Links 1-8 August 2016

In Translation: Egypt's foundering economy

Last month, the Egyptian pound reached EGP13 to the US dollar for the first time, highlighting the massive stresses on the Egyptian economy and the inevitability of a further devaluation (long expected by the markets) despite the Central Bank of Egypt’s efforts to have controlled re-evaluation of the pound. Also last week, Egypt announced that it was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement for as much as $12 billion in loans (which will of course come with policy conditions) from the IMF. Yesterday, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi warned that austerity measures are coming. All of this points to the continuing fall of the purchasing power of average Egyptians, from the poorest segment of the population (only partly sheltered by price controls on basic goods) to the middle class (perhaps the most dramatically affected). 

These developments have appointed once pro-Sisi commentators to lash out. Like many once pro-establishment Egyptians I have met in the last year, it is not so much that they blame Sisi for the alarming economic condition of the country (that after all is a long-term trend) but his lack of vision for the economy and indulgence in wasteful prestige projects and the lack of transparency with what is being done with money raised from the Egyptian public and foreign backers. In the piece below, the Nasserist columnist Abdullah al-Senawi (who in 2013-14 was said to have Sisi’s ears and was a major supporter from the “nationalist left” through his TV show and writings) skewers the Sisi regime for his and more, predicting that such poor economic stewardship may very well spell its downfall.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for the translation. Do check them out for your Arabic translation needs - we’re very happy with them, and the New York Times recently used them to translate an excellent piece on Saudi Arabia by our friend Ben Hubbard.

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In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup

In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.

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Links 1 June - 14 July 2016

Sorry, we've been on holiday.

In Translation: Of Egypt, Qatar, and Libya

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

As always we bring you this translation through our partners at Industry Arabic, a professional translation service that specializes in Arabic documents of all kinds. If you or your company has an Arabic translation need, please check them out and tell them The Arabist sent you.


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

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

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

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

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

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

J.M. Coetzee in Palestine

Nobel Literature Prize winner J.M. Coetzee spoke in Ramallah recently as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an event I cannot recommend following and (if you are as lucky as I was a few years ago) participating in enough.  

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links 11-30 May 2016

Free Ahmed Naji

Today is an international blogging day on behalf of imprisoned Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who has unfortunately become the latest poster child for the ruthless, petty and seemingly endless crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. Jailed on charges of offending public morals for a few scenes featuring drugs and sex in his novel "The Use of Life," Naji has just received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

The blog Arabic Literature in English is the place to start to read abut Naji's case and the solidarity efforts on his behalf. I interviewed him several times for an article on writers in Cairo published in The Nation a few months back and was as shocked as everyone else by his conviction. 

Here is a link to the offending chapter -- simply a rather charming description of a weekend spent partying with friends and lovers, in that most difficult of cities, Cairo -- in Arabic.  There are also excellent English and French translations available, and I strongly recommend reading them. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On US aid and human rights in Egypt

For Forbes, Charles Tiefer on some of the main points in a US Government Accountability Office on how the Defense and State Dept. have gone around laws placing restrictions on US aid to Egypt:

The report is a major exploration (77 concentrated pages) of how the U.S. State (and Defense) departments turn a blind eye to measures like, most recently, el-Sisi’s current brutal crackdown which includes recent massive arrests of peaceful protesters, long prison terms for demonstrators, smashing of human rights groups and jailing their attorneys, and the infamous covering-up at the highest levels of the torture-murder of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni.

Throughout the world, U.S. law requires its basic law of aid – known as the “Leahy Law” – that forbids aid to those with credible evidence of human rights abuses.  The GAO studied (for 2011-2015 with aid of roughly $1.3 billion aid to Egypt annually) the workings in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo of the U.S.’s worldwide (for relevant aid receivers) database of rights abusers.  The abuser database did, occasionally, flash red lights about units like the Ministry of the Interior, and, the Cairo police.  There were even infrequent occasions (in Morsi’s time) that the State Department did its job and created barriers or “tensions” about aid going to some abusive Egyptian officials and security units.

But, then, the U.S. system has used many ways, the GAO report showed, to condone the Egyptian government despite abuses.  First, it simply allows Egypt to get away with not responding to questions.  “In a postshipment check involving the transfer of riot control items, such as rubber ball cartridges and smoke grenades, to the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, the Egyptian government did not respond to a [State Department] question . . . . [Yet]  State closed [this] . . . as favorable.”  “Riot control” sounds like el-Sisi’s version of crushing the demonstrations — what observers reported as peaceful protest.

Second, State was slightly tougher on the Morsi regime ending in 2013, but seems fully to condone the worse abuses of the el-Sisi regime.  The GAO closely analyzed statistical evidence of the vetting of security forces that got coveted U.S.-funded training.  While overall “State rejected” in 2011-2015 “less than 1 percent of the total cases vetted,” the figures for el-Sisi’s time were even more condoning – the State Department “has not rejected any cases since fiscal year 2013, including no cases since the removal of President Morsi in July 2013. (Pages 37-38)”  No cases?  At all? Is this the same Egypt of el-Sisi that is constantly castigated by international human rights groups, and has outraged all Europe by the Regeni matter?

By the way, in what might be deemed the cover-up in Washington of the cover-up in Egypt, State gagged the GAO about telling how bad State was in its delinquency in vetting.  These figures were key to GAO’s blunt conclusion: ‘State and DOD [Defense] are not in compliance with their policies regarding human rights vetting (page 38).”  State gagged GAO this way:  “State deemed our [GAO] estimate of the percentage of Egyptian security forces that were not vetted . . . to be sensitive but unclassified information.  We therefore omitted that information from this report. (page 38)”

You can read the whole GAO report here.

Links 5 March - 10 May 2016

From the archives (June 2012, Cairo): "Down with the next president"

From the archives (June 2012, Cairo): "Down with the next president"

We have let the blog lie fallow a little for the past month or two. Maalesh, more to come soon.

Links 19 February - 4 March 2016

Link'em if you got'em.

Cairo: Unreal City

I have a long piece in The Nation about writing and freedom of expression in Egypt these days, the role of the country's intellectuals and the regime's attitude to public space, culture and young people. Needless to say it is not an upbeat read (although I am always impressed when I go back to Cairo by folks' wits and guts). I started reporting it last December -- in the meantime, the writer Ahmed Naji, who was on trial for obscenity, was acquitted in his first trial and then handed a 2-year sentence in a retrial. It is a ridiculous, unprecedentedly harsh sentence for a novelist. 

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Here's an excerpt: 

Naji’s novel is a surreal tale of Cairo’s future obliteration and features illustrations by the cartoonist Ayman al-Zurqani. The narrator, speaking from the future, reminisces about the impossible city he lived in as a young man. In the chapter that landed Naji in court, the narrator recounts staying up all night smoking hashish and drinking with his friends; the next day, he meets his lover for brunch and mid-afternoon sex. Then two female friends pick him up and they drive through streets empty of the usual traffic, to drink a beer at sunset on cliffs overlooking the city:

Mona’s wearing a long skirt of some light fabric. I stick my head between the seats and see she’s bunched up her skirt in her lap and is rolling a joint. I’m distracted by the glow of her knees, and Samira’s turning up the music. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieks like a hen laying its first egg. I open the window as we pass over the Azhar Bridge, and imagine I catch a whiff of cumin, pepper and spices. As we exit the bridge and enter the Husayn district, I smell some burnt coffee beans that, without being an expert, I can tell are of poor quality. The scent fills my nostrils. Among the tombs in the City of the Dead, the smell of liver fried in battery acid lingers like a rain cloud.

In describing the sex scene between the narrator and his lover, Naji uses the Arabic words for “cock” and “pussy.” In August of 2015, a middle-aged man from Cairo’s Bulaq neighborhood filed a claim against Naji. In his complaint, Hany Salah Tawfiq spun a lively tale himself, one designed to appeal to the most paternalistic and moralistic impulses of Egypt’s judicial system. He claimed that reading the story after his indignant wife pointed it out to him, and before his innocent daughters could be exposed to it, caused him such consternation that “his heartbeat fluctuated and his blood pressure dropped.” The prosecutor who took the case to trial that November seemed to treat the novel as a factual description of Naji’s own immoral behavior. To restrained titters from the author’s friends in the audience, the prosecutor delivered a long indictment tinged with religious rhetoric and mixed metaphors on the poisonous effect of such filth.

The prosecutor spoke entirely in fusha. Traditionally, there has been a divide between fusha—formal Arabic—and amiya, colloquial Arabic. Although they’re derived from the same sources, the first is closer to the Arabic of the Koran; different forms of it are used in religious and official discourse, the media, and literature. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel laureate, wrote his dialogues in fusha even though amiya is what everyone actually speaks. Ahmed Naji is part of a generation of younger Egyptian writers whose work increasingly includes dialect, allusions to pop culture, profanity, and the funny neologisms created by the Arabicization of foreign words. The spread of this new, young, colloquial, “vulgar” Arabic is a democratic phenomenon linked, in part, to the online world, where people tend to write as they speak. Using slang is a way to puncture the disingenuousness of official discourse. The use of profanity can also be deeply political. For many of the online activists writing in the years before Mubarak fell, it was a purposeful choice to insult his regime in the foulest terms possible—to deny figures of authority the linguistic deference that, no matter how unpopular they may be, they expect to be shown in public forums.

Naji argues that the terms he uses for the male and female anatomy not only can be heard on every street corner in Cairo, but also appear in classical Arabic literature. It was only in the 19th century, he says, that “middle-class Egyptian intellectuals,” fresh from visits to Victorian England, popularized the euphemisms that became common in literature. Nasser Amin, Naji’s lawyer, argued the point in his trial, presenting the judge with books of classical Arabic literature and Islamic exegesis containing the vulgar terms in question.

You can read the rest here

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

US "meh power" in Libya

This two-part New York Times feature (one, two) on US policy in Libya is to a large extent about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for an intervention in 2011 and her subsequent disengagement as other priorities took hold. It in an indictment of Clinton that should give anyone want to vote for her some pause, but it is an even bigger indictment of the policy process in the Obama administration and the lack of thinking-through the Libya issue. Clinton thinks of the 2011 Libya intervention as "smart power" (the most overused and meaningless foreign policy cliché of the last two decades) but it looks more like "meh power": apart from short-bursts of activism (by Clinton mostly) driven by political ambition, there is mostly lack of sustained interest. They just don't care that much about what they started.

It actually lets off fairly easily the cheerleaders for intervention on Clinton’s team, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who advocated for intervention but did not press on the aftermath. It makes a rapid mention of the fact that the US scuttled potential negotiations with the Qadhafi regime, not giving them a chance to see what they could deliver (arguably the worst decision in the whole episode). Allies that act in a duplicitous manner to railroad the US into certain actions or to create facts on the ground, like France or Qatar, are never pushed back. It reveals that there was a US program to provide weapons to the rebels – in other words, that Washington joined Paris, Doha, Abu Dhabi and others in flooding Libya (and hence its neighbors) with weapons – but does not dwell on it. So much more could be made of the abundant material in these pieces, but what is most odd is that it suggests that both Obama and Clinton have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Libya debacle.

Still, excellent reporting and contains some scoops.

Links 1-18 February 2016

Your every-once-in-a-while, small batch, artisanal, handcrafted link dump. OK, this time it's meager returns, we've been distracted and have neglected this a bit.

Obama Proposes Removing Human Rights Conditions on Aid to Egypt

Ziad Jilani writing for The Intercept

The budget proposal released by the Obama administration Tuesday seeks to roll back restrictions Congress has placed on foreign aid to Egypt’s military regime and the sale of crowd control weapons to “emerging democracies.”
Under current law, 15 percent of aid to Egypt is subject to being withheld based on human rights conditions — although even that can be waived if it is deemed to be in the national security interest of the United States, as it was last year.
Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, says the administration probably doesn’t want to go to the trouble of justifying its waiver this year. “They had to basically do an assessment. … Here’s how they’re doing on political prisoners, here’s how they’re doing on freedom of assembly, and so on,” Bockenfeld explains. Last year’s report “infuriated the Egyptians … it was a pretty honest assessment of how things had deteriorated in Egypt.”
The assessment, for instance, took the Egyptians to task for the “impunity” their security forces operate under and restrictions on due process.
“I think what they’re trying to do is avoid a repeat of that scenario,” concludes Bockenfeld. “Because that upset the Egyptians as much as it did, we’d rather handle those things privately.”

In short, the Obama administration does not want in any way to publicly chastise the Sisi regime. At best – and let's face it this is a stretch – it's because it feels taking up these issues privately with Cairo is more effective. Yes, because that has worked so well in the past. It would be nice if the administration just came out publicly and said it can't be bothered, does not want headaches, and is fully supportive of the regime in Egypt no matter what it does. It would have much greater success in pleasing the Egyptians, which appears to be the chief goal, and put an end to the distracting and dishonest debate about supporting democracy or human rights. The damage here is not just the refusal to take a public political stance on what's going on in a key ally and major recipient of US largesse, but perhaps chiefly the ongoing abandonment of previous commitments to keep an eye on these issues and the making of concession after concession to the Sisi regime with apparently nothing in return. It's a small thing in the big scheme of things (see Russia and Aleppo), but exemplifies the amateurish, bureaucratically-driven, and irresolute aspects of Obama's foreign policy at its weakest.

Israel’s Putinisation

In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz on Israel's anti-NGO legislation and the unsustainability of its democracy-for-Jews-only system. An excellent overview of changes in Israeli society and politics, but I have a quibble with the last part:

But the unbridled, insular nationalism of Netanyahu’s Israel is also reminiscent of Sisi’s Egypt and Erdoğan’s Turkey, where there is constant talk of foreign plots hatched in Washington and Brussels, and a toxic mix of resentment and entitlement vis-à-vis their Western patrons. As Diana Pinto suggests in Israel Has Moved (2013), the Jewish state has tended to see its neighbours as ‘so many vaulting poles with which to catapult itself into a peaceful because distant globalisation’. Economically, it has succeeded in escaping the region; politically, that goal has proved far more elusive. ‘Israel is now just another Arab regime,’ the Syrian poet Adunis once said to me, and the proposed legislation against ‘moles’ is scarcely different in kind, if not degree, from anti-NGO campaigns in Cairo. The repression of Jewish dissent is the latest phase of what Pinto describes as the ‘turning inward of a state in the process of its own ghettoising’. As if it preferred to remain in that ghetto, Israel has stubbornly carried on a colonial project at the risk of harming its relations with Europe and the United States, both of which are finally realising that Israel has no intention of making a genuine peace with the Palestinian people.

The debate and partial disenchantment with Israel among American and European Jews aside, is there really any signs that Europe and the US care or are willing to do anything about the realisation above?