The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 1 September - 15 October 2019

Resuming the long-interrupted link dumps…

LinksThe EditorsComment
Links 9-28 February 2019
  • Bolsonaro’s Brazil | LRB
    Read this masterful piece by Perry Anderson even if you know nothing about Brazil, it has insights about weak democracies and clientelist systems that are universal

LinksThe Editors
Mediapart: Rafale jet crashed as Macron visited Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links Late 2018 - 8 February 2019

Having not posted links since last August (it’s been a very busy few months), I am now resuming more regular linking. Look for them once a week or so - in the batch below, the more recent ones are on top, the rest may date back several weeks or even months.

LinksIssandr El Amrani
Lindsey Hilsum on Marie Colvin

Lovely piece by Lindsey Hilsum for the Financial Times, who has written a biography of the journalist Marie Colvin, recently immortalized on film, that does not hide her personal turmoil:

I wrote at length about Marie’s problems with alcohol. Although she was professionally successful, had a supportive network of close friends and a life she enjoyed in London, she was often unhappy and at times despairing. Her last boyfriend, Richard Flaye, told me that sometimes when he stroked her, he would feel tiny, sharp pieces of shrapnel accumulated over a lifetime working their way out of her skin. It was as if her body was trying to rid itself of all the horror she had experienced.

That, then, is the danger of the myth of Marie. What bothers me is not that she went too far to get the story but that she was careless with herself, both her body and her mind. Her story is not just exemplary, but also cautionary. These days, editors are far more aware of the dangers of PTSD, but young journalists, often freelance, determined to make their name, may still underestimate the toll the life may take on them. Not all war correspondents are traumatised or injured, but many find it hard to maintain stable relationships. Marie’s private life was a war zone, just like the conflicts she covered — there was nothing glamorous about her suffering.

Amro Ali on Arab Berlin

Amro Ali, writing on his blog (and originally in al-Sharq):

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings and its innumerable tragic outcomes, Berlin was strategically and politically ripe to emerge as an exile capital. For some time now, there has been a growing and conscious Arab intellectual community, the political dimensions of which to fully crystalize is what I wish to further explore.

When the storm of history breaks out a tectonic political crisis, from revolutions to wars to outright persecution, then a designated city will consequently serve as the gravitational center and refuge for intellectual exiles. This is, for example, what New York was for post-1930s Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe, and what Paris became for Latin American intellectuals fleeing their country’s dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against those historical precedents, the Arab intellectual community in Berlin needs to understand itself better, moving away from an auto-pilot arrangement, and become actively engaged with political questions that face it. In effect, there is a dire necessity for this community to acquire a name, shape, form and a mandate of sorts. With a vigorous eye to a possible long-term outcome, this may include a school of thought, a political philosophy or even an ideational movement – all cross-fertilized through a deeper engagement with the Arab world.

This is certainly not about beckoning revolutions and uprisings, nor to relapse into the stale talk of institutional reforms. If anything, there needs to be a move away from these tired tropes of transformation – away from quantifiable power dynamics that do not address matters that go deeper, into the existential level that shores up the transnational Arab sphere. This is the very area where the stream of human life animates a language of awareness and the recurring initiative helps to expand the spaces of dignity for fellow beings. Yet, this area is currently ravaged in a torrent of moral misery and spiritual crisis.

Having travelled to Berlin multiple times in the last few years, and knowing quite a few Arab exiles there and the wider German community that often hosts them – think-tanks, stiftungs, universities, etc. – I am struck by the emergence of the city as a genuine hub for quite varied Arab intellectual activity and political activism. For Egyptians in particular (Amro is Egyptian), it has been a sometimes difficult host: the Egyptian embassy is unusually active in following the diaspora community, sending its goons to disrupt gatherings, defend the Sisi regime at conferences, and I’ve heard reports of harassment of certain activists there.

Angela Merkel’s government has been usually craven (for Germany, that is, which unlike say France or Italy has tended to defend human rights more consistently in the past and have fewer economic interests in the Arab world) in pandering to the Sisi regime, staging state visits and at the EU level refraining from much criticism. Part of this is driven early bets Sisi made on German business, including very lucrative contracts for Siemens and for the German defense industry, but also by Merkel’s need to watch her right flank after her (admirable) intake of mostly Syrian migrants in 2015: she has sought to present Egypt as a partner in countering migration flows across the Mediterranean, although one might be skeptical about Egypt’s minor role in the migration crisis of the last few years and its ability to contribute.

But it has been welcoming to a wide array of people escaping their home countries, and Berlin has become a hub of sorts: as Amro argues, it is less politically tendentious, easier to access, and cheaper than other major Western cities with large pre-2011 Arab communities. It also more diverse and is a city that has, due to its peculiar history and relatively cheap rents, been welcoming to artists, students and bohemian life more generally. Amro’s essay is as much about the particular of appeal of Berlin as a city, rather than Germany, as it is about the condition of Arab exiles in the ongoing current great Arab exodus (perhaps not seen as region-wide as it is today since the 1970s) . An interesting essay that meanders through the history of the city, the status of exile, and the role of intellectuals in political activism; well worth reading.

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.