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.