Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Deep Sahara: a deeply intriguing and disturbing read.

Deep Sahara, the second novel by Leslie Croxford, starts as a deep drive into one man’s psyche, his memories and the loss that grieves him, and then opens up and evolves into a thriller with a breathtaking twist of international dimensions. When the protagonist takes refuge in a monastery deep in the Algerian Sahara to come to terms with his bereavement, he stumbles across the horrific mass slaughter of the resident monks. Surprisingly, he decides to stay on, alone, at the monastery, in complete desert isolation, until the mirage-like appearance of an American woman, and the disturbing observation of genetically defective insect life, lead him down a dangerous path to unmask a global plot. Without spoiling the surprise twists and turns, suffice it to say that the action moves from Alexandria to Algeria to Rome to Germany to the United States. What sets Croxford novel apart is the quality of the writing, the minuteness of the observation, and the moral ambiguity that recalls the best of John Le Carré.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Trump, Rigged Elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood

Listening to Donald Trump whip up his supporters with warnings about rigged elections and a rigged system, and hearing him threaten that mayhem might ensue if he does not win, evokes a shocking sense of deja vu. But not in America. In Egypt. 
When Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was running for the first contested presidential election in Egypt, a year after the January 25 revolution, he also claimed that the elections would be rigged against him, and that the entire system of the deep state was rigged against him, and that his supporters would "set fire to the country" if he did not win. Given the history of Egyptian elections, Morsi, arguably, could make a more plausible case than Donald Trump. 
But Trump echoes Morsi in even more unsettling ways. The Muslim Brotherhood leader also fed  the anger, frustration and fear of his base and validated their sense of economic and political disenfranchisement in a country ruled by cosmopolitan elites. Morsi, like Trump, was clearly unqualified and inexperienced to govern, but made a virtue of being an "outsider" against an ultimate insider opponent. Like Trump, he warned of dark conspiracies and declared he could trust no one but his own "people." And crucially, like Trump, he appealed to xenophobia and  religious bigotry against minorities. 
Morsi won, narrowly. Some put it down to the protest vote. A significant proportion of those who voted for him could not abide his Muslim Brotherhood but also could not bring themselves to vote for his opponent, a military establishment figure who represented the Mubarak ancien regime on steroids- it would have meant repudiating the revolution they fought for. Another significant proportion could not bring themselves to vote for either candidate and stayed home. 
Morsi won, but the backlash from his supporters came anyway, a year later, when a million people went into the streets to demand the removal of his inept and autocratic government, and the military responded with a coup. Morsi diehards felt robbed of their "democratically elected" president and were encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to occupy a major square in Cairo and camp out there in protest, by the thousands, men, women, and children, for several months, Waco style. It  took a bloody confrontation with the forces of order to root them out: a thousand Morsi supporters perished.
That could never happen in America. But then again, this entire election campaign year could never happen, except that it just did. Foreign observers offering to supervise the legitimacy of US elections is only the latest outrage dragging America down into banana republic territory. Could a protest vote against an establishment figure bring about a default victory for a racist, bigoted, unqualified showman? And if he lost, could he bear to be a "loser" or would he try to blame rigged elections and encourage his supporters to sow mayhem?

Sunday, 24 January 2016

January 25: Egypt's Revolutionary Legacy

It was five years ago today that an unprecedented mass uprising against then president Mubarak of Egypt sent shock waves across the region. The Tunisian revolution was one thing, but a similar revolution in Egypt was quite another. Given Egypt's sheer size, population, strategic position and regional and global weight, the Arab Spring was launched in earnest on January 25. 

That date was not chosen at random by the young Egyptian revolutionaries. January 25, known as "Police Day", was meant to commemorate the heroism of a particular unit of Egyptian police against the British occupation of the Suez sixty years earlier; on the other hand, in 2011, the Egyptian police  was feared and reviled as the heavy-handed arm of a police state. 

Five years after the 2011 revolution, the legacy of January 25th is more complicated than ever, and celebrating it is a delicate matter for the current regime. On the one hand President Sisi and his military-backed regime seek to publicly embrace the ideals of the 2011 revolution, at least in principle, while upholding the legitimacy of the June 30th 2013 mass uprising that, in their view, superseded and supplanted 2011, and endorsed the return of the military to power. That many, if not most, Egyptians support that position is a testimony to the general disillusionment with the principle of revolution itself, after the bitter experience of four years of successive upheavals, the hijacking of the revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood, the death spiral of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and the state of insecurity.

The desire for security is key here to understanding the mood of the general public. Revolution fatigue has set in. The young revolutionaries who originally launched January 25th are generally  regarded, at best, as naive idealists who knew how to launch a movement and upend a regime but had no plan for the day after; or, at worst, as witting or unwitting pawns of a foreign conspiracy to create the kind of chaos that would fling Egypt down the path of the failed states surrounding it: Libya, Syria, Iraq. A return to stability seems to be the immediate priority of the majority of Egyptians, and no price, in civil liberties or parliamentary democracy, is too high to pay.

But to be fair, Egyptians are hardly the only people who seem willing to trade liberties for security, a famously unprofitable exchange according to Benjamin Franklin. It took two serious terrorist attacks in one year for the French, with a far more established tradition of civil liberties, to abandon liberté and égalité in favor of an indefinitely extended state of emergency powers and the creation of two-tier citizenship.

In French, the grapevine of rumors and information is called "le téléphone arabe." Today, Facebook and Twitter are the new  "téléphone arabe" of protests. The Egyptian government is taking no chances ahead of the fated anniversary of January 25. Schools and universities have been put on mid-year vacation for a month to preempt campus protests. A newly-elected, safely rubber-stamp parliament held its first session earlier in January, for the first time in three years. The Ministry of the Interior, associated in the Mubarak years with overreaching police powers, has been moved to new headquarters out in the suburbs, away from the center of Cairo. The artists' studios have been shut down around Tahrir Square, historically the hub of protests. Tahrir square itself is undergoing a much-needed makeover, after years of disruption and degradation.

The first anniversary of Tahrir was a peaceful, largely still-hopeful celebration. But it was downhill from then on. The slogans changed from from year to year, from "down with the military" to "down with the Brotherhood" to "down with the military" again. This year may be back to the future, again.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter

 Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in  a modest neighborhood  of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and café owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms,  the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Daesh: Don't Call Them ISIS

John Kerry does it. London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks about it. Queen Rania of Jordan gives impassioned speeches explaining why we should all do it. As she argues, they are neither Islamic nor a state. Don't call them ISIS or ISIL or whatever self-styled aggrandizing title they choose to call themselves. Deny them that prestige, and deny them a recruiting tool. Just call them Daesh.
What is that? It's a sort of acronym in Arabic; "sort of" because acronyms are not used in Arabic, just abbreviations. For instance, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF in English, was commonly abbreviated in the Egyptian media as "The Supreme." In Arabic, therefore,  Daesh is intentionally a pejorative, delegitimizing label used by their enemies and victims in the Arab world- and it's worth remembering that the victims of Daesh's unspeakable brutality are overwhelmingly fellow Arabs and Muslims.
So what's in a name? Does it matter if we in the West and the Western media call them Daesh rather than Islamic State? Yes, it does.  Deny them that association with the religion they give a bad name to, and deny them a recruiting tool. So come on, Mayor Johnson, just do it.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Back to the Future: Prospects for Democracy in Postrevolution Egypt

So pleased there was a record turnout for my talk on Egypt at the Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service luncheon today. But the credit goes entirely to the interest in the topic taken by this highly experienced association of former diplomats, Stare department heads, including Hodding Carter III, elected officials, and others. They made for penetrating questions and courteous listeners.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Chapel Hill Muslim Student Shootings

“Chapel Hill”. The first time I heard it used like that: not Chapel Hill student shootings, just Chapel Hill, as an immediately recognizable reference in the media, like ‘Ferguson’ or ‘Waco,’ as a byword- the first time I heard this it came as a shock. Particularly when I’m overseas, I tend to idealize Chapel Hill as the ‘Southern part of Heaven’, that uniquely liberal and diverse enclave in conservative North Carolina, the town with more PH.D.’s per capita than Cambridge, MA, situated as it is at the crossroads of three great universities: UNC, Duke, and NC State. 
And now this. Around the world, the name Chapel Hill coupled with the senseless triple murders of three local college students, promising and optimistic young people who also happened to be openly Muslim American. I never met them or their families, but I know them: the model minority, a little more driven than your average student, from immigrant, educated Middle East families with high expectations for achievement, surrounded by a strong, supportive faith community. 
In most ways, all-American. Deah Barakat was basketball mad and copied his idol Stephen Curry’s pose in a photograph, but he was also a serious young man dedicated to service who used his UNC Dental School training to help underprivileged people in this country and abroad. He looked up to his older sister Suzanne, a San Francisco physician. His wife Yusor and her sister Razan, daughters of a Clayton psychiatrist, were an aspiring dentist and architect, respectively; ambitious, bright young women who could have been Amal Alamuddin Clooney in an Islamic veil, if they had lived.  
I was never ‘that sort of Muslim,’ as someone I knew once put it: the easily identifiable sort who wore a headscarf and sent their children to Islamic Sunday school. But I knew many of them, and like the Barakat and the Abu-Salha children, they felt confident that they belonged in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. If they had anything to prove, they believed their achievements would speak well for their community.
Like many religious minorities, they made a conscious effort to reach out and to represent their community among society at large.  According to Rabbi Greyber of Beth El in a letter to his congregation, his colleague Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer in Raleigh knew Deah, Yusor and Razan quite well. “All three were very active in inter-religious affairs including an interfaith Habitat for Humanity, and Farris Barakat, the older brother of Deah Barakat, attended Beth Meyer Synagogue services and, with the Barakat family, recently opened his home to Beth Meyer congregants to share the breaking of the Ramadan fast.”
These three young people were the best and brightest of their community. What a waste. And why? This is not the place to discuss whether the murders were motivated by a parking dispute or bigotry, or a toxic mixture of both. Deah Barakat’s articulate, poised sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, points to the role of a media culture that relentlessly portrays all Muslims as violent terrorists, and cites as an example films like American Sniper.
What that film refuses to show is that Chris Kyle, the real-life sniper of the story, was not killed by an Iraqi or Muslim but by a fellow white American veteran at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas. Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine, is accused of turning on Kyle and another friend and shooting them dead. His motive? According to one witness, Routh shot them ‘because they wouldn’t talk to him.’ Think about that for a moment. Then think about this. Craig Hicks took the lives of three young people because, according to his wife, he didn’t like them sharing the visitor’s parking spot with him. Is that all it takes to make an armed white man turn killer in today’s America? And is that particularly reassuring to those who would dismiss the Chapel Hill murders as ‘just a parking dispute’ rather than a hate crime?
The families of the three student victims, or ‘our three winners’, as they prefer to call them, in true American style, are understandably seeking to assuage their unspeakable pain with the hope that some positive legacy might come of this tragedy, some re-examining of prejudice, some coming together of communities. And indeed, Stephen Curry, the basketball star whom Deah Barakat idolized, expressed a desire to honor his murdered fan. Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer, whose congregants Farris Barakat had invited into his home, is setting up a discretionary fund to help the families of the three victims or the charities of their choice. At the very least, what photos of the smiling faces of the three young people seem to be calling for, is the hope that America looks past the headscarf or the headline and sees Muslims as neighbors, not the eternal and suspicious Other.   

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Egypt: What It Isn't

It isn’t Tiananmen Square.  
It isn’t Syria.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian.
It isn’t secular against religious.
It isn’t a question of a coup or not a coup.
It isn’t a question of democracy against authoritarianism.
The situation in Egypt is so desperate, so complicated, that an attempt to grapple with it might well start with setting out what it isn’t. Some observers might see shades of Tiananmen Square; for twenty million plus Egyptians who marched on June 30th to oust the Brotherhood administration, it was the shades of the Ayatollah takeover in Iran that mobilized them. The bloodshed over the past six weeks has been sickening and horrific, but Egypt is not Syria with its regional, armed factions; a civil war isn't imminent.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian; one can safely assume that the Coptic minority is unanimously against the Muslim Brotherhood, but so is more than half of Egypt’s ninety-percent Muslim population.  It isn’t secular versus religious. Most Egyptians, Muslim or Copt, would claim to be personally religious; where they clash is over the role of religion in politics.
Whether or not to call the deposing of President Morsi on July 3rd a coup is a question of semantics which concerns U.S. law and foreign policy alone.
It isn’t a question of championing democracy against military authoritarianism. The Morsi administration was as authoritarian as the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that preceded it, or any that is likely to follow it. It is a question of what kind of authoritarianism, and to whose benefit.
And therein lies the violent clash of currents that brought out millions to the streets over the past months, to demonstrate against the Morsi regime and for it. By the unprecedented millions who marched against Morsi, his administration was seen as governing narrowly for the Brotherhood; it was also of the Brotherhood, in every appointment from cabinet ministers to nine governors; and by the Brotherhood, through the influence of his party’s bosses and their spiritual 'Supreme Guide.’ Morsi himself often referred to “my people and my community” when speaking of the Brotherhood. When his supporters marched in the streets, they waved the green Brotherhood flags rather than the red, black and white Egyptian flag, until the negative reaction prompted them to switch. But the discourse of the pro-Morsi demonstrators, and the signs they brandished, remained the same: ‘Islam,’ ‘Shari’a’ and ‘Legitimacy.’ To many Egyptians, the question became: “Where is Egypt in all this?” Are these people Egyptians first or Brethren first?
The Islamists counter: But where is democracy in all of this? A vote is a vote. But is a vote a vote in a country with a high proportion of illiteracy in the electorate, thrust into the polling booth after sixty years of autocratic one-party rule? And does a democratically-elected president continue to be legitimate if his regime is not only autocratic but also disastrously incompetent? By most accounts Egypt under Morsi was spiraling into economic free fall and insecurity, and that its very territorial integrity was threatened in the Sinai. The rights of women and minorities were also being menaced alarmingly. Indeed, in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the attacks on Christian churches by his rampaging supporters is an indictment of Brotherhood ideology, whether or not the leaders were responsible for inciting the sectarian violence.

The violence, on both sides, on every side, whether Morsi supporter or opponent or security forces, is horrific. But it comes down, finally, to a split vision of Egypt: secular versus Islamist in political life, liberal versus fundamentalist in private values, national versus Islamic in world view. In Egypt today, these visions have proved to be irreconcilable.Conversation I participated in today on State of Things

Monday, 5 August 2013

Morsi's Martyr Children

Anyone watching the world media’s coverage of the Morsi-supporters camped out for the past month in two major squares in Cairo will have noticed the numbers of women and children among them, and the prominence with which they are brought before the cameras. The women, in headscarves or even full niqab, are vociferously vocal and many speak passable English. One teenage girl I saw on the news insisted that she, and the other protesters, would refuse to leave the camps unless Morsi were re-instated or they were killed, adding: “the greatest dream of any of us is to die a martyr.”
Who put these ideas into the girl’s head? What are the Muslim Brotherhood leaders inculcating in impressionable young minds? And even if this particular girl were of an age to make up her own mind about what her life is worth, what about the hundreds of children, babies, toddlers, crawling all over the camps and trotted out before the media as potential victims: what kind of parent or guardian makes the decision for their child that any cause is worth ‘martyrdom’?
On Sunday the Brotherhood marshaled a group of youngsters, dressed them in white shrouds, gave them signs proclaiming 'Martyrs', and paraded them for the benefit of the media. Even more disturbing and reprehensible, the MB are accused of rounding up many of these children from the streets of the slums of Cairo, and busing them to the site of the sit-in at the Rabaa Mosque. The United Nations Children’s Fund has expressed dismay at children being deliberately put at risk as victims or witnesses to violence, and at least one man has been arrested when he was caught transporting forty children to the site.  
There are also no doubt penniless, homeless people, adults and children, who are drawn to the tent city for the free food and shelter as an alternative to starving on the streets. There is no doubt, also, that the MB leaders are exploiting the situation for propaganda: they may or may not be fanatics, but they have proven their dexterity in manipulating both traditional and social media.
It is an effective strategy: nothing stays the hand of the police or military from evacuating the camps by force as much as the presence of women and children and the potential for disastrous images of innocent ‘martyrs.’ The strategy of hiding behind women’s skirts and children’s ‘shrouds’ is all the more shameful and hypocritical on the part of the MB leaders precisely because they themselves used to denounce their opponents in Tahrir for the participation of women, claiming that parents and guardians should keep their women home and accusing the girls who spent the night at the sit-ins of loose morals. 
A video clip taped by members of the Tamarrod group who organized the revolt against Morsi makes just that point: “When our women and girls participate in protests, you call them immoral; when yours do, you say it is normal. When our children are killed, you hold their lives cheap; but here’s the difference between us: when your children are killed- we don’t hold their lives cheap.”
The so-called Morsi supporters in the tent sit-ins seem to be unaware, or not to care, that they are being used as a pawn in a negotiation that has nothing to do with reinstating Morsi, which is impossible given that he cannot govern with the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, and every institution of government against him. The real negotiation is to save from arrest and prosecution the real leaders of the Brotherhood, the ‘Supreme Guide’ Badie, the party boss Khairat El-Shatter, and his deputy Bayoumi. Morsi himself was nothing but a figurehead who was brought in as a pinch-hitter presidential candidate at the last minute when El-Shatter was disqualified. Morsi’s resignation and the peaceful disbanding of the protests are the price being negotiated for the freedom of the real party bosses.   
But what happens after the Morsi-supporter camps are disbanded, as they will be, one way or another; what happens when these vocal women go home? Will they be allowed a voice in Islamist political affairs commensurate with the role they played in the protests? Or will they be relegated to the hearth and nursery? And what will the ‘martyr’ children have learned?