The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged army
Egypt's generals: It gets ever sillier | The Economist

On the latest impossible-to-satirize news story in Egypt: The claims by a an army general that the military's research program has invented devices that detect (at a distance of 500 meters) and cure Hepatitis C and AIDS. 

The story has unravelled amid a welter of protest from independent scientists and medical professionals that neither invention has been publicly tested, published, patented or peer-reviewed. A top scientific adviser to Egypt’s president declared the claims to be a “scandal” and a potential embarrassment to the Egyptian military. Investigations by local reporters appear to show that Mr Abdel Atti received his general’s rank not through military service, but as an honorary title. As recently as last year he appeared as a faith healer on religious satellite channels and had previously made an income as a private consultant in herbal medicine. An article in a Saudi newspaper in 2009 mentions him in connection with charges of sorcery.


Predictably, given Egypt’s highly polarised and envenomed political atmosphere, the affair generated controversy on Egyptian social media. Much commentary took the form of ridicule, particularly of Mr Abdel Atti bragging that he could now feed someone "AIDS kebab" and then cure the patient in a snap. Alluding to the reputed use of torture by Egyptian security services, one Twitter message parodied an army scientist reporting to his commander: “Yessir, we’ve tested the device. Straight away every patient confesses to feeling better!”

Others leapt to the army's defence. Anyone who made fun of the invention should be denied the miracle cure, insisted one television announcer. On Facebook, another defender demanded that the president’s doubting scientific adviser should resign. All critics of the invention were, he said, complicit in a giant plot by multinational corporations and Zionists whose fiendish aim was to maintain a Western monopoly of medical know-how.


No laughing matter

My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show"). 

The first episode of the new season (in Arabic).

When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.

Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.

That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.

You can read the rest here

Traffic, the antidote to propaganda

The army and the people are one hand. Egypt is above everyone. And everything. It is also more important than everyone. And everything. We would sacrifice everything for it. We make promises and fulfill them. We will build with honesty and something related to sincerity that I would have read if the car wasn’t traveling so fast.

A picture making the rounds on social media a few weeks back

A picture making the rounds on social media a few weeks back

These short poetic sentence can be found in blue-on-white signs hanging under street lights, so you can learn the value of the homeland even at night - if you squint. They are on the new and improved Misr-ismailia Road, courtesy of interim president Adly Mansour (in the presence of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) and the armed forces.

As if having learned nothing from Titanic, I have, on one more than one occasion, bragged about how cars unfailingly maintained constant motion on this "unstoppable" road. Five lanes, I would boast -- it can comfortably take six cars and a motorcycle.

That was the case until the generals blocked it to tell us about how smooth traffic is on it and will continue to be now that they have fixed and peered over a map of it. (The very same map deposed president Morsi stood in front when he, too, was inaugurating the armed forces’ developments on the very same road with el-Sisi a few months ago.)

Sadly, the road improvements had been used too often for anyone to put another red ribbon on them now. So Mansour had to settle for inaugurating a never-before-used right turn.

Meanwhile hundreds of meters back, sullen truck drivers tried various approaches to get their vehicles past and beyond others, from caressing to punching their steering wheels. But the prevailing mood was one of resignation. Unspoken questions hung in the hot air, as people tried to choose which elbow to lean on and decide whether or not is it unpatriotic to huff and puff about waiting over an hour in the sun so that the man who saved the country from the MB can perform a useless formality. Yes, you caught the bad guys and that was very nice of you, but we really need to go -- the overstretched smiles they exchanged, and quickly dropped the second they broke eye contact, seemed to say.

Anyway, “wasn’t blocking the road a crime?” some driver with a sardonic smile wondered out loud, when news of el-Sisi’s presence reached us from the front lines. After a microbus driver reminded him that the world is sweaty and stuffy, he refocused his attention on taking a long drag from his cigarette. But once the exact purpose of el-Sisi’s presence became known, there was no shushing him or anyone else up.

“We always have to wait for the president to pass. Not once do we get a president who waits for us to pass,” a taxi driver in stripes told his new friends, impressing them with his articulation. “That's a nice one...But el-Sisi is not president --” an old man said, before forgetting or giving up on the rest of his sentence.  

As some decided to abandon the shade of their cars to sit on the baking sidewalk and bond over how awful the sun and the idea of blocking a road midday was, others began seeking pleasure in telling the new arrivals why they were all stuck there.

“El-Sisi is passing by, that’s why." A middle-aged man squeezed his big belly between cars to break the news to the newcomers with a hint of irony. The sentence is particularly reminiscent of Mubarak’s days, when traffic jams followed him around Cairo. “No, he is laying the foundation of something,” a female passenger stuck her head out to add. “But what’s that got to do with us?” the sunburnt and wrinkled newcomer inquired. He got the same defeated shrugs from every direction and a few paraphrased “Well, you know, it just had to be done now” replies.

Many felt that the belated inauguration was over the top and unnecessary. "Kind of like the Oct. 6 celebration. Why spend money on fuel for your helicopters to open an open road? Or on a million singers and dancers? I love (el-Sisi). He cleansed the state, but that money is better spent on the poor. I don't know why he does this,”  my driver said with a half-embarrassed smile before he was interrupted by the sound of slow clapping coming from old man on the deck of a red pick-up truck. He looked like a deflated Popeye and wouldn’t stop saying "It will never get better" over and over again. People tried to curb his pessimism by swearing it will if God's willing. He said they will see.

Although Cairo traffic is never fun to experience, this particular jam was not terrible. At least there was the knowledge that - despite our agitated beehive of a media - many still retain the ability to criticize the regime, however hesitantly.


In Translation: Egypt heading outside history

Courtesy Industry Arabic, the latest in our In Translation series, in which Fahmy Howeidy -- a writer with moderate Islamist leanings and a big following --  critiques 

Egypt Heading into the Unknown and Outside of History

Shorouq Newspaper, 22 October, 2013

Egypt’s current problem is that it is moving along a path leading outside of history, and one fears that Egypt will drag the Arab world along with it in the end.


Reading Egyptian newspapers these days and following the statements of politicians -- who have begun to compete with each other to court the military  and outdo one another in praising its role -- it might not occur to you that the newspaper headlines, the comments of the editors, and the statements of the politicians could almost be an exact copy of the discourse in Turkey around half a century ago. However, anyone who has read the history of the militarization of Turkish society notes that the voices calling for the armed forces to intervene to save the country from chaos and collapse reverberated loudly during every political crisis. Given the fragility and weakness of the political situation, everyone considered the military the savior and rescuer. The military had credit with the public that permitted it to play this role, since it saved the country from occupation after the First World War, established the republic and led the process of modernizing the state. This is the background that was repeatedly invoked in order to militarize society from the establishment of the republic in the 1920’s and for 80 years afterwards.

The episodes of this repeated and rehearsed scenario would play out as follows: Weak parties fail in running the state; voices are raised calling for the military to carry out its role as rescuer; the military gives a warning to the government, telling it to carry out its responsibilities; after the warning, the military announces the coup and takes over the administration of the country and the management of the out-of-control conditions. Barely a few years go by (most usually ten) before the crisis recurs and the same voices and calls reverberate again. Then the military would give its warning, followed by intervention to take over power as the only disciplined and cohesive institution, and the one with the force of weapons on the ground. This is a scenario that recurred with the coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, until the coup of 1997 that was described as a “soft” or “post-modern” coup. The jumping-off point for these coups was the fact that the military considered itself responsible for protecting the principles of the Turkish republic, along with its job of protecting the nation. To fulfill this responsibility, it imposed itself as the guardian of society. The constitution of 1982 codified this guardianship, which was exercised by the National Security Council and which formed advisory offices for the country’s military, political, economic, cultural, and media affairs, etc. The military institution went on alert after the elections of 1995 that were a relative win for the Islamist-oriented Welfare Party. This win led to the formation of a coalition government with the True Path Party. The head of the government at that time was Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Welfare Party. The military leadership responded to this by pulling the strings that it had spread out through key posts in the state and the decision-making authority, until it forced Erbakan to resign from office in 1997.


The prevailing winds Egypt since the removal of Dr. Mohamed Morsi are going in this same direction against history, after the military council’s mission came to an end in 2012. The renewal of the hopes pinned on the possibility of democratic change and creating institutions that manage society -- all of that was dashed on the 3rd of July after the removal of the elected president, the freezing of the constitution, and the dissolution of the Shura Council and other councils that had been formed. It became clear that the orientation was towards betting on the military institution and boosting the state's power over society. In this climate, the preparations for issuing a new constitution were carried out by a group that was chosen, not elected, and the military institution became the de facto source of authority and the decision maker in shaping the new situation. In this, the military institution did not force itself upon society. Rather, its steps were supported and welcomed by the elite and the civil forces with their different orientations – liberal, nationalist, and leftist. The media was the strike force that succeeded in “manufacturing consent,” in Chomsky's phrase, using the failures of Mohamed Morsi’s rule to mobilize the public and incite them against his regime, and thus standing with the camp betting on the military institution.

Given the new situation, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Defense Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, became the presidential candidate around which the civil forces coalesced. The presence of the armed forces in the committee tasked with drafting the constitution took on special significance when a clamor was raised over the defense minister’s immunity and the condition that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces approve the minister’s appointment. This action takes this authority away from the president or the prime minister. As a compromise, some proposed applying this just during a transition period of ten to twelve years. Also, the concept of trying civilians in military courts was retained, even though these courts are not even independent, but rather are subject to the minister of defense’s orders.

In this atmosphere, we read in the Al-Shorouk newspaper (edition of 10/5) important statements from a military source that the newspaper’s editor said is close to the military institution. In his statements, he focused on the following:

- That the experience of the last few years proves that the army is the only real power in Egypt for the foreseeable future, because of the weakness of secular political parties. Thus the army must have the means to guard the country against any organization or group that wishes to change the country's identity.  

- That under the current circumstances, the army can't hand the presidency to anyone it doesn't know. For the people can't lose the only weapon they possess, their national army. We don't want to far the possibility that someone disguised as a secularists gains the presidency, and appoint whoever he wishes as minister of defense, and thus can change the identity of the army. 

The newspaper Al-Shorouk did not say that the military source was speaking in the same of the armed forces, but he at least expresses a school or a trend within the armed forces that considers the military the only force and the highest authority in the Egyptian political arena. Also, he holds a position opposing the Brotherhood experience and is concerned only with avoiding a repeat of this experience, claiming that it could affect the identity of the armed forces. As for the nation’s identity and its greater good, this is a concern of secondary importance.


With the continuing expansion of the military institution in the current political vacuum and the military’s undeniably increasing role, Egypt has begun to move outside the course of history. At the very least, this means that the dream of the democratic civil state that the January 25th revolution aspired to is in a state of decline and retreat. The tangible advancements barely hint at the possibility of achieving a fraction of this dream in the near future.

The structure that is currently being set up in Egypt suffers from a fatal flaw in its balance of power and its vision. That is because it is taking place in the shadow of the strength and dominance of the military institution, and in the shadow of institutions chosen from sectors united only by their rejection of and enmity towards the Brotherhood. They represent fragile political groups without a popular base, to the point that these groups have begun to derive their legitimacy by relying on the military institution and riding on its coattails. This represents the heart of the current political crisis in Egypt. This large country cannot be built on a foundation made of an alliance between liberals and the military, and its program cannot be based simply on the idea of excluding the Brotherhood and continuing the war against terrorism. This is the observation made by numerous Western analyses that keep talking about how Egypt is headed towards the unknown now that its political influence has declined and it no longer has a notable role in regional affairs.

Not only that, but Egypt in its weakness finds itself surrendering to schemes for security and non-security cooperation with Israel, especially since the military institution is considered the most prominent pillar of the Camp David Accords. Perhaps the international predicament facing Egypt pushed it to become closer to Israel and to interact with it more. The current regime is comfortable and reassuring to Israel, contrary to President Mohamed Morsi’s regime, which Israel was uncomfortable with and found worrisome.

This same weakness – which arises from the confusion and perplexity that the strategic vision for the new situation suffers from – has driven Egypt to throw itself into the arms of Arab coalitions antagonistic to the Arab Spring in its entirety. These coalitions have their own ties and loyalties that are incompatible with the revolution’s goals and the desires of the Arab masses. When this happens while the Arab region is facing giant upheavals that could redraw its maps and subject it to plans for fragmentation and division, it reveals the high price that the Arab world could pay because of the upheaval and setback that occurred in Egypt.


The picture is not entirely frustrating, because the shocks and upheavals from which the regimes of the Arab Spring are suffering are almost completely confined to the outward manifestations of this Spring. However, the Arab Spring has another, hidden aspect that has not yet lost its vitality. I was among those who said previously that the Arab Spring, in its actuality, is a historical transformation in the constitution of the Arab person, who has begun to call for change and announce his rejection of the political and social oppression that regimes imposed on him. What I expressed was recorded in a report by the New York Times published on October 18th. This report talked about the manifestations of an unspoken mass movement that all of the Gulf Arab countries are witnessing, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at their forefront. This report was written by Christopher Davidson, a political science professor at Durham, a British university. He chose an evocative title for this report: "The Last of the Sheikhs?"

Egypt, if it loses itself through its current behavior will take the Arab world along with it as well. However, even if Egypt stands outside the course of history it will not be able to stop the wheel of history from turning. This is one of God’s rules for the universe, which is expressed in the Quranic text that states, {And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you.} (Surah Mohammad, Ayah 38).


Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.