Renowned philosopher to head Kifaya movement

A few days ago, Kifaya announced that George Ishaq, its general coordinator for the last two year, will be stepping down. His replacement is Abdel Wahab al-Messiri, a renowned philosopher best-known for his Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism — the most comprehensive and serious study of these issues in Arabic. When I first read about this a couple of days ago in the Daily Star, I couldn’t believe it. Al-Messiri is a heavy caliber academic known, among other things, for being a critic of Arab anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial (although there is some controversy on his views on the Holocaust and Zionism, since he is an anti-Zionist, but I am not familiar with the arguments – update). He has lectured widely in the West, notably the US. This would suggest a major change in Kifaya’s direction is possible.

I spoke to al-Messiri briefly a few minutes ago — he confirmed the appointment but declined to give me an interview before Kifaya drafts its new policy next week. (Watch this space.) I haven’t been reading a lot of Arabic newspapers for the past week so it’s quite possible I missed coverage in Arabic, but the Daily Star and other English-language outlets have not really grasped the potential significance of al-Messiri’s appointment.

Last month, Kifaya, a rag-tag collection of socialist, Nasserist, anti-globalisation and human rights activists, held a protest on to celebrate its two-year anniversary. As per usual, a small number of demonstrators were pinned down to the Press Syndicate building, outnumbered by Central Security Forces by at least five to one. The protest was a far cry from the founding outing of Kifaya, on 12 December 2004, which marked the birth of the first overtly anti-Mubarak non-violent movement. Although that protest was even smaller, it was groundbreaking in that it was Egypt’s first movement that overtly campaigned against President Hosni Mubarak’s re-election and against the prospect of an inheritance of power scenario for his son Gamal.

Over the next year, Kifaya jolted the Egyptian political class out of its complacency and pushed back the margins for political activity. Its message, that Egyptians had enough (“kifaya” in Arabic) of poor governance and one-man rule, reverberated across the country and was partly embraced by Egypt’s traditionally cautious opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal parties such as al-Ghad.

Fast forward two years later and Kifaya seems to be heading nowhere. Its primary goal, preventing Mubarak’s re-election, has clearly failed and Gamal Mubarak’s ascendancy continues. Kifaya never reached enough critical mass to become a genuine popular movement, with the same activist faces seen at most protests. It has tried to widen its campaign to include social issues such as rising prices, unemployment and poverty, but to no avail. Neither political party nor underground revolutionary movement, Kifaya has stagnated.

In early December, Egyptian newspapers reported that at least seven senior figures in the movement quit over what they say is the dominance of Kifaya by a few personalities. While this will have a negative impact on its organisational efforts, core Kifaya members are frequently members of several groups and may redirect their efforts towards other activities, such as supporting activists or taking an interest in opposition party politics, since several left-wing parties are expected to undergo a change of leadership early next year. Another alternative is the establishment of new specialized institutions, such as the “Union of the Unemployed” created in mid-December, that campaign on specific issues.

It will be interesting to see what al-Messiri’s leadership brings to Kifaya.

Also read: a 1999 profile of al-Messiri by Fayza Hassan.

al-Masri al-Youm’s recent coverage

I noted a while back that my friend/former boss Hisham Kassem had left his position as executive publisher of al-Masri al-Youm, the independent daily newspaper he launched in 2004 and that went on to become the premier source of reporting in Egypt. Many people have asked me if it has had any impact on al-Masri al-Youm’s editorial line. I have not noticed anything special, except that these days it seems al-Masri seems to run a front-page article about a stories on Egypt that appear in foreign media nearly every day. Today’s it’s a negative FT report that touches on the Gamal/succession issue. Before that there was an Economist article, and before that a Carnegie Endowment report (and there have been others I can’t remember.)

What’s the bloody point? Al-Masri does a great service by doing original reporting. Who cares what other publications are saying? Why is it worth prominent placement? I hope this isn’t an indicator of a loss of quality.

Uri Avnery: Israel poisoned Arafat

More signs that Arafat was murdered by Israel with US collusion. I wonder if the UN will ask for an international investigation like it did over Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in Lebanon.

If Arafat were still alive
Israel should take no comfort from inter-Arab conflicts. Peace depends on Palestinian unity

Uri Avnery
Wednesday January 31, 2007
The Guardian

‘If Arafat were alive…” One hears this phrase increasingly often in conversations with Palestinians, and also with Israelis and foreigners. “If Arafat were alive, what’s happening now in Gaza wouldn’t be happening…” “If Arafat were alive, we would have somebody to talk with…” “If Arafat were alive, Islamic fundamentalism would not have won among the Palestinians and would have lost some force in the neighbouring countries!”

In the meantime, the unanswered questions come up again: how did Yasser Arafat die? Was he murdered?

On the way back from Arafat’s funeral in 2004, I ran into Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli Knesset. I asked him if he believed that Arafat was murdered. Zahalka, a doctor of pharmacology, answered “Yes!” without hesitation. That was my feeling too. But a hunch is not proof. It is only a product of intuition, common sense and experience.

Recently we got a kind of confirmation. Just before he died last month, Uri Dan, Ariel Sharon’s loyal mouthpiece for almost 50 years, published a book in France. It includes a report of a conversation Sharon told him about, with President Bush. Sharon asked for permission to kill Arafat and Bush gave it to him, with the proviso that it must be done undetectably. When Dan asked Sharon whether it had been carried out, Sharon answered: “It’s better not to talk about that.” Dan took this as confirmation.

The rest of the piece is about how Israelis should not be gloating over the fighting in the Occupied Territories.

Sawiris enters satellite TV market

Naguib Sawiris, Egypt’s top billionaire and around the 64th richest man in the world, has carried out something he has long been talking about and launched a satellite TV company. From a business briefing I receive:

Mr. Naguib Sawiris announced the launch of a new satellite TV channel with a paid-in capital of USD17 million. The company seeks growth within the regional media production market, and plans to expand its ownership through an IPO once it starts to achieve reasonable profitability.

The FT had done a story on this in May 2006 where Sawiris explained he had political reasons for doing this too:

The head of the Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Holdings, the region’s largest mobile telephone operator, is already majority-owner in two satellite television stations, Melody music and Melody films. He is now starting a third entertainment channel dedicated to young audiences and has applied for a licence to launch a 24-hour satellite news channel for Egypt’s domestic market.

Mr Sawiris is also expecting gradually to turn an Iraqi terrestrial general channel he owns into a broader regional satellite news channel to one day compete with the popular Qatar-based al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya.

The foray into satellite media, a field that, outside al-Jazeera, has been largely dominated by Saudis – Prince Waleed bin Talal, the high-profile international financier, has been building his own satellite media empire – appears to be driven by business as much as political motives.

An outspoken secular businessman, with wealth estimated by Forbes Magazine at $2.6bn (€2bn, £1.4bn), Mr Sawiris wants to win the hearts of Arab youth by promoting a more liberal Arab society.

“When I started Orascom I started a regional activity, and I believe I can replicate the story in media,” he said, on the sidelines of a World Economic Forum conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “Here [in the Middle East], most stations are family-owned, royal-owned or government-owned.”

The only hope for the region, he said, was a change in education to combat religious fundamentalism and extremism: “There is terrorism because they [young people] have nothing to look forward to.”

While his opinion is laudable, I don’t think watching more episodes of Friends is exactly the kind of character-building activity that lures young people away from terrorism. Hopefully, though, it’ll be better than the UAE/Saudi dominated entertainment channels.

New ICG report on Sinai

I haven’t had time to read it yet, but the ICG has just published a very interesting-looking report on Egypt’s Sinai question in light of the three bombings that have taken place there in the past three years and the subsequent indiscriminate crackdown on the Bedouin population:

Thus, beneath the terrorism problem is a more serious and enduring “Sinai question” which the political class has yet to address. Doing so will not be easy. Since this question is partly rooted in wider Middle East crises, above all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a definitive solution depends on their resolution. But the solution also requires the full integration and participation of Sinai’s populations in national political life, which means it is also dependent on significant political reforms in the country as a whole, which are not at present on the horizon.

While a comprehensive solution of the Sinai question cannot be expected soon, the government can and should alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs. A new, properly funded plan, produced in consultation with credible local representatives and involving all elements of the population in implementation, could transform attitudes to the state by addressing Sinai’s grievances.

US judge okays lawsuit against terrorists’ bank

A question to any lawyer types out there: does the decision below set a precedent for any victim of terrorism to sue financial institutions whose clients were involved in those acts of terrorism? Would it apply to other types of violence, including state violence?

A Federal Court Judge in Brooklyn on Tuesday approved a lawsuit filed by victims of terror against the Arab Bank for alleged business links with terrorist organizations.

Judge Nina Gershon accepted the feasibility of the joint claim filed by 1,600 people living in Israel, the U.S. and other countries who were hurt in terrorist attacks orchestrated by some of the bank’s clients.

In their lawsuit, complainants claimed the Arab Bank’s Manhattan branch was used to channel funds to Hamas and other Palestinian militants.

Former CPA official sentenced for fraud

What a scumbag:

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A former American official with the US-led occupation authority in Iraq was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison and forced to forfeit 3.6 million dollars for his role in defrauding the authority.

Robert Stein, 52, pleaded guilty in February 2006 to charges of bribery, money laundering and conspiracy in relation to a plot to defraud the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) which took over running Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Stein, who was arrested in the United States in November 2005 in the case, also pleaded guilty to illegal possession of machine guns in the case heard in the US district court in Washington DC.

The case involved a scheme during 2003-2005 involving several US army and reserve officers and Romania-based US businessman Philip Bloom to rig CPA bids worth 8.6 million dollars in Bloom’s favor. Bloom in turn gave the government officials cash, cars, jewelry, computers, airline tickets, liquor and jobs, according to the Department of Justice.

Stein, a CPA comptroller and funding officer for the CPA’s south central region in al-Hillah, Iraq, stole two million dollars in US currency during the scheme to give to Bloom to launder through foreign accounts to pay off the others, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Where the American dead in Iraq come from

From TomDispatch:

Just over 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq. If the U.S. population is 300 million, then that’s just 0.001% of it. Add into this the fact that the American dead come disproportionately from the most forgotten, least attended to parts of our country, from places that often have lost their job bases; consider that many of them were under or unemployed as well as undereducated, that they generally come from struggling, low-income, low-skills areas. Given that we have an all-volunteer military (so that not even the threat of a draft touches other young Americans), you could certainly say that the President’s war in Iraq — and its harm — has been disproportionately felt. If you live in a rural area, you are simply far more likely to know a casualty of the war than in most major metropolitan areas of the country.

No wonder it’s been easy for so many Americans to ignore such a catastrophic war until relatively recently. This might, in a sense, be considered part of a long-term White House strategy, finally faltering, of essentially fighting two significant wars abroad while demobilizing the population at home. When, for instance, soon after the 9/11 attacks the President urged Americans to go to Disney World or, in December 2006, to go “shopping more” to help the economy, he meant it. We were to go on with our normal lives, untouched by his war.

Not so friendly

When the New York Times covers an incident where three Palestinian students get beat up by footballers at a Quaker college, it uses a lot of quotation marks because it can’t take the event too seriously (e.g. “hate crime.” “ugly incident”) and makes the whole story about “hippies vs. athletes.”

While some students praise Ms. Hamlin as trying to create a safe atmosphere for minority students to voice their concerns after the beatings, others, including friends of several athletes on campus, accuse her and some students of fostering a divisive, fearful atmosphere.

“It’s just driving a wedge between us,” said Emily Bradford, 20, a third-year anthropology, sociology and forensic science major from Hillsborough. “That’s not what Guilford is all about. That’s not what community is all about.”

Even the most ardent activists say the incident has led to a lot of stereotyping and name-calling.

“I have a friend who’s a footballer,” said Casey Thomas, 18, a freshman from Queens. “He wasn’t even here that weekend, but he said someone came up and just cursed him out — lectured him.”

Poor footballers.