The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Commentary
On the politics behind Tunisia's protests

I wrote the piece below with my colleague Michael Ayari, to touch on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia, which are examined at length in a new Crisis Group report, Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift. (Update: Michael and I also have a different piece in Le Monde: En Tunisie, « le risque d’une dérive autoritaire ».)


The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity -- frustration with social injustice and corruption -- today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent -- the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country -- and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) -- often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (”What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration -- but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract -- and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population -- as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.

Issandr El Amrani and Michael Ayari are respectively North Africa Project Director and Senior Tunisia Analyst at International Crisis Group.

On the deep state

I have – alongside Steven Cook, Philip Giraldi and Gonul Tol - a short piece out in the NYT's Room for Debate on the subject of deep states. The other articles are largely Turkey-focused (because of one interpretation of the AKP's recent electoral victory an inversion of the deep state as experienced in Turkey in the 1980s). I take a slightly contrarian view on deep states, pointing out that shadowy networks of interests are not always bad and arguing that in Tunisia, these worked to avert a wider crisis that could have easily gone in the direction of what happened in Egypt. Generally, though, when you hear about the deep state, it's not good news - and when you don't hear about it, it does not mean it's not there.

Penalty card for Qatar
Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar.  Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

A "plot to buy the World Cup" comes to light, but will raking FIFA over the coals make a difference for Qatar's overheating guest workers?

During the Cold War, Taiwan and the People's of Republic of China routinely threw money at smaller countries in order to get them to switch their recognition from one China to the other at the UN. It was the most blatantly bullion-based diplomacy one could observe then, in a world of it. The World Cup bid involves some dynamics, except - since it is the World Cup - the stakes are even higher than the Two Chinas Policy. Brazil is hosting the next one; then Russia will do so in 2018, and to Qatar goes the 2022 honor. Some football officials have complained about the poor climatic prospects for players in the Gulf's summer heat on that date - yet the heat is even worse for the guest workers barred from organizing unions to protest the policies Qatar exercises over them. As the current controversy in Brazil shows, for the prestige of the World Cup, there are few prices that host countries politicians and their lobbyists won't pay to win that honor. 

So far, assertions that "football cannot tolerate a World Cup built on the back of workers’ abuse, misery and blood" have failed to derail the massive Qatari effort. Whether the latest round of scandal will make a difference is yet to be seen. And it is one whale of a scandal, even by FIFA's poor reputation. According to The Sunday Times, Qatar bought up votes from Confederation of African Football (CAF) member associations and important football executives worldwide ahead of the World Cup 2018/2022 vote with lavish junkets and "donations" cumulatively worth millions of dollars.† Potentially compromised parties in Asia, Europe, and Latin America have also been named in the Times, including the infamous (and now censured) Trinidadian ex-FIFA executive Jack Warner. Football associations in Somalia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Burundi, the Gambia, Sao Tomé, Zambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Togo, and Nigeria were all specifically named in The Sunday Times' expose. 

So far, concrete proof of Qatari malfeasance in the run up to the 2010 bid for 2022 been hard to come by, though at least one associate of Qatari football supremo Mohammed bin Hammam was previously suspended and fined when he was caught bragging about the "millions" of pounds he was being offered by two unnamed countries to influence the vote. It is the sort of strategy straight out of the Soviet playbook for the non-aligned countries in the second twentieth century. But if the Times' allegations - drawn from a trove of emails leaked to the paper detailing all of this horse-trading - prove true, then that proof will finally exist. And none too soon for Qatar's competitors, since it is theoretically possible to redo the executive committee's vote or 2022, stripping Doha of its victory.

Bin Hammam, formerly the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation and owner of the Kemco construction company, is described as the point man for this effort, disbursing payments and promises here and there ahead of the voting - from personal kickbacks to weekend getaways to promises to back certain associations' pet projects in exchange for their support. Kemco allegedly helped pass some of the coney along, but much of it is said to have delivered personally to the recipients in cash payments of several thousands dollars a head, and via "10 slush funds" he set up for the campaign. Bin Hammam denies such charges, as do all of the people the Times says he wined and dined with in Kuala Lumpur (or elsewhere) to influence the bidding process several years ago. 

Once one of the most influential members of FIFA's executive committee, bin Hammam was banned for life from football in 2011 by FIFA after being convicted of bribing the Caribbean Football Union to support his campaign against Sepp Blatter, the incumbent President of FIFA. Mr. Blatter is no fiscal angel himself - the subject of past inquiries about his finances have gone in his favor, though - and even tried to make light of Qatar's human rights record by suggesting that LGBT fans "should refrain from any sexual activities" at FIFA 2022 in Doha. Like the rest of FIFA's executive committee, he now finds himself in hot water over the allegations that a disgraced official, acting behalf on the Government of Qatar, played FIFA like a flute. And strangely, despite his earlier support for the vote (and aforementioned flippancy) even before this scandal broke, Mr. Blatter conceded to persistent criticism that awarding the Cup to Qatar was actually a "mistake."

It goes without saying, but both FIFA and bin Hammam are denying The Sunday Times report, and further follow-up reporting. Qatar's own FIFA team denies any formal relationship with the blackballed bin Hammam. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce, though, said the body should re-vote if FIFA's top legal counsel, Michael Garcia, finds a paper trail for the alleged bribes in the coming months (Garcia was in fact the lawyer who signed off on the findings that torpedoed bin Hammam's FIFA career, so has a good reputation in this regard).

A second vote would be a PR disaster for Qatar, and if it did not win back the cup in the process, Doha will have sunk millions into the planned city of Lusail and other venues to little gain. One can imagine all of the other Gulf states laughing derisively at the sight of vacant lots and roads to nowhere should this come to pass (construction has not yet advanced very far). That, according to Australian football officials, the United States could secure the 2022 bid if Qatar loses it would be the final insult.

The charges do little to help Qatar's international image since reports began airing over a year ago that hundreds of guest workers, almost all of them from South and Southeast Asia, have died on the job since the bid was won. These have not been for FIFA-related worksites, but general totals: over the past decade, thousands of guest workers have perished in the wider Gulf region. The deaths are not so obvious as fatal falls and electrocutions from high towers, but a combination of long hours in difficult climatic conditions with inadequate housing and healthcare. And there is the matter (difficult to quantify) of a general malaise among workers resulting from their isolation and impoverishment relative to full Qatari citizens. Not to mention their anemic legal rights in-country. But given the amount of work the World Cup is set to generate for foreigner laborers, there has been no slowdown in applications (legal or not) to come and build up Lusail despite the risks.

Qatar has not been handed a red card by FIFA. At best, it's been handed a yellow card, if even that. So, for now, Doha gets to stay on the field.


†Much of the effort was apparently concentrated among CAF members, who control four of the 24 executive committee seats which vote on bids. At least 12 votes are needed to win, and there are unofficial backdoor campaigns going on throughout the process to prevent voters from switching their support (this was a bitter point of contestation between Qatar and the UK, apparently). The 2022 vote actually involved only 22 committee members: 2 had lost their voting rights due to corruption scandals and were not replaced during the process.
Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd

This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.

An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.

The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.

While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer --  a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.

Hits

Some of Mujtahidd’s tweets suggest access to clear insider sources. This occurred on 10 July, when he published a sting of negative information about the climate inside the Saudi Intelligence Agency. According to his sources, the Director did not understand the intel trade, employee morale was low, and the quality of the analysis being produced was frequently poor:

 

 

Shortly after, the Royal Court announced a change in leadership at the top. Whether his description of the situation inside the agency was accurate or not, the timing appeared to indicate advance knowledge of a major cabinet shift well before it happened. 

Moreover, Mujtahidd seems to have good sources inside King Abdullah’s entourage and frequently provides credible information about his health and travel schedule. For example, when Crown Prince Nayif died in early June of last year, Mujtahidd decisively predicted that the King would be too sick to attend the funeral, something that also proved true:

 

 

Misses

On the other hand, while Mujtahidd’s anonymity offers him a layer of protection from both the embarrassment of being wrong and lawsuits from the targets of his trash talk it also encourages at times sensationalism.

Take a series of tweets last Fall claiming that the Ministry of the Interior knew about certain planned terrorist attacks, yet did not stop them because Prince Mohamed bin Nayif, then Deputy Minister and responsible for counterterrorism, wanted to increase his influence within the Royal Family. When readers asked for supporting evidence, the all-too-convenient response was that doing so would put his sources in jeopardy:

 

 

Frequent exaggeration also undermines his credibility on certain issues.  One area where this occurs is on the issue of economic inequality. The gap between the super rich and average Saudis is in fact huge and no one disputes the stratospheric wealth of the most senior Royals but according to Mujtahidd’s “inside” information, the late Crown Prince Sultan left over $200 Billion to his heirs, which would have made him the richest person in the world: 

 

 

Another is the issue of land ownership. It is true that the accumulation of large chunks of land in the hand of a small group of elites over the last several decades is a factor in causing the lack of affording housing for average Saudis. Yet Mujtahidd’s tweets gives the impression that it is merely a few greedy Royals hoarding the best land and engaging in land speculation. The reality is that there are many factors causing the problem as the often highly nuanced discussions on Saudi television shows indicate.  

Overlook the Sensationalism and Understand the Agenda 

The key to analyzing the information in publicity-seeking Mujtahidd-style social media accounts is to put everything in the context of the broader political agenda. My guess is that Mujtahidd is a lawyer or perhaps a group of lawyers, who hope to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government, in the form of a constitutional monarchy. 

This is probably the purpose of the constant broadcasting of detailed descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, a son of the late King Fahd and a minister without portfolio in the Saudi cabinet, covering everything from the size of his entourage to his Yachting schedule. Yet there are plenty of wealthy Saudis -- both Royals and commoners -- who live in similar luxury and are never the target of Mujtahidd’s wrath. Why the intense focus on one person?

Upon closer look, the point seems less about the travel per se, and more an indirect critique of the political system. What he really seems to be angry about is that the Prince is a member of the Saudi cabinet who (according to Mujtahidd) neglects his duties by spending so much time abroad. By focusing on the lifestyle details he is trying to get people to think more about what good governance entails. See this telling tweet where he basically says the scandal is more about a system where the King and Crown Prince are unable to remove an (allegedly) non-performing official:

 

 

The Ugly Truth about Saudi Political “Analysis”

It may be easy to dismiss Mujtahidd as a rumor-monger, but the simple fact is that nearly everything written about Saudi high politics is based on speculation.

Saudi Arabia does not have established institutions with centuries of precedent that provide rough guidelines for commentators to make reasonably accurate predictions about political trends. Instead its highest politics is effectively dictated by a small group of insiders who often have little interest in sharing their thoughts with outside academics or journalists. Unless one is part of that group, definitive statements about the Kingdom’s high politics are at best guesses.

Mujtahidd, however, seems to be close to members  of the Saudi elite and because he is willing to broadcast the information he obtains, is one of the best public sources on the Kingdom’s politics, even if everything he says has to be treated with extreme skepticism.

Also, the account’s analysis on less sensational topics often seems reasonable and can be a good window into the thought process of Saudi political insiders.  

An Insider or An Outsider? 

Nor should Mujtahidd automatically be viewed as a hard-core opponent of  “the system.” In some ways he even serves a useful purpose for the government.  

Most Saudi policymakers view the adoption of global standards of transparency and openness as critical to achieving the Kingdom’s ambitious long-term economic reforms. Certainly this is necessary for attracting the foreign partnerships and technology needed for large-scale projects like the Economic Cities or the development of manufacturing clusters. And on that basis, Mujtahidd’s is probably seen by many elites forces as helping foster a climate of an increased expectation of transparency and openness at the higher levels of business and politics.  

And Mujtahidd frequently encourages people to email him on an open Gmail account. If he were truly a rebel despised by the status quo, does anyone doubt that the authorities couldn’t shut him down?

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic.  Contact him at Nathan@industryarabic.com.

Notes from the field on the presidential elections

Dr. Omar Ashour emails in with his notes from the field:

Dear all,

Some thoughts form the field:

  1. The general feeling among youth movements and many pro-change voters is that Shafiq is coming for revenge. This feeling intensified after the arrest of April 6th members and what the police officers told them (“revolution is dead” “we are back to hang you on lampposts” etc…)
  2. The major irregularity in this election is playing with the voters database. It is held only by the presidential elections committee (who refuse to give it up). After many complaints in the first round, the committee removed 115k names (including the name of my dead grandma, who apparently voted in the first round!). This number is based on their review and there is no other way to re-check it. The names of the dead, expats, police and army personnel can be much higher on the database than 115,000.
  3. The empowerment of the military intel and police personnel to arrest civilians on charges as minor as traffic disruption, dissolving the parliament, preventing MPs from entering it, forthcoming constitutional declaration (dividing authority/mandate between the SCAF and the president) currently being written by a committee headed by PM Ganzouri) are quite alarming. It looks like an undeclared coup, lacking communiqué no. 1 and with legal framing from constitutional court judges.
  4. There is some gearing up for a confrontation among all stakeholders. Islamist MPs are preparing for march to the parliament on Tuesday. It may be met by force.
  5. There is a strong local media attack on the MB, including accusations of sniping protestors in Tahrir during revolution, rigging elections and committing fraud, getting help of foreign militias (Hamas’ EQB). If any sort of political violence happened, there will be a severe crackdown on the organization.
  6. The Administrative Court will be deciding on the legality of the MB on Tuesday. If it ordered dissolution, the MB will be banned and its member can be prosecuted. This again can lead to a serious confrontation.
  7. Finally, from my meetings, a few leftist and liberal MPs seem to be happy with the dissolution of the parliament, mainly thinking that they will do better next time when Islamists are banned or in jail!

Sad days for Egypt’s democratic transition.

Cheers,

Omar

Omar Ashour is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the director of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrOmarAshour.

 

Googling Egypt's candidates

Google's Egypt elections doodle

Friend-of-the-blog Gabriel Koehler-Derrick does some really neat stuff with Google to track prominent personalities in religious currents, politics, and society in the Middle East. In this commentary he sent us, Gabriel looks at Google as an alternative indication of the popularity (or interest in) the various candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections. A PDF version of this article, which includes graphs that are tricky to transpose to the web, is here (275kb).

With the approach of Egypt’s presidential elections on Wednesday, a variety of polls have been published trying to anticipate the outright winner, or at least identify which two candidates are capable of winning enough votes to force a runoff election.  Given the challenges associated with polling in Egypt, the historic nature of the election, and a confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically shaken up the field of contestants, it is not surprising that the outcome remains unclear.  While far from perfect, data from internet search trends suggest a far less ambiguous outcome: Amr Moussa is comfortably in the lead and Muhammad Morsi is the candidate most likely to face him should there be a runoff. 

Anyone familiar with the telecommunications industry in Egypt might question the utility of using data derived from internet searches to better understand political developments.  While internet penetration rates have grown impressively, according to a recent survey conducted by A.C. Nielsen for Google’s MENA office, only about 39% of Egyptians have “regular access” (defined in the survey as logging in once a month) to the internet.  The data from the A.C. Nielsen survey also show that Egypt’s community of internet users are disproportionately male, and younger than average, with the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts being particularly well represented.  To the best of my knowledge, credible statistics about the income and education level of Egypt’s internet users are not publically available, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that typical internet users are skewed towards urban areas, and better educated and significantly wealthier than national averages. Because of these challenges, data derived from internet searches cannot be considered statistically representative of the Egyptian population.  

Despite these drawbacks, internet search data enjoys a number of advantages for examining the presidential race.  First, the number of data points for any time period is huge.  A back of the envelope calculation, based on the Nielsen survey and some basic population data from the UN, suggests that in Egypt, Google gets almost 26 million searches a day. While only a tiny fraction of these searches are politically related, nine out of the “top 10 rising people” in Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist survey of Egypt’s search trends were connected to the revolution or politics more broadly, indicating just how influential political developments in 2011 were  on search trends in Egypt. By way of comparison, none of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Turkey has anything to do with politics, and only one of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Canada , former leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) Jack Layton.  Data from Google AdWords, provides an updated 30-day average of the number of searches for a given term, shows some impressive averages for each of the top presidential contenders.  This is crucial because it provides a sense of scale for the Insights for Search data cited below, which uses normalized results not raw numbers to plot the trend lines for the various candidates.

By comparison, the soccer team “al-Ahly” is averaging 2,740,000 searches and pop-star Tamer Ashour 201,000 per month. Clearly, Google search in Egypt is not in any danger of being overtaken by politicians.  Nonetheless, these 30 day averages are significantly higher than historical trends for all but the most prominent individual political figures throughout 2011.    


   

In addition to providing a sense for how much attention the individual candidates are generating, Google’s Insights for Search tool allows us to see how the candidates stack up against one another over time.  Here the online data confirms the results of most polling: Amr Moussa is the candidate to beat.

Well ahead of the other major contenders the sharp spike in searches for Moussa in the graph shows that Egyptians were eager to learn more about his candidacy even prior to the debate and the highest number of searches amongst all the top candidates between February 1st and May 18th came in a surge of searches for Moussa on May 11th, the day of the debate itself.   The fact that the trend line for Abu al-Fatouh remained flat during the same period gives credence to those who interpreted his performance as somewhat lackluster.  At the very least, we can see from the search data that Moussa appears to be generated far more attention online than his debating rival both prior to the debate as well as after.   

A comparison of the geographic data associated with the trend lines for each candidate suggests just how far ahead of the other candidates Moussa is: searches for Sabahi, Shafiq, and Abu al-Fotouh are constrained almost exclusively to the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.  Morsi does only slightly better, generating significant levels of searches in the governorate of al-Sharqiya. While this is not in and of itself surprising, the search trends for the most influential and enduring figures during the revolution (for example Khalid Sa’id, Muhammad al-Baradei, Mona al-Shazly and Wael Ghonim) generated interest outside of the population centers of Cairo and Alexandria.  While it would be a mistake to presume that only those committed to Moussa are interested in information about his campaign, in fact many of those conducting Google searches for Moussa’s name may be undecided voters—but absent some indication that millions of Egyptians have already made up their minds and aren’t interested in further details about the candidates, it should probably be a source of worry for Abu al-Fatouh and the other candidates hoping to challenge Moussa that their campaigns are generating so few searches across the rest of the country.  If anecdotal reporting is correct, this is truly an impressive achievement for the Moussa campaign, because Abu al-Fotouh, and to a lesser degree Muhammad Morsi,  are the candidates you would anticipate young, wired, middle class Egyptians to search for online.  

Of course, simply ‘googling’ a candidate is hardly an endorsement.  But given the confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically impacted the field of candidates, one of the largest challenges facing each of the contenders is name recognition.  For example, although they are technically candidates, search data suggests that Abdullah al-Ashal, Hossam Khayr Allah, Muammad Fawzi al-Aysa, Mahmoud Hossam al-Din Galal, and Abu `Ez al-Hariri, are all virtually unknown outside of the capital.

So which of the candidates might challenge Amr Moussa? Muhammad Morsi, who seems to be separating from the pack, looks to be the one candidate who could challenge Moussa in a runoff, if there is no outright winner.  Nonetheless, Morsi faces a different problem from the other candidates.  As the only contender affiliated with an actual political party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), search data indicates that the FJP enjoys far more name recognition than Morsi himself.  This means that Morsi will have to work to distinguish himself from the FJP and the Brotherhood more broadly.  This presumably would have been much less difficult for a better known figure, like Khayrat al-Shatir, who generated enormous attention when he was nominated as the FJP’s candidate for the presidency before being barred in a controversial legal decision.  Likewise, the prominent Salafi candidate Hazem Abu Ismail provides another interesting example of what might have been.  Like al-Shater, his candidacy generated enormous amounts of attention online.  It is interesting to note that from February until mid-May 2012 both al-Shater and Abu Ismail generated higher search totals than Moussa and both barred candidates enjoyed a far more impressive geographic reach than any of the remaining candidates.

A look at the search trends for the candidates in the Republican primaries from May 2011 to April 2012, in which Ron Paul generated twice as many total searches as the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, suggest some of the reasons why it would be unwise to ascribe “predictive” powers to internet search data. Still, after a year of examining search data in Egypt, I have no doubt that search trends in Egypt accurately reflect attentiveness online, which in turn provides a unique window on the events and actors animating Egyptian society and political life.  While, as the Ron Paul example demonstrates in the American case, discrepancies between online and offline behavior exist, barring some totally unforseen event (far from impossible given the series of twists and turns in Egyptian politics since late February) Amr Moussa will almost certainly be the candidate to beat on Wednesday. 

If you are interested in tracking search trends for the major candidates in the days leading up to the election, sign into Google and click this link.

Gabriel Koehler-Derrick is an Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center and an Instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Mr. Koehler-Derrick holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.

Column: A memo on national security

My latest column for al-Masri al-Youm is out. To commemorate Thomas Friedman's visit to Cairo this week, I've decided to write a Friedmanesque "memo from..." in which I imagine myself as a senior official in the Egyptian ministry of interior welcoming the new minister, Mohamed Ibrahim. The version up on AMAY is not formatted properly, so I am reproducing it below.

To: Mohamed Ibrahim, incoming minister of interior

From: A senior ministry official

Your Excellency,

I believe I speak for the entire ministry in extending you a warm welcome in your new position at the head of our august ministry. Your precedessor was a respectable man, a little too respectable perhaps, and perhaps not altogether attuned to the bitterness that has taken over our ministry since the regretted events of late January 2011. But, nevermind, he will now go to a well-deserved retirement and make room for the right person for this new era, which all of us at the top floors at Lazoughly1 agree is your own esteemed self.

With your leadership, Sir, we will complete the restauration of this ministry to its former glories, burnishing once again its glorious image so unfairly tarnished by its enemies. It is to inform you of the state of mind of those of us at the ministry who have gone through these difficult times that I am writing to you.

It is true that we were caught by surprise by the conspiracy hatched against us that black month of January, when a day dedicated to our humble service and sacrifice was so cruelly perverted by some rabble, and that some degree of panic after that affected our morale. Your predecessor-but-one, Habib al-Adly — to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude in making us what we are today — had turned this ministry into a formidable force, but alas also caused it to be caught in the murky palace wars of the late Mubarak era.

I am glad to tell Your Excellency that this recovery is well under way. This ministry has been poorly understood and suffered from the anti-Mubarak sentiment that has prevailed of late in the country. Too many still see us as associated with the former president, but it is only because they do not understand that we live to serve. This we should never forget: we are servants of the state no matter who is in charge. As you well know, Sir, we run the police, the public administration, the borders, the traffic, and so much else still. We are the cogs in this great machine of state, the indispensable bits that make it run. At times, Sir, my old eyes weep at this thought: would the Egyptian people do without us!? We are both smaller and bigger than any Mubarak or Sadat or Nasser, great men as they undoubtedly were.

Yet we seek no special recognition — such is our devotion to our great country.

We here at Lazoughly are happy to see that our friends in the military have began to recognize not only our usefulness, but also our patriotism. They should never forget, that our fate is shared, now that they too have been put in the position of doing the difficult, unpopular but necessary work of restoring public order. This can at time be a bloody affair, and of late we had been afraid that the esteemed generals who appointed you, whose service to the nation shall be inscribe in stone alongside the Pharaohs, had forgotten about us and sided with those who seek to meddle with our way of doing things in the name of “reform.”

But the close collaboration of recent months, the fruitful joint endeavor, their recognition of the usefulness of our networks and methods, in brief the trust and confidence they have placed in us have warmed our hearts. Your appointment comes as the ultimate confirmation of this development.

I cannot tell you how thrilled my men were to hear that one of your first decisions as minister would be to give them license to shoot to kill the thugs, foreign agents and troublemakers that have plagued our glorious nation for the past year. In one bold stroke you have restored their self-confidence, and it was not even necessary to give them a bonus in the exercise of this license. You have not only told them, but the entire country, that they are in the right at a time when we are being confused with more talk of human rights and the such. But the people will look at your decision and approve, for they know better: the thugs that threaten their families and belongings do not have rights.

Needless to say, we must remain vigilant, dear Sir. There are those in the circles who would make friends with our former enemies, including the Muslim Brothers and the political agitators that would sacrifice the stability of our nation for some vagues ideas. Perhaps they are afraid for themselves. We should remind them that we, the servants of the state, must stand together against the opportunists and politicians who would gamble with the fate of Egypt! Please tell them that we are patient, and that those who a year ago trembled when they received a call from us will soon enough need us again. Yes, they may despise us now, but they will need us more than we need them once again, for we are everywhere.


  1. The headquarters of the Interior Ministry are located on Lazoughly Street, and the name Lazoughly is often used as a shorthand for the building. ↩

 

 

Thirty years ago today

Maria Golia, right, enjoying a goza.

Friend of the site Maria Golia — the author of Cairo: City of Sand and Photography and Egypt — sent in the piece below, an extract from Nile Eyes, her unpublished novel about Cairo in the 1980s. It is about how she spent 6 October 1981 — the day that 30 years ago Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, ushering in the Hosni Mubarak era.

On October 6, 1981 while President Anwar Sadat was being assassinated at his Victory Day parade, I was close by, shooting a TV ad for Egyptian laundry soap. As a fair-skinned, dark-haired foreigner I’d been cast as the ideal Egyptian housewife, never mind the other four million girls who’d been born for the role. The borrowed child I held in my arms was indeed unconvinced. His howls nearly drowned out the ominous noise of helicopters, sirens and sonic booms. I didn’t realize it then, but my presence before the camera was symptomatic of the policies that had provoked Sadat’s demise, and would paradoxically gain greater momentum after his death. I was a tiny ripple in the gathering wave of commercialism, the vanguard of Egypt’s 'open market' era.

The shoot was scheduled for the morning in Heliopolis, a suburban quarter of Cairo. I grabbed a cab and on the way remarked that the streets were lined with flags. The main street heading towards the airport was closed, diverting traffic for the parade that would march before the president, ensconced in a small tribunal designed for his reviews of the troops. Arriving at my destination I heard a series of sonic booms and looked up at a group of fighter planes flying in formation.

To save money the producer used a friend's flat for the shoot. It was an elaborate affair; a series of salons decorated in an ostentatious interpretation of old world elegance. I was given a dress and directed to a bedroom to change. I tried it on. It was made of swishing synthetic red sateen, loose over the hips with puffed shoulders and a scoop neck. I could hear a baby wailing and was confused. The dress could in no way be interpreted as maternal.

Next I was made-up and coifed simultaneously by balding twins, borrowed for the day from one of the five-star hotels. They had a perfectly synchronous way of passing pins, hair-dryers and hot-irons that they heated on small portable butane-gas tanks. They redesigned my eyebrows. They brushed eye shadow in shades of pink and brown onto my lids in a swooping almond shape. They applied rouge to my cheeks and once my hair had been sprayed into a casual bouffant, one of the twins leaned towards me and painted my lips in two scarlet hues, one dark the other darker. I didn't recognize myself in the mirror; I looked frightened and frightening.

No wonder that the baby who had been awarded the unwanted honor of being my video son began to howl as soon as he laid eyes on me. When I approached he tightened his tiny fists, crinkled his eyes and began to scream. When his real mother handed him to me like a parcel he started to hyperventilate. She nodded at me encouragingly. Dismayed I took the baby in my arms awkwardly and it started to produce those intermittent sobs of an overwrought child that leave so much time in between each one that it’s scary.

I mistook one of these long intervals for acquiescence and raised the child to my shoulder. That is when he vomited a sob and his orange-colored breakfast on to my neck. Meanwhile the lights were being set and Mohammed was bustling around giving stage directions. One of the twins came with a dishcloth and swabbed the dress. "You look terrific," he whispered into my ear, spending a tad too much time in the vicinity of my left nipple with his wet rag. Mohammed told me to sit in a large throne-like chair and instructed me to simply hold the child, smile for the camera and then direct my gaze lovingly to a nearby box of detergent. The child was exhausted from his recent efforts and his mother had managed to calm him down to a hiccup. But once again when he saw me he was terrified and started kicking and thrusting his arms convulsively. "Maybe it's the dress." I offered.

In the near distance we could hear a brass band blaring, the clatter of helicopters and what sounded like canon salutes and guns. The parade was in full swing. The child finally collapsed and we were able to get a take. As soon as we finished I grabbed my pay, stripped off that disgusting garment and the make-up and head straight to Batneyya. Traffic was thick. By the time I made it to Batneyya, word was on the streets, something bad had happened at the parade. Sadat was wounded, was dead, and was being flown to London for an operation, no one was really sure.

Uncertainty clouded the anticipatory eve of the feast that follows the end of the month of pilgrimage, celebrated by the dawn slaughter of sheep and the distribution of surplus meat to the poor. There had been a shooting, of that there was no doubt; the rest was silence. This put a serious damper on the holiday spirit that had been building these last few days. The sheep tied to every little shop along the narrow streets baa’ed plaintively. Instinctively they perceived that their fate was nigh and now their future-eaters shared their discomfiture.

The 6th of October represented a shining hour, the day the Israelis were humbled with Sadat at the helm. There was an historic symmetry in today’s events since the attempt on Sadat coincided that lunar year with the great Islamic feast of sacrifice; what’s more, the war itself had been launched by the Egyptian’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the Hebrew's holiest day. But Egypt had somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jars of Victory. Around the city, fireworks were canceled. I spent the day smoking in a variety of cafés. The men were pensive and anxious.

I smoked into the long warm evening and deep into the night. I tried to stay awake for the dawn slaughter, but couldn’t manage. I went upstairs to sleep with Suad and Fatma, daughters of a local café owner who hosted me when I’d stayed too late and the annoying street blockades were in place. In the morning I came down the stairs to find the heads of the sheep with whom I had shared so many enlightened moments, severed and grouped like a Christian symbol for trinity in an electric-blue plastic tub. Agnus Dei. The girls were with their mother on the floor in their tiny salon watching TV and making ground meat with a large, old fashioned pewter grinder clamped with a vice mechanism onto the windowsill. They were grinding blind, their eyes glued to the television and wordlessly they motioned for me to join them. I sat cross-legged beside them and watched.

It was a ritualistic military parade designed primarily for television spectators and its reverential repetitiveness was blandly underscored by a somber voiced commentator. The screen was filled with a series of sunwashed images whose poor quality made the sequence already seem like a vintage newsreel. There was a stagey tribunal with Sadat surrounded by his cronies, himself seated in Pharaonic splendor holding a small staff with a lotus on top. Then the picture cut to a ponderous procession of ramshackle tanks followed by a scene of jet planes in formation. The commentator droned in unison with the aircraft and I began to wonder what my hostesses were so excited about.

We were treated to a close-up of Sadat looking mighty satisfied before a cut back to the planes. The commentator’s monotone relented somewhat as we returned to Sadat beaming upwards with a look of heavenly pride and a bit of mist in his eyes. Cut back to the planes. Anyone who was still awake might have noticed that the droning soundtrack was perforated with a series of popping sounds followed by a growing murmur of commotion. The camera swerved and we saw the tribunal, now chaotic with chairs flying, people scattering, crawling under the chairs. The screen went blank.

The women were grinding dejectedly, dabbing at their eyes with the back of their wrists, their sleeves rolled up away from fat-covered hands. Someone thrust a pigeon-feather fan into my hands commanding me to keep away the flies. The room absolutely reeked of lamb. Madame rewound the tape and we watched the whole sequence of events again and I surmised that that was what the ladies had been doing all morning, besides filling the world with kofta. This time when we reached the part where Sadat was eyeing his planes, the women cried out variously, "Run!” "Beware"! "Stop them, get out of there, Run!!". Futile warnings. Sadat's image was deaf to their urgent pleas.

Once again the tribunal was scattered to the accompaniment of a score of pops. Rewind, start again. The women were crying openly. Their tears fell into the big aluminum casseroles holding quivering white slabs of sheep fat and mounds of ground meat. Sadat took the first bullet in the neck, right between his fetish lotus collar ornaments. A scarlet bib obliterated the beribboned front of his jacket and when his arm reflexively went to his throat it was nearly removed at the shoulder by another volley of shots. The tribunal was a tumult of crawling wounded men pathetically seeking shelter behind overturned chairs.

The cameraman jolted in his shock and for a moment the screen was filled with a cloudless sky. When he recovered we saw men staggering, leaping into action, running, sobbing. A crowd surrounded the place where the president had fallen. If he wasn't already dead, they would have suffocated him. The screen went blank once more, finally. I was fanning assiduously, and feeling slightly ill. I never liked TV and ever since that day have a hard time with lamb. As for the women, in a coup de video they had relegated the death of their erstwhile leader to both fiction and history.

Later we heard that a man in the ranks had turned towards the president while passing the tribunal, whipped out his weapon and opened fire, shouting, "I have killed Pharaoh and I am not afraid." We also learned that he did not act alone. In the afternoon of the same day a tank lumbered into Batneyya Square…

What is really happening in Sudan's Nuba Mountains?

An early morning scene from Nuba Mountains, via Sudan Forum

The piece below, about the conflict brewing in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, had been contributed by Dan Morrison and Matthew LeRiche.

The ongoing fighting in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan state is not just another chapter in Sudan’s seemingly-endless history of conflict. It is the most recent flashpoint for debate over a prevailing narrative that critics say reduces news from Sudan to a simplistic, even childish, contest of good versus evil. This conversation is made no less interesting by its clean predictability.

The dominant story line coming out of Southern Kordofan is, in its broad strokes, more than familiar. It goes like this: With the secession of South Sudan just weeks away, the Sudanese Armed Forces on June 5 went on the attack, seeking to crush both ethnic Nuba fighters of the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a font of potential (and actual) armed opposition to the government in Khartoum, and supporters of the northern wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who will form an important opposition party in Sudan now that the south has seceded.

If reports by actors including fleeing civilians, the United Nations, and foreign and local humanitarian workers are to be believed (and we think they are), Khartoum’s operation in Southern Kordofan has followed a well-worn pattern, including aerial bombardment of civilians, murder of citizens based political affiliation and race, and the ongoing denial of humanitarian aid to displaced persons. The Nuba Mountains in the 1990s were the scene of a bona-fide attempted genocide by the same government that today rules Sudan -- a true and actual attempt, driven by twisted financial and cultural imperatives on the part of Kharotum’s ruling class, to annihilate a people.

So it’s not surprising to see the G-word appear with frequency, even promiscuity, in the recent writings of journalists and advocates. Nor, given the history of Sudan’s north-south civil war and the conditions of access and advocacy during that 22-year conflict, should it be unexpected that a narrative of black African victimization and Arab predation quickly asserted itself. These narratives largely overlook the struggles of other groups in Sudan, indeed, of Arab Sudanese themselves, for a kinder, more pluralistic country.

Informed critics with less inclination (and less incentive – they’re not journalists or activists) to engage the news and opinion media have in private taken exception to the clichéd manner in which the fighting in Southern Kordofan has been framed. Part of their annoyance appears to be a carry-over from some of the rhetoric and activism of the Save Darfur movement and its young supporters, whom the critic Mahmood Mamdani notably likened to new Western breed of “child soldiers.”

The blogger Amir Ahmad, who is certainly no fan of the bloodstained government in Khartoum, sums up many complaints about the Save Darfur movement in this recent post. And the journalistic response to Darfur gets the academic treatment at the Africa Arguments blog.

Many complaints about Darfur’s portrayal in the news media are now being applied to coverage of South Kordofan, and Sudan in general. We hope in this post to articulate some of these points, so they might be heard by a wider audience, and to address them. We’ll also demonstrate – unintentionally – the depth of complexity in the Sudan and the many lenses through which any issue there can be viewed.

First, here are some of the stronger points that make up the Southern Kordofan counter-narrative (or corrective-narrative). We’ll follow with some general thoughts on these overlooked facts and where they may fit in the broader context.

* The SPLA started it: The fighting began with a series of provocations by Nuba SPLA fighters who were refusing to disarm. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement requires all armed actors to join either the Sudan Armed Forces in the north or the SPLA in the south. It would be insane for Khartoum to accept a standing rebel army in its territory: And Southern Kordofan is indisputably northern territory.

* Elections were certified by the Carter Center: Abdel-Aziz Al Hilu, the longtime commander of the Nuba fighters, has claimed he was cheated out of the May election for governor of the state. But observers from the Carter Center certified the election as “peaceful and credible.” Abdel-Aziz was defeated, by a margin of 6,500 votes (201,455 to 194,955), by Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Despite the ruling National Congress Party’s past record of election fraud, the Carter Center’s endorsement indicates that, rather than being robbed, the SPLM was out-hustled by its opponents.

* Casualties are likely inflated: Advocates have claimed thousands of deaths in the recent fighting. But there is no evidence to substantiate that claim. The Guardian newspaper reported that half a million people have been made homeless. The UN says the number is 73,000 – a lot of people, but a less compelling headline.

* Nuba anger should be directed south, not north: Abdel-Aziz and the Nuba fought on the side of the south and the SPLA, and it was the leader of that movement, John Garang, who signed the treaty that left them high and dry in the north. It’s not Khartoum’s fault if Abdel-Aziz’s patrons sacrificed Nuba self-determination in the course of obtaining peace.

* * * *

All of the above is true. And yet, taken together, they give the impression that this violence is about clauses and sections of treaties, and the relative effectiveness of opposing parties’ grass roots political operations.

It really is not. The Nuba, as has been the case for more than 20 years, are fighting for their land and their cultural survival. The fact that their southern allies left them in the lurch by choosing to secede doesn’t change that.

Without Garang, the CPA was a lousy deal for the Nuba. No one knows what might have happened if the maximum leader had survived that windy day in the Inmatong Mountains nearly six years ago, but it’s surely possible, even probable, he would have been elected president of an intact Sudan, and that the south wouldn’t have seceded. Guessing how things would be different today makes a diverting parlor game for those of us who get to go home.

 

Meanwhile, the Nuba are left to what? Lament the bad deal struck by their compatriot, who died before he could make good on his promises?

 

There is a history in the Nuba Mountains that predates both the CPA and the second civil war. It is the air, water, and DNA of the current conflict. The Nuba who have taken up arms are not reacting against some fictional “boogie man,” but one that is real and will continue to be real. You can imagine the likes of Ahmed Haroun make the worst kind of enemy, one deeply embedded in the psyche of his opponents.

 

No one can, or should seek to, ignore the fact that all parties in Sudan’s civil war were complicit in atrocities, not least southern leaders. In 1991, forces under the command of the current southern vice president, Riek Machar, killed an estimated 3,000 southerners in what is known as the Bor Massacre. The late Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, one of the founders of the SPLA, was as responsible as any northerner for a 1998 famine that killed as many as 60,000. It is clear that Southern Sudan’s leaders, its people, and its nascent institutions will have to struggle mightily to prevent their new state from resembling the old Sudan in its approach to human rights, inclusivity, and rule of law.

 

Somewhere along the line, however, those framing and interpreting Sudan’s wars for a wider audience have to look beyond the political scrum of the Interim Period (the six years between the signing of the CPA and the south’s July 9 secession), and beyond individual incidents during the civil war, to the bigger questions that have motivated so many Sudanese, in almost every region of the country, to take up arms, at such great cost, against their government.

 

Whose land is the Nuba Mountains? Whose land is Abyei? The Nuba know where their home is. For centuries their ancestors have been buried there. How will the Nuba retain their homeland if they sit and accept the domination of a government that once declared them “enemies of God,” a government that put 173,000 Nuba into so-called “peace villages” where, in some cases, men and women were separated by barbed wire and many women were “married” off to Arab soldiers?

 

A media narrative has clearly been constructed along these old familiar lines. In this case, it’s because that larger narrative is true.

 

Elements of the narrative pushed by advocates inside and outside Sudan are clearly untrue. While chemical weapons were reportedly used against the Nuba in the 1990s, there is zero evidence that Khartoum has deployed them during the recent fighting. This didn’t prevent a steady stream of alerts and declarations, none backed by anything like corroboration, from filling the in-boxes of journalists and analysts.

 

It is still wrong -- despite a fatigued instinct towards realism, and despite the distaste with which many react to the morally compromised southern (or “African”) protagonist and its legion of uncritical fellow travelers -- to simply leave the Nuba and others in Sudan to their fate.

 

Should Omar al-Bashir get to control the Nuba? Does he get to invade the disputed territory of Abyei at the drop of a hat and do as he pleases along the border?

 

The south traded away its entirely-legal claims to much of Abyei in a failed quest for peace on the north-south border -- and was rewarded with a military rout there. Where does that fit into the realist analysis? President Bashir has proclaimed the identity of Sudan will be Arab and Islamic, and he sent an indicted war criminal to govern Southern Kordofan. What prominence do these facts deserve amid endorsements by foreign observers of an election that took place with low voter turnout and amid a backdrop of repression?

 

Sources say Abdel-Aziz’s people also cheated in the election. They were just out-cheated by the NCP. But that doesn’t mean the Nuba have any less of a right to defend their homeland -- and there is no disputing that this is their home.

 

During a recent meeting with foreign officials on the subject of border security, a community elder in an important front-line county gave a remarkable response to his visitors’ persistent advocacy of an open and fluid border between Sudan and the new Republic of South Sudan:

So this is my home. I have lived here for generations, and I have not gone north except when chased or forced due to famine and war. The nomads wander into my home and take what they want -- and it has always been movement from north to south. So I say, ‘OK, you can come, but I want to make some rules.’ But they say, ‘No, we have a right to come into your house, take what we want and leave.’

 

Are you telling me that I should allow that to continue? I think if it were your house and someone just started showing up and, because you were weak, you could not fight them off, you would call the police.

 

We have no police to call, so we must fight, and we did, in all kinds of ways. And now you say, “let’s have an open border,” which will give them the right to keep coming into my house as they please. I don’t think that makes sense and I think if you think about it in this way it will not make sense to you either.

 

And for those who talk about land being about resources and livelihoods alone, I feel bad that you have no land to call your home and to fight for. But that is why you are comfortable with the idea of an open border, because for you none of us 'primitive' Africans can own land. But we do, and I do not want wanderers coming into my home and taking what they want and leaving, whether Arab, European, or Chinese.

Dan Morrison is author of The Black Nile. Matthew LeRiche, a fellow at the London School of Economics, has been working in Sudan since 2004.

The U.S.-Saudi “Special Relationship” and the Arab Spring

The following long piece was contributed by Arabist reader Paul Mutter.

Recently, the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies announced the engagement of a Saudi princess to a Bahraini prince. A substantial bridal party has preceded her, though: 4,000 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have arrived in Bahrain since March 14th, 2011. Some 1,600 Saudi soldiers will remain in the country indefinitely to safeguard the regime there from further “disturbances,” i.e., pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s government will be seeking accommodations for these soldiers in the form of new, permanent GCC bases. This process will be helped along by the billions of dollars in aid that Bahrain is set to receive from the GCC.

The GCC presence has freed up the hard-pressed Bahraini security forces to take more “proactive” actions such as these. The U.S. has called on all parties to exercise restraint – though this has fallen on deaf ears with respect to Bahraini security forces.

Some dowry. 

And at main site of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Bahraini capital of Manama, a public plaza (formerly) known as Pearl Square had been remodeled and renamed the Gulf Cooperation Council Square to expunge any associations with Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Bahraini nationalism.

“Now even the Arab counterrevolution has its heroic square,” opined the German news outlet Der Spiegel.

 It is fitting that the square has been renamed after the Saudi-dominated GCC because the Saudis have been working hard to keep the winds of “Arab Spring” from blowing into the Persian Gulf. Human rights in the region rank rather low on both countries’ list of priorities.

 The US has sanctioned this counterrevolution. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has stood the test of time based on mutual interests—oil for security. It is therefore not surprising that this alliance continues unabated as Saudi Arabia attempts to manage and turn back the winds of revolutionary transformation, from Bahrain to Yemen.

 “Commentators have long speculated about the demise of Saudi Arabia as a regional powerhouse. They have been sorely disappointed”, wrote Prince Turki, an influential former Saudi intelligence director. “The kingdom’s wealth, steady growth and stability have made it the bulwark of the Middle East. As the cradle of Islam, it is able to symbolically unite most Muslims worldwide.”

That bulwark would not exist as it does today without U.S. support.

But over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had aided and abetted active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations for decades. After 9/11, the relationship has become particularly strained between the two powers because of continued private financing of Islamist organizations well after their use for the US had abated.

But, despite mistrust, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are actively practicing containment against Iran, al Qaeda and the “Arab Spring.” Their overall interests in the region remain the same – which is bad news for the demonstrators.

Shia Scares

The “Arab Spring” is clearly an unsettling development for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, despite all the talk in Washington about the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples (as an aside, the Palestinian people’s aspirations, a grave concern for both Israel and the U.S. are noticeably absent from such official plaudits).

Protests have already removed pro-U.S. and Saudi-friendly leaders in Tunisia (whose exiled president now resides in the Kingdom) and Egypt (the Saudis, for their part, now fear Egyptian rapprochement with Iran: Der Spiegel reports that the Kingdom has promised the new transitional government US$4 billion) and Syria (though no friend of either power) is becoming a potential flashpoint.

Discontent in other Arab monarchies, such as Jordan and Morocco, has caused consternation in the House of Saud – even though neither Morocco nor Jordan are Gulf countries, the Saudis have been pressing for their acceptance into the GCC (which, if it is now looking for a new name, ought to consider “The Holy Alliance).

Red Scares have long since given way to Shia Scares in the region. The reactionary fear in these countries is very real: with growing Shia populations, the minority Sunni monarchies of the Gulf states face increasing pressure from their subjects for change and see an Iranian (meaning, “Shia”) hand in everything. There is a growing sense of abandonment by the U.S. in Riyadh over the supposed Shia threat, according to Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid [Ed note: Obaid is in fact an advisor to Prince Turki): 

“As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies [Hezbollah, Hamas] and Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudis have made overtures to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia towards a policy of containment toward Iran. “The U.S. shouldn't be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East,” Prince Bandar, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, is said to have told a group of Pakistani generals recently.

Concerns over a reputed Iranian “fifth column” in Bahrain (Iran supports the protests in this Shia-majority country ruled over by a Sunni royal family) remain pronounced among GCC (and U.S.) officials. The U.S., despite expressing some human rights concerns, has largely praised the actions of the Bahraini monarchy in managing demands for greater democratization and warned against Iranian interference.

"The US has not been as supportive of human rights activists in Bahrain as it would be in other circumstances, and it's not putting as much pressure on the Bahraini government as it's putting on Yemen, Syria and other countries where the government is engaged in suppressing protests," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al Jazeera. According to her, Saudi pressure is exercising a significant influence on U.S. politics.

The U.S., though, needs no allied pressure to keep its head down over Bahrain. President Obama recently met with Bahrain’s rulers to discuss the strategic situation in the region, and with good reason: Bahrain is the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

And while Washington has observed this studied silence over human rights violations in Bahrain and (with Saudi help) is now ramping up a “drone war” in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen: A “Backstop” against al Qaeda

One could compare Yemen’s historic relationship with Saudi Arabia to that of Mexico’s with the U.S.: intervention in a 20th century civil war, a discriminatory economic relationship and even a border barrier (purportedly aimed at “keeping out” illegal immigrants). Saudi involvement is only increasing in response to unrest and pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen.

Though not happy with the content of the pro-democracy protests (and ever worried about al Qaeda and Iranian influence in Yemen), the Saudis are hoping to ease out a besieged President Saleh, while at the same time do what they can to maintain Saudi influence in the country.

Although the U.S. publically supports a negotiated solution in Yemen (that will probably result in President Saleh’s removal), there is much talk in the U.S. of the Yemen becoming “another Afghanistan.” The rationale for the “drone war” is that it will prevent al Qaeda from finding a new safe haven.

The U.S. blames AQAP for failed attempts to destroy U.S. planes, the (abortive) actions of the “Times Square bomber” and the Fort Hood shootings. WikiLeaks disclosures reveal the extent of the “drone war” is larger than previously thought and that the Yemeni government is fully involved in it (in contrast to the drone campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

It is difficult to tell just how the “Arab Spring” has affected official U.S. policy in Yemen, but consider this: a “secret CIA airbase” in the Mideast is reported to be under construction to enable this expanded effort. The AP reports that the U.S. views the new airbase as “a backstop, if al-Qaida or other anti-American rebel forces gain control.”

Charity Begins at Home 

At home, the Saudis have moved quickly to suppress any stirrings of unrest relating to the “Arab Spring.” It would be an understatement to suggest that the U.S. looks the other way over Saudi human rights abuses – but unfair to say that the Saudis are inherently “worse” than other allies because they are “Arab” or “Muslim.” Strategic importance outweighs such “trivialities” as human rights when strategic allies are concerned – Musharraf’s Pakistan, Mubarak’s Egypt and Pinochet’s Chile, for instance (and, of course, in Bahrain).

That said, U.S. silence on human rights in Saudi Arabia is deafening (especially when compared to, say, U.S. statements directed at Iran). Whether it is has been on the suppression of public demonstrations (demonstrations by workers have been suppressed for decades, and striking was even made illegal in 1965), lack of religious freedoms (even for Saudi Arabia’s own Shia Muslim population), the indentured servitude that non-Saudi “guest workers” endure, or the arrest of women who have protested the country’s ban on female drivers, the U.S. response has been, in the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “quiet diplomacy.”

Domestically, the Saudis have moved quickly to buy off dissent with new social spending programs, reports Foreign Policy. This approach is not new, though, but the scale of it is (US$130 billion this year alone). And that is partly due to ever-increasing discontent within the Kingdom.

In addition to financing housing and employment programs (as well as beefing up the bureaucracy), some of this money will go to the country’s religious establishment. “Many Saudis see the extra cash for religious institutions, including the religious police, as a reward for their vocal public stance against potential anti-regime demonstrations,” according to Foreign Policy.

Indeed, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia founded upon the basis of a religious-royal alliance, religious legitimacy is a vital competent of the House of Saud’s “legitimacy.” Wahhabism, a particularly Puritanical strain of Sunni Islamism, is the ideological glue that has held the country together since its founding in 1932.

”We are back to the 1950s and the early 1960s”

“We are back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Saudis led the opposition to the revolutions at that time, the revolutions of Arabism,” according to a Saudi political activist speaking to The Washington Post.

The “We,” of course, is a royal we: it refers to both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., who have maintained a “special relationship” for decades. The relationship between the two powers animates their responses to the “Arab Spring.” To understand it, though, we will have to go back before the 1950s.

“Such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary”

U.S. involvement with Saudi Arabia began with oil concessions in the 1930s. However, a formal engagement between the two countries had to wait until the closing days of WWII.

On February 14, 1945, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Saud on board an American warship in the Red Sea. That meeting established the prenuptial agreement for the two partners: American protection of the Kingdom in exchange for oil access.

Since that meeting, the U.S. has increasingly committed itself to defending Saudi sovereignty (Saudi oil’s sovereignty, to be precise: the U.S. partly managed Saudi oil exports through a consortium called Aramco during much of the Cold War).

A succession of early Cold War policies (such as the Eisenhower Doctrine) entrenched the U.S.’s postwar presence in the oil-rich Mideast. By 1980, following the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. President Carter had declared that:

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

During the 1980s “Tanker War” in the Gulf, in which Iran and Iraq attacked each other’s shipping and that of other nations, the U.S. made good on its word to use force to protect its interests there.

The “special relationship” deepened following the Iran-Iraq War (of which the “Tanker War” was an extension of) with the first Gulf War. Saudi Arabia, demanding intervention and even giving religious sanction to Coalition forces, subsequently served as a base for the first Gulf War coalition.

American subsidization of Saudi Arabia’s defense (to the tune of US$60 billion in 2010 alone) has long freed up Saudi oil revenues for other uses: modernization programs, foreign investment, extravagant royal lifestyles, a social safety net . . .

And financing Islamist terrorists.

Support for such organizations, such as al Qaeda, has been the justification (well, one of the justifications) for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, of Iraq in 2003, the extension of the “War on Terror” to Yemen, and U.S. opposition to organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad.

The U.S. has taken Saudi Arabia to task at the urging of the U.S. intelligence: after 9/11, the Bush Administration pressured the Saudis to share more information with them on terrorist suspects and cooperate with investigations of terrorist financiers – and the Saudis obliged.

But, this pressure was the exception to the norm: over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had largely ignored active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations.

And, during the Cold War, the U.S. aided and abetted these endeavors.

”We can live with that”

As noted earlier, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established by a religious-royal alliance. The Wahhabi religious establishment dominates social life, regulating religion, morality and education. As the clergy has gained greater power at home, Wahhabism has increasingly become Saudi Arabia’s leading export after oil.

The U.S. helped this along after 1945. After WWII, U.S. officials naively saw “Islam” (not really caring about or understanding sectarian differences) as a counterweight to socialism and nationalism.

When nationalists could not be cajoled or bought, the U.S. (and its allies), would turn to Islamic organizations to assist in demonizing and undermining them, as was the case in Egypt (under Nasser) and Iran (under Mossadeq).

The real religious boom, though, did not begin until 1979. The timing could not have been more opportune because of several factors: the Shah of Iran had been deposed in a popular revolution in 1979, leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that year

And, most importantly, Saudi Arabia found itself awash in oil revenue – and in the midst of an identity crisis. It was a perfect storm that brought the U.S. and the Kingdom closer together than ever before.

In the winter of 1979, a group of Saudi radicals took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holy of holies. The radicals’ leader declared himself the Madhi, or savior, of all Islam and called for an overthrow of the “tainted” House of Saud. With the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (whose very existence challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Islamic state) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also occurring in 1979, it was a tense year, to say the least, in Saudi Arabia.

Though the “Madhists” were defeated after a bloody siege of the Grand Mosque, the Saudi establishment was deeply shaken by the events of 1979 and looked to advance religious initiatives to regain domestic and international initiative. Support for the Afghan mujahedeen, and increased deference to the Wahhabi clergy at home, was the solution the establishment settled on.

Enter the U.S., smarting from its humiliation in Iran, hoping to give the Soviets a taste of Vietnam in Central Asia.

The Saudis eagerly became the primary channel for U.S. aid to the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International, now defunct, was utilized by the CIA to fund the Afghan mujahedeen (and other secret programs).

Hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars went to promote Wahhabi-influenced religious schools in Pakistan for young Afghan refugees that engendered the Taliban. The Pakistan’s military political leadership supported these developments as well, benefitting from Saudi largesse.

“There was little impetus to step back and ask big uncomfortable questions about whether Saudi charities represented a fundamental threat to American national security,” writes Steve Coll in Ghost Wars:

“American strategy . . . was to contain and frustrate Iran and Iraq. In this mission, Saudi Arabia was an elusive but essential ally. Then, too, there was the crucial importance of Saudi Arabia in the global oil markets.”

The Taliban received further Saudi support in the form of guidance on implementing a harsh Sha-derived legal system (which included a copy of the Saudi religious police, the mutaween). Before 9/11, though, the U.S. was not overly concerned with such things. In fact, in 1997, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported a U.S. diplomat as saying:

“The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”

Or rather, we could until 9/11.

”Kernel of Evil”

Saudi money, from official and unofficial sources, flowed to extremist groups all over the Muslim world. Although this had long been known within policymaking circles, the fact that fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers (and, of course, al Qaeda financier and demagogue Osama bin Laden) were Saudi that prompted a closer look at the Kingdom in the U.S., though the Bush Administration sought to deflect some blame from the Kingdom (and themselves).

In 2002, a controversial and widely commented on RAND Corporation study titled “Taking Saudi Out of Arabia” described Saudi Arabia as: “the kernel of evil . . . . active at every level of the terror chain.”

The Saudis, the Pentagon-commissioned study contended, sought to “spread Wahhabism everywhere” and to “survive by creating a Wahhabi-friendly environment – fundamentalist regimes – throughout the Moslem world.”

The study landed analyst Laurent Murawiec (d. 2009), a French neoconservative, in hot water (he also advocated seizing oil fields and Mecca & Medina), but it was indicative of the mood at the time, reviving old U.S. designs on seizing Saudi oil as a “worst-case scenario.”

Congress began conducting inquiries and referring to the Saudis as state sponsors of terrorism. Before 9/11, U.S. officials often let such Saudi peccadilloes slide. This is not so much the case nowadays.

As a result, the “special relationship” isn’t so special anymore. Many in the royal family opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (they were none to happy about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, either, nor Saudi-bashing in Congress and FBI pressure to share information on Saudi charities with them). The Saudis asked the U.S. to leave their bases after the conclusion of “major combat operations” in Iraq, a request the U.S. complied with by building up its assets in neighboring Qatar. The influential Prince Bandar, who once referred to the U.S.-Saudi alliance as a “Catholic” marriage, certainly seems to have his doubts these days about the strength of the “special relationship.”

The Saudis have increasingly made overtures to China and Russia since 2003. Chinese and Russian military hardware (as well as diplomatic support) has fewer strings attached.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have the same interests they have had for decades: maintaining the status quo in the Gulf. Iran has replaced the USSR as a source of mutual concern, and maintaining internal stability in the Middle East (even at the expense of democratization) has been a plank of the U.S. platform in the region since 1945 (and of the British and French before them).

Events at home, once again, helped bring the two closer together, because in 2003, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first emerged. Arab fighters who had escaped the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan were returning to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations formed the core of AQAP.

A campaign of targeted killings and vehicle bombings tore through the Kingdom before petering out after AQAP relocated to Yemen and al Qaeda’s central apparatus turned its attention to Iraq.

These attacks (which failed to produce an uprising of any sort) led the Saudis to cooperate more closely with the U.S.-led “War on Terror.” The U.S. praised Saudi efforts to crack down on homegrown terrorism, and cooperation between the two (over such things as terrorist financing and renditions to Guantanamo Bay) increased – well, sometimes, that is.

In any case, by the mid-2000s, the furor over Saudi perfidy had partly subsided as all eyes turned to Iran’s nuclear program and influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

”As, if not more, indispensable”

So for all the talk of the Saudis striking out on their own, things are very much business as usual between the U.S. and the Kingdom these days. For instance, an arms deal is on the table involving the Saudi receipt of “warships with integrated air and Aegis missile defense systems, as well as helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure” and a program to “train a new Facilities Security Force (FSF) designed to protect sensitive Saudi oil installations . . . to reach 35,000 strong” (although the U.S. bases there are closed, U.S. military trainers continue to work in Saudi Arabia).

The Facilities Security Force is rather indicative of the pillars of the relationship: protection of U.S. oil interests, as well as military cooperation against any actors – democratic, terroristic or otherwise – that threaten the Kingdom and U.S. influence in the region.

Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound up in this oil, as Prince Turki – who masterminded the CIA links to the mujahedeen during the Cold War – has made clear:

“American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” . . . .There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.”

One commentator predicts that U.S. support for the Israeli position on Palestinian statehood will prove to be “just not as indispensable as affordable energy.” Whether this will hold true for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict remains to be seen, but it has certainly held true for most other issues between the U.S. and the Saudis. 

Whatever happens at the UN this fall, though, the counterrevolution in the Gulf will continue. Neither the U.S. nor the Kingdom is truly willing to risk upsetting the Persian Gulf over the Palestinians.

Paul Mutter would like to thank Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University for her assistance with this article.

 

Aronson on Egypt's deep state
Another contribution from a reader: this time from Geoffrey Aronson of FMEP. As always, the opinion is the author's — although I agree with much of it! [Issandr]
 

In Egypt today, everything is not as it seems. The long suffering Egyptian public has taken to the streets to challenge the sclerotic regime of Hosni Mubarak. But the decision to remove Mubarak before September, if it comes at all, awaits not simply the unfolding of popular revulsion of the regime, but a decision from the “deep state” -- the security forces, foremost among them the Egyptian army -- who today remain the source of power in Egypt and its tottering regime.

 

The military first appeared as the final arbiter of Egyptian politics in the summer of 1952. A small, clique of young army officers, dismayed the Egyptian defeat in Palestine, the serial failures of parliamentary life, and the arrogance of a waning imperial power, declared an end to the excesses of King Farouk. The Free Army Officers were lead by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose legacy is, after more than half a century, now being contested. Nasser, who initially was so unsure of his coup that he put up the reassuring General Mohammed Naguib as the public face of the new regime, would become the only Egyptian leader in the modern era who could claim both the adulation of the people and the army. Having removed the old regime and its hangers on in parliament and elsewhere, Nasser and his conspirators faced only one domestic challenge – from the Islamists of the Moslem Brotherhood who claimed their own competing vision of “Egypt for the Egyptians.”

 

A failed assassination attempt against Nasser by the Brotherhood unleashed the full anti-Islamist fury of the police state that the “deep state” believed then as now to be Egypt’s salvation and guarantee of security and stability. Its emboldened and forbidding institutions survived a humiliating defeat against Israel in June 1967 and Nasser’s death soon thereafter. Under Anwar Sadat’s leadership it wielded an iron fist not only against an Islamist political and social revival. It also imprisoned a growing chorus of secular nationalist critics and established an emergency regime whose excesses decades later are now on view for the world to see. Air Force General Hosni Mubarak stepped into the spotlight in the wake of Sadat’s assassination by an Islamist cabal of young officers. He has been terminally blinded by the power that the deep state invested in him --- alienating both popular and Islamist sentiments -- and he is now harvesting the bitter fruits of his choice.

 

The deep state is invested in Mubarak but it is even more determined to preserve the supreme place in Egypt’s political hierarchy that is the sole remaining legacy of Nasserism. Some among its leaders no doubt welcome the public’s fury against Mubarak and the NDP, for its has removed Gamal – and the challenge he and his nouveau rich civilian lackeys ilk represented -- from the impending contest for the presidency. Mubarak may believe that “the state is me (and my family)” [L’Etat et moi and mon famille] but if the crisis in Egypt continues to build and the focus of popular revolt moves from symbols of the regime – like the gutted NDP headquarters in Cairo’s Liberation Square -- to those of the “deep state” itself, Egypt’s generals will not be able to avoid the choice – save themselves and abandon the Mubaraks to the street or themselves become fodder for the revolution.

 

Even as the stakes of the popular revolt grow, the nature of this revolt has not yet fully materialized. The Islamist movement remains the sole organized popular force challenging the regime. Its organized absence from the streets may not a sign of its weakness but of its discipline and strength. The symbols of opposition are still popular and political. They unify rather than divide. The crowds are chanting for Mubarak to go and are torching the less controversial symbols of the regime.

 

The decision to deploy the army in place of exhausted police forces in the streets of Cairo and the appointment of Omar Suliman is a sign of the continuing support that the military places in the idea of Mubarak. But an ominous threshold has been crossed. The “deep state” now confronts the public directly and defensively; and in the public arena, not the shadows where it prefers to operate. If the regime now shows a mailed fist, it may target the Brotherhood as a means to divide the street. A sure sign of this epic confrontation will be the transformation of the symbols and rhetoric of revolt – from “Mubarak Out!” to “Islam is the Solution!” In the escalating battle between popular opinion and the coercive instruments of the state, the use of the army threatens to turn this extraordinary public spectacle from a cry for Mubarak’s ouster to the destruction of the state institutions themselves, foremost among them the armed forces . The former changes the conductor but not the music. The latter will produce a new score entirely.

 

Geoffrey Aronson is the director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington,DC and author of  “From Sideshow to Center Stage – US Policy towards Egypt.”

The year of spontaneous combustion

My new al-Masri al-Youm column is up. This week, I wanted to do something else than the obvious (write about Tunisia or its impact on Egypt), so I decided to be a little more adventurous. Like many people I was aghast at the wave of self-immolations over the last few days, and imagined what might happen if they continue (let's hope they don't). It's written from the perspective of January 1, 2012.

At first, when it began nearly a year ago, many people thought it was just a copycat fad that would soon disappear. Inspired by the events of the Tunisian uprising, people--mainly young men--began to set themselves on fire.

Read the rest.

Column: Running interference

This week at al-Masri al-Youm, I look at the surreal obsession the Egyptian government has with "foreign interference" — by which it means foreign criticism of its human rights record — and the role some Western countries have played in helping it. France, which this week is sending its human rights ambassador to Cairo with strict instructions to only address anti-semitism (not exactly Egypt's top human right problem), is a particularly telling example.

Column: The Rabble-rousers

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm is up, on funding of the anti-Park51 movement by extremist elements of the US pro-Israel lobby.

The connection between the core of the Park51 movement — the people who have provided leadership, organization and funding to the campaign — is simply too big to ignore. So is the increasing overlap of a segment of the "professional" pro-Israel lobby in America, from think tanks to magazines, and the incitement of Islamophobia. This is bad news for Americans of all persuasions, bad news for Jews, bad news for Muslims, and bad news for the Middle East. It needs to be stopped before it gets too far, and the first step is to call out the likes of David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Pamela Geller (and their far-flung associates) for what they are.