Monday, February 26, 2007

A (bad) Egyptian Joke - Gamal Show / مبارك / جمال شو

A slightly lighter post than usual. This made me laugh! From the talented blogger Ahmed Sharif, via Árabawy

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Kareem sentenced to 4 years

Kareem was sentenced to four years in prison after a five minute session at the Muharam Beq missdaumenours court this morning. The defense team delievered their written statements(the judge had decided earlier on during the trial, not to allow any verbal statements during the last session) to the judge Ayman Okaz. I´m quite certain that the judge took the defence team´s statement under consideration(hopefully he had recieved a copy in advance).

The sentence was divided as follows: Three years for insulting islam and a year for insulting the President. The third charge, spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country´s reputation was dropped.

The defense team decided to appeal as soon as possible. Maybe as early as saturday, although hopes that it will change anything in a significant way are not high according toHR-info human rights activist and blogger Dalia Zaida .

Voices about the verdict

One of Kareem´s lawyers, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre:
¨ it will terrify other bloggers and have a negative impact on freedom of expression in Egypt.¨

Hafez Abu Saada, head of the Egyptian Human Rights Organization, described the verdict as "very tough" to Nadia Abou al Magd of the AP news agency.

"This is a strong message to all bloggers who are put under strong surveillance that the punishment will very strong,"

Gamal Eid, HRinfo Executive director:
"It is a gloomy day for all the advocators of freedom of expression not only in Egypt but also in the whole world,said. When a young man is punished for having secular views in a country claiming respect to citizens' right to freedom of expression, it is a catastrophe. The democratic countries all over the world have already expelled such charges from their laws".

Amnesty International issued a statement :
Amnesty International condemns the four-year sentence handed down by an Egyptian court today against blogger Karim Amer, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director said:
"This sentence is yet another slap in the face of freedom of expression in Egypt,"

¨The Egyptian authorities must protect the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, even if the views expressed might be perceived by some as offensive. Amnesty International considers Karim Amer to be a prisoner of conscience who is being prosecuted on account of the peaceful expression of his views."

Sarah Leah WatsonMiddle East Director, Human Rights Watch:

“This sentence sets a chilling precedent in a country where blogs have opened a window for free speech, The Egyptian government should abide by its commitments to uphold free expression and release Sulaiman without delay.”

For a quick glance at the Egyptian blogosphere´s reaction, visit Amira al Husseini´s great roundup at Global Voices, who has championed and supported Kareem as well as other Egyptian bloggers in trouble from the very beginning.

My thoughts

This is a sad, but very expected day for Kareem, my first toughts are for him and people around him.

Secondly it´s also a sad day for the window that blogs have opened in Egypt. A space that is somewhat freeer and very creative, for how long , one might wonder ?

It´s just one more sad day in the line that started on black wednesday, the day Egyptians were supposed to cast their vote to embrace multicandidate Presidential elections in May 2005. We have had quite a few sad days since then.

It´s also a reminder of how some of the great sons and daughters of Egypt have gone through the same odd experience with al Azhar, albeit with different outcomes, that Kareem has been through for the last 16 months. The likes of Ali Abd al Razeq, Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Chahine, Farag Fouda, Alaa Hamid, NasserHamid Abu Zeid, Louis Awad and Nawal as Saádawi have all been under the scrutiny, and been jugded as not up to par with the high standards of the much acclaimed institution.

For at least four of them, this has had enourmous consequenses , Mahfouz was stabbed 35 years after he wrote Awlad Haratna(Children of Gabalawi), the perpetrator using al Azhars deccision as the reason for commiting the act. Farag Fouda was killed in the street after SheikhMuhamed al Ghazali had declared him an apostate. Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid was stripped of his position at Cairo University, and unvillingly divored from his wife, Iqbal Younis and both of them forced into exile.

And now Abd al Karim Nabil Sulaiman...

There is two things that i want to say:

First of all, it´s not people like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Hafez Abu Saáda(in fact what tarnished Egypt much more, was when Abu Saáda turned up in Paris for the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration of Human Rights, all bold and beautiful directly from interigations in Cairo after writing a report on Kosheh) and Kareem that tarnishes the image of Egypt, the image that the state is trying to convey is exactly that, a fabricated image, a poster, an illusion.

The real image is the daily life of the ordinary you and me in the Egyptian paradise, that is to say people like Imáad al Kabir, Magdi Farouk or Abd al Hareth Madani(if somebody remembers).

What people perceive as a defence for religion or a defence for the image of Egypt, is not a good thing, it´s a sign of weakness, the religions(Islam or Christianity alike) need not be protected by the people. Religion in itself is larger than anyone of us combined and both of the two religions has outlived worse times than this. It´s us that need´s religions not the other way around, and Islam is not threatened as a religion or civilization by al Qaida, Denmark, Salman Rushdie the Pope or any of the abowementioned authors, and certainly not by a single blogger like Kareem, just as Christianity is not threatened by the writings of Muhammad Emara or the pictures of the monk, etcetera.

Kareem, who if it wasn´t for the media attention that this trial created would have been a normal student with a blog, that he used regularly to get things out of his system, and not the well known ¨secular¨ blogger who was imprisoned for his views, and is regarded as a prisoner of conscience in what used to be the known as the craddle of civilization.

Here is an old post with relevant background info.

UPDATE I: One of Kareem´s laywers, Rawda Ahmed announced that the defense team had appealed the sentence on monday February 26th and that a court hearing for the appeal is set for March 12th.

UPDATE II: A good article by the excellent egyptian journalist Mona el Tahawy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who wins in Iraq? Arab dictators!

Marina Ottaway has written a piece in the March-April issue of Foreign Policy Magazine . One of my favourite academics, currently the director for the Middle East program at Carnegie endowment for International Peace.

The piece is basically about how the ¨autocratic allegators¨ of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the key beneficiaries of the current American quagmire in Iraq and the overall sense of crisis in the neighourhood.

here is a sample:

¨The pro-Western stance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia protected them from criticism, until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that is. Almost overnight, the two countries became U.S. enemies, accused of fostering terrorism by denying their citizens democracy and wealth-generating free market policies. Authoritarianism and bad economic policy, according to Washington’s new creed, engendered frustrations that found release in terrorism. The antidote was democracy.

For a few years, Egypt and Saudi Arabia thus found themselves in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of being lectured on democracy by U.S. officials. Egypt bore the brunt of the criticism because it was obvious what reforms the government needed to introduce to become more democratic. Egyptian officials were repeatedly lectured on competitive elections and constitutional amendments; most seriously, the United States postponed discussion of a free trade agreement after the Egyptian government sentenced a moderate opposition leader to a five-year prison term on charges that were flimsy at best. Saudi Arabia got off more easily, partly because nobody had a blueprint on how to transform that kingdom into a democracy, and partly because of America’s dependency on its oil. Nevertheless, the country fell under a pall of suspicion, accused of financing the spread of radical Islam and even terrorist groups. Never again, administration officials and pundits proclaimed, would the United States support authoritarian regimes for the sake of short-run stability. September 11 put an end to that policy. Well, at least for a few years.

As the United States has become mired in bloody chaos in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have wound up back in the Bush administration’s good graces. But it’s not because they’ve become more democratic. Saudi Arabia has not changed. The Egyptian regime is backsliding, becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent as it nears the inevitable end of the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and braces for a difficult succession. Nevertheless, the two countries have been rehabilitated, or at least relabeled: Sadly, they are now what passes for “moderate.” As Franklin D. Roosevelt might have put it in more frank language, they are still the same S.O.B.s, but they are once again “our S.O.B.s.”

It’s back to Cold War politics in the Middle East. The lofty ideals of democracy promotion may still find their way into the administration’s speeches, but when it comes to policy, America’s enemies’ enemies are its friends. The enemy is Iran and, like the Soviet Union of yore, Iran has surrounded itself with dangerous minions—Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. Iran wants to dominate the region, and Washington will support countries that have an interest in resisting such domination. Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be counted upon to do so. That makes them “moderates,” and that is good enough.¨

Kareem trial, and posibble verdict tomorrow

Just a quick remainder of possibly the final court session of Kareem´s case tomorrow.

I have no time to write at the moment, but will try later today.

In the meantime read this op-ed published in WaPo today and in the Daily Star(Beirut) yesterday by Raja M Kamal and Tom G Palmer.

The article ends like this:

¨Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media." The exceptions allowed are narrowly drawn and require proof of "necessity" before restrictions can be imposed. The posting of opinions on a student's personal blog hardly qualifies as a threat to national security, to the reputation of the president or to public order.

Soliman is not a threat to Egypt, but this prosecution is.

Whether or not we agree with the opinions that Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman expressed is not the issue. What matters is a principle: People should be free to express their opinions without fear of being imprisoned or killed. Blogging should not be a crime.¨

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

All roads leads to Rome

Shaikh al Azhar, Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi has accepted Pope Benedict XVI invitation to visit the Vatican. The date for the meeting is not yet set.

This mini-summit between one of the leading men within Sunni-Islam and the most important figure in Christianity(Sorry Pope Shenouda), will hopefully help ease up some of the tension between the religions, which in no small way was added to by the Catholic pontiff Benedict´s remarks at Regensburg University during a theological seminar during the Pope ´s vsit to his native Bavaria last autumn.

Let´s hope that this could be a step away from the negative religious politics of symbolics that 2006 was most remembered for, and away forward in showing the positive mutual message of religion. Let´s also hope that the somewhat politically accentuated tensions between sunni and shia-islam(in my view overstated and cynically used by certain political leaders), can be reversed in a sensible and responsible manner .

The late John Paul II visited Egypt in February 2000, and met with Tantawi at his office( i would not be surprised if the current pope was part of the Vatican visiting delegation in Egypt in 2000, if i´m not completly wrong, i think one of his responsibilities, while still Cardinal Ratzinger was interfaith dialogue). If so this will be the second meeting, both between the Catholic Pope and Shaikh al Azhar, and between Benedict and Tantawi.

President Hosni Mubarak visited theVatican and was one of the first political leaders to meet Pope Benedict in March 2000.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Yaqoubian building launched in Britain

The novel Yaqoubian building by egyptian author Alaa al Aswany has been launched in Britain this month by the fourth estate publishing house. The Guardian has a positive review today.

some soundbites:
¨ it stands midway between the foundation novel of Egyptian Arabic, Naguib Mahfouz's Zaqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley, 1947) and the modern Egyptian television serial.¨

Although i kind of wonder how many Egyptian televison serials the reviewer could possibly have watched? Perhaps he just read Dramas of Nationhood - The Politics of Television in Egypt by Lila Abu_Lughod. But it´s catchy, i have to admit.

James Buchan ends his review like this:

¨For all its risqué material, and its parade of sodomy and scripture, The Yacoubian Building is restrained in its portrayal of the actual relations of power and wealth in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. When Hagg Muhammad Azzam, desperate to protect his business interests, seeks a meeting with "the Big Man" at his cement Versailles, he is greeted not by a person but by a disembodied voice through a loudspeaker. The veil of power is intact. The truth is that in Mubarak's Egypt, just as in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad or even the shah's Tehran, sex is one thing but the boss is quite another, and the difference is a matter of life and death.¨

Alaa al Aswany also made an interview on the BBC radio channel 3 flagship show Night waves
with Philip Dodd.

I´ve written quite a lot about the bestselling novel and the subsequent blockbuster film , and i will continue to take every opportunity to do so. The book has made quite a success in France and Italy and is going to be translated into 17 different languages. Something very few Egyptian authors have achieved. Perhaps Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz of course and most probably Nawal as Saádawi. It´s easier nowadays to get translated, but still quite an achievement.

Alaa al Aswany has moved on by writing a new novel, released in January 2007 (in arabic, Dar ash Shourouk publishing), it´s called Chicago, and portrays life among Egyptian-Americans in post 9/11 America. You can find Baheyya´s take on the novel here.

My earlier postings on Yaqoubiyan here, here and a bit about the film here.

UPDATE: Here is a brand new article on Alaa al Aswany by Daniel Williams.

UPDATE II: Aswany´s latest novel Chicago has now been translated to french. A review from the Le Monde book supplement can be found at Arabist.

al Ahram Weekly profile on Sonallah Ibrahim

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bahaá ad Din Hassan on constitutional amendments

The February issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin is here, the most interesting piece this time is written by Egyptian human rights activist, Bahaá ad Din Hassan on the propossed 34 constitutional ammendmends, who was passed through both houses(Majlis ash Shaáb and Shura) in principal for the first time earlier this year, and most likely will pass a second time in detail before Shura elections, expected in April. Then it will be brought before the Egyptian people in a referendum, packaged as a ¨signed, sealed, delivered deal¨ that will bring the Egyptian people to the treshold of paradise lost, this ¨major¨ change in the constitution(the largest since at least 1980, and perhaps even since the permanent constitution in 1971), is portrayed as laying the foundation for the begining of an era with unprecedented democratic opportunities for the Egyptian citizens.

Bahaá ad Din Hassan, unwraps the package, disect and scrutinize it , and in the process shows us how the tiny window of the limited political opening that began on the 26 of February 2005, with President Mubaraks promise to have multi-candidate elections for the Presidency, the tiny window that has been closing for some time now, and quite the contrary to the promises of the government and praise of the semi-official press, this is in fact, not the beginning of an era , but the end of the charade. This is when the window is shut, and bolted.

Here is a sample:

lthough some of the new proposed constitutional amendments are meaningless, several are causing particular concern among civil society organizations. Amendment of Article 88, for example, would curtail judicial supervision of general elections, which in 2005 exposed fraud and lack of transparency in the electoral process. This will mean a return to regime control of election results. Other amendments include further interference with judicial independence via the creation of a new supervisory body headed by the President.

The proposed amendments would also weaken constitutional guarantees of human rights in order to pave the way for lifting the State of Emergency in favor of a counter-terrorism law. Such changes are likely to grant security forces unlimited authority to detain persons, raid residences, and monitor postal and telephone communications without court permission. A special judicial regime might be created to grant the necessary authorization and provide political cover for the security apparatus. And reimposition of the State of Emergency will remain a possibility even when there is a new counter-terrorism law.

Regarding political life, by prohibiting religious parties the amendments appear to foreclose any hope of coming to terms with political Islam. Meanwhile, the creation of new non-religious parties continues to be blocked and existing parties are beset by administrative, legislative, and security restrictions

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Negar Azimi piece:Bloggers against torture

Negar Azimi has a really good piece in the Nation, called Bloggers against torture. Azimi has written extensivly on current developments in Egypt, among the articles, two stands out in my mind. The first is in my view the best article ever written in english on the young generation Kefayaists. The second article was on the ordeal and stigma that the gay community in Egypt faces.

Thanks Negar!

The sample that follows shows the potential in blogger activism, having a role as whistleblower in conjunction with private satelite channels and the indendent press (Masry al youm,al fajr and ad Doustur). However it also shows the current limitiations beyond that at the moment. Putting the spotlights on the Sudanese refugee masacre, the downtown Cairo aid al Fitr mass sexual hearasment case and the torture cases in police stations is not a small achievement, and at least two of the cases has led to a response, and a de facto recognition of what actually happend from the authorities, gives a glimpse of hope for the long term future.

But let´s remember that the same kind of intimidation that happend to Imad al Kabir after he came forward, happend just yesterday with Ihab Magdi Farouk and his family, The victim of police abuse almost always being treated as the perpotraitor until proven otherwise. Changing this pattern takes more than bloggers, independent media and satelite tv-stations.

Here is a sample of Bloggers against torture:

¨Indeed, this may be just the beginning. Wael Abbas, a Cairo-based blogger who was among the first to post the torture videos, has received nearly a dozen additional videos since the beginning of December. Most have been forwarded anonymously, and most, like al-Kabir's, were captured with simple cellphone cameras.

I met Abbas in late December in Cairo, just as the stir created by the al-Kabir video was reaching its peak. "We know people get raped, beaten all the time. And who's going to stick up for a bus driver? But now it's public, and everyone is talking. The government has to do something. They've lost face," he explained.

Bloggers in the developing world have long been the subject of romantic odes in the Western press (give a young man a blog and he will start a revolution). While the capacity of digital technologies to jump-start democracy has often been exaggerated, recent events in Egypt demonstrate blogs' enormous potential as an advocacy tool and, more broadly, as an alternative source of news. Here, a number of bloggers seem to have cracked into a hitherto tightly sealed state monopoly on information dissemination, breaking stories in many cases before the mainstream press.

In this neighborhood, the official press dominates circulation numbers--with a single state-controlled paper producing up to 1 million copies a day, while the whole of the independent press puts out 10,000-40,000, according to Arab Press Freedom Watch. Though a handful of independent papers, such as Al-Dustour (whose editor, Ibrahim Issa, faces charges of "insulting the president") and Al Masry Al Youm (whose writers have faced similar charges), have managed to push the bounds of what is allowable in the public sphere, until recently it would have been unheard of to take on such subjects as torture carried out by officials without being summarily shut down.

But things are changing. In many cases blogs, working hand in hand with the modest independent press as well as satellite television channels ("We are the children of Al Jazeera," one blogger recently told me), have broken a number of big stories--from sectarian strife in Alexandria to state-sponsored violence during the last parliamentary elections, and even the type of routine crackdowns that occur during demonstrations. Together these forces have not only created an alternative source of information but have increasingly managed to shame the government into punishing those responsible for abuses. Since the leak of the notorious "slaps" video, the officer charged with the abuse of Gad, for example, has been suspended while his case is under investigation. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has publicly called for the identification of the pleading woman hanging from the stick, as well as the officers who carried out that abuse.

Still, whatever happens to the perpetrators of the recent spate of leaked abuses, torture will likely remain routine in Egypt for the time being. The sort of roughing up that takes place in dark alleys, security checkpoints and dingy police stations daily--normally targeting ordinary citizens--continues to pass unquestioned. Not only are torture and abuse tolerated; in the security services violence is broadly valued as a sign of authority, strength, bravado. It is not uncommon for lower-level officers to get promotions for such theatrics. In fact, the original video of al-Kabir appears to have circulated for months (the abuse was carried out in January 2006) among police officers and taxi drivers, Abu Ghraib-style, before it was leaked to the public. The images were likely shared for bragging purposes--and to serve as a sort of warning to those who would dare to tread on police turf, as al-Kabir had. It's hardly surprising that, following the video's wide circulation and al-Kabir's statements on a satellite television channel about his experience, he received a torrent of phone calls demanding his silence and threatening both him and his family.¨

(Via Árabawy)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Go read Árabawy

Go read Arabawy on the Ihab Magdi Farouk story Masry al youm has an interview with him today and there are reports that his father was picked up by the Imbaba police, just hours after Masry al youm hit the newsstands.

Kareem court case to be resumed today

The third session of Kareem´s case is today.

Amnesty International issued a statement today:

"Amnesty International considers Karim Amer to be a prisoner of conscience who is being prosecuted on account of the peaceful expression of his views about Islam and the al-Azhar religious authorities. We are calling for his immediate and unconditional release."

Sandmonkey has an interesting piece on Kareem here

For those of you who are interested in internet freedom, or rather the lack of it in the Arab world, you could find some valuable information from the Arab Network for Human Rights report , published in December 2006 called Implacable Adversaries:
Arab Governments and the Internet(Thanks to Gamal Eid and his collegues for their tireless effort). You could also read the HRW report on the same issue: False freedom : Online censorship in the Middle East & North Africa, released intentionally to coincide with the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005.

Let´s hope for the best for Kareem today.

For background on the case, go read my previous postings on Kareem here and here