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Former Syrian Vice President Fingers Assad

Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam went on Dubai’s Al Arabiya TV in Paris where he kicked the crap out of his former boss Bashar Assad and called him out as the lying murderous scumbag that he is.

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad directly threatened former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri months before the latter’s assassination, it was revealed Friday night in a devastatingly frank interview by a former Syrian vice president.

In a wide-ranging discussion with Al-Arabiyya Television in Paris, Abdel-Halim Khaddam added that Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud and Jamil al-Sayyed, former head of the Surete Generale, had “incited” Assad against Hariri.

“I will crush anyone who tries to oppose our decisions,” Assad told Hariri during a meeting August 20, 2004 in Damascus, Khaddam told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyya. “Hariri’s nose started to bleed after this meeting,” he added.

Khaddam said that it was “impossible that any apparatus in Syria could have taken a unilateral decision to murder Hariri,” without Assad’s prior approval. “The campaigns launched by Lahoud and Sayyed were immense and Assad was greatly influenced by them,” he added.

Asked if there were any specific parties in Damascus or in Lebanon that threatened Hariri, Khaddam said: “Yes, there were many threats.”

Pressed on whether they were “death threats,” Khaddam replied: “When the Chief of the Intelligence apparatus in Lebanon (Rustom Ghazaleh) speaks with his guests while playing with his gun … a lot of threatening words were used against Hariri” during one of the occasions when he was summoned to Damascus [the August 2004 meeting].

“I heard about this meeting from three sources. I heard it from Ghazi Kenaan [former Syrian Interior Minister], President Bashar Assad and the late Hariri,” said Khaddam.

“Hariri was on the receiving end of some very vicious words. I knew about that from [President Bashar Assad], he told me of the conversation,” the former vice president said.

“I told [Assad] you are talking to a prime minister in front of Ghazaleh … How can you say such things in front of junior officers?” Khaddam continued.

Khaddam said Ghazaleh acted as if he was “the absolute ruler of Lebanon. He insulted senior Lebanese officials such as Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on many occasions.”

The Baath Party booted Khaddam from its ranks. Syria’s “parliament” charged him with treason.

In other news, Bashar Assad’s cousin was just arrested at Beirut’s international airport on unrelated murder charges.

What a lovely regime that country has.

Totalitarian Tourism — Libya, at Long Last

My first person account of hanging out in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya — the most oppressive country in the world after North Korea — has been published by the LA Weekly: In the Land of the Brother Leader.

I don’t know if this is the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s certainly my favorite. Please be sure to read the whole thing.

Islam’s Greatest City — A Photo Tour of Istanbul at Christmas

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Hotel room, Istanbul

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Skyline

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Downtown at night

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Downtown at night

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Shopping downtown

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Night stroll downtown

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Taksim Square

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Israeli flag among others, Taksim Square

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Downtown

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Side street, downtown

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Topkapi Palace

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Hagia Sophia

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Inside Hagia Sophia

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Inside the Grand Bazaar

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Inside the Grand Bazaar

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Inside the Grand Bazaar

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The Blue Mosque

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The Blue Mosque courtyard

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Inside the Blue Mosque

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Inside the Blue Mosque

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An underground cistern for storing water

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A Medusa head at the bottom of a pillar inside the cistern

Comments are Open Again

I have tentatively decided to open the comments again. We’ll see how it goes. Please behave and don’t feed the trolls when they show up. Aside from that, comment away!

Libya Essay (Finally!) To Be Published

A year ago the LA Weekly sent me to Libya after the US government lifted the travel ban. I wrote a sprawling 6,500 word essay about my experience in that crazy place. It is perhaps the best thing I have ever written, and it sat on the editor’s desk for nearly all of 2005.

This week it finally, at long last, will be published.

One of the frustrating things about paid writing work is the sometimes enormous delay between the time I’m finished working on something and the time it actually shows up in print. I’d say blogging has spoiled me, but I don’t think that quite says it.

Anyway, I am grateful this thing will finally see the light of day. Watch for the link here in this space.

A Magnificent City

I didn’t go to Istanbul to write about it. I went there to have fun with my wife Shelly in a lively city that doesn’t shut down on Christmas. Because Muslims and Christians celebrate each others’ holidays in Lebanon, everything was closed yesterday in Beirut.

I will, however, say this: Someone needs to force Hosni Mubarak to spend an entire month in Beyoglu — downtown Istanbul — so he can see more or less what Cairo would look like if it had decent management. Istanbul kicks ass, in other words, and I couldn’t help but compare it to the deplorable state of Mubarak’s broken capital city.

A friend of mine went to Rome earlier this year and loved it, said it was one of the greatest cities he had ever seen. (I prefer New York and Paris, but that’s me.) Then he went to Istanbul. His reaction: “Fuck Rome.”

Istanbul, indeed, is better than Rome. I have to say it objectively ranks up there with New York and Paris. It truly is one of the world’s most magnificent cities. If you find yourself tempted by Islamophobia because of September 11 and all the rest of it, I strongly suggest you go there on your next holiday. I can all but guarantee that you will get it out of your system.

Turkey lives up to its promise and more. It is not just “the Muslim country that works.” It’s in better shape than whole swaths of Christian Europe that sneers at the Turks as “those people.” It is only possible, I think, to fear and loathe the Turks if you have not seen what they built, what they have, and what they’ve done lately.

I have to go back. I need to write about Turkey in the way it deserves.

A Plea to America – Stay the Course

by lebanon.profile

The Middle East has not been a nice place to live for a long time.

We now have some hope, but not much. We’ve been sold out before.

The Central and Eastern Europeans had dreams similar to ours. Their dreams were fulfilled. Unlike us, however, the people who oppressed them were the same people threatening the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and even China.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Americans and Europeans were banging at the doors to help. President Clinton created a position for Strobe Talbott to help Russia along the path to democracy. The President went to war in the Balkans against the will of many Republicans and the Russians.

NATO expanded. The EU expanded.

The Soros-es and Lauders of the world poured their billions into Central and Eastern European ventures.

Now, in under fifteen years, Prague, Tallinn, and Budapest are some of the finest places to live on the planet. America has gained some unswerving allies.

2005

2005 began with bells of freedom ringing in Kiev. Bulgaria and Romania are coming closer to joining the EU. Turkey is now in the running.

The story was different in the Middle East.

Iraq

30 January 2005 marked an historic moment for the Iraqi people. Purple fingers streaked across the world inspiring all doubters.

However, the carnage worsened throughout the year, and prospects are grim.

The massive turnouts in the recent Iraqi elections remain inspiring, but Iraq is still desperately in need of foreign assistance.

Egypt

President Hosni Mubarak hosted a mockery of an election, and was applauded in the West.

The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent parliamentary elections is not a promising sign.

That elections occurred in which opposition could be voiced is fantastic, even if Egypt remains a dictatorship. Voices of dissent are increasingly being heard.

However, as Michael recently wrote, the prospects for Egypt are grim on all fronts.

Financial assistance only empowers the regime. Pushing for democracy empowers a poor, oppressed, religious, and uneducated people. The government imposes too many restrictions on free enterprise, and yet the people are horribly impoverished.

This situation will not last long. A country of 78 million people – many of them young, angry, religious, without work, and a lot of time on their hands – will not remain stable for long.

Lebanon

We’ve come a long, long way this year.

Unlike Ukraine, Lebanon in 2004 was in a hopeless situation. The President was re-appointed by a foreign country. The Constitution had to be changed first to allow this to occur. The UN, US, and the rest of the world muttered their disapproval.

October brought the near assassination of a popular opposition parliamentarian in a car bomb. A staged investigation was mounted. Nothing was found.

It appeared to some observers that the Syrian appointed Prime Minister’s government took as its main objectives cronyism, profit, and attacking the opposition.

14 February 2005 brought the assassination of the most prominent Lebanese politician in the world, the man bankrolling the opposition, the man preparing to dominate the summer parliamentary elections.

Thanks to our brave efforts and an amazing show of effort by Presidents Bush and Chirac, uniformed Syrian troops left the country.

However, the last few months have been plagued by terrorist bombings and politically motivated assassinations.

Now, as the year ends, Russia, China, and Algeria have forced the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that gives Syria a pass. The most prominent newspapers in America came out against the resolution. Their words matter, but we desperately need action.

Asking for Help

It’s difficult for me to argue that the United States must do more.

It’s very hard pleading for foreign assistance.

It’s hard to ask a country that already has 150,000 troops deployed in a single Middle Eastern country, has domestic terrorist threats, and is plagued by horrendous natural disasters to do more.

It’s hard to ask a country that already donates billions of dollars to Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Israel, and Palestine to do more.

It’s even harder to ask when I know Middle Eastern regimes and citizens will violently oppose American action.

It’s even harder to ask for more money when countries in our own neighborhood are profiting greatly at the expense of citizens driving to work in Macon, Syracuse, Lubbock, and Tacoma.

But your support is all we have left.

Istanbul not Constantinople

As you can see I’ve been distracted by my wife for the past couple of days. And just as I was getting ready to take a break from my break and post again to the blog, we decided at the last minute to go to Istanbul for Christmas. It doesn’t take long at all to get there, and we’ll be back directly.

In the meantime, my friend Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal will briefly fill in for me here. Enjoy his posts. And have a Merry Christmas.

Please Be Patient

I’m getting ready to pick up my wife Shelly at the airport as she flies out to join me for a while. I haven’t seen her for more than two months and I’ve been missing her terribly.

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Surely you’ll understand that blogging isn’t my number one priority right at this second. I’ll be back shortly, though, so don’t go away.

In the meantime, here is a picture of a pyramid, a Western tourist (ahem) who couldn’t stand out any more if he tried, and a horse.

Me and Pyramid.jpg

Nasser’s Biggest Crime

CAIRO — Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh gave me an insider’s tour of Cairo and the ghastly political situation facing his country today.

He took me down 26 of July Street on foot to the bridge over the Nile connecting Zamalek island to the mainland. As we walked up the entrance ramp — built for cars, not for people — he asked me if I ever walked like this in Beirut. “In Egypt you can walk wherever you want,” he said. “There are no rules or laws here.”

Well, I thought. There are laws against involvement in politics. But I knew what he meant. The Egyptian government doesn’t micromanage its citizens. Good on Hosni Mubarak for that one, at least. Egypt may be a police state, but at any given moment it doesn’t feel like one.

“There are no laws in Lebanon, either,” I said. “You can do pretty much whatever you want there.”

As soon as we crossed the river the amount of traffic — both pedestrian and automobile — multiplied exponentially while the economic conditions plunged precipitously. Zamalek isn’t the most charming place in the world, but it’s charming compared to the rest of the city.

“Can we talk about politics out in the open?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “We can say whatever we want.”

“Is it because we’re speaking in English?”

“No,” he said. “We could do it in Arabic, too.”

“You’re not worried about the secret police?”

“Not any more,” he said. “It is a real change from last year. Last year there was no way. But it’s better now, more open. Do you know why?”

“No,” I said. “Tell me.”

“Because of pressure from George W. Bush.”

That is the only piece of good news I have to report from Egypt.

We walked underneath an overhead freeway. I had to shout so that he could hear me. The entire world looked as though it were made out of poured concrete. I could taste the black tang of exhaust in the air.

Big Pharaoh pointed out a set of campaign posters on a wall. I felt good seeing campaign posters in Egypt. It was a long way from Libya where menacing portraits of Colonel Ghaddafi are plastered up literally everywhere.

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“Do you know what that says?” he said as he pointed at the Arabic script above the portrait of a man’s face.

“No,” I said.

“It says Islam is the Solution.”

We made our way to the nearest subway station and descended the steps. It was clean down there — much cleaner than the subway stations in New York City — and I said so.

“It is almost brand new,” he said.

“How old is it, exactly?” I said.

“About ten years,” he said.

I was amazed that such a miserably poor country could build a brand-new subway while American taxpayers say they can’t afford to build any new trains.

“It must have been hugely expensive,” I said.

“France and Japan helped us pay for it,” he said.

“Japan?” I said. “Really. Why Japan?”

“To earn some goodwill, I guess,” he said.

As our train pulled into the station I made my way toward the first car.

“Not that car,” he said. “The first car is only for women.”

Women ride in the other cars, too. But the first car is reserved only for them so they can avoid both verbal and physical attention from men if they want to.

“I got in that car on accident once,” he said. “By the time I figured it out the doors closed. I got out at the next stop and was fined seven pounds.” Seven pounds is less than two dollars.

So we boarded the second car and held onto the plastic handles on the railing over our heads.

“Does this train look familiar?” he said.

“Kind of,” I said. It looked more or less like a subway car anywhere else, although it was cleaner and there was no graffiti at all.

“It’s French,” he said. “These trains are exactly the same as the ones in Paris.”

We got off downtown and emerged next to a huge well-lit roundabout. Cairo suddenly looked like a European masterpiece. It was not at all what I was expecting after seeing the squalid condition of so much of the rest of the city. I changed my opinion of Cairo — again.

Downtown Cairo at Night.jpg

“This is amazing,” I said. “What a terrific downtown. Look at these buildings!”

“They are from another era,” he said. “They are just relics. They have nothing to do with what Egypt is now.”

“But they’re real,” I said, “and you still have them. No country builds streets like this anymore anyway.”

It felt like an Arab New York, or rather an Arab Rome. Later, though, when I went downtown again by myself during the day, I saw what he meant about how the buildings represented another era. Downtown Cairo is all sparkle and no substance at night. The shops on the ground floor are not what I expected them to be. But I didn’t notice at first because it was dark, I kept looking upward, and I was talking to Big Pharaoh.

“I am going to take you to an Egyptian bar,” he said. “Is that okay?”

“You mean an Egyptian bar where no tourists would ever go?”

“Exactly,” he said.

“Perfect,” I said. “That is exactly what I want to see.”

We walked past a women’s underwear store. “When the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power,” he said as he swept his arm in front of female-shaped mannequins modeling panties and bras, “they will ban this.”

The Egyptian bar was called Cap’dor. Instead of glass windows it had wooden shutters painted red and green. The floor was laid with gray tile and the walls were made of wood paneling. There was not one single woman inside. Apparently that’s how it always is in that bar. They didn’t even bother to install a women’s restroom. Beer was the only available beverage.

Capdor.jpg

“There are some prostitute bars around, too,” he said.

“Is it legal here?” I said. “Prostitution is legal in Lebanon.”

“No,” he said, “but the law is lax. The bar owner just pays off the police and no one cares.”

We ordered two stout bottles of Stella beer.

“Best beer in Egypt,” he said. “The company was started by a Greek guy in 1897.”

The bartender brought us carrots, sliced tomatoes, and ful beans. We dug in.

I wanted to know what he thought of the Muslim Brotherhood. Was it even possible that they are as moderate as they want everyone to believe?

“They are moderate because they don’t have guns,” he said. “They don’t kill people. It’s true. But most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“At some point,” I said, “if you want to live in a democracy you’re going to have to accept the fact that conservative religious political parties exist. You may never like them, but they won’t always be a terrorist threat. Democracy has mellowed out the Islamists in Turkey, for example.”

“Yes,” he said. “But Turkey has a secular constitution. They want to enter the EU, so the Islamists are forced to play by the rules of the game. They cannot step on the freedoms that the Turkish people take for granted. The Egyptian people, though, since the time of the Pharaohs, have been a flock. They follow the shepherd.”

“My biggest fear,” he continued, “is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Take bars, for example. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

“How many people here think like you do?” I asked him.

“Few,” he said. “Very few. Less than ten percent probably.”

We ordered more Stella beers. He practically inhaled all the ful beans. I didn’t think they were that great. They had little taste, actually.

“There probably aren’t many Muslim Brotherhood guys in this bar,” I said.

He laughed. “Ha! No way. This is a secular working class bar. Just the fact that they’re here makes them liberals.”

They didn’t look liberal, though. Not without any women around. If you want to hang out at a mixed gender bar in Cairo, go to Zamalek or a hotel.

It was odd, I suppose, to see my pale face, blue eyes, and black leather jacket in Cap’dor. No one actually stared, but almost all the other mens’ eyes lingered on mine a bit longer than usual. They seemed curious and slightly pleased that someone from somewhere else decided to hang out in their place.

Big Pharaoh made psst, psst, psst, psst, psst sounds, the way Arabs summon domestic cats. I turned around and, sure enough, a cat was swirling around an older man’s leg.

“Cats live in this bar,” he said.

“You mean they are strays who come begging?”

“No, they actually live in this bar. They belong to the owner. I’ll bet you haven’t seen cats that live in a bar before, have you?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve seen cats that live in bookstores, but never in bars.” I put out my hand and tried to lure one of the cats, but he was having none of me.

I asked Big Pharaoh what he thought would happen if Egypt held a legitimate free and fair election instead of this bullshit staged by Mubarak.

“The Muslim Brotherhood would win,” he said. “They would beat Mubarak and the liberals.”

I was afraid he was going to say that.

“I’ve had this theory for a while now,” I said. “It looks like some, if not most, Middle East countries are going to have to live under an Islamic state for a while and get it out of their system.”

Big Pharaoh laughed grimly.

“Sorry,” I said. “That’s just how it looks.”

He buried his head on his arms.

“Take Iranians,” I said. “They used to think Islamism was a fantastic idea. Now they hate it. Same goes in Afghanistan. Algerians don’t think too much of Islamism either after 150,000 people were killed in the civil war. I hate to say this, but it looks like Egypt will have to learn this the hard way.”

“You are right,” he said. “You are right. I went to an Egyptian chat room on the Internet and asked 15 people if they fasted during Ramadan. All of them said they fasted during at least most of it. I went to an Iranian chat room and asked the same question. 14 out of 15 said they did not fast for even one single day.”

“Egypt didn’t used to be like this,” I said.

“Nasser’s biggest crime was not establishing democracy when he took over,” he said. “Back then, Egyptian people were liberal. It would have worked then. But not now.”

Progress is a funny thing. We Westerners like to think it moves in a straight line. In America that’s pretty much how it is. No serious person would argue that American culture was more liberal and tolerant in the 1950s than it is now. But Egypt, amazingly, moved in exactly the other direction.

“When Nasser took over,” Big Pharaoh said, “people were angry at Britain and Israel. He nationalized all the industry. He banned political parties. He stifled everything. Banned the Muslim Brotherhood. Banned the Communists. Banned all. When Sadat took over in 1970, he had two enemies: the Communists and the Nasser remnants. So to counter these threats, he did what the United States did in Afghanistan during the Cold War — he made an alliance with the Islamists. He brought back the Muslim Brotherhood which had fled to Saudi Arabia when Nasser was around. He used them to destroy the left.”

“That was part of it,” he continued. “During the oil boom of 1973 a lot of Egyptians went to Saudi Arabia to work. Then in the 1990s, two important things happened. After the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia began to Saudize its economy and said they no longer needed Egyptian workers. When the Egyptians came home they were contaminated with Wahhabism. Egypt’s economy kept getting worse. Unemployed members of the middle class either sat around and smoked shisha or got more religious. That was when Islamism moved from the lower class to the middle class. Now it is moving even to the upper class.”

“Egypt will get over it after a while,” I said, “just like Iran is getting over it now.”

“That will take 25 years! I don’t have 25 years!”

The Iranian theocracy has been in power for 26 years.

I felt bad for Big Pharaoh. Even in the capital Egyptian society hardly had any place for a person like him. Thank the gods I didn’t have to stay there for the rest of my life.

The bartender came around and gave everyone a glass with a green liquid in it. Hey, I thought. Free drinks. I guessed beer wasn’t the only thing they had in the bar after all.

“What is this?” I said.

“It’s the water the beans were cooked in.”

I just stared at him.

“This is bean juice? Are you serious?” Gads, the bars in Cairo are unlike the swanky bars in Beirut. But they’re great at least once in an experience-the-world sort of way.

“Yes,” he said. “You will love it.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“There is a first time for everything,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes.”

I took a small sip. Jesus Christ on a stick, it was disgusting.

“No,” I said. “This isn’t working for me. It’s too salty.” Too salty was the least of what was wrong with drinking bean juice from the stove in the back. I wanted a glass of red wine.

“A friend of mine recently went to Algeria,” he said. “When he came back he told me that there are far fewer veiled women there than there are here. It is much more liberal in Algeria because there they have tasted Islamism. Egypt does need to experience what happened in Iran and Algeria…as long as I am in the U.S. or Canada when it happens.”

Even though he would rather live in the United States, he is seriously looking into immigrating to Canada. It might be easier for him to qualify for an immigrant visa. “If I live in Canada I will be in the apartment above the party.”

“The apartment above the party?” I said.

“America is the party,” he said. “And I will be living right above it. So I’ll be in the apartment above the party. And I’ll go downstairs a lot.”

“I sincerely hope you can make it out of here,” I said — although I partly felt bad because that would only contribute to Egypt’s brain drain.

“Mubarak is a horrible horrible man,” he said. He is the reason we are in this thing. He has oppressed all the liberals.”

Optimism in Beirut comes naturally to a foreign observer like me now that Syrian occupation troops are out of the country, the Lebanese parliament has been freely elected, and the most popular Sunni Muslim leaders are secular liberal democrats in Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. That feeling is much harder to come by in Egypt right now. I told Big Pharaoh I found his country’s prospects grim and depressing, and how Islamism feels that it is coming like Christmas.

“You want to feel good?” he said. “You want to be optimistic? Go back to Beirut.”

-

If you don’t already have Big Pharaoh’s blog bookmarked, you can find it right here.

“This Probably Looks Stalinist to You”

CAIRO – I met “Praktike” in the lobby of the Hotel President on Cairo’s Zamalek island. He is an American student studying Arabic at the American University of Cairo and the founder of the group blog American Footprints, formerly know as Liberals Against Terrorism.

“Let’s go somewhere off Zamalek, shall we?” I said. “This city is huge and I need to see as much of it as I can.”

“What would you like to do? Have lunch? Coffee? Smoke shisha?” A shisha is an Arabic water pipe, like a bong for flavored tobacco, also knows as a hookah, a hubbly bubbly, and an argileh.

“How about all of the above?” I said.

“I know just the place then,” he said, “in a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out.”

He hailed us a cab and we hopped in the back. I had no idea where we were going, but a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out sounded perfect. Those kinds of neighborhoods in Beirut — Gemmayze and Monot in particular — are terrific.

Praktike had a long conversation with the driver in Arabic as we blasted our way through Cairo’s homicidal maniac traffic. Clearly his Arabic studies were coming along. I can easily give taxi drivers directions in Arabic, but I can’t hold down conversations. The problem, if that is the word, is that almost everyone speaks English in Beirut. Learning Arabic there not only isn’t unnecessary, it’s almost impossible. Locals won’t speak Arabic with foreigners unless the foreigner is already fluent or the local doesn’t speak English or French. A British expat friend of mine has lived in Beirut for almost ten years, is married to a Lebanese Druze woman, and has two half-Lebanese children – and he still can’t speak Arabic. A Lebanese-American friend of mine who studied Arabic in the U.S. says his Arabic gets worse the longer he stays in Beirut.

“Here we are,” Praktike said as he paid the driver. The total fare wasn’t even a dollar.

The neighborhood looked grim and depressing, not at all what I expected from a place that hip young people had colonized. But I didn’t say anything.

“You have to revise your expectations downward in Cairo,” Praktike said, as though he knew what I was thinking. “This probably looks Stalinist to you.”

“It isn’t that bad,” I said. “Libya is Stalinist, and this is better than that. But it’s not pretty.”

“No, it’s not pretty,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

He led me into what counts in Cairo as a nice restaurant. The floors were orange tile. The chairs were made of wicker. A mild feeling of gloom hung over the place like a cloudy day just before rain. It was not even remotely like what you can easily find in Beirut’s fashionable neighborhoods.

“Do you like living in Cairo?” I said as we sat down. A beaming waiter brought us two menus and bowed.

“Well, it’s a big sprawling mess,” he said. This was certainly true. “You either hate it or love it. I think I’m in the latter category. I was bored back home in the States, and I’m not bored here at all.”

I worried that I would be bored and alienated into depression if I lived in Cairo after I saw all the sights. Going from Beirut to Cairo was like descending into a poorly lit basement. Some Americans who would visit Cairo and expect to like it won’t go anywhere near Beirut. This is incredible to me. For one thing, far more people have been killed by terrorists in Egypt than in Lebanon over the past fifteen years. Forget its reputation: Beirut is culturally, intellectually, economically, and politically more advanced by an order of magnitude. It’s unfair when Lebanon is described as Third World. Egypt, though, without question is Third World.

How far the mighty do fall. Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. Don’t even think of blaming Islam for its present wretched condition. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his secular Free Officer regime demolished this place with intellectual, political, and economic bulldozers. Hosni Mubarak’s ridiculously named National Democratic Party, which is really just a euphemism for the calcified military regime from the 1950s, has done absolutely nothing to improve things in the meantime. Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Glain aptly described Egypt as a “towering dwarf.” I don’t think the description can be improved on.

Praktike and I ordered sandwiches, soft drinks, and a shisha to share. I asked him for a rundown of the current state of Egypt’s politics as he saw it.

“There are 21 political parties,” he said. “But 16 don’t really exist. They are newspapers, not parties. Their reporters aren’t really reporters. They have no handle on policy or ideas whatsoever. Some of them even sell access. If someone wants to smear a businessman, for instance, space can be bought for that in their pages.”

The main opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been active in Egypt for 77 years, and they have built a formidable political machine through the mosques even while banned.

The two main liberal opposition parties, the Wafd and Al-Ghad, are tiny, disorganized, and woefully unprofessional. They are more like fringe parties than broad-based popular movements. It’s not that the Muslim Brotherhood truly represents everyone else — they don’t. It’s mostly because the liberal parties have not been around for as long and they have not been free to operate normally or build themselves up. They have no idea how to build grassroots support for their positions in a country where a one-party dictatorship controls or co-opts just about everything. The Muslim Brotherhood is Mubarak’s most powerful opponent by mere default.

We passed the shisha pipe between us. The tobacco flavor was apple, which is widely considered the best.

“You have to realize, too,” he said, “that a lot of the so-called independent candidates are really just NDP guys who didn’t get selected to run in their district. Some races are NDP versus NDP, even though they don’t look that way on the surface.”

What did he think of the Muslim Brotherhood?

“The MB is going to win around 100 seats in parliament,” Praktike said. (As it turned out they won 88.) “That’s 100 out of 444 seats, plus another ten appointed by Mubarak directly. That’s a lot of seats considering that they only ran 120 out of fear of being smacked down by the state if they posed too much of a threat.”

It is a big deal that the Muslim Brotherhood won more than half the seats they contested, especially since the NDP still cheated and even opened fire with live ammunition on voters.

“All the ministers are members of parliament,” Praktike said. “So the Minister of Energy,” for example, “has to face an election. In all the races where these big guys are running we are seeing vote-rigging, vote-buying, intimidation, and cheating.”

During one of the early rounds of elections in Alexandria a street battle erupted between NDP guys wielding swords and Muslim Brotherhood members who came at them with chairs. The army fired tear gas at groups of voters in Brotherhood strongholds to keep them from reaching the polls.

How extreme is the Muslim Brotherhood, really? That’s the argument that never ends in Egypt right now. That’s precisely what the Brothers want. They cleverly don’t reveal their thoughts and positions on political lightning rods. Would they actually ban alcohol if they came to power? Who knows? They won’t say. Will they force women, even foreign women and Christian Egyptians, to wear the veil? Your guess is as good as mine.

Islam is the solution is their rallying cry. But they say they want to build an Islamist state democratically.

They also claim, at least sometimes, that they are not sectarian — a rather difficult thing to believe considering that they want an Islamist state. “I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally,” Praktike said. They chanted “Muslims and Christians, we are all Egyptians.”

That’s nice to hear. The problem Christian Egyptians have (and they make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population) isn’t that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t recognize their right to live in Egypt and be Egyptians. They worry about losing some of their already-diminished rights and being forced to live by the code of another religion.

Right now the regime is secular. And yet Christians are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to government jobs. In a country where huge swaths of the economy are controlled by the government, that’s a serious problem. There also is the matter of constructing churches. If you want to build a mosque, go right ahead. If you want to build or even repair a church, expect years of bureaucracy and being told repeatedly “no” from regime apparatchiks. If the Muslim Brotherhood ever ascends to power, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have every reason to believe the already-existing discrimination against them from the secular state will only increase under the rule of an Islamist state. Christians don’t have the numbers, the political clout, or the organization, to fend off Islamist oppression if it ever arrives. Only liberal and moderate Muslims can do that.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not armed. They are not a wing of Al Qaeda. They are a right-wing religious conservative party. And it’s hard to say how far they would go if given the chance.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is run mostly by old people,” Praktike said. “The Old Guard is definitely less moderate and less democratic. But they are also more willing to make concessions to the regime. They really don’t believe in democracy. The younger members, though, are more democratic. At least they seem to be. They talk a good game, but the way this will all play out if they ever come into power ultimately is unknowable.”

Surely it depends on how they come into power, he explained, if it ever happens. If they violently seize control, as the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran, the odds that Egypt’s future will be democratic are probably miniscule. If, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is ever elected to power under a constitutional system and the rule of law, they will be all but forced to make compromises with liberal and moderate Egyptians who will field their own successful candidates at the same time.

It looks to me like the Muslim Brotherhood will have a powerful impact on Egyptian politics one way or another. They already are the most popular movement opposed to the hated regime. Mubarak has three options. He can do nothing but maintain the status-quo, which is his quarter century-long specialty. He can slowly cede parliament to the Muslim Brotherhood while empowering, rather than attempting to destroy, the liberal democratic opposition in order to soften the Islamist slide. Or he can damn the consequences to his country and his soul and turn Egypt into a full-blown Stalinist state to buy himself just a little more time.

Hanging with Hezbollah

The LA Weekly has published my first-person account of meeting and hanging out with Hezbollah.

Word has it that these guys are media savvy, that they know how to make a terrific impression on the press. It isn’t true. If they were friendly and civilized I would have written that they were friendly and civilized. But they weren’t, so I wrote this instead. They have no one to blame for this bad press but themselves.

A Eulogy and a Letter

Lebanon is a sad country today.

Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, wrote Gebran Tueni’s eulogy — the second time this year he has had to do this for a friend and colleague murdered by a Syrian car bomb.

It seems only yesterday that I watched as a stunned Gibran Tueni looked down at the crumbled body of journalist Samir Kassir, shortly after the latter’s assassination in his car on an Achrafieh street. Perhaps it was his own death that Tueni saw foretold; or more likely he was trying to come to grips with what was then the still-novel happening of seeing journalists and politicians butchered at the start of their working day.

An-Nahar has paid too high a price for its criticism of the Syrian regime. Tueni himself only recently returned from a spell in Paris, well aware of the dangers to his life. It is to his considerable credit that he accepted the risk of an uncertain homecoming, though how desirable, in hindsight, it would have been for him to spend his days working out of his home – isolated, but safe from the death squads dispatched to liquidate him.

That Tueni’s death was linked to the Mehlis inquiry, and reports that the German investigator would name Syrian suspects in his latest report, cannot be doubted. At the least this murder must be dealt with in a different way by the international community, because the United Nations investigation will take many more months – time enough to kill many more people. What happened on Monday was a finger in the eye of the Security Council, and few could miss that the road on which Tueni was killed is essentially the same one used on a regular basis by UN investigators descending to Beirut from their Monteverde redoubt.

In killing Tueni, the murderers hoped to strike a mortal blow at Lebanon’s most prestigious newspaper. For them, the real danger has always been independent thought – against which they can only muster media that threaten, crowds that threaten, and security services that best them both by implementing the threats. Ideas are absent from their endeavors; human development is absent; amelioration is absent; self-determination, freedom, imagination are all absent, crushed by a regime that can only warn that if it goes down, the region will go down with it.

There are those who cretinously swallow that contention hook, line and sinker; who argue that the gentlemen in Damascus must be left alone, maintained, because their departure might indeed bring disorder. That incredible interpretation somehow assures us that Gibran Tueni was, in the end, a martyr to order. A remarkable order it is, then, the very same that protected Saddam Hussein until 2003, and that today props up the authority of a cornucopia of greater and lesser criminals, from Nouakchott to Sanaa, wardens all of what Ghassan Tueni has called “the great Arab prison.”

[...]

A rapid sign of daring would be for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to compel the government to endorse an international tribunal in the Hariri case as soon as possible. If Hizbullah opposes the measure and threatens to withdraw from the session, or from the government, then the ministers must go ahead and vote anyway. The majority will win. A Lebanese consensus should not mean giving a minority the right of veto when it means defending against state-sponsored terrorism. The message on a tribunal will have a strong impact in New York, where the Security Council must know Lebanon is willing to partly internationalize its security, since it has been left with no other choice.

None of this will bring Gibran Tueni back, nor his charm, elegance and perpetual dissent. Nothing will reassure us that the venerable An-Nahar can survive this latest crime. Ghassan Tueni will soon have to bury another child, the most heartbreaking duty of all. But deep down it’s another wish we have: that the Tuenis, Ghassan but also Gibran’s widow and children, will stick to their guns and demand that the truth come out. At the end of the day, his murderers remain most afraid of one thing: the truth.

The great Syrian poet Adonis, who lives now in Beirut and Paris, wrote a letter to Gebran’s father Ghassan who has now had to bury three of his children. It was published on the front page of An Nahar newspaper. (Translation from Arabic by Tony Badran.)

Dear Ghassan,

You know better than all of us, you the wise experienced one, that fatherhood in such a moment, as it bows under the weight of the tragedy, must also explode like springs from the earth.

I know you are the person most deeply worried about what’s being imposed on us in Lebanon: to live only with ghosts. Ghosts of destruction and murder. Not the destruction of matter alone, or the body alone, but also the destruction of the spirit and the mind and the intellect. Life — soaked in a moving carcass, and the human being — poured into a temple of terror: that is the Lebanon that they want for us today.

They want us to be cornered into a spot where it would seem as if death — by murder — is the only thing we see before us. It’s as if it’s imposed on us all to declare fear and succumb to it.

In your remarkable experience, in your epic life, dear friend, we find what teaches us to overcome the fearsome and the tragic, and what pushes us to open our bosoms to the truth, and to our right to it, which is our right to life.

In them also we find what tells us: if we must die — murdered — then let us die standing on the peak of light.

Adonis

(Paris, 12/12/2005)

The War Against the Pen

I have a lot of Egypt material left in my notebook that I need and want to write about. Rather than merely summarize what I heard and what I saw I want to dramatize it. But right after I got back to Beirut the car bomb siege against journalists started again. So I’m taking a brief detour from writing about Egypt to deal with this.

TCS just published the report I wrote last night and this morning. It includes the most up-to-date material I have, including background, analysis, interviews with some very pissed off Lebanese, and a bit of advice. Please click here and read the whole thing.

Car Bombs Resume in Lebanon

I hate to say this a mere week before my wife will join me in Beirut, but the car bombs have started again.

This time Gebran Tueni was murdered in a town called Mekalis above Beirut. Of course he was anti-Syrian. And of course he was a journalist. He was the editor, in fact, of An-Nahar — considered by many to be the best (Arabic language) newspaper in Lebanon. He was also recently elected a member of parliament.

At least three other people were killed in the car bomb that targetted him.

The lying fascist scumbag of a regime in Syria denies having anything to do with this. If they were smart they would bump off one of their Lebanese stooges once in a while just to make it look slightly less obvious to the gullible.

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