This is a selection of Max's writing. More is available upon request.
The Army and the People Were Never One Hand
CAIRO - In a country that has seen its fair share of polarizing figures since the fall of octogenarian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Maikel Nabil Sanad might be Egypt's ultimate iconoclast. The 26-year-old veterinary school graduate hails from the country's Coptic Christian minority, supports secularism, loudly proclaims his atheism, and condemns the Coptic pope's hypocrisy. He calls himself a feminist and is open to gay rights. And in a country where support for Israel is the third rail of politics for mainstream politicians and street activists alike, Nabil proudly self-identifies as "pro-Israel."
But on one issue, Nabil's convictions have become steadily less controversial. In the revolution's earliest days, he criticized the army's political takeover in Cairo. While most Egyptians were still chanting, "The Army and the people are one hand," Nabil cautioned that the military was no ally of the protesters -- a warning that, after a year that has seen a stalled democratic transition and over 12,000 Egyptians sentenced in military tribunals, appears remarkably prescient.
Cairo's Revolutionaries Change Tactics
CAIRO — For Egyptian activists, Tahrir Square these days feels more like an area under military occupation than the epicenter of a revolution. Armored personnel carriers, topped with machine gunners, guard the entrances. The massive vans used to transport riot police and prisoners line the surrounding streets. High-ranking police officers in crisp white uniforms and aviator sunglasses keep watch over the traffic as helmeted riot police holding shields and batons surround the patch of grass in the square's center. Any sign of the sit-in that was in place for more than three weeks before it was violently dispersed on Aug. 1 has vanished. Even the street vendors who for the last six months have been selling Egyptian flags and commemorative revolution T-shirts have disappeared.
The message from the ruling military junta is clear: That phase of the revolution is over.
Once More to Tahrir
CAIRO — Under a baking hot Egyptian afternoon sun, old women in full face veils mingle with teenage boys in designer jeans. Coptic Christians stand next to conservative Muslims, chanting together that they want freedom. Factory workers from the Nile Delta sit in tents, reading pamphlets passed out by web-savvy activists. The whole country is watching. On a Friday 147 days after Hosni Mubarak resigned from Egypt's presidency, tens of thousands of Egyptians are again taking to downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square to pressure their government to listen to their demands for change. Many are saying they will not leave the square until their demands are met. Meanwhile, other cities around Egypt are seeing similar protests.
If the scene is reminiscent of last winter's dramatic three-week uprising -- scorching heat aside -- it is not by coincidence. July 8's protest is an extension of the revolution, which many Egyptians believe has not yet been brought to fruition. The feeling has been reinforced in recent weeks by the perception that justice is not being served for dozens of corrupt officials who ran the country and then ordered the killing of protesters during the uprising. "Revolution First," reads a common protest sign in Tahrir.
CAIRO — Sayyid Kamel isn't sure of the veracity of the charges being leveled against Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old Israeli-American law-school student who was arrested June 12 by Egyptian police on charges of espionage. "I didn't see him with my own eyes, so I can't know," Kamel, an auto mechanic, told me as we stood on a sunny sidewalk in the middle class Cairo neighborhood of Mounira. "But if I did see him, I would kill him on the spot."
Kamel's friend sitting nearby, a security guard named Hassan Mahmoud, was more decisive: Grapel is definitely a spy. "There are lots of foreigners trying to destabilize Egypt right now to assure that the revolution fails," Mahmoud said. "But we have the best intelligence in the world."
Who's Who in WikiLeaks
Than Shwe, leader of Burma's military junta and devoted astrologist, is apparently also a soccer fan. A June 2009 cable revealed that Shwe was urged by his grandson to drop $1 billion to buy a majority stake in ownership of English football club Manchester United -- the same amount that the United Nations estimated would pay for the relief effort for 2008's Cyclone Nargis. While some football fans might see the notorious Burmese junta as a natural fit for ownership of United, Shwe opted against the plan, thinking it would "look bad." As an alternative, Shwe ordered the creation of a domestic Burmese football league, forcing businessmen into ownership of teams -- and making them pay for all attendant costs.
Can USAID Be a Force for Good in Egypt?
Five months after a popular uprising put an end to Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year-long reign, Egypt is still a long way from genuine democracy. A military junta runs the country and scores of Mubarak’s cronies continue to hold power in state institutions. Still, many hope that a multiparty liberal democracy is on its way. The United States, which has long had deep interest and involvement in what happens in Cairo, is eager to play a part in this transition.
Washington’s participation has stirred conflict in Egypt’s nascent democratic politics, however. Remnants of the old regime and Islamist groups, and, as of recently, the ruling military council, use the specter of foreign interference to smear liberals and some civil society groups, while NGOs and political groups that receive support from Washington are somewhat uncomfortable about working with a country that was once a pillar of support for the now-deposed dictator. Still, with its civil society crushed for more than 30 years, there may be little other recourse for Egypt.
Sinai: A warzone in waiting
The village of al-Massoura is a huddle of squat, cinderblock huts, set amid grazing sheep, peach orchards and piles of garbage in the sandy hills of the North Sinai region in Egypt. On 5 August, as many as two dozen unidentified militants attacked security forces guarding Egypt’s border with Israel and Gaza there. Sixteen soldiers, who were sitting down to break the Ramadan fast, were killed before the militants stole two armoured cars and raced them toward the Israeli border.
Fighting between security forces and militants has continued since but even before the latest attack, North Sinai felt like a war zone in waiting. Military checkpoints break up the main road along the coast at regular intervals. In the central market in Arish, the provincial capital, tanks guard the police station and major banks. An armoured personnel carrier sits in Arish’s central market, manned by hulking men in balaclavas toting machine guns. In a nearby town, police on motorbikes suspiciously eye men with long beards.
How a Country of Fishermen Lost Its Favorite Fish
On one side is the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye mosque, on the other the iconic Galata Tower. Waiters in Ottoman costume dart back and forth, handing out cups of sour pickles. The smell of grilled fish wafts through the tent, past the low tables; it is being cooked on the boats nearby. Biting into a balik ekmek, a sandwich of oily mackerel filet, chopped onions, and lettuce piled on half a loaf of crusty white bread (the name means "fish bread"), it feels as though there could be no more authentic Istanbul experience than eating this sandwich and watching the boats in the harbor.
Not quite. Although fishing lines dangle over the side of the nearby Galata Bridge, the mackerel arrived in Turkey on a container ship from Norway. Like cod in the Gulf of Maine or tuna off Japan's coasts, the mackerel in the waters of the Black Sea, which borders Turkey to the north, are overfished.
For five days last month, Tahrir Square felt like a war zone, at least to someone who has never been to one. Half of the streetlights had stopped working, probably knocked out by projectiles launched by the riot police, making the side streets dark except for occasional blue flashes from an ambulance. The sound of protesters beating war drums against the sheet metal storefront shutters was pierced intermittently by the whistle . . . crash of fresh tear gas canisters. The tear gas left the thousands of protesters with burning eyes, making the square at times look like a massive, weepy funeral. Motorcycles noisily ferried wounded street fighters away from the battlefront, to the makeshift field hospital set up next to a Hardees. Lines of young men in gas masks or with scarves over their faces marched in the opposite direction, toward the front lines, holding hands and chanting as they readied themselves to reenter the fray of flying Molotov cocktails and rocks and birdshot.
If, like me, you empathize with Egypt’s revolutionaries, the atmosphere was inspiring. Young men were risking and in some cases giving their lives (more than forty died) to defend the revolution stolen from them by the ruling military junta. The fight started when a group of riot police attacked a peaceful sit-in and quickly escalated into a street battle when thousands came to protect Tahrir and fight the Central Security Forces, the black-clad, baton- and shotgun-wielding paramilitary troops of the much-hated Ministry of the Interior. For those five days of fighting, it felt again like the revolution was alive again and that the people were ready to reclaim it from the military.
What the United States Can Learn From Egypt About Democracy
For the last six months, I've visited the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sometimes as a reporter, sometimes as a curious (and, I admit, sympathetic) onlooker. At these demonstrations, men on stages shouted speeches into crackling microphones and crowds chanted anti-military slogans, while all around me, Egyptians of every stripe—poor and wealthy and middle class, Muslim and Christian, leftist and pro-market liberal—engaged in debates about the role of the military in political life or the future of Egypt’s constitution. As I stood there amid the tents, in the heart of downtown Cairo, in the brutal heat of July, in the overwhelming excitement of a continuing revolution, I often thought about politics in the United States, where I was born and raised.
As I watched the debt-ceiling spectacle unfold from almost 6,000 miles away, I was struck by how ossified American democracy appeared and how complacent the public was. Faced with a major crisis that could destroy the U.S. and world economies, Washington lawmakers, ostensibly the bulbs that brighten the beacon of freedom for the whole world, remained, until the last possible minute, deadlocked by partisan acrimony. And this wasn’t the first time. A look back at the major policy debates of the last few years reveals a pattern. Meanwhile, Americans stay largely quiescent. Any potential for creativity, in Washington or on the streets, has been stifled. Our devotion to a two-party system and our obsession with elections have caused us to lose sight of some of the real values of democracy, like open debate and responsive government.
SCAF's Poor Transition Planning to Blame for Egypt's Looming Crisis
The 13 months since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down have been turbulent and chaotic for the country. But it is only now, with a presidential election scheduled to begin in eight weeks and a committee being put in place to write a new constitution, that full-on political crisis seems to be looming.
In recent days, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak resigned and has been overseeing the transition process, has found itself in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood over the powers and responsibilities of the recently elected parliament. At the same time, secular forces are challenging the Islamists’ domination of the constitution-writing process. And a presidential election set to begin in weeks further complicates these dynamics. But what is happening now is not simply a product of the Muslim Brotherhood’s overconfidence, the military’s desire to maintain control or the secularists’ indignation at being marginalized. The timetable set by the SCAF and the inconsistencies of the current military-authored constitution made a messy transition process inevitable.
Egypt's Foreign Policy Shift Could Face Saudi Roadblocks
CAIRO -- Following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt seems poised to pursue a more independent foreign policy in the Middle East. But as Cairo prepares to change course from Mubarak's unblinking adherence to the region's pro-U.S. bloc, Saudi Arabia can be expected to do its best to prevent both the current military leadership and any future civilian government from disrupting the status quo. Riyadh, whose first concern is blocking the expansion of Iranian influence, has an arsenal of political, economic and social tools to keep Egypt in check.
In Egypt, Anger at Military Rulers Fuels Ongoing Protests
An open-ended sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square will enter its seventh day today and may grow larger if calls for another major Friday protest are met. Five months after an 18-day uprising brought down President Hosni Mubarak, a substantial number of Egyptians feel that the pace of change has been too slow to satisfy their revolutionary demands. They are holding major demonstrations in Tahrir Square and around the country, explicitly condemning the ruling military council that took over after Mubarak's resignation and pushing for faster and deeper reforms.
In the week since the latest round of protests began, the interim government -- as well as the military council that appointed it and which most believe holds most of the political power in Egypt -- has been making concessions on a series of important issues to protesters. But following months of piecemeal and insufficient reforms, pro-change Egyptians regard these concessions with skepticism. What will happen next remains uncertain.
After Mubarak's Ouster, Egypt's Days of Revolt Shift to Party of Mass Proportions
Thousands marched to Hosni Mubarak's official residence early this afternoon, their resolve stiffened by the longtime leader's refusal the day before to leave office.
By 5 p.m., field hospitals and tented compounds like those in Tahrir Square had been set up, and the demonstrators were settling in. They didn't wait long. In the early evening, Vice President Omar Suleiman's terse statement announcing Mr. Mubarak's departure filtered through the crowd. They erupted with unbridled joy.
Israel to Allow Soda Into Gaza, But Not Rebuilding Materials
Israel joined Egypt today in easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip amid ongoing international anger over its killing of nine Turkish citizens in a raid on a flotilla seeking to bring aid to Gaza earlier this month.
Israel removed cookies, soda, canned fruit, and other snack foods from the list of goods barred from entry into the impoverished territory, though it maintained its ban on imports of cement and other building materials that Gazans and international aid groups say the territory needs to recover from the pounding it took in Israel's 2008-2009 offensive, which left much of the infrastructure in ruins and destroyed hundreds of homes.
A Worldview at Odds With a Jewish State
Liberal young American Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel. That idea is at the core of the recent essay by Peter Beinart in The New York Review of Books. While Beinart set off a fierce public debate in Jewish circles, one voice has been mostly missing: that of young American Jews like myself.
I have a strong Jewish identity — much stronger than the Jewish identities of my friends from Hebrew school, many of whom no longer have much attachment, if any, to Judaism. I attend services (albeit sporadically), fast on Yom Kippur and keep kosher for Passover. I fully intend to raise my children Jewish. Yet, true to Beinart’s thesis, identification with the State of Israel is not an important part of my identity, and I feel comfortable criticizing Israel when I see its injustices.
US Continues Military Aid to Egypt, But Future Ambiguous
The US government announced last Friday that it would give the Egyptian military US$1.3 billion in aid for the 2012 fiscal year, just as it has every year for past 33. The news follows a contestation of this habit by Congress, which could have led to revisiting aid to Egypt.
After last winter’s uprising and the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), US lawmakers said that before dispensing any aid, they would require the State Department to affirm that the Egyptian government has made progress on human rights, an area where the ruling junta has largely fallen below the international standards. Though the State Department initially agreed to report back to Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that they would instead waive the requirement on “national security” grounds.
The decision demonstrates the intersection between US regional interests, some of its domestic concerns, and a still fluid policy in Washington. But with the future of Egypt’s government far from certain and many lawmakers questioning the decision, the once “untouchable” $1.3 billion that benefits Egyptian generals and US defense contractors may still be in jeopardy in the future as policy makers in Washington struggle to re-calibrate their policies for a newly unfamiliar Egypt.
A Year in Review: Unfinished Business
Since the first Day of Revolt on 25 January, developments in Egypt have moved at a dizzying pace. There have been three cabinets, four major clashes, dozens of protests, scores of new political parties, countless propositions for the transition period and an equal number of reform initiatives. With everything moving at this breakneck speed it’s been difficult to keep up and, inevitably, some major issues have fallen out of the public consciousness and the news cycle.
As we review 2011 and prepare for 2012, Egypt Independent is taking a minute to look back at the major developments that haven’t gone anywhere.
In New York, Controversy Over 'Ground Zero Mosque'
New York City—The Corinthian columns and Italianate architecture of 45-47 Park Place in Lower Manhattan were the topic of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission’s meeting here on Tuesday, but they were not the reason the meeting was packed. The address, currently occupied by a modest mid-19th century building, is slated to be the future home of what has come to be known as the “ground zero mosque.”
The commission voted unanimously not to give 45-47 Park Place landmark status and in doing so cleared one of the final obstacles to building a mosque and Islamic community center just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
Celebrating Police (State) Day in Egypt
Today Egyptians around the country have off from work and school in recognition of a new national holiday: Police Day. The Mubarak regime, it seems, has a sense of humor after all.
Or maybe it’s not meant to be ironic. Police play a crucial role in this country, which is, for all intents and purposes, a police state. The government wants to celebrate the police for making Egypt the country that it is today.
Egypt's Great Hash Crisis of 2010
The biggest news on people’s minds in Egypt is not last week’s pro-democracy demonstrations in front of parliament during which some 90 people were arrested. It’s not Mohamed ElBaradei’s shakeup of the political scene. It’s not the president’s health, which remains ambiguous. It’s not even spiraling meat prices.
The biggest topic of conversation here in Egypt is the disappearance of hashish from the local market, a shortage that has become known, at least in some quarters, as “the hash crisis.”
In many ways Egypt is a very conservative Muslim society. But that doesn’t mean people don’t love to get stoned.