Cairo and Pyongyang

Here’s another chapter in the bizarre relationship between North Korea and Egypt. I understand it all begun when North Korea effectively ran Egypt’s air force (at least in Upper Egypt) around 1970, later sold scud missiles and related services, in 1989 built a war panorama, but also furnished Cairo with some of its best foreign cuisine restaurants.

Now, there’s business, too. Maybe inspired by Orascom Construction Industries investments in the North-Korean cement industry, Orascom Telecom undertakes to build up North Korea’s mobile phone network.

From afp:

It was unclear how widely the Orascom Telecom service would be available to the public. Spokespersons were not immediately available for comment.

North Korea began a mobile phone service in November 2002. But 18 months later, it banned ordinary citizens from using the service and began recalling unauthorised handsets.

There is still thought to be a mobile network in Pyongyang which is open for government officials. Most foreigners are not allowed to use mobile phones inside the country.

Cast into darkness

As every internet addict in Egypt knows, yesterday one of the main cables linking Marseilles to Alexandria was cut, bringing down most internet access in Egypt and elsewhere in the region (and even India). Some very limited access is still possible thanks to the undamaged cable going through the Suez Canal, but only to certain ISPs (TE Data apparently) or using dial-up. Even so, the internet is slow, and hence posting will resume after the problem is resolved. They say it will take five days — that’s five days without, Bittorrent, RSS, YouTube and all of the other accoutrements of modern living. I predict complete social breakdown in vast swathes of Heliopolis and Mohandiseen as thousands are unable to update their Facebook status. 

AJE: “A Question of Arab Unity”

Al Jazeera English has started airing a nine-part series on Arab unity, of which the first two episodes have already aired and are available on Youtube. I’ve watched the first one (below) and while it’s nicely produced, it lacks some detail and makes some historical mistakes, such as saying the Egyptian Free Officers’ coup in 1952 was the first military coup in the Middle East (that honor goes to Hosni al-Zaim’s 1949 takeover in Syria). Still, they interview interesting people like Fawaz Trabulsi and Saad Eddin Ibrahim who provide first-hand reminiscences about the period.

It’s also an interesting topic at a time when the Arab world is more politically divided than it has ever been, yet has surprising figures uniting much of public opinion, such as Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah. I hope later episodes will look at the road not taken of a gradual version of pan-Arabism focused on building institutions rather than charismatic leaders.

Here is the second one aired thus far.

CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics?

The Washington Independent is a new online magazine, mostly about Beltway politics. Spencer Ackerman has an intriguing piece on how the CIA had to learn interrogation and torture techniques from Middle Eastern countries after 9/11 has its own staff were largely untrained in them.

But 9/11 changed all that. Despite having nearly no off-the-shelf experience, the CIA was tasked by President Bush to come up with a robust interrogation program for the most important al-Qaeda captives. So the agency turned to its partners for assistance in designing its interrogation regimen: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—all countries cited by the State Department for using torture—among others. Additionally, as Mark Benjamin has reported for Salon, two psychologists named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who worked as contractors for CIA, helped the agency “reverse-engineer” the military and CIA training on resisting torture for use on detainees. Suddenly, waterboarding, an illegal practice of simulating or in some cases inducing drowning, became an American-administered practice.

I’m not sure how this can make that much sense — didn’t the CIA provide the torture training and interrogations manuals to Iran’s SAVAK in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Latin American dictatorships? To be fair Ackerman briefly mentions the supposedly Nazi-inspired KUBARK Manual, but there was also the 1983 “Human Resources Exploitation” Manual used in Pinochet’s Chili and elsewhere. Moreover, the idea that CIA and other US staff were distant from actual interrogation in the rendition countries is not true. Last year I interviewed a senior intelligence officer in a rendition program country who said the Americans from the CIA and FBI routinely walked in and out of the interrogation rooms and detention centers. Not to mention that interrogation and torture does not seem to have been a problem for the people at Guantanamo. One can’t help getting the feeling that the people that Ackerman spoke to pulled a fast one on him. The idea that torture has only been used under the Bush administration, while perhaps self-serving for CIA officials with careers that will outlive the administration, is quite laughable. The US, France, Japan and many others have been using these techniques (notably against anti-colonial movements and in counter-communism policies) for a long, long time.

Also read: Watching torture and this book, Torture and Democracy [Amazon], by Darius Rejali, which appears to be one of the more thorough discussions if the issue out there. From the book’s blurb:

As the twentieth century progressed, he argues, democracies not only tortured, but set the international pace for torture. Dictatorships may have tortured more, and more indiscriminately, but the United States, Britain, and France pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and human rights activists, low-level authorities in the world’s oldest democracies were the first to learn that to scar a victim was to advertise iniquity and invite scandal. Long before the CIA even existed, police and soldiers turned instead to “clean” techniques, such as torture by electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions. As democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did these methods.

Also see this interview of Rejali.

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