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The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged media
In Translation: Sisi's PR reboot

An avalanche of work and a hectic travel schedule in recent weeks prevented from updating the blog. Among the things that fell by the wayside was this important piece in al-Araby that sheds light on the communications strategy of the Sisi regime, in the context of growing anxiety in Egypt and abroad about its direction and of course the recent "Sisilection" that was a PR fiasco for the regime. The last few months have seen increased activity against the media by regime stalwarts, most notably the expulsion of London Times correspondent Bel Trew, the controversy over the New York Times' stories about security influence over television figures, and the debacle over the BBC's report on the human rights catastrophe that has taken place under Sisi.

It's a little less newsy now that the election has come and gone, but this story shows once again that, for all appearances of not caring about what outsiders say, the Sisi regime is deeply sensitive to bad press and intent on countering it. For all of Egypt's post-coup rehabilitation and the frequently warm welcome Sisi has received in Paris, Berlin, Washington or elsewhere, one is struck that even among Egypt's staunchest backers in the West (and even some in the Gulf) concern about the country's trajectory is frequently expressed. It's not so much the human rights situation -- at the end of the day, no one really cares that much about that beyond the PR issues associated with it -- but that the management of the election and the clear signs of popular and military dissent that the Ahmed Shafiq and especially Sami Anan suggested (as well the way they were handled) betrayed the regime's incompetence and a degree of uncertainty over Sisi's future.

In short, if the Egyptian regime understandably worked hard after the 2013 coup to make itself frequentable and drive the narrative that getting rid of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was necessary (a narrative largely scooped up internationally), it might have expected that it could now rest on its laurels and enjoy the fruits of that rehabilitation. Yet, with this election, it has had to go back to square one and start its PR campaign anew. Now just wait until Sisi tried to remove term limits and run again...

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El-Sisi forms secret committee to polish the regime’s image abroad

al-Araby, 9 March 2018

Egyptian government sources revealed that President Abdelfattah al-Sisi recently formed a top-secret committee under the leadership of his office head, Abbas Kamel, who is currently the acting Director of General Intelligence. The committee is tasked with “improving Egypt’s image abroad and designing political and media communication policies with foreign countries, especially the United States and major European powers, as well as official and independent international organizations.”

Sources indicated that the committee includes Sisi’s security advisor and former Minister of Interior, Ahmed Gamaleddin, National Security Advisor and former Minister Faiza Aboulnaga, the head of the Egypt State Information Service, Dhia Rashwan, as well as representatives from the national security apparatus in the form of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Defense, and Justice, and General Intelligence. Sisi granted this committee wide-reaching powers on several levels:

  1. It will determine which media/propaganda issues have priority that require a response from the Egyptian authorities through media outlets or official channels.
  2. It will determine the method for dealing with media or diplomatic criticisms directed at Egypt relating to its political or human-rights stances.
  3. It will guide diplomatic, legal, and media agencies in Egypt on how to deal with those criticisms.
  4. It will select and contract with foreign marketing companies and media outlets in the United States and Europe to improve Egypt’s image.
  5. It will communicate with foreign writers, intellectuals, decision-makers in foreign countries and international organizations, regardless of whether they have offices in Egypt or not.

Sources explained that one of the new committee’s first decisions was to establish a new department that reports to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and will be responsible for dealing with foreign diplomats and journalists. Its members also received intensive courses on political and media communication, with the goal of improving Egypt’s image abroad and reassuring its European and American partners. The department was tasked with responding to different matters, especially questions from Western diplomats probing into the real causes for the recent security/military operation and whether it is actually aimed at eliminating ISIS in Sinai and the Western Sahara once and for all. The diplomats have also called into question whether this operation is somehow linked to Sisi’s re-election campaign (i.e., boosting Sisi’s popularity and increasing participation in the presidential elections scheduled for the end of this March), or if it is aimed at securing more European aid and facilities for obtaining weapons in an attempt to offset pressure from leftist groups in the European Parliament, who are pushing to prohibit military dealings with the Sisi regime on the basis that it is a repressive regime hostile to civil liberties.

The central committee also decided to select young foreign university graduates, or those with practical experience living abroad, to deal with embassies and international organizations’ offices in Egypt, after putting them through communication training courses. Additionally, the committee bears central responsibility for reviewing statements issued by the Egypt State Information Service, including the latest position on a BBC report about the phenomenon of enforced disappearance in Egypt. Sources explained that the formation of this secret committee came as a result of mounting international criticism of the regime’s political performance, specifically against the background of America’s decision issued last August to freeze and delay some military and economic aid to Egypt.

Cairo has received calls from the US and Europe to adhere to a “more transparent” approach in fighting terrorism in North Sinai in line with “human rights standards.” These concerns come in light of investigative reports accusing the regime of exacerbating conditions in Egypt generally, and Sinai specifically, where the government’s assault on civilian residents has resulted in the evacuation of vast tracts of land without any proof that they have been used in acts of violence. This is also in addition to the regime utilizing bands of civilians to kill wanted persons and suspects, which Washington considers a grave matter that may cause Sinai to become a rallying point for ISIS and other terrorists driven out from different regions of the Middle East.

In Translation: Egyptian minister, the worst job in the world
This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

Poor Egypt. Amidst all of the misery heaped on it in recent years — drastic curtailing of freedoms, terrorist attacks, military rule, unprecedented human rights abuses, a general descent into media vulgarity and irrelevance, grotesque injustices dished out daily, a hapless and disconnected elite, the list goes on and on –– it is in a mind-boggling economic mess. The Egyptian pound has broken all expectations after November’s devaluation and lingers at the LE18-20 to the USD level, compared to LE8.8 at the official rate a year ago and until recently never much more than LE15 on the black market. 2017 will be brutal for ordinary Egyptians of all classes, and the optimistic take that such painful austerity is a prelude to recovery leaves one wondering: where is this country headed? How will this end?

President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, when not coming up with innovative solutions to these economic challenges, faces a dilemma. Like Donald Trump, he knows he is the best man for the job of making his country great again — everyone says so on TV. But he is surrounded by incompetents and saboteurs. So yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time since he took power in July 2013, a cabinet shuffle appears imminent. Except it’s so hard to find good help these days! For weeks, the Egyptian press has reported that prospective ministers are turning down offers to join the cabinet led by Prime Minister Ismail Sherif (whose job is reportedly safe, although probably just till the next shuffle in a few months). Amazingly in a country where it seems everyone seems to aspire to be a wazir, there are no takers. 

The columnist Ashraf al-Barbary, in the piece below, has a courageous and eloquent explanation why. A little background may be necessary: under Sisi, most if not all key decisions are made in the presidency. A kind of shadow government run by intelligence officers holds the real files. And the president – as seen in the long-postponed decision to devalue the currency – waits until the very last moment to make vital decisions, wasting time, public confidence and opportunity in the process. All of this is well-known. For a writer to express himself so forthrightly in today’s Egyptian press (al-Shorouk being an upscale daily broadsheet) would have been unthinkable a year or two ago, but things are changing fast and people are fed up. The various lobbies (big business, civil society groups, political parties etc.) that would normally influence policy under the Mubarak era have no way in. Decisions are made in mysterious ways. Ministers have little leeway to implement their own vision and see no coherent plan coming from the top. No wonder Sisi’s headhunters are having trouble.

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Blessed are those who turn down ministerial posts

Ashraf al-Barbary, al-Shorouk, 25 January 2017
If there is truth to the reports from government sources that many candidates have excused themselves from taking up ministerial positions, then we are right to ask the government to reveal the names of these people so that we can praise them. 
Someone who would give up a ministerial post — which so many hearts long for — must be one of two types of person: a straightforward person who does not believe that he would be able to tackle the disastrous situation the country has come to due to the irrational policies that we have been following for years, and who therefore chooses to forego rather than to accept a position where he is not qualified to succeed; or a person who is sufficiently qualified to succeed but respects himself and refuses to be made into a mere “presidential secretary” who carries out instructions from above in accordance with our ancient political legacy. 
Of course, the political and media militias loyal to the ruling regime will come out to heap charges of treason and of abandoning the country in a difficult time on these honorable people who have refused to take up these “high-level positions” in order to avoid certain failure, either because they do not have the qualifications and abilities to help them confront disasters they did not create, or because they know that their qualifications and abilities would not bring success amid failed policies they have no means of changing, because they have come from who-knows-where. 
The opposite is entirely true: A person who refuses to play the role of extra at the ministerial level — not knowing why they brought him to the ministry or for what reasons they would remove him — is a person who deserves to be praised in comparison with a person who accepts a ministerial role while knowing that many high-level posts in his ministry and its agencies have been transformed into end-of-service benefits, which some obtain after the end of their term of service, compulsory by law, without any consideration for standards of competence and training. 
The last three years have seen more than one cabinet shuffle. However, the situation has deteriorated at all levels, meaning that the problem may not be the minister or even the prime minister, but rather in the policies and ideas which are being imposed on those who accept these appointments. Accordingly, the insistence on carrying out cabinet reshuffles without any serious attempt to review the overarching policies and decisions that have led the country into economic and social catastrophe — indeed, the current policies — will not yield anything positive. 
Nothing underscores the absurdity and superficiality of the cabinet shuffle and the fact that everything is coming from above more so than the status of the parliament. In theory, the new constitution gives the parties and blocs in parliament the highest word in forming the government; however, we see them waiting for whatever ingenious cabinet lineup the executive authority is so kind as to bestow upon them, just to rubber stamp it even before the lawmakers know all the names of the new ministers — as occurred when they voted to appoint the current supply minister within a few minutes. 
If the authorities had the slightest degree of seriousness about reform or the desire to form a government that had the slightest degree of independence, the prime minister would have gone to the parties at the heads of large blocs in parliament for them to give him candidates from among their members for ministerial posts. This would contribute toward developing political and democratic experience on the whole, and also offer the benefit of ministers who do not owe their presence in the ministry solely to the satisfaction of a higher power, but rather to their parties, who may later seek to form an entire government, as occurs in any rational country. 

 

The Egyptian Muslim Brothers' media war

Mokhtar Awad, for POMEPS, on how the divisions inside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have played out onto their media outlets:

Both traditional and new media have been critical tools in this internal struggle. Different satellite channels compete to “set the tone” for the group’s struggle against the regime and the rhythm of the organization through their programming and guests they allow on air. Rival factions now operate two different websites and have two different spokesmen on social media. Each first and foremost concerned with securing the loyalty of the MB rank and file. Senior leaders post rival statements on websites and followers instantly react on their Facebook walls, sometimes arguing with each other. Other members have also set up independent Facebook pages to assert their demands or act as privateers on behalf of one faction to land blows against their rivals.

This fascinating new environment naturally allows forces outside the MB’s traditionally rigid structure to interfere in this internal struggle with either their financing or through media activism. This has significant consequences for the organization and the Egyptian Islamist movement overall as different Imams and ideologues—ranging from the “moderate” to the outright Takfiri—can compete for ratings and as a consequence possibly influence. The new diverse media environment also provides a useful tool to help analyze internal MB dynamics and help answer the fundamental question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s dissident Islamists.

In Translation: Of Egypt, Qatar, and Libya

I am quite late in posting the translation below, which was published in May soon after the Vienna ministerial meeting on Libya in which Western powers announced that they were prepared to put in place an exemption to the arms embargo to provide weapons and training to the fledging Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj. The piece below is interesting, as an op-ed by a newspaper that while London-based is funded by Qatar. It signals the continuing exasperation in Doha with Egypt’s foreign policy, a precursor to this week’s diplomatic spat follow the sentencing of deposed President Mohammed Morsi on charges of having spied for Qatar. And, some might say, the odd kind-of-proxy war between the Egypt/UAE-backed Haftar forces and those Islamist forces in Libya closer to Qatar (who once again clashed in recent days.)

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Cairo Uses Haftar to Prevent Libyan Reconciliation
Editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 19 May 2016

The Libyan crisis has witnessed a new development: The United States and the countries of the European Union have announced that they are prepared to arm the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, the option of direct Western military intervention has receded (despite the presence of American and European special forces on Libyan territory). After the GNA took over most ministry headquarters, it announced the names of its ministers. Then, forces loyal to this government began to clash with “Islamic State” forces—the main point of focus for Western powers—and to retake areas, checkpoints and border posts. The major difficulty that the GNA faces, though, is approval of its legitimacy by the recognized Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Despite a majority of representatives agreeing to this, having signed statements and announcing their explicit desire to recognize the GNA, the House of Representatives continues to refrain from doing so, for reasons that are quite clear.

The matter is related, of course, to the military control that the Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, enjoys over the eastern region of Libya, where the House of Representatives is located. From a regional perspective, it is also related to approval by the authorities in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—the actual sponsors of General Haftar—of the international plan to move from civil war to reconciliation.
In a recent statement made by General Haftar to a Libyan television channel, he said, “It is unheard of for a government to be established during a time of terrorism.” He means by this, of course, the GNA. He further stated that he “has nothing to do with political dialogue” and that what he is interested in is “imposing security and stability and ridding Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he argued that “democracy will come to pass over the generations,” but that he believes in it because he experienced it for 25 years in the West! Haftar’s statements contradict one another and undermine any credibility he has.

Collectively, his statements clearly express his enormous disdain for his supposed partners in Libya in his rejection of political dialogue and his acknowledgement of only one solution, the one that he imposes with his military forces and that eliminates the Muslim Brotherhood. After he establishes security and stability, he sees nothing wrong with promising Libyans (or those that are left) with democracy, which “he alone knows because he lived for 25 years in the West,” but in the generations to come!

In their cartoonishness, these statements made by General Haftar do not diverge from those of another general, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This is the man in whose footsteps Haftar had hoped—and continues to hope—to follow in moving from military control on the ground and over the government and the House of Representatives to the Libyan presidency. This has eluded him, however, for the simple reason that Libya is not Egypt and because the éradicateur solution did not work. This is what pushed the United Nations and the international community, in the end, to resort to the current compromise scenario.

Support for the Haftar option for Libya has led, in practice, to significant tragedies inflicted on the Libyan state and society. This has strengthened the hardline Salafist movement, as represented by the Islamic State. Furthermore, it has contributed to destabilizing the security of countries both close by and in Europe and to enabling gangs of smugglers to traffic across the Mediterranean those seeking refuge in Europe.
The only reason for this option to remain active on the Libyan scene is that its collapse would reveal the absurdity of the Egyptian model on which it was founded – something that Cairo is trying to postpone as much as possible.

Egyptian plane crash a Western conspiracy, says Egyptian media

From the AP:

In the same paper, Lamis Gaber wrote that London "was very pleased" with the IS claim of responsibility. "As long as the English and (IS) are in political agreement and ideological and strategic harmony, then perhaps the information might be true," she wrote.
Moscow's decision to suspend its flights as well threw some of the conspiracy theories into confusion, since Russian President Vladimir Putin is always depicted as a strong supporter of el-Sissi.
"Even you, Putin?" the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm's front page proclaimed.
In the largest state newspaper, Al-Ahram, Taha Abdel-Aleem wrote that British and Americans statements on the crash were part of pressure "aiming to empower the Brotherhood and humiliate Egypt, as well as turn public opinion in Russia against its war on terror in Syria" — referring to Moscow's air campaign there.
One well-known Egyptian actor even said on a TV talk show that the British prime minister — whom he identified as "John Brown," perhaps muddling the names of previous prime ministers John Major and Gordon Brown — "is in the Muslim Brotherhood."
The Islamic State and the Arab media: violence and ridicule

I was in just in Rome for a conference put on at the foreign ministry there by Reset, a publication dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue, and the Arab Media Report, an excellent Italian observatory. The conference was about media, censorship and dialogue in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. Olivier Roy, Fawaz Gerges, Donatella Della Ratta and I spoke about various aspects of the Islamic State's propaganda and about reactions in the Arab media.

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Professor Roy emphasized that the Islamic state is a youth movement more than a social movement or an Islamic movement and that those who join are in rebellion against their families (rather than participating in a socially recognized form of militancy). Professor Gerges warned that the side-effect of the focus on the savagery of the Islamic State is the legitimation of "good" salafi-jihadist movements like Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. Professor Della Ratta argued that the media of Sunni Arab countries has not been able to condemn the Islamic State fully because it views it as its deplorable but necessary proxy in the regional Sunni-Shia (KSA-Iran) war. 

Everyone agreed that it is much too soon to measure the impact of ISIS propaganda on recruitment and public opinion -- the data just isn't there, and the question is complicated by how much media of different kinds for different audiences they produce. And that one shouldn't rush to try to craft a "counter-narrative" to the Islamic State before even understanding what their narrative is (and that in any case that narrative cannot come from the West, and that it will not be enough unless political and material conditions in Syria and Iraq change as well). 

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

I spoke a bit about the spectacular violence of the Islamic State and the way it is designed to capture and dominate the imagination. The responses meanwhile have ranged from retribution (retaliatory strikes and executions by Egypt and Jordan after their citizens were murdered) to conspiracy theories (a very common claim, based on some elements of truth, is that ISIS is a Western creation) from condemnation to ridicule. The Islamic State is already a joke in many editorial cartoons and TV sit-coms. This satire ranges from a healthy subversion of the sick mises-en-scene of which ISIS is so obviously proud, to a more disturbing sort of denial. One very interesting example of depictions of the Islamic State in Arab popular culture is the Saudi sitcom Selfie, in which a father travels to find his jihadist son and pretends to join ISIS to get close to him and persuade him to leave. Lots of of fun is poked at the Islamic state, but the intergenerational conflict is played straight; the satirical show ends in tragedy. The main comic actor who plays the father has of course received death threats from ISIS. 

"Selfie" aired on MBC satellite TV channel last Ramadan

 

More attacks on the press in Turkey

Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.

"Who are we?" "The Erdogans!" "What do we want?" "All the money!" "When?" "Right now!" "..." "The Erdogans!" From @HandeGabrali

The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists.

Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists.

Given that the Gulenists were once allies of the AKP and permitted to hold positions of influence in media and government, Erdogan’s reaction is not all that shocking. In the estimation of the socialist daily Birgun, these actions have been aimed at circling AKP wagons ahead of the November elections, a tactic that other observers of Turkish politics saw in action even before now.

The targeting of the conglomerate is part of a larger crackdown on Gulenist finances. But this was not always so: Koza Ipek’s foray into the national media market was initially welcomed by the AKP, since its conservative editorial line distinguished it from other media, like the Dogan Media Group, that have long been critical of the AKP.

But since 2013, the Gulenists have had a serious falling out with the AKP. Cracks were apparent prior to then over economic policy and foreign affairs, but the real break came with a massive anti-corruption campaign that the Gulenists championed against the AKP’s leadership. As punishment for this effort, the movement is now described in state media as a “cult” plotting a putsch, no better than the alleged “Ergenekon” conspirators of the early 2010s who were themselves billed as the second coming of Operation Gladio.

The AKP-Gulen relationship first blossomed in 2002 when the two Islamist camps struck a “tactical alliance.” But during the course of the controversial “Ergenekon” trials, the AKP may have decided that the Gulenist press had gained too much influence in their coverage and championing of the investigations. Likewise, the Gulenists recognized they had gained greater influence in the country’s political life by pursuing the campaign so assiduously. Disenchantment within Gulenist ranks was rapidly growing over Turkey’s economic tribulations, making them wonder if they might not do a better job than the AKP. AKP stalwarts meanwhile resented the Gulenists’ apparent disregard for the compromises and failures the AKP had to take on as the ruling party.

The Gulenists’ own successes provided ample avenues of attack against their organization, in the end. Their internationalism became proof of an inherently conspiratorial nature. The patronage and access their adherents enjoyed were reinterpreted as efforts to create deep cover for infiltrating institutions. And criticism of economic policies that negatively impacted Gulenist donors came to be seen as a prelude to a run on the AKP at the polls. All of this became part of the “evidence” that the movement was a hostile “parallel structure,” an Islamist Gladio biding its time.

By December 2013, following months of skirmishing, the matter came to a head when the judiciary and police, both of which counted many Gulenists among their ranks, began investing the AKP leadership for corruption, uncovering scandals that the Gulenist-affiliated press pursued with vigor. Now a line had been crossed, and an AKP “witch hunt” began in earnest. Erdogan’s position on the Gulenists’ overreach was made quite clear by the subsequent firing of Gulenists from their jobs, the cessation of support for the movement’s work, raids or arrests of its supporters, and remarks in pro-AKP outlets threatening to squash critics like bugs. Turkish democracy has been seriously undermined by this “witch hunt”, which has continued unabated for almost two years. Comments today that imply the AKP has been (too) kind in staying its hand against the press continue to echo remarks made by AKP functionaries in 2013 that “we could drown you [protestors] in a spoon of water, but luckily for you we believe in democracy.”

There is no unified line among editorial critics of the AKP: they range from the secular nationalist camp to Islamists to oligarchs and trade unionists alike. But the most common theme today is exposing greased palms on the frontlines of the Iraqi and Syria conflicts. Corruption is so close to the surface that reporters who take the risk can find ample evidence of it.

It is quite clear that elements within Turkey’s security services are not averse to turning a buck from these conflicts. Oil smuggling rings ranging across the borders of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria draw in a cast ranging from the Turkish Gendarmerie to ISIS muscle. People smuggling is lucrative, too, whether it be to bring jihadists into Syria or refugees out. The only real question left is if dodgy deals like Heysem Topalca’s arms-for-artifacts trading are one-offs, or if his case was typical but just too egregious to ignore. Given that larger smuggling operations fly artifacts out of dig sites in northern Syria, it would seem that the latter case is more likely. As the archaeologist Sam Hardy notes, such plundering by the security services to finance a “dirty war” has precedent in Turkish politics. It is little wonder that this sort of muckraking is discouraged at all levels, from the president’s office on down.

For now, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury of VICE News have been released, but their colleague, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, has not – presumably because the government can more easily bully someone who doesn’t have a Western passport. It also sends a message to the domestic fixers, reporters, and translators who make international media coverage of Turkey’s domestic political turmoil possible. 

Media, the regime, and censorship in Egypt

Our own Nour Youssef has a piece in the Guardian about the Egyptian media, the role it has played in the events of recent years, and the complicated system by which it stays in alignment with regime interests. It has interviews with a who's-who of prominent TV hosts and is chock-full of incredible quotes. 

“I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution,” says Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters inEgypt.
Moussa has no qualms admitting on air his relationship with the authorities – and his vocation to serve them. He claims he would also extend the same courtesy to the police, he said but he “might stop and think a little first”.
Sharing Moussa’s sense of duty towards the military is the veteran talk show host Mahmoud Saad, from Al-Nahar TV. “The military should never, ever, ever be covered,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don’t know what will hurt national security.”
But it’s also the power to influence people that appeals to him, he says. “It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that when you swing right,” he says as he swivels his upper body right, “the people will swing right. “And when you swing left,” he goes on, swivelling in the opposite direction “the people will swing left.”

 

Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 

 

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Meanwhile, others decided to argue for their conspiracy theories. To ex-Jihadist talking head Nabil Naeem that means just saying that ISIS received training from US marines in Jordan in 2011. To Ahmed Moussa, the proof lay in the quality of the video and the clearly Al Jazeera HD camera it was shot with. There is also the logo in the video, which Adeeb noted looks a lot like Al Jazeera's (it’s Arabic calligraphy, they all look alike). And then there is the fact that they put the victims in orange jumpsuits, which are, of course, unavailable outside US prisons.

To Tamer Ameen the proof was ISIS referring to the Prophet as “the one who was sent by the sword,” which just so happens to confirm the Western belief that Islam was spread by the sword. So they must be Westerners! (This still beats Amany el-Khayat’s proof, which was  that “Arabs don’t use acronyms.”)

Hoping to stand out, the Lebanese Tony Khalifa decided to fake a beheading on air just to prove that it can be done. Personally, Khalifa believes that ISIS brutally kills people all the time, but he finds the most recent videos, especially James Foley and other Westerners’, to have been tampered with. Strengthening his doubts were the interviews with the families of the victims, who appeared too calm, “like their children were still alive.”

El-Mehwar TV, on the other hand, got itself a hacker with a soul patch, wearing a jacket over bare skin. He claimed to have hacked a jihadi forum (which they pretended was ISIS’s official website) and server, and to have watched the unedited version of the 21 beheadings, where the victims were screaming despite their mouths being mostly closed and that there was an un-ISIS-like woman on a crane and an American-looking film crew. “I can tell the nationality (of a person) from their appearance” he explained.

 

Despite calling for the crucifixion of ISIS members and saying they are a Zionist conspiracy, Al-Azhar has angered folks by stopping short of calling them apostates.  

“Quit. May God would have mercy on you,” Adeeb told the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, who argued that so long as the ISIS fighters apostates continue to adhere to the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) and not denounced Islam, he can't label them as apostates. 

This sparked many accusations that Al Azhar are terrorist-lovers. To prove it, Ibrahim Eissa read excerpts from an Al-Azhar’s high school book stating plainly that fighting infidels is the duty of every sane, physically able man, while Youssef el-Husseiny read the story of Abu Bakr, senior companion of the Prophet, allegedly burning an infidel, from Al-Azhar’s al-Badyah wa al-Nahyah by Ibn Kathir -- the same story from which ISIS derives justification for its burning of the Jordanian pilot.

Meanwhile in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, journalists took the videos themselves in stride and remained firmly focused on their own grievances.  

“I will not respond to the idiots that are calling (the burned Jordanian pilot) a martyr,” said MB-affiliated cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim. He will also not grace us with his take on whether or not burning people is permissible. He just wants to know if it is so bad to burn people, why didn’t mainstream media say anything about the protesters the security forces supposedly burned during the dispersal of the MB’s Rabaa sit-in?

Ghoneim also spent 14:30 minutes of his 15 minute video commentary on the beheadings of Coptic Egyptians talking about how unfairly large monasteries are in Egypt and how Copts should stop complaining about the obstacles they face to building churches, since they never overflow out of them like Muslims do out of mosques -- before angrily reminding his viewers of how Copts conspired to get rid of Muslim president Mohamed Morsi. Ghoneim then said he had no comment on the beheadings. 

The last conspiracy theory comes from Al Jazeera’s guest and Syrian rebel  Shiekh Hassan el-Dighym. After explaining that Sunni ISIS is the result of oppression by the Alwaite-Shia government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shiaa government of Nour al-Maliki in Iraq, the Sheikh said that the group is made up of tortured Sunni Muslims and prisoners broken out of prison, who are manipulated and controlled by undercover Shiaa intelligence officers from Iraq.

Egyptian media: a shameless parallel dimension

Unbelievable. This sentence (among others) in a  New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick about Sisi's speech to the UN:

What viewers back in Egypt could not see was that during the General Assembly, almost all of the diplomats present watched in amused silence as Mr. Sisi’s small entourage did the clapping in response to his chant.
becomes this assertion in Al Ahram newspaper:
Kirkpatrick pointed out that all the diplomats were in a state of silence and enjoyment throughout al-Sisi’s speech.
On James Foley, Steven Sotloff and freelance journalism in the Middle East

It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder. 

These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.

Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing. 

There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.

In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments). 

Shame on Al Masry Al Youm

The degradation of public discourse in Egypt continuous its spectacular course, a spiral of falsities, smears, and calls for vigilantism from supposed "intellectuals."

Here -- thank to our friends at Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service -- are excerpts from two op-eds published recently in the privately owned Al Masry Al Youm (a newspaper that back when it was launched in 2005 was celebrated as "opposition" and "independent" and that broke some genuine scoops regarding voter fraud). In the first, playwright Ali Salem -- invoking the antecedent of a mysterious splinter group in 1970s France that called itself "L'Honneur de la Police" and claimed several assassinations -- calls for the police in Egypt to form extra-judicial death squads. In the second column, which was taken down after an outcry (and a strongly worded protests from the Brazilian ambassador in Cairo), a certain Dr. Nassar Abdallah argues that Egypt should learn from Brazil's example, claiming that country's decision to hunt and kill street children was part of its economic miracle. Neither column is in the least bit satirical. 

The Honor of the Police Group, Ali Salem, Al Masry Al Youm, May 30

An "Honneur de la Police" organization working in complete secrecy would have greater ability to obtain the required information. Human beings have a natural inclination to help the strong, provided that they guarantee their safety. Ultimately, the important thing is that anyone who sets fire to a police APC finds will find his house set on fire the same night by unknown actors. If you monitor a police officer's movements in order to kill him, you and your family should know that you will be killed the very same night.

Am I inciting the police to imitate their peers in France to protect themselves and defend their personal honor? Yes, I am inciting them to do that. I am inciting the men of the Egyptian police to kill any vile murderer who thinks that no one will pursue him and exact punishment.

Is what I am calling for an infringement of the law? Yes, by all means. "Raise your voice a little so I can hear you." Yes, what am I calling for is not legal, but it is just by every standard. The greatest and most sacred human right is the right to self-defense. What I am asking is to allow police officers – of which my father was one – to defend their lives and honor as members of the most honorable profession, and let conventional legal forms have their due afterwards.

Street Children: The Brazilian Solution, Al Masry Al Youm, Nassar Abdallah, June 20

Due to these considerations, the Brazilian security apparatus at the time resorted to an extremely cruel and outrageous solution to deal with the street children phenomenon. It consisted of widespread hunting and cleansing campaigns in which thousands of them were executed like stray dogs in order to prevent the harm and risks they presented! The other forces in Brazilian society realized that what the police were doing was a crime in every sense of the word, that these children were in reality victims, not criminals, and that it is horrendous to execute people for crimes that they did not commit. Everybody realized that, but almost all of them turned a blind eye to what the police were doing because they all stood to benefit from it. The political leadership did not officially announce that they backed the police's actions, but they did not try to put any security official on trial because they knew that the alternative to executing street children was to rehabilitate them. The problem with that was that it would require a huge budget that would necessarily come at the expense of providing job opportunities for citizens who had lost their jobs, and this would put their economic reform plan at risk of failure.

Average citizens – even those who openly denounce the execution campaigns, deep down appreciate the seriousness of the government's reform program and feel relieved that the street children are disappearing from the streets of the main cities, where they can now go out with their sons and daughters without fear. Although some media outlets denounce the campaigns, they still keep reminding citizens of the street children's aggressive nature and the crimes that they will no doubt commit in increasing number if they are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, the human rights organizations that have heroically defended street children's right to life have been attacked for applying a double standard in that they do not take into account the right of average citizens to safety.

In this way, the Brazilian solution succeeded in clearing the main streets of major cities from street children and driving the ones who remained into the slums. However, this success should not be attributed to the cruelty involved, but first and foremost to the fact that the will to reform existed among Brazil's political leadership, which fought corruption and provided millions of job opportunities to Brazilians, and then was able to transform an economy on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the most important global economies. This is the lesson that should be heeded by anyone trying to learn from the Brazilian experience.

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

When a Kidnapped Journalist Is a Freelancer

Good piece on the risks freelancers take covering conflicts, by Jaron Gilinsky for Medium:

A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.

Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.

Gilinsky gives tons of examples of journalists and especially photographers risking their lives, with little protection, under this system. This, regrettably, is the typical example of photographer Ali Mustafa, who died in Syria:

Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.