Jun 022012
Tahrir Square fills with protesters on 2 June over Hosni Mubarak's sentence

Tahrir Square fills with protesters on 2 June over Hosni Mubarak's sentence. Photo: Getty Images

An incredible development as an Egyptian court sentenced Hosni Mubarak to life in prison – the first time this has happened to a standing dictator in the Middle East. However, others were not convicted of charges relating to the Arab Spring and the initial euphoria turned into anger. By nightfall, Tahrir Square was again filled with protesters.

Aljazeera has a good account of the current situation – and it remains to be seen if the promise of the revolution is fulfilled over the coming days:

Thousands of people descended on Tahrir Square to protest on Saturday night, a spontaneous outpouring of anger after a Cairo court sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison but acquitted a number of other former regime officials.

The verdict was initially met with euphoria: Egyptians celebrated upon hearing that Mubarak was convicted of complicity in the murder of more than 800 protesters during the Egyptian revolution in January of 2011. It was the first time an Arab head of state had been convicted, and a major accomplishment for the revolution which toppled Mubarak nearly 18 months ago.

But the joy was short-lived. Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges, and several senior security officials were found not guilty of murder. Some had wanted Mubarak to face the death penalty; others appreciated the verdict, but expected it would be overturned on appeal.

So they flocked to Tahrir Square, the heart of last year’s revolution, to voice their frustration, not just with the verdict but with Egypt’s post-revolution military leadership.

“It’s garbage,” Najdi Mohamed el-Din said of the verdict. “And it has made us realize something. The revolution of January 2011? We need to do it again, and we need to do it until everyone who was with Mubarak is gone.”

More than 5,000 people had gathered in Tahrir before midnight, and some planned to spend the night. The atmosphere felt almost nostalgic, as if protesters were reliving their roles from last year’s revolution. Many vowed not to leave the square until their demands were met.


Apr 252012

CitJoCitizen journalism was critical in the Arab Spring over the past year as ordinary people used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other social media to push new ideas, organize protests, and document the atrocities of long entrenched dictatorships. Now they’re getting a more formal outlet with the start up of CitJo, a portal that will connect bloggers and videographers with official media agencies around the world. While this hasn’t gotten much notice outside the Middle East, it is an innovative approach to a question that remains unresolved in the West (try asking the New York City Police Department who is a journalist). The portal will allow citizen journalists to sell their work under a variety of copyright licenses, giving some of them a potential revenue stream.

According to Mahamad El Tanahy, Managing Director of CitJo,

Our aim is to provide an easy way for citizen journalists to get their word out and generate revenue. We’re looking to provide all the features necessary to make citizen journalists’ lives easier, starting with a migration of the service to Arabic, launching an online payment service, and much more to come.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, especially if some of the participants begin to be noticed for their work. And there are challenges to be resolved – are news agencies going to accept submissions that are not edited, fact-checked, or screened? Will they be willing to pay for videos if other people are making videos of the same events freely available on YouTube? And there may be competition from existing citizen journalism sites – AlJazeera’s Your Media, for example – that take submissions but do not offer payment.

It’s a fascinating experiment. Check out the CitJo website – it’s nicely done and will give you a glimpse of an innovative journalism experiment in action.

Feb 112012
Selected by World Press Photo for one of the more prestigious awards in photojournalism, here is Samuel Aranda’s photograph of a woman comforting a wounded relative inside a mosque used as a field hospital. Taken for the New York Times, it captures a moment of pain and tenderness  during last year’s demonstrations in Sanaa, Yemen against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. You can see more of Aranda’s work on his own site along with the winners and runners up in the 2011 competition categories at the World Press Photo Galleries
World Press Photo of the Year - 15 October 2011
World Press Photo of the Year – 15 October 2011
Jan 152012

Aljazeera visits the small town of Sidi Bouzid one year after the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as a result of the revolution in Tunesia. The town was the home of Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire on December 17th in the local market after having his vegetable cart confiscated by the police, sparking an uprising that continues to shake the Arab world.

And a year later? There is justifiable pride and still a degree of hope, particularly in this small town – that much is undeniable. But there is also frustration and growing anger at the lack of change, a perception that despite all that has happened, jobs and education are still scarce, especially outside the capital city:

Dec 312011

After the initial remarks by the head of the Arab League mission, Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, who described the observers’ visit as “reassuring” and told Reuters that “The situation (in Homs) seemed reassuring so far,” there is finally evidence that the observers are encountering evidence of Syrian brutality. Not much, but at least it is something.

However, as Mousab Azzawi, chief coordinator of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, noted in General Dabi’s own miserable human rights record: “Out of 340 million Arabs, they could not find one decent person to lead the observer mission?”

But here at least is something though it took an estimated 150 deaths to get the observers to this point.

ADDENDUM: New controversy - despite the fact that the observer is clearly heard referring to snipers in the video below, Gen Mustafa al-Dabi has told BBC News that the official making the remark was merely stating a “hypothetical” case. If the General did say this, activists are right in their conclusion that the entire mission is a sham.

Dec 302011
Still image taken from video shows purported members of "Free Syrian Army" firing at a convoy of government security buses in the village of Dael / Reuters

Still image taken from video shows purported members of "Free Syrian Army" firing at a convoy of government security buses in the village of Dael / Reuters

These are the words of Qutaiba, a 22-year-old engineering student, recalling his beatings by the feared Air Force Intelligence, al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya. The account is in a compelling article in the Atlantic by BBC’s Paul Rand who was smuggled into Syria along with cameraman Fred Scott and was able to meet with the opposition in Homs, one of the flash points of the revolution:

Whatever the outcome of the many protest movements in 2011, it’s hard to doubt the disruptive power of social media and a global news environment, and the fear it generates for those in power:

“You motherfucker,” the colonel spat at the soldier. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times: No one. Should touch. Any. Citizen.” 

On the word “citizen” the colonel’s hand flew out and smacked Qutaiba on the side of the head. The blow sent him crashing to the ground, looking at their boots. The officer had struck him “with the flat of his hand, but it was a strong one,” he later remembered. The colonel remained silent. The guards and Abdullah laughed uproariously.

Then he was taken away to be beaten and tortured over a period of weeks. It was not sophisticated or inventive. Electric shocks while he lay on the floor in a pool of water. Endless kicks and punches that would leave his guards exhausted at the end of each flurry. For the first five days, they didn’t even ask any questions. That came later, the initial pummelling just to soften him up. . . .

. . . . He remembered each taunt from the guards. “This is for Facebook.” Smack. “This is for Twitter.” Punch. “This is for CNN, for the BBC, for Al Jazeera.” 

In Syria, social networks support a struggle that is about something other than poverty or abuse of power. A quote from Khoda, a Syrian house painter:

In Egypt, the revolution started because of poverty and hunger . . . . In Libya it started because of misuse of power. In Syria, the main purpose of the revolution is to gain back our dignity and our honour. 

Rand noted that the word “dignity” came up often. But it is also clear that the situation is much more complex than in Egypt or Libya – there are calls by the protesters for intervention, for NATO to act, for a no-fly zone at the very least. But as Rand notes:

They are not going to get it. Syria is not Libya; it has been called the “Arab Yugoslavia.” It is too big, too complicated, with too many combustible neighbors. Tor the time being, much as Western countries would wish Assad gone, the Syrian people appear to be on their own. 

But technology can only so so much. In the end, if the country remains divided and Assad retains support, it seems that the revolution will only succeed through civil war.

Dec 052011

The preliminary results are in from the elections in Egypt:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party got 36.6%.
  • The conservative Nour Party took 24.4%.
  • The liberal Egyptian Block received 13.4%.
  • The Wafd Party (also liberal) received 7.1%.
  • The moderate Islamist Wasat or Centrist Party gained 4.3% of the votes.
Tahrir Square Street Vendor

Tahrir Square Street Vendor

AlJazerra summarizes the preliminary results:

“The conflict will be over the soul of Egypt,” said Nabil Abdel-Fattah, a senior researcher at the state-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, calling the new parliament “transitional” with a “very conservative Islamic” outlook.

The Brotherhood has emerged as the most organised and cohesive political force in these elections. But with no track record of governing, it is not yet clear how they will behave in power.

The Freedom and Justice Party has positioned itself as a moderate Islamist party that wants to implement Islamic law without sacrificing personal freedoms, and has said it will not seek an alliance with the more radical Nour Party.

The ultraconservative Salafis who dominate the Nour Party are newcomers to the political scene. They had previously frowned upon involvement in politics and shunned elections.

They espouse a strict interpretation of Islam similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Its members say laws contradicting religion cannot be passed.

Egypt already uses Islamic law, or Sharia, as the basis for legislation. However, laws remain largely secular as Sharia does not cover all aspects of modern life.

If the Freedom and Justice Party chooses not to form an alliance with the Salafis, the liberal Egyptian Bloc – which came in third with 13.4 per cent of the votes – could counterbalance hard-line elements. 

This is only the first round of voting and the system for selecting the panel that will draft a new constitution is complex. It is a beginning – an historic one – but the beginning of a struggle that as Abdel-Fattah said, will be over the soul of Egypt.

One puzzling side note from Reuters – there was a “counting error” in the turnout for the election:

The head of the election committee, Abdul Moez Ibrahim, had put the turnout in last week’s voting at 62 percent, but on Monday he told a news conference the figure had been revised to 52 percent, blaming a counting error.

Acceptable, perhaps, as long as there’s no counting errors in the actual results.

Dec 022011
Ballot Counting

Election Officials Counting Ballots

The results of the first round of the historic elections in Egypt have been delayed again, probably until Friday or Saturday. However, according to the New York Times, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood, well organized from years of opposition to Mubarak’s rule, will end up with 40% – 45%. Add in what may be a strong showing by the ultra-conservative Salafis and the two groups may end up with 65% of the initial seats in the parliament.

The unexpected rise of a strong ultraconservative Islamist faction to the right of the Brotherhood is likely to shift Egypt’s cultural and political center of gravity to the right as well. Leaders of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will likely feel obliged to compete with the ultraconservatives for Islamist voters, and at the same time will not feel the same need to compromise with liberals to form a government. 

No doubt this is not the result that the Coptic minority and more liberal/secular members of the public wanted to see, but it appears they did not present a unified front. Much remains to be determined, and obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood will decide who they want as partners in a coalition. Still, at the moment, just the very fact that there were free elections remains a victory for Egypt as a whole.

Now the truly hard work begins of deciding what kind of country they want to be. And if you think that’s easy, or that the decisions made in the coming year entirely determine the future shape of Egypt, just look at the founding of the United States and the unresolved issues and “compromises” made in the forming a union. We idealize our own beginning, gloss over the profound schisms at its birth and generally fail to acknowledge that the Constitution was our second attempt to make it work. Seventy years later, it fell apart in the Civil War and the legacy of the causes and the aftermath are with us still.

We are a work in progress even now; don’t expect it to be any different on the streets of Cairo or the shores of the Sinai Peninsula.

Nov 302011

At long last – “Fahrenheit 451″ will be digital.

Ray Bradbury, “one of the last bastions against the digital age,” has finally caved in according to the Guardian and agreed to digital publication of his classic work, “Fahrenheit 451″, authorizing an eBook edition.

Up to now, Bradbury had erected his own Chinese Wall against everything digital, saying to the New York Times back in 2009 that ebooks “smell like burnt fuel” and that when Yahoo had approached him about a digital version, he responded:

They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet. It’s distracting . . . . It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.

Sounds like a couple of curmudgeon old faculty that I worked with not that long ago.

Well, that thing “in the air” has won out, no doubt helped by the fact that publisher Simon & Schuster offered a seven figure book deal. With the digital editions projected to make 20% of the sales, the deal would have fallen through without it.

Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451″ is one of a kind, having sold over 10 million copies since it was first published in 1953. It has deeply influenced so many of us and stands as a classic statement of freedom and the value of the written word.

And I love the fact that Bradbury has been such a strong supporter of libraries – he never went to college and this particular book was written on a pay typewriter in the basement of the UCLA Library. As he says:

Libraries raised me . . . I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years. 

I love all the technology at my disposal and, yes, I feel helpless when it goes down. And yet he did this book on a pay typewriter. This somewhat eccentric and cranky old man is a reminder of the power of the written word, and that content is still everything.


Fahrenheit 451 Original Cover

Original Cover

Ray, don’t fear. I won’t let anyone light a match to my digital version of “Fahrenheit 451″, and yes, I get the point of the original cover art by Joseph Mugnaini and Joe Pernaciaro – when books are burned it is really ourselves that are torched. But honestly, I think it (and all books) just might be safer in digital form. I know there are preservation and access issues with the latter (some Dickensonian spirit right now is whispering in a low voice SOPA . . . SOPA . . .  SOPA in my ear), but the more forms through which we communicate ideas – physical and digitally – the better.

The forces of secrecy and repression are alive and well in 2011 – just as they were when you wrote this five decades ago. But as the Arab Spring has shown, it’s very hard to suppress an idea when it’s transmitted digitally, when it lives, to lift from your words . . . in the air somewhere.

Nov 282011
Egyptian Ballot Symbols

Egyptian Ballot Symbols

Since the 1950′s Egypt (like many countries) has used symbols for political parties and candidates on their paper ballots. Chosen by the Supreme Elections Commission and supposedly assigned at random, the images facilitate party identification and the voting process for a not fully literate public. According to the Guardian, 30 symbols used to suffice during the Mubarak regime; now some 250 are needed for the current round of elections beginning this week.

But as Kevin Connolly points out in a BBC article, the symbols are not just a literacy issue as some of the races offer a mind-boggling complexity:

Even if you can read and write, trying to remember who is who on the sheaf of ballot papers you’ll be receiving may not be easy.

I know of one constituency where voters will be choosing between 77 candidates from the party list and then making their selections from a further 133 who are running as individual candidates.

And the voting process itself is hardly simple. Once in the booth voters will have to select both a party list and two independent candidates; failing to do so will invalidate their entire ballot. Some office seekers have had to spend more time explaining the voting process itself instead of their own positions. Add in the complication of run-offs, a lack of information on ballot box security or when and how the results will be announced and . . . one can only hope this works out. If not, Tahrir Square will be the scene of further protests.

The images have generated both controversy and humor:

One candidate in Imbaba, a neighbourhood of Cairo, declared he had been “humiliated” after being handed the symbol of a woman’s dress, while another has turned crisis into opportunity by basing his entire campaign around the symbol of a cuddly toy (“If you don’t like my style … give me back my teddy bear”, reads one of his slogans).

Other symbols have provoked more serious political debate, particularly those depicting military strength or weapons. Amid ongoing and violent unrest between anti-junta demonstrators and the military council’s security forces, who some accuse of being little more than an extension of the Mubarak dictatorship, much has been made of the armoured vehicle symbol of the Conservative party – a political organisation formed largely of former members of Mubarak’s administration. 

You can see close-ups of ballots here. And Google has a Doodle in honor of the historic elections on their Egyptian page: http://www.google.com.eg/

Egypt Election Google Doodle
Nov 212011

The situation looks particularly grim after deadly clashes in Tahrir Square left 11 dead and many injured this weekend. As one protester put it: “We need a constitution.” Instead, they are getting the brutal hand of the army which appears determined to isolate itself from any democratic solution that may be implemented – in other words, there will be no real democracy.

But there are issues that run far deeper than simply the army’s plans for itself; the real challenge may lie in the complex relationship between the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and liberals who may be willing to compromise on army proposals over fear of the Brotherhood winning a majority in the elections. From the NY Times:

The Muslim Brotherhood, which helped lead the Islamist rally, issued a statement declaring the ruling military council responsible for allowing excessive violence against unarmed protesters, and it called for prosecution “of all those who commanded this attack.”

But it also issued a pointed challenge to “politicians and intellectuals,” presumably referring to Egyptian liberals. Many have urged the adoption of some sort of ground rules protecting Western-style civil liberties before a potential Islamist majority of the Parliament might dominate the constitutional convention. The military acted on those suggestions to present the liberals with a kind of devil’s bargain: a declaration that would have protected individual and minority rights, but also granted the military permanent political powers and immunity from scrutiny as the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy.”

“Will you respect the will of the people or will you turn against it?” the brotherhood statement read, in a direct challenge to the liberals. “Your credibility is now on the line, and we hope that you will not turn against it.”

There may be no party allegiances when running through Tahrir Square with the military shooting at you, but some may fear that will change when it comes to the ballot box. This may be a turning point if the liberal Nobel-prize winner and presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei is accurate:

It would have been more honorable for the cabinet to say the state has failed and to leave for others to manage the country,” he said, arguing that neither the military-led cabinet nor the generals themselves were qualified. “This is not a crisis,” he said. “The country is falling apart.”

Once again, good video of a grim weekend from Aljazeera:

Oct 282011

Nujood Ali and Shada Nasser

This video is remarkable and says so much about the undercurrents of change swirling through the Middle East. This is not the most compelling clip you’ll see – no exuberant rebels dragging a bleeding Gaddafi from a concrete culvert – no, here are women lined to up to symbolically and literally assert their presence and stand up against their second-class status.

Yemeni women first came into the news when Nujood Ali, a ten year old girl who was repeatedly raped and abused by a husband three times her age, was granted the right to a divorce with the assistance of her lawyer,  Shada Nasser. If you haven’t read Nujood Ali’s compelling story, take a few minutes and read Carla Power’s article in Glamour.

In February 2011, Yemen was back in the news with the struggle to remove the autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office and end his authoritarian rule over the country. The capital city, Sanaa, has been an endlessly tense scenes of quiet standoffs alternating with brutal crackdowns.

And Yemeni women were in the spotlight with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist.  But the men in the streets, though fighting for a revolution, have yet to come to terms with all the implications it entails. The result? Thousands of women have broke their silence and gathered in the capital. They brought their full-body veils, laid them out in the street, and set them on fire. It is a highly symbolic act, fraught with meaning in a very conservative Islamic society. Again, Yemeni women are saying they will be equal partners in a revolution to shape the future.

And their own destiny.

Oct 272011
A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

If there was one symbol of the Arab Spring in Egypt, it would be the young Internet activist and blogger who was beaten at a table in an Internet cafe in Alexandria by plain-clothes police and then dragged off into an adjoining building where he was murdered. Khaled Said’s “crime” on the 6th of June, 2010 had been nothing more than uploading videos of police corruption and images of his battered body quickly circulated on the Web. Within days, a Facebook page created by Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim titled “We are all Khaled Said” became the most popular site in Egypt, with thousands of people replacing their own FB profile photos with the victim’s image.

The video that lead to his death does not even seem all that shocking (you can watch it here) – your basic run-of-the-mill police corruption around drugs, but it was more than enough to run him afoul of Egyptian authorities. Watching it, you quickly sense that it wasn’t the video; it was what he was doing with the video – putting it online – that made him a target.

Two police officers involved were put on trial in July of 2010 but it was postponed until February of this year. After three forensic investigations and endless arguments over procedural issues, a verdict was finally reached this week. And the result?

Seven years on a manslaughter charge.

The result has outraged Egyptian activists even though it was the maximum possible sentence. There will be an effort by the family to overturn both the verdict and the sentence and retry them for charges that could carry the death penalty. Activists were also outraged at the scene in the court, where the officers’ families attacked Khaled’s uncle and lawyers, and smashed benches in the courtroom which was closed to the public. As his uncle put it:

This case was like taking the pulse of the revolution, but the verdict tells us that the revolution has been aborted . . . . This is a signal on which direction the revolution is heading.

So I leave this with the image below, the classic Cold War symbol of oppression and freedom, all the more poignant with Khaled Said’s portrait . . . paradoxically the separated concrete slabs and the face staring ahead almost give it a distant echo of the hauntingly beautiful Fayum Mummy portraits from the Coptic period in Egyptian art.  One desperately hopes Khaled’s uncle is wrong. One hopes the walls are still coming down.


Graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski, Khalid Saeed

The portrait of late Khaled Mohamed Said (1982-2010), internet activist from Egypt, was painted during the ceremony of the FES Human Rights Award by the graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski aka Case on elements of the former Berlin Wall © Joel Sames

Oct 122011

Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi

And I’m humming a song by the English rock band, The Who. Egypt is in turmoil with protests by Coptic Christians over the burning of a church. Running street battles with the military have resulted in 26 deaths and over 500 wounded, and now the resignation of Hazem el-Beblawi, the liberal Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The current government is losing credibility and the interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, also offered to resign (Al Jazeera television carried a rumor that the entire government had stepped down (later denied by the Ruling Council).

You know which song I mean. . .

Tuesday night, new evidence confirmed accounts of Egyptian soldiers using live ammunition and crushing protesters in armored vehicles (autopsies reveal 10 of the 26 died from vehicle impact). There’s widespread anger over the military’s handling of the demonstration with Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al Masry al-Youm, publishing a front page editorial condemnation:

The state lost its prestige, the regime is about to fall apart, and Sharaf’s government doesn’t have any credit anymore; the only thing they have left is the dignity of resignation . . . In transitional periods, good intentions, gullible smiles and seeking the consent of the presidential military council are not enough.

I want to scream, “No, no!

This is not what Tahrir Square came to symbolize for people around the world back in January – the military stalls on democratic reforms, blames external conspiracies, kills protesters to maintain “social order”, and pits Egyptian against Egyptian in the streets. People fought and died for something more than this.

Yes, the lyrics of  “Won’t be Fooled Again”:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

There is a lot of video out there, but this one seems to capture the events of the past few days:

Aug 072011
Protest in Israel

Protest in Israel

From a number of sources (a good account at the moment in the Global Post), there were demonstrations of historical proportions in Israel Saturday, as almost 250,000 turned out in Tel Aviv (a city of only 1.2 million) with smaller demonstrations in other cities to protest the high cost of housing and other issues. This is third straight week of a movement that began with students and others coordinating their efforts through Facebook and pitching tent-cities in central areas.

I suspect that the government’s announcement that a “. . .team of ministers, academic experts and business people would be appointed on Sunday to meet in ‘a round table type situation’” to offer solutions will do little to diffuse the movement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been taken by surprise and the foreign press has been slow to follow Israel’s own version of the Arab Spring. In a social network driven environment, events quickly outstrip measured responses, and people feel empowered by connecting to each other outside of traditional frameworks. There’s a quote in the New York Times that seems to sum up the mood on the streets:

“We are not asking to change the prime minister,” Stav Shafir, one of the founders of the Tel Aviv tent city, said on Israeli television on Saturday. “We are asking to change the system.”

Only a single quote, but it suggests something critical taking place here. Facebook and other social networks are not just more efficient ways of organizing protests, but instead, give tantalizing hints that there may be other ways of organizing societies. What those structures might be remains to be seen, but one falls back on Mike Sendall’s assessment of Tim Berners-Lee’s initial proposal for the Web – “vague but exciting.”

Aug 032011


From the most powerful leader in the Arab world to a luxurious palace in Sharm el-Sheikh, to a hospital bed and finally, an iron cage in a military courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo. An indelible image of our era as this is the first time an Arab leader has been forced into a legal proceeding by his own people. Yes, there was Saddam Hussein’s capture and trial, but that was largely due to a U.S. military operation. And it happened in Tunisia, except that the former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been tried in absentia since he now resides (in a no doubt luxurious home) in Saudi Arabia.  Charged as an accomplice in the killing of protesters and corruption for accepting financial gifts, Mubarak and his nine co-defendants (including his two sons, Gamal and Alaa) could face the death penalty.  For complete details, Robert Fisk once again provides a good account in his article “Mubarak Trial Begins” in the Independent as does Aljazeera.

As the day wore on, the proceedings were largely taken up with legal motions and the trial will get underway in earnest on August 15th. The apparent defense strategy by Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid el-Deebis, is to drag the military into the proceedings as he wants Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to testify, arguing that he was the person in charge of security for most of the 18 days of the protest movement. Shrewd move as Tantawi is now Head of the military council that runs Egypt and it is hard to imagine that the military wants any involvement besides responsibility for holding Mubarak for trial. He also wants to call 1,600 (not a typo) additional witnesses which would drag the trial on for an eternity if granted.

Outside the courtroom, fights broke out as about fifty Mubarak supporters clashed with supporters of the Egyptian uprising. And much further afield, it seems that Syria is using the media focus on the trial as an opportunity to crush the opposition in the city of Hama.

Here are the opening minutes of the trial .

A second video of the not guilty pleas by Mubarak and the co-defendants can be seen on Aljazeera.

Aug 022011
Egyptian workers prepare a hall that will serve as a courtroom for the upcoming trial of the ousted Egyptian president Mubarak. AFP photo
The Iron Cage for Mubarak’s Trial

Tomorrow may be fascinating – or not – depending on what happens in Egypt as August 3rd marks the day Mubarak goes on trial. And in the ultimate irony, the cage he will be held in during the court session is a device of his own making, created to hold religious radicals and secular opponents that he would put through a rubber-stamp legal system and then sign off on their execution warrants. Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News put it best in an article titled: “From Iron Fist to Iron Bars.”

So if all goes according to the announced plans, Mubarak and perhaps sons Gamal and Alaa, along with a few others will be subjects of the media trial of the decade (well, so far). Word in the street was that it would be postponed, probably until he died, so as to avoid the spectacle of Egypt’s former leader facing the charges against him. Judge Ahmed Refaat, the head of the Cairo Criminal Court, has promised a quick and very public trial – indeed, it will be broadcast live on Egyptian television.

Or not, depending on what happens behind the scenes. We’ll be watching closely this closely but in the meantime, see the excellent piece by Robert Fisk who conveys the irony and view of the trial on the street in a well-written piece, “Egypt awaits first trial of an Arab Spring dictator,” in the Independent.

Aug 022011
Israeli Demonstrations protesting housing costs and food prices

Israeli Demonstrations - Photo By David Buimovitch

It might seem unlikely to associate the term “Arab Spring” to Israel, but over the past two weeks a tent encampments arising from a Facebook driven protest movement has grown in Tel Aviv and other cities. Unlike Egypt and other countries where protesters fought for democracy, economic justice and other issues, the Israeli Spring confronts specific issues affordable housing and the price of food. Last Saturday, 150,000 people marched in the streets and the Independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich noted its significance:

This was a landmark event. The norms that have been accepted in the past will not be in the future.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cancelled a trip abroad to Poland and President Shimon Peres held a televised meeting with leaders of the protest movement in his office, in a move that you might see as old-school technology being played against the power of social networks. While he pledged to assist in negotiating a solution, they vowed to continue the protest within the limits of the law.

The Left in Israel almost disappeared from the political map in the 2009 elections when the country put aside economic and social issues and moved toward the far right in support of security concerns. Whether or not this marks a major shift in the political terrain remains to be seen and a few attacks by Palestinians would probably diffuse the movement. And with none of the parties in the governing coalition making a move to pull out, there appears to be little chance of this leading to a change of the current government. So far, at least. But the sheer scale of the protest is staggering. The Daily Kos puts this in perspective from the American political environment: 150,000 protesters comprise 2 percent of the entire population – a similarly sized protest in the United States would mean 5.5 million people in the streets.

“]Protest sign - Demonstration in Israel

Faux ad: "A find! Tent divided into four wonderful residential units, not renovated, 5 minutes from beach. 2800 sheqel per month (about US$820)

Probably best that Peres opted for TV as opposed to Facebook or Twitter to communicate with the protesters. As the give and take over Obama’s recent use of Twitter in the budget negotiations suggests, social media doesn’t necessarily work to your advantage even when you’re comfortable with the technology.





Aug 012011

Al Jazeera is reporting that yesterday was one of the bloodiest days in the uprising in Syria, with a 142 reported dead mostly in the city of Hama. In the East, Deir ez-Zor, one of the main oil and gas centers has also become a scene of violence. Since the demonstrations in Syria began on March 15th, there have been 1,583 reported deaths according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But the death toll is probably much higher as over 3,000 people are missing. It’s likely that there will be a move by other nations to impose new sanctions and the situation is clearly descending into what is essentially a civil war. It’s hard to know how much President Bashar al-Assad is driven by the internal dynamics in the country (how strong is support among the middle class in Damascus which has turned out in the streets for demonstrations backing al-Assad?) and if the reaction in the West even factors into his military calculations. The latter is probably not first on his mind given the statement today by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the possibility of military intervention in Syria:

It’s not a remote possibility. Even if we were in favour [of UN backed military action], which were are not because there’s no call from the Arab League for intervention as in the case of Libya, there is no prospect of a legal, morally sanctioned military intervention.

Nearly 30 years ago, Hama was the site of a major revolt against al-Assad’s father, resulting in more than 20,000 deaths and the destruction of the city. So far, al-Assad has opted for daily strikes to provoke fear and intimidation, but with the demonstrations continuing, one wonders if it’s just a matter of time before he takes the same route. Perhaps the widespread demonstrations in cities across Syria in support of Hama are the only obstacle standing in the way. There is much bravery here but unfortunately little communication with the outside world. A  few videos continue to filter out, including the one below posted on Al Jazeera:


Jul 112011

BBC Newsnnight’s Shaimaa Khalil has compelling testimony from Syrian refugees who have crossed from the border town of Talkalakh into the Wadi Khaled area of northern Lebanon. The fear of remaining in Syria is palpable in the accounts (unverified, of course) but also striking is the commitment to continue the resistance regardless of the cost. In a sense, we know this already; otherwise the opposition would not have the energy to continue in face of the overwhelming force exercised by the Syrian army which has resulted in over 1,100 deaths (and that number is probably a low estimate). Remarkably, people are inspired by those who have suffered more than they have and willing to sacrifice their own children if that is the cost of victory. As one mother put it:

“They are my children. I love them, but we have to sacrifice if we want victory. This is much stronger than a mother’s love,” she cries.

If views like this are widely held, the regime will fall, despite its lock down on communications (soldiers hardly speak to their families and when they do, their families are fearful of telling them what is happening on the streets). To quote the young textile shop owner turned activist:

“I met so many people with a much stronger will than mine. I met people from all walks of life – doctors, farmers, lawyers – many people who are willing to go out and take to the streets and keep asking for our rights even if it meant going to prison again.”

Doctors, farmers, lawyers, shop owners – and mothers – this is what makes a revolution.