Another attack in Cairo

The Washington Post today reported this:

Cairo – An American has been slightly hurt after being knifed in the legendary Cairo bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, just days after a French teenager was killed there by a bomb, a security official said on Saturday.

The victim, a teacher at the American School in Egypt’s Mediterranean port of Alexandria who was visiting the capital with his wife, suffered slight cuts to the face in the Friday incident.

Police arrested the alleged attacker they identified as 46-year-old Egyptian labourer Abdel Rahman Mohammed and were interrogating him, the state-news MENA news agency reported.

The suspect was said to have acted out of “hatred for foreigners because of the Israeli offensive in Gaza” that ended on January 18 after 22 days, leaving more than 1 300 Palestinians dead.

 The Post said it was a 21 year old who is  “mentally ill” according to the authorities.

The Akon Disaster — UPDATED

A couple weeks back I wondered why Iron Maiden wouldn’t come to  Cairo .   Probably for the same reason that the Akon Concert in Cairo was a disaster.   Unless a Western-style concert culture exists, acts like this are hard to make work in places like Egypt.  From Sandmonkey:

So, here I am, preparing for my trip back to Cairo, when people start sending me messages and e-mails about The Akon concert in the Cairo Opera. Now, I didn’t know he was singing in Cairo to begin with, let alone fathom the concept of whose bright idea was it that this man should be allowed to sing in the Egyptian Opera..but whatever. My people are silly, and they do irrational shit like allow Akon into the Opera House. Anyway..

The news is however that the concert was a very rare breed of disaster, which makes my heart just sing a little bit. The man was slated to show up at 9 M, but showed up at 1 am instead; The people who paid 1000 LE per VIP ticket ended up being sent to the Hospital because the VIP Lounge collapsed before the show even begun; He shows up finally all drunk, sings for half an hour, and then attempts to do some crowd surfing(very bad idea), and then he starts calling for help in his mic because the crowd apparently kidnaps him and take him all the way to the parking lot and then put him on a car, which he ends up destroying and then ends the concert… Yeah… Sounds like a great time.

UPDATE: Inanities has a hilarious, must-read  account of the concert, including pictures of the madness.  Somebody get whoever Inanities is a job at the New York Times…..

On Iraq Withdrawal: How fast is too fast?

So  it looks like US troops will be out of Iraq by_2010:

Mr. Obama agreed to give commanders 19 months to withdraw all combat brigades, 3 months longer than he promised on the campaign trail, to guard against any resurgence of violence. The bulk of the forces will remain in place until nearly next year to allow commanders to keep as many forces as possible through parliamentary elections in December.

After August 2010, the Obama plan will leave behind 35,000 to 50,000 of the 142,000 American troops now in Iraq to advise and train Iraqi security forces, conduct discrete counterterrorism missions and protect American civilian and military personnel working in the country, including State Department reconstruction teams.

But is it as simple as this?  Does the US actually control the destiny of Iraq to the extent that it can just set a date for withdrawal and then leave?    Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation warns that new realities are complicating things:

But much of the discussion is being conducted from a Washington-centric perspective that ignores how radically the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by President Bush late last year, has altered the landscape for U.S. military forces operating in Iraq.

As part of the SOFA, the United States is required to withdraw its military forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from the country entirely by the end of 2011. Though some critics think this timeline is too fast, there is a good chance that the U.S. may be forced to withdraw even sooner: In order to coax reticent parliamentarians into approving the agreement, the Maliki government has agreed to hold a national referendum in July of this year to ratify the SOFA. If the SOFA fails to pass, the United States would have just one year to withdraw all its military forces from Iraq.

Beyond forcing an expedited withdrawal, a failed referendum would likely cause even U.S. allies among Iraqi politicians to ratchet up the level of nationalist demagoguery against the U.S. military presence to position themselves for their parliamentary campaigns. In such a heated atmosphere, insurgents could also prove more likely to step up their activity against withdrawing U.S. troops, radicalizing the environment for parliamentary elections and further complicating the redeployment of U.S. troops. Whether or not a future U.S.-Iraqi military relationship is advisable beyond the terms of the SOFA, such a scenario would likely preclude the Iraqi government from seeking support for it. Opponents of the United States would also frame a withdrawal under these circumstances as a repudiation of the United States and a defeat for U.S. policy in the region.

In this context, significant drawdowns in upcoming months will become a litmus testfor the credibility and seriousness of the Obama administration in respecting public commitments to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. While the exact timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces is less important, if no significant redeployments occur prior to the national referendum, Iraqi public opinion could very well conclude that Washington is determined to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq regardless of the public pronouncements and treaty obligations to the contrary.

Better that the U.S. begin withdrawal now, on its own terms–and in the process, enhance the chances that the SOFA will not be rejected by the Iraqi people. At the same time, President Obama would project an unmistakable message to the Arab world that the United States is serious in recalibrating the nature of its engagement with the region.

In some quarters, it is widely assumed that Iraqis’ rhetorical opposition to the U.S. military presence belies a begrudging acceptance of U.S. troops as the price of preserving recent security gains. However, gambling on Iraqi support for a continuing foreign military presence would seem to be a risky policy-planning approach that could create the conditions for a hasty withdrawal on highly unfavorable terms.

Undoubtedly, U.S. forces continue to play a vital role in providing combat and logistical support to Iraqi forces. Their presence might also serve as a buffer against the outbreak of widespread ethno-sectarian warfare and provide a point of leverage–albeit of diminishing value–in prodding Iraqi political forces to come to terms with the fundamental questions on governance, territory, and resources that still divide the country. But even if advocates of a rapid redeployment of U.S. forces overestimate the capabilities of Iraqi forces to secure the country with diminished U.S. assistance, the continued presence of U.S. forces in any capacity is now wholly dependent on Iraqi approval of the SOFA. Iraqi public opinion now matters, whether we like it or not, and behaving as if the question of troop redeployments is a question to be answered solely in Washington will further strain U.S. relations with Iraq and the Arab world.

I couldn’t agree more about the perils of Washington-centricism but I’m worried about US withdrawal from Iraq  from the other direction. — too fast rather than too slow.  Yes, there is a relative sense of security in the year 2009 and a strong case can be made that the US presence is playing a role in preventing political reconciliation.  But what about all the really bad things that could still go wrong in Iraq?    What happens if we withdraw by 2010 as promised but the day after all hell breaks out and the country descends into serious sectarian warfare?  That’s clearly not in the interests of the US or any of its allies in the region.  But here’s the problem:  Once American troops leave Iraq, they’re not going back.   It will be very difficult diplomatically and especially on the domestic political level to reinsert 50-60 thousand combat troops back into Iraq to restore security but if all hell breaks lose in Iraq, there’s no doubt that the US will be called on to do just that….

So I think the “Stupidest Man” is spot-on.  Most people agree that launching the war in Iraq was extremely stupid to begin with, but that’s irrelevant now.  We, the United States, do own the country, or at least have certain obligations to it:

My worry is that we have come to see Iraq as somehow separate from the rest of the world, as if the country existed in its own war-damaged vacuum. The result is that while we have paid much attention to the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics and the ebb and flow of the security situation, we have all but ignored outside forces that can quickly become catalysts for upheaval. One such force is the global recession, which has sent oil prices plummeting and has left Iraq reeling from financial shock. This is probably the biggest threat the country now faces, and it’s quite possible that the hard-won security gains will unravel not because of renewed sectarian violence but because of, well, lack of money. Yet this possibility, obvious as it may sound, is nowhere to be seen in Lynch’s list of contingencies. What is even more troubling is that because of our tunnel vision, none of us saw it coming. What else is there that we’re not seeing?

So, yes — I do think the prudent thing for Obama to do is to go slow. After six years of disaster, the United States owes it to Iraq not to pull the plug in haste. It may not matter that vast areas of the country, such as Nineweh and Diyala, “remain kinetic”, as an Iraq-savvy commenter put it in FP; but it matters a great deal if the whole country goes up in flames while America watches. If you thought the invasion was bad for the U.S. image and ultimately demoralising for Americans, just think what that would do.

And all COIN types in Washington should read the Stupidest Man’s blog  for a daily dose of the security issues of Afghanistan/ Pakistan/Iraq  from a non-American, perspective.

Why no more 9/11s: Part Two

In part two of his series on why the US hasn’t been attacked since 9/11,  Timothy Noah puts forth the Near_Enemy theory:

I place the Near-Enemy Theory one stop further on the worry spectrum from the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory because even if al-Qaida is right now preoccupied with opportunities in its backyard, that doesn’t necessarily keep it from devoting some resources to attacking the United States.

Basically he’s saying that Al-Qaeda has not attacked the US since 9/11 because it is more preoccupied with abundant opportunities  in its backyard. 

This is true.  But here’s how I would interpret this:  Al-Qaeda was overwhelmingly condemned for the attacks of 9/11 and there isn’t a single Islamic scholar of note who says those attacks were legitimate.   Who are the people in Al-Qaeda?  They are very religious Muslims, the kind who take note when they face such strong internal condemnation from literally every Islamist on the planet, especially when they are trying to portray themselves as the defenders of Islam.

So they focus on things that are seen as more legitimate, like  fighting against US occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are Muslim scholars who say “don’t go because you’ll only make things worse for Muslims everywhere.”  But you will never here a Muslim scholar say its illegitimate Islamically to go and fight the American, non-Muslim occupation of Islamic countries.  

Thus, the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is a major reason for the lack of attacks on the US homeland since 9/11.

Blog Endorsement

Most organizations — unis, think tanks  or media — claim that they cover “the Middle East and North Africa” but it’s all a big lie.  Its not even accurate to say they cover the Middle East.  In practice, they cover Cairo, Beirut, and Iraq, and ignore the other 90% of the region.  When’s the last time you read an article in the Times or Post from Libya?  Or from Algeria that doesn’t involve stuff getting blown up?  

By contrast, sometimes I get the sense that everybody and their brother in Cairo has been the subject of a feature piece.  Seriously.  If you can do a good job cleaning  S*** in Cairo people will write about it.  Like me.  I almost succeeded in convincing an editor to let me write an article on the guy in charge of sewage disposal in Egypt.  Readers are probably wondering why this is important. Try this:  Imagine life in Cairo if all the nasty stuff didn’t go where its supposed to.  That’s something to keep in mind for those who criticize the Egyptian government.  20 million people taking S**** every day and it all goes to the right spot.  That’s no small logistical and engineering feat and I shudder to think what would happen it they got that one wrong… life in Egypt would really stink.

Anyway, back to my original point.  I’ve got good news for people who want more coverage of North Africa.  Help is on the way.   Two esteemed MediaShack readers and North Africa gurus,  Kal and   Alle,  have started up a group blog called   Maghreb_Politics_Review.   All those looking for more analysis of the Maghreb, or, perhaps more accurately, any, should read this blog.  These guys clearly know what they’re talking about.

New Poll on Muslim Views on Al-Qaeda

World Public Opinion has just put out an in-depth survey  of Muslim opinions  (Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey).   Basically, they reflect what  American policy makers, especially Public Diplomacy, should recognize: that Al-Qaeda’s cause (Perceived  by Arabs as resisting US hegemony in the Muslim world) is seen by huge percentages of Muslims as legitimate defensive jihad, as long as its aimed at US military forces in Arab countries. 

Here’s the most relevant questions that people need to focus on.  From page 15:  

“Q43-S79. Thinking about the following kinds of attacks on Americans, please tell me if you approve of them, disapprove of them, or have mixed feelings about them?

Attacks on US military troops in Afghanistan
Egypt 2008:  75% Strongly approve, 8 % somewhat approve, and less than 10% disapprove in any form.

On US military troops based in the Persian Gulf States:
Egypt 2008:  70% strongly approve.  A total of 12% have mixed feelings or any form of disaproval. 

On US military troops based in Iraq:
Egypt 2008:  75% strongly approve.  Only 10% with mixed feelings or any form of disaproval.

On US Civilians in the US:
Egypt 2008: 8% approve in any form.  78% strongly disaprove. 

The pattern is pretty clear and I would bet that the 10% who disaprove of attacks on US troops generally are Coptic Christians. 

The results very closely reflect the contents of the following conversation.   Go to  32:29 and see the transcript here. Its from a May 2008 episode of Al-Jazeera’s  The Opposite Direction.  Here’s a very  basic translation:  Wanting to gauge his position on violence,  an Egyptian Coptic activist asks a Saudi Salafi whether Bin Laden is a terrorist or a [a legitimate] ‘fighter’ or ‘struggler’.  After several minutes of wavering, the Saudi finally says “when Bin Laden kills civilians he’s a terrorist but when he raises his hand against the US forces in Afghanistan he’s a fighter.”  

مجدي خليل(متابعا): يعني يضرب مين؟ خلي بالك، يضرب الشعب المسلم اللي زيه، مش حيضرب أميركا ما بيضربوش أميركا خلاص اتمنع، أنا قلت في برنامج تلفزيوني بعد حرب حزب الله وإسرائيل قلت دي آخر حاجة لن يطلق حزب الله طلقة واحدة إلا في إطار حرب إيرانية أميركية ويكونوا بقى حيوجهوا كل الشغب إلى الداخل خلاص، وحصل، قلتها دي أثناء الحرب، قلت انتهى، وحدث ذلك. هم دلوقت امتنعت فكرة تصدير الإرهاب للخارج بقيت محدودة جدا لأن الدول الغربية عملت سياج وقالت ما فيش تصدير للإرهابيين وحذرت الدول العربية. كانوا بيصدروا الإرهاب على الخارج، النظام العسكري يضغط ويصدّر، ينفس في أميركا وإسرائيل ويقول لهم تروحوا. دلوقت خلاص انتهى الموضوع. دلوقت، أنا ببساطة شديدة علشان بس نوضح أخي العزيز أنا أسألك بعض الأسئلة أنت شفت برنامج الأخوان المسلمين الأخير اللي بيقولوا لك إنهم لو طلعوا قالوا لهم طلعوا طلعوا.. اسألك ثلاث أسئلة بسيطة جدا وترد لي عليها وتشوفها من وجهة نظري أرجو أنك ترد، هل بن لادن والظواهري الزرقاوي وخالد الإسلامبولي ومحمد عطا والناس دي كلها إرهابيين ولا مناضلين؟ السؤال الثاني، أرجوك تجاوب على السؤال ده، هل الكذب جائز إذا كان في خدمة الدين؟ السؤال الثالث وتجاوب على الثلاث أسئلة دول، هل سيد قطب وابن تيمية وأبو العلى المودودي دعاة إرهاب أم دعاة حق وإصلاح؟ جاوب لي على الثلاث أسئلة دول بس بسرعة وندخل في النقاش بعدها.

فيصل القاسم

: طيب تفضل يا دكتور.

محسن العواجي: بسم الله، هل ابن لادن والظواهري إرهابيين؟ أسيادك حينما ربوا بلادهم..

مجدي خليل(مقاطعا): عيب، عيب، أرفض هذا الكلام أنا ممكن أهينك.

محسن العواجي:  لا مو عيب، اسمع، ابن لادن هذا الذي أولا جنده الأميركان لقتال الروس حينما كانوا الروس الكفرة الفجرة والذي دعمه هي أميركا وحلفاؤها حينما كان الجهاد واجبا هناك ولما أجت أميركا صار الجهاد من الحرام من السبع الموبقات وبالتالي فإذاً ابن لادن الأول المجاهد حسب فتوى وزير الخارجية جورج فوتس السابق مجاهد أنا أنقل حتى يقولها باللغة العربي مجاهدين إذا ابن لادن الأول حسب الفتوى الأميركية مجاهد، ابن لادن الأخير حسب الفتوى الأميركية إرهابي، أنا أقول عن ابن لادن والظواهري وفيصل القاسم ومحسن العواجي وأي إنسان إذا كان يدافع عن بيته الذي جاءه المحتل ودخله وقتل نفسا وهدم بيتا وأحرق أرضا وزرعا فهو مجاهد صنديد رجل مفخرة للإنسانية قاطبة..

مجدي خليل(مقاطعا): والخمسة عشرة سعوديا؟..

محسن العواجي(متابعا): أما إذا أي واحد ممن ذكرت اعتدى على نفس معصومة وعلى معاهد نبينا صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول من قتل معاهدا يعني..

مجدي خليل(مقاطعا): أنا مش معاهد أنا مواطن..

محسن العواجي(مقاطعا): لحظة أنا أتكلم.. من قتل معاهدا لم يذق رائحة الجنة. على كل حال أي اعتداء على نفس معصومة فهو إرهابي..

فيصل القاسم(مقاطعا)

: السؤال الثاني..

مجدي خليل(مقاطعا): ما جاوبش على السؤال، هو حاليا إرهابي ولا مناضل؟ الظواهري إرهابي ولا مناضل؟ السعوديون اللي دمروا الأبراج راحوا فين؟

محسن العواجي: لحظة إذا وجه رصاصته ابن لادن وهو هناك مع طالبان وغيرها للمحتل الموجود إذا وجهها إلي وإليك وإلى أميركي أيضا صحفي أو وجهها إلى أميركان الشعب الأميركي هناك فهو إرهابي..

مجدي خليل(مقاطعا): يعني هو إرهابي ومناضل في نفس الوقت؟

محسن العواجي: افهمها زي ما أنت عايز، هذه واحدة، صحيح أنت الآن لك سيئات ولك حسنات كل إنسان له سيئات وحسنات

Dr Fadl Mania? UPDATED

Can someone please explain the sudden interest in Dr Fadl  (aka Sayyid Imam)?  In just the last 4 days, The_Telegraph, Haaretz, and Middle_East_Times have all published news articles on Fadl’s latest book, which came out — in November.   Am I missing something here?   The only coverage I’ve seen on Fadl (anywhere) during the last few months was  at ForeignPolicy.com by  Marc_Lynch who, like almost every Arab commentator,  does not consider Fadl all that important. 

Some things to consider regarding Sayyim Imam’s importance:

1)  The Tanzim Al-Jihad group which both Zawahiri and Fadl headed at different points can be thought of as an extremely violent offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.  It was never Salafi.  Its questionable whether Zawahiri  can be described as Salafi today but there’s no doubt about Fadl.  Al-Qaeda’s thinkers are mostly pure Salafis, so when Fadl, a non-Salafi, starts publishing books criticizing them, they laugh at him.  Think of it this way — how much would the Head of the Protestant Church of England care about criticisms from the Catholic Bishop of Chicago?   

2)  Fadl was never part of Al-Qaeda.  All three of the above articles say he was but this is simply wrong.  Al-Qaeda was founded in February 1998.  Fadl quit the Jihad group around 1994 and hasn’t been a part of any group since that point.  So his criticisms are not as an insider but as someone who was never part of the movement in the first place.

UPDATE:  A reader alerts us to the likely cause of this recent burst of Fadl mania:  MEMRI’s summaryof  Dr. Fadl’s book which was released yesterday.

Traffic Week: On Automotive Darwinism

If you’ve lived in the West long enough, you’re sure to have participated at some point or other in conversations about who’s traveled to the scariest driving country. This usually comes up as something of a feat of strength along the lines of: “I survived a taxi ride in Cairo, I can survive any kind of driving”, the challenge to which is typically: “Cairo? Oh, but I’ve seen how they drive in Dakar, and Beijing, that’s even worse.” The barometer of comparison is of course, Western driving culture.

I unfortunately don’t escape this pattern. I’m typically in a bit of an automotive shock when I travel from a country where drivers respect the rules of the road to one where anarchy seems to reign ( I use the word anarchy here with the due dose of sarcasm- of course there is some kind of system of rules in these countries, it’s just not a Western one). In most Western cities for example, you would never see a taxi driver passing a cigarette to another taxi driver while they’re both rolling next to each other at 50 km/hour on a busy motorway. And until I had witnessed that from the backseat of the cigarette-soliciting taxi in Cairo, I had never even wondered whether this was legal or not. Two Fridays ago in Beirut, I had the rare privilege of being driven in an armour-plated 4×4 which belonged to a public official. Although I was childishly relishing the experience, I kept snapping out of it every 25 seconds by the gasping fear that the vehicle was about to collide with oncoming cars as it whizzed in and out of lanes without signalling and that it would then roll over and off the road, tumbling down the mountain to the bottom of the valley where I would find my untimely death.

To be sure, driving behaviour in Lebanon in 2009 is leagues ahead of what it was in the 1980’s, when road chaos was just one victim of the breakdown of central authority because of the war. Back then, traffic lights were as decorative as the uncollected litter and indeed did not work at all. Today traffic lights do show their alternating colours, and Lebanese traffic police have begun to pull cars over and hand out tickets for violations. But the frenzied manoeuvring, whenever possible (ie when there’s no police being visible and looking menacing), is very similar to what it was back then.  So when a relative of mine a few days ago realized there’s no traffic police standing at the intersection, she most certainly seized the opportunity to keep speeding right through despite a red light.

What is wrong with driving in these countries? Is reckless driving symptomatic of a wider societal malaise? Is it merely a behavioural illustration of populaces that are less inclined temperamentally to respect order and defer to rules? Is there such a thing as “automotive” Darwinism with some cultures being “automotively civilized” and others being “automotively developing”?  While my life was flashing before my eyes at a rate of twice a minute in that 4×4 two weeks ago, I thought: the reason people drive this way, is because they can get away with it. A Lebanese will drive on the dotted line separating the lanes on a Beirut motorway, but you better believe that when that same person is driving one week later in Paris, or London, or Montreal, he most certainly will not. Why? Because either a) he will get ticketed within 2 attempts of doing something which is expressly prohibited by the law, or b) he will hear from his entourage of their experiences being ticketed for prohibited behaviour. To be very honest, when I’m driving in Europe or North America, the only reason I stop at a red light despite the fact that it might be past midnight and the intersection completely deserted, is because of the fear that a police car might be hiding behind a tree waiting to catch me, and also, because of the memory of being caught before. The knowledge that a sanction is very likely and prohibitively expensive is a very powerful deterrent. The perfect illustration of this can be found in this BBC video showing a car gingerly going up a one-way street, while a traffic policeman is busy yawning and stretching his arms above his head. When you watch that video, don’t focus on the car. Focus on the policeman. Because the problem I’m discussing doesn’t lie in a refusal to comply, it lies in the negligence to enforce. Anyone who dares say that reckless driving in these countries is “part of the culture” is only looking at the car in the BBC video, instead of looking at the yawning policeman. That policeman is yawning instead of ticketing because he is inadequately trained. Obviously the police academy did not spend enough time teaching him the importance of his public appearance, his maintenance, his ethical duties to stop and punish every single traffic violator, in short, how to fulfill the tasks for which he was posted to that location. The yawning policeman is also probably overworked: this video could very well have been filmed in August instead of February, when the desert sun pounds your head like a ton of lead, making you not only miss cars going the wrong way, but possibly also  elephants re-enacting a choreography from Fame. Many taxi drivers in Egypt are accountants, teachers, pharmacists, who supplement their income by working extra shifts driving a cab. If the traffic policeman is as overworked and underpaid as the taxi drivers are, his motivation to properly do his work is probably as low as his chair.

In Lebanon, while cars are being pulled over and fines are being slapped on motorists, it’s probably not frequently enough and for amounts that will hurt the wallet enough to prevent a repeat offense. Ghassan Rahbani, a member of the younger generation of Rahbani brothers (the famous musical duo who composed Fairouz’s songs), was on a talk show recently. He told a story of being stuck in traffic and honking his horn out of frustration. The police pulled him over and fined him 5,000 LL (about US $3). He asked the policeman if he had change for a 10,000 LL note, which the policeman did not. So Ghassan gave him the 10,000 LL note and honked a second time. This story got a lot of laughs on the show, but it illustrates how the fines are not taken seriously enough to correct the at-fault behaviour because the amounts are so ridiculously small. Similarly, my relative who burned the red light wasn’t scared of doing so because she had never been caught and fined before. She didn’t have the memory of a stinging punishment to stop her from committing an offense. Driving in Lebanon has improved because a concerted effort has been made and continues to be made to control and regulate the driving culture and implement a universal respect for the rules of the road. But until this is done with enough uniformity, without any impunity, and with fines that are important enough to act as deterrents, motorists will still think they can get away with it.

So, the moral of this post is: let’s stop talking about reckless driving, let’s stop suggesting that people from the Middle East or other developing countries are genetically predisposed to becoming bad drivers, let’s stop talking about Egyptian motorists being “under a lot of pressure” and Lebanese motorists still suffering the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the war. Because these same people travel every year to Europe, North America, Australia, where they drive just as soundly as any John Smith or Franz Schweizer. Let’s start talking instead about inadequate and insufficient enforcement. And by enforcement, I should make clear that we should not only look to policemen, but beyond them as well. The policeman is only as good as the police academy training he got, and the training can only be up to a standard that is allowed by the funding from the responsible authorities. And let’s not forget, the policeman does not write the laws, he only upholds them. Ultimately, it’s the Ministry of Justice and Parliament who should be legislating with enough sophistication and concern for the health and safety of motorists to develop an automotively developing country. And they should back that up with sufficient willingness to enforce their legislation to cause a trickle down effect that will wake up the yawning policemen of the Middle East.

More on the Egypt bombings….

Al-Ahram’s Khalil Anani has a good piece at Daily News Egypt on the recent bomb attack in Cairo.   For those who aren’t intricately familiar with Egyptian intelligensia, take note of the source:  Khalil is a respected scholar of political Islam, author of a good book on the Muslim Brotherhood, and from his perch on the 11th floor of  Cairo’s prestigous Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, he hears whatever inside scoops there are to be heard.  What  he says here generally “fits the puzzle”  as I see it:

It seems we are witnessing a new type of terrorism that can best be described as “random individual terrorism.” It is a pattern indicating the absence of a large organization taking responsibility for these operations.

Instead, small extremist cells made up of four or five members sharing a violent ideology and seeking to implement it on the ground could be behind the attacks, making it very difficult for security bodies to track them down.

But the question is: who is behind the Al-Hussein bombing? There can be several explanations: First there has been a large increase in Salafist discourse in Egyptian society over the past three years. I have repeatedly warned of the possibility of a change of thoughtamong the Egyptian Salafist trend, which opts for violence.

It is true that the Salafist movement is not interested in politics, but at a certain point, some of its members may show a desire to express their ideas in a violent way, as was the case in Taba, Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh which were the target of terrorist bombings between 2004 and 2006. Small fundamentalist groups claimed responsibility for them.

Second, regional tensions, especially after the war on Gaza, and the political ascendancy of the conservative Israeli right, as well as deep Arab division, fan feelings of violence and the radical ideology of some small religious groups who seek revenge on behalf of the Palestinians.

Third, some new jihadists are bent on embarrassing and retaliating against the Egyptian regime as punishment for its regional policies especially during the war on Gaza. Targeting tourism, which is a major source of national income, could be part of this vengeance.

Finally, the bombings may be in response to international attitudes in favor of Israel, and thus increasing the anger of many categories within the Egyptian society, especially the marginalized and the underprivileged.

Traffic Week: Rules of the Game

I cringe when I hear people complain about taxi drivers in Egypt.   99% of Cairo taxi horror stories are preventable as long as the  rules_of_the_game are understood and followed:

Rule #5  Taxi drivers are not the enemy
Almost every foreigner, and even many Egyptians, have negative taxi stories. The infamous Cairene taxi driver is probably the greatest target of visitors’ wrath but this does not have to be the case. Most taxi-related hassles are caused by the foreign passenger’s ignorance of the rules. Master the system and you will have no trouble.  Riding cabs can even be a  pleasant and enlightening experience.

The biggest mistake visitors make is to try and bargain before they get in the cab, thinking it is best to agree on a price beforehand and avoid an argument at the end. This is the advice that guidebooks offer but this is not how the system works and by discussing the price at all, the passenger is telling the driver they do not know the system, which may tempt him to ask for a higher price.

A lack of working meters does not mean there is no system. In fact, it is organized and efficient, although unwritten and there are clear rates for how much a ride between different neighborhoods will cost, with slight variations based on level of traffic, time of day, and number of passengers. Ask around and you can quickly learn them. Simply tell the driver where you want to go and pay him the fare when you get out. In most cases, there should be no conversation whatsoever about price.

The image of the taxi driver being “out to get” passengers is incorrect. Perhaps a bit of empathy is in order:  Drivers sit in traffic, in non-air conditioned cars, for up to 12 hours a day, often earning just enough to make ends meet. They are usually thrilled to meet foreigners, especially those who can communicate in Arabic. Talk about the things that interest them — usually football, Egyptian films, or American action films — and they will treat you like an old friend. After these friendly conversations, some drivers refuse to take money, however, you should insist on paying. This is a side of the Cairene taxi driver that rarely makes the guidebooks.

Hitchens not attacked?

From the Angry Arab:

According to a Lebanese police sources cited in Al-Akhbar, Hitchens was not attackedin Beirut. And the SSNP also denied the story and said that they had no posters in Beirut. If this story is made up it would not be a first: remember that Hitchens claimed to have interviewed Abu Nidal, when there is no evidence whatsoever for that interview. (The source who first sent me the story need to follow up NOW). (thanks Saeed)

For those who don’t read Arabic the story is basically a two paragraph piece saying exactly what the above says.    Maybe its just me but reading the words “F…Off”  in English mixed into an Arabic article is funny:

وإنه عندما رأى شعاراً للحزب السوري القومي الاجتماعي، لم يتمكن من تحمُّل ذلك، فحمل قلمه وبدأ يكتب على الشعار. وأوضح أنه أراد أن يقول للحزب السوري «f.. off». عندها

When trying to judge the seriousness of these claims, keep in mind that Al-Akhbar is generally pro-Syrian, pro-Hezbollah, and anti-US foreign policy.   Therefore,  by definition, they hate and have an interest in embarrasing someone like Hitchens, an ardent supporter of the Iraq war whose trip to Lebanon was paid for by a Pro-March 14th group.  It would make their day if it turned out that the fight story turned out not to be true.

Traffic Week

My good friend Joseph Simmons (who, by the way, happens to  speaks Arabic at what linguists commonly refer to as the “far-out sick nasty level”)  has a good post on traffic in Egypt:

Traffic accidents in Egypt continue to be a major problem as over 30 people have been killed and over scores injured on the roads just this month. Official estimates place the number of deaths in road accidents in Egypt at around 6000 to 8000 per year with tens of thousands of injuries. In August 2008, the government began to implement a new traffic lawin an attempt to fix some of Egypt’s traffic problems, including banning the use of cell phones without headsets, the requirement for taxi drivers to wear seatbelts (which they usually only do when they see a policeman, and even so often just sling the belt over themselves without securing it), and fines for driving in the wrong direction. It’s not clear that the new law has had any real effect.

Traffic problems in Egypt result from human error as well as legal and physical deficiencies .

Word is that Blackstar has a long rantpost about traffic deficiencies in Lebanon on the way so let me take this occasion to announce “Traffic Week” at MediaShack.  Each day  I will be tell a different story about life behind the wheels in Egypt.

Blast in Cairo

From Daily News Egypt:

CAIRO: Seventeen people were wounded, including 11 French tourists, three Germans and three Egyptians when a bomb went off in the tourist district of Al Hussein, near the popular Khan Al Khalili market in the heart of Cairo at around 7 pm.

A conflicting report by Reuters, however, claims that four people had died, two of them tourists, but their nationality has not been disclosed. The report said that eleven people were also wounded, six seriously.

The Daily News Egypt correspondent present at the scene shortly after, said that at around 8:10 pm another explosion was heard, but that it did not incur any casualties.

No smoke was visible.

By then at least 1000 riot policemen had filled the area, which was sealed off completely.

Read CNN here and BBC here

I know nothing except what I read at DNE but here’s my preliminary thoughts:  This is consistent with the kind of random violence that commentators have been predicting for a while now and is not likely connected to any organized groups.   The militant Jihadi groups of the 1980s and 1990s have been broken up by the state and, for the most part,  made their own decisions to give up violence.  The other group that comes to mind is Al-Qaeda but they are not thought to have a presence in Egypt.  However, this does not mean violence has disappeared.  Given the horrible socio-economic conditions in Egypt, there are enough reasons why Egyptians would be so pissed off at the world that they resort to violence.   But its random acts, commited by individuals with no connections to organized militant groups (because they don’t exist anymore in Egypt).  Both Ibrahim Eissa and Hussam Tamem have been saying for a while now and based solely on the information that’s available, I think this is what is happening here.  We should probably not read too much into this incident; Unless a pattern starts emerging, its probably not significant. 

Of course, if there are any new developments, expect to read about them here at MediaShack.

Churchill bust-up

 Today Rob forwarded me a post from Foreign Policy.Com in which Will Inboden discussed reports that President Obama has returned a bust of Winston Churchill that was sitting in the Oval office. I appreciate that this is nothing to do with the Middle East, so I apologise for my forthcoming rant.  But Imboden really did pick up on one of my pet peeves.

 The bust was a gift from Tony Blair to President George Bush, he wrote, before continuing…

“It is hard to think of any good reason for this curious gesture, which has sparked understandable consternation among conservative commentators and understandable heartburn among British diplomats as well.”

Really, Will? Really? You know, I can think of many reasons for the bust’s removal.  And I also think that British diplomats are unlikely to have a heart attack over it. 

Perhaps the one thing that I can agree with, is that Churchill seems to be more popular on the other side of the Atlantic.  Although the accolade of being voted the greatest ever Briton would seem to indicate that us Brits do rate the guy.  Not me though.

I think that the hero worship of Churchill is pretty much unfounded.  Anyone who harps on about his brilliant running of the British war effort should really do some reading. For all of you shaking your head as you read this, I have one name:  Field Marshall Lord Allenbrooke, the constant at Churchill’s side who regularly disregarded Churchill’s decisions and made sense of the British war effort.  

Churchill may have been charismatic, but he was also an alcoholic that came up with about ten hare-brained schemes a day.  Oh, and pretty much all of them went horribly wrong.  But this is not my real issue.  

Churchill was a conservative Victorian in power 50 years too late, who believed fervently in the Empire and held some truly hideous and bigoted views.  Read some of his private comments about Egyptians amid the Suez crisis.  Unrepeatable.

Don’t get me wrong, I have heard stories about his role and his inspirational speeches since I was a kid.  The guy could make a speech and his words will live immortal.  But he, like everyone, was fallible.  I would contend that he was more fallible than most. 

Oh, and finally, a bust of Thatcher? Will, don’t even get me started.  I vote for Allenbrooke.

 Monty is the MediaShack represenative in the UK. 

Assad calls for full diplomatic ties with US

Damascus has become an unlikely hotspot for Western visitors in 2009, with President – and peacemaker-in-chief – Nicolas Sarkozy and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband taking in the sights and sounds of Damascus.  Chairman of the Senate Committe on Foreign Relations John Kerry is jetting in next week, and the rumours are that he could soon be followed by a new US ambassador.  

In today’s Guardian, Middle East editor Ian Black interviewed the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, with the title “Syrian leader extends olive branch to US”.  So what did Assad say? …Well everything you would expect him to really!

On resuming diplomatic relations with the US:

“An ambassador is important,” Assad said. “Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them – Obama, Clinton and others – is positive.” But he added: “We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet.”

Drawing a line under the Bush administration, and hopes for Obama:

“Bush failed in everything,” says the president. “They [the Bush administ ration] worked hard to achieve regime change. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work because I am not an American puppet and have good relations with my people.”

“We have the impression that this administration will be different,” he says “and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results.” He hopes “in principle” to meet Obama, “but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to discuss peace.”

On the peace process:

“If you want comprehensive peace in the Middle East you can’t achieve it without Syria,” he says. “We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace you cannot advance without us.”

Of course what Assad did not disclose was what Syria was willing to give away to resume diplomatic relations with the US.  Will the Syrian leader downgrade Damascus’ relations with Tehran? Will Hezbollah still receive arms that are transported via Syria?  …Assad was tight-lipped.

I would be interested to hear what Mediashack’s opinions are on this one.  The US will undoubtedly want things that Damascus doesn’t want to give.  Catherine Philp of The Times was also in Damascus last week, and quoted a Syrian businessman in Damascus assaying: “From Tehran we get free oil, weapons, money, support. What has the West to offer that can beat that?” I can’t see the removal of economic sanctions being enough – although they are pretty severe. (When I was living in Damascus I found out that Syrian Air are prevented from buying new planes – they just keep tacking on old parts to old planes!)  The bigger enticement for Assad would be the return of the Golan Heights, THE prize in Syrian politics.  It is plausible that an Israeli government led by Netanyahu would find it easier to move on the Golan than Jerusalem or the West Bank – a sympathetic Whitehouse could certainly do no harm on this front. 

 For his part, Assad finished his interview by saying that:

“You can’t only deal with good people. If they can spoil things or put obstacles in your way you have to deal with them. And I don’t mean Syria and Iran. This is a principle. It applies anywhere in the world. Forget about labels and rhetoric.”

Hopefully, the Obama administration will be inclined to agree….

Where have I heard this before?

Stephen Walt at ForeignPolicy.Com makes_a_point on Afghanistan I’ve been constantly repeating:

In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater politicalparticipation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. nationalsecurity nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don’t (or shouldn’t) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don’t let anti-American bad guysuse their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen. 

In fact, I would argue that a Taliban dictatorship is in US interests.  I can hear a collective “Rob, stop doing drugs” from the readership but hear me out.  There’s two reasons:

1) Having some form of centralized rule is critical to the sole US interest of preventing Afghanistan from turning into an Al-Qaeda launching pad
2) The Taliban is the Afghani group most capable of achieving some semblance of centralized rule

“But wait,”  some might say in response, “they are terrorists.”  Actually, they aren’t: The Taliban has  never employed terrorism against the US, or, for that matter,  targeted it in any way. 

 Sayyid Imam’s latest “revisions”  (read more about him here) were mostly 100 pages of worthless rambling but in his desire to embarrass Al- Qaeda, he did reveal some interesting CT titbits.    According to Imam, Bin Laden deceived Mullah Omar regarding 9/11, violating a pledge he made not to overrule Omar’s authority when it came to plotting attacks against the US (which Omar opposed).  When some members of AQ heard that Bin Laden was plotting a big attack inside US territory (9/11) they got mad and reminded him of the pledge.    Bin Laden then pulled a Jihadi Bill Clinton and said “no, no, we pledged allegiance to Mullar Omar inside Afghanistan.  We can do whatever we want outside Afghanistan.”   From Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper, 11/21/08:

بدأ الإعداد لتفجيرات ١١/٩/٢٠٠١م قبل سنتين من وقوعها، ولما اكتملت التجهيزات أعلن ابن لادن فى ٦/٢٠٠١ أن هناك عملية كبرى ستقع ضد أمريكا بدون تحديد لمكانها أو تفاصيلها. فاعترض عليه بعض أتباعه خاصة من لجنته الشرعية بأن أميرهم الملا محمد عُمر نهاهم عن الصدام مع أمريكا وأنه لا طاقة له ولا لدولته بذلك، فاخترع ابن لادن هذه البدعة «محلية الإمارة» للرد على منتقديه من أتباعه، وقال لهم إن محمد عُمر أميرهم داخل أفغانستان ولا دخل له بما يفعلونه خارجها. والرد على ذلك من وجوه:

إن الأمر الشرعى بطاعة الأمير لم يقيد ذلك بمكان «داخل أو خارج» كقول الله تعالى: {… أطيعوا الله وأطيعوا الرسول وأولى الأمر منكم…} «النساء: ٥٩»، وكقول النبى [: «من أطاعنى فقد أطاع الله، ومن عصانى فقد عصى الله، ومن يطع الأمير فقد أطاعنى، ومن يعص الأمير فقد عصانى» متفق عليه.

وكذلك نصوص الوعيد لمن عصى أميره غير مقيدة بمكان، كقول النبى [: «من خلع يدًا من طاعة لقى الله يوم القيامة ولا حُجة له» رواه مسلم.

Imam is hardly an objective observer of Al-Qaeda but this account is consistent with what I read in the Arabic press and the people I’ve talked to. 

So what’s the moral of the story?  The Taliban did not know about 9/11 beforehand and would have opposed it if they knew.  They have never committed acts of terrorism against the US and almost certainly never will — these are a bunch of  unsophisticated, illiterate  hicks from the countryside and from a CT perspective, these guys wouldn’t ever get past Kabul airport.    All of this supports my argument that the Taliban is not a natural enemy of the US; whether they are in power is not important to the US, provided they don’t give Al-Qaeda free reign to plot attacks against the US, which they really haven’t done before.

Calling out Al-Arabiya?

Maybe its me but Hamas PM Ismail Hanai is calling out  Al-Arabiya  in this interview.   Go to  01:30.   He says something along the lines of ” I want to take this opportunity to express  mine and  the Palestinian people’s great esteem for the noble role Al-Jazeera carries out, in addition to the other Satellite stations that were committed to the Umma’s causes, especially the Palestinian cause.” 

Being a good diplomat/ politician, Hanai  never explicitly mentions Al-Arabiya by name, but (at least in my view) by declaring that Al-Jazeera are other are committed  to the Umma’s causes, he is subtly saying that some stations are not,especially since its pretty unusual to hear any reference to the quality of their coverage on Al-Jazeera.   A 12 year old Arab who barely follows politics would immediately understand the reference:  Al-Jazeera stands for the Umma’s causes, whereas other unanmed stations, such as Arabiya, do not. 

This is something to keep in mind when trying to gauge the significance of interviews by high level politicians on Al-Arabiya.   In the majority of Arab eyes, its seen as a tool of the Saudi royal family.  If you want to really engage the masses, you gotta go on Al-Jazeera.  It can’t be avoided.

Check this blog out…

Readers looking for good national security blogs should take a look at  The_Stupidest_Man_on_Earth which features good coverage on Afghanistan/ Pakistan by a Finnish journalist named Jari Lindholm.  Who exactly is the stupidest man? I’m not sure but this blog is worth checking out.

Back in the game, angrily

Blogging has been slow over the last five days as I’ve been on the road but now I’m back.  It was a great trip except for one thing:   the airplane killed my guitar.

I’m so angry.  I  knew taking it on the plane was risky but I thought I took all the right precautions:   I convinced the people at the check-in counter that I had to carry it on, it never left my side and there were no other bags in the overhead compartment.   But then a few hours after arriving, I pulled  it out of its bag and find that the air pressure had snapped the wood on the head-stock, essentially killing it.   FUBAR status.    Basically, repairing it will cost more than buying a new one. 

This reminds me of a story I read in Eric Clapton’s autobiography.  Way back in the early ’70’s Clapton saw a guitar that he knew his friend Jimi Hendrix would just love.   So he bought it and brought it to a club where expected to run into him.  Except Hendrix  never showed up because this was the night he passed away, and so whenever Clapton saw this particular guitar model he was overcome with a deep sense of sadness.  I feel Clapton’s pain as I type  this post while staring at my mashed-up guitar.  But unlike Clapton, I don’t have guitar companies competing to give me their best equipment for free ( at least not yet),  so I have to go out and buy a whole new guitar.   Just what I felt like doing. 

 So the moral of the story is loosen your strings when you fly.  Also,  regular blogging is back at MediaShack.

The Israeli election: not fit for purpose

The Israeli electoral system is broken. The candidate who finished second won this week’s poll.  Surely that is evidence enough.  Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party squeezed past Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party by 28 seats to 27, both falling far short of the 61 needed for a majority.  But, and it is a big but, the right-wing parties took 65 seats to the 55 of the centre-left, leaving the Likud leader in prime position to form a coalition.

The atmosphere surrounding the Israeli election was in stark contrast to the recent presidential elections as Israelis effectively said “no, we can’t” to the peace process; Netanyahu is “unwilling, on paper at least, to let Palestinians have anything more in the way of a state than a hollowed out Swiss cheese of feebly linked cantons,” wrote The Economist.

Behind the scenes the horsetrading is underway and the other parties will try and extort the highest possible price for their support.  The settlers are rattling their sabres. The British media has been focusing on the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu surged to third place in the polls, even finishing ahead of Labour.  Lieberman has been referred to many times as the “kingmaker” as his party’s 15 seats will be crucial to the forming of a coalition.  His policy of demanding that Arab-Israelis take an oath of allegiance to Israel has grabbed many headlines in the UK. Jonathan Freedland, a lead comment writer for The Guardian who is known for his pro-Israeli stance at a paper which is often critical of Israel, wrote that: 

It is a truly shocking idea. I asked several Israel Beytenu luminaries if they could name a single democracy anywhere that had removed citizenship from those who already had it. I asked what they would make of demanding that, say, British Jews, swear an oath of loyalty to Britain as a Christian country on pain of losing their right to vote. I got no good answers.

A good point, well made I think. The fact that a party espousing such policies could be so successful in the nationwide poll has been seen as the exemplification of Israel’s shift to the right and has instilled foreboding in many Israeli-Arabs already reeling from attempts to ban Israeli-Arab parties from taking part in the election. Neither Likud nor Kadima have opposed Lieberman’s idea.

In a piece in The Washington Post, Hanan Porat a rabbi who is reported to have led efforts to build settlements in the West Bank said: 

“The outcome of the election is that the way of the left has failed. The public has realized it was leading us to destruction… The Qassam rockets that have been falling are more convincing than all the speeches about peace.”

The left? All the speeches about peace? Mr Porat must have been referring to a different election.  I would be interested to know how many references to peace Livni made in the build-up to this election.  While the war in Gaza may actually have increased Kadima’s performance at the polls, it is a true testament to the times that the supposed pro-peace lobby could have embarked upon such an operation.  

The truth is that the recent war in Gaza could only ever have resulted in loss for Israel – its goal of eliminating Hamas was and is not achievable without re-occupying Gaza.  As soon as the first Qassam rocket was fired into Israel after the offensive had ended, Israel had lost.  There is no reason to believe that a Government led by Netanyahu will be any better, but plenty to believe it will be substantially worse.  

If there is one upside, it may be that Mr Obama is forced to re-appraise the US’s relationship with Israel.  Mr Obama should not fear being openly critical of the policies of Lieberman and the far-right.  His silence up until this point in the election has been deafening.

And, as for the Israeli electoral system, as long as the extreme wings hold a choke hold over the centre and meaningful concessions then Israel will remain as toothless a partner in peace as its Palestinian counterpart(s).

Monty is the MediaShack correspondent in the UK.