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How Dubious are Egyptians?

Last week I highlighted a poor op-ed from the Washington Post. This article from the New York Times is better, but its headline is well, dubious.

New York Times DubiousEgyptians do thrive on conspiracy theory, though they should be accorded a degree of sympathy given the troubles and outside influences on their region.

Now, writing a headline is almost more art than journalism, sometimes crossing the line into marketing. The author is forgiven, and may not have had say in the final wording.

But the body of the article does not quote one single average citizen to make its point. It opens with President Sisi urging Egyptians to even go without food if necessary in the face of threats. Then the closest it comes to demonstrating popular rejection of the message is this:

After Mr. Sisi’s bellicose talk of going without food, “people are just making fun of him,” said Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian journalist sympathetic to the president. “I am disappointed.”

Hisham Kassem is an important voice. As a journalist he should be expected to have his ear on the street. The author does well to quote him, and builds a case against the Egyptian habit of resorting to conspiracy.

Unfortunately, other voices quoted are from influential Egyptians outside of the country. They are critics of the regime, and some have fled for their safety. Their voices are also important, but they are not well placed to demonstrate the popular reception of government statements.

The article also quotes media figures in Egypt, and even an ordinary citizen, who express criticism of the regime:

During parliamentary elections, one pro-government talk show stunned viewers by broadcasting a call from a woman who said her disappointment with Mr. Sisi had kept her from the polls. She cited a much-hyped economic conference hosted by the president that failed to bolster growth, and an expansion project billed as a “new” Suez Canal, which had resulted in a decline in toll revenue. “I am sorry, but we are kidding ourselves,” she said. “I feel cheated.”

And it ends with a powerful statement from a prominent broadcaster who chastised the recourse to conspiracy and urged Egypt to take responsibility for itself:

Lamees el-Hadidi, one of the most popular pro-government talk show hosts, said in a broadcast that the government was compounding the economic pain from the plane crash by scaring away investors with the detentions of a prominent investigative journalist, Hossam Bahgat, and a newspaper owner, Salah Diab.

“If I am now in a very difficult situation with tourism and a foreign plot, do I need to make another problem with investments and another problem with freedoms?” she asked. “We don’t need a foreign conspiracy. We are the conspiracy itself. We conspire against ourselves!”

But these voices concern a popular discontent over the economy and to a lesser degree, over rights and freedoms. These are present, but they do not speak to a ‘dubious’ attitude towards either the state narrative or the conspiracies that swirl around.

I would say the great majority of Egyptians believe that outside forces are out to get them. And this attitude is shared equally by pro- and anti- regime.

And they have good reason. Right after the Russian airline crash, when early speculation imagined a terrorist missile, the UK’s Daily Mail published a story about a British tourist airliner having to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a similar fate.

Besides enraging the Egyptian public, this article was – to use a British expression – rubbished by the UK government:

UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described on Sunday the Daily Mail’s allegations that a British passenger plane “had been seconds” from being struck by an Egyptian rocket last August as a “red herring.”

I have no explanation for the article, but it came amid a media frenzy that has now resulted in the restriction of UK and Russian flights to Egypt, crippling the tourist industry. Already struggling for foreign currency, this crisis is estimated to lose revenue of $280 million per month.

As Salama Moussa has repeatedly written, Egypt must face up to its self-inflicted wounds and take responsibility for itself. Foreign nations can help.

Foreign media has a role to play as well, and the power of shaming – though not appreciated in the Middle East – can be strong. The New York Times article describes well much of what is happening in Egypt.

But it would do better with a proper headline, especially one that is better documented. Perhaps nothing the author could have done would have made a difference, but the result among Egyptians is that this is just one more example of Western media misrepresenting it.

And sadly, they are not short of evidence that can be similarly construed.

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Personal

Diplomacy is Dead

From the New York Times:

DIPLOMACY is dead.

Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.

This last point is crucial. One must always talk, and listen. Yes, even the fact of talking grants a measure of legitimacy, and it can be said this should not be freely offered. One reason why Hamas refuses to acknowledge the Jewish State of Israel is that they feel this is must be an end result of negotiation, not its starting point. But even so, Israel and Hamas have been communicating for years, through back channels.

Speaking of Hamas:

Breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends. It is conducted with the likes of the Taliban, the ayatollahs and Hamas. It involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The central question is: What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it? Or, put the way Nixon put it in seeking common ground with Communist China: What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?

Earlier in the article the author mentioned Egypt as a mini-success of Obama’s diplomacy, and he may have a point. Many here in Egypt’s opposition see the current situation as a negotiated settlement between the US, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Each one has gotten something that they want. The opposition, meanwhile, feels left out in the cold.

But here is where diplomacy’s rubber meets the road. For the idealist, it is painful. But did the opposition get what it wants? There is the beginnings of a democratic system which can be continually contested. They just didn’t win.

Maybe. But to voice their complaint, what did the Brotherhood get? Access to the reigns of power has limits – the army is off limits, as is any real tension with Israel – but comes with great privilege. Some see this privilege extending to be able to manipulate the situation (democratic as it may remain) for their own benefit. What does this give America? As goes the theory, stability in the region.

So, diplomacy, if this picture is true, is it good enough?

For America, perhaps. The task of international diplomacy is to secure the interests, and not the ideals, of the home nation. If Egyptians only get a manipulated democracy that allows the US to check off the accomplishments of its own internal ideals, of what major concern is this to America?

But that is no reason for the Egyptian opposition to accept the situation. They have their own diplomacy to worry about. And part of diplomacy is overstating your case in negotiation. It is conceivable they have quite exaggerated the manipulations of the Brotherhood.

But do the events of yesterday, the second anniversary of the revolution, suggest that the opposition is abandoning diplomacy?

Diplomacy achieves an imperfect solution, but tends to avert war and violence, which usually are far less perfect for all parties involved. But goodness, is it maddening.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Why did the Brotherhood Protest at the Palace?

Translation: Sharia, God protect it; Legitimacy, People Sacrifice for it
Translation: Sharia, God protect it; Legitimacy, People Sacrifice for it

From my new article in EgyptSource:

Politics in Egypt has degenerated into the question: Who do you trust? A more critical question right now is: What was their plan?

President Morsi addressed the nation late Thursday evening and tied Wednesday’s violence at the presidential palace to undefined ‘political parties’. If the vagary was intended to present the clashes between supporters and opposition neutrally, his overall point was clear in labeling the ultimate culprit as the old, corrupt regime. Surely he was not implicating the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet it is undeniable the recent violence would not have taken place if not for a decision made by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest at an opposition site.

So, why did they do it?

Of course, the size of the protest, eyewitness reports putting the number at “hundreds of thousands,” was important enough for the Brotherhood to argue it was no more than 2,000 people. The threat, though, was the increase, and the permanent presence of a sit-in Morsi’s doorstep.  As the clock ticked toward the date of the referendum, it would be a constant reminder of the standing refusal of Morsi’s constitutional declaration.

This is the best reading of the official Brotherhood announcement of their stated intentions after clashes began. IkhwanOnline announced it rejected violence and went to the presidential palace to ‘protect legitimacy.’ Egypt Independent reported a Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau decision to hold a sit-in at the presidential palace, while Essam al-Erian called on the people to “flood to squares in all governorates, especially at the presidential palace, to protect legitimacy.”

Already convinced there was a conspiracy to unseat them, it appears they could not allow a picture of popular support for the opposition

But was their motive more sinister?

This is the key question, and though the article weighs possibilities, it cannot be determined from located public or reported statements. Certainly if others have found them I would like to know.

Now, of course, their public discourse denies anything, claiming they were the victims. Their rhetoric, though, is telling – indicating a great conspiracy against them, their paranoia it exists, or their invention thereof:

The day of the clashes IkwanOnline collected round-ups on the events from newspapers around the world. They chose to headline this article, however, quoting a detail from the New York Times. “Wealthy and Christians Demonstrate at Ittihadiya [the name of the presidential palace],” it read.

Meanwhile, al-Fajr reports former Brotherhood parliamentarian Sayyid al-Atweil told the Islamic channel Hafez that Copts led the armed thugs in their confrontations. He claims to have seen Copts entering churches carrying weapons. Earlier, the Freedom and Justice newspaper reported Naguib Sawiris, a wealthy Coptic businessman and financier of the liberal Free Egyptian Party, was also being investigated for inciting insurrection.

And as mentioned above, President Morsi stated the violence was tied to ‘political parties’.

May Egypt traverse these waters safely. Please click here to read the whole article at EgyptSource.

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Personal

Rethinking Iran

English: President of Iran @ Columbia University.

Three reports related to Iran came across my attention this past week. All three cast doubts upon the common American narrative of Iran as an evil Islamic nation bent on destroying Israel through a developing nuclear weapons capability. There may be ample reason for the United States to oppose Iran as a geopolitical opponent; care must be taken, however, that American public opinion not submit to manipulative propaganda or self-deceit over assumed righteousness.

An example of this last sentence may be viewed here on YouTube, in which a TV commentator argued the US has the ‘moral authority’ to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, which ‘deserves to be annihilated’ because they are ‘evil’.

This rhetoric is parallel to the statement of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to ‘wipe Israel off the face of the earth’. Lest the tit-for-tat be accepted and dismissed as the voice of two extremists, however, the first report suggests Ahmadinejad’s statement was never made at all.

Shortly after his election in 2005, the New York Times quoted Ahmadinejad in a conference entitled ‘A World without Zionism’, ‘As the imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.’

In a full translation, the NYT issued a slightly different version: ‘Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map.’

Perhaps this translation, however, also took liberties.

In analyzing the speech and providing a word for word translation, Arash Norouzi states Ahmadinejad said: ‘The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.’ Click here for his further analysis, including a survey of how this quote transformed itself in the media into ‘from the face of the earth’, as well as the context in which the quote from the Ayatollah Khomeni – not Ahmadinejad – is utilized.

The brief story, interestingly, does not simply blame Western powers with outright invention. Rather, it was the Iranian IRNA news agency which (mis?)translated his statement as ‘wiped off the face of the map.’ From here the story has become well known, and Ahmadinejad has been compared to a new Hitler desiring a new Holocaust.

Only God knows what is in his heart. Yet from his words he is not arguing for a nuclear strike to demolish Israel as a nation. He is wishing the removal of the Israeli government which according to international law illegally occupies Palestinian land. As Arab revolutions have called for the fall of the regime – Mubarak, etc – he was not specifically calling for the destruction of the state, let alone the Jews as a people.

There is a more than fair possibility Ahmadinejad views Israel, like many Muslims, as an illegitimate creation of Western dominance, and would wish to see its disappearance as a political entity. Repetition of ‘wiped off the map’ or ‘from the face of the earth’, however, must not be utilized in a campaign to demonize him or the Iranian regime.

He did not say it.

Could he do it? Well, this is the focus of the continual focus on Iran’s purported efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. This second news item was widely reported, so it is likely to have already entered American consciousness. While the UN’s atomic energy watchdog has reported that Iran is taking credible steps to enrich uranium, the New York Times released a report doubting Iranian efforts to make a bomb.

The NYT report relies on what it terms ‘the consensus of American intelligence agencies’. That is, our people tasked with determining what is happening on the ground do not believe Iran is undertaking steps to develop a nuclear weapon. Read the whole article for what uranium enrichment might entail, as well as the Israeli intelligence opinions which doubt the American consensus.

As above, the truth of the matter may be difficult to obtain. The point is to take note of all evidence which runs counter to a rush at demonization, and worse, a call to war. The call has not been issued yet, but some are certainly arguing for a pre-emptive strike, at the least.

The third news item is not as geopolitically important as the first two, but serves similarly to call into question established conventional wisdom. There is palpable fear, much of it reasonable, that the Arab revolutions opened the door to the rule of a backwards and inflexible sharia law. Of the Muslim nations in the world, Iran is one of the few to actually seek its full implementation.

This is why it is noteworthy to recognize the Iranian parliament amended all laws to forbid the penalty of stoning, whether for adultery or other offenses.

That this is a debate at all will lend evidence to common Western opinions about the backwardness of Iran and the nature of Islamic sharia. The more nuanced point to take away is that Iran – far removed from any need to polish its reputation to the West – decided to reinterpret sharia. The linked article details the internal controversy this has sparked, but gives evidence that a legal reference to sharia, demanded by many Islamist parties, does not necessarily entail draconian provisions cemented during the Middle Ages.

None of the above argues in favor of sharia, only that in all cases, what is accepted as the law of God can only be implemented by the hands of men. Men can be just or unjust with any legal code, not all of which are equal.

A fourth news item, however, serves to reinforce the common narrative. Christian pastor and Muslim convert Youcef Nadarkhani still faces the sentence of hanging for his apostasy.

Does Iran hate Israel and desire its destruction? Is it seeking to produce a nuclear weapon? Does it enslave its people through medieval codes of justice?

The answer to each of these questions is maybe. It is the task of diplomats, intelligence agents, and human rights activists to answer this question more definitively, and it is the task of media to convey their answers to the public.

What I fear is that some media has also taken upon itself the task of simplification at the least, obscuration perhaps, and manipulation at the worst. Many paint Iran as the chief obstacle to world stability, yet this map – however disputable in detail – paints a different picture as to which nation is under threat:

American Military Bases Surrounding Iran

It is a given that every nation must pursue its interests, and these are often at odds with one another. Yet the United States suffers from the inconvenient reality that the majority of its population holds to a sense of morality vis-à-vis interests. In order to take decisive steps in the international arena, the government must assure the public it is an issue including right versus wrong.

In the case of Iran, the United States may well be ‘right’. America has strong and legally enshrined traditions of freedom, human rights, and respect for national sovereignty. Yet we must be aware not only of the above counter-interpretations concerning Iran, but moreover the reality of this American truism. We are not free to simply impose our will, we must remain a defender of freedom and justice for all.

Were this not so we could simply be an empire.

Therefore, when the truism is summoned, it can also be doubted. Is our Iranian policy determined by freedom and justice, or are these principles manipulated to support a more interests-based global agenda? I don’t know, and the problem is the vast majority of the public does not know either. But at the very least, we must ask the question, and not allow misrepresentation when it is discovered.

 

Note: One posited explanation can be found here, defining the issue in terms of global energy and currency. Common tropes, to be sure, which also deserve to be questioned.

 

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Personal

The New York Times in Cairo: Michael Slackman

Michael Slackman is the Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, having served in this position for the past five years. Previously he worked in Albany, Los Angeles, and Russia, and this summer he will be ending his stay in Egypt to become bureau chief of Berlin. This move is forced upon him, as he has become blacklisted in Iran, and all but blacklisted additionally in Syria, Libya, and Algeria. Covering the Middle East is nearly impossible if the doors to these nations are closed. He leaves sadly, but with full appreciation for life abroad and the privileges it brings in being able to see the world through the eyes of another.

This is the perspective Slackman spoke of during a public lecture the evening of April 15 at the Abraham Forum. This initiative was developed by St. John’s Church as an effort to build bridges between East and West, Muslim and Christian, at the point of intersection in the church’s backyard of Maadi, Cairo. Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler introduced Slackman with these words, believing the reflections of such a high placed journalist would help enlighten the local expatriate community about realities in the Middle East.

Slackman began his presentation by remarking that if those in attendance had done a Google search on his name, they may not have been interested to come. Spoken tongue-in-cheek, he explained how his work has come under much criticism. He has always made it his ambition to engage people in a free and open exchange of ideas, allowing the subjects he covers to be able to express themselves in a forum otherwise impenetrable. Unless the media carries their voices, the people of the Middle East will remain unheard.

Though Slackman emphasized he only reports, never advocates, this interest in conveying faithful representation has engendered significant controversy. He tries to show the cultural and political nuances of the word ‘terrorism’. He depicts wide questioning of the Holocaust. He even writes how the oft-perceived trash dump is in reality a loosely organized but effective recycling center. In all matters he defends his practice as both good journalism and in the interests of the United States. Should not a policy maker desire to know the reality of what people are thinking?

Slackman gains his perspective through the challenging but rewarding work of face-to-face journalism, certainly with political figures but primarily with people on the street. Though he requires the use of a translator he states that it is very easy to get to know Egyptians. As he has “hung out” with them he has sensed that they desire to make themselves known. Both here and elsewhere this gives him an appreciation for the “little things” that make such a difference in understanding a people and their culture.

Unfortunately, he states, these little things were lost on the United States during the invasion of Iraq. Everyone who lives in the Arab world understand that the hand signal for ‘slow down’ is to turn your palm upward and put your fingers together, bobbing it up and down. The US military signal, however, is to raise your fist and knock, as if against a door. Slackman stated he was reticent to say what this signal meant to the people of Iraq, as it was quite uncouth, but this failure to communicate caused countless incidents as Iraqis approached checkpoints and each misunderstood the ‘go slow’ signals of the other. Add this to the fact that the military could not comprehend that the “We love Bush” slogans they received were only the knee-jerk reaction mirroring the “We love Saddam” chants offered to the prior ruling power, and Iraq was a disaster waiting to happen, but could have been prevented.

A vital difference highlighted by Slackman which goes far beyond the “little things” is the role of religion in society. In the United States it is common that a newspaper have a religion reporter, who occupies a rather minor and generally limited sphere of importance. This pattern though is impossible in Egypt and the Middle East, where religion touches upon and intertwines with every subject imaginable. For most people of the region the first identity is ‘Muslim’, second is the particular nationality, and third is ‘Arab’. Any reporting must take these factors into consideration.

Unfortunately, not only is it difficult for many Western reporters to appreciate the primacy of religion, the nature of religious perspective is also incomprehensible to them. His first example was from conversation with Fayyoumi fisherman near the Cairo island of Manial. When asked what religion meant, they esteemed the traditional pillars of Islam – prayer, fasting, etc. – but emphasized it was that God had placed a ceiling on their life, and they were to be content therein. Questioned if this indicated they did not have to work hard they disagreed. Within their allotment they must work hard to succeed. Transcending their position in life, however, was impossible. It is, as is always heard, in sha’ allah – if God wills. Due to this fact, and the fleeting nature of life, the only solution is to pray.

The second example was from Saudi young men who accompanied him on trips to the desert. Over time he got them to open up and from them he learned much about their society. One such lesson, however, was quite disturbing. One young man accused Slackman of being reckless. When asked why, he responded that he did not consider the danger joining these young men in the desert accompanied by his female translator. Should he wish, the man stated he would get rid of Slackman and then sexually approach the woman, raping her if she resisted. The other young men all nodded along, none disturbed or offended by this line of communication. When asked how this fit into their understanding of morality and religion, they stated that the mistake of a man stays in his pocket, but the mistake of a woman shames the whole tribe. Apparently, for him, this was enough.

On a third occasion Slackman was being asked about his religion, and he responded with admirable notions: I try to be a good person, I look to help others, I maintain a good family. To his surprise this was responded to with the follow-up question, “So you don’t believe, then?” Since then Slackman has utilized his lesson from the fisherman, and now answers, “Life is fleeting, so what is there to do but pray?” This answer has received much better reception. Reflection on these episodes, however, has led Slackman to criticize much Western religious reporting as focused on ritual, rather than on spirituality; unfortunately, as he finds in many Middle Easterners, this is how they manifest their religion.

When asked specifically about religious relations in Egypt, Slackman compared the situation to race relations in the United States. When whites are polled about the state of relations most hold that things are just fine. Most blacks, however, state they are the same as always and not getting better. It is a matter of majority-minority difference in perceptions. Without confirming local Coptic opinion, he has experienced, and conveys, that they almost universally decry their position.

In proceeding to describe the murders committed at Nag Hamadi he indicated sympathy for some of their complaints. After the atrocities the government in issuing its condemnation clearly and unequivocally stated that this was not a sectarian incident. Yet when it put forward its explanation, it did so in clear and unequivocal sectarian language. They did not put it that an Egyptian took revenge against an Egyptian rapist, but instead it was for the Christian rape of a Muslim girl. Unless the government acknowledges that sectarian tension is a problem, Slackman insisted, things will never improve.

Throughout his lecture Slackman often reiterated his great privilege of living overseas in general and in the Middle East in particular. This has not been for the Pyramids, or the Nile, but because of the nature and friendliness of the people themselves. He ended his presentation, however, with a statement of disappointment. The first is that he had to leave the region due to blacklisting, and that in particular he would not again be allowed to enter Iran. It is such an interesting country, the most pro-American of any regional population.

His second disappointment was that he was never able to interview President Mubarak. Had he the chance, he would have asked two questions. First, what do you believe is your legacy? Secondly, with all seriousness, why can you not pick up the garbage? These questions best summed up the political and social coverage he has devoted to Egypt. Michael Slackman was faithful to the people of Egypt and devoted to cover both breaking news and slice-of-life stories. The next Cairo Bureau Chief will have big shoes to fill, and at least these two questions to pursue.

To read a recent article by Michael Slackman on the health of President Mubarak and the future of Egypt, click here.