The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Translations
In Translation: Sisi's road to presidency for life

As I have written previously, everything points towards Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi seeking to amend the 2014 constitution to remove term limits, enabling him to remain in the presidency for the rest of his days. The 2014 constitution was written at a moment when Sisi's ascendancy was less than certain; it contains not only limits on presidential terms (the sole major democratic gain of the last decade, arguably) but also constraints on the president's relationship with other major institutions, including the legislative and judiciary, and most importantly the army (since the defense minister, by some readings, cannot be removed for eight years – after the president steps down).

The signs that Sisi would seek amendments have been in the air for a while; even before the recent farcical re-election (the Siselection) there were trial balloons in parliament for initiating a change to the constitution either to extend the term length or remove limits. Whether this will fly is a matter of great uncertainty: Sisi has support among a powerful strata of the establishment, some popular backing, a relentless media machine and, for now, foreign backing. On the other hand, there were also signs (including prior to the recent election) of unease within elements of the Egyptian elite, including the military. And some of Egypt's Western allies, at least, might not object to see him being replaced by a less repressive general who could guarantee their interests while worrying them less about long-term sustainability of the all-repressive, all-the-time Sisi approach.

Hence, securing his presidency for life is no done deal for Sisi. We are just beginning to see regime media stalwarts begin to articulate more sophisticated versions of why it might be necessary to have Sisi remain (by more sophisticated, I mean not just based on emotional paeans of loyalty and Sisicophancy). A few days ago, many noted the piece below by Yasser Rizk – veteran political writer, editor of the venerable al-Akhbar state newspaper (with an interlude at al-Masri al-Youm after he was sacked by Morsi in 2012), and one of the most strident opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood – arguing for the removal of term limits. Rizk was also revealed as Sisi's confidante in leaked tapes in 2013, in which the then minister of defense is heard giving instructions on what talking points should be circulated among intellectuals as he prepared his bid for the presidency. 

The pretext given? That Egypt's political scene – repressed to unprecedented degrees under Sisi – has not produce viable alternative leadership. That is, as they say, pretty weak sauce especially considering the fact that several serious presidential contenders were sidelined prior to the election. It seems the pro-Sisi chattering classes have now been given their new talking points – expect this to be repeated ad nauseum over the next few months. 

Our In Translation feature is made possible through support from Industry Arabic, the nec plus ultra of Arabic translation services. Check out their cool Ramadan Fawazeer feature this month, and give them a gander for your translation needs.


Anxiety over the future government, and the risk to the June Revolution

Yasser Rizq, al-Akhbar, 12 May 2018

There is an undeniable anxiety about the future governance of our country, even though President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not yet taken the oath of office for his second term as president, which is scheduled to begin at the start of next month.

There is also a tangible sense that the June Revolution and its gains are under threat, as we approach its fifth anniversary, which falls next month.

The anxiety is legitimate, and the danger is real!

§

The source of the anxiety is the lack of political forces or party blocs able to produce candidates qualified to assume leading responsibility – forces that enjoy both the support of the people and the endorsement of core and constitutional state institutions.

In one year, you can split the Suez Canal; in four, you can erect a million residential units; in eight, you can build a capital, and in fourteen, a new city.

And yet, you cannot decide to build a political class in the same manner. Nor can you shorten the period of political maturation through directives. Nor can you select leaders on a hunch without a national yardstick, political testing, or executive responsibility.
The source of anxiety is that three years from now is an insufficient amount of time for qualified, visionary political figures to emerge that are youthful and able to assume the functions of the head of state in a manner commensurate with Egypt’s importance and position.

It seems, then, that the political arena for the foreseeable future is dry and barren. While the constitution sets the number of years for a presidential term at four years and bans the president from running for more than two terms, it also prohibits him from returning to the presidency later, even if another president occupies the office for one or two consecutive terms in the interim. This sort of “Putin-Medvedev” scenario is unable to repeat itself in Egypt according to the provisions of the 2014 Constitution, which we say, wholeheartedly, was drafted with the best intentions!

In regards to the constitution, there have been many opinions and suggestions regarding how to amend more than one of its sections. These proposals should be discussed in the media and parliament without the least delay.

§

The danger to the June Revolution actually lies in two distinct camps:

  • The first thinks that the time has come to return to the pre–25 January regime, with all of its deadlock, sterile opinions, and corruption.
  • The second imagines that it can circumvent the 30 June Revolution, take aim at its gains and conspire to stay in power under the cover of reconciliation, either in phases, or all at once by 2022.

The danger lies in Gamal Mubarak’s cronies, who are being reintroduced politically and in the media after washing their faces and hands of what they did to the people and country.

It is also lies with Muslim Brotherhood members, who say that their hands are clean of blood, while at the same time their operatives once again penetrate the ranks of the state and its institutions.1

Perhaps we have not yet forgotten the deal made between the two sides in 2005 that granted the Brotherhood 88 seats in the People’s Assembly in exchange for their support in grooming Gamal Mubarak as his father’s successor. Perhaps we have also not forgotten when the Brotherhood aspired for more and the NDP’s Policy Secretariat imagined that it could take seats from the opposition and the Brotherhood in the 2010 People’s Assembly election “free and clear.” This was the straw that broke the Mubarak regime’s back on 25 January and afterwards.

For all we know, perhaps there is someone engineering another deal for 2022, beginning in turn with the next syndical, local, parliamentary, and finally presidential elections. This would result in the Brotherhood filling up the government and Parliament and Gamal Mubarak as the president.

§

I do not think it a mere innocent coincidence that this image of condolence is being promoted at the same time as the idea of reconciliation between the regime and the Brotherhood.

In spite of the actual circumstances surrounding the event, the image of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi shaking hands with the brothers Gamal and Alaa Mubarak has already been exploited on Brotherhood websites and Mubarak-friendly social media accounts in order to make it seem as if Field Marshal Tantawi was expressing his apologies for what Gamal Mubarak and his father suffered after the 25 January Revolution during the period that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) governed the country. This, of course, is ironic considering its shameful falsehood.

At the same time, talk of reconciliation has been in in the air at various levels, some of which are directly attributable to the Brotherhood organization, although we have not yet heard a definite, formal response that any dialogue or reconciliation has been denied or ruled out. Perhaps those talks will not be interrupted, but rather renewed and activated instead, especially since the final rulings over several members of the Brotherhood’s leadership (some of whom face execution) have been postponed. This is stoking doubts in public opinion, as well as renewing hopes within the Brotherhood’s ranks that the idea of reconciliation could be pushed through as a springboard for their delusions of returning to power.

Some may say that Gamal Mubarak, like his father and brother, was sentenced to prison in the presidential palaces case, which precludes him from running for any position or from participating in political life until he has been exonerated.

However, it is worth recalling that in a similar situation, when Khairat al-Shater2 wanted an exoneration shortly before the filing deadline to run in the 2012 elections, the doors of the court opened on a Friday and issued him a detailed acquittal. Sometimes the country and its ledgers are really their country and ledgers!

§

However, the greatest danger comes from those who gravely underestimate their opponents and overestimate their delusions of their own abilities, thereby leading people into danger and peril, such as we saw shortly before the 25 January Revolution, or shortly before the Brotherhood exploited its control of the parliament and the presidency.

The greatest danger consists of a political elite that has the memory of a fish, an intellectual elite that revolves around the movement of history like a beast of burden going around a waterwheel, and a media elite that thinks with its tongue and talks with its nerves.

They are the ones who turn illusion into fact and delusion into reality.

This fact must be made loud and clear to everyone: there is no one to make reconciliation with, and there is nothing on which we have to reconcile.

It is also necessary to enact a law that whoever calls for or applauds reconciliation with the terrorist Brotherhood organization should face the same punishment as the one prescribed for those who are actually guilty of belonging to the organization.

Everyone must be aware that even the National Democratic Party in the heyday of the Policy Secretariat3 was not able to gather more than 5% in any elections during its era. And its remnants have not been any better at mobilizing the masses and getting them to go to the polls in any election following the 30 June Revolution. Rather, during the last presidential elections in particular, there was no one – whether the parliamentary blocs, family heads, or tribal strongholds – who could claim that they were behind the large crowds that gathered to vote in the elections. Rather, it was the person of President al-Sisi and the success and hope that he represents to the voters that motivated citizens to gather in front of the polling centers in such massive numbers.

I think that maybe Gamal Mubarak needs someone to whisper a bit of advice in his ear. That person should tell him to raise his hands in praise and thanksgiving that he was not tried politically for what he did to ruin the country and for his attempt to overthrow the republican system, and that he should remain in his home and not make any media appearances feigning ignorance of his father’s reign.

*

In my view, the popular reaction to talk of reconciliation and those who are giving it legs – whether out of carelessness or bad intentions – should be the nail in the coffin for these proposals, whose real aim is to launch a counter-revolution against the 30 June Revolution and its regime.

I also consider the mass outcry to the image of condolence between Field Marshal Tantawi and Gamal Mubarak to be the appropriate response to the succession era, articulated by the patriot Tantawi himself. The people have not forgotten his position towards the Gamal Mubarak loyalists during the Nazif government, especially when he said to them, “You all want to sell the country and the military establishment will not allow it.”

As for the anxiety for the future shape of the government at the end of the president’s second term, I am convinced that President al-Sisi shares this feeling as much as public opinion does, if not more.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that when I asked President al-Sisi about this feeling, he replied, “I am beset by anxiety even now. No one’s life is guaranteed from one minute to the next. All lives are in God’s hands.” I also heard the president say that one of the most important priorities of his new presidency is to train and select several capable people to run in the next elections.

The parliament and its delegates remain an essential part of the constitutional debate. On the one hand, no one wants to insert absolute rule into the constitution. However, at the same time, no one believes that its provisions should act as a sort of guillotine enforcing the popular will.

The people’s awareness remains a solid shield to defend them against the dangers of the counter-revolution, assaults upon the gains of the 30 June Revolution, and the lies and claims broadcast about its national regime.

And behind the people, the military stands alert, protecting the 30 June Revolution, and defending the people’s will against efforts to return to Egypt’s former corruption, exclusion, and monopolization of power.


  1. This is a reference to calls by some exiled members of the Brotherhood for reconciliation and their distancing with the group’s leadership, as well as similar calls from former members in Egypt.  ↩

  2. Former Deputy General Guide and strongman of the Brotherhood, now in prison  ↩

  3. The Policy Secretariat was a kind of internal think tank in the former ruling party led and created by Gamal Mubarak.  ↩

In Translation: Sisi's PR reboot

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

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

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

This feature is made possible by the Arabic translation superheros at Industry Arabic -- some say they have memorized all four editions of Hans Wehr by heart. Check them out for your translation needs.


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

al-Araby, 9 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Translation: The Kurdish referendum and Arab Male Chauvinism

The In Translation series, in which we publish translations of commentaries from Arabic, is brought to you courtesy of our partners at the excellent Industry Arabic translation service. In this installment researcher Rasha Al Aqeedi takes to task the Iraqi newspaper Al-Nahar for its coverage of the recent referendum on independence in Kurdistan. 

Al-Nahar newspaper and Arab Male Chauvinism

Al Hurra newspaper, September 28, 2017

By Rasha Al Aqeedi

The result of Kurdistan’s referendum, in which the “yes” vote exceeded 90%, was no surprise to observers of the Kurdish issue. The Iraqi response was also expected. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and legitimate anger were mixed with Arab chauvinism and abhorrent anti-Kurdish racism – practices that are easily denied yet experienced by every Kurd carrying an Iraqi passport at least once in his life. But as with all forms of defamation, the reaction of the Baghdad-based al-Nahar newspaper summarizes not only the tragic relations of the Kurds with their partners at home, but also the depth of nationalism’s moral decline.

An image implying a young woman’s gang rape by a group of men headlined the page. The page designer intended the young woman to represent Kurdistan, and the men the neighboring countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, in a vulgar and macho display unbecoming of a newspaper bearing the logo of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate or of a society calling for moderation. The controversial Al-Nahar newspaper does not represent the Iraqi press, but its choice to use that image requires all of us to face a difficult truth: Iraqi society is still chauvinistic from top to bottom, and the “female” is still used to insult the “male.”

Rape has historically been a deliberate military strategy used to strike fear into the hearts of societies and to instill a feeling of defeat in the enemy by insulting his honor, making rape, or even the threat of rape, a form of broad-based psychological warfare last used in Iraq when thousands of Yazidi women were abused. They were humiliated and repeatedly raped by ISIS militants in the name of religion after their men were slaughtered. What would prompt al-Nahar to brandish the image of the rape of Kurdistan in the name of nationalism?

Systemic anti-Kurdish racism is the legacy of generations of Arab chauvinism, which sees other nationalities as outsiders who do not deserve first-class citizenship. In an outpouring of racial spite, derogatory discourse is immediately invoked anytime the “intruders” do not please the “masters.”  Even clerics do not hesitate to provoke rivalries overflowing with anti-Kurdish hate, as some call the Kurds “demons” and see it as their moral duty to fight them.

Interjecting women into the political debate to extort the “other” is nothing new.  Eastern society is both obsessed with, and afraid of, sex. The issue most often revolves around the honor of women: violating it where it is associated with the enemy and seeking to defend it where it is associated with oneself. As sectarianism in Iraq deepened following the fall of the former regime, Saddam loyalists and Arab sectarian groups began to call Iraqi Shias the “sons of mutaa.”  After a decade, the oldest Shia chauvinists fired back, calling Sunnis “sexual jihadists.” Both counteracted the other side’s disparagement by accusing its women of immoral and indecent behavior.

This is not the first time “free” pens in Iraq have expressed a political opinion about a region or sect by portraying the “other” as a sinful or raped woman. During the liberation of Fallujah, the hashtag #fallujah_washes_away_its_shame (الفلوجة_تغسل_عارها#)  and a caricature of a young woman returning home, with her head down as her father waits to discipline her for the “shame” she has inflicted on him, spread across Twitter.

Rejection of the referendum and Kurdish independence can be expressed in measured words, a targeted image, or constructive criticism, but invoking this superficial notion of honor, designed to threaten and intimidate, reflects only the weakness of the argument and the weakness of the individual. It is not possible to see inside the mind of the designer, but one can make some assumptions as to the angry neighbors that await an independent Kurdistan.

The implication that rape and sexual violence is somehow a legitimate form of punishment is an expression of a societal malady deeply rooted in history. All human societies have suffered from this disease, which has not been fully treated but has been contained in many cultures. The culture of the Middle East, however, is not among them.  Al-Nahar owes an apology to all Kurds, and to the countries whose names it has involuntarily attached to an offensive image. Print media is a source of reform: Iraq’s ills cannot be addressed if the media is a source of corrosion.

In Translation: Sisi's war on the Egyptian constitution

Rather predictably – as predictable as his bid for the presidency was after he led the 2013 coup – Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has been in recent months airing trial balloons on amending the 2013 constitution (supposed to be, in theory at least, a consensual text that brings together a variety of political factions, even it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and others) to allow himself to become, like his predecessors, a president for life. Cue the protests from his defenders that these are ill-advised initiatives by his over-eager fans; but of course even if Sisi may not be as daring as pushing for such changes now, he is certain to do so after he wins what was supposed to be his second and last term in the 2018 presidential elections. You can expect him to reluctantly answer the popular cry for him to serve his country, sacrificing himself (he had been looking forward to quiet retirement, etc.) as countless other dictators have done so before him, from Sisi's friend Vladimir Putin to his arch-enemy Recep Tayyep Erdogan.  

Arguably, Egyptian constitutional principles have been eroded to such an extent under Sisi that this is simply making official a de facto state of affairs. The symbolism of the formal change, however, is serious, as could be legal repercussions that further enshrine today's state of emergency into the constitution. It would further push the regime's opponents – not all cuddly revolutionary types, to be sure – into a zero-sum logic and amplify the rationale that all hope is lost. Putting term limits on the presidency was, after all, one of the few political gains made among the generally meager returns of the Egyptian uprising. It offers, even from today's bleak prospects, the possibility of an eventual change in leadership that might prevent the ossification of the regime (see Algeria today, Egypt under Mubarak, etc.) This is why even mild-mannered critics of the current Egyptian regime who supported the 2013 coup and Sisi's presidential bid are aghast at this turn of events. The piece below, penned by the founder of the Social Democratic Party, is a case in point.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Please check them out if you need your documents translated into Arabic, they do a great job with a quick turnaround.

Amending the Constitution Is a Novel Egyptian Disaster

Mohammed Abou al-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 21 August 2017

We have heard the voices of regime mouthpieces – who have personally benefited from the current regime in the form of high-level positions and other privileges – calling for the constitution to be amended. The reason? To extend the president’s term, possibly indefinitely. I would like to remind you that since 1952, none of Egypt’s previous presidents have voluntarily left office. Mohammed Naguib was deposed in a coup, Abdel Nasser died after 18 years in power, Sadat was assassinated after 11 years in office, Mubarak was overthrown by revolution after 29 years of rule, and Morsi was deposed by the people and the army after just a one year. So why would Sisi enter this vicious cycle? Is there some logic in his thinking?

Some say that under dictatorial rule, every president carries out unconstitutional and illegal measures, such that if he ever leaves office, he and his cronies would face trial and retribution. Therefore, in such systems, the president only leaves by force or in death.

The regime’s henchmen are the beneficiaries of this spectacle. They are the ones who adorn any president who undermines the constitution. Then they demand that he remain in office for life, not out of love for him, but out of love for themselves and their positions. Now, are there legal or popular challenges and problems to amending the constitution?

  1. Lawmakers must remember what happened in the days of Mubarak when parliament tried to make controversial amendments to the constitution. That was after all one of the reasons for the end of Mubarak’s rule. They must, no doubt, be cautious. Indeed, the skill, experience and intelligence of Fathi Sorour, the distinguished university professor and the brilliant lawyer, has no equal in the current parliamentary leadership.
  2. The world has completely changed in the 21st century. It is true that terrorism in the Middle East has given the Egyptian regime broad freedom to act with US, European, Gulf, and Israeli support, but these things do not last forever. Moreover, such support bears a high cost that is now being paid for by Egypt’s freedom to make its own decision. The time will come when the president will no longer be able to pay that price; the support will dry up, and with massive foreign and domestic debts, the situation will be an impossible one unless Egypt can maintain political cohesion and keep its people satisfied. The amendments will cause a new rift that will transform Tiran and Sanafir into a profound gulf, with the people on one side and the President on the other.
  3. Extending the president’s first term is legally impossible both in form and substance. The term is a legally binding contract between two parties – the people elected Sisi for 4 years, no more, no less. That cannot be changed with a law or a referendum or anything else, and any attempts at a referendum would be crazy.
  4. The constitution contains an article that clearly states that it is not permissible to change the articles pertaining to election of the president. The wisdom behind that article is well-established, because all of Egypt’s former presidents wanted to rule for life. Any change to this article would have the intention of keeping the president in office indefinitely. Egyptians want to see the day where a former president ends his term and leaves office: they want to experience rotation of power.
  5. Any planned constitutional amendments that have received approval to appear on a constitutional referendum must first present a referendum to abolish the constitution, as this article cannot be amended. Abolishing the Constitution would also mean abolishing the legitimacy of June 30, the very basis on which the current president was elected. Then we would write a new constitution to the current leadership’s liking before presenting it for referendum once again. Are you ready for two referendums in such a short time, followed by presidential elections, just to consolidate the president’s stay in office?
  6. Is the Egyptian regime capable of holding an honest referendum that gives everyone in the media the chance to speak their mind and then follow that up with presidential elections with the same level of transparency? Of course not. The media is almost completely nationalized and will not allow any competitor the opportunity to express his opinion or explain his point of view; it would just as soon assassinate him as let an opposition voice speak freely.
  7. The regime believes itself to be quite strong, and in fact it is quite strong with considerable foreign aid, but there are severe internal weaknesses, including terrorism and the serious erosion of the economy caused by misguided policies and an unwillingness to listen to any other point of view, and due to the imprisonment of thousands, the shredding of the constitution and the law, chaos, and corruption. In such circumstances, we must reach an understanding with the people and agree upon a future policy in order to overcome our terrible problems, and not by drafting dangerous constitutional amendments that paralyze the country and put us in the middle of yet another mess.
  8. Finally, I do not believe that this was [Speaker of Parliament Ali] Abdel Aal’s idea or that of his colleagues because when one of them brought it up not too long ago, he was told to shut up and be silent. Please be careful, Egypt has 21 million angry young men with no permanent or regular work.

Please think a little and wait until next time, there is no need to be so reckless. Leave well enough alone!

Rise up, Egyptian! Egypt always calls on you!

In Translation: And if Qatar folds?

There has been an avalanche of commentary on the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt (and a bunch of hangers-on) in the last couple of weeks. Some tell you one side or another is going to win, others worry it's the beginning of a new regional war. Everything is pointing to this crisis lasting longer than those who initiated it (Saudi and the UAE) intended it to. Whatever happens in the end, the crisis shows the interplay of several lines of tension among regional powers, from the Iran-Saudi divide to Islamist-anti-Islamist polarisation and revolutionary vs. counter-revolutionary narratives. The overlap is confusing, and so much of the media treatment (including in the US and UK press, a sad statement of the influence of Gulf money and ideology) absurdly biased.

The piece below is written by the noted Lebanese leftist intellectual Gilbert Achar, most recently the author of a well-reviewed book on the Arab uprisings, Morbid SymptomsAlthough it is published in the Qatar-owned London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Achcar has the merit of being a cheerleader for neither Qatar nor its opponents. He traces the history of Qatar's tensions with its neighbors, the spectacular rise and potential fall of its aggressive foreign policy, its bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opponents' successful efforts to roll back the Arab uprisings. For Achcar, the fundamental difference between the two camps is that Qatar sought to adapt to the Arab Spring by banking on the Muslim Brotherhood successfully harnessing its energies, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to roll it back and restore the establishments that were shaken by the uprisings. It is a view underpinned by his assessment, in Morbid Symptoms, that another revolutionary wave looms –  one that may very well wash away those who seek to resist it and reward those that seek to ride it.

As always, this translation is made possible by Industry Arabic. Use them for your Arabic needs.


Campaign Against Qatar is Latest in Series of Attacks by the Region’s Old Establishment

Gilbert Achcar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 7 June 2017

To understand the significance of the violent campaign launched by the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments against Qatar, we must look beyond the vagaries of the Qatari ransom money allegedly held by Iraq and the charges leveled against Qatar of supporting terrorism. Such charges lose all credibility when they come from actors that have for decades engaged in just that, we must return to the scene before “Arab Spring” to see how it was affected by the Great Uprising.

During the reign of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar took an approach to regional affairs not unlike Kuwait’s after it declared independence from Britain in 1961. The announcement outraged the Republic of Iraq, which demanded the emirate be restored as part of its territory. But Kuwait benefited from the tension that existed between Iraq, under the leadership of Abdel Karim Qassim, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which advocated acceptance of Kuwait’s Arab independence over its status as a British protectorate. And in order to deter its Iraqi neighbor from ambitions of annexation, Kuwait pursued a policy of Arab neutrality, maintaining good relations with the two poles of the so-called “Arab Cold War,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The similarity is that Qatar, as is well-known, has a historically strained relationship with its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, particularly since declaring independence from Britain in 1971. After seizing power in 1995, Emir Hamad pursued a policy that sought to make up for the emirate’s small size by reinforcing ties with the two main axes of regional conflict, as evident by extensive deployments of US troops throughout the Gulf: the United States and the Republic of Iran. Qatar’s success is most obvious in its ability to simultaneously host the United States’ most important regional airbase and cultivate its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The policy of good relations with opposing forces also manifests itself in Qatar successfully establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while also supporting Hamas.

Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited to cultivating good relationships with different parties in the Kuwaiti sense, which is neutral and negative, but it also used its substantial wealth to play an active role in regional politics by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. When Saudi Arabia renounced the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to its opposition to American intervention in Kuwait in 1990, the weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of Al-Jazeera, which resonated with Arab society by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

So when the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a significant role through its sponsorship of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. As a result, the two axes of conflict that had dominated the Arab world – the old establishment and the fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood – found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But while Saudi Arabia supported the old establishment throughout the region – with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where sectarianism produced an alliance (between the Assad regime and) Iran – Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, with the exception of Bahrain for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom since the onset of the “Arab Spring” was evident by Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising, while Saudi Arabia granted asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Moreover, the Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of Arab uprisings that might take root in a way that would threaten US interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old establishment with Saudi Arabia (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role urging Washington to adopt a policy of keeping pace with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood public enemy number one. The pressure the two Gulf countries placed on Qatar continued to build after Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood failed to pay out when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That was followed by Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current Emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014, forcing the new emir to change course.1

After the peak, it seemed that the Gulf conflict had come to an end. Through the consensus of the three aforementioned gulf states to support the Syrian opposition against the Assad Regime, which strained relations between Qatar (and with it, the Muslim Brotherhood) and Iran, and, later, Qatar’s participation in the military campaign against Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen – all against the backdrop of a new king ascending to the Saudi throne – it seemed as if peace between GCC members was possible. This trend has been supported by Saudi Arabia’s longtime pursuit of a Sunni consensus against Iran that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and coincides with tension between Riyadh and Cairo. The trend also aligned perfectly with the politics of the Obama administration.

However, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States changed the equation. The new president is a supporter of a policy of confrontation in the face of change and revolution in the Arab world. He is also extremely hostile to Iran and has an intimate friendship with Israel. Some of his closest advisors have classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, concurring in this with the UAE (as evidenced by recently uncovered correspondence of its ambassador to Washington). This fundamental change in the equation led Saudi Arabia to reconcile with al-Sisi’s Egypt, who together, accompanied by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, launched the current frenzied attack on Qatar in order to impose a radical change on its policy.

Thus, the latest episode reversing the Great Arab Uprising and the counterattack launched by the ancien regime all across the region, supported in most arenas by the Gulf axis and by Iran in Syria and Yemen, is almost complete. But a new uncontainable wave of revolution is coming sooner or later (indeed, its harbingers are already visible in Morocco and Tunisia).2 If this day comes and there is no one to contain it, then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may well regret eliminating Qatar’s role within this space.

Gilbert Achcar is a writer and academic from Lebanon



  1. Note that Emir Tamim came to power in Qatar a week or so before the overthrow of Morsi, not after. ↩︎

  2. Here Achcar refers to the protests in southern Tunisia (mostly Tataouine) and in Morocco (starting in the Rif). ↩︎

In Translation: al-Qaeda goes glocal

My friend Mohammed Si’ali, a veteran reporter for the Spanish news agency EFE and other outlets in Cairo and elsewhere in the region, has written an interesting piece on the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy in response to the Arab uprisings since 2011. Piecing together its reaction to the 2011 protests, the secession of the Islamic State from its ranks in 2013, the rebranding of the Nusra Front in 2016 and the emergence of a new united front of Sahelian jihadist groups in 2017 – among other things – he sets out a vision whereby al-Qaeda is trying to mainstream, win the support of Islamists disappointed by the Arab Spring, and combine a global strategic vision oriented against the West with pragmatism at the local level. To borrow from the HSBC ad from a few years ago, al-Qaeda appears to be trying to be glocal organisation. As ISIS faces military setbacks across the region, this has important consequences for the future of jihadism.

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Evolving with the Arab Spring: Is al-Qaeda Striving to Transform into a “National Liberation Movement”?

Mohammed Si’ali, Center for Kurdish Studies, 5 April 2017

Abstract: The new alliance announced last month between three jihadist organizations in Mali under the banner of al-Qaeda and local jihadist leadership, as well the contents of its founding declaration, have raised questions about its rapid efforts in this region to evolve ideologically and organizationally with the new reality that has characterized the popular uprisings in the MENA region since 2011. With the goal of improving its survival, development, and practical abilities in light of these new conditions, al-Qaeda is accomplishing this by reducing armed, violent acts and participating in peaceful political action and soft influence. Consequently, what has appeared is something that resembles an “Islamic national liberation movement,” whether in the MENA region or other places where this organization exists, such as the Greater African Sahara.

§§§

At the outset of the “Arab Spring,” al-Qaeda dreamt that it would finally obtain a popular ally and become the equivalent of the military wing of the popular Islamist movement. Its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Islamic world and liberating it from external influence seemed an imminent reality. The Arab uprisings coincided with the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 in an operation by American special forces in Pakistan and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s emergence as al-Qaeda’s leader. After the Arab uprisings, which overthrew dictatorial secular governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, al-Zawahiri issued a political manifesto in August 2012 to specify Islamic jihad’s role in this stage. He emphasized the necessity of “aiding Muslim people in their revolutions against corrupt tyrants, and enlightening them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” He also broadly called for “working towards the establishment of a Caliphate that does not recognize nation-states, links to nationalism, nor the borders imposed by the occupiers.” In September of the same year, he broadcast a military manifesto placing limits on armed action that member groups practiced under the banner of al-Qaeda. It focused the fighting on the United States and aimed to reduce military operations inside Islamic countries, thereby preventing those societies from eschewing jihad. Additionally, he showed many film clips that described the course and direction of the revolutions to steer their uprisings toward Sharia law, ending with the establishment of a caliphate state.

Al-Zawahiri’s interest in the direction of the Arab Spring shows that he, along with others in al-Qaeda’s leadership, sees these revolutions as complementary to the jihad carried out by the different arms of the organization and as a result of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America. As such, these attacks had pushed Washington to breathe life into popular pressure in Muslim countries, which “blew up in the faces of its clients,” i.e. the local governments. Additionally, Adam Yahiye Gadahn – the American citizen who worked as a senior spokesperson for al-Qaeda and was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan in early 2015 – saw that the jihadist attacks against American interests and its allies had “eliminated many of the material, moral, and psychological obstacles that used to prevent the Ummah (Islamic community) from liberating itself from the corrupt and despotic governments subordinate to the West.” He added that youthful opposition in countries with popular uprisings had learned from the jihadists’ experience in their call for toppling tyrannical regimes on the internet, as well as the fatwas from jihadist scholars to remove despotic governments for their lack of Sharia law, which had a prominent role in liberating the hearts and minds of Muslim youths.

On this basis, al-Zawahiri considered the success of the revolutions as a victory for al-Qaeda over the West, since the revolting peoples “want Islam and Islamic rule, while America and West fight it.” Similarly, in one of his lectures he showed bearded demonstrators in Egypt carrying al-Qaeda flags and shouting slogans in defense of the religious state against the secular state. In another of Gadhan’s tapes, a group of demonstrators was shown praying at one of the sit-in sites, with women wearing niqabs taking care of an injured person and a man pointing to the Quran. Al-Zawahiri added in a 2011 recording:

 “The pro-American media claims that al-Qaeda’s method of clashing with regimes has failed. This same media pretends to ignore that al-Qaeda and most jihadist currents have struggled for more than a decade and a half mostly by abandoning the clash with regimes and focusing on striking the head of the global criminals (the United States). Thus, this method, especially after the September 11 attacks, has led, through orders from America, to the regimes’ loosening their grip over their people and opponents, which helped the movement and culminated into an eruption of massive public anger. This confirms what Osama bin Laden, may God have mercy on him, used to emphasize, that we increased pressure on the idiots of the modern era, America, which will lead to its weakening and the weakening of its clients. So, who are the real winners and losers of this policy?”

Al-Qaeda did not only attribute to itself the outbreak of the Arab Spring, but also considered the leadership of various jihadist currents, such as in Egypt, as precursors to the massive uprisings against the current regimes and those that have existed since the late 1970s. In this regard, al-Zawahiri said in one of his messages to the Egyptian people after the revolution of January 25, 2011:

“God knows that I always hoped to be in the front line of the Ummah’s uprising against injustice and oppressors. Before my emigration from Egypt, I had been eager to participate in the popular protests of 1968 against the setback represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Then, I participated in several demonstrations and protests against Sadat and his administration. I was with the protesters in Tahrir Square in 1971, whom I considered dear brothers. It was for them that the great events of the latest Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt government occurred. If not for fear of what danger would befall them, then I would mention them by name and praise their brave deeds. Likewise, I have repeatedly called, in my words to the Arab people and the Egyptian people specifically, to rise up against the regimes of corruption and tyranny that have dominated us.”

Despite al-Qaeda’s new, strengthened approach after 2011, in 2008 al-Zawahiri had called for action in addition to the struggle and propaganda. He called for demonstrations to change the “corrupt reality” and establishing an Islamic state, while modifying the pursuit of these goals through the tactic of “fixed elections.” Thus, after the workers’ demonstrations on 6 April of the same year in Mahalla el Kubra near Cairo, he said:

“The workers and students must move their anger into the streets. They must turn the mosques, factories, universities, institutes, and high schools into centers of jihad and resistance. Everyone must mobilize, because it is not just one group or organization’s battle, but the entire Ummah’s battle. The Ummah must stand shoulder to shoulder with its fighters, its men, its women, and its masses to expel the crusading invaders and Jews from the lands of Islam and to establish an Islamic state.”

Since the outset of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda began employing concepts that were unfamiliar in the jihadist lexicon, such as “revolutionaries,” “revolution,” and “resistance,” alongside religious concepts. This turning point in the direction of al-Zawahiri’s propaganda was reinforced in one of his recordings to businessmen. In it, he said that they should “benefit from the recent opening in Tunisia and Egypt” and establish new media outlets to call for “the true creed of Islam, which is liberated from its dependence on the arrogant and rejects the injustice of corrupting rulers.” He added, “The noble free people who care about Islam in Tunisia must wage a propagandistic, provocative, and popular campaign to gather the Ummah. They must not stop until Sharia is the source of law and order in Tunisia.” These ambitions did not appear out of thin air. During the Arab revolutions, it was the young and old of the jihadist currents, despite their small numbers, who took their place among the poplar demonstrations, wearing Afghani garb and raising the black flags of al-Qaeda. In Tahrir Square, Egypt during the period following the 25 January Revolution, pictures of Osama bin Laden were sold alongside pictures of deceased Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

It was clear after the revolutions of the Arab Spring that al-Qaeda strove to profit from a popular ally in those countries and to participate in peaceful movements, but without slackening its violent activities. In the document “The Victory of Islam,” al-Zawahiri called on the Islamic currents to “aid Muslim people in their revolutions against tyrants and to enlighten them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” In the document “General Directives for Jihad,” the leader of al-Qaeda required that military action be focused against the United States. More importantly, they demanded that the jihad avoid harming Muslims and religious/ethnic minorities during acts of violence so that they are not roused against the jihadists. He also called for peace with local regimes to proselytize, recruit, and gather funds. As for the places that fell under jihadist control, he demanded that “wisdom prevail,” meaning to prioritize propaganda and education to avoid the jihadists’ expulsion from those regions due to civil discord or revolt by those opposed to their occupation.

According to al-Qaeda, the conflict between the people and regimes is the local manifestation of an original conflict between the former and the West. In its view, the regimes in Muslim countries are a façade or tool that the West has used to rule the region remotely since the beginning of what Adam Yahiya Gadhan called the “age of neo-colonialism.” But in spite of the outset of the confrontation between al-Qaeda, supported by its allies, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as its continuing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Yemen, etc., the original tactic of this organization has been to avoid conflict with regimes in Muslim countries, except where confrontation is necessary.

One Moroccan member of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (formerly the al-Nusra Front, considered the formal arm of al-Qaeda in Syria) says that al-Qaeda “is trying to exploit the situation that emerged from the Arab Spring to penetrate Islamic society. It also strives, if possible, to avoid direct clashes by instead working tactically, except in places where there is fighting already.” It is confirmed that al-Zawahiri’s intensive speeches during and after the Arab revolutions were directed at revolutionaries and moderate Islamic currents. The organization itself is managed internally by secret decisions issued by Shura councils, the general leadership council, and orders from the general commander, not through open statements.

Despite the new direction of al-Qaeda’s leader and all its affiliated factions, the “Islamic State” opposed it and unleashed its own military actions against Shiite citizens, especially in Iraq and Syria, where it carries out daily car bombings in restaurants, public markets, hussainiyas (Shia congregation halls), and pilgrimage caravans. This lack of obedience pushed the general leadership of al-Qaeda to wash its hands of the Islamic State through a formal statement on 22 January 2014. It stated its eagerness for the different jihadist organizations “to be part of the Ummah, and to not take guardianship over its rights, nor dominate it, nor deprive it of its right to choose who rules it from among those who fulfill the conditions of legitimacy.”  In addition to its defiance of the directives of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the Islamic State carries out attacks against other jihadist organizations that had publicly or implicitly adopted al-Qaeda’s new direction, such as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

The point of departure in the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was the latter’s refusal to comply with al-Zawahiri’s request to restrict its military operations in Iraq and to leave the jihad in Syria to the former al-Nusra Front (before it changed its name and joined with al-Qaeda). The Islamic State did so because it considered the Levant to be a separate geopolitical province wherein it leads most of the Syrian jihadists; as such, the Islamic State believes that it better understands their society.

The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s experience was repeated in Mali, where branches of Ansar Dine, which include the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan leadership al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, announced at the beginning of this month (April 2017) an alliance under one organization calling itself the Jama'a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. After renewing their allegiance to al-Zawahiri, they specified their main goal as “standing as the first line of defense against the occupying crusading enemy.” Just as in the founding statement of the new organization, led by the Malian al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, it cited the foundations of al-Qaeda’s jihad, which include “good will towards people, becoming familiar with them, engaging their hearts and minds, and not burdening them with anything they cannot bear.”

Conclusion: While the Islamic State aims to apply its international, truly extremist vision, a vision in which some leaders of al-Qaeda used to believe, the strategy changed completely when the latter began to decentralize its global organizational structure and establish regional movement branches in Muslim countries. According to this strategy, local jihadi leaders direct its operation while enjoying tribal, religious and ethnic legitimacy. In this way, it can make broad social alliances and separately adapt its operations according to local circumstances in each country. The issues that matter include people participating in government, supporting Muslim minorities, and fighting against external influence. Thus, al-Qaeda has added a temporary tactical dimension that loosely joins the organization’s general leadership and its strategic goals on one hand with the local issues of Islamic societies and its short/long-term goals on the other hand. The point of this new direction is to eliminate the barriers between moderate and radical Islam and to make the organization appear like a “national Islamic liberation movement.” It could also become alluring to youth groups inside Islamic political movements, if they are exposed to unexpected tyrannical treatment typical of the political rat race, continual economic injustice, repressive governmental practices of in Islamic countries, or if some of them continue to depend on the world’s superpowers. This may prove to be the case, especially given the rarity and weakness of modern opposition fronts and the growing attempts by the superpowers’ client states at brutal, vertical control.

As a Moroccan journalist and researcher based in Rabat, Si’ali worked as a correspondent for a global news agency as part of its bureau for the Middle East and Gulf regions between 2011 and 2016. Subsequently, he has reported on the development of Islamic extremists in the region and throughout the world. He earned a BA in Public Law and Political Science from the University of Tangier, Morocco.

In Translation: A butterfly in Fayoum

Every now and then, I like to switch from the usual short news and commentary pieces we usually cover in this In Translation series and dive deep into a topic. The piece below, at over 6000 words, is long, complicated, and at times the prose gets a little purple. But it is worth reading: a mixture of social history of terrorism in Egypt, classic tale of Upper Egyptian banditry, ghoulish look at the practices of a depraved religious cult, and treatise on the unintended consequences of the actions of governments and their opponents. I will not delve into an explanation here, save to say that this story draws the links between a now-forgotten extremist group operating in Fayoum in the early 1990s and the ideology and some key figures in the Islamic State.

The piece has been edited a little bit for flow, although I have tried to retain the unusual style of its author, Ahmed Elderiny, who tells this story as if he was telling a ghost tale around a campfire. Rather than provide information upfront, I have provided links to further information (the piece assumes a lot of knowledge about 1990s Egypt and other issues) and a few footnotes where necessary (in some cases to correct minor factual errors). Hover over most links to get a little info, which avoids you clicking through. 

Many thanks to our partners at Industry Arabic who did an outstanding job with this translation. Please check them out for your company's translation needs.


The Shawkiyoun: A Dress Rehearsal for ISIS in Fayoum in 1990

Ahmed Elderiny, al-Masri al-Youm, 25 February 2017

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!”

Why does she blame her husband for Shawki’s killing? It is as if she expected him to lay down his life for Shawki, whether by taking a bullet for him or doing absolutely anything to save him from death. What is clear though is that she loved Shawki in some way that we are still not fully able to understand.

The place: the village of Kahk, in the governorate of Fayoum, approximately 100 kilometers south of Cairo. The time: an unknown day in April 1990. The atmosphere was clouded with confusion.

Before this woman ran towards her husband lamenting Shawki, several of his followers in the village of Kahk, in the Ibshway administrative district, were readying themselves for a fateful battle. The choice was either life with Shawki or death without him; there was no middle ground.

The “Shawkiyoun” – named for their leader – knew that men in black uniforms with stars and brass eagles on their shoulders were advancing toward Kahk with their weapons and armored vehicles. Shawki’s supporters rushed to the roofs of houses, the trunks of palms, and the branches of trees, each of them gripping his weapon and preparing to shoot, keeping a lookout in all directions.

The internal security forces had been tasked with bringing Shawki back with them, dead or alive. The Minister of Interior himself, Major General Abdul Halim Moussa, was waiting for a call regarding the results of the operation.

The village resisted them, defending Shawki al-Sheikh, who, in the popular memory of some in Fayoum, would become “Sheikh Shawki” in a purposeful transposition of his first and last names. This was not due to the weakness of their memory, but more likely was an expression of what they felt in their souls. For who was a sheikh like Shawki? And who was more deserving of being called sheikh?

Before the Egyptian internal security forces sprayed their bullets into Shawki’s body and into around 20 of his followers, and before the specific preparations were made for this decisive military operation, a great deal of blood was shed – on all sides. The day of the confrontation, which had been chosen by the Egyptian government, was like a final reckoning. It was Judgment Day for Shawki, when the bullets would hold him accountable for everything that had happened.

Hiding out of sight was Omar Abdel-Rahman, who along with his group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, waiting for any news of Shawki’s liquidation. To them, Shawki was the ungrateful estranged son who had rebelled against his spiritual fathers, devising his own approach and disregarding the words of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s leaders. Furthermore, he was in competition with them in word and action.

But do Shawki and those like him die easily, like sheep being slaughtered?

You are dreaming, if you thought that. There must be a curse hidden somewhere in the undertaking.

That is what the rules of drama dictate. There must be traces left to resume the story again or, from the point of view of those in the present, every story has a root in the past that forms it.

The theory of the “butterfly effect,” used as an example in what is called “chaos theory,” says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Beijing could cause a storm in New York two weeks later. Similarly, Sheikh Shawki, or Shawki al-Sheikh (whichever you prefer, dear reader, at this stage of the story), left his butterflies flapping their wings around his corpse, a vibration that, after a quarter century, would open the gates of hell onto the whole planet.

So, why are we telling this story in a manner that could appear enigmatic?

On that day in 1990, Shawki’s butterflies were flapping their wings for what would later become ISIS.

Is that a satisfactory reason for us to resume? I think so.

The Fayoum Caliphate

The man had carried out a dress rehearsal for the most reviled terrorist group that humanity has ever seen, at a time in which there was no camera to witness it, and no journalist, and when social media was not at 1% of its current strength.

The stories indicate that ISIS was in its pilot launch phase at that time, in the form of a takfiri group that called itself “al-Shawkiyoun,” after its founder, the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh. He had been arrested in the early 1980s and accused of being a member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya group. There, in the heart of prison and consumed with the “jihadist” ideas that were brewing within him, he met the man who would be the secret to his destiny, Naguib Abdel Fattah Ismail. He was the son of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Fattah Ismail, who was executed in 1965 with Sayyid Qutb.[1]

Naguib’s father’s ideas provoked Hassan al-Hudaybi, the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, to respond to his theses in his famous book Preachers, Not Judges. This book, at that time, cast off from the Brotherhood the takfiri spirit that had characterized the ideas of Abdel Fattah Ismail.

When the young engineer Shawki al-Sheikh met Naguib the son, the latter, inspired by his father, was a member of the group al-Tawaquf wa al-Tabayun, which was one branch off the takfiri tree that has so many divergent guidelines and judicial opinions on the grounds for declaring someone an apostate.

Researcher on Islamist groups Maher Farghaly sees this meeting as the defining moment of Shawki al-Sheikh’s life. Looking at what happened, Farghali believes that the seed of takfir would have found a very fertile ground in Shawki’s mind during his discussions with Naguib. This seed would develop over the course of less than ten years, to become more extreme than the ideas of the founding fathers of takfir, and perhaps more extreme than they could have imagined.

However, Dr. Kamal Habib, who is an expert on Islamist movements, believes that Shawki al-Sheikh’s beliefs are similar to that of Magdi al-Safti’s group, which faced off with the security forces in al-Haraneya, in Menoufiya governorate. This group had tried to kill former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, and to attack then head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Makram Mohammed Ahmed. Habib believes that Shawki was influenced by Shukri Mustafa’s group, Takfir wal-Hijra, even more than by Qutbists in the prisons.

Shawki al-Sheikh would become a bright star in the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. It was said that the members of the group likened him to Omar Ibn al-Khattab, and to Abu Dujana, a companion of the prophet. Abu Dujana was a fearless man who wore a red turban on his head on the day of the Battle of Uhud in a sign of daring and courage that the Arabs could not mistake when they saw it.

Despite this dazzling celebrity status and his distinguished university studies, and given the fact that Shawki came from a notable family, with a soul eager for glory and a heart with the courage for confrontation… Shawki could not continue like this for long. He would soon reach his breaking point.

The distinguished Omar Abdel-Rahman was no longer a symbol in the eyes of the young engineer, and the doctrines of the group as a whole were no longer convincing to him. He had completed the development of his own vision, and the time had come to break away. So, he made his decision and broke from the group, never regretting it and never even stopping to look back.

Why did he break away so easily from the legendary Omar Abdel-Rahman?

Kamal Habib believes that, on the margins of the main groups of the Islamist trends there are always smaller groups with their own marginal ideas, like takfir, isolation, and confrontation with the state and society. In Habib’s view, this is what happened in Shawki’s case. He did not subscribe to the core of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s ideology. Rather, this group was naturally a temporary and passing phase for him.

Shawki had chosen Fayoum as the spot for his promised kingdom.

Mohammad Massad (a pseudonym), 36 years old, is from Shawki’s governorate and remembers those long ago years as though they were yesterday. He says:

“Shawki was never an unknown quantity. His family is very large, and his uncles worked throughout the Ibshway administrative district, as mayor, officer, and government official, etc. Among the people, he was known as a “knight” of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, working under its orders, carrying out its plans, and defending it to the death as the “community of Muslims” in the original jurisprudential sense. Everyone knew that he had strong relationships with Abbud al-Zumar, Omar Abdel-Rahman, and others who, in the minds of the people of Fayoum, were also “knights,” like Zayd al-Hilali or Khalifa al-Zinati.”[2]

Massad continues, “The man – a graduate of engineering school – said that the Arabic language is the vessel that God chose to broadcast his light, represented in the Quran, to the world. The rules of Arabic grammar state that there are two words that cannot be used in the superlative form. They are ‘died’ and ‘perished’, because the language does not permit someone to be ‘more dead’ or ‘more perished’ than someone else. Therefore, wealthy people should not hold large funeral services and erect grand canopies or tents for funerals. Whenever they would put up a large tent for a funeral, Sheikh Shawki’s group would burn it down immediately.

At first, people did not believe that the Shawkiyoun would really be able to impose their ideas. But this skepticism was quickly challenged when the funeral of engineer Ahmed Makhlouf (the elder in the Makhlouf family at that time) went up in a ball of fire, after members of the Shawkiyoun scaled rooftops and set fire to the funeral tent while people were sitting inside of it.

This incident repeated itself with the Muharram, Mahgoub, and al-Dawidiya families, and even with members of ancient Bedouin tribes, which had many weapons and men to protect themselves. From the burning of the funeral tent of the al-Basil family in Etsa, to the pseudo-street war that took place to prevent the building of a tent belonging to the Arabs of al-Marmah tribes in Tamiya, to the Awlad Ali family in Ibshway, who were shocked to find a message written in blood on the tent warning them “before it’s too late.”

Only the poor people were happy with what Shawki al-Sheikh was doing, and they are the overwhelming, and oppressed, majority in Fayoum. When people finally saw that they could bury their dead in the same way that the rich buried theirs, they grew closer to their “venerable popular hero.” The news traveled quickly through the towns, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (the dominant power in Fayoum at that time) became irritated by the popularity of this unique, charismatic rebel.

This is perhaps the way that Mohammad Hussein (55 years old), from Fayoum, understands the reasons for Shawki’s popularity. Hussein was arrested after he embraced extremist religious ideas. He met members of the Shawkiyoun in the early 2000s in the harsh prisons of Natrun, where he lived with them closely.

Hussein says, in an environment of extreme poverty like Fayoum, those who can confront the security forces, the state, or the authorities occupy a special place in peoples’ hearts. Shawki was closest to the needs of the people’s imagination. The people needed a hero to do battle on their behalf against oppression and poverty, and against the state – which, in their eyes, was the cause for their suffering.

During these bygone days at the end of the 1980s, the people talked about how Shawki al-Sheikh stood up to the governorate’s security director, rebuking and threatening him for something related to the people’s interests, with a steady heart and with a power whose source was unknown. As a result, Shawki was more of a popular hero before he became known as a religious figure. In the minds of simple people in a poor, remote village in 1990, matters appeared differently than they would to you in Cairo in 2017, says this 55 year old man.

This Separation between You and Me

We return to Mohammad Massad, who prefers to focus on the structure of the conflict between Shawki and his first teachers and former friends in al-Gamaa al-Islamiya:

The clash between the two groups played out on a number of different levels, but the Shawkiyoun became prominent because they preferred to focus on the economy and people’s needs. When Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman issued a fatwa forbidding force-feeding birds, considering the process of force-feeding to be an example of people interfering with God’s will for the bird that it should only eat as much as it needed, the women in the villages revolted. Raising birds and force-feeding them, then selling them, was the main source of these women’s income. After al-Gamaa al-Islamiya had asserted its control over the public space, and forbade the women from working in the fields, women had nothing else they could do for work other than force-feeding. As a result, the women chased away the proselytizing caravans that came to the villages to warn women not to engage in force-feeding.

In response, Shawki stood in the al-Rahma mosque in Ibshway and said, “Those who forbid what God has given to his creation in his generosity, they are the same as the unbelieving ruler. Oh people, those who have made problems for you in your livelihood, and forbidden to you what God has permitted to you, and championed the rights of birds over the rights of human beings, fight them, chase them, and wait for them at every lookout.” The people spread this speech amongst themselves, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya felt that it was in danger.

The rumblings among Shawki’s followers and Abdel-Rahman’s followers quickly began to spread, until Shawki reached the point of no return in the rivalry. Ahmed Ragab, a journalist from Fayoum governorate recalls, “Shawki asked his followers, who will bring me the head of Omar Abdel-Rahman and enter heaven?”

Concerning this point, the researcher Maher Farghaly points us to the theory circulated by some people that the Minister of Interior supported Shawki in the beginning to create a sort of balance in the face of the many-sided beast that was called al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The situation bore a strong symbolism, since the fact that one of Omar Abdel-Rahman’s followers broke off from him in the Fayoum governorate itself, where his power was centered, and with all of this charisma, was something that could cause a shockwave through the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. This is in fact what occurred, but at what cost?

Gog and Magog

The pillars of Shawki’s power solidified, and he gained many followers. They believed in him in a way that was somewhere between religious belief and belief in a hero, to the point that Shawki began to ask people to come to him so that he could pass judgment in their disputes, and to pay him zakat and other taxes, according to Maher Farghaly.

Popular memory holds that Shawki was able to manage the affairs of Kahk completely. He was sure of his followers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for him, and of his popularity among the people. He then committed his great folly, when he sent President Hosni Mubarak a telegram, which said “From the ruler of Kahk to the ruler of Egypt,” and called on the now ousted president to embrace Islam, to face him in battle, or to pay jizya!

Before we reach this dramatic point, and what follows from it, we return to the journalist Ahmed Ragab, from Fayoum, who remembers these days. He grew up hearing stories about them in a village neighboring Kahk, the capital of Shawki’s caliphate. He says, “The Shawkiyoun in those days plundered everything, once they were sure of the people’s loyalty. They stole the geese, ducks, and goats that were being raised in the streets, relying on a fatwa by Shawki himself that split the people into two groups – peaceful unbelievers and combatant unbelievers. He made everyone an unbeliever, except those who belonged to his group!”

The situation reached a point that no one would have imagined. The Shawkiyoun began to help themselves to all the edible animals at hand – as if they were Gog and Magog that lay waste to everything in their path. As Ragab narrates, “Even if you lost one goat that was grazing in front of your house, a few hours later you might find its hide hung up on your door, with a note from Shawki’s followers saying that they had eaten it, so don’t take any pains to go look for it.

Shawki’s Judgment Day Arrives

Anger began to creep into the hearts of many people, as Shawki’s followers increased their thefts of motorbikes, ducks, and geese, and their general aggressions towards the people. Additionally, worry was spreading due to the extortion of important Coptic figures in Fayoum, especially since this extortion was centered in an area close to the hometown of Youssef Wali, the Minister of Agriculture at the time and the deputy chairman of the ruling party. The time had come for revenge.

The Minister of Interior wanted to eliminate Shawki, as a penalty and punishment for all of his and his followers’ crimes.

Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya would have given anything to end the nightmare that was Shawki and his group. This was especially true after Shawki called for the head of their leader Omar Abdel-Rahman in front of his followers, who were fanatics and would obey him in anything with blind fearlessness.

The poor people who had celebrated Shawki in the beginning were then shocked when he ate their ducks and geese, and interfered in questions of marriage and divorce, issuing fatwas on the rules regarding marital relations between members of his group and those who did not belong to it.

This is the defining moment, when the camera moves to capture everyone waiting to ambush Shawki, while the young engineer grabs his weapon and orders his followers to defy death and face the security forces creeping towards Kahk.

What Happened Exactly?

Of course, popular memory will be inclined to make many changes to the original story. Exaggeration mixes with imagination, what occurred merges with what could have occurred, and what happened blends with what some had hoped would happen. In the end, this results in a final story that is a mix of hybrid chromosomes from the different accepted popular narratives.

The first story: Mubarak ordered the mobilization of the air force, so it headed to the village and crushed Shawki and his followers, raining fire down upon them after the telegram.

The second story: The military’s armored vehicles and tanks surrounded the village of Kahk, and razed it. Then, the soldiers walked among the wreckage of homes, the smoke of fires, and the groans of bodies as they lay dying.

The third story: The police, with broad formations from the Central Security Forces, came in and attacked the village for several nights and days while everyone defied death to defend Shawki.

However, the story about the motivations for the security forces taking action that is closest to the truth comes from within the Interior itself, of course.

At that time, a very specialized security cadre was chosen for the Shawki mission. It would be led by an officer, strong and solid of build, hard-handed, sharp-eyed, and with a calm demeanor, holding the rank of Brigadier General in the Central Security Forces (Special Forces), who had been trained in the El-Sa’ka Academy in the military. On top of all that, he had fought in a real war before, when he joined the ranks of the Egyptian Army in what was known as Operation Gazelle in the October War in 1973 against Israel. [3]He had also recently entered into a violent confrontation in a closed-off village in the Beni Suef governorate that was controlled by extremists.

This officer was Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the leader of the Central Security Forces in northern Upper Egypt. His base, with his strongest soldiers and his officers from the elite levels of the internal security forces, was in the Minya governorate (240 kilometers south of Cairo), around 140 kilometers from Fayoum, the site of Shawki’s kingdom.

A strange and fortunate coincidence led me to Brigadier General Khairy, who is now a professor of modern political history in Minya University. He took up academic work as soon as he completed his service in the Special Forces. The man’s memory appeared to be fresh, as though he had just stormed Kakh yesterday. It was like the smell of gunpowder was still in his nose as he spoke, and the blood was still warm and sticky around us.

Talaat says, “We moved towards Kahk with 20 to 30 fighting groups. Each group consisted of 10 individuals. However, the only way to reach Kahk was through a single agricultural corridor. At first light, we moved to storm the village, but we were surprised by a hail of bullets coming at us from all sides.

At that time, we could only move forward using the armored vehicles, but the armored vehicles did not permit anyone to raise their head or aim their weapon without being hit by a sniper. Therefore, at a certain point, my men and I decided to enter the village on foot. We moved among the thick vegetation until the battle began.

As a military man, I immediately realized that we were facing a well-trained militia. Their shooting was professional, and the way the battle was handled on their side suggested a tactical understanding of the principles of engagement. They had gathered behind barriers, and hidden in fortified spots. They had also constructed towers above the houses, and occupied centralized positions high off the ground. They had talented snipers, and showered us with grenades.

On top of all of this, they were spurred on by strong religious conviction, and by an inspiring leader named Shawki al-Sheikh, who stood among them, fighting alongside them and encouraging them.

Talaat added: I immediately requested additional forces from the Ministry of Interior, which was following the operation closely. They sent 500 soldiers from the Central Security Forces in Giza (approximately 90 kilometers north of Fayoum).

We began moving forward meter by meter, until we were able to hide among the village’s homes. Then, we could climb to the roofs of some of the houses. After this, we were able to tighten the siege, and slowly get closer to Shawki’s home.

Shawki’s home was the most protected area. A man with a Russian machine gun loaded with an ammunition belt holding 200 bullets was stationed on the roof, while we had only rifles. As for the rest of our weapons, we had left them in the armored vehicles that were not able to advance in the muddy fields under the hail of bullets.

We had no other option but to communicate by looks and hand motions, until we were able to penetrate the last fortified spot, where Shawki was standing among his followers. Directly above them were towers, upon which stood snipers with plentiful weapons and bullets.

It was summer, and the weather was exhausting for everyone. At sunset, Shawki and around 14 of his followers fell dead. Afterwards, some of his followers surrendered, and some escaped to the fields.

A group of us stood looking at Shawki’s corpse, with our rifles in our hands and sweat on our brows, and some of us bleeding, while the lower-level officers and the soldiers were tasked with hunting down the fugitives.

Behind the Scenes of the Secret Kingdom

While Shawki’s corpse was still warm, and the blood still flowed around him, his female followers and the wives of his followers went mad, screaming and wailing, until we reached the scene with which we began this story.

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then she punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!” Thus Ahmed Ragab tells the story.

While the women shrieked, the village people stood stunned, and the security forces gathered their rifles, some of the people in Fayoum would feel that the story showed treachery on the part of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The group delivered Shawki (or information about him) to the Ministry of Interior on a silver platter, so the security forces could fill him with bullets. Many would feel – even those who rejected Shawki’s behavior – that the man died betrayed by the treachery of his old friends with long beards and trimmed mustaches.

But let us return now to Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the central eyewitness. He was shocked by the secret world that Shawki had created in the village of Kahk. He must first try to fathom why so many people were saddened by Shawki’s death before we can understand it.

Talaat says, “The homes of his supporters were filled with luxury items. Shawki had cared for them, and distributed among them his spoils and the cash that he had collected through his extortion of Christian doctors, pharmacists, and gold dealers.”

He had also established a health clinic in the village, and brought doctors for it – by force or by their own will – from the heart of Fayoum governorate to care for the people of Kahk, and provide them with medical examinations and treatment. He appointed a number of his followers as nurses. He also forbade women from being examined by a doctor unless men from their family accompanied them. The woman would tell the man what her pain was, and then the man would relay this to the doctor!

“While I was in one of the village’s homes,” recounts Talaat, “I was surprised to find young girls of primary school age with their bellies swollen. I thought that there was a sickness in the house, so I asked the mother. I was shocked to hear that her daughters were pregnant, and that she herself was also pregnant, after Shawki forced them to marry his followers following the death of her husband!”

The journalist Ahmed Ragab says, “The people in the villages neighboring Kahk (Sinro, Ghaidan, and al-Hamuli) say that Shawki forbade people from cooking molokhiya, saying that it increased sexual desire! He also concocted fatwas that permitted a woman to be divorced from her husband if he was absent from her for more than three nights.”

The accounts that are available to us from several sources indicate that Shawki interfered to a great extent in the details of sexual relationships, marriage, and divorce. He was concerned with these issues to the point of obsession.

When he had forbidden the genders from mixing, and began to enforce his own interpretations of sharia, he did not permit women to sit with men. However, he would sit with women himself, and gather them together at appointed times, with the excuse that he was teaching them the foundations of the religion.

This is a story that must be looked at from a psychological angle, considering this man was concerned with women’s issues (even if it is was only concern isolated from its context and results) to such a great degree. He married his followers’ family members, and had a strong interest in everything concerning women, from the fatwa regarding force-feeding ducks, to structuring the sex life of all the women who lived within his territory. Perhaps this – as might be expected – is what made women such an active element in his short-lived state, whether they were the wives of his followers or simply his subjects.

Brigadier General Khairy is surprised when he remembers the reactions of the villagers after he and his men killed Shawki. He says, “Some of them were deeply saddened, and told us that Shawki reminded them of the caliphate of Omar bin al-Khattab, because he was just, and was concerned with the affairs of his subjects.”

Khairy adds, “What I learned of Shawki was that he was a cultured man, well-spoken, captivating, and convincing. He had memorized Ibn Taymiyyah and Abul A’la Maududi well. He had training for practically everything. He was a man with presence, and self-confidence.”

The Revenge of the Remaining Shawkiyoun

For several months after Shawki’s death, his remaining followers carried out robberies of Christian-owned gold stores. Then, two of his group’s members were involved in killing two agricultural engineers to steal their belongings. They buried them in one of the agricultural ditches.

When the criminal investigation team found the accused, and realized that they were followers of Shawki Al-Sheikh, State Security took over the investigation. Then, on a memorable day in 1991, the officer “A. O.” headed to the home of the two young men.

Here, the stories concerning what happened differ. Some say that the officer hit the mother of the two men, while others say that the officer ordered her to walk naked in the street. Still others say that he raped the wife of one of the men. Everyone that I met has a different story about what “A. O.” did. However, what is common among all of the stories is that the popular narrative accuses the State Security officer of doing something immoral or illegal involving one of the women in the young men’s home.

The young men were furious, and ambushed the officer, brutally and flagrantly killing him in a storm of bullets and in the view of everyone. It was a challenge to everyone in Fayoum.

Mohammad Hussein says, “ Sometimes, the two of them would ride a motorcycle together. One of them would drive, and the other would sit backwards, shooting their targets, which had been selected by the group, with a machine gun. I also heard that they would sometimes bury police officers alive.”

The Friend of Hell’s Butterflies

While the Shawkiyoun were being led to the prisons and jails in handcuffs, it appeared that the curtain had nearly drawn on the end of this brief story. No one noticed that Shawki had left his curse to continue its course after his death, until it consumed everything in its path.

A former police officer named Helmi Hashim would succeed Shawki in ruling the emirate. He would be greatly inspired by Shawki’s actions, would study them well, then preserve them within himself until he became the mufti of ISIS.

Yes, you read correctly, that is not a typo. The mufti of ISIS is Shawki’s disciple to the core, and an exceptional spiritual disciple of the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh’s curriculum.

One might ask, how can we logically say that the officer Helmi Hashim, who never met Shawki, is Shawki’s obedient son and outstanding pupil? He studied Shawki’s teachings, researched his ideas, and met his students (many of whom were illiterate). He studied Shawki’s ideas and turned them over in his mind until he came to two decisions.

The first was to expand his study of Islamic criminal law, according to those who lived with him, to add to his knowledge as a police officer who had studied law in college and had absorbed the concept of deciding which law applies in a given case against criminals.

The second was to quit police work in the last position that he held, which was in the prisons. He sympathized and joined with those whose jailer he had once been.

He was arrested more than once with different takfiri groups. He was determined to move forward with the path he had chosen, completed convinced of his role as a prisoner, perhaps more so than of what he had done as a jailer.

As a student of law, he expanded his understanding of the roots of the ideas of his spiritual father, Shawki al-Sheikh, in old Islamic jurisprudence. As a former officer, he had begun his service in the ranks of the Central Security Forces, which first taught him how to fight with weapons, and how to engage in battle amid the sound of gunfire and onslaughts of bullets. Ultimately, Hashim came to his most monstrous judicial creation – beheading.

Hashim is credited with finding a judicial basis for beheading, and encouraging members of ISIS to carry out rulings against their prisoners by beheading them in front of the whole world. In the lines of the face of this former officer, in the folds of his words, and in the depths of his soul, lies another man who is influencing his movements from the grave. His name is Shawki al-Sheikh (or Sheikh Shawki).

To what degree can a coincidence change the face of history? To a great degree, if you want the truth.

In 2004, after the explosions in Taba (in the Sinai) around 3000 suspects from the Sinai would be arrested. One of them would be the shy, introverted young man, Tawfiq Farig Zeyada.

The veteran officers in the state security forces would soon realize that the shy young man could not possibly have done any evil, so they let him go.

But things are not always so easy. Before they let him go, what had taken place?

Maher Farghaly says, “In jail, Tawfiq met the Shawkiyoun and takfiris, and became convinced of their ideas. He entered the prison, and when he left it, something of Shawki’s words had crept into him, and would stay with him forever.”

This is not the coincidence. The coincidence does not lie in the fact that a quiet, introverted young man with a simple education (technical diploma) turned into a violent takfiri follower of Shawki, embracing the ideas of a man he had never met in his life. However, on a day during the 25 January revolution, Tawfiq Farig was walking among the revolutionaries and the protestors. Without meaning to, he bumped into two young men. Tawfiq turned to them to apologize, and realized that they were his two friends from prison, Mohammad Afifi and Mohammad Haroun.

Whether through much talk or little, the encounter ended with Tawfiq convincing the other two men to join the group al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which had been active for years. The quiet, shy Tawfiq was able to build a strong organizational structure that would later stun the security apparatus.

He would distribute tasks according to geographical locations, and specializations that ranged from religious, motivational, organizational, and logistical. He would make his new friends into terrifying cadres within an organization made up of Salafi jihadists and the remains of the followers of Rifai Suroor, as well as a motley gathering of Islamists who had emerged from their hiding places following the January revolution.

This organization was active for a time after Tawfiq Farig brought it to life, until, in the end, it came to be called “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis,” which would follow ISIS and become ISIS in Egypt.

Did Tawfiq Farig realize that his proclivity for ISIS’s ideology can be easily accounted for? We do not now know.

But we do know well that the ideas that formed in Tawfiq’s mind after he sat down with the Shawkiyoun and lived among them are joined by a hidden, secret link, which sits at Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s right hand. Its name is Helmi Hashim.

Khairy Talaat says, “When I see ISIS and I follow the news about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I feel this strange similarity between what I see now and what I saw with my own eyes when I stormed Kahk 27 years ago.

Despite the tens who died defending Shawki, or were imprisoned for embracing his ideas, none of them were his true obedient son, who would bear the legacy and the ideas of the founding father.

Helmi and Tawfiq, two men who had never met Shawki, nevertheless brought him back from the grave, just as magicians summon spirits and genies from their bottles.

It is as though Shawki al-Sheikh speaks to us from beyond the grave. His ideas reached Tawfiq Farig Zeyada and became ISIS-Egypt, while Helmi Hashim has taken over as mufti – using Shawki’s ideas – for al-Baghdadi’s ISIS as a whole.

As for you, the woman who was running and slapping her face, and hitting her husband because “Shawki died,” I think that if you read the story above, you would feel a kind of solace if you still love him, since he did not completely die, as you see.


  1. Ismail and Qutb were in fact hanged in August 1966.  ↩

  2. Zayd al-Hilali and Khalifa al-Zinati are rivals in the Sirat Banu Hilal, the epic tale of the Banu Hilal Arabian tribal confederation, which invaded the Maghreb. Al-Hilali was a leader of the Banu Hilal and al-Zinati was a leader of the Zenata Berbers.  ↩

  3. Operation Gazelle was actually an Israeli operation in the 1973 war to retake control of the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. Egypt sought to counter and failed, pushing Sadat to seek a ceasefire.  ↩

In Translation: Nationalism is the new sectarianism

While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.

This article was translated by our partners at Industry Arabic – hire them for your translation needs.

Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance

Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017

Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.

However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.

Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.

Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”

“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?

This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.

Beirut embassy

For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.

“Free market” at the Iraqi borders

In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.

This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.

Upcoming parliamentary elections

How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.

However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.

Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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Blessed are those who turn down ministerial posts

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

 

In Translation: Russia's Army of the Levant

One of the big questions about Russia's involvement in Syria is how it intends to turn its geopolitical and strategic victory – edging out the United States as the key international actor in the conflict and helping the Assad regime's forces recapture Aleppo – into something that doesn't turn into a quagmire. Even if the Assad regime is able to retain control of the main cities of "useful Syria" (and look how it yet again lost control of Palmyra), the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years in the countryside. So as the Astana negotiations begin (and will probably produce few results) and Russia struts its diplomatic clout, it is stuck having to manage a weak ally in the regime and an unreliable one that is potentially a rival in Iran, the regime's other major outside backer.

For several weeks, there have been reports that the Assad regime is trying to raise a new force that would effectively be under Russian command. Its purpose is unclear, and it might simply be to counter increase its influence over Assad (whose forces are likely exhausted and more concerned with internal regime politics) and provide a counter-veiling force to Iran's more effective presence on the ground troops in Syria. That, at least, is what much of the (Assad-hostile) Arab press is speculating. The dramatic moves to recruit this "Fifth Corps", as the new formation is called,  spell more suffering for ordinary Syrians (see details below). The idea is that the regime will corral reluctant men (including deserters, civilians, former rebels etc.) into the Fifth Corps – which hardly seems likely to be an effective force to counter a highly-motivated and well-trained pro-Iran Syrian and foreign militias.

The piece below, by al-Hayat's longtime Syria correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi (who was jailed by the regime in the early 2000s) draws a parallel between the Fifth Corps and France's Army of the Levant, which consolidated its hold on the country after the First World War. 

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The Fifth Corps: Russia’s “Army of the Levant” to Suppress Comrades-in-Arms and Impose Peace

Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat, 9 January 2017

The Russian army continues to pressure its allies in Damascus to move quickly to form a “Fifth Attack Troop Corps” as a military pillar of Russian penetration into Syria, which would largely resemble the Army of the Levant founded by France during the Syrian Mandate at the start of the past century. It is possible that this new formation would be aimed at confronting the increasing influence of the National Defense Forces and militias supported by Iran and keep the peace after the remaining pockets of resistance are suppressed.

At the end of 2012, with the retreat of many regime forces due to defections and the evasion of compulsory enlistment by up to 100,000 individuals, Tehran succeeded in convincing Damascus to organize the Popular Committees into “national defense forces” supervised, trained, and funded by the Basij. They were eventually deployed to most regime-held areas and front lines, their number reaching about 70,000 Syrians and non-Syrians, including Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis, under the direct supervision of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which contributed to halting the progress of opposition factions in several regions.

Following the direct Russian military intervention at the end of September 2015, the Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army, Gen. Ali Ayyoub, announced in October from the Russian military base at Khmeimim the intention to form a “Fourth Attack Troop Corps” with the aim of “liberating all towns and villages.” However, Moscow’s attempts to incorporate some 18 detachments supported by Iran into the Fourth Corps did not succeed, and military coordination remained at the bottom of differing priorities.

In November, in pace with the infiltration of the Russian army’s officers into the civilian and military governmental institutions in Damascus and the cities of “useful Syria,” a statement was distributed announcing formation of a “Fifth Corps” with “financing and training from Russia.” It will include roughly 45,000 individuals deployed as infantry, engineering, mechanized, and assault forces, “after training in guerrilla warfare in areas protected by Russia,” according to an official examining the project.

The high command of the army and armed forces then announced the “formation of a new unit of volunteer combatants, under the name ‘Fifth Attack Troop Corps,’ with the goal of eliminating terrorism.” The high command called for “all citizens wishing to join the corps to consult the recruitment centers in the provinces, which are located at the headquarters of the southern region, the headquarters site in Damascus, the headquarters of the Tenth Division in Qatana, the headquarters of the central region in Homs, the headquarters site in Hama, the College of Administrative Affairs in Masyaf, the headquarters of the northern region in Aleppo, the headquarters site at Tartus, the headquarters of the coastal region in Latakia, the headquarters of the Fifth Division in Daraa, and the headquarters of the Fifteenth Division in as-Suwayda,” without including areas under the control of the Syrian opposition or ISIS. The call included “those not obliged to serve under conscription, deserters, those who are over 18 years of age, those wishing to join who have completed their national service – from all ranks, commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men – as well as state employees wishing to join under a one-year contract, which can be renewed subject to the agreement of the employing agency.”

Instructions

Alongside the issuance of presidential decrees pardoning army “deserters” and those who have not enlisted for military service, tightening leave procedures for young men, and dispatching street patrols to drag youths off to the front without full training, instructions have been issued to the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, government institutions, the army, mobile-phone companies, and the media to urge enlistment in the new force. In a memorandum, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments has called on the imams of mosques to “speak from the pulpits and urge citizens to enlist in the Fifth Corps, and highlight the advantages of doing so.” Among these are “regularizing the status of those who are absent from reserve service and of deserters and state employees absent from work, while a person can earn 100,000 lira per month.” (The U.S. dollar is worth 500 lira). Another memorandum from the dean of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Giana Eid, calls on employees to “register their names with the Director of Administrative and Legal Affairs.”

The governor of Latakia urged government institutions in the province to compel their employees, and especially displaced persons (seven million are displaced within the country) to “join the Ba‘ath Vanguards camp in al-Raml al-Janubi,” including people from 18 to 50 years “In the event of non-enrollment, employees’ assignments will be terminated,” he added. The Directorate of Education requested that teachers under the age of 42 be “encouraged” to enlist in the Fifth Corps and stated that there is a “need for displaced teachers to be forced into the corps within 48 hours,” noting that estimates indicate there are 1.5 million displaced coming from Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs now present in Tartus and Latakia. News has also circulated of a trial plan to repatriate refugees from countries neighboring Syria (some five million people) on condition that they agree to fight in this corps.

Moreover, general managers in Damascus have gathered their employees to explain the advantages of enlisting in this force, including “keeping half of one’s monthly salary while earning another monthly salary of up to 300 dollars.” Syrians have received text messages on their mobile phones such as “Be one of the shapers of victory,” “Sign up for the Fifth Attack Troop Corps,” and “We invite you to join the Fifth Attack Troop Corps and share in shaping the victory,” while new businessman have been informed of the necessity of financing this force as a condition for their being granted new financial benefits

In addition to some pieces of news from the tribes in the country’s east, Moscow – engaged through officers at the Khmeimim base in “reconciliation talks” – is wagering on the incorporation of opposition fighters whose “status has been regularized” into the new force, where “they will fight their former comrades-in-arms, especially Jabhat al-Nusra cadres and ISIS.” It has been noted that among the elements of the draft agreement proposed to settle the status of three towns south of Damascus is the formation of a force to fight al-Nusra and ISIS, something which has happened before in other areas such as al-Tall, northeast of the capital. Given that thousands of those who have not signed such “settlements” have moved with their families to Idlib province, the coming period may see direct clashes between “former comrades-in-arms” – battles between members of the Fifth Corps and those who refuse “settlements,” especially on the fronts of Idlib, which Damascus wants to retake “at any cost.”

Army of the Levant

Experts have linked the latest changes in the Syrian army to the new formation’s prominent forthcoming role and to Moscow’s eagerness to expand and transform the Tartus base into something resembling the one at Khmeimim. Experts in Western institutes and specialist publications, including Stratfor, have noted that one of the reasons for the creation of the Fifth Corps is to counterbalance the influence of Iran, especially since Moscow, having reached agreements with Ankara after the ceasefire in some parts of Syria, will provide most of the support. This will include arms, training, and a monthly salary amounting to $750 for members of “its corps.”

Syrian historians liken this force to the Army of the Levant formed by France after its assumption of the Mandate over Syria in 1920. As one said, “After the idea of dividing Syria into statelets, France recruited the minorities of Syria and some fighters from colonized countries like Senegal to form the Army of the Levant in order to crush Syrian nationalist movements, including that of 1925-1927. The leaders of this army were Frenchmen, while its members were the poor and marginalized of Syria.”

He added: “The reception of the Army of the Levant was more successful on the Syrian coast where the people had been historically marginalized, and where the Army of the Levant offered authority and influence. This was the basis for the beginning of the military ideology among the oppressed sons of the coast, a matter which became evident later in Syrian history” with the taking of power in Damascus. After independence in April 1946, the Army of the Levant became the nucleus of the Syrian army amidst efforts by the “Damascus elite” to sideline it, which was one of the reasons for the nakba of 1948. Some members of the army, such as Husni al-Za‘im and Adib Shishakli, were behind military coups, and Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, along with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was behind the foundation of the “security state.”

The number of individuals in the Army of the Levant rose from 13,000 in 1920 to more than 100,000 in order to suppress the Great Syrian Revolt of 1927. Those are also the goals Russia seeks in forming the Fifth Corps one year after its direct military intervention via the eastern Syrian coast, along with the organization of an army outside the “authority of the state,” according to a Syrian historian. He wonders: “Does Moscow’s recognition of Islamist factions and acceptance of them as partners in the ceasefire and political solution reflect Russia’s intention to rely on the majority in cooperation with Turkey?”

In Translation: Do al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahri still got it?

The leader of al-Qaeda since Obama bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a new speech on 5 January that was chiefly targeted at asserting his jihadist credentials and denouncing the Islamic State. Since 2014 (when the Islamic State announced it has established its “caliphate”) especially, the rivalry between the two groups in Syria and Iraq has expanded to other fronts; this rivalry is not only based on theological disputes but also strategic ones, particularly concerning what are acceptable levels of violence against Shias and non-Muslim minorities and the order of priorities between fighting the taghout (local despots) and the West. Moreover, they have tended to be eclipsed by the Islamic State, whose spectacular brutality and control of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya (until recently) had made everyone’s public enemy number one.

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a top Jordanian expert on jihadist groups, dissects Zawahiri’s message in the piece below. He is rather scathing about what he sees as Zawahiri’s desperate plea for relevance. I certainly do not have his level of expertise, but I am not sure I share his view of al-Qaeda’s decline – the issue may be that the autonomisation of various AQ groups, especially Jabha an-Nusra, AQAP and AQIM – has now made “AQ Central” less relevant. But it is true that Zawahiri comes out as defensive in this latest video. Because I’m tempted to make analogies with hip-hop on just about every topic, one might say that this mirrors the discourse in Dr. Dre’s return to gangsta rap in his (fantastic) album 2001, in which he bemoans that people Forgot About Dre and that would do well to remember that he is Still D.R.E.. Except, you know, Dr. Dre is effortlessly cool and Dr. Ayman, well, a loser.

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Zawahiri and the Delusional Fight over Baghdadi’s Legacy

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, Arabi 21, 8 January 2017

It is indisputable that al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri is nothing like it was under Osama bin Laden. In his lifetime, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was an icon for jihadists and a guiding model for global jihad. Every jihadist movement and organization strove to obtain its blessing and the honor of joining its structure and putting itself under its leadership. On the other hand, Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda lacks the legitimacy to represent global jihad.

Unlike Bin Laden, whose charismatic personality enabled him to preserve a cohesive bureaucratic organization and strong ideological discourse, Zawahiri has failed to maintain the group’s unity. There have been many defections during his reign, with increasingly dynamic rebellions and acts of disobedience, while his rhetoric has been plagued by contradictions, shifts, and disorder.

As the Islamic State group, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, faces a comprehensive, universal war and is occupied with repulsing the attacks of the international coalition led by the US (whom Zawahiri routinely describes as “Crusaders”), regional and local Shia forces (typically described by Zawahiri as “Persian Zoroastrian rejectionists [rafidah]”) and Islamic-Arab forces (which Zawahiri makes sure to accuse of blasphemy, apostasy and collaboration), Zawahiri has appeared in a new speech distributed by the As-Sahab Foundation under the title, “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow,” in which he attacks the Islamic State group and Baghdadi.

Zawahiri has been preoccupied with pushing back against what he calls a campaign of distortion, intimidation and demoralization waged against the “mujahideen.” Among those who have participated in this campaign, according to Zawahiri, are the “liars” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has accused Baghdadi of deception and slander aimed at distorting the image of al-Qaeda and its activities, and has stressed that the priority of jihad should be to strike America.

It seems that Zawahiri’s reading of the conditions of global jihad are extremely confused and wrapped up in a state of denial which has made him unaware that the age of al-Qaeda has ended and that the world is now living in the age of ISIS – which has become the preferred model for new jihadists. Zawahiri’s speech is based on a wishful reading that predicts the decline and demise of ISIS, whose mantle will then be taken up by a new iteration of al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri’s speech did not mention any feelings of solidarity or any desire to reconcile with the organization, and instead carried out a relentless campaign against the group and against Baghdadi, without mentioning the disintegration, weakness and collapse that has befallen al-Qaeda.

In an attempt to restore and revive al-Qaeda at the expense of the Islamic State, Zawahiri has fallen into the Islamic State’s trap. By opposing ISIS for standing its ground, his speech lapsed into self-contradiction.

Instead of emphasizing the difference between al-Qaeda’s discourse and that of the Islamic State, he identified with it at the same time that he claimed to oppose and criticize it. He said that the “liar” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has claimed that al-Qaeda does not denounce un-Islamic regimes as blasphemous, falls in line with the majority opinion, has praised (ousted Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi, and has even called for Christians to share as partners in power. He added that Baghdadi’s followers have claimed that al-Qaeda does not practice takfir against Shias.

Thus, Zawahiri, instead of saying, “Yes, we affirm our differences with ISIS about these foregoing issues,” pretended that al-Qaeda had held these positions since its inception — and this is, without a doubt, completely untrue.

These issues and others have been matters of contention between al-Qaeda and ISIS from the time of Zarqawi’s network up to Baghdadi’s state. In particular, al-Qaeda entered into a new phase upon the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011, which coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions.

At that time, Al-Qaeda inaugurated a number of transformations to adapt to the new circumstances. With the failure of the democratic transition process, al-Qaeda’s positions became contradictory, and it began to focus on building alliances with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist forces, and changed its priority from confronting America to fighting local regimes.

Leaders in the most active branch of al-Qaeda, in Syria, announced through the Nusra Front that they would refrain from confronting or striking America or the West in any foreign operations and limit their priorities to fighting in Syria and building ties with local forces – an approach which was also followed by al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab [in Somalia].

In his speech, Zawahiri attempts to revive the rhetoric of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow” — the title of his speech — belongs to a different era, when al-Qaeda saw itself as the vanguard of the Ummah.

However, Zawahiri’s fantasy of the Ummah belongs to an imaginary Ummah that does not see therein a representation of its aspirations regarding state and society. Even the groups closest to Zawahiri, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ahrar al-Sham movement, blame him for dividing and distracting the Ummah.

Even Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani broke ties with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda and founded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with his blessings and commendation from his aides, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj al-Masri, notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri considered the calls for al-Qaeda to stay out of Syria “flimsy.”

In his speech, Zawahiri revealed the extent of the contradictions and divisions inside al-Qaeda and its branches. In response to calls for al-Qaeda to be kept out of Syria in order to free Syrian groups from the “terrorism” label, Zawahiri said: “It is as if pleasing America was the purpose or path to victory in jihad, and as if al-Qaeda has become criminal because it antagonizes America and its corrupt agents in our lands. It is as if America was not annihilating Muslims before and after al-Qaeda was established.”

It is as if Zawahiri was indicating his dissatisfaction with al-Nusra Front cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a fact that came to light as a number of leaders rejected this decision, such as Abu Julaybib, Abu Bilal, Abu Hamam and others.

Zawahiri, in his latest speech, does not appear to be more than an observer and ideological guide with no real connection to the al-Qaeda organization and its branches. He does not issue orders or instructions, but incites, hopes, and beseeches. He is directing speeches at an imaginary Ummah, calling for the revival of jihad to liberate the Muslim nation from occupation by the infidels, as he puts it, saying that America and its allies are the primary target and reciting so-called crimes committed by the US that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s mission, such as the eradication of five million Vietnamese, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan, the killing of 60,000 Germans in the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, and so on.

Zawahiri, as if he was in an introductory college course on refuting conspiracy theories, deflected accusations from al-Qaeda, saying: “Those with (hidden) purposes have accused al-Qaeda of different forms of collaboration. They have said that we are agents of the Americans formed in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. They have said that we are Saudi agents formed with their financing. The rafidah, the new Safavids, have accused us of being American and Israeli agents. Their propaganda tools, in pure lies, say that the attacks of September 11 were a Zionist conspiracy and that they were a pretext for an American attack on Iran (which has not happened) even after 15 years of attacks — rather, their relationship has strengthened and they have become allies against Muslims in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria. The propaganda tools and servants of American bases in the Gulf have accused us of being agents of Iran working in their interests, and finally they warned against us because we are America’s enemies, and those who side with us inherit our crimes.”

Zawahiri, in his attempt to prove al-Qaeda’s legitimacy, falls into a historical ideological and moral dilemma. In attempting to delegitimize ISIS and Baghdadi, he says that the figure Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi[1] was “a role model for veterans of Saddam’s army officer corps and his intelligence services, who awarded the caliphate to Ibrahim al-Badri [the real name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], who used to kill his rivals in Kufa if they did not testify against themselves as infidels.” But Zawahiri himself, during the time of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, never tired of deflecting accusations away from that same organization, singing the praises of ISIS and the same men, and attacking those who fought against the organization as members of the Sunni Awakening and collaborators.

I believe that, in his speech, Zawahiri revealed a major disruption affecting al-Qaeda with his leadership — not only because of his loss of legitimacy to ISIS, but first and foremost because of his dwindling legitimacy among al-Qaeda and its branches.

Among his followers and supporters, accusations have been mounting that he is unable to confront ISIS, hesitant in dealing with it, indecisive in his positions, unable to maintain al-Qaeda’s appeal and ability to galvanize, and of losing control over the organization’s branches, which pushed him to rehearse al-Qaeda’s guide for action, “code of conduct” and aims — most importantly to impose sharia, unite the Ummah, release prisoners, etc. — and emphasize that the principles had been developed after consultation with all branches in order to hold them responsible.

It seems that Zawahiri’s legitimacy has been lacking among al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, even moreso than among other jihadists, at a time when it had been possible for Zawahiri to recover something of al-Qaeda’s appeal by summoning Osama bin Laden’s charisma by appointing his son, Hamza bin Laden, whom the United States recently placed on its terrorist watch list. In a speech last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri presented Hamza as “son of the lion of jihad,” before going on to call upon the youth of Islam to fight against the “Americans, Jews, and the rest of the West.”

However, Zawahiri has appeared unable to understand the transformations at work and unable to control al-Qaeda. The group, which had depended for its organizational structure and ideological aspirations on both Saudis and Egyptians, has now become, in the age of Zawahiri, basically Egyptian. Everyone was surprised by the announcement through the Nusra Front’s media platform, Al-Manara Al-Bayda, that Zawahiri’s deputy would be Abu Khayr al-Masri.

It is no small irony that the announcement was not made through the As-Sahab Foundation [al-Qaeda’s media production unit]. The Nusra Front’s step of breaking ties with al-Qaeda revealed how weak and fragile Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has become, and showed the dispute among various wings, leaders, origins and nationalities. It is no longer possible to play the Bin Laden card or enforce the Saudi line.

Before that, it had been possible for Hamza bin Laden to become “the new face of al-Qaeda.” His latest speeches had revived the image of his father. Last July, his words were consistent with his father’s when he said: “Al-Qaeda will continue to carry out its attacks inside your country and abroad in response to the repression suffered by the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim countries.” He was decisive when he threatened America and the West and promised to avenge the death of his father, Osama bin Laden.

The bottom line is that, in his speech, Zawahiri appeared unable to comprehend the current transformations and was preoccupied with defending his choices, despite saying that al-Qaeda’s policies were not sacred writ. His concerns appeared largely narcissistic, as he was preoccupied with his own reputation and tried to place the blame on others — from the Islamic State and from his own group — for the organization’s dissolution and weakness. He took no notice of the campaign faced by ISIS, was unconcerned by the defeat of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition groups and their expulsion from Aleppo, and did not touch upon the state of his crumbling branches in Yemen and the Maghreb, which are being dispersed and losing effectiveness.

The Ummah that Zawahiri claims to represent has disappeared and withdrawn into itself – and in that sense it is not very different from what Zawahiri himself has become. Are we waiting in anticipation for another speech? I think not.


  1. A governor of Iraq under the Ommeyyad dynasty (seventh-eighth century) reputed for his ruthlessness.  ↩

In Translation: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brothers

Over the last two years much has been made of the splits within the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and prospects, or lack thereof, for reconciliation between the group and the military regime in Egypt. Many obstacles stand in the way of reconciliation: the regime’s official rejection of anything short of total surrender, an elite Egyptian opinion that can be more intransigeant than that of security leaders, splits within the Brotherhood including some radicalization, the often-voiced preference of some Brothers that Sisi’s departure should be a precondition for any deal, the legacy of the Rabaa Massacre and the brutal crackdown on the organization, and more.

The article below, from the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbullah, pro-Assad/Iran/Russia, anti-Saudi and vaguely “anti-imperialist left”, whatever that means) has a scoop that, through the auspices of Saudi intelligence, members of the Brotherhood’s “organizational” wing (an older generation of leaders who control the bureaucratic structures of the Brotherhood, have a history of accommodation with successive Egyptian regimes and care mostly about the long-term survival of the group) met with Egyptian intelligence to discuss reconciliation prospects. The news is surprising in the context of the current chill in Egyptian-Saudi relations, and of course predates the recent attack on Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral last week (after which the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based “Crisis Office”, the more revolutionary trend opposed to the old leadership, put out an ill-worded statement essentially accusing the Sisi regime of having carried out a false-flag attack) which makes such reconciliation even more unlikely.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation story never quite dies down, and it is likely that channels of communication remain open, through proxies or directly, between the Sisi regime and some Brothers. The time may come when it will be needed, as both the military regime that has ruled Egypt in one form or another since 1952 and a Muslim Brotherhood that has reinvented itself several times since its founding in 1928 are nothing if skilled survivors. Watch this space.

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Brotherhood moving towards "painful" settlement with Sisi: Preserving what remains of the organization

Mahmoud Ali, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 29 November 2016

At a time in which media discourse is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group is seeking reconciliation or settlement with the Egyptian state and is having repeated meetings outside Egypt with Egyptian intelligence chiefs in order to look for a settlement satisfactory to both parties. Such activities may well cause surprise within Egyptian public opinion in the coming days.

The Muslim Brotherhood was forced to disclose a few details regarding the nature of the communications between it and the Egyptian authorities over the past few weeks, in light of the controversy that has arisen following statements last week from the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Munir. Munir, who lives in London, had stressed that "there shall be no reconciliation with the Sisi regime that has killed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and there shall be no concessions regarding Mohamed Morsi's return to power, not to mention the return of the Shura Council and the People's Assembly, which were dissolved following the decision of then Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi."

However, two days ago the «Brotherhood» published a report that was more like a press statement on a site close the London office, in which they stated "communications have been received from figures close to the regime, and others from within it, in order to attempt to envisage an end to the crisis in some shape or form, or at the very least, to achieve de-escalation between the different parties." The group said in the message that these communications were conducted with prominent Brotherhood leaders inside Egypt and also with some of the major leaders outside the country, revealing that there have been communications undertaken by former and current military figures in relation to this.

The Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood and his delegate Mahmoud Ezzat have striven over the past few days to stamp out opposition movements led by the organization’s foreign office to take control of the organization. He has conducted elections through which he has been able to increase the power of all of those obedient to him and those who prefer a settlement with the regime in exchange for de-escalation, the release of prisoners and an end to the current zero-sum conflict.

More than one leader of the Brotherhood has revealed the "news" -- details of the meetings and communications that have taken place with them during the past few days inside and outside Egypt. According to a Brotherhood leader from the office of the Brotherhood in the Saudi city of Jeddah, it was an official from the Brotherhood office in Riyadh that met a delegation from the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate in the past few days to discuss a political settlement.

Although Saudi Arabia did not publish any details of those meetings, the Brotherhood leader made it clear that the meeting was sponsored by Saudi intelligence services, while the Brotherhood delegation consisted of three members, headed by an official from the Riyadh office who was following directives from the Brotherhood office in London. At the forefront was Ibrahim Munir, a supporter of Mahmoud Ezzat's stance in Egypt.

At this time, Egyptian government sources have said that there is conflict between security factions within the regime regarding the settlement with the Brotherhood. Despite difficult political conditions and the shutdown of the general political climate in Egypt, security factions close to Sisi think that the Brotherhood will eventually submit to authority and that there is no need for attempts at reaching a settlement with them. In contrast, other security factions think that the Brotherhood issue needs to be resolved with a settlement in light of the domestic situation, as well as European and American pressure on Sisi to put the Brotherhood back on the political agenda, including an end to the execution of "Brotherhood" members. Mohamed Morsi was a product of American pressure, especially that of Secretary of State John Kerry to involve the Brotherhood in political life, as was the case in the days of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Given the fierce reactions of the Brotherhood’s base regarding the meeting, which provoked insults and accusations of treason directed at the organization’s old guard, Saudi Arabia believed that the news leak was to its detriment, especially as it had included the Muslim Brotherhood on terrorism lists for more than a year. This is what prompted the Kingdom to threaten Brotherhood leaders in Saudi Arabia with deportation in the event of similar leaks regarding Saudi efforts to sponsor a Brotherhood settlement with the regime in Egypt, according to the leader of the Jeddah office.

Domestic supporters of the Brotherhood were not far from the scattered details regarding the crisis and the efforts of historical leaders to seek a political settlement with Sisi's regime. As news of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian General Intelligence delegation in Riyadh came in, large sections of Brotherhood supporters in the Middle Delta, Greater Cairo and some Upper Egypt governorates such as El Minya, Qena and Sohag expressed their support, on the condition of prisoners being released and an end to the current state of suffering endured by those being pursued and the organization as a whole, according to an account given to al-Akhbar by a Brotherhood leader in a Middle Delta district in Northern Egypt.

A Brotherhood leader in Istanbul went even further than this, saying that Saudi media personality Jamal Khashoggi has met with Brotherhood leaders in Turkey in the past few months, commissioned by Riyadh to gauge the attitude of the Brotherhood regarding a settlement with the regime. This is in addition to Saudi Arabia's advice to the Brotherhood to disappear completely from the forefront of the political scene and allow liberal or even independent Islamic personalities to occupy this position in Egypt so that the Brotherhood can avoid provoking regional and international parties.

Although the efforts by historical organization leaders to clear up the current crisis could be considered a positive step, there are obstacles between the Brotherhood and the regime that will serve as sticking points, blocking any attempts at a settlement in the near future. That is, unless the Brotherhood is able to accept a large number of losses. Of course, chief of these is its withdrawal from the political landscape, as well as accepting Sisi in power, and remaining silent regarding the Rabaa massacre and the thorny issue of Mohamed Morsi's trial.

With regard to the precise timing of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian intelligence delegation in Saudi Arabia, a Brotherhood leader from Menufiya in northern Egypt told al-Akhbar that the meeting took place at the condolences for Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz, the brother of the Saudi King Salman, who died on 12 November. This leader revealed that the Egyptian delegation asked the Brotherhood’s representatives to let the historical leadership know that the Egyptian security services would like to meet and discuss a solution satisfactory to all. This was welcomed by the Brotherhood delegation, which admitted that it had gone to the condolences on the orders of Ibrahim Munir after communicating with Saudi intelligence.

In this context, the Crisis Office abroad – which is more in touch with the youth current within the Brotherhood – is glaringly absent from the question of settlement with the Egyptian regime. As such, it seems that Ibrahim Munir is heading toward a settlement that is “painful” for the Brotherhood in order to preserve what remains of the organization within Egypt and guarantee the return of fugitive brothers to their homes without facing prosecution from the regime.

In Translation: Trump and the Arabs

There has been a wide range of reactions to the election of Donald Trump as US president in the Arab world, ranging from horror to accommodation to cheers. Much of the Egyptian media – indeed, the Egyptian regime – sees in Trump hope that of a leader who will develop closer ties to Abdefattah al-SIsi, ending the funk in Egypt-US relations and declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the Gulf, commentators close to the Saudi regime show cautious pragmatism, cheered by the anti-Iranian stance (even if they might not be so happy about the Iran nuclear deal being scrapped, since at least it contained Tehran’s nuclear ambition). Many right-wing Israelis are overjoyed by the prospect of a US president who not only promises to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but is overly anti-Palestinian and whose chief advisor hails from an “alt-right” movement many of whose members are pro-Israel and whose ideologues describe as “White Zionism”. And of course, many, many others fear (another?) war-mongering US president with openly Islamophobic views and, more generally, yet another element of uncertainty at a moment of regional turmoil.

But there is an argument to be made that, while Trump’s impact on the US may very well be dire, it will not mark such a significant shift for the region. First, Trump’s foreign policy ideas are basically non-existent. He will draw in advisors with radical and biased views, to be sure, but this happened before under George W. Bush and other administrations haven’t exactly been impartial mediators on many issues (see Israel-Palestine). Trump backing Assad or staying away from conflicts such as Yemen and Libya or seeking to extract a kind of tribute from the oil producing state of the Gulf can be seen as a more forthright departure from existing policy, not a radical departure. Indeed the thing to fear the most is geopolitical uncertainty, amateurism and military adventurism. But again, nothing entirely new. Only the idea of the “Muslim ban” offers something that pretty much draws universal condemnation in the region. The likes of veteran commentators AbdelBari Atwan, whose post-election commentary is reproduced below, are making these points. They likely underestimate the new and innovative forms of damage a Trump presidency could wreck.

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Trump stunned many with his surprise victory… how did he achieve this ‘miracle’? What will his policies be towards in the Arab world? How will his friendship with Putin impact Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Gulf and Iran?

AbdelBari Atwan, Rai al-Youm, 9 November 2016

Defeating the American political establishment as embodied by its representative, Hillary Clinton, and defeating the mighty media empires, Donald Trump has won. He has also demonstrated that opinion polling lacks credibility and is fatally flawed, and proven wrong countless political analysts, experts and think tanks who predicted that he would be quickly and decisively defeated.

The leaders of the Republican Party and its elite in Congress and the House of Representatives washed their hands of him, describing him as ignorant and lacking political experience, but he faced them down, parrying their blows with blows of his own. Demonstrating a deep reading of popular sentiment and engineering a message that effectively reached out to the electorate, he proved that he better understands the American people and its demands than the party.

Americans, as this election has demonstrated, are tired of their schizophrenic governing elite, which fails to understand their concerns, problems and ambitions. This is why they put their trust in this “rebel” against the political establishment and gave him their votes.

We in no way disagree with the many who condemn this man, or with the numerous criticisms of his personality and behavior, but at the end of the day, judgment resides in the hands of the people and at the ballot boxes. It is hard to imagine how a millionaire who travels by private plane and luxury yacht could present himself as the representative and defender of the rights and demands of the poor and marginalized. However, the frustrated of America believed him and entrusted him with their votes, perhaps because he is candid and spontaneous, unlike the ruling establishment’s professionals and politicians.


Facing vicious and personal attacks in the media about his character, family life and financial honesty, he kept the course through the media’s minefields to defeat his 16 rivals for the Republican party nomination before prevailing over the greater challenger, Clinton, to arrive in the White House wearing his bright red tie.

He is racist, right-wing, and belittles and harasses women. He despises Islam and Muslims and wants to shut them out along with the poor of Mexico and Latin America. But why is this surprising? Are we not talking about America, the country that assails us with tanks, missiles and agents, that kills millions of us, that plants the seeds of sectarian war, changes regimes and spreads murderous chaos? And is Mrs. Clinton really full of love for Muslims? Did she not threaten to intervene militarily in Syria, enthusiastically back the invasion and occupation of Iraq, urge the murder of an Arab leader (Qadhafi) and fail to show any basic human respect towards him once he died?

There may have been differences between candidates in the presidential elections when it comes to many matters of domestic and foreign policy, but they were united in their contempt for Arabs and therefore Islam. The only difference was the manner in which they expressed it.

Today, when Trump went to the heart of the White House, it dawned on us that we would have to work with this loathsome person as president. More than other presidents who provoked the ruling establishment, it is clear that he will have to change his behavior and stances or else face the risk of assassination. His threat to repeal or amend many of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear agreement may indeed be shelved since the agreement concerns the five major powers plus Germany, not just Iran and America, and since cancelling the deal would result in Iran resuming its enrichment of uranium and acquiring nuclear weapons, possibly leading to war to prevent that from happening.

We disagree with the many who bought into the stereotype sold by the powerful media and political establishment, which described him as an unpredictable madman unqualified to lead any state. If that were the case, he would not have received a majority[^1] of the votes of approximately 300 million US citizens in free and fair elections.

Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladmir Putin is not a shortcoming or a mistake. We think differently and believe the cup is half-full. This obvious admiration for Putin may lead to more cooperation between the two major powers on pressing issues, particularly the wars of the Middle East. Is it necessary for the presidents of two major powers with a tense relationship and ongoing cold and hot wars to themselves be antagonistic towards one another? Have we forgotten that war between them is conducted on our land and that the victims are our people and children?

Trump threatens to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. We have started to clamor about this disastrous idea — and it would really be a disaster — but what can we do? Do we have the power to prevent it, given the painful condition of the Islamic world at present? Did we prevent the occupation of Jerusalem or its Judaization? Is there anyone championing the members of the resistance in the occupied territories who are losing their lives, so as to protect Palestine’s Arab and Islamic identity?

Another point that many people are stuck on is Trump’s threat to ban Muslims from entering America. This behavior is racist, detestable and fascist. However, we should ask, have Arab countries, and especially Gulf countries, opened their borders to Syrian refugees or Iraqi refugees before them? They are the countries that bear the greatest responsibility, having spent billions of dollars trying to topple the Syrian government and supported the invasion, embargo and regime change in Iraq.

Why should our response not be to prevent Americans from entering the 50 Islamic countries around the world? Why should Muslims go to America at all? There are many other alternatives, and we don’t think that Muslims will die of grief if they can’t go to America as visitors and immigrants. They should turn their attention to corrupt Arab leaders who waste their resources, steal the fruits of their labor and place the proceeds in American banks, and instead work towards good governance, social justice and political and economic reform.


We do not support President Trump, nor do we support any American president, because we absolutely believe that most of our troubles have been caused by America and the Arab leaders allied to it. However, we wanted to provide a different analysis of the political earthquake caused by this American election, and how to deal with it. We also wanted to say that we, as Arabs and Muslims, who have only rarely experienced this thing called an election, must rely first and foremost on ourselves.

America is changing. Trump in the White House represents the beginning of this change. It is only logical to conclude that we too must change, learn from our disastrous mistakes, and stop being subordinate to our American backers who want to impose the jizya[^2] on us and plunder the remainder of our resources.

[^1]: Atwan writes before the final tally showing that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

[^2]: A tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects in Muslim states; in this case Atwan uses it to in the more general sense of tribute.

In Translation: The abusive Egypt-Saudi relationship

Over the past week, the most serious crisis in Egypt-Saudi relations since the June 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi has taken place. It is likely to be well-short of the divorce many have argued is impending (after all only last month Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion into the Central Bank of Egypt), but is nonetheless significant enough to have raised tensions in the media on both sides of the Red Sea. In addition to vocal Saudi attacks against Egypt in the media, Saudi Aramco has suddenly suspended delivery of oil products (at low costs), a form of in-kind support that has been going on for over three years.

The immediate cause appears to have been Egypt’s UN Security Council vote in favor of a resolution on Syria proposed by Russia. However, Riyadh has been souring towards Cairo for several months, between frustration with the Sisi regime’s lack of support in Yemen, its outright opposition to an anti-Assad position in Syria (Egypt being concerned with the potential rise of Islamists there and generally aligned on Russia’s position), and the occasional incident such as the anti-Wahhabi line Cairo has espoused, most recently in at a conference of Muslim scholars in Groszny, Chechnya (note the Russia thread in these elements.) More generally, there have been grumblings that Saudi Arabia, itself under financial stress due to low oil prices, isn’t exactly impressed with how Sisi has decided to spend aid estimated at over $40 billion in the last three years.

There has been much discussion of all this in Egyptian and Saudi media, but the attention our Egyptian friend Amira Howeidy was piqued a few days ago when she noticed an anti-Saudi piece in El Watan, a daily newspaper known for its proximity to the Sisi regime and security services in particular. We have translated this piece below, as an example of the media wars between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It would be a war that one would think Cairo can ill afford at a time of tremendous economic stress (supply shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation, restrictions on bank transactions, the collapsing value of Egyptian pound on the black market - think Argentina in 2001-2002), and indeed Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has rushed over to Riyadh to clear the air and President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has reiterated his deep commitment to the security of the GCC (the loose codeword for “we got your back in the case of a coup, against Iran or if the Americans betray you”). And he denies the oil thing has nothing to do with the UN vote. But the Egyptian media (at the higher end, even) mostly hovers between a defense of Egypt’s autonomy, veiled threats about having an Iran option, and assurances that Egypt-Saudi relations are unassaible even as it indulges some good old fashioned Saudi-bashing.

How long can this all last? I tend to see less of a turning point and more of a tiresome, ongoing negotiations. The relationship is based on a kind of asymmetric passive-aggressive perpetual renegotiation. What Egypt is saying, in effect, is: “I am an unreliable, disrespectful client that openly takes you for granted and jibes against you at every possible turn, but I know you will eventually come back to me because you are more afraid of my weakness and nuisance capacity than of my potential strength. So when is that next check coming?” Egypt has gotten away with it in its relationship with the United States for at least the last 15 years, after all, so why not Saudi Arabia?

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Saudi Arabia paying the price for harboring terrorism and violent armed groups

Abdel Wahhab Issa, El Watan "السعودية تدفع ثمن احتضانها للإرهاب وجماعات العنف المسلح"), 12 October 2016

The era of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, witnessed a fierce war against terrorist organizations and groups, during which the kingdom staved off the influence of al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region and the Gulf. This came after Saudi Arabia had spent decades undertaking sponsoring these groups, especially during the war in Afghanistan. Before his death, the efforts of King Abdullah culminated in the publication of a list of banned terrorist groups, on which the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda came first. However, when King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, terrorist groups were able to obtain financial and military support directly from the kingdom. It reverted to harboring these extremist organizations, granting them material and military support, especially in Syria and Yemen, and abolished the list of terrorist organizations. By contrast, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz assumed power in Saudi Arabia, he began with an all-out war against terrorism, especially following the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, during which tensions were heightened in the existing relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood. This came as a result of the Kingdom's discovery, according to the opinion of political researcher Yousri al-Azabawi, of the Brotherhood's role in the fragmentation and division of the Arab states. As such, the kingdom began to co-operate cautiously with the organization while closely monitoring the situation. Following the June 30 Revolution, the discord between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia reached a breaking point after King Abdullah gave his blessing to the popular revolution that overthrew the group. In fact, this lead to Saudi Arabia banning the Brotherhood and regarding it as a terrorist organization. King Abdullah did not stop at combating the influence of the organization, but rather he also began to support the military maneuvers launched by the international coalition against ISIS. This led to the organization carrying out several terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabian territory in retaliation against King Abdullah and his war against terrorism. King Salman took power as the successor to King Abdullah with a view to bringing about total change, with Saudi Arabia turning away from the war on terror strategy in favor of supporting al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, King Salman has given military and material support to the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, under the pretext of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. A report in the newspaper The Independent, citing Turkish officials, stated that Saudi Arabia is sending funds and weapons to the al-Nusra Front and that Turkey is facilitating the group's entry into Syria. It was also indicated that there was an agreement concluded early last March between the two countries, after a meeting in Riyadh attended by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The first proposal was that the two countries should work to "fill the vacuum of failed Western intervention in Syria,” especially after the failure of Western nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. It was also proposed that the two countries extend support for the armed opposition there – in reference to the al-Nusra Front – in what is the first such agreement between Saudi Arabia and Turkey following strong discord between them during the days of the late king. The Brotherhood's relationship with Saudi Arabia has improved considerably under King Salman inasmuch as, according to Brotherhood sources in Saudi Arabia, they have undertaken to mediate a reconciliation between the two parties. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has hosted the leader of the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Ennahdha Party, more than once. With its funds, Riyadh has become a fertile breeding ground for all leaders of terrorist groups, receiving them in the royal palaces, whether it is the Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal, among others. As for Yemen, Saudi Arabia has supported the Brotherhood there against the Shia Houthi group, with the kingdom having led a Gulf alliance in launching a military operation named “Decisive Storm.” Co-operation between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia was also clearly evident in Yemen, after everyone in al-Qaradawi’s International Union of Muslim Scholars, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, the Syrian and Jordanian Brotherhood and Ahrar al-Sham declared their support for Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia is now paying the price for harboring terrorist organizations both in the past and currently, at the hands of King Salman, especially al-Qaeda, who are responsible for the events of September 11. This follows the passing of legislation in the United States Congress this past September, which allows families of victims of the September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for damages. This had previously been obstructed by the White House, after the US President Barack Obama used a presidential veto to block the bill. However, the United States Congress overrode his veto.

In Translation: Egypt's sorrowful class

Among all the many painful things Egypt has gone through in recent years – state violence, terrorism, oppression, a bitter political closing after the opening of 2011 – it may be the economic situation that is most sorely felt by the most people. The Sisi regime's grandiose plans – a new capital city, an expanded Suez Canal – are either in mothballs or have failed to deliver much-needed new revenue so far. The military is taking control of an increasing chunk of the economy, squeezing out the private sector that has driven much of the past 30 years of job and wealth creation (however skewed) and not doing much for the non-military public sector. (It's even creating its own private schools!) The chief victim of these policies, especially the ongoing devaluation of the Egyptian pound, is probably the middle class (because the poor are both less exposed to their impact as many subsistence goods are subsidized and because Sisi done more, even if it's not enough, on poverty alleviation and targeting the poorest in the country through cash handout programs and other measures).

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of writing in the Egyptian press about the struggling middle class – perhaps because it's back to school time, a moment in the year where families feel particularly pinched (especially if you want to avoid sending your kids to public school.) Tareq Hassan's column below is one of the better examples of this trend, which is so politically significant in the medium term to the Sisi regime. Defining the middle class is hard in terms of income (there are multiple layers), and one element of it is more about aspirations and class outlook than pure financials. In Egypt, I would argue there are three middle classes: the private sector middle class (currently losing out), the public sector middle class (stagnating) and the military middle class (accumulating privilege). They are not hermetically sealed from one another, but it does represent a shift, even reversal, of the trends of the Mubarak era.   

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The sad state of Egypt’s middle class

Tareq Hassan, al-Masri al-Youm, 11 September 2016

If you asked me which is the most discontented class in Egypt right now, I would immediately tell you it is the middle class — the broadest, largest and most extensive class in society.
If you asked me which class is the class of the future, without whom there will be no future in Egypt or for Egypt, I would tell you immediately: There is no other — it is the middle class in all its social components.
How is this class both the most discontented and the key foundation for progress and Egypt’s future?
Naturally, discontent prevails throughout the middle class. Its general situation is obvious. It is either being neglected or deliberately ignored as a topic of interest. The prevailing political rhetoric discusses “low-income people” without specifying their precise social position and with a chronic complaint about not being able to reach them. Meanwhile, the current media discourse focuses on aversion and skepticism toward the rich and prosperous classes and personalities.
But where is the middle class?
It is not present in the binary of “low-income” and “wealthy.” How is it that it is not a point of focus or a pivot of speech and action in social and political rhetoric? This is the class that pays its own way — the class that studies with its own money and gets medical treatment with its own money.
It is the class where most might use public transport only rarely. It it the class where some may appear to be among the wealthy but are in reality blameless and decent people.
It is the class where, if one has a large or necessary obligation, he will take a loan from a bank or participate in an “association” with a set date to fulfill the obligation.
It is the class in which, if one individual is afflicted with a serious illness, they sell everything they own for his treatment.
It is the class that buys on installment plans and takes out bank loans, that has a Visa card balance they pay back many times over in interest. It is the class where they do not have ration cards and do not eat subsidized bread, and the government withholds some of their taxes at the source.
In short, it is the class which carries out the role of the state for itself, by itself. Last but not least, it is the class upon whose shoulders falls all the economic measures and political and social burdens, and which has suffered irremediable hardships from January 2011 to today.
We are right to say: The middle class has become the undisputed weight-lifting champion of Egypt. It is also the class whose situation, unfortunately, is dealt with as it should not be — if not ignored altogether.
The middle class is the problem and the solution. It is the spark of revolutions, unrest and upheaval. It is also the key and the pillar of progress, modernity and development in our world. For example:

  • Since the end of the 1920s, the middle class has been the foundation and the pivot of the Egyptian nationalist movement in all political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Upon its shoulders, the Egyptians built their state under the British occupation. Then came national independence.
  • In the 1950s, Abdel Nasser had success with the middle class. He knew how to build a strong bloc from the middle classes with a clear identity.
  • Since the 1970s, with the implementation of market measures, the base of the middle class has widened and it has started down the path of development, capacity and private business.
  • By the year 2008, the Gini coefficient — the key measure of inequality adopted internationally — noted in a statement on the equity of wealth distribution across the world that the richest ten percent of Egyptian families received eight times more of Egypt’s Gross National Income than the poorest ten percent. This was one of the best rates at the time. The same report said that the richest ten percent of American families had 15 times as much as the poorest ten percent of families. Japan had the best internationally, with four times higher, and the worst was Bulgaria with 157 times higher. This means that the middle and upper classes in Egypt may include more than 70 percent of Egyptian families and that it had greater and deeper capabilities than many thought — to the extent that some car market experts believed that, at purchasing power parity, Egypt may be able to absorb more than 50,000 cars per month if offered at the prices of neighboring Arab countries. With a growth rate of 15 percent annually, it would be possible to sell a million cars a year by 2021.
  • In January 2011, the aspirations of the political and social middle class in Egypt exploded. They wanted to achieve their particular ambitions in a modern country with modern organization which was not under bureaucratic control. Their simple argument was: we want Egypt to be a country worthy of consideration, and we want to live as they live in the civilized world. January occurred as a social explosion, not a political movement with reason, capacity, organization, and a clear identity. This was the tragedy of the middle class and the story of its multifaceted and multidimensional losses and tragedies. Here it became a sorrowful class.
  • Now Egypt’s middle class has become 50 million angry people, in the words of a headline of a recent interview with General Abu Bakr el-Gendy, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, in the weekly al-Mussawar magazine.

The problem is not the collapse of the social and economic situation of the middle class, nor the harsh government measures affecting their situation, although as a whole these do remain a problem. The main problem is in politics which have not reconsidered the middle class and its social and political centrality.
The problem remains in a politics that does not advance the status of the political, social, economic and cultural middle class, in order to advance the country.
Political thought and its public rhetoric have still not understood that the middle class erupted in the 25 January Revolution, brandishing its dreams and aspirations. The major problem now is that no one has rescued it or helped it back on to its feet after its dreams and aspirations were shattered, and that there is no solution but lifting it back up and thereby reviving the country.
The ambitions of the middle class are worthy of consideration. Nothing will achieve the ambitions of the middle class and return it to its rightful place except the systems of a modern state, the systems of political and social freedom, and the systems of a society that manages its own political and economic and social and cultural affairs.
There is no solution and no future in Egypt or for Egypt except in fostering and promoting the society’s middle class. Without it, the reckoning will be turmoil and loss.
Large segments of the middle classes and lower classes have begun to converge — they live in the slums and poor neighborhoods together, while the wealthy minority grows richer. In this severe social and political imbalance, danger lurks for the country.
The middle class is the source of balance in the country. Without it, there is no balance.
I ask God for forgiveness, for you and me.
Happy Eid al-Adha to all.