The Arab Left at the World Social Forum

The WSF is talking place in Tunis this year — and apparently features a strong anti-Islamist sentiment, as well as strong sentiment against the perceived backers of Islamism — Qatar and… the United States:

With strong Arab participation, the forum’s opening day witnessed slogans calling for “bread, freedom and social justice,” which echoed the demands and ambitions of the now two-year-old popular uprisings across the region.

Flags of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Morocco and Algeria dominated the scene, waved by participating groups as they converged on 14 Janvier (January) Square, named to commemorate the Tunisian revolution, where tens of thousands gathered to start the opening march.

“The people of Tunisia are free people … No to America, No to Qatar,” was one of the chants voiced by Tunisian groups in reference to the countries believed to be allies of the ruling Islamist Nahda Party.

Pictures of slain leftist figure Shokry Belaid, who was killed — allegedly by Salafists — in February, were seen throughout the forum. Young children wore his image on their jackets, while many wore pins with his picture.

The famous, “The people want the fall of the regime” slogan was also repeatedly chanted.

Barbed wire, police guards, and armored vehicles surrounded the Ministry of Interior located only metres away from the central square where the forum was launched, forcing the marches to redirect their path.

“The interior ministry are thugs,” Tunisian and Egyptian activists — whose struggle was largely directed against police brutality — jointly chanted when passing by security forces.

Other common chants condemned the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose parties now dominate parliaments in Egypt and Tunisia and from which the Egyptian president hails.

“Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” the Egyptians chanted.

“El-Ghanoushi is a murderer,” chanted Tunisian activists, holding the head of the Nahda Party accountable for Beleid’s death.

Street cafes and restaurants were crowded with the masses who came to participate. Political side chats could be heard coming from all different corners. Arab activists were sharing experiences.

I guess the new themes in Arab leftism are anti-Brotherhood — as a tool of Western neoliberalism. If someone had told me that in 2010 I would have thought them crazy.

And Justice for All? | Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Interesting post by EIPR’s Mohamed El-Shewy: 

Two noteworthy processes appear to be underway in Egypt, both of which have so far eluded the focus of most analyses and commentary on the country.  On the one hand, there has been discussion lately in the Shura Council (currently the country’s legislative body) of passing a “transitional justice law” that would supposedly result in the formation of a truth commission and “special courts,” to investigate government agencies, such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Bank. On the other hand, the government of Mohamed Morsi has been taking steps to “reconcile” with members of the Mubarak regime and businessmen associated with it—some of whom have fled the country or are serving sentences in prison. These two processes could potentially have a significant impact on the nature of Egypt’s political structure for some time to come.

The language used by the Shura Council on the “transitional justice law” has been one of necessity: to help Egypt “avoid many catastrophes and political instability”i. But it seems that lawmakers are repeating the chronic problem with transitional justice; the rush to pass such legislature based on the assumption that a transition has, already occurred. Since February 11, 2011 (the day Mubarak stepped down), this temptation has been there on the part of those interested in transitional justice, both internationally and domestically, to advocate for its application. As Egypt was now “in transition,” it followed that transitional justice was needed to safely guide the country to the stable, prosperous shores of democracy. Ezz el-din El-Koumi, one of the Shura Council members working on the law, stated in an interview that transitional justice would bring to an end the “reasons people have to protest.” This is an invariably short sighted way of approaching the issue.  

A major problem with transitional justice lies in the way it condenses long, complex histories of repression into a single moment of rupture, the transition. Thus, any violence or discontent that continues after the delineated time can be portrayed as disruptive to the democratization process. The recent and ongoing events in Egypt—particularly in the cities along the Suez Canal—and the continuing abuses committed by the security forces suggest that  “transition” (so neatly defined) is not a reality. It is erroneous to assume that mass political upheavals have fixed points in time; going from the large social movement of an “uprising” to the moment of political change of the  “revolution” to a period of “democratic transition”—which,  finally ends, in a democratic future.

 Read on for his suggestions.

Dubai has glitz but no real sewage system


Quite astonished by this:

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It’s located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn’t have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.

You see the problem.

To solve the issue trucks come and collect wastewater from separate buildings, and then can queue for up to 24 hours to deliver it to treatment plants. Perhaps before building the next mega-mall, Dubai might invest in the unglamorous basics.

Israel has a partner in Morsi

Khaled Guindy writes:

Despite a general sense that things might still change for the worse, especially given Egypt’s instability and its strongly anti-Israel political culture, Israeli military officials have nothing but praise for Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation, which they say is better today than it was under Mubarak. According to Israeli analyst, Avi Issacharoff, “Whatever uncertainty Israelis may have had at the start of the transition, they now know they have a partner on the Egyptian side.” That claim was backed up by Morsi’s pivotal role in securing a Gaza ceasefire last November.

Even the highly unpopular Gaza blockade, which the Brotherhood had always vowed to overturn, has been loosened but not yet lifted. Thus, despite the Brotherhood’s ideological and historical affinity with Hamas, itself a Brotherhood offshoot, Gaza’s Islamist rulers remain in a box—albeit a bigger one than before.

This reminds me that recently someone who was recently in Israel said the security establishment thinks that Egypt will keep a lid on Hamas for them. I wouldn’t expect that to last (if only because Hamas may have more clout over Egypt than vice-versa these days), but it’s true that so far they’re probably not too unhappy.

Kissinger on “just outcomes”

In this interview, Kissinger says:

“I’m not optimistic” about reviving peace talks, in large part because of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the region that aren’t inclined to support a “just outcome” with Israel, Kissinger said in an interview airing this weekend on Bloomberg TV’s “Conversations with Judy Woodruff.”

 Because of course Israel is all about supporting a “just outcome.”

On “engaging” the Muslim Brothers

I found this draft of a post I started writing in April 2011 — just three months after Mubarak was toppled. I can’t remember why I never published it, but if my feelings were tentative when, it pretty much describes exactly what I have argued to officials since mid-2012 what the mistake of the US and other Western powers towards the MB has been for the past two years. I wish I had made the argument more forcefully and earlier.

I have always hated the term “engagement” when applied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a term that became fashionable around 2005. It is generally used as in, “the US should engage the Muslim Brothers”. It has its fierce advocates in the US foreign policy community, and many who are against. The problem is that the term is ill-defined and thus meaningless.

One example is Ed Husain’s recent FP piece, which while providing a good assessment of the state of the debate inside the Brotherhood, never really says what engagement is about (the other thing I did not understand is his use of the world “suburban”.) He writes:

For the last three decades, the United States has engaged with Arab leaders through three prisms: oil, terrorism, and Israel. This is no longer enough. In this new Arab era, Washington will need to interact with ordinary people and their elected representatives in parliaments. The Muslim Brotherhood is undeniably a part of that wider Arab population, and Washington should attempt to engage progressive and pragmatic strands within the movement in order to tilt the debate away from extremism and confrontation to nation-building and dialogue. It can be done. Islamists can change.

This sounds to me like Husain and other advocates of “engagement” are suggesting the US should engage with the MB like they did with the Arab regimes. This would be disastrous, because a) the MB is not a government, at least not yet, and b) this approach is basically one of plotting with the dominant force in a country, which is what the US did with the regimes to disastrous effect. 

I much prefer Nathan Brown’s approach, which he explained to Congress recently:

The policy question that is often posed in Washington is whether the U.S. should “engage” the Muslim Brotherhood. I have always been puzzled by formulating the question that way. Discussions between diplomats and leaders of various types are a means of gathering information and pursuing policy, not ends in themselves. The question is therefore not whether or not we “engage” the Brotherhood (our diplomats should, of course, be able to do their jobs by developing informative contacts with all political actors, but these contacts are to make sure our policy is better informed; they should not be the purpose or center of any policy). The real question is whether various domestic political forces can engage each other. We can sometimes contribute to that domestic engagement by making clear we are willing to work with any legitimate leadership.

In the last few years, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to oppose a law banning the beating of children and another to make the ban on Female Genital Mutilation more strict. Some in the MB are now talking about the introducing Sharia-based punishments. There is a lot of buzz inside the MB on these issues now, because naturally Islamists (even the reform-minded ones) are excited about have the freedom to discuss these religious questions. I recently had a fascinating (if slightly chilling) insight into some of these debates, including the discussions of how to reinterpret, say, the injunction to cut thieves’ hands: one solution proposed, for instance, is that criminals be given a choice about either having the traditional sentence or serving long prison terms. This is what Islamists do: they get excited about Sharia.

Islamists also are excited about engagement, and are recuperating the “engagement” meme from the Western policy wonks. I am told that the MB is in the process of setting up a special unit for engagement, because it wants to sell itself to the West. Partly of course this is understandable, there are a lot of misunderstandings in the West about Islamists and a tendency to mix al-Qaeda and the Brothers in the same bag. But this must also be seen as what it is: a lobbying effort from an organization that is interesting in engagement because it sees in it a way to negotiate its own political success, because it recognizes US influence. And the worst thing the US could do is send signals to the MB that it somehow supports it, or for that matter any other political force (that was the signal it effectively sent to the NDP, after all.)