Here we go again

3 July, 2013

Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi announces the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, July 3.

After nearly a week of demonstrations, reportedly the largest in the world’s history, the Egyptian military stepped in and overthrew former President Mohammed Morsi, suspended the country’s constitution, and named a three-member civilian panel to assist the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as they chart a course to parliamentary and presidential elections and amend the constitution’s more controversial articles.

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Crowds approaching Cairo’s Tahrir Square, June 30

Today, June 30, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Egyptians flooded the streets of every major urban center in the country to demand the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian Army, whose APCs, tanks and soldiers have swarmed every government building since late last week, declared that the protests are the largest in the country’s history- including the Jan.-Feb. 2011 demonstrations that eventually forced out Hosni Mubarak.

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I emerge from the Cave of Blogging Hiatus to offer what will hopefully be a brief take on recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus primarily on countries that have kicked the ancien regime to the curb, and will perhaps return to others- Syria, Yemen, Bahrain- at a later time.

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On Bin Laden

5 May, 2011

No blog about the Middle East would be complete without rampant speculation about what Osama Bin Laden’s death means for the region, so here’s my thoughts.
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16 March, 2011

As a Japanese-American recently repatriated from Egypt, this year’s news cycle has been a bit tough on my soul.  I’m having a hard time watching the news these days without feeling emotionally connected to all the devastation and strife that I see, both nature induced, and man-made.

There are a lot of things that I’ve been wanting to write about, as I’ve gone to several events in the DC area where I’ve listened to and talked to the most amazing minds working towards a new Egypt. I saw Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace give a really insightful outline on where Egypt can go from here.  I saw a panel at GWU which consisted of journalists, academics and activists (although I guess you can argue that all of them are activists) get into an intense debate about the role of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in shaping the constitution and the future of the country. Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a lunch discussion at the Society for International Development for “A Discussion on the Current Situation and the Road to Reform.” One of my friends who I met at a Young Professionals in Foreign Policy event will be there so I’ll have two things to look forward to. I also recently had a job interview where I was asked to submit a writing sample, so I wrote up a short memo on US-Egypt trade relations. Fingers crossed. Needless to say, Egypt hasn’t left my mind.

I guess the big lesson that I’m learning from watching both Egypt and Japan go through their respective recovery/transition periods is that people show admirable abilities to come together and get through tough times. The international community, as always, is full of compassionate supporters and it makes me feel a bit more at ease when I know there are amazing people out there in this overwhelmingly big and sometimes depressing world.

My heart goes out to all of the people in Japan who have been affected in any way by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat. My mom told me that Japanese people are very strong and can endure very difficult situations. After WWII, we had nothing but we became one of the largest economies in the world. We can build our country again and again, no matter what happens. Also, everyone in my family is safe, if you were wondering. Hamdilallah (Arabic for thanks be to God… although on a side note… I’m not very religious, but it’s just a common saying to express relief).

Also, if you want to help out by donating money, Huffington Post made a fairly comprehensive list of places that you can donate to here.

On Libya

11 March, 2011

I’m going to dip my toes into some waters I haven’t tread in before: attempting to make sense of the civil conflict currently wracking Libya. There’s a lot of things to consider, and there’s a number of points that I’d like to address. I want to say up front that I am by no means an expert on Libya- I’m way better at Egypt and the Levant than I am with anything in North Africa. If I’m off base on any of my assumptions, please let me know and I’ll happily correct them.

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Friends and Family

7 February, 2011

There’s a lot of valuable analysis happening on Egypt (where the protesters are still standing firm) but it’s always more visceral when you have a personal connection to news headlines. In previous posts we mentioned our friends Jake and Sara, our close friends that accompanied us and our crazy awesome friend Stevie to Nuweiba. Soon after our trip, and right before Kenny and I frolicked in Lebanon, they moved to Pittsburgh. Sara is originally from Alexandria, but spent most of her life in Dubai. Her English is perfect and easily passes as an American with her love of bacon, Kanye and Rock Band.

Sara came to America to start a new life with her husband but the rest of her family lives in various countries throughout the Middle East. Her brother Mudy remains in Alexandria and has been experiencing first hand what we’ve been reading in the news. Whenever I’ve logged onto facebook in the past 2 weeks, I’ve seen numerous updates from Jake and Sara, who have been practically liveblogging the events and keeping everyone informed. They even went to a demonstration publicized as ‘Yinzers for Egypt’ on a rainy day where they marched through the streets cheering “Here we go Egypt, Here we go!” Here is a picture of Sara with one of the signs from the demonstration taken by Jake (a very talented photographer, check out the link!).

Sara showing support by holding a heavy sign!
Sara had recently met a journalist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and connected him with her brother. Today, the article came out quoting both Sara and Mudy describing the chaos and the subsequent search for normalcy in Alex.

Here is the article:

and here is a quote:

As people tire of living on the edge of violence, and more accept the government’s concessions for a slow transition of power, the protesters’ ranks will dwindle, Mahmoud predicted.

“A good government would have done this without people protesting and people dying,” he said.

Happy Monday, everyone!

Regardless of the final outcome of the past few week’s historic events, it has been increasingly clear that the regime of Hosni Mubarak is isolated and fast coming to an end. Whether Mubarak steps down or is forced out at the hands of the pro-democracy demonstrators currently occupying Tahrir Square or as part of an arrangement between the US and the Egyptian government, the time has come for a thorough reexamination of our policy towards the greater Middle East via our relationship with Egypt. While Mubarak’s departure presents profound challenges, it also presents great opportunities- not just for the US, but also for Egypt and the greater Middle East.

First, let’s look at what interests the US has in the Mideast:
1. Securing the safety of oil and shipping infrastructure, including the Suez Canal.
2. Maintaining regional cooperation with regards to counterterrorism and deterring violent extremism.
3. On an increasingly more ideological note, maintaining Israel’s security.
4. Promoting democratic governance in a region marked by autocracy.

Over the past 30 years, we’ve relied on Mubarak for the first three at the neglect of the fourth. Given the groundswell of Egyptian desire for democracy, I believe that a thoughtful consideration of our policies will afford the opportunity to secure all four in a just and equitable fashion.

First, the safety of Egypt’s pipelines and ports will remain the #1 priority of any Egyptian government. Considering that nearly half of Egypt’s population subsists on less than $2 USD a day and the way in which this poverty influenced the current civil unrest, any subsequent government’s longevity will depend heavily on preserving Egypt’s status as a shipping and transport hub while also promoting future economic growth for all Egyptians. The US must be prepared to help the Egyptian government do this while also respecting its sovereignty.

Our second, third and fourth considerations are messily intertwined, but no less strategically important than the first. We must recognize that a truly democratic Egypt will have a different stance towards Israel than Mubarak’s desire to preserve the rather tepid regional status quo. Consequently, the US mustn’t be afraid to use $1.5 billion of yearly aid as leverage- the peace treaty with Israel must be maintained. However, a democratic Egypt will likely act to revoke the Gaza blockade. This presents another challenge and opportunity- if Egypt can ease the longstanding suffering of Palestinians in Gaza while simultaneously reigning in Hamas, it will benefit from an international PR standpoint as well as assuaging domestic concerns. The US must recognize the untenability of the existing situation, and place equal pressure on its Israeli and Arab counterparts to do the same in pursuit of sustainable policymaking. Doing this could help Egypt regain its status as an important regional diplomatic player as well as deterring extremism- given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of our regional security interests, responsible management of the Gaza situation by Egypt with US help could do wonders towards ensuring peace and deterring violent extremism within the Arab world. Similarly, a democratic Egypt may present the necessary political capital to finally get the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy on a tenable footing.

The recent events in Egypt demonstrate finally that democracy isn’t antithetical to the Arab world, but it also demonstrates that democracy cannot be imposed by an outside party. It’s time that US policymakers embraced the understanding that a democratic Egypt may not adopt Jeffersonian ideals in our image, and yet, that this in and of itself doesn’t pose a material threat to our interests. With proper, equitable and just management of our diplomacy, the cynical confrontation between our values and our interests becomes less imminent.

Is this optimistic? Overwhelmingly so. There are numerous junctures at which either party could make horrendous mistakes, and the consequences of failure remain high. However, Egypt’s unprecedented circumstances present the opportunity to turn the page on thirty years of stagnation, duplicity, and mistrust- I only hope that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are willing to consider it as such.

The Egyptians We Know.

4 February, 2011

As with many people all across the world, I’ve been glued to various news sites watching what’s been going on in Egypt. My heart breaks with every gunshot I hear in the video footage and I’ve been trying my best to understand everything that’s been going on, and looking for any news that could indicate a change towards peace and a better Egypt.

As soon as the internet came back on yesterday, friends and former students came online to announce that they were unhurt, but scared. People put up pictures of torched police vehicles in Alexandria, the looted mall and black smoke billowing over the skyline. Some of our colleagues and friends have chosen to be evacuated, and others have chosen to stay in solidarity with the Egyptian people, or in hopes that things can improve in the foreseeable future. A couple of my old students told me that they were hopeless, everything was horrible and they had the terrifying but necessary duty to defend their homes from looters.

When we were teaching in Alex, there was an unspoken rule that there were three things that we shouldn’t bring up in class discussions: politics, religion and sex. I definitely steered clear of the last topic, as that would have been more awkward than a blind date with a racist, but I tried to get my students to engage in debates and discussions on political issues, partly for them to be able to speak their minds, and mostly for me to get a better understanding of their thoughts and ideas (it also didn’t hurt that debates made classes seem more exciting and much shorter).

One of the reasons why politics is so taboo is because of the oppressive political system that has been in place that made Egyptians fearful of speaking out against the Mubarak regime. Egypt is a country that spreads a lot of things by word of mouth and if word got out that there was an anti-Mubarak insurrection brewing in level 9, the secret police wouldn’t hesitate to make your life a living hell. Here is a quote from a journalist recently interviewed on NPR about political activism and the secret police in Egypt:

“”In Egypt, the secret police are ubiquitous, and they make a point of not being all that secret. Several of my interviews with Muslim Brothers this summer were shadowed by the secret police who came and sat at the next table and ostentatiously made a point of letting us know that they were watching us. … In functioning Egyptian society, you come across stories constantly of people beaten and harassed by the police for everything from political activism, to being gay, to smoking marijuana, to being from the wrong class in the eyes of a policeman, and they have untrammeled authority. Part of their daily goal has been to remind the people that the police have complete power over their lives and are ready and willing to use any brutality necessary to keep order.” – Thanassis Cambanis – a contributor to the NYT, Foreign Affairs and other major publications.

Despite these restrictions on free speech, my students would find ways to express their grievances with the government. It could be something as subtle as whispering “Mubarak” when the word “corruption” was introduced in the textbook. Some students would express how they think Egypt had better days and has a lot of potential to be great. I had one brave student, a former national athlete, give a presentation on the things he hated about Egyptian politics and politicians and why he wanted to see huge political changes so Egypt could be as great as she was meant to be. Towards the end of the term, one student, when asked about his hopes and dreams, bluntly stated: “I hope Mubarak dies.”

When we started the student newspaper, a lot of the students were excited to work with others on a project, see their photographs and articles published and get some writing experience for free. A lot of the articles were about improving your life, being happy, overcoming challenges. We would sometimes joke that it was going to turn into Chicken Soup for the Egyptian Soul. Luckily, there were other articles on Egyptology, literary figures and even a few imaginative short stories.

One extremely bright young female student submitted an article on a current event that she felt very passionate about. She believed in it so strongly that she had gone to public demonstrations and wrote a passionate article that she was so proud to submit for publication. The topic was a touchy one, and often considered a taboo topic in the classroom. She wrote about Khaled Said.

(Khaled Said was a young Alexandrian boy who was beaten to death by plain clothed police officers presumably because he had posted youtube videos exposing police corruption, and officially because he was in possession of illegal narcotics. This resulted in demonstrations of citizens outraged over the wanton abuse of power by police officers.)

As this was a big issue at the time, and the school didn’t want to offend anyone by bringing up a sensitive issue, or jeopardize the safety of the writer or editors, we were unable to publish the article. I apologized profusely and told her that Kenny and I really admired her for writing the article. I told her that I hoped that she would understand and that I would hold onto the article in hopes that I could publish it elsewhere. She was quick to understand and was even thankful for my paltry concession. This was the Egypt that we were living in, and whether we liked it or not, we all accepted it.

I’m sad that it wasn’t until now that I thought of posting her article here, but it seems more relevant than ever. I’ll end this post with her article:

The Deadly Why.

Saying why can cause your death? These days, yes, cheer up, it is an offer with the Egyptian nationality. Yes, it causes your death, especially in our Egyptian society. They can do what ever they want, and you are not able to say NO. I object. You do not have the right to raise your voice and say a word, and if you have the courage to say anything, I admit it will be your last words in life.

“Help me, I am dying” were the last words of the Alexandrian boy after saying why to the detectives who were responsible for his death. No one ran to rescue him from the cruelty of these detectives, and if anyone had done so, he\she would have the same destiny.

What did he do to die with this cruelty? What was his crime? I am directing my question to the minister of interior, what was the crime of Khaled Saied, the 28th man to be killed in that way? What did he do to write his death certificate that early? What did he do to be stolen from his family and friends? To let his mother cry every single moment while remembering the cruel way her son died?

Now, I am not talking about the case of Khaled Saied, I am talking about the case of today, and everyday. Why isn’t there any justice while treating us? How could safety be raped in the country of safety? How could liberty be raped in the country of liberty? Why couldn’t we fulfill justice and equality in everything? Why do we suffer in our beloved country? If you have an answer to all these questions, please tell me.

As I said, my case now is not Khaled, but the thousands or millions that may be Khaled after that. How they die if they say why? Is asking why a crime? Who knows, it may be a crime but they did not mention it in law books or in our constitution. God mentioned in the holy book that Egypt is the country of safety, but what is happening now shows the opposite.

Who is mistaken from your own point of view, the people, or the presidential system? I will talk about my own point of view. The people are hopeless; they are satisfied with everything even it is less than the average. We have many people under the poverty line, but we did not hear their voices for decades, they did not demonstrate against our system. Why didn’t they do so? The answer is so simple, because they are satisfied, they thank God for everything they have. But when the system starts to take their children away to be tortured, humiliated and killed, it is the moment when you can hear their voices full of anger and hatred. They will protest, demonstrate, and refuse the mastery of the system. Those people were ready to do anything for the sake of their children, but now, they lost everything, dignity, respect, and above all their children. Therefore, they have nothing to fear for; the system cannot get this point.

The current system forgot that those people which are we, you and me, are the reason for their domination, and without us, they are nothing. We are capable of everything; they forgot that we fought occupation many times. From ancient Egypt until the modern, we are the people who sacrificed, hold guns and are shooters, we are the people who crossed the canal and defeated the Israeli army.

As you can see, those people cannot accept humiliation from anyone. So, do not drive them to upset you (system), and I think you(system)need to read our history or your history again, and think about the origin of Egyptians -the pharaohs-. Then decide what will you do with us, the pharaohs?

Note from the writer: Sorry if I crossed the limit of respect, even though, I didn’t say everything because I don’t want any problems for you.

I’m continuing my analysis of ongoing events in Egypt, as a lot of important stuff continues to occur.

1. Mubarak’s “new government” is very, very telling for a number of reasons. The pick of Omar Suleiman as VP is significant because Mubarak never once picked a VP in his 30-year reign. Picking a VP could be an indication of Mubarak eventually stepping down while allowing the NDP to retain its power. Suleiman is also the head of Egypt’s intelligence service and a military man, fluent in English and generally regarded as highly intelligent. He was also the architect of Egypt’s brutal crackdown on domestic jihadists during the 1990s, and a critical liaison for the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program- the highly controversial means through which captives apprehended by the CIA were shipped to Egypt for interrogation (read: torture). Suleiman’s pick serves two purposes: first and foremost, it ensures Egypt’s military will enjoy the best seat at the table, as Suleiman will surely be extraordinarily receptive to their interests. Secondly, Suleiman has proven himself to Mubarak’s backers, namely the US and Israel, as someone who won’t rock the boat vis-a-vis the longstanding but unpopular peace with Israel and a reliable partner in US counterterrorism efforts. In the big picture, these may seem like myopic appeals for support, but a large part of American and Israeli foreign policy is based around those two tenets.
2. Much like the regime it wants to bring down, the opposition is making its own case to the military and the international community as to why it’s a better bet than the other guys. Yesterday, Mohamed El-Baredai gave a speech in Cairo’s Tahrir Square calling for the protesters to maintain momentum, and the whole of the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, threw their support behind him. El-Baredai, although controversial amongst Egyptian activists for spending years at a time abroad, presents an excellent figure for the opposition: a liberal, highly educated, cosmopolitan Nobel laureate with years of experience in international diplomacy. The Brotherhood’s support of El-Baredai is also a strategic move- it’s meant to demonstrate to Egypt’s army (who have had an uneasy and at times violent relationship with Islamists within its ranks as well as within Egyptian society at large) and the international community that an Islamist takeover of Egypt is unlikely to occur. The opposition’s support of El-Baredai likely is a calculated move that wasn’t developed in a vacuum.
3. The army’s allegiance still remains the single most critical factor in determining Egypt’s future. Earlier today, the army announced that it wouldn’t crack down on protesters during the Feb. 1 “Million Man Marches” in Cairo and Alexandria, citing their legitimate (or “lawful”, depending on whose translation you go by) demands. While it’s encouraging that the army has no intention of replicating Tiannamen Square in Tahrir Square, the critical test will occur if marchers decide to attack the Interior Ministry or the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. The army no doubt understands that Mubarak is a liability not only to the military’s status but to the nation as a whole. His days are numbered, whether his ouster comes at his own choosing or by the opposition. The military is most likely waiting to see who has the high ground after tomorrow before it acts decisively on behalf of either side.
3. The US continues to find itself in a bad position, although the State Department’s rhetoric has shifted. On Friday, DoS made calls for restraint by both sides- the classic non-response which equals “we haven’t figured out where this is going, so please ask us later.” Now, DoS is calling for a “peaceful transition.” This essentially means that State is preparing for Mubarak’s unscheduled ouster in a matter of days, or for his willing departure from office within the next 10 months. Regardless, it demonstrates that State also recognizes Mubarak’s regime is entering its endgame- the language used is meant to be an equivocal message to the opposition as well as the existing government offering tacit support to whoever wins in exchange for regional stability.
4. One way or another, the end is in sight. It is unlikely that the military will allow a prolonged period of civil conflict to persist, as Egypt has already suffered huge economic losses and an immense loss in stature since this began. I believe that the Egyptians are not irrational zealots who would sacrifice the nation to save the state, and we are fast approaching the point in which a decision must be made.

I have much more to say on these subjects, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll close things off here. Expect more commentary at the end of the day tomorrow. In the meantime- yalla Masr!