Khaled Fahmy writes: This is an historical perspective on the Arab Spring – particularly in Egypt, but generalisable to some extent to other Arab countries – from a historian by education and practice. A peculiar personal experience drew me from being another Egyptian protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo to the state historian of the Egyptian revolution. Only one week after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president, the head of the Egyptian National Archives together with the Minister of Culture appointed me as Chair of an official committee empowered to document the momentous popular uprising of January 2011 that captured the attention of the world. I assembled a team of archivists, historians and IT experts. We set about planning how to accomplish the mammoth task ahead of us.
Soon we found ourselves having to find answers to difficult questions: ‘How do we go about collecting people’s testimonies?’ for example. Or, more worrisome, given that we were a government committee: ‘Can we guarantee that the testimonies do not end up falling into the hands of security agencies to be used against the same people who had entrusted us with these potentially self-incriminating testimonies?’
Historical questions presented the most difficulty. When did the revolution end? Did it end with Mubarak’s step-down? With the constitutional amendments of March 2011 that banned the then ruling party, dissolved parliament and called for fresh parliamentary elections? With these parliamentary elections that were held in November 2011? With the presidential elections in June the following year? Given that we were still attending funerals of friends and loved ones, running from one police station to another looking for demonstrators who had been arrested, and still demonstrating to demand the release of our comrades – given all this, was the revolution still going on?
Most difficult of all were questions not about when and how the revolution ended – if ever it did – but when it began and where it originated. Was it launched on 25 January 2011, National Police Day, when we took to the streets to protest against the endemic use of torture in prisons and other places of detention? Or did it begin on 14 January when Ben Ali, the Tunisian President, fled his country to Saudi Arabia, inspiring people in Egypt to say: ‘If the Tunisians could do it, then maybe we can, too’?
Or was its beginning on New Year’s Eve 2010 when Muslims and Copts took to the streets protesting against what they believed was their government’s complicity in the bombing of churches? Or a few months earlier with the beating to death of the young Alexandrian activist Khaled Said, who later became the icon of the revolution? Did it start in 2008 when thousands took to the streets all over the country in solidarity with the striking workers in the industrial town of Mahalla? Or were its origins in 2004 with the birth of the Kefaya (Enough!) Movement, whose members were protesting, week in and week out, against Mubarak’s dictatorial rule?
Did it start in March 2003 when we took to the streets protesting against the US bombing of Iraq and when we occupied Tahrir for a few hours? Or did it begin in March 2000 when the Israeli Prime Minister paid his ill-fated visit to al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, prompting thousands of Egyptian university students to spill out of their university gates to demonstrate in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada?
My colleagues on the committee and I pondered these questions, and probed even more difficult ones. [Continue reading…]
Egyptians revolted against not only Mubarak and his cronies but a whole tyrannical state dripping in blood
After hailing democracy in Tahrir Square in 2011, Cameron now welcomes the man who killed Egypt’s revolution
Jack Shenker writes: In footage recorded by news cameras, you can see David Cameron – flanked by a large security team – threading his way through the flag sellers and nut vendors and the amiable mayhem of Tahrir Square. It is February 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Locals drift over to see what the fuss is about, and many call out to welcome the British prime minister. At one point a boy, his face painted in revolutionary style with the colours of the Egyptian flag, runs up to Cameron and smiles. “Are you happy now?” Cameron asks, in English. The child looks blank. Cameron nods with satisfaction and holds out his hand. “Put it there,” he grins.
The imagery of Cameron traipsing around an urban landscape that still bore the scars of revolutionary struggle was designed to convey a particular message: after decades of providing steadfast support to one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocrats, Britain was supposedly ready to embrace a new type of politics. “I’ve just been meeting with leaders of the democracy movement, really brave people who did extraordinary things in Tahrir Square,” Cameron told the BBC. “We want Egypt to have a strong and successful future, we want the aspirations of the Egyptian people – for democracy, for freedom, for openness, the things we take for granted – we want them to have those things.”
Almost half a decade later, Cameron is finally about to return Egypt’s hospitality, and once again news cameras will be on hand to capture the moment. This time round, though, the images will be very different.
Next week Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is scheduled to accept an invitation to Downing Street: red carpets will be unfurled, gifts exchanged and powerful hands shaken. His photoshoot with Cameron will be a celebration not of new politics, but of more conventional forms of power – the kinds that remain safely locked up inside the executive, the army and institutional elites. The buzzwords at the official banquet will be “stability” and “security”. Of freedom, or openness, or the Egyptian streets that Cameron was so keen to walk down – the streets in which power, not so long ago, came to reside – little mention will be made. [Continue reading…]
AFP reports: Like scores of polling stations across the Egyptian capital, a school in the Dokki neighbourhood stood empty Monday, with local residents showing scant interest in the country’s no-contest parliamentary election.
In the absence of any real opposition, the new parliament is expected to firmly back President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s iron-fisted regime that has crushed all forms of dissent.
Sisi, who enjoys cult-like status in Egypt after having ousted his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013, will have a parliament to rubber-stamp his decisions, experts say. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: On Oct. 9, Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for shepherding the only successful transition to democracy in the Arab world since uprisings began in the region in 2010. The quartet’s importance goes far beyond its pivotal role in brokering a democratic transition in 2013 and 2014: It can provide important lessons for other Arab countries as well as foreign powers that remain perplexed about how to respond to continuing Arab struggles for freedom, dignity and democracy.
The quartet’s composition was the crucial starting point of its successes. It consisted of the country’s largest labor union (UGTT), its employers’ federation (UTICA), its lawyers’ association and the Tunisian Human Rights Association. The first two represented Tunisian workers and business owners, critical poles of the economy; the lawyers and human rights activists represented the rule of law, constitutionalism and citizen rights in the pluralistic democracy that would replace the old dictatorship.
These four organizations had the moral authority and political credibility required to achieve constitutional democracy, but they also took three practical steps to enable their success. They made regular compromises among those in authority, including rotating power and voluntarily relinquishing the premiership; ensured that major decisions reflected inclusive consultations among all political actors and the public; and patiently phased in all major steps toward their democracy. [Continue reading…]
Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.
That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.
It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”
“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]
As Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Noah Feldman writes: All dictatorships aren’t created equal. The Tunisian regimes from 1957 to 2011 drastically limited basic rights, and jailed and tortured opponents. High-level corruption was endemic. Yet unlike the dictators in Egypt or Syria or Iraq, these regimes worked out a complex relationship with civil society institutions, allowing them to organize in exchange for their willingness to live with the regime. Protests by the labor union took place under Ben Ali, and supporters of the union will sometimes say they laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring protests.
At the same time, civil society alone can’t account for the Tunisian exception. Some credit also goes to a culture of political consensus. During my multiple visits Tunisia to observe the constitutional process, I was constantly told by the delegates that they felt a powerful impulse from the expectations of their constituents that they reach a result the overwhelming majority of Tunisians could live with.
The origins of political culture are always hard to pin down, and Tunisia’s need for consensus is no exception. But it’s probably fair to say that the revolutionary period against France helped create a sense of national unity. Tunisia is very small, which can contribute to a sense of collective identity. (But doesn’t always: see Lebanon.)
Tunisia also has the legacy of the first constitution in any Arabic speaking country, dating back to 1861. Although I was frequently struck by how little the delegates referred to that history, nonetheless it shows that at least the idea of elite cohesion in a fundamental agreement has deep roots.
But the most decisive feature of the Tunisian exception, arguably slighted by the Nobel committee, is that the potential for conflict between secularists and Islamists was reined in repeatedly by acts of compromise and realistic negotiation on both sides. Key to this process was Rashid Ghannouchi, an Islamic democrat who went from being an important theorist of how Islam can be compatible with democracy to the leader of the movement and party known as Ennahda, the Renaissance.
At several crucial moments, Ennahda under Ghannouchi chose to pursue concession rather than going for a maximal role for Islam in the constitution. After protests in 2012, Ennahda decided to remove Shariah from its constitutional draft or ideology. And after the killing of prominent leftists led to further protests and crisis, Ennahda, which had been democratically elected as the plurality party in the assembly, agreed to resign from the government.
As for the secularists, they deserve credit for treating Ennahda as a genuine, legitimate, democratically elected political force. [Continue reading…]
The Economist reports: If you believe Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, his country will take a final step towards democracy later this month, when voters start the process of choosing a new parliament. The previous one, freely elected and dominated by Islamists, was dissolved by the supreme court in 2012. The intervening period has seen Mr Sisi, then a general, oust an elected president, win an election himself and crush his opponents with violence and draconian laws passed by decree.
Contrary to his rhetoric, Mr Sisi has set Egyptian democracy back. Yet the forces behind Egypt’s revolution in 2011—when the previous strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in a popular revolt—have shown scant ability and often little inclination to keep the country on a more democratic path. Most of Egypt’s so-called liberals supported the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, the former president, in 2013 on the grounds that his Muslim Brotherhood was itself undermining democracy. Many then stayed mum as Mr Sisi’s troops slaughtered protesting Islamists. Tarnished by this history, riven by infighting and lacking broad appeal, the liberals now appear helpless to check Egypt’s slide back to authoritarianism.
A common lament of liberals is that, having preserved democracy with his coup, Mr Sisi then stifled their voices. Indeed, liberal activists and politicians have been hounded by the security services, pilloried in the media and constrained by government restrictions on protests and NGOs. The regime often justifies the oppression on security grounds, while making the occasional cosmetic gesture, such as releasing 100 political prisoners last month. Thousands more languish in jail. [Continue reading…]
(H/t Danny Postel)
Frederic Wehrey writes: In the crowded trauma room of a threadbare hospital, a procession of bedraggled soldiers files in, bearing a grim catalogue of wounds: shrapnel in the neck, gunshots to the chest, burned legs. Fierce fighting erupted here last week as a coalition of army, police, tribal militias and neighborhood volunteer forces launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Doom” to evict jihadist and Islamic State forces from their strongholds.
It is a battle that many residents say has been largely forgotten and misconstrued by the international community. As Libya’s rival governments — an internationally recognized one based in the eastern city in Tobruk and another in the western capital of Tripoli — debate the final draft of a United Nations-brokered peace plan, the mood in Benghazi is one of skepticism and distrust. People here believe the U.N. talks are meant to legitimize Islamists in Tripoli, whom they accuse of supporting Benghazi’s jihadist forces.
At a rally I attended for two slain activists, the eastern government’s minister for culture and media struck a defiant note, lambasting the United States Navy for waiting offshore but doing nothing against the Islamic State, and accusing Israel of supplying weapons to the jihadists. The audience roared with applause when he mentioned the name of Operation Doom’s architect: Gen. Khalifa Hifter. [Continue reading…]
Nouriel Roubini writes: With the US on the way to achieving energy independence, there is a risk that America and its Western allies will consider the Middle East less strategically important. That belief is wishful thinking: a burning Middle East can destabilize the world in many ways.
First, some of these conflicts may yet lead to an actual supply disruption, as in 1973, 1979, and 1990. Second, civil wars that turn millions of people into refugees will destabilize Europe economically and socially, which is bound to hit the global economy hard. And the economies and societies of frontline states like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already under severe stress from absorbing millions of such refugees, face even greater risks.
Third, prolonged misery and hopelessness for millions of Arab young people will create a new generation of desperate jihadists who blame the West for their despair. Some will undoubtedly find their way to Europe and the US and stage terrorist attacks.
So, if the West ignores the Middle East or addresses the region’s problems only through military means (the US has spent $2 trillion in its Afghan and Iraqi wars, only to create more instability), rather than relying on diplomacy and financial resources to support growth and job creation, the region’s instability will only worsen. Such a choice would haunt the US and Europe – and thus the global economy – for decades to come. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: For more than a year, Libyans have been watching their politicians shuttle between foreign capitals on rounds of peace talks, workshops and conferences in search of a solution to the worsening chaos at home. At one recent event in the Tunisian capital, frustrations at the slow progress were evident in the heartfelt questions and statements from the Libyan refugees in the audience.
“We are a small country, and we need help,” Ahmed Werfalli, a businessman and activist, told the American ambassador during one panel discussion. “We were united against dictatorship, and now we are killing each other.”
Libyans are struggling with a problem that typically emerges after a bloody regime change: how to reassemble a functioning country after its brittle, autocratic and repressive government has been fractured and replaced with warring factions.
Many Libyans have taken refuge in neighboring Tunisia, forced out by the violence and doubting that the main protagonists will end their power struggle, even if a United Nations-sponsored peace agreement is signed soon. They are calling for greater international involvement to help end the conflict. [Continue reading…]
International Business Times reports: Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s name is well-known in eastern Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of the country’s Shia minority and the scene of a burgeoning protest movement.
Ali, 21, is the nephew of Shia cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was jailed and sentenced to death for his fiery speeches against Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud dynasty, which has controlled the Arabian Peninsula since the 1930s. Sheikh al-Nimr was detained and then sentenced to death on terrorism charges as well as “waging war on God” for his speech during anti-government protests in Qatif, a city that saw massive street protests followed by a bloody crackdown by the Saudi authorities in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Most of the 2.7 million Shia in Saudi Arabia live in al-Ahsa and al-Qatif districts in the country’s eastern province, which also contains the bulk of the kingdom’s oil. Ruled by a Sunni monarchy and under a strict interpretation of Islam, Wahabbism, Shia are often portrayed as heretics or agents of Riyadh’s major rival, Iran. [Continue reading…]
Thanassis Cambanis writes: Early in the Tahrir Square revolution, a group of retired Egyptian generals sat poolside at Cairo’s Gezira Club and worried about whether the country’s ruling elite could survive a popular uprising. It was February 2011, a week before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Millions of freshly politicized Egyptians had already taken to the streets. And yet, some of these career security men were unfazed.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets. [Continue reading…]
Basheer Nafi writes: In spite of mounting evidence that the Iranian influence was in decline, many concluded that the nuclear agreement would provide the Iranian expansionist project with what it needs to become an invincible power. So, where is the fault in the reading of the Iranian expansionist project, or in Tehran’s own assessment of its power?
This, first of all, is the Middle East, the post-World War I Middle East, where power equations do not last for long and where the underpinnings of power keep changing just like quick sand. It is true that the Iranian expansion coincided with American failings in the Middle East, followed by a relative American withdrawal, as well as a decline of the regional Egyptian and Saudi influence; but it has also coincided with an active Turkish return to the neighbouring Middle East.
Additionally, it is true that the fall of the Taliban and Saddam regimes was quite swift, but it is also true that the Iraqi resistance to the occupation did not wait long before emerging, and that the Taliban were soon to regroup and lead the resistance against the occupation and its allies in Kabul. The problem with the Iranian expansionist project, right from the start, was that it did not take into consideration the continuously changing nature of the map of power and influence in the region.
Secondly, the Iranians chose in most of their expansionist steps to stand by the minorities, whether political or sectarian, in the face of the majority, not only the majority in every single country but also the majority at the level of the region as a whole.
The peoples of the region were, for several decades, viewing Iran with admiration and sympathy, especially when Iranian policy was characterised with standing by the people and their aspirations. Yet, Iran was changing rapidly, where nationalistic and sectarian ambitions replaced the policies of pan-Islamic solidarity. Iran encouraged the emergence of a sectarian hegemonic regime in Iraq, and put its entire weight behind the continuation of the hegemony of a sectarian and political minority over Syria and its people.
It also supported the foolish Houthi plot to seize control of Yemen. Without a single exception, Iran’s regional policies were to generate civil wars and ethnic and sectarian cleansing, not to mention the tragic destruction of peoples and their resources. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: [Regional] destruction is painfully visible every day in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, and Yemen, at the very least. This spectacle of multiple fragmenting states is bad enough; it is made even worse by the latest troubling development — it is too early to call it a trend — which is the spectacle of repeated bomb attacks and killings of government officials and security forces in three of the most important regional powers that should be stabilizing forces in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the ongoing war in Yemen, and the erratic battle against “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria, Iraq and other tiny pockets of ISIS presence around the region, the massive refugee flows and the stresses they cause, and the dangerous sectarian dimensions of some of the confrontations underway, and we end up with a very complex and violent regional picture that cannot possibly be explained primarily as a consequence of Iranian-Saudi rivalries.
A more complete explanation of the battered Arab region today must include accounting for several other mega-tends: the impact of the last twenty-fix years of non-stop American military attacks, threats and sanctions from Libya to Afghanistan; the radicalizing impact of sixty-seven years of non-stop Zionist colonization and militarism against Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs; the hollowing out of Arab economic and governance systems by three generations of military-led, amateurish and corruption-riddled mismanaged governance that deprived citizens of their civic and political rights and pushed them to assert instead the primacy of their sectarian and tribal identities; and, the catalytic force of the 2003 Anglo-American led war on Iraq that opened the door for all these forces and others yet — like lack of water, jobs, and electricity that make normal daily life increasingly difficult — to combine into the current situation of widespread national polarization and violence.
Most of these drivers of the current regional condition have little to do with Iranian-Saudi sensitivities, and much more to do with decades of frail statehood, sustained and often violent Arab authoritarianism, denied citizenship, distorted development, and continuous regional and global assaults. [Continue reading…]
When a car bomb detonated outside a security building in Cairo on August 20 it marked a new turn in the long-running series of violent attacks on the Egyptian capital. The explosion wounded approximately 27 people, six of whom are policemen, but there appear to have been no deaths.
The attack has been claimed by a group calling itself the Sinai Province (SP) which is affiliated to Islamic State (IS). SP has stated that the bomb was in response to the execution of six of its members accused of a similar attack in Cairo last year. Though there were no deaths this time, the quickening rate of such attacks shows that al-Sisi’s measures against terrorism have been grossly ineffective.
This bomb is in fact the latest of a long series of violent attacks that focus particularly on Egyptian police and security forces, which since 2013 have gradually moved from the Sinai province to the country’s capital.
Most of these recent blasts have been claimed by the Islamist militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis based in the Sinai desert, which also identifies itself as a branch of IS under the name Sinai Peninsula (SP).
This unprecedented attack speaks to the explosive growth of Egypt’s array of insurgent forces and their violent opposition to al-Sisi, which the state’s authoritarian security measures have failed to curb.
Omar Ashour writes: “His leg is broken. I cannot leave him here,” said a doctor in makeshift hospital in Rabaa al-Adawiya square to a special forces officer.
“Don’t worry. I will break his heart,” replied the officer before putting a bullet in the injured protester’s chest.
After several national security meetings in July and August of 2013, a group of military, intelligence, police generals and civilian politicians appointed by the military, decided to storm massive sit-ins in Cairo’s Rabaa and Giza’s Nahda squares protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president on July 3, 2013.
The exact death toll of the crackdown is still unknown.
This is partly due to the nature of the current political climate and the hurdles imposed by the ruling regime on collecting data about the massacres.
But this is also due to other factors, such as burned dead bodies and fears of victims’ families of going to the morgues or hospitals.
Following the massacre, the health ministry claimed that over 600 people were killed.
The Muslim Brotherhood maintained the death toll was over 2,500.
Human Rights Watch estimated the death toll to be over 1,000.
And everything happened in less than 10 hours. [Continue reading…]