The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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Mediapart: Rafale jet crashed as Macron visited Egypt

The French website Mediapart has an interesting scoop by Arthur Herbert about the crash of a Rafale jet just as French President Emmanuel Macron was visiting Egypt. According to the report, the crash took place on 28 January, on the day that Macron met with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi: they were discussing some €1.5bn’s worth of contracts being negotiated and Macron let Sisi know that he would bring up human rights concerns in a speech later that day, a rare mention of the topic ever since, under Macron and his predecessor François Hollande, France became one of Egypt’s top cheerleaders in the EU. A Rafale jet piloted by Major Mohtadi al-Shazli – one of the first Egyptian pilots trained to use the Rafale after their initial purchase in 2017 said to be involved in the May 2017 raid on Derna in eastern Libya – crashed for unknown reasons.

No one wants to discuss the crash, particularly as Egypt is negotiating the purchase additional Rafales, which at over €100m a piece (24 were bought in 2015, most probably with at least some UAE or Saudi co-funding or guarantee, more are scheduled despite the Egyptian Air Force already having a considerable fleet of other modern fighters, especially American F-16s) are the subject of controversy since the country has faced a major economic downturn in recent years and Sisi has massively increased spending both on defense procurement (especially with France and Germany) and prestige projects such as the widening of the Suez Canal. Until a few years ago France struggled to sell the Rafale, and Egypt’s purchase was a major coup – should a technical problem be at fault, it could cause problems for future contracts. Egypt appears to have tried to cover the story, and even spread rumors that the jet in question was a Chinese K-8E Karakorum rather than a Rafale, and most French officials are refusing to comment.

Mediapart (which is among the fiercest critic of Macron’s presidency from the left) is highlighting both the commercial fallout and Macron’s apparent discomfiture at a press event in Cairo, just after he learned about the crash:

Lundi 28 janvier 2019. Il est peu après 13 heures. Au Caire, Emmanuel Macron en visite d’État en Égypte, sort d’un entretien avec son homologue Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. C’est une visite compliquée : alors que l’Élysée avait annoncé la signature d’une avalanche de contrats pour près d’un milliard d’euros, plusieurs ne seront finalement pas signés ou contre toute attente transformés en simples protocoles d’accord.

Le chef d’État français a aussi prévenu : si un an et demi auparavant il avait donné un blanc-seing au président égyptien en affirmant ne « pas vouloir donner de leçons », cette fois à la conférence de presse qui est sur le point de se tenir, il évoquera ouvertement les violations des droits fondamentaux qui ont cours en Égypte.

L’ambiance est pénible. Dans la grande salle à dorures du palais présidentiel, une quarantaine de journalistes sont en train de s’installer. Derrière les grandes portes en bois marquetées, quelques secondes avant de se présenter devant la presse, une autre mauvaise nouvelle est glissée à l’oreille du président français : un Rafale vient d’être perdu.

Peu de temps avant, à 100 km au nord-ouest du Caire, sur la base aérienne militaire de Gabal al-Basur, le Rafale EM02-9352 des forces armées égyptiennes vient de s’écraser. Sous les yeux d’une équipe de formateurs et d’experts de Dassault Aviation, l’appareil flambant neuf, livré le 4 avril 2017 à l’Égypte a piqué du nez avant de se fracasser au sol.

À son bord, le major Mohtady al-Shazly, un pilote de l’armée de l’air égyptienne, connu sous le matricule « Cobra », était l’une des toutes premières recrues entraînées en France pour piloter les Rafale fraîchement acquis par les Égyptiens.

Originaire du village d’al-Atarsha, dans la localité d’al-Bagourg au nord du pays, l’homme de 32 ans, père de deux enfants, a été enterré le soir même en présence du gouverneur de Menoufyia. Lors des funérailles et sur les réseaux sociaux, l’homme est porté en « martyr ». On lui attribue notamment les bombardements égyptiens contre l’organisation de l’État islamique à Derna en Libye en mai 2017. Une opération menée après l’attaque qui avait tué vingt-huit fidèles coptes près d’al-Minya.

Contactés quelques heures après l’accident, les responsables de Dassault Aviation étaient injoignables. Au même moment, Éric Trappier, dirigeant de l’entreprise qui construit les Rafale, était dans la délégation qui accompagnait le président français au Caire. En dehors du petit cercle directement touché par la nouvelle, les officiels et les directeurs d’entreprise faisant partie du voyage n’ont pas été tenus informés, a confié l’un d’eux.

Devant un parterre de Français expatriés au Caire et d’Égyptiens francophones conviés à une réception tenue par le président français le soir même, à la tribune, lorsqu’il s’exprime devant le public, Emmanuel Macron tente de ne rien laisser percevoir. Dans l’assistance, on remarque néanmoins « un discours brouillon, comme s’il avait été mal préparé ». « On aurait dit qu’il venait juste de se prendre un gros scud dans la tête », ironise innocemment un invité.

Innocence Abroad

I have an essay in The Point magazine -- a Chicago-based magazine on culture and politics -- that I spent many months working on. It is about Americans abroad, the damage we do, the innocence we claim, the stories we tell -- and also, perhaps, the responsibility and solidarity we could take on. It's about Suzy Hansen's journalist memoir "Notes on a Foreign Country," -- and about Henry James, James Baldwin, and Omar El Akkad among others. And it has more auto-biography than I usually include in any of my writing.

I generally agreed with Hansen's critique of American imperialism, and I found the book thought-provoking. But I also found her framing and her tone off-putting, because of how self-centered it is and above all of how utterly humorless. Here is an excerpt:

Hansen argues that her lack of awareness about America’s role in the world was structural, intentional—an ignorance that many Americans, particularly white Americans, wear like mental armor, allowing them to believe, against all evidence, that our political and military interventions abroad are always necessary, successful and well-intentioned. “I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it,” Hansen explains, “but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.” Hence, she assumed that in Istanbul, she would assess how well Turkey was meeting certain U.S. standards (“democratization,” “modernization”); she would also think about “solutions” to Islam, because “that’s what Americans always do.”

Hansen occasionally mentions The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin describes the willful, violent blindness of white Americans, and their determination not to face “reality—the fact that life is tragic.” Baldwin himself left America for France and Turkey because he found life there false and unbearable, a physical and psychological assault. At least African Americans, he wrote, possess “the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” Hansen read this passage long before moving to Turkey, but one of her points is how often we can know something but not really accept it. She writes: “Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own.”

From Istanbul, Hansen traveled to report from Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, only to discover from wry, patient locals that the crisis each country is currently undergoing can be explained by a history in which U.S. intervention figures prominently. In Afghanistan, she attends a Fourth of July party at the American embassy. There is a billboard outside the embassy that reads: “the u.s. embassy would be grateful if any of our friends who have information on terrorist activity or threats to please come to this gate.” There is a five-by-seven-foot American flag made out of cupcakes. The red, white and blue balloons keep popping from the heat, setting the crowd of Afghans and Americans, fearful of snipers, on edge. General David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador dodge difficult questions from Afghan guests and deliver platitudes.

This is all very well observed. A different sort of writer would have made something barbed and darkly funny of this scene. Hansen seems headed in that direction, but instead she stops, on cue, to wring her hands: “Those bland, company-man words. In Kabul these words sounded criminal. These were loveless, soulless words. How could we speak to Afghans like this? … No one believed in the words they were saying, and yet this language was about real things: flesh and death and war, people’s homelands, and their children.”

It strikes me as a luxury and nearly an affront to be as sentimental and naïve as this. It’s not that we shouldn’t sympathize with Afghans and others—it’s that such an expression of sympathy, in which one’s own guilt and shock takes center stage, isn’t worth much. Meanwhile, many of the people I’ve met out in the world who are really up against it—who by circumstance or choice live terribly exposed—wear the risks they run matter-of-factly, the bearers of what Baldwin calls an “ironic tenacity.” They are knowing, daring, uncomplaining. I guarantee you they waste no time being shocked by the platitudes of U.S. ambassadors.

Hansen notes that when Albert Camus visited New York in 1946, he wrote in his journal that America was a “country where everything is done to prove that life isn’t tragic.” Camus held that “one must reject the tragic after having looked at it, not before.” Hansen does the looking but not the rejecting. She remains transfixed by the tragic and her own response to it, casting pretty standard culture shock as emotional catastrophe. Her Turkish lessons are “soul-shattering.” In Cairo, she is “lonely and clumsy, wreaking havoc on things I knew nothing about.” In Afghanistan, “it was my mere existence, I felt, that did damage enough. I wanted nothing else but to withdraw myself.”

When I read this, a phrase of another writer immediately came to mind. “I hate tragedy,” wrote Waguih Ghali, a penniless alcoholic and suicidal Egyptian who, in self-imposed exile after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1956, wrote one of my favorite novels. Beer in the Snooker Club contains passages that still make me laugh out loud. Egypt, the Arab country I lived in for many years, has one of the best and darkest strains of humor I’ve ever encountered. It does not come natural to me but I have often witnessed its gift, the way it can lift the pall of fear and death. It’s the laughter of survivors, balanced right on the edge of hope and hopelessness.

And check out the rest of The Point, there are many great pieces of writing there.

Books in the mail

I just received a copy of No Exit, Yoav Di-Capua's new book on Sartre and Arab intellectuals (it is essentially an intellectual history of the post-colonial Arab world) and its cover is very, very cool. I very much enjoyed Di-Capua's last book, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, a great historiography and was happy to meet him in Austin (where he teaches at the University of Texas) on the sidelines of South By Southwest a few years ago. It'll be some more rigorous reading than I'm doing now (I've been devouring Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem sci-fi series, see great reviews here and here) but looking forward to it.

Also recently received are two books on Morocco (and Jordan) – it's relatively rare that you get serious and in-depth English-language scholarship on Morocco, so good to see that – and a collected volume edited by Alfred Stepan including many A-listers and friends (Rached Ghannouchi, Carrie Wickham, Nathan Brown, Monica Marks, Radwan Masmoudi, etc.) that looks at the Egypt vs. Tunisia question post-Arab Spring. With chapter titles like "The roots of Egypt's constitutional catastrophe", it's pure Arabist geek-bait.

Fawazeer in translation

Our partners at Industry Arabic are rolling out a daily translation of classic Ramadan TV riddles throughout the holy month:

But there was another form of Ramadan programming that somehow managed to combine all these themes in one surreal mix: the fawazeer (فوازير). In essence, the fawazeer programs were a short 10-minute variety show containing dance numbers and sketches that present an affectionate pastiche of Egyptian popular culture of the pre-satellite TV era. The core of each fawazeer episode revolved around a riddle that the audience was asked to solve, usually anchored to a specific theme for the entire 30-episode season.
Although the tradition of fawazeer stretches back to the 1950s and continues even to this day through occasional efforts at revival, the peak of the fawazeer programming is widely considered to be the series presented by Nelly and then Sherihan in the 1980s and 1990s. Above all in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Arab world, they form part of the childhood nostalgia of the generation that would grow up to lead the Arab Spring.
Industry Arabic is celebrating this Ramadan by translating the full collection of riddles from the 1981 season starring Nelly, titled “al-Khatba” (الخاطبة). Considered one of the best seasons of the fawazeer, this series presents Nelly in the role of the professional matchmaker. In each episode, Nelly proposes a new potential suitor to an aspiring bride and her family in the form of a riddle describing his profession.

You read read more about this here (with an example) and follow them on Twitter or Facebook to get the daily riddle.

On Tunisia's local elections

My Crisis Group colleague Michael Ayari and I have penned an op-ed for Le Mondepublished yesterday, analyzing the outcome of the local elections that took place on Sunday 6 May. It's in French, so let me address key points we made here:

  • The local elections are important as part of the democratic transformation the country is haltingly going through – postponed four times, they are a key component of the constitutional process set in motion in 2014 and will return the first democratically elected local officials since the 2011 uprising, hopefully reinforcing the legitimacy of local government.
  • However they are also important politically. Tunisia is entering an 18-month cycle of electoral activity, starting with these local polls and ending with parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. These will no doubt test the alliance between Nida Tounes and Nahda that has stabilized the country through a broad consensus, but in part because it is too broad, deprived the governing coalition of vitality and direction at times.
  • Early results (official ones should be out tonight) suggest low turnout – no surprise considering how disaffected many Tunisians are with politicians, another consequence of the "mushy consensus" (to borrow from the French expression consensus mou) – and decent results for Nahda and independents, while coalition partner Nida Tounes, the party of President Beji Said Essebsi, drops.
  • These elections thus emphasize the Achilles' heel of the current governing coalition: Nida Tounes' weakness and gradual disintegration, as it is not capable of organizing all political forces belonging to the "Destourian" current (nationalist/secular, ranging from genuine democrats to former regime holdvers). Other political forces have failed to break through either.
  • If Nida Tounes goes into the 2019 election cycle in disarray, it will face tremendous difficulty in coalescing around a parliamentary electoral strategy and a presidential candidate. Nahda however remains disciplined and capable of uniting, and as a result has paradoxically become key to Nida Tounes' internal stability (as its coordination in these elections have shown). But it cannot make up for the party's internal divides.
  • This points to the looming problem facing Tunisia politically: the coalition between Nida Tounes is perceived as unnatural by many (especially among Nida Tounes supporters) and while Nahda has made many concessions it is not really a junior partner, as was originally intended by Essebsi. The regional polarisation over political Islam (Qatar crisis, etc.) makes maintaining the consensus more difficult.
  • The success that independents have had – many of them former RCD (Ben Ali's party before 2011) members – suggest a reconfiguration of the political landscape under way on the secular side. Some may seek negotiation with Nida Tounes, but will demand greater control of the party and feed into the parliamentary candidate selection process. Others may decide to form a rival bloc to it, perhaps on an anti-consensus platform. (Former RCD members are split on Nahda: many have been courted quite effectively by the Islamist party, share its general conservatism and have received its help in these elections. Others are die-hard anti-Islamists, closer to the Arab nationalist left.)  
  • One key lesson of this election is that the disaffection with the consensus politics in place since 2014 must be look at seriously. Key grievances, aside corruption, include the lack of any fundamental change the country is run, especially its regional inequalities and access to economic opportunity. The current consensus, to be maintained (which is desirable to avoid a lapse into the polarisation seen elsewhere), needs to take that on. Otherwise new political forces may campaign against the mixed record of the governing coalition in 2019, including against the principle of compromise and democratic progress.  
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.

On the protest movement in Morocco's Rif

The protest movement (known as Hirak Shaabi or hirak for short) that has been going on in Morocco's northern mountainous Rif region for the last eight months was met with a police crackdown over the Eid holiday. In response for calls to protest in the town of Al Hoceima, police blocked roads between Al Hoceima and other towns and imposed what one observers called a "de-facto daytime curfew." Videos filmed by activists circulated online showing larger crowds marching on side streets, and being chased and beaten by riot police. You can see a number of such videos and photos embedded in this coverage by the local independent site Le Desk.

I've written a few things on this lately. For Al Fanar last week, I wrote about the reaction of Moroccan social scientists, who say the Rif region remains misunderstood and that the divisive coverage of the protests and the heavy-handed response of the authorities have missed an opportunity for a serious debate about unequal development among other topics. 

For the New York Times Sunday Review, I wrote about what has sparked the protests -- going back to the death of a local fish-seller last Fall, and then much further, to the Rif's long history of revolt and violence. The historian Paul Vermeren calls the Rif’s history “a succession of tragedies.”

One could also say that it all started at least a century ago. In the 1920s, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi led the tribes of the Rif in an insurrection against Spain, establishing an independent territory. After the Spanish and the French -- Morocco's two colonizers -- launched a brutal attack on the region, bombing, gassing and burning villages to the ground, Khattabi was defeated and ended his days in exile in Cairo.

In the late 1950s, after Morocco's independence, the region rose up again. Then Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, led a bloody military crackdown. He held a lifelong grudge against the region, calling its inhabitants "savages" in a televised speech and withholding public investment in services and infrastructure for four decades.

Mohammed VI reversed that policy. He initiated huge infrastructure projects -- a container port in Tangier, a high-speed train -- in the north of the country. Many other projects and investments have been promised or are underway. But so far the benefits have largely failed to reach the locals, even as they have raised their expectations.

A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France

In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue. 

I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.

This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.

“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”

Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Islamophobia in France

In the run-up to the incredibly unpredictable French presidential election, I took a look at some of the books being written by prominent (and not-so-prominent) French scholars, and wrote about the vitriolic debate over Islamophobia, Islamic radicalism and the alleged creeping Islamization of France. It is hard to over-state both how complicated, personal and over-the-top this debate can get. 

$20.44

I found Gilles Kepel's book Terror in France interesting as an overview of jihadism in France and of major political developments for France's Muslim minority since 2005 (including some analysis of political participation and of the question of a Muslim vote). Kepel is very critical of the idea of Islamophobia – not because he denies that there is discrimination against Muslims in France but because he says that Islamophobia has been politically instrumentalized to forbid criticism of Islam (Kepel is, not coincidentally, at loggerheads with the Comité Contre L'Islamophobie en France). Yet while I am sure that there are Islamists who use the victimization of Muslims as a means to set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen (always men) and to accrue political influence, there is plenty of criticism of Islam in France these days -- it's practically an intellectual and media industry. 

Which brings us to one of the other books I discuss, which is representative of the genre. Below is an excerpt:

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"That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).

As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge."

Another book, now out in English, I strongly recommend is Olivier Roy's Jihad and Death, a beautifully written analysis of the narcissism and nihilism of jihadis and a critique of the paranoid view of Islam as an imminent threat to France. Also, although I don't write about it in this piece, French journalist David Thomson's book Les Revenants ("The Returnees"), a collection of interviews with young French jihadis (and their female supporters/partners) who have returned from Syrian, is also a riveting work of reportage. 

The Anti-Cairo
The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

Like many who have lived in Cairo, I remain obsessed with the city -- its squandered potential, its exhausting dysfunction, its liveliness and its charm. I've written something for the excellent Places Journal about the Egyptian government's proposal to move the country's capital to a new administrative city in the desert 45 Kilometers outside Cairo. I'm still not sure how seriously to take the fantastical announcements and graphic renderings of this future city (the authorities in Egypt are not exactly reliable, and the project seems preposterous) but something is already definitely being built. I analyzed the plans for the city as a key to understanding how the Sisi regime views the real, existing capital and public space. I also took a look back at Cairo's history and at the few years after Mubarak's ouster when activists, urbanists and citizens shared so many initiatives and proposals to make Cairo the city it should be. 

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

Colin Kahl: Trump's "upside down duck"

This is the first in an interesting series of tweets (see the rest here) by former Obama and Biden advisor Colin Kahl, basically arguing that the best one can hope is that while Trump says crazy things in foreign policy, more responsible officials will ensure he and the Bannon types get nothing done. In other words, that a kind of "adults in the room" deep state ensure that a minimally functional US foreign policy continues till the next election.

The tradecraft of a political analyst

My friend Peter Harling – whose fantastic essays have appeared on this site before before they moved over to his new outfit, Synaps – has put together a wonderful collection of advice for people in our line of work, that is researchers, academics, policy writers, journalists and others who do fieldwork and then write about their findings. He's done so for Synaps, where he is training young researchers from the region, but has decided to make his advice open-source. It's a treasure trove of excellent recommendations derived, among many things, from his many years as director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group. I saw how effective he was at training analysts there (and it's a demanding place to work). There's a lot in there, so here are a few examples.

On note-taking:

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts. Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.

Sharing with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth, everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.

On interviews:

I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.

Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions.

You can find the whole collection here.

The last report from Egypt's El Nadeem Center

The El Nadeem Center is an extraordinary Egyptian NGO that documents police torture and counsels its victims. After a long period of groundless legal harassment, the center has now been forcibly closed by security forces. Just a few weeks ago it issued the following statement, alongside its annual report on torture -- which as its authors note is culled from media reports and statement on social media, and therefore under-estimates the phenomenon.   

"We release this Archive on the 6th anniversary of the 25th of January revolution, when the so called Police-Day turned into a day of revolution against that same police force and against all the atrocities it committed and continues to commit. We have no doubt that the news items we have managed to collect from the various media channels are but the tip of the iceberg.. below the surface or out of our reach and that of the media are many more crimes which we failed to access news about. For that we apologize for the people afflicted by them.

This archive begins with some official quotes made during 2016, beginning from the head of state to one of its main media spokespersons.. Most of which are quotes that deny and condemn those who oppose that denial.. According to those officials Egypt lives its best democratic eras, its prisons are akin to hotels to the extent that prisoners sometimes do not want to be released.. talk about forced disappearance is a lie that targets to defame Egypt's image in front of the work.. No torture is practiced in prisons or police stations.. and detainees are receiving the best medical care!!!

This media archive testifies to the opposite. The archive does not include testimonies taken by doctors working at El Nadim clinic, but includes only testimonies published on the various media channels, including social media. At the end of each testimony there is a link to the original publication for whoever would like to check.

We have classified statistics into killing (extrajudicial, although we oppose all killing even if ordained by law), death in detention, individual torture, collective maltreatment and torture, medical neglect in detention, forced disappearance, reappearance and finally acts of state violence outside places of detention.

Although we believe that every case of forced disappearance is most likely a victim of torture (for why else would security forces would deprive a detainee from every contact with the outside world if not to seize confessions under duress) the listed number of torture cases does not include those who have disappeared unless they have spoken about their torture after reappearing. In addition, we have also published the numbers of those who have reappeared according to the collected news. All of them reappeared in state institutions, none in Syria or with ISIS, as some claim.

The archive also has sections of letters sent from prisons, testimonies of former detainees as well as testimonies of their families during their time of detention. Those sections, we believe are the most valuable part of this archive. They testify to an era as well as to the resilience of individuals who, although deprived of their freedom, hold on to their humanity and belief in human values and solidarity.

2016 was a heavy year. At about this time in 2015 El Nadim released its 2015 archives of oppression, upon which the government made two attempts at its closure.. the only clinic - unfortunately - that provides psychological help to survivors of violence and torture. Some state institutions, in Egypt as well as some of our embassies abroad, claimed that the clinic is closed and that it no longer received clients. Despite the heaviness of the year and the challenges facing El Nadim and other civil society organizations and especially human rights organizations, we assure our constituency and supporters that the clinic has not closed, not for a single day. As long as there is a need for the service provided by the clinic it will continue providing it, even if it is forced to take other formulas and continue receiving survivors of violence and torture. Until then 3A Soliman el Halabi street, 2nd floor remains open.

This archive is not produced by the clinic. It is produced by an independent Egyptian NGO, El Nadim.

Let us hope that 2017 be more merciful to us all. "

PostsUrsula Lindseyegypt, torture