Egypt now looks a lot like it did in 2010, just before 2011 unrest

Michele Dunne and Nik Nevin write: Egypt of December 2015 is looking a lot like Egypt of late 2010 and the final months of Hosni Mubarak‘s three-decade rule. The country’s longtime military president had little political sophistication; then as now, there were struggles between the military and businessmen for economic and political power, human rights abuses, economic woes, and jihadi groups in the Sinai. But today, these things appear more pronounced.

The membership and mission of the recently elected 598-seat House of Representatives bear similarities to the parliament chosen a few months before the January 2011 uprising, but each is more exaggerated. Other developments in Egypt echo the dysfunction of 2010, raising questions about whether another upheaval might be brewing. [Continue reading…]

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The war on freedom of expression across the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: It is useful to spot meaningful patterns that help us make sense of our bewildering world, and to acknowledge positive developments to be continued alongside negative ones to be avoided.

Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region. This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.

Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is practiced by all states in the region—Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish—leaving few people in this part of the world who can live as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express, without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey, and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a “war on terror” that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat of political violence. [Continue reading…]

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Meltdowns, crises and ISIS: A terrible year in the Middle East

By Simon Mabon, Lancaster University

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Arab Uprisings, it’s hard to remember the days of popular protests, of democratic revolutions and of dreams of a better future that rocked the Middle East in 2011. Nearly five years on, tensions between rulers and the ruled have exploded across the region – and the ensuing struggles for survival have continued to take all manner of ugly forms.

At the centre of things, the Syrian conflict has deepened – and while the brutality of Islamic State (IS) has been responsible for much of the recent chaos and tragedy across Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for seven times as many Syrian deaths as IS. Assad’s position was strengthened by continued support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, antagonising powerful states in the West and the Gulf – particularly Saudi Arabia. The Gulf states also faced domestic threats from IS, with the group carrying out a number of attacks on Shia sites and communities across the region.

The Syrian conflict became ever more internationalised in 2015. The number of foreign fighters on the ground – on all sides – continued to grow, while on the diplomatic level, the Vienna talks tried to resolve the seemingly intractable conflict – though they have yet to yield any decisive action.

The task of dealing with IS was further complicated by a batch of new wilayats, groups who declared allegiance to IS. Wilayat Sinai in particular was purportedly responsible for a range of acts, allegedly including a massive bomb attack in Cairo and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

[Read more…]

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The West in the Arab world and the flight from complexity

Peter Harling and Alex Simon write: To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object — a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions.

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris — acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory.

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors — cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy.

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind of all this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism” — whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. [Continue reading…]

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The cost of the suppression of the Arab Spring

How many mass movements in search of political rights would have been pronounced failures if success had to be established in just five years?

The quest for women’s rights has continued throughout human history and continues today.

Palestinians, Kurds, Tibetans, Kashmiris, and numerous other groups of indigenous peoples have for many decades campaigned and fought for their rights, often with very limited success.

But when it comes to the Arab Spring, those who stand to lose most from the expansion of political rights across the region, are now — not surprisingly — only too eager to pronounce it an expensive failure.

The idea that it might have been better to stay home and stay quiet, will all too easily resonate among the millions of people who have suffered the effects of the suppression of the Arab Spring.

As some of the region’s autocratic rulers and their advisers gathered in Dubai this week and soberly measured the “cost of the Arab Spring,” they should also — had they been honest — have been celebrating the rise of ISIS.

From Dubai to Tehran and from Riyadh to Cairo, it has been ISIS that has saved the day. The Arab Strategy Forum should have invited Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their guest of honor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not promoting any of the conspiracy theories about ISIS being the creation of a foreign government (be that the Saudis, the Turks, the Israelis, or the Americans — which of those being the culprit would depend merely on who the proponent such a theory sees as the worst enemy).

ISIS saved the day through its savagery by convincing nearly everyone else that political stability is worth more than any kind of political freedom.

Much as it will often be repeated that the need to destroy ISIS has never been more urgent, those whose rule is currently being legitimized by ISIS’s existence will be quite content for this war to be a valiant fight that sees no end.

And those blinkered by the conviction that the U.S. government is the architect of all the world’s afflictions, need to recognize that conflict in the Middle East is now being driven from many engine rooms — in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, Jerusalem, Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Beirut, Raqqa and elsewhere — in pursuit of incompatible agendas.

Among those costs, the greatest are not measured in dollars — the numbers of casualties and refugees. And these are not costs of the Arab Spring; they are, above all, the cost of the Assad regime’s refusal to respect the rights of the Syrian people.

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Five years after Bouazizi, the Arab Spring isn’t over

Faisal Al Yafai writes: Without a doubt no one expected this. Five years ago this week, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a small Tunisian town, no one, absolutely no one, could have imagined the Middle East would look like it does today.

The Middle East has been living with the reality of the Arab Spring and, in some countries, the post-Arab Spring for nearly half a decade, to the point where it has become the new normal. It can be hard to remember what it was like before.

Hardly surprising, then, that the Arab Spring divides opinion. The progression of the revolutions in each of the five countries have gone in very different directions. Some, like Egypt, have found themselves back on track. Tunisia, where it started, is doing well. Libya, Yemen and Syria, much less so.

In situations of such cruelty and complexity, it is easy to imagine that what existed before was better. That the revolutions, as some would have it, “failed”.

And, certainly, looking at the dire situation for ordinary Syrians, watching as ISIL attacks Kurds and Yazidis, or as ordinary Libyans and Yemenis suffer in countries without the rule of law, looking back to a period of stability is seductive.

But it is worth recalling that the Arab Spring wasn’t an event. It wasn’t a single, static moment. It was months and years of decisions, of responses, of actions and reactions.

If the Arab Spring revolutions didn’t always turn out better for the people, that isn’t the fault of those who revolted for a better world. It’s often the fault of those who spent money, manpower and bullets to prevent that world coming about. [Continue reading…]

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On the need to listen to Arab public opinion

Commenting on the results of a recent Zogby poll of over 7,400 adults in six Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), Turkey, and Iran, Rami G. Khouri writes: As expected, people in Iraqi are divided on their views of their own national institutions and regional players’ actions in their country. Sunnis mostly lack confidence in the Iraqi military, Iran’s involvement, or the Popular Mobilization Units that are fighting “Islamic State” (ISIS), while Iraqi Shiites support the actions of all these. The more significant finding, however, is the “remarkable consensus” on two important issues: that the cause of the conflict in Iraq is that, “the government in Baghdad does not represent all Iraqis,” and that, “the best way to ultimately resolve the conflict…is forming a more inclusive representative government” — and not partition, with the Kurds also supporting such a representative central government.

I would guess that this Iraqi desire for inclusive, representative governance within a unified national framework is mirrored in most Arab countries that are wracked by war and sectarian tensions, like Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria. Ordinary citizens probably hold much more rational and constructive views on how to resolve those conflicts than the warlords and officials, not to mention foreign powers that now mostly shape policy.

The poll found that ISIS was mentioned as the most serious extremist problem facing the region in every country except Jordan, where Al-Qaeda is ranked first. More interestingly — and significant for counter-terrorism purposes — is that in most countries polled citizens identified, “corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments” and, “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas” as the most important causes of religious extremism. [Continue reading…]

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Extinguishing the flames of the Arab Spring

Al Jazeera reports: Five years ago today, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire outside a local municipal office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid to protest against police corruption – a solitary act that would set off a stunning chain of events throughout the Arab world.

In the years since Bouazizi’s death, Tunisia has gone through tremendous change. After street protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile after two decades of his rule, Tunisia adopted a new constitution and held national elections in 2014.

Earlier this month, the country’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for assisting Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

But despite the changes that have taken place around them, residents of Sidi Bouzid say their lives are no better than they were before the uprising.

“Before the toppling of the regime of Ben Ali, we had hopes,” Ramzi Abdouli, 29, a graduate from Sidi Bouzid, told Al Jazeera. “We thought that maybe when Ben Ali left our reality would change. Unfortunately, it was not the case.”

Like many of Tunisia’s youth, Abdouli participated in the 2010-2011 protests, hoisting banners against the regime. Even after Ben Ali was deposed, Abdouli marched more than 250km from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis in April 2012 to reiterate demands for social justice and employment.

Today, via social media, he remains a relentless critic of the current government and its political affairs – and is pessimistic about the years ahead. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS emerged out of the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring

Adam Hanieh writes: In the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, much of the Left has linked the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the deepening imperialist violence in the Middle East.

War and imperialism, on one side, and the growing reach of jihadist terrorism, on the other, are said to be locked together in a mutually reinforcing embrace of violence and destruction. “Imperialist cruelty and Islamist cruelty feed each other,” the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) argued shortly after the Paris attacks. In order to break this nihilistic death grip, we need to oppose foreign intervention, put an end to imperialist violence, and halt the ongoing plunder of wealth from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

The basic logic of this argument is undoubtedly sound. But in terms of explanatory value, this kind of analysis does not go far enough. It suffers from too much generality and abstractness — telling us little about the specificity of this particular moment, or the nature of ISIS as a movement. By attributing a kind of automaticity or natural mirror between ISIS and imperialism, we can miss the all-important context and history that has shaped the remarkably rapid rise of the organization.

Why does the response to Western aggression and the calamitous situations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the region take this particular ideological and political form? What explains the support that ISIS finds on the ground in both the Arab world and Europe? In short: why now? And why like this?

The real genesis of the Islamic State’s rise needs to be seen in the trajectory of the Arab uprisings that erupted throughout 2011 and 2012. These uprisings represented enormous hope, a hope that must continue to be defended. They were met with repression and reversal, unable to move forward in any fundamental sense. It was into this breach that Islamist groups stepped, their rise closely calibrated to the pushback against the revolts and the popular democratic aspirations that they embodied.

There was no inevitability to this. Rather, the difficulties the uprisings faced created a vacuum that was necessarily filled by something else. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS recruitment thrives in Egypt’s brutal prisons

Murtaza Hussain reports: While in jail [in Cairo], [Mohamed] Soltan [a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America] says he witnessed the recruitment efforts of Islamic State members. “There were people from across the spectrum of Egyptian society in jail: liberals, Muslim Brotherhood members, leftists, Salafis, and some people who had pledged allegiance to ISIS,” Soltan says. “Everyone felt depressed and betrayed, except for the ISIS guys. They walked around with this victorious air and had this patronizing and condescending attitude towards everyone else.”

Among the facilities in which Soltan was incarcerated was the notorious Tora Prison, where he was kept in an underground dungeon with dozens of other prisoners. Between regular beatings, humiliation, and torture by guards, the prisoners would talk to one another. In this grim environment, ISIS members would attempt to convince others of the justice of their cause. “The ISIS guys would come and tell everyone these nonviolent means don’t work, that Western countries only care about power and the Egyptian regime only understands force,” Soltan says. “They would say that the world didn’t respect you enough to think you deserve democracy, and now the man who killed your friends is shaking hands with international leaders who are all arming and funding his regime.”

While the other political factions represented in Egypt’s jails grappled with a seemingly hopeless situation, Islamic State members were consistently filled with hope and optimism, citing a steady stream of “good news” about their state-building project in Iraq, Syria and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Soltan says.

When the prisoners would discuss their circumstances, even avowed leftists found themselves unable to rebut Islamic State members’ arguments. “They would make very simple arguments telling us that the world doesn’t care about values and only understands violence,” says Soltan. “Because of the gravity of the situation they were all in, by the time the ISIS guys were finished speaking, everyone, the liberals, the Brotherhood people, would be left completely speechless. When you’re in that type of situation and don’t have many options left, for some people these kinds of ideas start to make sense.” [Continue reading…]

The headline for this article in The Intercept reads: “ISIS RECRUITMENT THRIVES IN BRUTAL PRISONS RUN BY U.S.-BACKED EGYPT” — as though the phrase “U.S.-backed” is the only reliable hook for the publication’s readers.

Yes, the fact that the Obama administration continues to provide military aid to the Sisi regime in spite of its appalling human rights record is inexcusable. What this otherwise excellent report neglects to mention, however, is that Sisi’s most generous supporters been Gulf states — driven by their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And while the U.S. has a terrible track record in supporting authoritarian rule across the Middle East, blame for the stifling of representative government needs to be apportioned more widely, including the roles played by Russia, Iran, the UK, and other European powers.

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Darkness in the Arab Spring’s brightest spot, Tunisia

The Atlantic reports: Last month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee bestowed the world’s most prestigious prize upon The Quartet, a body consisting of four Tunisian groups, whose work helped ensure a peaceful democratic transition in Tunisia in 2013.

In its statement, the Nobel Committee paid homage to Tunisia’s successes in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, but also acknowledged that the country still “faces significant political, economic, and security challenges.”

As Tunisia tries to endure as the birthplace of the Arab Spring and its golden child, violence keeps interrupting. Back in March, 23 people died in a terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in the capital city of Tunis and, in July, 38 tourists were killed when a gunman opened fire at a beach in Sousse. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State.

On Tuesday, not far from the Bardo Museum, an explosion killed a dozen Tunisian presidential guards and wounded several others on a bus in the central part of the capital. No group has claimed responsibility yet, but following the attack, President Beji Caid Essebsi reinstated the country’s state of emergency, which had been lifted in October, and set a curfew. The violence comes just one week after Tunisia’s interior ministry boasted that security forces had foiled a major plot against a number of targets when it broke up a heavily armed terrorist cell in the country. [Continue reading…]

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The new protest movements are paying a high price for their anti-institutional ethos

Ivan Krastev writes: Shortly after Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup in Paris, five of the greatest political minds in Europe hustled to their writing desks to capture the meaning of the events.

The five were very different people. Karl Marx was a Communist. Pierre Joseph Proudhon an anarchist. Victor Hugo, the most popular French poet of his time, a romantic. And Alexis de Tocqueville and Walter Bagehot were liberals. Their interpretations of the coup were as different as their philosophies. But in the manner of the man who mistook his wife for a hat, they all mistook the end of Europe’s three-year revolutionary wave for its beginning.

Has the Western media made the same mistake in recent years? Are its interpretations of the global wave of popular protests — spontaneous, leaderless, nonviolent, which Thomas Friedman memorably described as the rise of the “square people” — similarly off-base? It seems so: Just take the stunning and unexpected victory of the governing Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., in Turkey’s parliamentary elections last week. [Continue reading…]

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How those who cling to ‘stability’ end up fueling terrorism

Mohamad Bazzi writes: In Sisi, the House of Saud found a new strongman for Egypt. Sisi had served as an Egyptian military attaché to Saudi Arabia, and as he led the crackdown against the Brotherhood, the kingdom became his most important sponsor. The Sauds provided more than $12 billion to keep the Egyptian economy afloat, and they pressed two other Gulf monarchies, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to pledge more aid. Since the coup, Sisi’s regime has received over $30 billion in support from the three Gulf monarchies.

A series of leaked audio recordings of Sisi and other top generals showed that the Emirates had provided funds to the Egyptian military to finance the protest campaign against Morsi. “Sir, we will need 200 tomorrow from Tamarod’s account—you know, the part from the UAE, which they transferred,” Sisi’s chief of staff, General Abbas Kamel, tells another general, later clarifying that he means 200,000 Egyptian pounds — about $30,000. At the time, the group that led the popular protests, Tamarod (Arabic for “Rebellion”), was portrayed in much of the Arab and Western press as a grassroots campaign that emerged spontaneously to agitate against Morsi’s misrule. After the coup, one recording captured Sisi instructing Kamel to keep billions of dollars in Saudi and other Gulf aid in accounts controlled by the defense ministry, rather than the civilian government. On other recordings, Sisi and his fellow generals can be heard snickering at their Gulf patrons and how easy it is to demand large sums from them. “Why are you laughing?” Sisi asks his chief of staff. “They have money like rice, man!”

In another recording, Sisi sounds incredulous of the sums he and the generals have received from their Gulf allies. “No, no, no! It’s not $8 billion in six months, no!” he says, before one of his deputies convinces him they have received a total of over $30 billion. “May God continue providing!” Sisi responds.

Today, Sisi’s regime can continue its crackdown with impunity partly because the United States and other world powers made clear that they favor stability over democracy. Much of the West accepted the coup and has remained largely silent about the sham trials and mass death sentences being handed down by the Egyptian judiciary. The United States provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid each year, but it has been reluctant to use that as leverage against the Egyptian regime. Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has substantively criticized Sisi’s dictatorship. [Continue reading…]

An editorial in the New York Times says: Viewing its alliance with Egypt as too crucial to fail, the Obama administration has done too little to confront the Sisi government’s expanding authoritarianism. Congress has continued to award Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid each year, despite ample evidence that its armed forces commit human rights abuses with impunity. The Obama administration and other Western governments have sought to nudge the Egyptian government to protect civil liberties with gentle public admonishments.

That approach is clearly not working. Egypt desperately needs international investment and deeply values its military relationship with the United States. Trade and military aid should be conditioned on clear signs that the government will respect freedom of expression and what’s left of the country’s civil society. [Continue reading…]

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How the West’s unwillingness to support pro-democracy activists has empowered ISIS

Samira Shackle reports on Mohamed Soltan’s incarceration in Egypt and his ongoing struggle to promote democracy: Finally, in May this year, physically frail and psychologically pressured, Soltan was deported to the US. He had given up his Egyptian citizenship, making him eligible for a presidential decree that allows for the deportation of foreign prisoners. Before leaving prison, Soltan was not allowed to say goodbye to his father, who is on death row.

Since then, Soltan has dedicated himself to speaking out, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to argue that western security interests are at stake. “The Egyptian regime is not facing any real substantial consequences for escalating repression. The non-violent opposition is not rewarded for maintaining its non-violence. The longer we’re turning a blind eye and being silent about this, the more likely folks inside prison will adopt more extremist ideas.”

For a time during his incarceration, Soltan shared a cell with Isis and Al-Qaeda militants. “They walked around with a victorious air: ‘look, you idiots, your model doesn’t work’. There’s a growing disbelief in freedom and democracy amongst moderate Islamists. Literally daily, things are happening that is proving the very simple arguments the Isis guys were making. You are facing so much oppression and there’s no outlet for it, no dialogue, no space for political dissent. People feel continuingly abandoned by the international community, which is legitimising this coup and giving it everything it needs to thrive.” [Continue reading…]

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Egyptians revolted against not only Mubarak and his cronies but a whole tyrannical state dripping in blood

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…]

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