Lately I’ve found myself thinking back to those horrible American soap operas (the “Bold and the Beautiful,” etc.) that my late grandmother used to watch. She managed to find interest in what seemed to me like a sickeningly repetitive story (love, betrayal, and borderline incestuous relationships). Each season introduced new protagonists and guest stars who frolicked alongside the core cast. This ensured, for lack of a new storyline, some diversity of faces and names to keep the audience entertained (or at least mildly interested).
These days it’s a rather different kind of serialized drama that’s plaguing my country — namely, the negotiations between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). After months of relative quiet punctuated by the occasional hopeful declaration from the government, stoic commentfrom the IMF, doomful analysis from economists, and even a little side-drama in the negotiations, last week witnessed some fundamental changes in Egypt’s side of the cast.
Prime Minister Hesham Kandil reshuffled his cabinet on May 9, appointing nine new ministers, including a new team for the IMF negotiations.
The new minister of finance, Fayad Abdel-Moneim, is an Azhar University academic who spent his entire career, starting with his doctoral thesis, pouring over questions of Islamic finance. But he doesn’t seem to have any real market experience, aside from a bit of consulting for a few university or government bodies.
Yehia Hamed was appointed minister of investment. A spokesperson for President Morsy during his campaign, his qualifications amount to — wait for it — working in marketing and sales for the telecom company Vodafone Egypt. Somehow this was viewed as suitable and sufficient experience to be appointed as the person tasked with developing and facilitating local and foreign investment to the country.
Finally, in an even more egregious political reward appointment, Amr Darrag, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood-allied ruling Freedom and Justice Party, was appointed minister of international cooperation and planning. Darrag holds a doctorate in soil mechanics and foundations. He was recently found responsible for a scandalous incident of double-speak, havingtold a Turkish think-tank, in a document published in English, that his party was “striving to establish a free society, where citizens have equal rights, where women are treated with respect, and have equal access to education, jobs, and politics. A society where Copts, Jews and atheists live side by side in peace with equal citizenship rights.” But in the Arabic version of this article however, the reference to the rights of said women, Copts, Jews, and atheists was conveniently omitted.
The state-owned Ahram Online newspaper mentioned that Darrag will be leading the negotiations from now on — deviation from the habitual leading role of the Ministry of Finance on the IMF negotiations. This change follows the weakening of the Ministry of Finance by the appointment of a minister whose expertise is remarkably remote from the subject. The ministry also recently lost a key negotiator with the recent resignation of Hany Qadry Demian, the senior assistant to the minister of finance and a veteran economist who has been integral to the process since its very beginning.
In short, the powers-that-be have turned Egypt’s IMF negotiating team on its head. This would be bad enough as it is; any coach will tell you that’s it probably not a good idea to change the whole line-up on the eve of a big game. Just to make matters worse, though, the new members of the group appear ill-equipped, but also unprepared, for the task ahead.
Perhaps I’m making too much out of it. Two years into the discussions, Egypt’s strategy in the negotiations has been reduced to attempting to convince the IMF that it really does plan on introducing difficult economic reforms (which it’s doing rather unconvincingly) and to take risky maneuvers such as rejecting emergency finance to put pressure on the IMF. Given the essential weakness of Egypt’s position, there’s only so much we can expect from our negotiators.
The new members of Egypt’s team may have little to offer, but at this point, the perception of professionalism is probably as important as the real thing. Unfortunately, it’s looking thin on both fronts.
In the meantime, the soap opera drags on with its new cast of characters. Let’s see if it ever ends.
For FP: Transitions.
I don’t know much about the code of conduct of U.N. Peacekeepers, such as those deployed in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But I’m going to assume that it’s probably OK for peacekeepers to post photos of people that they meet on their Facebook group even if they are politically sensitive.
But on the other hand, I presume that sitting in a tent with the young Sahrawis (whose conflict with Morocco MINURSO is supposed to be monitoring), across from a giant Sahrawi flag, and stating that “the land is your land and no one will take it away from you,” while making references to the Egyptian revolution, and urging them to think of “the creation of MINURSO as being in your favor,” is probably a no-no.
Unfortunately this is precisely what one officer did. On video.
The Moroccan public opinion has never looked favorably upon what they perceive as the secession of the Western Sahara; many view MINURSO as merely an accessory to such event.
The conflict long predates the mission though. Historically part of Morocco, the Western Sahara was a Spanish colony between 1884 until 1975, when Moroccan pressure led to the Madrid Accords, splitting the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario front, a Sahrawiindependence movement, was less than pleased with that arrangement and waged a guerilla war against both Mauritania and Morocco. The U.N. settlement plan in 1991 led to an end of hostilities, and the establishment of the MINURSO, with the dual mandate of “verifying the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities” between Morocco and the POLISARIO movement, as well as overseeing the preparation of a popular independence referendum for the people of the Western Sahara. Conflicts over voter eligibility have prevented the referendum from taking place, with no plans to conduct it in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Mission remains in place to monitor the violence.
Furthermore, over the past two weeks, suggestions within the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to enlarge the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara, were naturally severely criticized by Moroccan political forces across the board.
It is in this context that this video scandal emerged. As you can probably imagine, the Moroccan blogosphere is not elated.
Apparently first published by Telexpresse (a relatively unimportant news website), the undated video was published under the headline [Ar.] “Danger: Video showing two members of MINURSO incite detainees in Tindouf to revolt.” The article misreports the conversation between the officer and his audience, and ends with this:
“This is the surreptitious and dangerous face of the MINURSO forces in the Moroccan desert, and shows the covert role that its members continue to perform against international norms and convention, not to mention the sexual scandals and misconduct carried out by these elements within the country, infiltrating the Islamic rituals and modesty”
Granted, all online coverage wasn’t that insane, but not much less so.
The officer in question is an Egyptian major identified by news websites as Hany Mustafa Hamad Ali. In the video he is shown flanked by a second soldier, an Argentine identified as Julio Estibar Eduardo. Ali is already the subject of a Facebook petition, created on Monday, demanding his expulsion.
Admittedly, most of the officer’s “advice” in the video is pretty ridiculous — the ramblings of man enjoying the uninterrupted attention his insignia confers him — but that in no way excuses his behavior, particularly in a region that, more than a mere disputed territory, is a matter of national pride for every Moroccan. The video also felt like a betrayal: Like most Arab countries and the League of Arab States, Egypt recognizes the territorial integrity of Morocco and its sovereignty over the Sahara. But the Arab League’s support on this question has since been modest, as the League prefers to defer the matter to the UNSC. The Western Sahara issue failed to make it to the Arab League’s list of regional “Issues and Crises” [Ar.], and in 2012 the League’s Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi was quoted [Ar.] in an Algerian newspaper as asserting the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination – the League was prompt to deny that such a statement was issued and that he had been misquoted. But that may not have fully succeeded in convincing Morocco of the Arab League’s full support on this issue.
In the meantime, anti-Egyptian slurs are emerging on Moroccan social media, and anti-MINURSO sentiment is extremely high.
On Thursday, the UNSC renewed MINURSO’s mandate, after the United States withdrew its proposal to enlarge it. It is doubtful that the video would have repercussions on the presence or mandate of the mission. It could however harm the fragile balance that exists between Morocco and MINURSO, especially if popular pressure intensifies.
As for Egypt and Morocco — well, relationships between North African states have soured for much less. This could potentially go much further.
Neither MINURSO nor Egypt have, as of yet, issued any statement regarding the matter. They’d better do, and fast. Disciplinary measures, including the removal of said officer from the mission, would be a good beginning.
I liked Carmen. She was a cool lady. She will be missed.
Originally published on Foreign Policy Transitions.
“You must be Esti’s grandson,” said one lady as she pinched my cheek. “Leave him be. He’s a guest,” responded Carmen Weinstein as she moved a tray of sandwiches under the sukkah.
The first time I spoke to Weinstein, who presided over the Jewish Community Council of Cairo until her passing last week, was when I called her out of the blue to ask if I could attend the celebration of Sukkot in Cairo. I had read about the week long holiday (and watched iconic film Ushpizin), so I thought I’d give it a try. After all, one of the main traditions is to give shelter to a visitor. “I am Muslim, I must point out.” But her only question was, “are you a journalist?” At the time, in 2008, I had never written for the press, and so she replied “you’re very welcome.” It was amusing to see that the only ones who objected to my attendance were the police guards posted by the entrance of the synagogue.
In the synagogue’s yard however, it was a much more relaxed ambience. There were mostly elderly ladies, some people with their children, and a few expatriates in need of a sukkah for the holidays. And yes, the cheek-pinching (is it a Jewish grandma quintessential thing to do?) did occur. There’s a reason for this — only a few dozen remain in the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered 80,000, and many of those are married to Muslims or Christians. So this Mohamed could very well have been Esti’s grandson.
When I interviewed Ms. Weinstein much later, she called to thank me, because I “had written what she had said, no more and no less.” Her experience with the media hadn’t always been positive — journalists almost regularly mangled her quotes, and at times completely made up stories. As such, she was reasonably wary of the press and maintained a low profile.
As the president of the Cairo Jewish Community Council (JCC), Carmen fought for the recognition of the Egyptian Jewish community. Tasked with ensuring the continued existence of Judaism’s past, present, and future in the land of Moses, she had the incredibly difficult task of representing (primarily vis-à-vis her co-citizens and government) Egyptian citizens regularly accused of foreign agency without falling in the trap of engaging her detractors and accusers. She knew well enough that the only way to win this game was not to play it; thereby shielding her community from local and external attacks.
As such, beside caring for her community and guests, she regularly had to juggle the omnipresent Egyptian State Security concerns, overzealous foreign guests bent on showing support when she didn’t need it, the fanfare of U.S. ambassadors who regularly attended the religious celebrations, Israeli embassy staff (who even when they are there on a personal capacity are still a potential source of public tension), foreign organizations keen on robbing away what’s left of the Egyptian Jewish heritage for “safekeeping” in Brooklyn or elsewhere, and various unscrupulous lawyers attempting to put their hands on buildings and temples belonging to the JCC. She did it all with an unflinching grace that would come to be her trademark.
Weinstein’s lobbying allowed for the registration of several Jewish temples as national antiquities, thereby preventing their sale, but also getting the Ministry of State for Antiquities to include them in its plan for the restoration of national monuments. One of her key accomplishments was overseeing the restoration of the Mosheh Ben Maimon (Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo, which ended in 2010. On that occasion, Ms. Weinstein and the Jewish Community Council put together an opportunity for Egyptian Jews who had left the country over the previous decades to visit the Maimonides synagogue as well as many other temples normally sealed to the public. She saved me an invitation, again in personal capacity. As I toured the Bassatine cemetery — the second oldest Jewish cemetery still in use worldwide — alongside people visiting their parents’ and grandparents’ tombstones for the first time in half a century, I listened to stories of their childhood best friends in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. I was privileged to gain a glimpse into the lives of a nearly-invisible Egyptian community, which whether at home or abroad, still exists. Apart from the romanticism of a “happy together” past, it was and remains an important part of our history.
I’ve read many obituaries over the past few days which described Carmen as the Iron Lady. Perhaps she was in many respects; I always saw this as a necessary trait for her duties. Her trust was not easily earned, but she was always honest and open, very friendly when at ease, and always willing to share a laugh.
So what next for the Cairene Jewish community? As I attended Carmen’s funeral this week in Cairo, I saw the cemetery in worse shape than I had last in 2010. Sewage had crawled over a larger section of the cemetery — so much that Weinstein’s family section was inaccessible, and she had to be buried on the other side of the cemetery. Brick buildings were encroaching on the tombs, and stray dogs roamed unimpeded.
New leadership for the Jewish Community Council has been elected, in the face of Magda S. Haroun, who will be shouldered by her sister Nadia — both daughters of iconic Egyptian socialist and humanist figure Shehata Haroun. Two decades younger than her predecessor, Magda gave a speech at Ms. Weinstein’s funeral that seemed to set the path for more openness with the rest of the Egyptian society, while maintaining the necessary emphasis on safeguarding Egyptian Jewish history.
There is some renewed interest in the history of Egyptian Jews, as signified by the popular interest in a documentary currently playing in Egyptian cinemas (in my book it gets an A for effort and a D for research and cinematography, but might be worth watching anyway).
In the midst of the political mess Egypt is going through, this is one transition I am actually looking forward to observing.
Goodbye, Carmen Weinstein. You will be greatly missed.
I had the pleasure of speaking at the TEDxCairo conference last December – my first TEDx speech in Arabic, and it was a ton of fun. Titled “Democratising Entrepreneurship”, I spoke of the opportunities and risks of micro, small and medium enterprises in Egypt, highlighting the informal sector. (which is huge. Watch the presentation!)
English speakers, do not despair! This week I also unearthed a talk from April 2012, from TEDxUChicago, and which I hadn’t seen since! It’s titled “The Revolutions within the Revolution”. I also enjoyed that one a lot.
And just to have them all in the same place – this is my TEDxRamallah talk!
If anyone wants them, I can probably upload the PowerPoint presentations as well. Let me know!
[Originally posted on Foreign Policy.]
Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:
“Goha, how much do you think I’m worth?,” asked the Sultan to the wise jokester.
“I’d say 4,000 dinars, Sultan.”
“You must be joking — my clothes alone are probably worth 4,000 dinars!”
“Then I guessed right,” answered Goha.
The ancient story stops here, but the modern-day Sultan, Mohamed Morsy, didn’t enjoy having his hollowness mercilessly exposed by satirist Bassem Youssef. Commonly referred to as “the Arab Jon Stewart,” Youssef has frequently put the government and its president in the crosshairs on his weekly show, El-Bernameg (The Program), which is broadcast by a private channel every Friday evening.
Responding to an arrest warrant issued by the illegally appointed prosecutor general for insulting the president and denigrating Islam, Bassem Youssef decided to go to the prosecutor’s office — wearing a parodying the one President Morsy had recently worn at a ceremony in Islamabad. As he waited for questioning, he tweeted jokes about his summons.
Much later, after a five-hour interrogation — during which he was shown the punchlines to his own shows and made to answer for them — he was released on a 15,000 EGP ($2,200) bail. Despite the pressure, he vowed to continue his work. “The tone of my show is actually getting higher and higher and higher,” he said.
My heart was once a rattle, it is now a bell
I rang it — the servants and the guards were alerted
But I’m only the jokester — why get up, why fear?
I hold no sword, and ride no horse
Why get up, why fear? Well, it’s a tactic of tyrannical regimes to create laws that criminalize freedom of speech and criticism of the state. The laws under which Youssef was accused are holdovers from previous regimes, which the new Sultan — sorry, president — was glad to keep on the books. The assumption that such laws will subdue a population that recently vanquished the previous ruler to use those methods is, needless to say, ridiculous.
The attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters to silence dissent and criticism are not only futile, but painfully counterproductive. The intense media coverage and outpour of global support highlight the ridiculousness of a president trying to imprison a comedian — especially a comedian the president used to support his political campaign. Already the fiasco is rapidly backfiring. A U.S. State Department spokesperson accused Egypt of muzzling free speech and suggested that Egyptian authorities were selectively prosecuting their opponents. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has also gotten in on the action.
Morsy’s campaign isn’t subsiding, though. Now a second comedian, Ali Qandil, has also been summoned to the prosecutor general’s office, this time on charges of blasphemy. And TV commentators who defended Youssef are also facing legal complaints for threatening national security.
Stand-up and TV comedy may be the heirs of the wise jokesters of yesteryear; either way, comedy is here to stay, despite the government’s best efforts to silence dissent.
They will, of course, only provide fresh material for all the new jokesters to come!
I feel really strongly about Bahrain – not only because of friends there, but also because I feel that I am probably not doing enough to publicize what’s going on there. So here’s a very small attempt at doing that.
Originally posted on Foreign Policy.
Zainab al-Khawaja, on hunger strike since March 17, escalated her protest last weekend and now refuses liquids as well, risking her internal organs shutting down, according to an urgent appeal by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Zainab is reportedly having severe hypoglymia with HGT measurements reaching 2. Her family reported that she sounded fatigued, said she was suffering loss of memory and concentration. Having initiated a dry hunger strike now, including no intake of glucose, will put her at high risk of sudden onset arrhythmias, loss of consciousness and possibly death especially that she is in a detention center were no cardiac monitor or cardiac resuscitation service is available.
Zainab (pictured above) is on strike because, not only has the Khalifa regime arrested her arbitrarily, they have also taken away her visiting rights, preventing her from seeing her three-year old daughter Jude.
Not far away, her incarcerated father Abdulhadi is also on strike, in solidarity with his daughter. His health is deteriorating; but his wardens won’t allow him medical care until he wears the grey prison uniform reserved for convicted criminals. But Abdulhadi, a prisoner of conscience, was not even convicted criminally. The uniform demand is simply another attempt at humiliating the prisoner — yet another failed attempt.
Serving a life sentence since 2011 on the charge of “plotting to overthrow the government,” Abdulhadi went on hunger strike once before, for an incredible 110 days. More than two months into the strike, alarmed by the actual possibility of his death, the government had him drugged and forcibly fed by a nasoenteric tube. Ultimately, he ended his strike voluntarily.
Abdulhadi and Zainab al-Khawaja are but two among many human rights activists in Bahraini prisons — representing the plight of a nation.
On Wednesday, it was reported that Abdulhadi began drinking water at the behest of his brother, also incarcerated with him, after his health had deteriorated. Zainab, too, reportedly drank some water after she had begun coughing blood.
Maryam al-Khawaja, the youngest in the al-Khawaja family living in quasi-exile in Denmark, is the acting director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a tireless advocate for Bahrain’s cause abroad. “Not a week passes without protests in various villages across Bahrain,” she told me at a conference in Tunis last week. Moving the audience with rhetorical gifts, Maryam’s words were a reminder that, as personable as the plight of the Khawaja family is, it is truly the plight of a nation. Beyond the simplistic accusation of the movement as a Shiite rebellion against the Sunni authority, Maryam reminded us that some of the most renowned freedom fighters in the Bahraini revolution are Sunni, while the propagandist Minister of State for Information is a Shiite. Rather, the Bahraini revolution is one taking place in villages the country over, but it is drastically underreported.
It is no secret why Bahrain’s revolution seldom makes it onto our radar screens: With the Bahraini King being a staunch ally for Gulf and Western regimes, most media outlets, Arab and Western, usually refrain from reporting anything negative coming out of the island. A notable exception in the U.S. media is Nick Kristof — primarily because he holds a grudge against the Bahraini regime for tear-gassing and detaining him in 2011, and then banning him entry to the country altogether last December. (I’m grateful to the Bahraini regime for turning Kristof into such an advocate).
Zainab al-Khawaja wrote a letter from prison which was widely published. She quotes Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Henry David Thoreau. It is an intimately personal and brutally honest missive to the world, but also to herself and to her daughter, on why their fight against tyranny is important — and why
Maryam al-Khawaja emphasized that publicizing the situation in Bahrain does help, citing the example of medical professionals and hospital staff who were incarcerated for committing the “heinous” crime of treating patients who happened to be regime opponents; they were released when their case garnered global attention.
I urge you to read the appeal from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as well as Zainab al-Khawaja’s letter from jail. For updates on this case, follow both Maryam al-Khawaja as well as her mother, Khadija Almousawi, who are very active on Twitter.
Read them. And share them widely. As our governments observe complacently, there are people dying by the minute.
Perhaps it’s time we citizens did something ourselves.
Crossposted on Foreign Policy Transitions.
Mubarak’s Egypt was one of the CIA’s favorite destinations under their “extraordinary rendition” program: A human rights-free zone where torture at the CIA’s hands, hampered by delicate legislation, was supervised by the chief of intelligence and Mubarak-era strongman Omar Suleiman himself.
One revolution later, and Morsy’s Egypt, believe it or not, is taking the country one notch lower on the scale of self-respecting nations. After being offered the right price by Tripoli, Morsy’s police forces have arrested a number of Qaddafi loyalists that had fled to Egypt. Chief among them is Ahmed Qadhaf el-Dam (shown above while being arrested), who had served as Qaddafi’s relations coordinator for Egypt; former Ambassador Ali Maria; and Mohamed Ibrahim, the brother of senior Qaddafi-era official Ahmed Ibrahim. They will all be extradited back to Libya.
The price? Two billion U.S. dollars, being deposited by the Libyan government into the Egyptian Central Bank, to help prop up the Egyptian currency.
Lest you think that this is the price for giving up a country’s reputation as a land of hospitality, then be rest assured, there’s more. According to the Egypt Independent:
The Libyan government has agreed to provide Egypt one million barrels of oil per month — to be refined in Egypt — granting it a portion of them to provide much-needed diesel fuel.
Though Egypt and Libya have signed a mutual prisoner extradition agreement dating back to 1992, the case is far from being a straightforward extradition of criminals.
For one, in the overall vindictive environment of Libya towards former Qaddafi officials, there is no guarantee that the people being extradited will stand a fair trial in Libya, as required by the terms of the agreement. Even the Libyan ambassador to Cairo, Mohamed Fayez Gibril, acknowledged in an interview last September that the people whose extradition was being discussed “[should] fear the rebels now (…) They have committed a lot of crimes. They have mistreated jailed Libyans and are afraid of revenge.”
Second, though they had not formally obtained asylum in Egypt, those very individuals were not held in the custody of the Egyptian police, but were living legally in their Cairo homes. Libya has been sending diplomatic delegations to discuss the extradition of a number of Qaddafi officials since mid-2012, but it was only when the smell of the Libyan oil reached the nostrils of the current rulers of the Ittihadeya Palace in Cairo, that the Libyan former officials’ houses were raided and they arrested.
And finally, in the case of Qadhaf el-Dam, it turns out he is half-Egyptian on the side of his mother, thus theoretically qualifying him for Egyptian citizenship. This would be solid ground to refuse his extradition, as he could stand trial in Egypt. His lawyer purports that his parents, from the tribes residing by the Egyptian-Libyan border, are both Egyptian citizens.
This is no defense of Qadhaf-el-Dam and his companions, who should stand trial for their deeds. I have no qualms about extradition per se provided the right legal conditions are met. But that hardly appears to be the case here.
This is a defense of Egypt and its international standing, in the hope that we don’t turn from a land of hospitality to one where the government engages in what is more reminiscent of pirate hostage-taking, than proper international relations conduct.
In a way, I’m glad the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t in power in 1979. We might have sold Reza Pahlavi to the new rulers in Tehran for a few barrels of crude too.