Tag Archives: Egypt

Such great heights: Russians on the Egyptian pyramids

Courtesy of Gawker.com.
Courtesy of Gawker.com.

Gawker has the scoop on a series of breathtaking photographs taken from the top of the Great Pyramid in Egypt:

Last week in Egypt, a group of Russian photographers apparently climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza—hiding from guards for four hours after closing time before beginning the ascent. Climbing the pyramid, one of the photographers claims, carries a punishment of one to three years. But it was worth it. “I was speechless,” one wrote. “I felt a chilling delight, absolute happiness.”

Hide your kids, hide your wife: Thomas Friedman is back and pontificating

ThomasFriedmanI just conducted a quick spot check, and was horrified to learn that — in the entire history of this blog — I have devoted only two posts to mocking New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. This is really too bad, as he deserves regular treatment of this sort on a monthly basis, at the very least. (Turns out, in fact, that my first post on Sir Thomas was actually my first-ever post on this blog, which I launched on December 12, 2010. Can I get a “happy two-year anniversary?”)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Friedman has caught my attention again with his latest missive, which you really should go take several minutes to read. Let’s examine the opening line:

When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below?

Now be careful here. This may seem like a question with a remarkably obvious answer, but you only think this because you’re not Thomas Friedman. If you were, in fact, Thomas Friedman — God save us all — you’d know that, when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade.

Now you may be asking yourself, “But what does that have to do with not knowing where you are when you’re flying along the Mediterranean?” But again, as you know — starting to get the hang of this? — you’re not Thomas Friedman. In fact, if you were Thomas Friedman, you’d likely have written some tired cliche like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” many times by now in your columns. And you would have known this axiom to be useful because both a cabdriver you once met in Amman and a flight attendant on Singapore Airlines have said it to you. And both of those people’s companies use solar panels. And so all of this is why it is not remarkably obvious to Thomas Friedman that all one needs to do to figure out what one sees below oneself when one is flying along the Mediterranean is to…look down.


If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Oh. Yes, that explains it.

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians.

You can be forgiven for thinking that extrapolating one angry journalist’s question into a nationwide trend is a bit of a specious argument. Or that assuming any Egyptian veil-sporting female must be a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is just downright stupid. But then, you’ve clearly forgotten who employs Thomas Friedman: the New York Times is notorious for its three-instances-make-a-trend approach to narrative-building, so the fact that Friedman has downsized to a mere one-instance-makes-a-trend paradigm is simply a reflection of his desire to conserve energy and save our planet. As we should be doing but aren’t, because we’re not China. (Yet. Maybe someday?)

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

I am astonished that Friedman forgot to insert a Tiger/Tigris pun here. How could he have let this opportunity slip by? Sure, Egypt’s not Iraq, but Syria isn’t either and that never stopped Sir Thomas. By the way, why didn’t anyone else covering the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 notice a tiger escaping from his cage and making a beeline for the nearest beef steakhouse? Why did only Thomas Friedman see this? I’m starting to understand why he couldn’t see the Mediterranean below him earlier: while everyone else saw the sea, he was staring at a blue monkey playing the harmonica. A solar-powered harmonica.

Friedman closes:

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d always thought a relatively secular, progressive, democratic government was a better idea than one that strong-arms the opposition and attempts to consolidate power by pushing through an unpopular constitution. So doesn’t that mean the Egyptian opposition has already taken Friedman’s advice to heart? And if so, why hasn’t the public been won to their side?

Maybe it’s because Egypt is more complicated than all that. But more likely, it’s because they haven’t yet learned to make lemonade.

Egypt, embroiled again

Courtesy of JuanCole.com.
Courtesy of JuanCole.com.

President Muhammad Morsi is starting to look a little too similar to his strongman predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. But he may have already crossed the point of no return:

The general unwillingness of many of the police and army to intervene actively in favor of President Morsi appears to have put a fright into him and his administration. After earlier being completely inflexible in the face of the protests, they are now hinting that the referendum on the constitution could be postponed past the December 15 date initially designated by Morsi.

There was also a big demonstration in Alexandria, where crowds chanted, “The people want the execution of the president.”

Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the president attempted to avoid clashes of the sort that broke out Wednesday, demonstrating in their tens of thousands in the old Islamic quarter in front of the al-Azhar Seminary or at the Rabiah al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City not so far from the presidential palace.

The liberal political leaders of the National Salvation Front coalition, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Elbaradei and the former secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, rejected Morsi’s call for a dialogue meeting on Saturday. They insisted that Morsi first rescind his decree of Nov. 22 in which he put himself above judicial review.

Egypt’s dangerous proposed constitution


Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has scheduled a national referendum for December 15 to vote on the new proposed constitution. Juan Cole is concerned:

The new constitution promises many rights, but also limits them in vague ways that could be opening to abuse.

As a historian, I am fascinated by the parallels of this proposed constitution with the 1906 Iranian constitution. In the latter, a committee of five ayatollahs was given review power to decide if legislation is in accordance with Islam. That provision was never really implemented (in 1979 it was made moot when the clerics just took over altogether). Likewise, the Egyptian constitution gives to the Muslim clerics of Al-Azhar Seminary (the closest thing the Sunni world has to a Vatican) the prerogative of interpreting Islamic law as it pertains to the constitution. Since the constitution puts Muslim Egyptians under Islamic law for personal status purposes, and has other provisions that invoke Islamic law, someone had to decide what Islamic law is. Having al-Azhar make determinations that then feed into constitutional law is a way of ensuring orthodoxy.

The Iraqi Constituent Assembly in 2005 drafted a similar provision, for the Shiite clergy of Najaf to review legislation and interpret Islamic law as it touched the constitution. That article was dropped, however, under severe pressure from the US ambassador of the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, and from other Iraqi groups such as the Kurds.

Putting Muslim Egyptians under Islamic law for matters of personal status is also troubling. Many secularists would not want to have their private lives governed in this way. In cases of intestacy, their daughters would only inherit half what their sons did. There is also a danger that this constitution could normalize the interference of religious groups and authorities in private matters such as marriage.

Also, there are other things going on elsewhere

Such as in Egypt, where a rather monumental event took place yesterday: the Arab world’s first-ever live, televised presidential debate.

Two weeks before the scheduled May 23 start of the election to choose the first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood campaigning as a liberal Islamist, faced Amr Moussa, a popular former diplomat campaigning as the stable alternative to an “experiment” in Islamist rule.

Mr. Moussa, 75 and a more confident debater, was far more aggressive than Mr. Aboul Fotouh, 60. But neither candidate delivered a knockout punch as the debate turned repeatedly to the polarizing question of the status of Islam in governance.

Big moment for Egypt and Egyptians, and it’s worth noting how much more seriously they probably take their debates than we do with our reality-TV-show Republican primary debates.

I also must submit the following as perhaps the least inspiring debate line of all time:

Both candidates were also asked about the “virginity tests” that soldiers forced on detained female protesters. “I call on each of our daughters who suffered such an insult or other insults, to immediately file a report about it,” Mr. Aboul Fotouh said.

In both candidates’ defense, this would still put their women’s rights stances on roughly equal footing with those of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

On Glenn Greenwald, Israel, and The Godfather III

Over the last several days, I’ve been commenting on the blog Sad Red Earth, run by A. Jay Adler. The post, guest-written by Rob H., that sparked the extensive comments was titled “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” In it, Rob accused Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger on Salon.com, of falsely attributing anti-Muslim bias to the New York Times, which ran a headline immediately after the recent Oslo attacks stating, “Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility.”

Greenwald wrote that “for much of the day…the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo.” In reality, Rob countered, “the truth turned out to be that the headline he sharply criticized in two columns — over two days — was only online for about two hours, and NOT ‘much of the day.’ I confirmed this with a Senior Editor at The Times by simply sending him an email inquiring about the headline in question.”

First of all, assuming Rob is telling the truth (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), one should give credit where credit is due. Rob was right, and Greenwald was wrong. In fact, not only was he wrong, but his misinformation looks a bit suspicious: it’s difficult to mistake two hours for most of a day without some pretty severe preconceived biases.

The comments section of Rob’s post soon spun off into a million different directions, however, only some of which were related to the original subject. In general, the comments either supported or rebutted one of the following topics:

1) Glenn Greenwald “often makes mistakes and even admits it while declaring he’ll make many more.” He is thus irresponsible and unreliable as a writer/thinker, and is guilty of committing the same journalistic crimes as those he so often pillories.

2) Greenwald’s “worse [sic] trait is that, in Chomsky style, he truly sees the U.S. as nothing but a force of evil in the world, an [sic] also has this nasty little habit of advancing explicitly anti-Semitic arguments.”

3) As A. Jay put it, “Which is it – you want something ‘out of’ our relationship with Israel that you think we don’t get, or you morally can’t ‘stomach’ Israel? You can’t stomach Syria either, but at least you’re not paying for the upset, and that’s bottom line? And there are not other bases upon which to distinguish between then two and upon which to base our relations with them?”

4) The Godfather III. Don’t ask; I’ll explain later on in this post.

Continue reading On Glenn Greenwald, Israel, and The Godfather III

The life and wild times of Thomas Friedman

Almost six months ago, I began this blog with an inaugural post making fun of Thomas Friedman. I am neither the first nor the last person to do this, and my mocking was not the funniest on the topic either. But for what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

Incidentally, it also wasn’t the last time I’d make fun of him on this very same blog. Yup, you got it: Friedman’s gone and done it again. Now I realize the man doesn’t write his own headlines, but one gets the feeling that whoever does that job for him is mailing it in too. His latest column’s title? “Pay Attention.” (I suppose when you reach the level of inanity that Friedman has, blatant pleas for a captive audience are to be expected.) Somewhere in there is an apt metaphor for the last gasp of fast-declining newspapers. But like Friedman, I’m too lazy to elaborate. Why make logical connections when you can make large, specious leaps instead?

Now if I were Sir Thomas, here is where I’d inadvertently run into a [Singaporean bureaucrat/orphaned Cambodian child/Chinese investment banker/taxi driver from any one of those countries]. He’d casually throw out some inauspicious line, like “The traffic here is bad, but an empty road is worse luck than a traffic jam.” Or, “It may not be perfect, but I love my country.” Or, “Dude, stop dictating crappy metaphors into your iPhone while I’m trying to drive here.” As Mr. Friedman, I’d take it from there, weaving in a completely distended argument that manages to mention clean energy, Chinese high-speed rail, and wi-fi, all within a neat 700-word column (written, of course, in under five minutes).

As it happens, I don’t have to do this for him, since Mr. Friedman has taken care of things all by his lonesome. I could tell from the very start that this latest column was a keeper:

I had some time to kill at the Cairo airport the other day so I rummaged through the “Egyptian Treasures” shop. I didn’t care much for the King Tut paper weights and ashtrays but was intrigued by a stuffed camel, which, if you squeezed its hump, emitted a camel honk. When I turned it over to see where it was manufactured, it read: “Made in China.” Now that they have decided to put former President Hosni Mubarak on trial, I hope Egyptians add to his indictment that he presided for 30 years over a country where nearly half the population lives on $2 day and 20 percent are unemployed while it is importing low-wage manufactured goods — a stuffed camel, no less — from China.

Brilliant! The man managed to squeeze in China, tacky gift shops, airports (Thomas Friedman loves him some airports), and an utterly nonsensical plea to imprison Hosni Mubarak for participating in a little thing called globalization. (Later, the essay even closes with this absolute gem: “This is so much more important than Libya.”)

But Friedman isn’t finished, oh no. Just a bit further down, he ruminates: “If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.”

Heavens to Betsy, no! Anything but that! God forbid a democratic revolution actually results in…democracy. Friedman quotes Mohamed ElBaradei, a (non-Muslim Brotherhood) presidential candidate, warning, “You will have an unrepresentative Parliament writing an unrepresentative Constitution.” (To be clear, ElBaradei’s “unrepresentative Parliament” refers to representatives elected freely by the Egyptian population.) Sadly, it never really dawns on Friedman that perhaps a contender for the presidency may in fact have a vested interest in portraying all rivals as less than desirable.

Towards the end, Friedman lays out his case more succinctly:

Free elections are rare in the Arab world, so when they happen, everybody tries to vote — not only the residents of that country. You can be sure money will flow in here from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

America, though, cannot publicly intervene in the Egyptian election debate. It would only undermine the reformers, who have come so far, so fast, on their own and alienate the Egyptian generals. That said, though, it is important that senior U.S. officials engage quietly with the generals and encourage them to take heed of the many Egyptian voices that are raising legitimate concerns about a premature runoff.

For those of you keeping track at home, things Monsieur Thomas is afraid of include: 1) democracy, 2) “everybody [trying] to vote”, and 3) outside campaign contributions — the last of which would never happen in the United States, obviously. In Friedman’s intricate mind (which, not unlike the Internet, also appears to consist of a series of tubes), America cannot intervene in Egyptian democracy. It can only pressure the undemocratic Egyptian military to delay voting so the preferred candidates win. Because if we can’t even pull off a little vote-rigging here and there, what was the point of displacing Mubarak in the first place?

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The Good: Egypt permanently opens the border crossing with Gaza.

The Bad: The Saudis are aggressively promoting their vision of stable monarchical rule in order to counteract the protest movements spreading throughout the Middle East.

The Ugly: Freed journalists recount their despair over a colleague’s execution while in captivity in Libya.

A tale of two countries: Egypt, America, and the strangling of democracy

Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with the immortal phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” And so it remains today. Nothing in the intervening century and a half, from the publication of Dickens’ Tale to the 2011 wave of protests rocking the Arab world, has changed the immutable veracity of that simple paradox.

Instead of two cities, however, I’m thinking of two countries. Let’s start with a simple thought experiment. One month ago, imagine if someone had predicted that, in Tunisia and Egypt, massive protest movements would emerge ex nihilo to shatter the status quo; that these movements would, furthermore, contain no traceable elements of radicalism or Islamism in any form; that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the West has feared for so long, would at least initially linger in the shadows and allow the secular and leaderless crowds to lead the way; and that, finally, the demands of the protesters would remain eminently reasonable and, most significantly, democratic. Such a prognosticator would have been mocked relentlessly.

As it turns out, this has all taken place over the course of the last several weeks. And the American response? To hesitate, to triangulate, to hedge its bets according to the ever-shifting political winds, and — finally and most heartlessly — to work furiously behind the scenes to orchestrate a return to the pre-January 25 status quo while halfheartedly trumpeting the Egyptian revolution in the public sphere. Continue reading A tale of two countries: Egypt, America, and the strangling of democracy