هـي آه… بـلدنا لا

Egyptian bloggers will hold a “wedding party” in Talaat Harb Sq., Friday 4 May, 6pm, to celebrate the marriage of our future president Gamal Mubarak to the lovely Khadiga, which will be held simultaneously in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The bloggers’ protest party will be held under the slogan: “Heyya ah! Baladna La!” (basically: Go and marry her, but don’t marry our country!”

Click on the banner below to read more details in Arabic.

وتكون آخر الأ�را�

Mabrouk lil 3aroussein.

Tabler: Shiitization in Syria

My friend Andrew Tabler, the editor of Syria Today and a very knowledgeable guy on all things shami, has a thought-provoking piece in the NY Times Magazine about the “Shiitization”of Syria:

Over the last five years, however, Iranian donors have financed the restoration of half a dozen Shiite tombs and shrines in Syria and built at least one Shiite religious school near Damascus; the school is named after Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, Iran and the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq now sponsor a number of Arabic-language Internet portals as well as satellite TV stations broadcasting Shiite religious programming into Syria.

Direct inquiries into Shiite numbers in Syria raise more questions than answers, as the sensitive topic gives observers complex incentives to round up or down. When I asked Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, leader of Syria’s Shiite community, to estimate the size of his flock, he put it at less than 1 percent of the population of 19 million. Asked the same question, the leader of Syria’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, replied carefully; he said that 6 to 8 percent of Syrians now adhere to the “Jaafari school,” the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by mainstream Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.

It was only when I met an actual convert that the mufti’s words began to make sense. Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam. He changed the wording of his prayers and his posture while praying, holding his arms at his sides instead of before him, and during Ramadan he followed Shiite customs on breaking the fast. In many Middle Eastern countries, his conversion wouldn’t be possible — it would be considered apostasy. The Syrian regime restricts its people’s political liberties, but unlike most other ruling dynasties in the Arab world, it allows freedom of religion. “In Saudi Arabia, they ban books on other faiths,” Louay said. “In Syria, I can buy whatever book on religion I want, and no one can say a word.”

Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.

. . .

Even if Shiitization is at this point as much a rumor as a confirmed fact, the subject is highly charged. It is part of a much larger discussion among Washington’s Sunni allies about the rise of a “Shiite Crescent” — an Iranian-backed alliance stretching westward from Iran to Syria to Lebanon that could challenge the traditional power of Sunni elites. With its Sunni masses and minority Tehran-backed regime, Syria is the weak link in the chain. Many Syrians say they are worried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria; the execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, infuriated many. The conversion of Syrians to Shiism could create still more conflict.

Meanwhile, the regional politics are becoming ever more delicate. Damascus is reportedly unhappy about Iran’s recent dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the future of Lebanon; Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recent peace overtures toward Israel. Both sides denied a rift when Assad visited Tehran in February. But only days later, a group of Syrian intellectuals and parliamentarians loyal to Assad lambasted an Iranian deputy foreign minister in scripted fashion in a closed-door (but widely reported) session. The point of contention? Their unhappiness with what they saw as Iranian support for the Shiitization of Syria.

Sorry for quoting so much it, but I think the article raises a lot of important questions. Is Iran actively trying to convert Sunnis in Syria and other countries? Does it do so alongside its alliance with Syria, and what kind of tension exist between the two policies? What role, if any, does the regime’s mixed Sunni-Alawi nature have in shaping that attitude — in the Alawi community in particular? Is it an issue for other groups in Syria, notably the Muslim Brotherhood? Can we read too much into Iranian efforts to proselytize their faith — after all the US, under domestic pressure from evangelicals, monitors the religious freedom of Christian minority groups across the world and there is a long history of close collaboration between missionaries and the State Department (or indeed missionaries and the European colonial powers).

I am tempted to see any claim that there is a pro-active, widespread Iranian Shiitization program in the region as highly dubious. However, I can certainly understand the appeal of certain forms of Shiism to Sunnis who are living in an increasingly charged religious atmosphere, with Salafist ideas of interpreting the Sunna gaining ever more dominance and extreme concepts such as hesba becoming commonplace in countries like Egypt. The only Sunni convert to Shiism I know “switched” because he was appalled by the growing influence of Wahhabism on mainstream Sunni thought and believed that strand of Islam was heading to the dustbin of history. Andrew’s mention of “easier access” to ijtihad as a Shia is fascinating, and I can understand that might be so in a country where Shias are in a minority — but is it really the case in Iran, where there might be a lot of social pressure to follow this or that mujtahid or marjaa?

Fisk and Heykal

A week or two ago The Independent ran a portrait-interview of Muhammad Hassanein Heykal by Robert Fisk. It was a rather odd piece — an ode of admiration and self-admiration by two aging Middle East hacks who, while arguably important men, are highly divisive figures. I was rather disappointed that Fisk, quite the controversial figure himself (among journos especially), introduced Heykal as follows:

The adviser of Gamal Abdul Nasser, once editor of Al-Ahram – in the days when it was a great Arab newspaper, rather than the government mouthpiece it has become – Mohamed Hasseinein Heikel is the author of some of the most stylishly written historical works on Middle East history, as well as the archivist of the private papers of Nasser himself. “Acerbic” is how Heikel’s friends like to call his bitter criticism of the present Egyptian regime. Devastating might be a better word. I can almost see The Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – who reads The Independent – sighing as he reads the next paragraph.

There’s no dispute that Heykal is important person in modern Egyptian history, but this glosses over that he was minister of propaganda for a regime with pretty totalitarian tendencies and later made himself available to leaders with very different outlooks than Nasser. Also, the man who once cheered for Nasser’s brand of socialism is rather wealthy today — and he might have been back then, if a rumor that I heard that he was the first man in Egypt to own a yacht in the 1970s. Those Cohiba cigars don’t come cheap either. As for al-Ahram not being a mouthpiece then… it pretty much provided the template for the picture-of-the-great-leader-on-every-front-page model that is widely seen across the region now.

Nonetheless, the interview is interesting because Heykal is, well, Heykal: a man from deep inside the establishment with a keen mind and the odd score to settle. His nasty take on Mubarak — at least the bit about security — seems spot on:

“Our President Mubarak lives in a world of fantasy at Sharm el-Sheikh,” Heikel says. “Let us face it, that man was never adjusted to politics. He started to be a politician at the age of 55 when Sadat made him vice president before he was assassinated. Yes, Mubarak was a very good pilot” – he was commander of the Egyptian air force – “but to start off as a politician at the age of 55, that takes a lot of work. His original dream was to have been an ambassador, to be among the “excellencies”. Now it’s been 25 years he’s been president – he’s nearly 80 – and he still can’t take the burdens of state.” I remind Heikel that, shortly before he was assassinated at a military parade in Cairo, Sadat locked him up as a danger to the state and that when the new President Mubarak released him, Heikel was unstoppable in his praise of the man he now condemns. I had found Heikel after his release from prison, closeted with his family in a bedroom of the Meridien Hotel, thin and wasted, his clothes hanging from him after weeks in darkened cells, held alongside Islamists (who impressed him) and thieves. Mubarak had been a shining light to him then, the symbol of a new Egypt, the man who had freed him from captivity. “At that time, I though he [Mubarak] had learnt a lesson,” Heikel says. “I thought that because he had been beside Sadat when he was assassinated, he would have appreciated something. But more than anything else, it taught him ‘security’.”

I was also intrigued by an argument he made further down:

Yet there is still optimism in Heikel. “I think there is something very interesting going on in Egypt, moving under the pressures of society. What is amazing about our students is not the standards of education – it’s their eagerness to acquire knowledge. The effect of mobiles, computers, satellites – there is a generation coming that is outside the traditional controls. Normally, generations recreate themselves. But something else is happening. The police are unable to prevent the political demonstrations. These are not very large – but by using phones, mobiles, the internet, SMS, they are starting a political form of guerrilla warfare in a new medium. Do you know that never before in our history in Egypt was the budget of our army less than the budget of our police? Now it is. What does that tell you?”

There is certainly something to be said about the gist of that last remark — the police and civilian security services appear to be an ever more present force in Egyptian political life, while the army has retreated and is shrouded in mystery. But Heykal’s claim is not true, at least not according to official budget figures:


If you look at that snapshot from the budget, you’ll see that the total expenditure for the military is still much higher. Digging down into the details, though, you’ll see funds are used in very different ways. Of course some of these stats are not very helpful (99% of the military’s spending consists of “other expenditures”), but it’s the only public data to go on. One is impressed however by the fact that “compensation of employees” is much high for the police than the military, as are the “purchases of goods and services” and “subsidies, grants and social benefits.”

Muslim Brothers: so hot right now

As they face one of the biggest crackdowns in decades and the military trial of some of their top funders begins, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers are attracting ever more attention. There is a long piece in the NY Times Magazine — a pretty decent and sympathetic portrait of the group and some of its personalities, even if it is generally inconclusive — that looks at their recent pro-reform parliamentary record and what various members of the group say about issues such as alcohol, Copts, and so on. James Traub, the author of the piece, is working on a book on democracy promotion and it shows: there are references to the Bush administration’s stance towards the MB, which Traub posits as being at odds with the Forward Agenda for Freedom (Bushspeak for democracy promotion.) To me it seems the democracy promotion angle (a US policy issue) is a bit awkwardly tackled to the more general look at the Brothers’ democratic credentials, but of course it’s an interesting issue.

As it has fully entered the political arena, the brotherhood has been forced to come up with clear answers on issues about which it has been notably ambiguous in the past. Some are easy enough: There seems to be little appetite among them for stoning adulterers or lopping off the hands of thieves; and all deprecate the jizya, or tax on nonbelievers, as a relic of an era when only Muslims served in the military. Some are not so easy. I asked Magdy Ashour about the drinking of alcohol, which is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Islamic states. He was quite unfazed. “There is a concept in Shariah that if you commit the sin in private it’s different from committing it in public,” he explained. You can drink in a hotel, but not in the street. This was flexibility verging on pragmatism. I wondered if Ashour, and the other brotherhood candidates, had offered such nuanced judgments on the stump; a number of detractors insist that the group’s campaign rhetoric was much more unabashedly Islamist.

There are, of course, more fundamental questions. In the course of a three-hour conversation in the brotherhood’s extremely modest office in an apartment building in one of Cairo’s residential neighborhoods, I asked Muhammad Habib, the deputy supreme guide, how the brotherhood would react if the Legislature passed a law that violated Shariah. “The People’s Assembly has the absolute right in that situation,” he said, “as long as it is elected in a free and fair election which manifests the people’s will. The Parliament could go to religious scholars and hear their opinion” — as it could seek the advice of economists on economic matters — “but it is not obliged to listen to these opinions.” Some consider grave moral issues, like homosexual marriage, beyond the pale of majoritarianism; others make no such exception. Hassan al-Banna famously wrote that people are the source of authority. This can be understood, if you wish to, as the Islamic version of the democratic credo.

It’s also interesting to see MB rhetoric for why Americans should talk to them:

But why not engage the brotherhood openly? Is what is gained by mollifying the Mubarak regime worth what is lost by forgoing contact with the brotherhood? “Americans,” Essam el-Erian said to me, “must have channels with all the people, not only in politics, but in economics, in social, in everything, if they want to change the image of America in the region.” Of course, that principle applies only up to a point. The administration has, understandably, refused to recognize the democratic bona fides either of Hamas or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the Muslim Brotherhood, for all its rhetorical support of Hamas, could well be precisely the kind of moderate Islamic body that the administration says it seeks. And as with Islamist parties in Turkey and Morocco, the experience of practical politics has made the brotherhood more pragmatic, less doctrinaire. Finally, foreign policy is no longer a rarefied game of elites: public opinion shapes the world within which policy makers operate, and the refusal to deal with Hamas or Hezbollah has made publics in the Islamic world dismiss the whole idea of democracy promotion. Even a wary acceptance of the brotherhood, by contrast, would demonstrate that we take seriously the democratic preferences of Arab voters.

Ultimately, though, what I like best about Traub’s piece are the little vignettes about what it is that Muslim Brotherhood MPs and activists do at the local level. It’s worth reading fully.

While on the topic of the MB, Robert Leiken, the establishment conservative policy type who advocated (with mildly neo-con [edit:see comments] Steven Brooke) engagement with the MB in the pages of Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago, follows up on critiques of his argument in the National Interest — particularly the critique “more neo-con than me you die” Joshua Muravshik articulated in Commentary. So basically it’s an argument between conservative policy wonks. All credit to them for having the argument, and I am not so familiar with centrist and liberal debates on this issue in Amreeka (my friends Samer Shehata and Josh Stacher, who have argued for engagement with the MB, are scholars not wonks). Indeed, I find the pages of places like the Center for American Progress rather barren on such topics — or am I wrong? The debate has to be broader than this to be significant.

Nonetheless, there is a fundamental truth that if you talk about engaging the MB in an American context, no matter what you think about what the MB wants to do in Egypt, there is the question of its support for Hamas. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supports terrorism, since it supports Hamas, and Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organization in US law. In some anti-MB arguments, that “support of terrorism” charge can seem to mean that the MB supports al-Qaeda — and the debate hits a brick wall. Nonetheless, that critique is not serious. Hamas is not al-Qaeda and while it makes use of terrorism, it does so in resistance to occupation. That argument of course won’t get you far in American circles either, but one that might is that if the US does not engage with the MB because it supports Hamas, should it break off diplomatic relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Egypt which have given money to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government or facilitated those donations? (I am leaving out the obvious imbalance in US treatment of Palestinian use of violence against civilians to resist occupation vs. Israeli use of violence against civilians to perpetuate occupation.)

There is perhaps another issue worth raising: what is the MB’s position towards the situation in Iraq, and does the MB encourage people to go fight the jihad there? I have no evidence the MB is involved in this, but there have been quite a few Egyptian mujahedeen in Iraq and you have to wonder about the recruitment networks they came through.

In any case, if people want to debate this in the comments, can we refrain from the all-caps messages about how the MB are the spawn of Satan?

So long Sandmonkey

Rather depressing news from the Egyptian blogger I love to hate:

Today is going to be the day that I’ve been dreading for quite sometime now. Today is the day I walk away from this blog. Done. Finished.

There are many reasons, each would take a post to list, and I just do not have the energy to list them. As anyone who has been reading this blog for the past month, I think it is apparent that things are not the same with me. There are reasons for that:

One of the chief reasons is the fact that there has been too much heat around me lately. I no longer believe that my anonymity is kept, especially with State Secuirty agents lurking around my street and asking questions about me since that day. I ignore that, the same way I ignored all the clicking noises that my phones started to exhibit all of a sudden, or the law suit filed by Judge Mourad on my friends, and instead grew bolder and more reckless at a time where everybody else started being more cautious. It took me a while to take note of the fear that has been gripping our little blogsphere and comprehend what it really means. The prospects for improvement, to put it slightly, look pretty grim. I was the model of caution, and believing in my invincipility by managing not to get arrested for the past 2 and a half years, I’ve grown reckless. Stupid Monkey. Stupid!

It’s pretty grim. Read for Sandmonkey’s analysis of what’s happening to the Egyptian blogosphere, the growing risks, the fact that there is no one of consequence to defend bloggers’ rights. Can’t say I blame him.

Labor strikes could turn into opposition?

At last some Western coverage of Egypt’s labor strikes — Labor movement possible future for Egypt opposition:

For every single strike over the past few months, government agencies have been quick to negotiate with the workers and grant their demands, which have generally been for unpaid bonuses, benefits, and salaries.

“The government has the money to pay it because the price of oil is high and they’ve sold off a bunch more public sector enterprises,” explained Joel Beinin, the head of the Middle East Studies department at the American University in Cairo and a long time observer of Egypt’s labor scene.

“This is the biggest, longest strike wave at least since the fall of 1951,” he added. “Just in terms of the size of what we are talking about, it is substantially different from what we’ve had before.”

In his writings, Beinin has described the strikes as “the most substantial and broad-based kind of resistance to the regime.”

In 2006 alone, the independent daily Al Masri Al Youm counted 222 instances of labor unrest, including a weeklong strike at the massive spinning and weaving complex at Mahalla Al Kobra north of Cairo involving some 20,000 workers.

The trend has continued in 2007 with daily reports of strikes.

There are indications, however, that the government has become fed up with these protests and sit-ins, and labor minister Aisha Abdel Hadi has suggested that rabble rousers are behind the wave.

“This situation has gone on long enough – we are working to solve the problems of the workers, but there are those who want to ignite a revolution,” she said on television mid-April.

Government ire has recently focused on labor nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Center for Trade Union and Worker Studies (CTUWS), which they have publicly accused of fomenting the strikes.

In April, the organization’s offices were closed down in the southern town of Nag Hammadi, the northern industrial complex of Mahalla, and Wednesday police dragged activists out of their headquarters in Cairo’s gritty industrial suburb of Helwan.

“Closing the offices of a labor rights group won’t end labor unrest,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the Human Rights Watch. “The government should be upholding legal commitments to Egypt’s workers instead of seeking a scapegoat.”

Don’t forget to read our own Arabawy for obsessive coverage of Egypt’s labor movements!

Haggag vs. Eissa in ARB

This month’s issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin pits two Egyptians against one another over the constitutional amendments. Since the two are Karim Haggag, the director of the Egyptian press office in Washington and former aide to Gamal Mubarak who operated out of the presidency, and firebrand journalist Ibrahim Eissa, there is really almost no debate to be had. Two worlds, hermetically sealed from one another, headed for collision?

Also, don’t miss my friend Omayma Abdel Latif’s report on Syria’s parliamentary elections.