The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Levy on 25 years of Oslo

Daniel Levy – who was involved in Oslo negotiations on the Israeli side in the late 1990s the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, in Foreign Policy:

What is presented today as the peace process is in fact little more than a tag-team bullying effort by the powerful parties—Israel and the United States—against the stateless Palestinians.

He adds:

Yet the alternative path still exists. It harks back to the simple and universal formula of demonstrating to the powerful and inflexible party—Israel—that the occupation and the new realities that have been created (settlements, displacement, closures, discrimination) will not continue to be cost-free.

That will require the kind of popular and nonviolent mobilization in Palestinian society that has proved largely elusive for the last quarter century, alongside some combination of externally imposed sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and legal accountability—all of which Israel has invested heavily in averting.

Only when Palestinians regain some leverage as they did during the First Intifada will Israel begin to rediscover the need to seek common ground and what it means to think in terms of win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum equations.

Buttu on negotiating with Israel

Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO since the Oslo years, in Haaretz:

I am often asked why the negotiations process failed. It is easy to point to the rise of right-wing Israeli governments, poor leadership or weak or uninterested U.S. presidents. But the real reason for failure lie beyond these factors.

It is because the parties should not have started negotiating in the first place. To demand that Palestinians - living under Israeli military rule - negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker. It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom, while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land. Instead, Israel should have faced sanctions for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom while building illegal settlements.

Must-read: Nathan Thrall on BDS

Wonderful long read in the Guardian by Nathan Thrall – a really good exploration of how BDS emerged and how Israel and its supporters are seeking to counter it, including in ways that are deeply dangerous to freedom of speech. Here's a sample but set aside some time to read the whole thing:

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has outsourced much of its anti-BDS activity in foreign countries, helping to establish and finance front groups and partner organisations, in an attempt to minimise the appearance of Israeli interference in the domestic politics of its allies in Europe and the US. Kuper said that anti-BDS groups were now “sprouting like mushrooms after the rain”. He and a number of other former intelligence and security officials are members of one of them, Kella Shlomo, described as a “PR commando unit” that will work with and receive tens of millions of dollars from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. In 2016, Israel’s embassy in London sent a cable to Jerusalem complaining that the strategic affairs ministry was endangering British Jewish organisations, most of which are registered as charities and forbidden from political activity: “‘operating’ Jewish organisations directly from Jerusalem … is liable to be dangerous” and “could encounter opposition from the organisations themselves, given their legal status; Britain isn’t the US!” Last year, al-Jazeera aired undercover recordings of an Israeli official working out of the London embassy, who described being asked by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to help establish a “private company” in the UK that would work for the Israeli government and in liaison with pro-Israel groups like Aipac.

To Israeli liberals, the gravest threat from BDS is that it has induced in their government a reaction so reckless and overreaching that it resembles a sort of auto-immune disease, in which the battle against BDS also damages the rights of ordinary citizens and the organs of democracy. Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs has utilised the intelligence services to surveil and attack delegitimisers of Israel. It called to establish a blacklist of Israeli organisations and citizens who support the nonviolent boycott campaign, created a “tarnishing unit” to besmirch the reputations of boycott supporters, and placed paid articles in the Israeli press. Leftwing Israeli Jews have been summoned for interrogation or stopped at the border by agents of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, who described themselves as officers working against delegitimisation. Israel has banned 20 organisations from entry for their political opinions, including the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that won a Nobel peace prize for helping Holocaust refugees and that now supports self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians while also endorsing BDS.

Last year, the Israeli intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, called publicly for “targeted civil assassinations” of activists such as the BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel. Barghouti was also threatened by Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs: “Soon any activist who uses their influence to delegitimise the only Jewish state in the world will know they will pay a price for it … We will soon be hearing more of our friend Barghouti.” Not long after, Barghouti was prevented from exiting the country, and last year Israeli authorities searched his home and arrested him for tax evasion.

Links 1 July - 20 August 2018

Now that the summer holidays are over, time to get rid of the backlog of links for the last few weeks:

LinksThe Editors
Amjad Iraqi on anti-BDS legislation

This is an outrageous attack on freedom of speech and political organization:

Late last month, the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee approved the latest version of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which is now one step closer to becoming law. The bill was introduced to Congress in March 2017, with the aim of prohibiting American companies from assisting international governmental organisations with boycotts against Israel. These organisations include the UN, whose high commissioner for human rights was tasked two years ago with drawing up a database of companies doing business in the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the EU, whose trade regulations discourage business with settlements but fall short of prohibiting it. Even an individual in the US who supplies information about infringing companies to these bodies could be liable to a civil fine of up to $250,000, or a criminal penalty of up to $1 million. The original version of the bill, which was amended after considerable pressure from civil society groups, would also have imposed prison sentences of up to twenty years.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which enjoys the support of more than half the members of both chambers of Congress, is part of a wave of US legislation aiming to counter the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Twenty-five state legislatures have enacted some form of anti-BDS law, with more bills being considered in all fifty states and at the federal level. State governors are currently considering whether or not to issue executive orders that prohibit state agencies from entering into contracts with companies and institutions – including universities, which led the way during the anti-apartheid boycott in the 1980s – that are involved in boycotts of Israel. Maryland, Louisiana, Wisconsin and New York have already issued such orders. After signing his, in June 2016, Andrew Cuomo declared in the Washington Post: ‘If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you.’ It isn’t just that those who participate in or help enable boycotts are boycotted themselves, or criminalised; people with no connection to activism are also caught up in ludicrously punitive interpretations of the law. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year, residents in the city of Dickinson had to declare – as a condition for receiving relief grants – that they did not or would not boycott Israel.

AsidesThe Editorsbds
Links 19-30 June 2018

Do check out the latest episode of the Bulaq podcast, in which Marcia and Ursula talk to the legendary Karl Sharro aka @KarlRemarks about his new book and more. And buy Karl's book, his Twitter account alone is a public good for mental sanity! 

The links for the last couple of weeks are below.

 

 

LinksThe Editors
Links 1-17 June 2018
LinksThe Editors
Links 8-31 May 2018
LinksThe Editors
Innocence Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in the mail

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

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

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.  ↩

Fawazeer in translation

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

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

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

On Tunisia's local elections

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

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

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