Freeing The Pharaoh

On Saturday, an Egyptian judge dismissed murder charges against former president Hosni Mubarak over the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising:

The Cairo court erupted in cheers when the judge said Mubarak should not have been a defendant in the case as the charges against him were added late. Charges against seven senior ex-officials were also dropped. The decision could be appealed. Victims’ relatives waiting outside expressed dismay and frustration. And later police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 people who gathered near Tahrir Square to voice their opposition to the decision. …

As well as the murder charge, Mubarak was also cleared of a corruption charge involving gas exports to Israel. His sons Gamal and Alaa were also cleared of separate corruption charges by the same court on Saturday.

Mubarak remains in prison on a separate, three-year sentence for embezzlement but could walk free soon, as his pretrial detention for the murder charges will now count as time served. Hossam Bahgat explains the technicality that could set the ex-dictator free:

Following Mubarak’s abdication of power in February 2011, Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud decided to investigate the killing of protesters during the 18 days of revolt that ended Mubarak’s tenure. On March 23, 2011, Mahmoud, who had served under Mubarak and remained in office until late 2012, indicted Mubarak’s Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his senior assistants, but not Mubarak himself, for having ordered or otherwise abetted the killing of protesters throughout the country. Two months later, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which had succeeded Mubarak in power, faced pressure from street demonstrations demanding accountability for Mubarak too. On May 24, 2011, the public prosecutor added Mubarak as a co-defendant in the case.

The fact that Mubarak was only added as a defendant two months after the case had been referred to trial is the technicality the judge used today to dismiss the charge against him. By not indicting Mubarak from the beginning, the judge reasoned, the prosecution had made “an implied decision that there were no grounds for criminal proceedings” against him. This “no-grounds” decision can be formally reversed by the public prosecutor within a window of three months. Mubarak’s defense lawyers argued, and today the court agreed, that the prosecution reversed the implied no-grounds designation of Mubarak without following proper procedures. For that technical error, the judge ruled the charge against Mubarak for the killing of protesters as inadmissible and dismissed that charge without considering it or ruling on its merits.

Though not unexpected, the ruling serves as a depressing coda to Egypt’s failed revolution and subsequent regression into military dictatorship. That the ruling seemed to follow the public mood, which has soured on revolution over the past three years, is part of the problem, Tamara Cofman Wittes adds:

[T]he trial’s outcome is symbolic of a broken, enfeebled justice system where outcomes often seem arbitrary and where prosecutors and judges often seem to follow public sentiment — first heeding calls for blood by charging the former president on hastily constructed evidence, then dismissing the charges after three years of chaos made Mubarak’s thirty years of dictatorship look rosy in retrospect. The biased workings of this system are also evident in the fact that this judge properly dismissed Mubarak’s charges on technical grounds, whereas preposterously flimsy and/or irrelevant evidence and testimony were allowed to stand in the conviction of three journalists this year and the convictions of 43 NGO workers in 2013. In some ways, this broken system is just one small example of the broken Egyptian state that is the legacy of Mubarak’s long rule.

Juan Cole attempts to find some cause for hope:

The only silver lining of the current situation is that the old Mubarak political and financial elite, the fulul or left-overs, are being reincorporated into public life. Those who committed criminal acts should not be rehabilitated, of course. But South Africa dealt with former regime elements by having them confess in detail to their crimes, after which they were released. What’s wrong here is that Mubarak and his gang are still unwilling to confess. For left-overs who had not been guilty of committing any obvious crimes, it is probably healthier to have them come back into public life than be excluded and sullen (the wealthy are in a position to make a lot of trouble).

One big difference between so far relatively stable Tunisia and unstable Libya is that after the first two years, members of the party of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were allowed to come back into politics in 2014. In Libya, as in Iraq, the old elite was excluded and stigmatized, and instability ensued. In Egypt there is the wrinkle that the secondary elite, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been more thoroughly excluded from public life than the fulul ever were.

And Bruce Riedel identifies one group of people who are perfectly happy with the ruling, namely the Saudi monarchy:

The Kingdom supported the 2013 coup immediately, with the King publicly endorsing the putsch minutes after it took place. Riyadh has organized the Gulf states to bankroll the generals’ regime since — at a cost of billions. Getting Mubarak out of prison has been a Saudi priority ever since the coup. The coup reversed the momentum of the Arab Spring and extinguished the most important experiment in Arab democracy ever, two key Saudi goals. The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood was another major objective for Riyadh. The Saudis believe the coup substantially reduced the danger of unrest inside the Kingdom by terminating a dangerous role model.

The Battle For Benghazi Heats Up


Yesterday, two Egyptian officials claimed that Cairo was taking on an active role in the Libyan civil war, and that Egyptian warplanes had carried out airstrikes against Islamist militias in Benghazi:

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces. The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. That elected administration was thrown out of the capital, Tripoli, by rival militias allied with Islamic political factions. “This is a battle for Egypt not Libya,” one of the senior officials said. “Egypt was the first country in the region to warn against terrorism and it is also the first to fight it.”

Egypt officially denied the claim. Mohamed Eljarh puts the news in context, noting that fresh fighting broke out in Benghazi just yesterday:

The clashes started a few hours after a televised statement by ex-general Khalifa Haftar in which he vowed to capture the city from a coalition of Islamist groups called The Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council, which is dominated by the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. Both sides are deploying artillery and other heavy weapons in the fighting. …

The city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest, has endured a two-year assassination campaign targeting army and police personnel as well as judges, journalists, and civilian activists. Many Libyans blame the attacks on extremist Islamist groups. The Libyan authorities have been unable to establish control in the city and its people have become correspondingly disillusioned with government institutions. Last May, General Haftar decided to seize the initiative by deploying units of the National Army in a military offensive against the militias in the city. His efforts have met with widespread support across the country.

Alaa al-Ameri predicts that Egypt’s intervention will backfire:

Egypt’s intervention in Benghazi allows Libya’s Islamists, who had hijacked Libyans’ hard-won chance at democracy at every turn, to point to the House of Representatives’ allegiance with Sisi as proof that the Islamists are the true defenders of the Libyan revolution. Their patrons in the region, most notably Qatar, can now support them more readily than when Libya’s troubles appeared to be purely internal, thereby adding more fuel to the fire and threatening a much wider regional spillover. Although Qatar has made a public show of easing back on its regional sponsorship of Islamists, it seems unlikely that it will completely abandon its allies in Libya, whom it has supported with weapons and money since the beginning of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in early 2011.

Frederic Wehrey notes that Libya currently has no single, legitimate governing authority:

There are now two governments in Libya. One is in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by the rump of the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR). The other, based in the capital, Tripoli, has taken de facto control over ministries, relying on a handful of former members of the HOR’s predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Each is associated with a coalition of militia forces: those supporting the rump parliament have dubbed themselves Operation Dignity; those opposing it go by Operation Dawn. And each is flush with cash, heavy weaponry, and support from outside powers — Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed Dignity, while Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey are purported to be backing Dawn. Contrary to some commentary, both sides have used force against civilians and elected institutions, and both show little sign of compromise.

Mary Fitzgerald explores the complexities of the divided country and how the fighting has affected ordinary Libyans:

The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighborhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport.

The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. “All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent,” says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August. “Most Libyans want to see the end of all of them.”

(Photo: A vehicle drives in a deserted road as smoke billows during clashes between soldiers and Islamists who control Benghazi, the country’s second biggest city, on October 15, 2014. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Precarious Peddling

Rachel Williamson contextualizes a “brawl” in Cairo between police and black-market vendors:

[Nasr] Eissa and his competitors are archetypical of Egypt’s black market economy: opportunistic entrepreneurs who’ll sell you a flag during a national celebration and be back to hocking Batman t-shirts the next day. They’re regular targets of police and bureaucratic shakedowns for bribes, and represent a small fraction of an underground economy. It includes non-taxpaying companies, allegedly up to $360 billion of unregistered real estate assets, and provides up to 40 percent of the country’s GDP, according to research from the Peruvian think tank Institute of Liberty and Democracy (ILD).

These entrepreneurs are also the targets of a brand new government initiative seeking to formalize the informal economy. It’s an idea that’s been tried before in Egypt, but this time, the directives are coming from the very top.

Williamson provides the cases for and against this informal economy:

The sheer size of the informal sector — a genuine parallel economy — creates a structural risk. Diwany says the usual tools for managing an economy are unusable when a sizable chunk of the country’s assets and production are hidden in the black market. For example, last year Youm7 newspaper discovered that unregulated “backdoor” cheese factories were adding formaldehyde to their products to extend shelf lives. …

But not everyone agrees that the existence of the informal economy is bad for Egypt, nor that Sisi’s government can heal decades of distrust in state institutions. Angus Blair, founder of the think tank Signet Institute, points out that the sheer size of the informal sector is what got Egypt through the tough economic times of the last three years. He says it provides a huge amount of liquidity, and that Egypt’s real GDP might not be growing at the 2.3 percent it is now (as projected by the International Monetary Fund) if all that extra, unaccounted-for cash wasn’t floating around.

The Problem With Partners, Ctd

John Kerry - Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Thomas Seibert scrutinizes Turkey’s reluctance to commit to anything beyond a “passive role” in the war on ISIS:

Officially, Turkey argues it has to keep its operations low-key because a more active posture would endanger the life of 46 of its citizens held hostage by ISIS. The jihadists kidnapped the Turks and three of their Iraqi colleagues when they overran the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Ankara says it is trying to secure the hostages’ release, but has ordered a news blackout that makes it difficult to assess where those efforts stand. …

Even without the hostage situation, Ankara would face difficult options. Turkey could take part in Western strikes against ISIS and risk a backlash from the jihadists themselves and other Islamist groups in the region. Or Turkey could refuse to have anything to do with the strikes, angering its Western allies and being a mere spectator despite its ambition to become a regional leader. Faced with that choice, Ankara appears to have decided to muddle through, officially joining the alliance against ISIS, but keeping out militarily.

Shane Harris expects the US to depend heavily on Jordan, particularly its intelligence service:

Jordanian intelligence “is known to have networks in Iraq which date from 2003 [the year of the U.S. invasion] forward,” said Robert Blecher, the acting program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “The Jordanians have good connections and have tapped them before,” Blecher added. They’ll have to do so again. But it’s not just Jordan’s spying prowess that the United States needs. Jordanian intelligence also has ins with Iraqi Sunni tribes aligned with the Islamic State. …

The Jordanians are also likely to provide logistical support to the American air campaign, which has so far launched more than 150 strikes against Islamic State fighters, vehicles, and artillery using drones and manned aircraft. (The CIA now says that the militant group has recruited as many as 31,500 fighters, up from an earlier estimate of 10,000.) Blecher said that Jordan has allowed the U.S. military to use its air bases throughout the past decade, though Jordanian officials are reluctant to acknowledge that. [Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan] Muasher said the country will likely lend logistical support but that he didn’t envision a role in direct military operations.

Adam Taylor and Rick Noack round up some international reax to Obama’s speech. They notice that Egypt is also toeing the noncommittal line:

Perhaps in response to Obama’s speech, Egypt’s Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri called Thursday for a global strategy for dealing with extremists. However, when a diplomat was asked whether Egypt would cooperate with Obama’s strategy against Islamic State, they offered a vague reassurance. “Cairo will discuss every effort which can be made by the alliance to eradicate the phenomenon of extremist groups in the region,” the unnamed diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Ed Krayewski is dismayed to see our allies abandon their own national security commitments and let America do most of the work:

Countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have given varying degrees of support to the virulent strains of Islam that feed extremists like those in ISIS. Yet ISIS is hardly a puppet. Whether they decide to move north to Turkey or south to Saudi Arabia will be a decision over which those two countries will likely have no influence. But why bother treating ISIS like a national security threat when the United States is doing it for you?

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other nations in the region, Arab and otherwise, are all threatened by ISIS in a way the United States isn’t, and in a way I think their leaders intrinsically understand they’re not being threatened by other countries in the region despite the official propagandas. Though the U.S. is the worldwide leader in military spending, these countries have spent decades building their militaries. They ought to make the decision to use them or not, to work with other countries in the region or not, and not have those decisions deferred by U.S. action from afar.

Likewise, Rosa Brooks argues that we should step back and let our local “partners” fight this war themselves:

Obama says the United States will “lead” a coalition against IS, but the United States should instead step back and let other regional actors assume the lead. They have a strong incentive to combat IS (an incentive we undermine when we offer to do the job for them), and the common threat of IS may even help lead to slightly less chilly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia (though I won’t hold my breath). Other Middle East powers also have greater ability than we do to understand local dynamics, not least of which because many share a common language with IS or with other actors in the mix. The Kurds and the Jordanians may need some U.S. help to protect their own territory, and other states may need intelligence or other forms of logistical assistance. But we can provide such support to any of our allies and partners without putting ourselves front and center in the effort to combat IS.

Keating notes that other than Russia, none of our rivals seems to have a problem with us bombing Syria—even the Damascus regime itself is signaling that they’re OK with it:

Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.” But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.

Judis isn’t impressed with Obama’s stated strategy for a number of reasons, one of which is that it ignores Iran:

In trying to answer IS’s challenge in Iraq, the United States needs Iran’s cooperation. Obama didn’t mention Iran at all in his speech but instead referred to “Arab” countries and even to the NATO countries that he claims are going to join the anti-IS coalition. Arab countries are imporant, and one NATO country, Turkey, also is.  But Iran is crucial. It’s the main backer of the Shiite Iraq government and of Assad.  What, at this point, is the American strategy toward working with or against Iran in the region?  And what can be done to ease relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would be important to resolving conflicts in Iraq and Syria? How much bearing do the nuclear talks, which seem to have stalled, have on the possibility of cooperation with Iran in the region?

And the way Tom Ricks sees it, our perforce partnership with Iran is really the only news here:

I think the Iraq war is best seen as one continuous conflict since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. I remember getting on the Metro that morning, seeing the headline, and thinking, “Hey, we’re gonna go to war.” And so we did, with an air campaign followed by a short ground campaign. When that was over, we went back to several years of air campaigning, complemented by some covert operations on the ground. Then, in 2003, we had another major ground campaign. It was supposed to last a few months, but instead lasted 8 years. And now we are back to an air war, probably again supported by occasional covert ops. The biggest difference I can see is that where once some Americans said we were doing this to prevent Iran from gaining influence, now we are working alongside the Iranians in Iraq.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during Kerry’s official visit at Cankaya Palace in the capital Ankara, Turkey on September 12, 2014. By Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Jailed For Journalism

Jesse Rosenfeld reports the news out of Egypt, where the same judge who sentenced 14 Muslim Brothers to death on flimsy-to-nonexistent evidence has handed down a harsh verdict against Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammad:

The three, who already have spent 177 days in jail, will now have to spend a total of seven years in prison. Baher Mohamed had three more years tacked onto his sentence because he had in his possession a bullet fired at a protest. Yet in this highly politicized trial the prosecution never presented any evidence to show that these journalists created “false news” or joined the banned Muslim Brotherhood as charged. Instead, prosecutors laid out a case based on broad conspiracy theories claiming that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite network is responsible for Middle East regional conflicts. …

The evident aim of the prosecution was not just to convict the reporters and a handful of students on trial with them, but to drive home the idea that al-Sisi’s government has a monopoly on truth. Prosecutors described the verdict and the sentencing as a “deterrent.”

The trial reads like an Orwell-Kafka collaboration:

[It] relied heavily on evidence culled from their personal possessions, but prosecutors never made any link between the innocuous-seeming material presented and the charges against the journalists. Making matters worse, in one instance, the defense lawyers were asked to pay a “fee” of about $150,000 to view evidence. …

Because journalists were allowed into the courtroom, there is a record of what was presented as evidence. It includes:

  • A video for the melancholy Gotye song “Somebody that I used to know” that came from a cell phone that allegedly belonged to one of the journalistsBoPLnZ5IUAE5jk-
  • Video footage of a press conference in Kenya that happened in 2013
  • A picture of Greste’s parents from his flash drive.
  • And this clearly manipulated picture of former armed forces chairman Mohammed Hussein Tantawi with Fahmy [seen to the right]

Journalists in Egypt have good reason to be afraid:

“It’s a warning to journalists that they could find themselves on trial and convicted for carrying out their duties,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed the trial for Amnesty International. Egypt’s prosecutor’s office issued a statement calling the ruling a “deterrent.” …

Most sobering for journalists, the trial also dissected the content of the Al Jazeera English team’s reporting. In his closing remarks, the prosecutor accused the journalists of selecting footage that would portray Egypt in a negative light. Among other examples of such ‘negative’ reporting, he said the three had reported on sexual harassment during demonstrations in Tahrir Square, an explosive issue that numerous foreign and local journalists have covered. In their defense, the journalists and their supporters argued: This was ordinary reporting, a journalistic portfolio similar to other top members of our profession.

Calling the verdict “a case study in all that is wrong with the Egyptian judicial system”, Bel Trew reminds us that the sorry state of press freedoms in Egypt is hardly news:

The Egyptian government has arrested over 40,000 people, according to the independent monitoring group WikiThawra, and sent thousands to trial since last summer’s military coup. Journalists haven’t been immune from this crackdown: Egypt was the third-deadliest country for journalists and among the top jailers of journalists in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than 65 journalists have been detained in Egypt since the coup, and 14 remain behind bars. …

The effect has been an unprecedented level of self-censorship by both the public and private media. “You can see many TV shows, awkwardly trying to stop their interviewees going too far in criticizing the army and the government,” Lotfy said. It was, he added, the worst press environment he had monitored in the last 30 years.

The ruling looked like a goodbye kiss for John Kerry, who had left Cairo hours earlier after announcing the US’ intent to restore military aid to the Sisi regime:

Kerry’s trip to Egypt was the clearest statement yet that President Barack Obama would rather work with al-Sisi than punish him, and his conciliatory words in Cairo before the verdict were not surprising, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and Egypt expert now with the Brookings Institution. “I think the trajectory has been clear for a while.”

Keating can see why we have set aside our principles in Egypt:

It certainly seems like what’s changed here is not the policies of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government but American priorities elsewhere in the Middle East. Iraq is on the verge of national collapse, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are again reaching the boiling point, and Libya is seemingly consigned to dangerous instability for the foreseeable future. Stable-ish pro-American governments with competent militaries are in short supply in the region right now.

My guess is that, with Sisi’s message now clearly sent to foreign correspondents in Egypt that they’re not immune to the government crackdown, the Al-Jazeera reporters won’t actually serve their sentences. But beyond this particular case, it’s clear that concerns about the country’s democracy have, once again, has been moved to the backburner.

Doug Bandow rightly wants to cut off the regime:

Congress should end all aid. The administration should shut up about democracy.  The Pentagon should be left to cooperate with the Egyptian military on essential tasks, including access to the Suez Canal—after all, Egypt’s generals will want to continue purchasing newer and better toys, as well as acquiring spare parts for existing weapons. There is no good answer to Egypt.  No one knows how a Morsi presidency would have turned out, but skepticism of the Brotherhood in power is understandable, given the abuses of Islamists elsewhere.

Alas, as I point out in my new article on American Spectator online, “we do know how a Sisi presidency is likely to turn out: a rerun of Mubarak’s authoritarian and corrupt reign.”  Repressive rule isn’t even likely to deliver stability, since the Egyptian people will eventually tire of yet another government which delivers arbitrary arrests, brutal torture, and summary punishment rather than economic growth.

The best Washington can do is stay out. Subsidize no one, endorse no one. Work privately to advance important interests. Leave Egyptians to settle their fate.