Watching Egypt’s revolution die

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.


Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom – an NGO dedicated to promoting liberalization of governments and markets – recently announced it was closing its longstanding Egypt office, citing unsustainable pressure from the illiberal environment of the current military-backed government. Ronald Meinardus, now directing the South Asia office in New Delhi but formerly directing FNFF’s Egypt office, reflects in The Globalist on his experience watching the revolution die:

Never, on the other hand, will I forget the images of the massacre at Rabaa Al Adawiya where, in a blood bath, Egypt’s military ended all democratic experiments in the Arab world’s biggest nation.
One of my biggest frustrations was that long time Arab friends and partners would publicly argue that their part of the world was neither ready nor suitable for liberal ideas and practices. Many of these people would support authoritarian rule, arguing it was by far better than giving space to the Islamists, whom they saw as the biggest threat.

The announcement of the closure of the regional office of the liberal Foundation in Cairo coincides with the fifth anniversary of what used to be termed Egypt’s Revolution of January 25.
Future chroniclers without ideological blinders will note that Egyptians enjoyed most freedoms under the brief rule of the Muslim Brothers who, not by chance, won every single democratic election they were allowed to participate in.


Low turnout in Egypt parliamentary election

The Egyptian military saved Egypt’s democracy so hard that you don’t even need to vote there anymore because it’s so saved. And yet the regime is furious no one showed up this week for the first round of a largely uncontested parliamentary election.

“Despite risk of $62 fine for not voting, less than 20% of Egyptians bothered to show up at polls” – Al-Monitor

President Abdul Fatah al Sisi, former general and military ruler:

“I call on you to rally strongly once again, in order to complete this last milestone that we all agreed upon.”

Not sure who exactly agreed upon what, given that he staged a military coup, banned the most popular party, and then rammed through a new constitution approved with extremely low turnout.

…the minister of local development, Ahmed Zaki Bader, on Oct. 19 threatened laggards with the law, insinuating that those who were registered but refrained from voting without a valid excuse (which the law does not specify) would be fined 500 Egyptian pounds ($62) in accordance with Article 57 of the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights.


Egypt, Qatar, others add ground troops to Yemen mess

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.


The Economist – “A downward spiral”:

More troops have poured in since the [Sept. 4 2015] attack [on coalition troops]. Saudi Arabia dispatched more elite forces to join the 3,000-strong coalition force already on the ground, while Qatar, hitherto only participating in air operations, has sent 1,000 soldiers. Egypt, which has long warned of the folly of putting boots on the ground given its disastrous intervention in the 1960s, this week sent in 800 men. Sudanese troops are reportedly waiting to be shipped out of Khartoum. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said his two sons will join the battle.
Quashing the Shia Houthis is nigh on impossible. Gulf officials and media talk bombastically of preparations to take back Sana’a from them and reinstall Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as president (the Houthis drove him out of the country in March). But Yemen has long been treacherous territory for foreign invaders, and Gulf armies are relatively inexperienced.

Since committing ground troops in August, the coalition has taken control of Aden, the southern port city, and is advancing on Taiz. But it is struggling in Maarib, the gateway to Sana’a, where the extra troops, backed by armoured vehicles and missile launchers, are said to be massing. The fighting will only get harder since the Houthis’ remaining strongholds are in mountainous redoubts.

[…] a rising generation of young, ambitious Gulf royals appears unwilling to pare back their newfound military adventurism.

Related Reading: “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires” — my August 13, 2015 op-ed with Stephan Richter for Al Jazeera English.

The long Saudization of Egypt

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

Saudi Arabia: On the Inside Track in EgyptHow extremism migrated from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. By Patrycja Sasnal for The Globalist:

In the 1950s, Egypt was a secular, revolutionary, modernist republic, where moderate Hanafi and Shafi’i religious jurisprudence prevailed. In contrast, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was an Islamic, anti-revolutionary, conservative kingdom with the domination of the socially most oppressive of all established Islamic currents: Hanbali-Wahhabi school.
When Nasser started persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, the Saudis gave thousands of these Brothers safe haven in their country.

These young Islamists lived a powerful dream as they literally built Saudi Arabia’s educational and media systems from scratch. They arrived initially with a moderate brand of Islamism, but on “fertile” Saudi soil they gradually radicalized and expanded their visions and goals.

The second and truly mass flow of Egyptian migrants to Saudi Arabia started in 1974, right after the oil crisis and subsequent rise of oil prices. […] Based on available data it is safe to estimate that at least 10-20 million Egyptians have worked and lived in Saudi Arabia in the past 40 years, possibly accounting for a quarter of the Egyptian population.

Even if these millions were initially welcome in the Kingdom thanks to their linguistic, cultural and religious compatibility with the locals, they were soon exposed to diametrically different working conditions than in Egypt.

There was complete separation of male and female workplaces, formal and factual subjugation to a Saudi patron and an extremely conservative social space. There also was obligatory prayer and Friday sermons delivered by Wahhabi imams. There was no mixing of the sexes in the streets, when visiting friends or at schools – as well as obligatory full body cover for women.
Instead of rejecting Saudi Arabia’s cultural model, the majority of returning Egyptians, after years working there, adopted it. There were three main reasons for that:
1. The obvious economic strength of the Saudi model (attributed to its religiosity)
2. An aspirational view among labor migrants toward their Saudi patrons)
3. The formative social role of mass migrant returnees, who become motors of development once back in their homeland.

The conservative returnees literally “made” the Egyptian economy of today – both its good parts and all its deep-seated problems.
Nor has this process of supplanting the rich cultural traditions of Egypt with the imported, narrow ideologies of Saudi Arabia ended. A million or more migrant workers have yet to return.

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis have officially supported hardline Egyptian Salafism – which generally opposes all non-theocratic absolutist forms of government – for at least a century. Personal and financial ties between Egypt’s Salafists leaders, thinkers and organizations and Saudi Arabia are plentiful and longstanding.

This relationship expanded after the 2011 revolution, as the Salafists vied against Islamic democrats for influence over young minds.

Read the full article.

Previously from AFD on these topics:

“Women in Egypt want their basic human rights back”
“Further adventures in Egyptian pseudo-secularism”
“4 reasons the US doesn’t need Saudi Arabia anymore”

For pro-reform Egyptians, the terrorists have already won

Summary | Arab Spring: Massive undirected terror unleashed by foreign fundamentalists and diehard regimes cooled enthusiasm for protest.

An Issue Brief entitled “Egypt’s Next Phase: Sustainable Instability” by Michael Wahid Hanna for The Century Foundation (published on July 1, 2015, just ahead of the second anniversary of the military coup d’état) includes a section making the case that the catastrophic region-wide failure of the Arab Spring — especially its particularly violent self-immolation in Syria, Libya, and Yemen — has deterred Egyptians from seeking new rounds of reform against their reactionary government.

While Egypt’s security situation is deteriorating and its security establishment has proven unsuited to the task at hand, particularly with respect to dealing with the low-level insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, the rising tide of violence, terrorism, and conflict throughout the Arab world have had a profound effect on Egyptian society and have curbed the impulse for political change. In the current regional context, political change and efforts at reform are seen by most Egyptians to be risky endeavors with potentially disastrous unintended consequences.
This regionalized climate of instability has helped solidify support for the Sisi regime, albeit ambivalent support among certain segments of Egyptian society. The horrifying regional examples of state collapse and civil war have created widespread aversion and revulsion at the prospect of political violence and terrorism. While the proliferation of such violence might damage the credibility of the Sisi regime and its competence over time, it is unlikely to produce widespread public support for radical political change and potential upheaval amongst a cautious and fatigued society.


Status and outcomes of Arab Spring uprisings as of February 2015. Map by Ian Remsen for Wikimedia.

Status and outcomes of Arab Spring uprisings as of February 2015. Map by Ian Remsen for Wikimedia.

Further adventures in Egyptian pseudo-secularism

flag-of-egyptEgypt’s military-supported “secularist” government under former General Sisi picked a new Justice Minister after the most recent one put his foot very deep in his mouth. This one promises to be somehow more controversial. Here are just a few quotations from incoming Justice Minister Ahmed el-Zend, out of a veritable cornucopia of outrageousness:

On a visit to Mecca, he previously gave an interview calling for the full imposition of Sharia law in Egypt – rather than it being acknowledged constitutionally as the “principal source for legislation” as at present.

He specifically called for that to include penalties of “hudud” – corporal penalties for moral crimes such as beheading for apostasy, lashing for fornication, and amputations of limbs for theft.

“We have in our penal code some articles that contradict Islamic Sharia,” he said. “I would like the penal code to become Islamic from A to Z.

“I would like a single article to be added to the penal code – that Islamic Sharia to be applied with hudud.” As critics noted, even the Brotherhood never calling for immediate application of hudud – a practice followed only in the most authoritarian Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and abandoned elsewhere.

I still can’t believe all the Western suckers and Islamophobes who fervently believed the military coup in July 2013 would end religiously-influenced government in Egypt. In reality, as I’ve said many times, the military just wanted military-led ultraconservative Islam, not liberal secularism.

By contrast, the supposedly dictatorial administration led by Muslim Brotherhood officials wanted plural, moderate Islamic democracy. In many ways, the Brotherhood’s version of political Islam was demonstrably far less hardline than that of the military’s — and it was perhaps even less conservative than Egyptian society as a whole. This is just another piece of evidence on the mountain already plainly visible: The secularists got duped in their own haste to eject the Muslim Brotherhood.

The war in Yemen has begun in earnest now

After years of slowly building chaos, The Houthi force is moving against Aden, the government-in-the-south has fled the country, and — as of tonight — the Royal Saudi Air Force has launched an operation into Yemen under the GCC (or possibly the Arab League) at the request of the fallen government.

Flag of Yemen

Flag of Yemen

10 countries are participating in the operation already: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan are all said to be participating, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

The involvements of Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan are very unexpected and indicate a much wider operation than anticipated. It also strongly suggests that Saudi Arabia was leaning heavily on every government in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia to whom it has given a lot of money previously. Saudi Arabia is cashing in every favor for a blistering war against the quasi-Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, unlike with the rather lackadaisical coalition to support the United States against ISIS in Syria. Qatar, which sent no jets at all in the Syria campaign, sent 10 tonight.

Bahrain, which only participated minimally on the first day of the Syria raids, also sent 15 jets. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy also “owes” Saudi Arabia for brutally suppressing their own Shia uprising in 2011 (during the Arab Spring) with GCC shock troops.

The UAE and Jordan also sent plenty of bombers over Yemen in the initial hours, in a marked contrast from their wavering in the Syria campaign.

This massive undertaking should, in my opinion, also be taken as a clear signal that Saudi Arabia firmly prioritizes the “threat” from Iran and Iranian proxies (which include the Houthis in Yemen but also 100,000 anti-ISIS fighters across Iraq and Hezbollah anti-ISIS units in western Syria) well above the threat from ISIS, despite tough talk on the latter some months ago.

Meanwhile, Iran has countless military advisers and trainers on the ground assisting the huge Iraqi campaign to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, has been providing close-air support and bombers against ISIS all over the Iraqi skies, and reportedly may even have 30,000 regular troops fighting in Iraq directly.

If I’m looking at the facts and figures, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in general — the purported American allies — are doing far less to combat ISIS than Iran, even if you buy the theory that Iran’s support for Assad accidentally helped create ISIS in the first place.

This war in Yemen against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia has been stirring up violently for years, seems essentially to be more of an indirect war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch the actual al Qaeda presence in Yemen.