967 war, but it tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy during this ‘critical and formative phase’ of the occupation. It also sheds considerable light on Israeli diplomacy today: its resistance to a deal that would allow for genuine Palestinian sovereignty; its belief that the Americans will always come to Israel’s defence, however much they privately object to land grabs; and its use of protracted negotiations as a means of buying time. Raz’s book is about the conquest of time as much as it is about the conquest of territory: the fruitless peace processing of the last two decades is only the latest chapter of his story.

5. Why India’s Newspaper Industry Is Thriving

Ken Auletta writes a fascinating essay on the state of Indian publishing and its advertising-driven editorial practices, with many lessons applicable to developing countries:

While profits have been declining at newspapers in the West, India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive; in fact, circulation and advertising are rising. In part, this is because many Indian newspapers, following an approach pioneered by the Jain brothers, have been dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department. At the Times of India, for example, celebrities and advertisers pay the paper to have its reporters write advertorials about their brands in its supplementary sections; the newspaper enters into private-treaty agreements with some advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment. These innovations have boosted the paper’s profits, and are slowly permeating the Indian newspaper industry.