Sisi: Year Three (Links)

By no coincidence, the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 29 marks the first anniversary of ʿAbd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi assuming the presidency and the second anniversary of the protest movement and coup that brought the former Army general to power. Although there is some confusion between different groups claiming responsibility, the car bombing is likely the work of Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the largest insurgent group in the Sinai, which carried out a similar attempt on former Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim in 2013.

Thanks to the media’s focus on the judiciary in recent months, which I noted in my prior post, Barakat had been the target of strong praise and criticism for his role in prosecuting the Muslim Brotherhood members and other state opponents in cases that have resulted in hundreds of death sentences. (A good summary of his activities is in this obituary). Today, Al-Sisi has sworn to pass tougher anti-terrorism laws, while the minister of justice has canceled the courts’ three month summer recess in order to push forward appeals on these sentences. This event will only further help Al-Sisi redirect all attention to these show trials, and to demonize his opponents, at a critical moment as the election campaigns for the first parliament since 2013 get underway. Although their goals are diverse and far from clear, the insurgent groups staging attacks on Egyptian state institutions, in a period of radicalization, have no qualms damaging the legitimacy of the politics of the state supporters and Muslim Brotherhood alike.

I want to share some links to essays and reports on topics other than these trials and insurgency. Good analysis has been in short supply, since intimidating journalists has been an important state tactic of late.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports on 18 journalists imprisoned in Egypt, the highest number since it started monitoring Egypt in 1990.

The Egyptian Institute on Personal Rights investigates the role of pseudo-judicial “Customary Reconciliation Sessions” in reinforcing Christian-Muslim sectarianism in the countryside.

A thorough takedown on ʿAli Gumaʾ, ex-Grand Mufti of Egypt, and other Al-Azhar scholars’ roles in legitimating Al-Sisi’s presidency and his soft Islamism. (This has been a trend since President Sadat).

Extending the colonial-era nostalgia of the 2007 Ramadan serial “King Farouk,” the ongoing series “The Jewish Quarter” has surprised Egyptians by portraying Egypt’s anti-Zionist Jews in a sympathetic light during the events of 1948-1956. But it also appeals to the current anti-Muslim Brotherhood mood by pinning the blame for the Jewish flight on that group and exonerating President Gamal Abd al-Nasir and his diplomacy.

Posted in Courts, Egypt, Religion, Security | 2 Comments

The Rule of Law and the Egyptian Economy: Missing Connections

After years of political upheaval, the media reports news in Egypt in isolated streams. Two of the biggest stories of the past two months have been President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s economic conference at Sharm El Sheikh and the recent sentencing of former President Muhammad Mursi to death (excellent recap at the Atlantic Council here). These events received extensive coverage in Arabic and in English, but it is as if they occurred in different countries. That is not to say that journalists, academics and diplomats have not roundly criticized both events as a sign of the Egyptian government’s suffering legitimacy and burgeoning authoritarianism, while the average Egyptian lives on a dollar a day, etc., etc. But journalists are having difficulty making analytical connections between events, one of which I hope to gesture at here.

The world’s news outlets are suffering from outrage fatigue on the issue of the Egyptian judiciary. Since the March 2014 mass sentencing of roughly 700 defendants to death, many in absentia, dozens of reports and think pieces have tried to explain the meaning of these show trials and extreme sentences in Egypt. Is the judiciary authoritarian but still independent, or is it controlled by the “deep state”? The significant sentencing of Mursi, along with academic Emad Shahin and preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and many others, and has triggered smaller batch of stories; by now, Egypt is a necessary ally against ISIS, so the State Department has even moved on. Facing a long appeals process, the actual execution of all these sentences remains in question. In recent days the public eye has turned to the social and professional aspects of the judiciary itself, after Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber said in an interview that a son of a garbage collector should never be a judge and resigned in the ensuing uproar. The outrage was far weaker last year when the Supreme Council of the Judiciary issued regulations blocking candidates for judge whose parents had not attended college.

Just as Egypt’s judges are complicit in carrying out these show trials—more to preserve a state that rewards their profession than to comply with specific political demands—Egypt’s state business cronies are busy putting on a show economy with events like the Sharm El Shaykh conference. Most of the criticism of this event focused justifiably on the phantasmagoric second Cairo planned on desert land between the present-day capital and Suez. Beyond $12 billion in trumpeted aid from Gulf states, and $20 billion in new oil and gas mining agreements at a time Egypt still has unresolved debts to mining companies, the conference showcased $90 billion in “memoranda of understanding” for investments in the productive parts of the economy.

There are many good reasons why these pledged investments are unrealistic, but one relates to the state of Egypt’s court system. One of the best studies of the Egyptian state in the Mubarak era is Tamir Moustafa’s The Struggle for Constitutional Power. Moustafa explains Sadat’s creation of the Supreme Constitutional Court during the Infitah, or economic “opening,” of the 1970s. Sadat recognized that to ensure long term investment in Egypt, there had to be a judicial system that reassured investors about their property rights, and that could also hold the different parts of Egypt’s own administrative apparatus accountable to each other. Over time, the judges on this court gained the power and credibility to challenge the Mubarak regime on a number of issues such as election monitoring, free speech and human rights. This was a small price for the regime to pay for the great support the court gave to the privatization of the economy and the increase in Egypt’s political and business credibility. The intense politics surrounding the judiciary in the years since the 2011 revolution is destroying that credibility. The impact on domestic and international investment will take longer to determine.

The Egyptian judiciary is the center of current political anxieties because the national legislature is still non-existent and the executive remains a black box (albeit a leaky one). The administrative and legislative pressure on Sisi and his cronies is leading to arbitrary policy blunders that threaten his long-term power. To cite two just this week: Sisi imposed a 10% capital gains tax last July, and then arbitrarily rescinded it this week to give an impetus to the stock market, which is getting dragged down by the slowly unwinding Egyptian Pound. Meanwhile, hastily made adjustments to investment law in the lead up to the Sharm conference have large incongruities with the existing codes that apparently create the opportunity for wide abuses in the sale of state land and enforcement of licensing and labor disputes at the General Authority for Investment. The ongoing judicial persecution of Egypt’s political opposition is indeed worth covering. But it is time for the media to return its attention to all of the other roles the judiciary plays in Egypt’s administration and economy, and better investigate the real conditions and sentiments behind Sisi’s claims of economic recovery.

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A Metro to Nowhere

metroI am a bit of a railfan, and I have been following the development of the Cairo Metro system since first living in Egypt ten years ago. Better public transportation is desperately needed in Cairo, as the cost of long commutes in informal microbuses jammed in traffic acts as a massive regressive tax on the poor. However, improved transportation is also a huge source of anxiety for an uncertain regime in transition. The lynchpin of the Cairo Metro, Sadat Station under Midan Al-Tahrir, has been closed since August last year to hinder the assembly of any more protests at the symbolic heart of the ongoing Egyptian revolution. But the government is still taking out billions of Euros of development loans to build more metro lines. Does the government want Egyptians to have a subway system or not?

Interim President Adly Mansour inaugurated the second phase of the Metro’s Line Three tonight. This addition doubles the length of the initial segment of line three, opened two years ago between Midan Al-ʿAttaba and Abbaseya, through a no-man’s land of exhibition, conference and ministry buildings and the Cairo Stadium, all the way to the upper-class suburb of Heliopolis.

Big Cairo.tiffThe ultimate goal of this thrust of construction is the Cairo International Airport, as indicated by the destination signage in phase one, which somewhat optimistically read “DIRECTION: AIRPORT.” The plan for the westerly direction of construction is under the Nile, through Zamalek and toward Imbaba. The engineering challenges associated with these next phases seem much greater than the first two phases, much like New York’s legendary Second Avenue Subway, where a first phase is slated for completion in late 2016. However, the government has secured LE 1.5 billion in loans from the European Investment Bank and French Development Agency, so it is safe to say we’ll be taking the Metro to Zamalek before taking the “T” line to Hanover Square.

The path of phase two was somewhat predictable: the new line mostly traverses state-0wned land, so right of way was easier to procure. Then again, as a result, several stops are removed from residential areas and may see little daily use, just like the Gezira Opera station. However, it is striking just how close the Cairo Stadium station is to Rabaʿa al-Adawiyya square in the northwest corner of Nasr City. This intersection, adjacent to a huge Ministry of Defense office complex and barracks, was the site of a security service massacre on August 14, 2013 of between 638 and more than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting the coup that removed ex-President Muhammad Morsi from office.

Heliopolis closeIt is impossible to predict the wildly shifting meaning and uses of public space in a city as large as Cairo. Rabaʿa al-Adawiya obtained its ignominy long after construction began on the new line — does this mean the government will leave Cairo Stadium station open, or only open it for special events? The Metro Authority claims it will finally open the platforms at Sadat/Tahrir station for transfers between lines one and two in a week, to relieve congestion at the only other transfer point, Martyrs/Ramsis station. However, it will lock metal gates barring all exits and turnstiles — which begs the question: what about fire or other emergency exits?

The system remains under siege in a myriad of other literal and figurative ways. A bomb planted in front of the ʿUrabi station in downtown Cairo killed a passer-by and injured two others last Friday. When Metro Authority Chairman Major General (that’s right) Ismail al-Nagdy didn’t like some of the questions an Al-Arabiya TV news reporter asked him about litter and beggars in the Metro during an interview two weeks ago, he had his staff forcibly confiscate the crew’s equipment.

The Metro is accelerating the pace of social movement and communication at a moment the state would prefer Egyptian society slow down and shut up. The ideology of development cracks wide open once again! Call it the revenge of Baron Empain, the Belgian speculator who built the first electric tramway in Cairo and invented Heliopolis, whose kitchy Hindu-temple-style mansion sits near the brand-new terminal station of line three.

Interim President Adly Mansour on a trip to nowhere, May 7, 2014.

Interim President Adly Mansour on a trip to nowhere, May 7, 2014.

Posted in Egypt, Geography, Protests, Security | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Allenby Effigies

453From Youm7 and Egyptian Chronicles (see video!) I am reminded today of Port Said’s tradition of burning effigies of hated political figures on Sham el-Nassim, a spring festival the Monday after Easter celebrated as a national holiday in Egypt. The tradition began in the early ’20s when residents burned an effigy of the British colonial military governor of Egypt Field Marshal Lord Edmund Allenby. The years 1914 to 1923 were the high mark of direct British colonial control of Egypt, a protectorate in which British Martial Law allowed the army to expropriate food while Egyptians starved and forcibly draft Egyptians for labor as far away as the trenches of Belgium.

Allenby commanded the British army to victory over the Ottoman Empire in Syria in the First World War, and the British Foreign Office brought him in as a non-partisan high commissioner to stem internal arguments and disagreements over governing Egypt after the 1919 Revolution against its misrule. Ultimately, he helped settle the form of government in Egypt for the following 30 years: a unilateral announcement of Egyptian independence leading to a neocolonial constitutional monarchy. He earned his opprobrium.

This year, the figures crafted for the bonfire include the Qatari royal family (pictured above), Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, both of whom support the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood now in the political wilderness, as well as regular targets Obama and Netanyahu. Qatar is also home of Al-Jazeera, the news organization most hated by the government and feloul (pro-regime-niks) for its sympathy to the Muslim Brotherhood; three of its journalists have been awaiting trial since December for slandering Egypt. The signs above ridicule the dynastic struggles in Qatar in which the current 33-year old Emir Tamim replaced his still young father Hamad last year, who had in turn made a coup on his father Khalifa in 1995. The sign on the right reads “I slid my father out on a banana.” Because it’s not like individuals appointed to their position by predecessors have ever betrayed their bosses and taken over in Egypt, right? Egyptian bananas are plentiful this time of year…

Posted in Egypt, Protests | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


NasserSISIMinister of Defense Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi has just announced he met today with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to resign his commission. As a civilian, he will now prepare for his campaign for president. By Egyptian law, members of the military may not run for public office.

Thus begins the next phase of the counter-revolution, one far more reminiscent of 1950s immediate postcolonial-era charismatic dictatorship. Even (especially?) the 2012 pro-regime presidential candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, has been caught complaining the state would fix the polls so al-Sisi would receive the proverbial 99.9% acclamation of the masses.

However, it is apparent Sisi’s path has not been straightforward to this point, considering the long delay in the arrival of this event and the roiling rumor mill in Cairo. Al-nizām, the “old regime,” is not as monolithic as the mass protests have made it seem. The material basis of political power in Egypt is divided between the military itself, a range of state and semi-state-run enterprises, and a large and diverse private sector which included until recently a strong contingent of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Besides his genuine and media-scripted mass popularity, al-Sisi gives confidence both to the leadership of state institutions such as the police, judiciary and military, and to the state enterprises,that their independence and power bases will be respected and even honored. The recent appointment of Ibrahim Mahlab, for 20 years the CEO of Arab Contractors, the biggest state run building contractor, as prime minister is the most prominent symbol of this desire to please.

Now al-Sisi wants to cock it all up by running for president. Here in the United States, we let C-students be president, and the “smartest guys in the room,” aka powerful moneyed interests, usually try to keep their mouths shut. Why doesn’t he make a guy like Mahlab run for president and remain Minister of Defense with a permanent praetorian hand on him and any successors, who could enter and leave office according to constitutional term limits?

If the military wants to preserve its economic and diplomatic privileges, without the prying questions of the media and the accompanying erosion of Egyptian respect, the answer is: don’t run. If the judiciary wants to diffuse criticism of its practices (such as sentencing 529 rioters to death, mostly in absentia) rather than focus them on a single person responsible for appointing supreme court justices, the answer is: don’t run. If the state enterprises want to foster nationalist pride in import-substitution industries that can pretend to provide Egyptian workers with a living wage, and do not want to represent a cesspool of crony capitalism, the answer is: don’t run. If al-Sisi himself doesn’t want instant and escalating protests insulting his name, the answer is: don’t run. These are some of the voices we presume have been speaking behind closed doors at SCAF in the past few months.

Why does he want to run? The only answer is: narcissism. (Credit is due to Juan Cole for this characterization). Ironically enough, the social and political basis of plutocracy is too weak in Egypt for the elite to tell al-Sisi to sit back and be a Koch brother (or play Northrop Grumman) and let a puppet do the hard work of actually being president.

From the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesperson Facebook page, March 26, 2014.

Ex-Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattah Al-Sisi (L), General Sidqi Sobhi (R). From the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesperson Facebook page, March 26, 2014

Doesn’t he look pleased as punch? But if al-Sisi thinks he is going to be the next Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasir (top right, before he took off his uniform in 1956 to become Egypt’s second president), he should think twice.

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Blast from the Past: Egyptian Interior Ministers are Popular Targets

hi-852-mohamed-ibrahimEgyptian Minister of Interior Muhammad Ibrahim has just survived an assassination attempt by car bomb near his home in Nasr City. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but government security officials are already decrying “a new wave of terrorism.” This move, unfortunately, affirms their weeks of lambasting the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and breaking up their mostly peaceful sit-in protests of the military coup that removed ex-President Muhammad Mursi with extreme violence.

The Minister of Interior, as the head of the secret and riot police services that represent the most repressive aspect of the Egyptian security state, were targets of repeated assassination attempts in the 1980s and 1990s (Hassan Abu Basha and Muhammad Nawabi Ismail in 1987, Abdel Halim Moussa in 1990, Hassan Al-Alfi in 1993), by radical Islamist groups Al-Jihad and Al-Gamaʿa Al-Islamiyya. The latter, a much larger group that comes from socioeconomically depressed Upper Egypt, employed the idea of jihad to justify attacking a state it labelled non-Muslim because of President Sadat’s settlement of peace with Israel at Camp David in 1979. However, the political and economic alienation of these groups under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was the principal cause of their turn to violent measures.

The historical parallels go further back. I find it ironic that today’s botched bombing happened on Mustafa al-Nahhas street. Al-Nahhas, the successor to nationalist Saʿad Zaghlul who led the Wafd Party from 1927 until the Free Officer coup in 1952, was himself the target of four assassination attempts in 1937, 1945 and 1948. The Muslim Brotherhood was probably responsible for the later attempts; the group was unhappy with Al-Nahhas’ cooperation with the British colonial hegemony as prime minister during the Second World War and his equivocation on the issue of Palestine. This brief period (1945-1954) during which the relatively young Brotherhood had a terrorist wing was also one of electoral political exclusion — Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna had run for parliament in 1945 but lost because of vote manipulation of the wealthy landowners’ parties that dominated the system.

The Brotherhood of the 1940s was a much different organization than it is today, after years of electoral political participation under Mubarak and its 12-18 months of electoral majority until July, and it is my guess the perpetrators of today’s attack were independent of the group. But the parallels I noted above are worrisome. Groups that the dominant power include in the political system (however it is construed) generally moderate their tactics and participate in pluralistic activities like elections, debate, political publishing, etc. Those groups systematically and unfairly excluded from the political process have fewer options for protest. They radicalize and turn to violence.

Dead ministers aside, I fear this is precisely what the military junta ruling Egypt wants right now to further delegitimize their Islamist enemies.

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A Tactical Reconstruction of the July 8 Security Attack in Cairo

Considering there are so many decisions being made and deals being cut behind closed doors in Egypt right now, and so much nonsense from the talking heads of the domestic Egyptian media and foreign media analysis (see Time’s “World’s Worst Democrats”) it is gratifying to recommend some excellent investigative journalism from The Guardian about an event that occurred in public, but with wildly different partisan claims about it: the July 8 Central Security Forces’ attack on the pro-Morsi protesters on Saleh Salem street in front of the Republican Guards’ club.

Patrick Kingsley has assembled a multimedia presentation using 30 interviews with eyewitnesses (the army and police declined to be interviewed), participant videos and maps, in a careful chronology of that early morning that he uses to test various claims and narratives. He makes it very clear this was a carefully planned and unprovoked attack on a peaceful sit-in.

Check it out here.

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