Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Banning the <i>Sharīʿa</i> in Tennessee, Codifying it in Saudi Arabia

Two recent articles about the sharīʿa are of particular interest.

A new bill would make practicing the sharīʿa a felony in Tennessee, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill is interesting in that it explicitly targets the sharīʿa and attempts to precisely define it. According to a Washington Post blog, the bill was introduced last week by Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and state Rep. Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma).

In my next post, I will take a more in depth look at this bill and the issues surrounding it. For now, here are some noteworthy excerpts, courtesy of Elizabeth Tenety of the Washington Post blog:

sharīʿa, as defined and understood by traditional and authoritative sharīʿa scholars and leaders, is a legal-political-military doctrinal system combined with certain religious beliefs; further, sharīʿa is based historically and traditionally on a full corpus of law and jurisprudence termed fiqh and usul al-fiqh, respectively, dealing with all aspects of a sharīʿa-adherent's personal and social life and political society.

sharīʿa as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharīʿa as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharīʿa with a sharīʿa political order.

sharīʿa requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America's constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharīʿa.


In Saudi Arabia, legal experts are working on a project to codify the sharīʿa. On Thursday, an article was published by the Media Line / Jerusalem Post, elaborating on the project. Overall, codification aims to render rulings in criminal, civil and domestic matters more consistent.

"Codifying Islamic law has nothing to do with Muslim identity, but doing this [codification] will be more adherent and meritorious to the Islamic law," explained Professor al-Shāmī, a supporter of the initiative, and Professor of Comparative Jurisprudence and Islamic Studies at The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi.

Most interestingly, al-Shāmī compared the Saudi project to the Mecelle, i.e. the Ottoman civil code of the late 19th century which represented an effort to codify the sharīʿa.

"Islamic law can be codified, and has already been codified during the Ottoman dynasty. Many Muslim countries did the same as seen in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Although a codified sharīʿa is nearly ready for implementation, the kingdom is still struggling to find qualified judges and deal with resistance from current judges who believe only they can interpret Islamic law," he said.

More on this as well in my next post.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Old Pictures of Muʿamar al-Qadhāfī (and satire)

As violence in Libya continues, the international community is considering punitive measures. On a lighter note, it seems nearly impossible to resist the temptation to mock and ridicule Muʿamar al-Qadhāfī. His eccentric personality and unique sense of style are the most obvious targets. Jon Stewart made fun of al-Qadhāfī on "Daily Show" last night, comparing him to a "1991 Lionel Richie."

Life magazine recently published a really interesting series of photos depicting a young al-Qadhāfī. One picture, dated 1970, depicts him sitting with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, President Abdul Rahman Iryani of the Yemen Arab Republic and President Abdel Nasser of Egypt.

Check it out: (please excuse the ridiculous title)

Foreign Policy magazine also published an interesting photo essay.

Finally, here are some other slideshows of interest:

Jadaliyya, with a little comic relief:

This little interlude from the wonderful people of Jadaliyya pretty much says everything I could want to say about the aging rulers of Egyptian cinema...and those other guys who won't give up the spotlight.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blacklists, Boycotts (and Beyoncé) Part II: Libya

Tamer Hosni's fangirls are not the only people likely to find themselves turned off by their favorite tunes these days. Yesterday, the popular CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper sent out this message on Twitter: "Why would #Beyonce and #MariahCarey sing for Gadhafi's son at a private party? How much did they get paid? #ac360 10p"

The private performances Cooper was referring to happened a while ago (2010 for Beyoncé, 2009 for Mariah), and backlash was fairly minimal. But that was back when most Americans who had heard of Gaddafi were more familiar with his eccentric fashion choices than his human rights record.

Now that we have all seen Gaddafi threatening the Libyan people with mass chaos, death and destruction on live television (or at least Youtube), the situation is a little different.

Cooper was quickly echoed by a number of others accusing the stars of accepting "blood money" from the dicatator's family. Some called out Lionel Ritchie and Usher for their own Gaddafi performances. While many Twitter users harshly condemned the stars, @sumyasalem took a softer, punnier approach:

@Beyonce show the people in #Libya your "Halo" and donate money at feb17.info hospitals need medical supplies and could really use your help

@UsherRaymondIV "OMG" you performed for a sadist! make up for it and donate to the people dying in #Libya in need of med supplies feb17.info

@UsherRaymondIV <3'd your song "More" we know u make "more" than the avg american. Ppl in #Libya could use ur help. Donate at feb17.info

@mariahcarey people are dying in #Libya right now and they need your help -- donate at feb17.info or say "Bye Bye" to all your Libyan fans!

So far, none of them are scrambling for their checkbooks. The stars look particularly bad in light of another of that morning's stories. Apparently, Lady Gaga traded exclusive distribution rights for a special edition of her "Born This Way" single for a commitment from Target. Not only will Target stop contributing to groups that advocate against LGBT rights, but will instead fund groups championing those rights.

I'm not a huge Gaga fan (in fact, this is the highest concentration of American pop stars you will ever find in a post from me), and not too long ago I was joking about how, not when, Gaga would most likely cash in on the revolutions sweeping the Middle East. But I am impressed. Most pop stars who support a "cause" do so by writing forgettable music, making speeches, allowing advocacy groups to use their image, and performing at one-off benefit concerts. They don't tend to use their own music and the business it generates to pressure major corporations into more ethical policy.

Imagine if stars started making similar deals that pushed corporations to say, drop anti-union policies or operate along BDS guidelines (hey, a girl can dream)! Although Target says the shift is the result of many factors, it seems clear the "Born This Way" deal was among them. Stars like Beyoncé, Mariah, Lionel Ritchie and Usher have more power than many, and as Lady Gaga has shown, they could use that power to support real change. So what's their excuse?

Normally, I'm a firm believer in the idea that one can appreciate art independently of its creator. But some things just make me queasy. Dancing to the tune of Hannibal Gaddafi's private entertainment is one of them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interlude: Literary recommendations from Libya

While I work on Part II of Blacklists & Boycotts, I wanted to share this beautiful, beautiful essay by Libyan writer Hisham Matar in The Guardian.

I particularly love his description of the women in his family as "mad scientists, whisking up egg, honey, olive oil and God-knows-what..." It reminded me of the beauty routines Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi described in her own memoir, Dreams of Trespass.

One of the things we - as an international community - must take ourselves to task for is allowing ourselves to buy into the idea that Gaddafi is Libya. As hard as it is to get accurate information out of Libya right now, it's even harder for outside observers to see Libya or Libyans as anything other than Gaddafi's victims. What exactly is this country that so many are now dying to see free of its addled but ruthless dictator? It's frankly hard for us to imagine.

Literature is one of the best correctives for that sort of mental gap, if not the best, and it so happens that Arabic Literature (in English) has [in honor of Banipal's highly prescient issue on Libyan Fiction] an excellent rundown of Libyan authors and where you can find their work.

Blacklists & Boycotts Part I: Egypt

One of the less urgent stories out of Tahrir over the past month was that of Egyptian pop star and heartthrob Tamer Hosny. The hapless singer, already saddled with one-half of an aging autocrat's name, made a big mistake when he called in to an Egyptian talk show during the early days of the protests. Poor Tamer not only defended Mubarak, calling on protesters to return home, but sobbed audibly. Although I cannot confirm this - the audio quality on those youtube recordings is just poor enough to confuse me - many say he even referred to Mubarak as "Papa." Perhaps Tamer internalized the paternalistic rhetoric of Mubarak's regime.

When Tamer later attempted to apologize and speak to the crowd in Tahrir Square about his confusion and change of heart, the crowd not only booed him off the stage but kicked him out of the square entirely. Soon, another teary Tamer video appeared on the web.

Tamer's reception in Tahrir - and a flood of anti-Tamer tweets - prompted Khaled Said admin Wael Ghonim to remind the protesters that they should be understanding and forgiving to those who have had a change of heart. It was a noble statement from Ghonim, but probably did little to convince those who saw all of Tamer's tears - for or against Mubarak - as cynical PR moves.

In the meantime, websites and Facebook groups appeared to document which celebrities either maintained close relations with the Mubarak family or actively supported them during the "January 25 Revolution," as some are calling it. Other big names appear on those lists, such as the ubiquitous film actor Adel Imam, who has appeared in a number of controversial and critical movies over the years. It is hard to imagine an Egypt that truly turns its back on Adel Imam. One wonders if a revolutionary hard-liner would have any movies left to watch, particularly since a number of the names on these blacklists-in-progress belong to other prominent actors.

For now, the blacklists are not attached to any comprehensive calls to action. It is up to the individual to decide whether or not she can now stomach the crooning of a man who cried for Mubarak on national television.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Failure to Ban Foreign Law in South Dakota

Two bills, which sought to ban foreign law in South Dakota, failed to pass in its legislature on Thursday. Tim Murphy of Mother Jones magazine reported the story on Friday.

Both bills resemble the South Carolina bill. They target foreign and international law, and do not explicitly mention the sharīʿa. (any direct reference to sharīʿa is unfeasable as it would likely be struck down.)

More specifically, House Joint Resolution no. 1004 sought to prohibit "the application of international law, the law of foreign nations, and certain foreign religious or moral codes in the state courts of South Dakota." Similarly, Senate Bill No. 201 sought to "restrict the application of certain foreign laws, legal codes, and system with respect to state legal proceedings."

Banning foreign or international in South Dakota would have interfered with treaties with other countries on child abduction and custody. It would have made it difficult for banks to do business overseas and interfered with Native American tribal courts, among other issues.

One of the sponsors of the bills, Rep. Phil Jensen (R-Rapid City), also tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce legislation that would define abortion as "justifiable homicide."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts on the South Carolina "Foreign Law" Bill

It's been a while since my last post, so I was hoping to write something exciting about the South Carolina bill. Unfortunately, there are no major developments to report.

In the meantime, there are several issues with the Bill itself.

The South Carolina bill is redundant. It allows religious arbitration courts to function provided that they comply with US law. However, there are already oversight mechanisms in place to make sure that sharīʿa arbitration complies with federal and state law. Michael Helfand, a legal scholar, made a similar observation regarding the Oklahoma case.

Helfand elaborates:

Rex Duncan, a Republican state representative in Oklahoma and a sponsor of the amendment, has explained that part of its purpose is to ban religious forms of arbitration: “Parties would come to the courts and say we want to be bound by Islamic law and then ask the courts to enforce those agreements. That is a backdoor way to get sharīʿa law into courts. There … have been some efforts, I believe, to explore bringing that to America, and it’s dangerous.”"

In reality, such arbitration is well established. For nearly half a century, Jewish, Christian and Muslim tribunals have operated in the United States in concert with government courts. These tribunals preside over matters of religious ritual and also apply religious law to a wide range of disputes between individuals and even commercial entities. Parties, in keeping with shared beliefs and values, can voluntarily agree to submit employment, divorce, contractual and various other types of disputes for resolution. State and federal courts currently treat such religious tribunals as they do all other arbitration panels that litigants can seek out as an alternative to going to court. And, as long as the tribunal and its decisions meet certain standards, government courts routinely “confirm” them — that is, render them legally enforceable.

The US legal system cannot operate in a vacuum and must be aware of norms in international law. As Garett Epps points out, ignoring "foreign law" is perilous and could interfere with U.S. obligations under international treaties.

The South Carolina Bill risks infringing on freedom of religion. Like the Oklahoma bill, it could interfere with marriages, inheritances, burials based on Islamic principles, etc.

These are prime examples of the problems that such bills could raise. Anyway, even if passed, the South Carolina bill is likely to be struck down like the Oklahoma bill.

For US legislators determined to restrict the sharīʿa, this type of approach seems ineffective.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Protest Like an Egyptian

The recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired activists in other localities, and in the past days we have seen protests in Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Wisconsin. Yes, you read that correctly. Wisconsin. I'm not kidding. On Tuesday the home state of the reigning Super Bowl champions saw one of the largest protests in recent memory, and believe it or not, hints of inspiration from Egypt protestors could be seen.


In an attempt to address a deficit in the current budget, Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill that would cut teachers' salaries, severely weaken organized labor unions and limit collective bargaining rights of public employees.  Well this has not gone over well, and on Tuesday 15,000 angry badgers flooded the Capitol in Madison, chanting "KILL THE BILL!" and trying to get into Walker's office. My aunt has worked at the Capitol for over 27 years, and these protests are the the biggest she's seen since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.  More than a few signs smeared Walker as a dictator, and some
made direct references to Egypt, as the Nation reports

Signs at Tuesday’s rally — which the AFL-CIO said attracted a crowd of 15,000 and which news outlets broadly reported drew more 10,000 state and local employees and their backers— referred to the governor as “Hosni Walker” and declared: “Protest Like an Egyptian.”

Another asked: “If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can’t Wisconsin?"

One senior state employee had gone online to find the Arabic words for “Remove Walker” and made a picket sign with the message.

To me this really stands as a true testament to just how spectacular and inspiring the Egyptian uprising has been.  As a native Wisconsinite, I can tell you that you don't generally hear anybody mentioning the Middle East unless they know someone who serves in the military and is being shipped off to Iraq.   Of course these protests are arising out of local conditions and grievances, but the mere presence of snarky signs calling the governor of a midwestern state "Hosni" really speaks volumes on how significant these uprisings have been.

In an interesting parallel with the protestors who camped out in Tahrir Sqaure, Wisconsinites such as my friend Ben, a state employee, are sleeping on the floor of the Capitol tonight.  Fortunately Governor Walker doesn't employ armed thugs, and Ben's biggest obstacle to a good night's sleep will be the cold marble floor of the rotunda

Monday, February 14, 2011

Goodbye Becca Keleher, Hello Jackie Daniels

A year ago at this time I was in Haifa working at Mada al-Carmel, where I often heard stories about the joys of Israeli security during our coffee breaks (which for most were also smoke breaks, this is the Middle East after all). One day I heard about a creative (albeit drastic) way to get through Israeli customs once you've been deemed a security threat by the government. Note that the definition of a "security threat" includes foreign human rights activists that engage in legal, nonviolent activities. The government isn't a big fan of international solidarity activists that, you know, monitor, protest, and report human rights abuses, so they are classified as a security threat. Yeah, those hippies in a drum circle you see in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday protesting and passively resisting forced evictions? Big 'ol security threats.

See, aren't they menacing?  

But I digress. Back to the point of this post. So a coworker was attending a meeting in Ramallah the next day and was hitching a ride with some friends of hers. She told me that this guy and his girlfriend were cool people and that I should meet them sometime. Apparently this American dude previously worked in Nablus for three years doing underground activism and journalistic work. Eventually the Israeli government caught wind of his activities (all legal, all nonviolent) and flagged this nice guy from Colorado as a security threat, and wouldn't renew his visa or allow him back into the country. To which I responded, "Wait, they flagged him as a security threat but you're riding with him to Ramallah tomorrow? How the hell is he here then?!"

It's all quite simple (and ridiculous). After he was denied entry, Mr. Colorado went back to the United States and changed his identity. He legally changed his name and was issued a new passport - one on which the Israelis didn't have a special file. So if any of you are on Israel's naughty list and want back in the game, just think of a new name for yourself. Being the paranoid person that I am, I've already started brainstorming new names for myself. Some ideas:

-Becca McCrea (my mom's maiden name)
-Jackie Daniels
-Stella Lennon-DeNiro
-Shirin Gooz
-Rufus T. Barleysheath
-Whitney Houston

Really, the possibilities are endless.

The Devolution of al-Ahram

The fact that Egypt's revolution had succeeded in its primary goal of ousting Hosni Mubarak really hit me on Saturday when I was walking home to my apartment. Every day, I pass a small convenience store with a number of foreign-language newspapers outside, one of which is the government-affiliated Egyptian daily al-Ahram. I usually don't bother to read al-Ahram, as the quality of its news and analysis has been on the steady decline for a while now. More independent newspapers like al-Masry al-Youm and al-Sharouk offer much more serious insight. Thus, I usually glance at al-Ahram everyday while walking by, and continue on my way. If I buy an Arabic newspaper, I buy al-Hayat or ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

But Saturday, I stopped to see the headline on the morning after Mubarak's resignation. It was clear that something had changed. The same newspaper that had continued to downplay the massive protests that began to sweep the country on January 25th now ran a massive headline that read: 11 February 2011...The Fall of the Mubarak Regime. Below it was a massive photograph of youths carrying a banner congratulating the Egyptian people and expressing their desire for an "honorable government". On page six, the newspaper printed all of the names and places of origin of the "martyrs of the revolution". This was clearly a different newspaper than it was under the Mubarak regime.

The devolution of al-Ahram is a fascinating example of how far Mubarak's regime has fallen. In the last few years, the newspaper has grown increasingly uncredible. Several high-profile Egyptian intellectuals (Fahmy al-Huweidi, Jalal Amin, Salameh Ahmad Salameh) who used to write columns in al-Ahram decided to make the move to the more independent-minded Egyptian dailies like al-Masry al-Youm and al-Sharouk. For what its worth, here's a personal anecdote. I remember al-Ahram being a far more ubiquitous newspaper in Cairo while studying Arabic there in 2006 in comparison to my time there in 2010. I even remember getting assigned al-Ahram op-eds in my media class back in 2006. By 2010, that newspaper had become such a joke that it would have been almost unthinkable to use its articles and op-eds in class. Instead, we were assigned op-eds from al-Masry al-Youm and al-Sharouk. After all, that's where all the most influential columnists had relocated.

I'm not saying that anyone could have seen the revolution in Egypt coming, giving the unpopularity of its semi-official newspaper. To some extent, its unpopularity can be seen as a barometer of public opinion, but by no means could that have indicated a possible revolution on the horizon. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how al-Ahram reconstitutes itself, hopefully as an independent voice in a future democratic political process.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day from Nizar Qabbani

I am not, normally, a huge Qabbani fan. During a semester-long tutorial under a professor who had written his thesis on Qabbani's use of color (I think- maybe it was just the color green), I remembered thinking many times Haven't we read that poem already? The man was certainly capable of turning out memorable and evocative work, but also prolific and forgetful enough to reproduce some of it in whole or in part.

But now that Valentine's Day is upon us, or as in Arabic, "The Holiday of Love," it's time for unqualified Qabbani detractors like myself, and perhaps even qualified detractors, to sit back and appreciate the work that has made him so irritatingly popular.

The wonderful M. Lynx Qualey over at Arabic Literature (In English) has taken a break from writing recommendations of revolutionary literature to put together a veritable V-Day celebration of Qabbani for all to enjoy, in both English and Arabic.

Whether my ex-professor's taste or my own inattention is to blame, I don't think I have read these poems before.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt's uprising & jokes heard 'round the world

TV commentators, bloggers, and ordinary print journalists have all remarked on the "carnival-like" atmosphere in Tahrir even before Omar Suleiman delivered the briefest official announcement the Egyptian government had yet offered: Mubarak is gone.

Instead of a mass exodus from Tahrir Square, broadcasts showed throngs of people heading to Tahrir to join celebrations which, like the later days of protests, involved a great deal of song, dance, and comedy. Some protesters even held up a banner reading: "You can come back now, Mr. President...we were kidding!"

As in Egypt, New York's celebrations have been as irreverent as they are sincere.

Here's a scene from Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, today: After speakers on the stage were drowned out several times by cheering and loud renditions of "Biladi, Biladi," another man took the microphone to announce "Today, we don't need a lot of talking. Today is for singing and dancing!" Baladi music immediately and obligingly blasted from the speakers as another round of zaghrouts went up from the women. Live drumming accompanied the recorded music from several different directions.

Yasser Darwish, a frequent figure at events organized by area Arab American organizations, danced in full Saidi costume. A ring of dancers formed around him and other stray members of the crowd, now performers. Someone threw candy into the air, and one man joined the dance with his own prop: a cake.

I left before anyone tried to divide the cake, but had the feeling it was mostly symbolic. It seemed like a birthday cake, though I was never close enough to read the frosting.

Amid all the ecstatic celebration - whether here in New York or in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria - is a very real awareness that this is the beginning, not the end. Like the demonstrators in Tahrir, celebrants in New York repeated the popular slogan: Shiddi heelak, ya balad. Al hurriya btitwalad! Here's an irreverent translation, with help from my friend Nabeel: "Man up, country. That's freedom being born!"

Please ignore the ridiculous title of the YouTube video...lesson learned!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Revolution Succeeds

The scenes emanating from Cairo on television are absolutely astonishing. The frustration felt yesterday by the hundreds of thousands that had gathered in Tahrir Square when Mubarak refused to resign has turned to euphoria and jubilation in light of Omar Suleiman's brief statement on state television that Mubarak had "left his position."

Significantly, Mubarak has transferred power to a council of military leaders and not to Omar Suleiman, thus signaling a much cleaner break with the past regime. The council of military leaders will now consult with the Egyptian Supreme Court to begin the transition process which will include the drawing up of a new constitutional framework and free and fair elections.

Undoubtedly there is so much work to be done to institutionalize this revolution, but I think it's appropriate now to stop and reflect on all of the events that led up to this momentous climax. For instance, at the "Egypt Rising" panel yesterday, Professor Lockman made a great point that I think often gets lost admist the spontaneity of this revolution: this movement has been a long time in the making. The labor protests in the Delta industrial town of Mahalla al-Kubra in 2008 is an event that often gets overlooked. These protests that were handily crushed by the regime occured in April 2008. The Facebook movement - April 6th Youth Movement - that organized the very first protests on January 25th was named to honor those who stood up and went on strike. The brutal murder of Khaled Said in June 2010 also spurred widespread anger and frustration with Egypt's authoritarian security apparatus.

The panel also made some insightful comments about the role of social and satellite media. It's become a cliche to cite Facebook or Twitter's role in enabling this revolution. Certainly they played a facilitating role, but I reckon that satellite media like al-Jazeera has played a more significant role than social media which can be disabled with a flip of a switch by authoritarian regimes. And even though al-Jazeera was shut down for a time by the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, the Qatari-based coverage never took the spotlight off of these uprisings. The interesting thing is how social and satellite media interact with each other to enable different types of political possibilities. After all, even shutting down al-Jazeera's local office won't prevent people from recording videos on their phones or providing on the ground information and relaying it to al-Jazeera, who can broadcast it throughout the world from their office in Qatar. But in the last analysis, let's not overstate the importance of these social media. Many, many revolutions have occured without them.

Obviously it's impossible to overstate the meaning of today's events, so out of humility I'll just leave it at that.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Abdication That Wasn't

I woke up on Thursday morning to news reports that this was to be the day that Hosni Mubarak would officially step down as president. Al-Jazeera was stating that the Egyptian military, after learning that Mubarak was planning to pass on his responsibilities to Vice President Omar Suleiman, was intervening to "safeguard the nation" and to ensure that the protesters would see their demands met. Apparently, the military brass had "reservations" about this transfer of power to Mr. Suleiman, indicating a possible split between the two.

All morning and afternoon, the group that had gathered for NYU's "Egypt Rising" event was on the edge of their seats waiting for Mr. Mubarak to appear on state television and announce his official abdication. The euphoria and delirium of the hundreds of thousands that had gathered in Tahrir Square was palpable, as it seemed an all out certainty that this would be Mubarak's last day in power.

Finally, Mubarak appeared on state television and astonished millions of viewers by stating that he was not in fact stepping down, but merely delegating more responsibility to Mr. Suleiman. It made me think of the conversation I had had with a cabbie in Cairo over the summer, where he claimed that Mubarak was as stubborn as a "gamoos" (water buffalo). His stubbornness was certainly on full display Thursday afternoon.

So why the reports that Mubarak would abdicate, only to find out that he is simply delegating more authority to his vice president? It was already rather clear this week that Suleiman was calling most of the shots - he was the one leading the talks with the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition figures. It had already seemed like Mubarak, having lost such a vast amount of political capital, was receding into the background and biding his time until September's elections. So being told that he intends to give Suleiman more responsibility is nothing new.

So what's the deal? Is he effectively calling everyone's bluff (the protesters, the military, the international community)? Is he purposely provoking more protests, hoping that they lead to chaos and generate nostalgia for the "stability" of the olden days?

And finally, what's the deal with the military? Its statements from earlier Thursday that it was intervening to "safeguard the nation" have engendered so much confusion. Is it waiting for the scale to tip a little further, giving them the leverage to make their move? Friday's protests should be telling in that regard, because they will undoubtedly prove to be the most intense yet. It looks like the oft repeated slogan that "the army and the people are one" will finally be be put to the test.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt's uprising & the view from Facebook

I am watching my friends become revolutionaries.

A few of my friends from Alexandria, where I lived throughout most of 2008, were fairly predictable. An older artist friend, already a sort of activist, was in the very first protest on January 25th and has been in every demonstration since then. When the police were called off the streets, she joined the human chain protecting a synagogue in Alexandria's Menshia neighborhood. Every time I speak to her she reminds me that the people are determined, that they will not give up until they see real change. She always asks me to spread the word.

One friend told me on the 24th that he was not allowing himself to think about the future. This same friend warned me at the end of last Ramadan not to wish him "Eid Mubarak," as he'd had quite enough Mubarak, Eid or no Eid. When he realized something really was happening, he chased the demonstrators all over Alexandria without finding them, in a sequence I imagine starring Charlie Chaplin.

He was finally able to join the demonstrations on the 28th, or "Friday of Outrage." Like many others he was tear-gassed, hit in the head, and otherwise exposed to police brutality. He was in such a black mood afterward that I couldn't reach him until several days after mobile service was restored. He had silenced his phone and shut it in a drawer. But he, like my artist friend, is optimistic. He wants to be part of the new Egypt so many have begun to envision.

Meanwhile, I've seen some nasty fights break out on Facebook between people who, if not friends, were at least friendly before the 25th. When the internet finally returned to Egypt, it revealed how much people had changed since they were last online.

People accused one another of being brainwashed, whether by state TV channels or Al Jazeera. I received a few Facebook invitations to groups with titles like "No to demonstrations on Friday," and found my own opinion of the person who sent them suddenly drop several levels. Quickly I rebuked myself - who was I to judge? But the invitations came mostly from people I knew to live very comfortable lives, people from families with helpful connections. More confusing were the messages from people I genuinely liked, saying "Everything on Al Jazeera is a lie."

Through Facebook, I was seeing how a movement like this can suddenly drive people apart.

But there were also efforts to repair those schisms. Several people who had accused their friends of being brainwashed, betraying their country, and being cowards later posted messages reminding themselves and everyone else that democracy meant they were free to disagree. However, they usually continued to post articles and essays meant to show the error in believing Mubarak's speeches or the conspiracy theories promoted on state TV channels. A friend who 'just wanted her life back' a week ago now fills her wall with these posts.

And some people do change their minds. After the Wael Ghonim interview yesterday, I noticed an update from a friend who condemned the protesters for 'causing chaos' during the first week of the uprising.

He had joined the Arabic page for "We Are All Khaled Said."

Efforts to Ban "Foreign Law" in South Carolina Legislature: Proposal Targets the <em>Sharīʿa</em>

Three weeks ago, Sen. Mike Fair and Rep. Wendy Nanney (R-Greenville) sponsored a bill in the South Carolina legislature. If passed, it would bar courts in South Carolina from enforcing foreign laws that are deemed to be in violation of constitutional rights. Islamic law (sharīʿa) is not explicitly mentioned; a prior version of the bill included an overt ban on sharīʿa, but failed to pass). The Associated Press / LA Times picked up the story last Friday.

"What we're trying to do is, with certainty, restate the obvious, particularly for our newcomers, that culture from a foreign country or religion does not dictate our law," Fair told the Associated Press.

Rep. Wendy Nanney (R-Greenville), argued that the bill was intended to address international child custody cases, and had little to do with the sharīʿa. However, Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville), referred to a 1993 court case in Virginia when explaining the bill, in which the legality of a sharīʿa-sanctioned marriage was recognized in a divorce case.

The South Carolina bill is part of a wave of recently proposed legislation targeting the sharīʿa in states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. In Texas, Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler) proposed a bill by which "a court of this state may not enforce, consider, or apply any religious or cultural law."

Another case is of particular interest: in New Jersey in 2009, a court denied a woman a restraining order against her Muslim Moroccan husband who, she claimed, had repeatedly raped her. The judge initially found that the man "was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices." He claimed that the sharīʿa guaranteed him the right to have intercourse with his wife, therefore, according to the judge, he "did not exhibit criminal intent by raping his wife." The ruling was later overturned, based on Supreme Court precedents, which prohibited the husband from using his religious beliefs to disobey "neutral, generally applicable laws."

The New Jersey case helped inspire a "Save Our State Amendment" in Oklahoma, which explicitly banned the sharīʿa from courts. The amendment was passed in a referendum in November 2010 with 70% of Oklahomans in favor. The author of the bill, Rep. Rex Duncan (R-Sand Springs) called it a "preemptive strike" against the sharīʿa. The bill also prohibited states from referring to "legal precepts of other nations or cultures," including international law. It was later repealed by a federal judge, who found (among other things) that it violated First Amendment rights.

Most obviously, these cases reflect fear and ignorance which are exploited for political gain. Today, the sharīʿa seems to be well known by the layman for honor killings, beheadings, amputations, stoning, oppression of women, etc. However, I am less interested in these aspects; I see myself neither as an apologist for the sharīʿa nor as an ideologue attacking it. Rather, I will focus on the problems and inconsistencies associated with these bills.

So, stay tuned for the next post, when I will take a closer look at the South Carolina bill.

Abridged Photo Album: January 25th in Cairo

To begin with a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I am not a student of Egypt, I am not terribly knowledgeable about Egyptian history or politics, and most of what I know about Egypt comes from reading intermediate level passages about famous Egyptians in the Al-Kitaab series of Arabic books. It was pure coincidence that I was in Cairo on January 25, and I left early the next morning. During the hours I spent in the midst of the demonstration, I could never quite decide upon the proper behavior for an American tourist accidentally witnessing the beginning of a revolution.

After watching the initial march on Tahrir Square, which I posted video of last week, I went to meet a friend in another part of Cairo. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the central vein of the protest, as demonstrators marched through the streets of downtown Cairo back towards the square. Eventually, we managed to join the march, which was leaderless and at times split into sections and pushed in opposite directions by the police, who seemed to lack any clear strategy for dealing with the growing protest. The police would charge into the crowd, people would run in all directions, then the police would retreat and everyone would regroup.

As the police continued their assault on the lines of peaceful protesters, the atmosphere grew more frantic and lines of marchers began to head in different directions. My friend and I broke off from the demonstration completely, deciding that we would head to Tahrir Square alone, as that was where the crowd was eventually planning to converge. The streets we walked through were eerily empty of traffic, and shopkeepers rushed to lock their doors in anticipation of the crowd passing by. My friend's family was glued to the TV and repeatedly called him in a panic, as the television coverage was, we gleaned, exaggerated and sensationalistic, likely as part of an effort to scare people out of leaving their houses and joining the demonstration.

{Two employees watching and waiting in a shop on Muhammad Farid Street in Downtown Cairo}

When we reached Tahrir Square, it was empty of protesters but all entrances were blocked by riot police. I'd already discovered that secause I was a foreigner, it was easier for me to cross police lines, and my friend found that when walking with me and speaking English, he was able to "pass" as non-Egyptian, and thus was treated better by the riot police and the plainclothes thugs. The proprietor of a travel agency thought we were lost and scared, and offered to let us sit inside with the staff. When the march reached the square and demonstrators pushed through police lines, the travel agency owner was confused when my friend and I ran away from the store to get a better view, in spite of his efforts to push us inside to "safety."

Protesters began entering Tahrir Square by the Egyptian Museum (the coral building in the background right of the photo below). Riot police ran to where the protesters were coming in, and in the distance we saw a water canon being fired in the direction of the marchers.

As the demonstrators pushed past the soldiers and into the square, police attempted to drive a truck through the crowd, but the people pushed the truck back, and it was forced to retreat.

As riot police looked on, the demonstrators occupied the square.

Eventually the riot police retreated to the streets surrounding the square and formed lines barricading the demonstrators into the square. A friend explained that there were key government buildings on the streets surrounding the square, and the security forces likely decided to prioritize protecting those buildings. However, when the square was first overtaken by demonstrators, the police fought back with tear gas and water canons. My friend and I took refuge in the travel agency, whose owner and staff by this point was no longer sympathetic to us, but still allowed us in, along with some other American "bystanders." The owner shut and locked the doors, and we gathered around the glass windows to watch the pandemonium outside. People were running in every direction, one man was lying on the ground because he had been hit in the head, while others formed a circle around him and protected him until he was ready to stand. People came beating on the doors of the travel agency, beginning to be let in, and the owner unlocked the door for a few of them. They were women and men, young and middle aged, who had been tear gassed and were begging for water to rinse out their eyes and mouths. After recovering in the travel agency for a few minutes, they demanded that the door be unlocked so they could rejoin the protesters outside. The owner of the agency was irritated, but eventually relented. My friend and I stayed inside for a while longer, while he talked on the phone with his family and I tried to reach fellow Kevo student Liam, who I'd lost when the tear gas began going off.

When we went back outside, the police had retreated to guarding the entrances to the square, either to keep others from joining or to keep those who were already inside from leaving, it was unclear. The square was filled with people, some marching and chanting, others standing around talking to friends.

The sun began to set, and a group of protesters began performing their sunset prayers, while the rest of us circled around them to protect them from the looming threat of a police assault.

As darkness fell, the security forces hit the crowd with another round of tear gas. This time my friend and I could not immediately find a place to hide, and we finally ducked into an alleyway that turned out to be the entrance to a hostel. The effects we felt from the tear gas were very minor in comparison to the other people who joined us in the alley stairwell, and we found that chewing gum helped stave off the burning sensation. (Neither of us had thought to carry water, which now seems ridiculous.)

When we reentered the square, the group we had been standing with was dispersed completely.

However, people quickly regrouped.

With renewed momentum, chanting resumed, with many people climbing onto cars, electrical posts, or subway entrances to lead calls of "Al sha3b yureed isqat al-nizam," the most popular chant of the day and of the days and nights since. ("The people want to bring down the regime.)

Eventually my camera died, and I was starving, so my friend and I decided to see if we could cross the police lines to get some food, then cross them again to bring the food back into the square for our journalist companion, who was conducting interviews. We saw riot police and protesters waiting for food together in Koshery Tahrir, and we reentered the square without any problems. We sat on the ground and ate together, and a man came over and gave me a plastic bag for our garbage. I noticed that many people were picking up garbage around the square.

At 9:00, people began to settle in for the night. I saw people resting their heads on backpacks or rolling up scarves to use as pillows. I had to get a cab to the airport at midnight, so around 10 I decided to walk back to the hostel to prepare to leave. I walked the ten minutes or so alone, and the streets outside of the square, while more empty of traffic and people than normal, were not completely devoid of life. I actually stopped in a bakery to buy some sweets for the road. Before leaving the city, I called a friend who was still in the square and discovered that security forces had attacked the demonstration, which had become a sit-in, with tear gas, concussion grenades and water cannons to drive them from the square. No one knew what was going to happen; if momentum was going to die down, or if people were going to keep coming back and protesting.

It is odd to reflect on this moment two weeks later, after the number of people in Tahrir Square swelled to 2 million, after people pitched tents and set up field clinics, and after the regime attempted to crush the demonstration with its typical violence and psychological terror. Following the story in the US, I, along with many other international supporters of the Egyptian uprising, have grown frustrated and pessimistic. However, I keep in mind my reaction on the 25th as I was hiding in the travel agency, watching people who had just been tear gassed fight to return to the street: I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the bravery, passion and strength of the Egyptian people. This knowledge gives me hope that with time, the sha3b will bring down the regime.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Meet the New Boss...

As the uprising in Egypt enters day 14, its momentum appears to be in question. The crowds in Tahrir Square are dwindling, and stores and banks are re-opening. In short, life is slowly returning to normal. On the political front, the opposition leaders are facing an uphill battle against a regime that still has many tricks up its sleeve.

Yesterday's reports that Omar Suleiman, long time intelligence chief and now vice president (and by some accounts, de facto president), granted the opposition key concessions need to be approached with scepticism. Suleiman appeared to make all kinds of concessions - cancelling the emergency law that has been in place since 1981, promising a committee to recommend constitutional changes within the next two months, as well as promising more freedom of the press in the future. Lots of vague indications of a regime willing to mildly reform, but hardly any binding specifics that will satisfy the grass roots opposition demands.

Despite the unprecedented events of the last two weeks, real change in Egypt very much faces an uphill battle. The NDP may appear to be crumbling publicly, but I am not convinced that it is a force that is simply going to wither away. The ruling party in Egypt is not an abstract force that has stayed above the fray, it is (or used to be, at least) a powerful corporate entity with deep pockets and tentacles that reach into all aspects of Egyptian society. Extricating it will not be an easy task. The organized goons sent into Tahrir Square on camels and horses armed with clubs, whips and swords to terrorize protesters is a good indication of just how far those with entrenched interests in the survival of the regime are willing to go.

Is Mubarak really the issue anymore? Protesters still demand that he leave the country, and the opposition leaders are making the start of constitutional negotiations conditional on Mubarak officially abdicating. And by the way, constitutional negotiations - if they ever occur - will undoubtedly be painfully thorny. It is a monumental task to write up founding documents that reflect an accurate balance of power amongst Egypt's fragmented political groups. For those interested in a more detailed discussion of this issue, check out this piece by Nathan J. Browne.

Though the demonstrations seem to have changed Egyptian politics forever, much more work remains to be done in order to institutionalize the opposition's demands. The regime has made it clear it is not going to roll over. Rather, it has given every indication that despite these unprecedented acts of revolt, it is still relunctant to cede any real power to the opposition. In this sense, the divided opposition leaders have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NYU Students in Egypt

There are a few students from the Kevorkian Center and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department who are currently in Egypt and are doing some great work, both for major news outlets and on their personal blogs.

Liam Stack is a second year MA student in the Near Eastern Studies program at the Center. He has contributed to numerous articles in the New York Times over the last month and has appeared in several videos on the Times website. View his most recent article here and his most recent video report here.

Ahmad Shokr is a PhD Student in the MEIS program who is in Cairo doing research for his dissertation. Shokr is also a journalist and editor at the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm and his reports on the uprising have been featured on Democracy Now and Huffington Post.

Caity Bolton is a graduate of the Near Eastern Studies MA program, class of 2010. She lives in Cairo with her husband, Luke. They normally keep a blog chronicling their lives and travels, but it has become difficult for them to update because of the communication blackout in Egypt. However, Caity was recently able to write about their experiences over the last week in this post.

If you all know of any other NYU students, alums, or members of the NYU Kevorkian/MEIS community who should be featured here, please let me know in the comments!

My January 25th Story (Part 1)

I traveled to Egypt for the first time in January. I went because I'd never been there before, and I wanted to do some tourist stuff, see some friends, and delude myself into thinking that I was improving my Arabic. (My Arabic skills = still embarrassingly bad). From January 1 through January 24, my vacation was perfect. I rode a horse around the pyramids, I spent hours wandering through Old Cairo and lost my temper in Khan el-Khalili market, I spent many nights drinking and chatting with strangers in El Horreya, and I ate koshery every day. (Don't judge, it's delicious.) January 25 was my last day in Cairo, and my friend and fellow Kevorkian student, Liam Stack, advised me to check out the demonstrations that were planned for that day. A security crackdown was expected and I should, as he said, see what my tax dollars are used for in Egypt.

The protest was supposed to begin at noon, but there were a number of different locations where people were said to be meeting, so I decided to wait around in Tahrir Square and see what happened. Around 12:30 I got bored, and went to an upscale cafe on a side street to get a fancy coffee. A friend in another neighborhood called to see if I wanted to meet, and I joked that I was going to miss the revolution because I was not in a rush to finish my coffee. He asked me to meet him near his apartment, in Doqqi, on the other side of the Nile, after he showered. I joked that he was going to miss the revolution because his neuroses compelled him to shower before attending a demonstration. It had not crossed my mind that this could turn into something that lasted more than a few hours and involved more than a few hundred people. After all, this was Egypt.

Liam texted me and told me to go outside, because demonstrators were marching on a bridge over the Nile towards Tahrir. When I got outside, lines of riot police had formed around all the side streets, blocking my way back into Tahrir Square. I got through by "pretending" to be a lost tourist who was trying to get to the subway entrance on the other side of the police line. However, I was still stuck on the other side of the fence separating the sidewalk from the street, where the demonstrators were marching towards the police line. When I saw that many other spectators were taking video on their phones, I decided to do the same.

At the very beginning, demonstrators tried to push through the line of riot police, finally succeeded, then began to march through the square.

I started walking along the sidewalk because burly, tan jacketed men, who I later found out were plainclothes secret police, more commonly referred to simply as "the thugs," began pushing the crowd of spectators along.

After making their way around Tahrir Square, the demonstrators continued to march towards the Corniche of the Nile and the square went quiet, aside from riot police forming and reforming lines, trying to decide where they needed to go.

I thought nothing else was going to happen in Tahrir, so I hopped on the subway and headed to Doqqi to meet my friend, who suggested that we head to Mohandiseen. Hours later, we would be back in Tahrir Square, watching the scene outside through the glass doors of the Al-Safir travel agency, waiting for the tear gas to disperse.

(To be continued)