MERIP Blog

Booyah! Growing Up Amidst Revolution

by Joshua Stacher | published January 10, 2013 - 5:40pm

As any parent can tell you, kids are profoundly shaped by what goes on around them that is outside the parents’ control. Witness the socialization of my daughter, 8, half-Egyptian, half-American and living in Cairo, over the last two years. If nothing else, it’s a window upon how Egypt’s political transformation has been experienced by people younger than the “youth” who are usually credited with driving the whole thing.

During the initial uprising in January 2011, I knew my daughter was safe even if the tape loops on Al Jazeera and CNN suggested an impending descent into chaos. Nonetheless, with the telephone lines clogged and the Internet shut down by the state, I was uneasy, keeping a careful eye on news of school closures. When I finally got through on the phone, I found one bored little girl on the other end of the line. “Hey Dad,” she greeted me, cool as the other side of the pillow. Was she OK? What was she up to, since there was no school? She sighed, “Not much. I go to see friends during the day, but I have to return home early. I miss school. And the club is closed, too.” “Daddy,” she huffed, her voice rising above the former monotone. “Mubarak has to go.” Amidst my relief, I laughed to myself: Mubarak had managed to lose even the kid demographic.

Months later, I took her on a tour of Tahrir Square, where she had not yet been. She enjoyed the festive atmosphere and proudly donned her new “Free Egypt” T-shirt. When I asked her if she knew what had happened there, she looked at me as if I were a moron. “Dad,” she said, “everyone knows: Al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam.”

More recently, it seems, Egyptian kids’ demeanor has gotten a bit darker. In late December, we were strolling along the Potomac with a colleague and his daughter. My colleague asked my girl what she thought of Muhammad Mursi. She curtly replied, “I hate him.” I interceded, “So were you for Shafiq?” She answered, “No. I hate him, too. In Egypt, all presidents just take power so they can steal all the money.” Pretty heavy for an 8-year old, and rather unlike how her peers are raised to think about national leaders in the other country in which she holds a passport.

At another moment over the holidays, I had something she wanted. She would reach for it and I would pull away at the last second. We carried on with the game until I let my guard down, thinking she had given up. In a flash, she snatched the item away from me, exclaiming, “Booyah! Muhammad Mursi!” Bemused at the eruption of American sportscaster argot, I asked her what in the world she meant. It’s a game the boys (not the girls) play at school, she explained. When a boy does something that takes another by surprise, he yells at his stunned playmate, “Booyah! Muhammad Mursi!” Why? She looked at me seriously: “It’s his style” (Mursi’s) -- in your face, whether you like it or not.

I’m not sure how “Booyah!” made it from the Urban Dictionary into the patois of Egyptian schoolchildren with its original meaning largely intact. Or how the kids figured out how to deploy the expression in a way that conceivably could make both a Mursi backer and a Mursi opponent smile.

My daughter’s is just one experience. Other Egyptian kids undoubtedly have invented other amusements with other meanings; they are internalizing and “playing” national politics in ways that emerge from their own socio-economic backgrounds and personal circumstances. But it is such incorporations of politics into everyday pastimes that will inform the feelings of Egyptian kids about their country’s recent past, as much as any future history lesson.

Syrian Kurds on the Verge of Crisis

by Sirwan Kajjo | published January 7, 2013 - 6:55pm

With the civil war in Syria past the point of no return, the country’s economy is undergoing unprecedented shrinkage. Inflation is running rampant. Purchasing power is plummeting as the value of the Syrian pound falls against the US dollar.

Damascus and Aleppo, the main economic hubs, are badly affected, but the country’s eastern and northeastern regions are also in dire straits.

For rural areas, including Syrian Kurdistan, the war’s effects have been devastating. Prior to the revolution, Syrian Kurds depended heavily on commerce with Aleppo and other large cities. These trade routes were among the busiest in all of Syria. But all that is history, now that Aleppo and the surrounding province are embroiled in the war.

Syrian Kurds, bordered by two booming economies in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, had hoped that geography might offer them some economic advantage. But Turkey has clamped down on the Syrian borders, making it nigh impossible for businessmen (even smugglers) to carry on. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, the border is at the mercy of intra-Kurdish politics. The Syrian side of the boundary is manned by forces affiliated with the Union Democratic Party (PYD), which is closely tied with the PKK, which in turn is at war with the Turkish state. As a result, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, anxious to soothe its new Turkish ally’s feelings, has closed the Syrian crossings for much of the winter. (The central government in Baghdad periodically closed its crossing at al-Qa‘im for the same reasons.) The local Kurds on the Syrian side grumble about the treatment they receive from KRG guards when they try to fetch basic goods for their afflicted region.

Although the KRG’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has announced the reopening of the borders, it is unclear as yet what the long term will bring. The KRG has no apparent strategy toward the Syrian Kurds, and seems driven instead by political disagreements with certain groups among them.

The KRG once seemed intent on containing the crisis among their brethren in Syria. When signs of danger first loomed, KRG authorities opened their arms to thousands of Kurdish refugees, particularly those who were fleeing violence in Damascus and the northern parts of the Aleppo governorate. Within a few weeks, the Domiz camp in northern Iraq hosted some 15,000 Syrian Kurds. For a time, the families in Domiz lived well compared to their countrymen who had sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. By mid-September 2012, however, the influx had tripled and KRG resources had failed to keep pace. Local sources in Erbil estimated the numbers of people crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan at 500 per day. The KRG declared itself incapable of taking in so many. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees operation at Domiz is running low on tents.

In the past 45 days, meanwhile, the cost of living crisis has become unbearable on the Syrian side of the border. Food prices are sky high. Fuel for heating and cooking is scarcely to be found. The entire neighborhood celebrates when there are two uninterrupted hours of electricity in a day. Many families have relocated from one part of Syrian Kurdistan to another, but such moves are of no help, as economic travails are essentially the same countrywide. Many others have resorted to camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, but flight is not an option for most of the 3 million Kurds living in Syria.

The situation is critical. No one knows when the Syrian civil war will end, let alone how. The Kurds, who once thought they had a political trump card, now seem poised to lose it amidst economic collapse, unless the KRG reenters the scene. For now, humanitarian needs are urgent. A campaign of assistance, mounted by the KRG and international NGOs, is the best place to start.

The Walls of Tahrir

by Jessica Winegar | published January 6, 2013 - 12:40pm

In recent years, walls have proliferated in Egypt. Some, as Samuli Schielke and I write in the new issue of Middle East Report, are liberally decorated with political graffiti and other, more quotidian types of writing. Whether thus adorned or not, the barriers confront citizens with political and economic power rendered in concrete.

Under Mubarak, posh gated communities mushroomed on the outskirts of Cairo to house the elites who had benefited from government privatization schemes, corrupt back-room deals or both. The developers built the ramparts high to keep out the riff-raff. Meanwhile, the government itself walled off public parks, libraries and other facilities, further diminishing the amount of open space accessible to everyone.

In the post-Mubarak era, after each set of clashes in which State Security or its hired hands have attacked and killed protesters, the state has thrown up barricades on some of the nation’s busiest streets. The goal is to block protester access to key government installations. Nowhere is this aim more apparent than at the locus of the revolution: Tahrir Square.

There, several huge cement-block walls now completely obstruct what were once major thoroughfares leading to, through and around the square. Mammoth blocks sit, for example, in Muhammad Mahmoud, Sheikh Rihan, Qasr al-‘Ayni and Mansour Streets, as well as in the nearby Simon Bolivar Square -- thereby cutting off the majority of roadways leading from Tahrir to the much-hated Ministry of the Interior and the Parliament building. Crowds would now have to scale or tear down the walls to demonstrate at those locales. Whatever their “security” justification, the barriers have greatly hindered mobility in a city already infamous for its clogged arteries. With most of the square closed off to transit and a significant portion turned into a parking lot, completely new traffic patterns have emerged.

On one public bus whose route once went through Tahrir, the driver asked passengers to choose an alternative path. Riders debated what he should do: It was midday in December, already a busy time, and rush hour was approaching. Several passengers advised the driver not to take July 26 Street through Bulaq; with the economy tanking and police still absent much of the time, the street has become a vast informal market teeming with peddlers and makeshift stalls. Together, the riders reached a decision upon the avenue least likely to be hopelessly backed up. The state has the brute power to block traffic, but not to dictate the behavior of public-sector bus drivers, who stray from their official routes as needed.

Similar dialogues occur in taxis. The walls are universally despised, but drivers and passengers seem to direct blame according to larger political preference. Those who are frustrated with the Mursi government see the walls as limiting freedom of movement for no good reason, while Mursi backers excoriate revolutionaries for forcing the state to build the barriers.

“I’ve had to go halfway around the world just to get here!” An exasperated man yelled into his cell phone. “Are we colonized or what?” Along with two dozen others, he and I were trying to get from Tahrir Square to a warren of government offices on nearby Qasr al-‘Ayni Street.

Some of us had come in private cars, taxis and buses forced to navigate the convoluted new traffic patterns; others had wandered underground for 15 minutes or more, looking for a way out of the subway station sprawling beneath the square. Several of the exits, all of which once disgorged tens of thousands of passengers and pedestrians above ground every day, are now closed with locked metal doors. The stairs leading upward from the blocked exit at the corner of Muhammad Mahmoud Street, next to the American University in Cairo, are now filled with garbage and human feces. Once on the sidewalks, which are still gouged and broken after the past two years’ confrontations, we had headed in this direction and that, searching in vain for doorways cut into the massive partitions, asking each other which way to go. As we milled about, the inevitable repartee sprang up: Where are you going? How long have you been trying to get there? What kind of country are we living in? One man repeated, “You’ll have to go down to the river to get where you’re going.” Leery of going so far out of the way, we climbed up the sand piles dumped near the walls, hoping to find a quicker, if not easier passage.

We walked to Simon Bolivar Square, a stone’s throw from Tahrir and the site of street battles in late November 2012, but we found that route newly blocked as well. Several of us stopped to watch a group of young men -- many in suits or dress slacks -- as they tried to break through a narrow area of barbed wire between one of the concrete walls and an adjacent metal gate. It was tempting, but most of us decided to avoid the risk of tearing our clothes. Instead, complaining the whole way, we joined the new stream of foot traffic that indeed goes all the way down to the river, heading down the Nile Corniche before looping back to the east, past a US Embassy compound even more fortified than in the past, to the other side of the Tahrir barriers. When we finally arrived at the government offices, a woman asked me for a Kleenex to wipe off her shoes, which had been soiled in the sand piles and torn-up streets.

Most Egyptians need the state, whether for transportation, documentation, secure employment or all three. But the state’s new walls have added gratuitous hassle and dirt to their days, most of which were already aggravating and exhausting before. The barriers are a constant reminder to citizens of the state’s ability to transform the experience of urban space at its very core: the center of the capital city. But just as the writing (political and otherwise) on those walls challenges that power, so does creative driving, the small, ephemeral alliances of everyday conversation, the act of clambering over barbed wire while remaining conscious of one’s dignity and appearance.

Since 1989, it has become commonplace to say that all walls eventually fall. Those in Tahrir Square, though they persist as physical obstacles, are already crumbling as a means of control, thanks to the sheer perseverance and ingenuity of ordinary Egyptians.

Images: Wall across Qasr al-‘Ayni St. near Tahrir Square, December 30, 2012; Metro exit at Muhammad Mahmoud St. and Tahrir Square, December 30, 2012 (Jessica Winegar).

A New Green Zone in Sanaa

by Sheila Carapico | published January 1, 2013 - 6:50pm

Welcome to the Sanaa Sheraton! It’s now officially part of an expanded US Embassy estate that some are calling Yemen’s “Green Zone,” the plush, heavily guarded civilian headquarters for revised twenty-first-century “rules of engagement” in the Yemeni “theater.” It’s a risky place to stay.

Behind the Sheraton’s Disneyesque two-story front gate, security cage and walls lie 15 acres with verdant irrigated gardens, an outdoor swimming pool and cabanas, a gymnasium, tennis courts, restaurants serving flown-in Chinese and Mediterranean cuisine, well-stocked liquor cabinets, 255 guest rooms, additional premier suites, cleaning services, meeting facilities, a business center, 30 in-house cable television channels available 24/7, high-speed Internet, vehicle repair garages, security cameras, stations and personnel, and temperamental water supply and heating/cooling systems. As of January 1, 2013, all of this is under new management: the US Department of State.

Starwood Hotels, a worldwide chain that manages Sheraton, Westin and other five-star properties, discontinued operations in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, at the end of 2012. The listed owner, the Kuwaiti Investment Authority, leased it to the State Department so that State could provide secure, comfortable lodging just a stone’s throw from the US Embassy grounds, near the intersection of the Ring Road on what locals call Sheraton Street. The new operators were expected to rehire most of the Yemenis and Asian and other third-country nationals on the multilingual staff, pending intensive security and background checks.

GovBizOpps.com advertised in November 2012 for contractors to provide operation and maintenance for a “diplomatic transit facility” at the standard of a four-star hotel in North America. The request for bids explained that the Chief of Mission (COM) had been using the hotel as “transit lodging” for the past several years for Temporary Duty visitors, the US Marine Corps Security Platoon, authorized contractors and other staff, and decided in May 2011 to move all COM personnel to the site. By that time security regulations prohibited most Westerners carrying diplomatic passports or employed by their governments from driving around without armed escorts, so housing them on Sheraton Street made logistical sense. Potential contractors were invited to a pre-proposal conference on August 28 to see the grand hospitality estate and its operating systems. According to the terms of the bid, US citizens qualifying for “secret facility clearance” would earn hardship pay premiums of 25 percent and an additional hazardous employment rate of 30 percent of salary.

In light of events since then, this hazardous rate may be rising, along with the risks.  

On September 12, amidst popular demonstrations in Cairo and other Muslim cities and the death of an American ambassador in Benghazi, all said to be sparked by the Innocence of Muslims film trailer released by an Egyptian-American provocateur, a couple of hundred young men stormed the US Embassy in Sanaa. They ripped the embassy’s sign from the outer wall, torched tires and a couple of vehicles, burned the American flag and breached the outer gates of the security entrance. Yemeni guards returned fire. This gathering was no impromptu assembly of populists: Sheraton Street, a divided highway with no sidewalks or bus stops but several military checkpoints, is far off the beaten track for pedestrians or people traveling by public transportation. While thousands of men and women massed downtown demanding a just resolution to the country’s long-standing political crisis, scores of armed militants purposely converged on the embassy in an SUV convoy. There was lots of speculation about who had sent them. Salafi extremists? Loyalists of the deposed president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih? Was it related to what had happened in Libya?

The threat level spiked at year’s end. In late December, the al-Malahim Foundation, an unstable website advertised as al-Qaeda’s media arm in Yemen, announced bounties, payable through June 2013, of some $160,000 in gold for the killing of the American ambassador to Yemen and $23,000 for the deaths of American soldiers in Yemen, in order “to encourage and inspire jihad.”  

Years earlier, in 2000, a second-rate but incongruously prescient feature film called Rules of Engagement, based on a story written by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, depicted a mob rioting outside a poorly defended American mission in Sanaa. The set designers, anachronistically enough, placed the quaint diplomatic compound in a popular neighborhood. Once upon a time, US envoys welcomed American citizens and Yemeni visa seekers at an architecturally distinguished stone-and alabaster South Arabian mansion near the city center. It featured charming enclosed gardens of indigenous flora, and opened onto a cobblestone plaza, as in the movie. But after the 1982 explosions in Beirut killed emissaries and spies, a new state-of-the-art fortress was constructed out on what had been terraced fields near the upscale Sheraton (then newly built) and a new gated community to house Yemeni military officers.

Gone were the days when Americans in Yemen could stroll over to the Embassy and flash their passports or let drop a phrase of American vernacular to the guards in order to swim in the pool. Gone were the days when diplomats roamed the suq.

And yet Rules of Engagement depicted Yemenis (actually, the actors, costumes and venues seemed Moroccan), including women and children, mobbing a central destination where a hapless ambassador quivered under his desk until Marines staged a guns-blazing rescue. In the movie rendition, even a girl who appeared to be disabled pulled the trigger of an AK-47 (or Kalashnikov) semi-automatic rifle. There followed courts-martial for the Marines, who were accused of slaughtering civilians. The moral of Hollywood’s version of Webb’s story seemed to be that the tribunals were wrongheaded: All Yemenis could be crazed terrorists, and the rules meant to inhibit the Marines from gunning them down were foolhardy.

This fictional message has since been internalized as soldierly doctrine. There are few if any rules in Yemen, the theater of operations in the “war on terror.” The counter-terror campaign does not distinguish fighters from little girls or, especially, men of fighting age. On December 24, two US drone strikes (scroll to YEM123) killed five suspected militants in al-Bayda and Hadramawt provinces. These were more salvos in an ongoing battle of scores of bombardments by drone or fixed-wing aircraft since 2002, most in the past few years. Several high-profile al-Qaeda operatives, some nameless armed men, and assorted family members and innocent civilians have been blown to smithereens by Hellfire missiles. In the last days of 2009 Obama authorized a strike (scroll to YEM002) that left at least 20 children and a dozen women dead in the southern town of al-Majala, along with one militant. Later the American-born Anwar Nasir al-Awlaqi, a preacher suspected of inspiring the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shootings and the failed “crotch bombing” aboard a Detroit-bound commercial airliner at Christmas 2009, was killed; weeks later, so was his teenaged son. Even American citizens are not due trial before execution, evidently.

Most of the over 50 recorded air attacks inside Yemen in 2012 are known or supposed to have been launched by Americans. Most dramatically, a September 2 airstrike (scroll to YEM114) near Rada‘, an historically important but now godforsaken, fly-blown town in al-Bayda province where al-Qaida militants had encamped, exterminated three children and nine other civilians. Around Rada‘ and many other towns, the maddening overhead buzz of drones is a persistent token of American surveillance. The Obama administration’s remote-controlled “signature strikes” directive posthumously deems any able-bodied men in the line of fire legitimate targets in the war on terror. This is the shoot-first-ask-questions-later opposite of the premise of Rules of Engagement.

Despite its intensifying involvement in Yemen, the United States has not formulated a Yemen policy or even a genuinely diplomatic mission there. Instead it has a policy of keeping the Saudi monarchy secure and happy; and a related counter-terrorism policy that is an extension of the post-September 11 “Af-Pak” strategy. Washington regards Yemen as a theater of counter-terrorism in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. It’s as if it isn’t a real place where real people demand decent governance or respect for human rights. The Obama administration has wasted scant breath supporting Yemen’s demonstrators for democracy and social justice. US ambassador Gerald Feierstein was tapped for his counter-terrorism credentials as well as his diplomatic experience. He works closely with intelligence and military officers. During the protracted negotiations under the Saudi-led initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council to facilitate a transition from the rule of Salih to the presidency of his deputy ‘Abid Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, Washington’s envoy was a spy agency operative, John Brennan, not someone with a State Department pedigree or Hillary Clinton’s ear. The American reaction to Yemen’s prolonged pro-democracy uprising in 2011-2012 was not to provide moral support to activists clamoring for social justice, much less to call for free elections or women’s rights. Rather, Obama, Clinton, Brennan and Feierstein sought to placate Riyadh by battling an enemy called AQAP.

Best known in the US for a pathetic dildo bomb planted on a Yemeni-trained Nigerian bound by air for Detroit, AQAP is often said to constitute a grave threat to the American homeland. Local commanders and spokespersons reveled in the publicity, a boon for recruitment of jihadi wannabes from inside and outside Yemen, whose numbers swelled from a couple of hundred to perhaps a couple thousand. 
 
AQAP is an unconventionally bilingual neologism, neither English fish nor Arabic fowl. AQ stands for the Arabic-language al-Qa‘ida, giving extraordinary grammatical weight to the definite article, al-. AP stands, in English, for the Arabian Peninsula. The Pentagon-speak acronym AQAP, adopted as if it were a proper noun by the US-based punditocracy and security wonks, evokes an image of formidable military prowess, perhaps rivaling the former USSR. The Anglophone abbreviation both does and does not convey the meaning in the Arabic phrase al-Qa‘ida fi al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya, which suggests a rebellion in the whole peninsula, stretching beyond Yemen to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf princedoms. Whereas the Arabic phrase signifies struggle against local despots, the English acronym is coded as a terrorist menace to the United States. As such, “targeted strikes” against “AQAP” suspects can be portrayed not as intervention but as self-defense -- operations to preempt another September 11.

The US is now fully yet incompletely engaged in South Arabia. In addition to surveillance and frequent bombardments, American measures to “stabilize” Yemen now include provision of light aircraft, armed vehicles, gadgetry and training; direct military cooperation with and command-and-control backing for Yemeni forces; cheerleading for al-Hadi’s restructuring of Yemen’s military command; some humanitarian assistance and token support for civilian civil society initiatives; protection for the “Green Zone”; and extra coordination with Saudi security institutions to make sure that Yemen’s multiple conflicts don’t spill across the border. Efforts to engage pro-democracy activists, Houthi rebels and/or Southern separatists are marginal compared to the escalating drone war.

The managerial acquisition of the Sheraton campus formally more than doubles the ostensibly diplomatic presence of the US Embassy on the outskirts of Sanaa. In a time when water is running out, electricity fails daily, Finnish tourists are abducted by armed thugs in the city center and kidnappings are no longer a lark, German democracy brokers need armed escorts, students of Arabic no longer study in Yemen, humanitarian organizations register alarm over catastrophic malnutrition, academic researchers have been tarred by pseudo-scholars hunting AQAP, no one quite knows the location of supposed US military bases in and around Yemen (the Seychelles, Ethiopia, inside the country?), and the aspirations of pro-democracy forces remain to be addressed, COM needs a facility adjoining the Embassy grounds -- itself already a spacious fortified complex of barriers, set-backs, reception areas, offices, sports facilities, the ambassador’s residence, dormitories, high-tech security and ecologically improbable lawns -- to accommodate American consultants and experts.

On one level, the State Department’s leasing of the Sheraton property across the street from the Embassy compound merely regularizes a reality whereby more advisers earning hazard pay increments than tourists braving instability are venturing to Sanaa. On another level, the long-term leasing of a property designed and maintained for expatriate luxury and safety signifies the opening of a new American Green Zone in the Arabian Peninsula. This, in turn, is a major step toward a full-fledged US imperial presence in Arabia. It is bound to be fraught with hazards.

Graphic: Front gate of Sanaa Sheraton.

Sudanese Echoes

by Khalid Mustafa Medani | published December 19, 2012 - 3:20pm

In Egypt’s constitutional crisis today, there are echoes of the rise of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Sudan.

In 1989, Sudan was a scant four years removed from the 16-year quasi-dictatorship of Ja‘far Numayri, a former army officer who fancied himself a Sudanese Nasser. Numayri was deposed by generals of Islamist leanings who suspended the constitution, but left in place two legacies of Numayri’s rule: his arbitrary administrative division of southern Sudan and the so-called September Laws, strict interpretations of shari‘a (Islamic law) that Numayri had rammed through in 1983 in an attempt to coopt Islamist challengers in the army and outside it. The generals said these questions should be resolved by an elected Constituent Assembly, which would govern Sudan while drafting a new constitution. The state was at war with rebels in the south.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in 1986, despite many calls by the wide array of social and political groups responsible for the 1985 popular intifada for a longer interim government wherein an assembly without binding legislative powers would draft an interim constitution and legalize all political parties so as to give them time to campaign. These groups, which called themselves “the modern forces” (al-quwat al-haditha), insisted that a longer interim period prior to national elections would allow parties long suppressed and banned by the Numayri regime to organize and campaign across the country. Only then, these “modern forces” said, should there be elections -- rather as much of today’s “civil opposition” in Egypt argued after the fall of Husni Mubarak.

The 1986 balloting returned an Assembly split between the Umma Party and Democratic Union Party (DUP), two venerable political groupings derived from rival Sufi orders. The surprise third-place performer was the NIF, which won 18.5 percent of the vote. The NIF’s strong showing was a result of two important factors: First, the NIF was amply funded since, with significant state largesse and support, they had established a vast array of Islamist-dominated commercial and financial institutions, and second, Numayri had cultivated their support after 1977 when the other opposition parties had refused to enter into a strategic partnership with the regime. It was in this context that the NIF persistently urged early elections. Southerners boycotted en masse. Through various shenanigans, meanwhile, the NIF actually wound up with a seat in the southern city of Juba. Sadiq al-Mahdi of Umma assumed leadership of a tenuous coalition government of shifting membership. The politics of constitution writing were dominated -- and most often paralyzed -- by the twin questions of the south and shari‘a.

Southerners, mostly Christian and animist, naturally opposed the September Laws; so did many northern Muslims, including workers, members of professional syndicates, political parties that had opposed their top-down implementation by Numayri in 1983, and even high-ranking members of the military establishment, who protested against them. As in Egypt today, it was not shari‘a in the abstract that aroused opposition; it was the scope of implementation. In particular, hudud punishments (such as cutting off hands of thieves) were opposed by the vast majority of social and political forces in the country, as was the imposition of shari‘a-derived laws in the south and among non-Muslim minorities in the north. Nor was this opposition limited to secular and liberal forces. Indeed, the wholesale implementation of shari‘a was also opposed by major Islamic sectarian political parties; in late 1988, the leader of the DUP in fact concluded a pact with the Southern People’s Liberation Army calling for suspending the September Laws until such time as a ceasefire could be reached and a more representative constitution-drafting body convened.

Forward to 1989: On March 22, Umma, the DUP and others formed a majority bloc in the Assembly. The goal was to “freeze” shari‘a implementation pending deliberations upon and eventual drafting of a new constitution, as well as pursue a ceasefire in the south. On June 29, Sadiq signed an order suspending the September Laws, which was to be ratified in two days’ time by the Constituent Assembly. Fearing the freezing and possible repeal of shari‘a laws promulgated by the former military regime, and concerned that the centerpiece of their legitimacy would evaporate, on June 30, officers belonging to the NIF staged their military coup.

Under Gen. Omar al-Bashir, the NIF would go on to reinstitute the September Laws, purge non-Islamists from the military, ban all independent labor unions and professional syndicates, suppress political party activity, and persecute and torture political opponents belonging to a wide range of civil society groups. Naturally, these increasingly authoritarian policies not only prolonged the war in the south, they eventually induced southerners to opt for secession.

Despite some key differences, most notably the still largely autonomous Egyptian military establishment and the lack of an ongoing civil war, developments in post-Mubarak Egypt have followed a parallel trajectory. The Muslim Brothers (now sponsoring a political party) did not play a leading role in the initial stages of the popular Tahrir Square uprising, and like their Sudanese counterparts they had been afforded a degree of political accommodation with the previous regime as compared to other political parties and civil society groups. Nevertheless, once Mubarak was ousted the Muslim Brothers pushed for elections quickly despite protests from most of the Tahrir revolutionaries and the organizations and parties they had founded. These forces insisted that a longer interim period would deepen the democratic transition by ensuring that the emergency law was repealed; that long-banned political parties could form freely; that voting laws were put in place to guarantee more representative electoral outcomes; and, most important, that a wide range of political forces responsible for the revolution would have a say in drafting the constitution. Theirs was and remains a representative, rather than majoritarian, view of democracy.

In this context, and in the contemporary Egyptian instance, it would seem that Muhammad Mursi’s presidential decree has served the same purposes as the NIF-inspired military intervention: to outbid opposition parties, to place the executive above the law and to push through constitutional stipulations against the wishes of secular people, non-Muslim Brother Islamists, women, workers and others, while expanding the scope of shari‘a implementation.

The Sudanese echoes are more than faint.

Khaled el-Masri and Empire's Oblivion

by Darryl Li | published December 13, 2012 - 6:46pm

Two of today’s headlines together provide a good example of the work of imperial forgetting. On the front page of the New York Times, a story about the depiction of torture in the forthcoming national revenge flick Zero Dark Thirty shows how little debates have advanced over the past decade. “Reasonable” interlocutors in the Beltway remain stuck in the inane exercise of sparring over whether some utterance extracted by waterboarding in 2003 somehow contributed to the chain of events that led to Navy SEALs shooting an unarmed man in the face at point-blank range in 2011. Torture was bad, but perhaps it was a good thing after all, so no need to investigate the whole truth and hold people accountable. Moving on….

This is where we run into the second headline. Today the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France issued its long-awaited and unanimous decision (summary here) in a suit filed by Khaled el-Masri against Macedonia. El-Masri’s ordeal is one of the best-known horror stories of the war on terror: A German citizen of Lebanese origin, el-Masri was arrested in Macedonia on New Year’s eve in 2003, held incommunicado and interrogated in a hotel for several weeks at the behest of the United States, and then handed over to CIA personnel at Skopje airport. The Court recounts what happened next:

On that occasion [el-Masri] was beaten severely from all sides. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife. His underwear was forcibly removed. He was thrown to the floor, his hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus…a suppository was forcibly administered on that occasion. He was then pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room, where his feet were tied together. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a nappy. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit. A bag was placed over his head and a belt was put on him with chains attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him and blindfolded and hooded him. They bent him over, forcing his head down, and quickly marched him to a waiting aircraft, with the shackles cutting into his ankles.

The CIA held el-Masri in the infamous “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan for five months before dumping him on a roadside in Albania. El-Masri’s secret detention and torture had all been based on a mistaken identification -- one apparently pushed by a CIA analyst who was later promoted to lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden and provides inspiration for a central character in Zero Dark Thirty. The analyst went on to accolades and cinematic immortality; el-Masri, broken by his experience and frustrated by years of waiting for justice, got in trouble with the law back in Germany and cut off contact with his lawyers in 2010. One hopes this decision and its 60,000 euro reward will provide some vindication.

The el-Masri case is part of a larger effort to litigate torture cases from the war on terror in courts worldwide, in response to the US judiciary’s near total refusal to entertain civil suits by survivors (as Lisa Hajjar detailed here). El-Masri himself filed an early case against former CIA director George Tenet, which was thrown out based on an alarmingly expansive reading of the “state secrets” doctrine. Similar petitions are pending in the ECHR against Poland, Romania and Lithuania. El-Masri also has a suit in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The predominance of European countries on this list stems in large part from the fact that Europe was one of the few regions where sufficient political will and resources existed to investigate the worldwide US-driven prison network. We still know next to nothing about transfers between Africa, Asia and the Middle East, which likely involved far more people.

The strategy of going after America’s collaborators in torture and unlawful detention is a reminder that these atrocities cannot be understood simply as morality plays or in terms of adherence to the rule of law: They are also very much part of how imperial power operates in a post-colonial world. US empire works in large part by getting other countries not only to do its dirty work but also to take responsibility for it as sovereign states. State sovereignty provides a legal form through which equal partners can be tied in unequal power relations. The extraordinary rendition program illustrates this perfectly: The CIA got its man and Macedonia was stuck in court taking the blame.

Years before el-Masri’s arrest in Macedonia -- a country whose independence from Yugoslavia was vouchsafed by a small US army contingent operating under the UN flag at a time when Washington was unwilling to commit peacekeepers to Bosnia -- the Balkans were a key site for Washington’s worldwide hunt for suspicious mobile Muslims. In the 1990s, Islamist fighters and charity workers in the region attracted considerable US attention. The first known instance of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program was in Croatia in 1995, when Egyptian Islamist Tal‘at Fu’ad Qasim (interviewed by Hisham Mubarak in 1993 and published here) was arrested and sent home, never to be heard from again. In 1998, the CIA orchestrated the forcible repatriation of several Egyptian Islamists from Albania, who were later tortured and in some instances executed.

If we see the rendition program not simply as tyranny in the abstract but as an exercise in imperial power across borders, then other stakes beyond the individual victims come into clearer focus. US civil libertarians warn that war on terror “excesses” are a threat to democracy; this is true, but it is often other people’s democracies that suffer first. As meticulously documented by the Council on Europe, the CIA decided in establishing secret prisons in Poland not to cooperate with security agencies answerable to parliamentary oversight. Instead, it partnered with the military intelligence service, which maintained a useful network of informants in other state institutions. Barely a decade after emerging from an authoritarian regime, Poland’s unaccountable shadow state apparatus acquired US support to circumvent its own constitutional framework.

The strategy of offshoring torture, of course, has its limits: When clients come under pressure, recriminations can begin. In many of the US court decisions rejecting torture suits, judges cited the fear that litigation would result in official acknowledgment of other governments’ collaboration with Washington, thus straining relations. Ironically, it is sometimes those other governments that have themselves come clean and pointed the finger at their erstwhile patrons. In the el-Masri case, it was no less than former Macedonian Prime Minister Hari Kostov who submitted a statement describing in detail Macedonia’s collaboration with the CIA. “Macedonia’s status as a reliable partner in global counterterrorism was strengthened by the way we carried out this operation. Our US partners expressed great appreciation for Macedonia’s handling of the matter.” Indeed.

Several judges wrote a concurrence to the el-Masri opinion, expressing their disappointment that the Court was not bolder in establishing the principle of a “right to the truth,” the right to an accurate account of what happened and who was responsible. In this sense, el-Masri is the greatest, but not the only, victim -- it is tempting to think that perhaps all of us who live under this imperial order, as citizens or not, are owed some accounting. Instead, with the Obama administration having closed the door on investigations and prosecutions long ago, oblivion is far more likely.

In the American empire, officially sanctioned torture and meager justice for it are both quarantined to unfold in distant lands, headaches primarily for other sovereigns. Meanwhile, in the homeland, the process of national forgetting can move ahead. All that’s left is for a few stale debates and some popcorn propaganda to relegate tales like Khaled el-Masri’s to the footnotes of history.

Update: The original version of this post said that the CIA analyst who misidentified el-Masri is “the basis for” a central character in Zero Dark Thirty. “Provides inspiration for” a central character may be more accurate; Empty Wheel now says she is likely “part of a composite character in Zero Dark Thirty.” The post has been amended accordingly.

Update: Darryl Li is interviewed here about this case by Al Jazeera English (with Glenn Greenwald and Jesselyn Radack).

Graphic: Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly

Why the Anti-Mursi Protesters Are Right

by Ahmad Shokr | published December 7, 2012 - 8:51pm

Perusing US media coverage and analysis of the crisis in Egypt over the last two weeks has been quite disappointing. As the protests against the elected president Muhammad Mursi escalate, the main players in the struggle and the stakes involved are often mischaracterized. Some might ask: Why does this matter?

Discussions about Egypt’s current moment in the United States are important precisely because the Muslim Brothers are eager to secure international legitimacy. The fact that they have a team of high-level foreign policy aides lobbying for them in Washington, when they have yet to open meaningful discussions with the domestic opposition, speaks volumes.

Liberal American analysts and commentators, keen to distance themselves from the post-September 11 legacy of Islamophobia and to give the newly elected Islamists a fair chance, seem to have allowed their allegiances in the US context to shape their understanding of what is happening in Egypt. In the process they have reinforced a number of faulty assumptions.

First faulty assumption: The rival camps in Egypt embody a divide between Islamism and secularism.

That is certainly the line the Muslim Brothers have tried to project in their talking points. But the view from the other side looks different. None of the leaders of the opposition have rejected the long-held dictum that the principles of Islamic law (shari‘a) should be a source of legislation, as stipulated in Article 2 of the constitution. Nor have any of them called for a total dissociation of religion and politics. On the streets, as far as I’m aware, not a single slogan or chant has called for secularism. The opposition’s anger is directed at a more specific target, the Muslim Brothers, who they see as trying to dominate Egyptian politics. These fears are largely grounded in the Brothers’ actions over the last two years.

The mistrust between the Brothers and its opponents has been brewing for a long time. It has less to do with religious convictions and more to do with politics. From the day Mubarak was deposed, the Muslim Brothers have shown disdain for other opposition groups and little interest in building consensus on a road map for the political transition and the fundamentals of the new political order. Instead, they pushed for speedy elections, knowing they were poised to win a near majority, and emerged as an elected power broker rather than a partner in a democratic revolution. When demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square in November 2011 to demand a swifter and more genuine transfer of power to civilians, the Brothers stayed away and claimed the protests were instigated by saboteurs trying to derail the parliamentary elections. After reneging on their promise not to field a presidential candidate and winning the election in June (in part by attracting non-Islamist voters who feared a restoration of the old regime under Ahmad Shafiq), the Brothers failed to deliver a more inclusive constituent assembly, which continued to be dominated by Islamists. After a series of boycotts and withdrawals, many groups -- Christians, women, liberals, leftists -- were left with almost no representation.

Then came Mursi’s November 22 decree, which for many was the last straw. By granting himself sweeping powers and rushing to call for a December 15 referendum on the new constitution, Mursi has given Egyptians a stark choice between being ruled by an unrepresentative constitution or by a dictator. Many have refused this kind of political blackmail. Leading opposition figures, many of whom were dissidents under Mubarak, have called on Mursi to revoke the decree and open the constitution drafting process to broader input. Egyptian human rights groups have almost unanimously echoed these demands. Tens of thousands who joined the protests that brought down Mubarak are back on the streets. Their fight is not for an ill-defined secularism so much as it is for political inclusion and democracy.

Second flawed premise: Islamists are authentic representatives of the majority of Egyptians.

The corollary, of course, is that the opposition represents a secular minority resentful of Islamist rule and unwilling to accept the outcome of legitimate elections. One analyst with the International Crisis Group told the New York Times the persistence of protests was partly due to the opposition’s inability to “come to terms with these defeats, so it tries to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood.” While the latter description may be true of some Mubarak-era state elites that are falling from grace under the new regime, it barely holds for the thousands of protesters who have opposed Mursi’s anti-democratic maneuverings.

There are no empirical grounds for any side to claim a definitive majority. Both the Muslim Brothers (along with their Islamist allies, including the salafis) and the opposition have been able to rally hundreds of thousands of supporters over the last two weeks, evidence of the deepening polarization in Egyptian society. The result of the last election, which Mursi won by the skin of his teeth with a 51 percent majority, suggests the Islamist camp is not the undisputed representative of the masses that it claims to be.

Herein lies the crux of the political crisis in Egypt. With the Muslim Brothers convinced that most Egyptians are behind them and that their opponents are a small, feckless elite, the Brothers have acted as though they possess a democratic mandate to bully their way through the political process. Until their leaders cease to speak of majorities and minorities, and instead recognize that there are different constituencies in Egypt that are large and have legitimate aspirations, the political system will likely remain deadlocked. Or worse, the Brothers may be tempted to resort to repression of political opponents in order to get their way. The incitement of Brotherhood members to clash with opposition protesters on Wednesday, and Mursi’s subsequent threats of legal action against political figures he claims have been financing chaos and violence, could set Egypt on a dangerous path.

Third analytical error: Mursi has made great strides toward civilian democracy and his downfall would mean a return to military rule.

Accusations that, by stalling the political process, the opposition is courting a coup misread the military’s role in the current crisis. The army is equally invested in the existing draft constitution, which keeps their core prerogatives intact: a secretive budget, officers’ control over the Defense Ministry, a strong say in national security decisions and the right to try civilians in military courts. The generals are relieved to have found a civilian partner who can manage day-to-day political affairs, while ensuring that the military has the autonomy to pursue its own interests outside the purview of democratic oversight. These concessions are consistent with the Muslim Brothers’ pattern of refusing to stand up to the generals whenever their own path to power has been at stake.

The draft constitution does not reflect a democratic consensus, as many in the opposition have argued that it should. It reflects an emerging relationship between the Muslim Brothers and existing state institutions, like the army, along with a great deal of appeasement of the salafis, whom the Brothers have embraced as junior partners. The rush to a referendum suggests a deep anxiety among the state elites about continuing instability and a desire to seize the opportunity to cement a new political framework as quickly as possible. More worrisome than the text itself is the vision these leaders have for which voices count and which alliances matter in the new Egypt. Should this vision go unchallenged, the losers would be all those who have been calling for more pluralistic and inclusive system.

In his December 6 post, Jason Brownlee writes, “It is important that the ideological debate between liberalism and Islamism not be seen as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.” Perhaps recent events in Egypt call for a rethinking of these terms. True, liberalism and democracy are not automatic counterparts, no more than Islamism and authoritarianism are. But the battle in Egypt is indeed one between a democracy that reflects the country’s political diversity and a remodeled authoritarianism, led by the Muslim Brothers and their allies, that seeks to circumscribe it.

Israel's "Operation Mow the Lawn"

by Steve Niva | published December 7, 2012 - 4:32pm

One can only imagine the nods of self-satisfaction when an Israel Defense Forces planner came up with “Pillar of Cloud” to name Israel’s subsequent eight-day aerial assault on Gaza. By lifting this metaphor from several well-known passages in the Torah, the IDF sought to portray the operation as a divinely sanctioned mission to clear the skies of Palestinian rockets through an immovable force from above, while also branding its heavily marketed Iron Dome missile defense system. It was a three for one.

Although the Western media quickly renamed the operation “Pillar of Defense” in deference to the IDF’s English-language branding (the proper translation from Hebrew is Pillar of Cloud), the IDF’s shameless invocation of the Torah did not escape the ire of some Jewish critics, including the resourceful anti-occupation blogger Richard Silverstein who commented:

Not satisfied with pursuing war as a political objective to dominate the Palestinians, the IDF has invoked the Torah in calling this operation Pillar of Cloud (as in “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way”). No, I’m sorry. God doesn’t walk with killers. My God doesn’t want blood, either Jewish or Palestinian.

But as the smoke clears from this latest Israeli assault on Gaza, it has also become clear that Israel’s military operation in Gaza was less about clearing the skies above than it was about using violent force to restore the balance of power on the ground in Gaza, suggesting a much more grounded and prosaic metaphor to illuminate its underlying strategic form and logic.

In fact, during Pillar of Cloud it was widely observed that many Israeli commentators and officials preferred the gardening metaphor of “mowing the lawn” or “cutting the grass,” which the New York Times asserted was the “operative metaphor” most widely used in Israel to describe the Gaza operation. Moreover, the ex-CIA analyst Elizabeth Murray reminded us that this metaphor had been frequently used in Israel to describe its Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 that killed over 1,400 Palestinians, which one hardline Israel supporter at a think tank seminar brushed off at the time by saying: “It’s unfortunate, but every once in a while you have to mow the lawn.”

That Pillar of Cloud should have been named “Mow the Lawn” is made clear by the fact that this was a war of choice for Israel; there was no need for a Pillar of Cloud in the first place, whether real or metaphorical. As is now widely known, Israel’s opening salvo in the assault, a drone strike on the senior Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Ja‘bari, extinguished the prospect of a permanent truce between Hamas and Israel that had been in the works and was well-known to Israel’s leadership. The Israeli mediator Gershon Baskin immediately criticized the assassination the next day in the New York Times, claiming that in the hours before he was killed, al-Ja‘bari had obtained Hamas approval for imposing a cessation of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel in exchange for Israel’s easing of its five-year siege of Gaza: “I believe we had a very good chance of working out a long-term ceasefire arrangement without having this war and I think the outcome might have been better.” The respected Israeli reporter Aluf Benn also expressed concern that Israel had “killed its subcontractor” in Gaza, noting that al-Ja‘bari had played a major role in limiting Hamas strikes and policing other groups, and was the only one who could enforce a ceasefire agreement were one agreed upon.

In other words, the Israeli government of Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman could have brought to an end the over 800 rocket strikes on Israel this year and the ongoing trauma of its citizens who live near Gaza -- which Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, later claimed was sole motivation for Pillar of Cloud -- if it had only waited a few more days. As the Israeli analyst Reuven Pedatzur commented in Haaretz, “the decision to kill Jabari shows that our decision makers decided a ceasefire would be undesirable for Israel at this time, and that attacking Hamas would be preferable.”

One of the main reasons Israel’s leadership decided it was preferable to attack Gaza than accept a ceasefire stems from its desire to “trim” the unwelcome growth in Hamas’ military capabilities and its increasingly successful efforts to break out of Israel’s imposed political and economic isolation. Palestinian militants, including Hamas, had rebuilt their stockpiles of weapons since 2008, including extending the operational infrastructure and range of their largely home-made rocket projectiles, as well as the suspected acquisition of Fajr-5 rockets that have an estimated 45-mile range. Moreover, with the recent high-level visit by the Qatari emir Sheikh Khalifa bearing gifts of financial support and a more sympathetic partner in Egypt, Hamas was ending its political isolation and had become emboldened in negotiations over ceasefire terms with Israel, demanding a political solution to the ongoing siege.

Yet more worrisome to the right-wing Netanyahu government was that, as the New York Times noted, it was increasingly the case that “many analysts and diplomats outside Israel say the country today needs a different approach to Hamas and the Palestinians based more on acknowledging historic grievances and shifting alliances,” particularly “a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides.” As the respected analyst Rami Khouri commented, “Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.”

Thus, as with its previous 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 when Israel scuppered a successful Hamas ceasefire in favor of a violent assault, it is clear that Israeli leaders prefer periodically “mowing the lawn” to making a serious effort to reach a political accommodation that might require serious modifications to the status quo: Israel’s regime of domination over Palestinian lives and land, its virtual occupation and siege of Gaza, and its ongoing colonization of the West Bank.

Over the course of Operation Pillar of Cloud, the IDF claims that it targeted and struck over 1,500 “terror sites” including 19 senior command centers, operational control centers and Hamas’ senior-rank headquarters, 30 senior operatives, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites. Israel also inflicted major damage on Palestinian society, setting back the rebuilding from Cast Lead. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented that during the eight-day offensive 156 Palestinians, including 103 civilians, were killed by Israeli forces, in addition to the 1,000 Palestinians, including 971 civilians, who were wounded. Scores of mosques, buildings and at least 55 houses were completely destroyed, while hundreds of other houses sustained significant damages.

Gaza’s lawn had been mown.

The strategic form of Israel’s operations in Gaza is, therefore, best understood as a lethal exercise in population management that aims to restore equilibrium to Israel’s ongoing aerial occupation and siege on Gaza. Israel’s periodic wars on Gaza are not between sovereign states battling across a frontier, but rather a form of governance over the Palestinian population that seeks to regulate, discipline and pacify potential challenges to its rule through punishing and eliminating resistant elements, in many ways similar to America’s increasing use of drone warfare and special operations to pacify potentially threatening populations in the far corners of the globe.

Instead of a serious effort to reach a political solution acceptable to both sides, Israel seems to prefer a state of endless conflict with the Palestinians. Like the US shadow wars in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Israel’s wars are thus becoming a normal and continuous function of state governance, like collecting taxes, enacting laws or even “mowing the lawn,” that is sold to the public as a way of providing “security.” Winning such “wars” does not mean ceasing hostilities but rather managing risk through continuous population management -- which replaces ending violence or solving the social and political problems that produce the challenges to social order in the first place. In sum, Israel’s current wars are the deterrence of politics by other means.

The critical question at this point is whether or not the Israeli government will seek to continue this form of governance over Palestinians via the periodic use of violent sovereign force to cut back the eternally sprouting resistant weeds replenished by injustice, or whether it will eventually adopt a new approach to Hamas and the Palestinians based on “a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides” referred to earlier. If not, as the Israeli columnist Amos Harel noted in Haaretz, it will only be a matter of time “until Israel and Hamas meet again,” as Israel will once again reach for its military machine to mow down the threat of reexamining its 46-year occupation regime over Palestinian lands and lives.

Liberalism vs. Democracy in Egypt

by Jason Brownlee | published December 6, 2012 - 8:02pm

President Muhammad Mursi’s Thursday night address did not mollify protesters, but it clarified the stakes in any dialogue between his supporters and the National Salvation Front led by Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdin Sabbahi and Amr Moussa.

ElBaradei has likened Mursi to Husni Mubarak and demonstrators outside the presidential palace have shouted for Mursi to leave office. Other critics have even drawn analogies to the most notorious fascists of the twentieth century. Charges of tyranny, however, obscure the fact that the two sides have valid but distinct bases of legitimacy.

Whereas the National Salvation Front’s partisans represent Egyptian liberals and their views of individual rights, they cannot claim a democratic mandate. Conversely, Mursi and his dominant Freedom and Justice Party can invoke democratic legitimacy for their form of religious conservatism -- hence, the president cited the “will of the people” in his speech. They have disregarded, however, the minority of Egyptians who are committed to a liberal political system. These visions -- liberal and Islamist -- must be reconciled if Egypt is to avoid the contemporary menace of religious majoritarianism and the old nightmare of secular authoritarianism. In the meantime, the opposition’s delegitimation campaign threatens the Egyptian revolution’s greatest achievements to date -- the enfranchisement of the Egyptian people and the sequestering of the Egyptian military.

Despite charges that Mursi is a new pharaoh, during the past 21 months Egyptians have participated in a series of increasingly democratic elections while producing a political system that is less and less autocratic. To the chagrin of liberals who drove the original uprising, though, elections have ratified their isolation from the Egyptian masses.

Two months after Mubarak resigned, the groups now behind the National Salvation Front argued that a constitution should precede elections; 78 percent of Egyptian voters endorsed the opposite plan. In the Egyptian republic’s first democratic parliamentary elections, liberal candidates won less than a quarter of the seats. (The indirectly appointed constitutional assembly reflected this outcome, as liberals and representatives from Egyptian churches comprised one fifth of the body.) After their dynamic standard bearer, the leftist Sabbahi, placed third in the presidential elections, with 20.4 percent, liberals split their votes in the runoff between a life-long Islamist, Mursi, and a Mubarak-era holdover, Ahmad Shafiq. Mursi edged Shafiq 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent to become “the most democratically chosen national leader in Egyptian history.”

Now the Front’s triumvirate has called for appointing a fresh constitutional assembly “more reflective” of the people’s will. While purporting to seek national consensus, however, liberals are reincarnating the anti-democratic elitism of the ancien regime. Through urban protests they are trying to undo the product of multiple national elections and constitutional deliberation by democratically chosen representatives. Beneath the slogans against the president lies the old argument of Mubarak and his cronies: Secular authoritarianism is preferable to a democracy infused with faith. More troubling still, when protesters chant for Mursi’s downfall in scenes reminiscent of the original 18-day uprising, they are all but banking on military intervention. Courting a coup against Mursi or prolonging Egypt’s transition risks erasing the great strides made toward popular sovereignty and civilian control over the state.

So far in his tenure Mursi can be credited with both enabling and endangering Egyptian democracy. After taking office, he quickly proved himself more than a figurehead for the then-ruling junta, forcing the country’s top generals (and provisional overlords) into retirement. The move did not ensure civilian sovereignty, but it inaugurated a historic -- and more democratic -- balance between the country’s civilian and uniformed leaders. Never before had the authority of 13 million Egyptian voters eclipsed the 21 men on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Rather than being a civilian leader for all Egyptians, though, Mursi rapidly alienated the very constituencies he vowed to represent: Christians, women, revolutionary youth and millions of other non-Islamists. First, he broke his promise to appoint Coptic and female vice presidents. Then he declined to attend the enthronement of Pope Tawadros, a squandered opportunity for inter-faith detente at the highest level. More generally, he has remained firmly in the camp of the Muslim Brothers, rather than dissociating himself and building a politically diverse core staff. The final straw for the liberal opposition was when Mursi declared himself beyond judicial oversight until voters approved a new constitution.

The president’s partisans in the Constituent Assembly ensured that the period would be brief but polarizing. They hurriedly drafted a constitution that was economically neoliberal and religiously conservative, in the process ignoring the concerns of non-Islamists who had withdrawn in protest. Unapologetic FJP representatives have stated that their local constituents support Mursi’s plan to end the transition. They add that if Egyptians oppose Mursi’s policies, they can vote him out in 2016.

Defeating Mursi in elections four years from now will not satisfy the opposition today, but removing him any sooner would represent a grave setback. At this tense juncture in Egypt’s transition, it is important that the ideological debate between liberalism and Islamism not be seen as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Clearly, Mursi and the FJP have not shown the magnanimity or the inclusivity this historic moment calls for. But narrow partisanship and executive overreach do not equal dictatorship, particularly in a transitional situation where the rules are in flux and no institutions, including the judiciary, are apolitical. Indeed, the constitutional drafters actually enjoy more democratic legitimacy than their detractors. They have pushed the country into crisis, however, because they did not specify how the state would defend women, non-Muslims, journalists and other vulnerable Egyptians from the predations of the majority.

As for the National Salvation Front and its ilk, a movement that garners 20 percent of the vote does not speak for the whole country. Electoral weakness, however, cannot become synonymous with political exile. Otherwise, every minority party will prefer storming the presidential palace to competing at the polling station.

Fortunately, and despite the deaths of over six protesters this week, Egyptians in record numbers have embraced voting and rejected violence. Therefore, the best guarantee against a vicious cycle of religious populism and military coups may come from Egyptian liberals fighting democratically for their ideas. As Nervana Mahmoud writes, “It is time for aggressive campaigning to explain the pitfalls of the new constitution and how it can negatively affect the general public.” For luminaries like ElBaradei, that campaign will entail pursuing dialogue not just with Islamist leaders, but with the masses of Egyptians they have yet to reach.

Five Notes on Egypt's Crisis

by Joshua Stacher | published December 6, 2012 - 6:07pm

Hani Shukrallah, the distinguished former editor of al-Ahram Weekly, laments the “decline and fall” of the Society of Muslim Brothers from a partner in a diverse Egyptian nation to a narrowly partisan faction willing to beat up opponents, “the very caricature of itself as painted for years by its bitterest enemies.”

Amidst street battles over Muhammad Mursi’s decree and Egypt’s draft constitution, the Brothers have indeed argued a familiar authoritarian line: The protesters have no valid claims; they are a small troublemaking minority; they wish to disregard electoral results and plunge the country into chaos. Some of the Brothers and their backers have been portraying the protesters as nothing but Mubarak-era “remnants” (fuloul), an empty charge if ever there was one.

Mursi, in his speech today, made gestures toward toning down the rhetoric, saying it was “natural” for there to be some opposition to his actions. But in repeatedly using words like “thugs” and “infiltrators” -- and emphasizing the deaths of six counter-demonstrators -- he evoked the dismissive attitudes of Egyptian leaders past toward dissent. He invited the opposition to lunch and indicated willingness to revise one article of the draft constitution, but otherwise made no concessions, stressing that soon the electorate would decide the constitutional matter anyway.

At the same time, it is entirely unsatisfactory to compare the Brothers to fascists, as Shukrallah does in his piece and as Amr Hamzawy was quoted doing in the New York Times. Mursi and the Brothers are overseeing an autocratic transition due to their structural position, not because they are inherently more autocratic than any other group. There is a desperate need to avoid painting the Brothers or the opposition with a broad brush; at the same time, analysts should be clear that the current conflict is asymmetrical. The Brothers are the stronger party and it is disingenuous to lay blame for the strife equally on all sides.

In that spirit, a few points:

1) As Shukrallah notes, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that wrote the rules for the post-Mubarak transition and set the stage for the routinized violence that has accompanied its every phase. The SCAF picked the Brothers as the only organization capable of pushing through Mubarak-era protections of army prerogatives in a “democratic” Egypt. Meanwhile, the SCAF designed a weak presidency and, with judicial assistance, robbed the presidency of other elected institutions or a constitution that might support it. It worked to maintain basic continuity within the state apparatus, and excluded those demanding deeper change. With that backdrop, perhaps any sitting Egyptian president would now be seeking to centralize authority in his own hands, if for no other reason than to govern. This is a byproduct of the structure of the post-Mubarak transition. But now it’s the Brothers and not the SCAF who are taking the heat. It is disturbing, to say the least, that the military has escaped with so little scrutiny.

2) Ironically, in fact, Mursi’s speech today was reminiscent not so much of Mubarak’s swan songs in January-February 2011 as of the time-buying proclamations of the SCAF’s Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi over the next year. He’s throwing dissenters a few tiny bones to squabble over while preparing for a referendum that he is confident will render all the contention moot.

3) Mursi is alternately depicted as all-powerful and incredibly calculating or a stooge who is making it up as he goes along. He is neither. He stacked the Constituent Assembly, for sure. It would have been smarter and more generous to allow weaker parties a more substantive role in writing the constitution. But that’s never the way political transitions work. The powerful write the rules in their own interest. In Egypt’s case, the decision was made to “electionize” the transition. Those who don’t have a voice in the corridors of power have a right to object, but they also need to strategize about a way forward.

4) The Brothers are poised to use the new $4.8 billion IMF package to further consolidate their power. They will use “structural adjustment” to eliminate competitors, reduce the size of the state (which currently has 5.5 million employees), and place their own people at the levers of power. Economic reform will be the means of breaking the holdovers in the state apparatus or neutralizing them. It will be entirely partisan and undemocratic -- an exclusivist project of political engineering. Yet it would also seem likely to engender still more protest and conflict. So it is odd that, besides the US government, the only institution that seems less “concerned” about Mursi’s constitutional declaration is the IMF.

5) The protesters have many solid legal and ethical arguments on their side. But they don’t have the numbers to compel Mursi to back down. Mursi’s electoral mandate was slim -- 51 percent -- but it is likely that elections in the near future will produce more of the same. To call a president who got 13 million votes illegitimate and liken him to Mubarak (however much the Brothers’ tactics do indeed resemble Mubarak’s) is an argument that will not hold. (And the US doesn’t matter much, but Washington’s warming embrace of the Brothers will further isolate the protesters.) The game has changed, yet the protesters are working off the same script that they used to eject the dictator of 30 years. In Charles Tilly’s terms, they are using old repertoires of contention to fight institutions that are not transformed but whose guise is. This disconnect is fueling conflict.

It’s an entirely unfair process. It is deeply troubling to watch progressive Egyptians keep experiencing such violent disappointment. But no one ever promised justice: just elections and turnover.

And the urge to throw around analogies to Nazis is to be resisted as much as the self-serving discourses of power that the Brothers are unleashing on Egyptians.