Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category
New York- As the faux caliphate referring to itself as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic State) continues to smash the shared human heritage of Iraq and Syria, the world watches in revulsion with no strategy to halt it. The threat posed by salafi-jihadis to precious sites is nothing new unfortunately. In 2012 and early 2013, a jihadi outfit in northern Mali called Ansar Dine destroyed Sufi shrines and graves to prevent any form of veneration that they believed diverged from the purest monotheism. These groups style themselves as purifying movements that are merely carrying out the will of god as if they have no choice in cultural destruction. The demolition of nodes of Sufi culture in Libya has also been taking place but to far less condemnation globally as it is categorized as sectarian strife for which the outside world has no authority to judge as it doesn’t retain the Sunni jurisprudence of a particular ulama. The head of UNESCO or President Obama condemning a particular act carries no weight among the militants. It likely only further emboldens them.
Egypt, with its plethora of what seems like the world’s most famous ancient sites per square kilometer from the Sudanese border to Cairo, has been spared the large scale devastation occurring elsewhere in the region. Terrorism in Egypt has concentrated on mass casualty attacks on places frequented by Israelis or presently on security forces, most often in the Sinai peninsula.Egypt’s hulking monuments owing the pharaonic period have survived the erosion of time, vandalism eons ago by Islamists (possibly), and hordes of tourists for countless decades. When priceless monuments have been wrecked by salafis in recent years, or Deobandis in the case of the Bamian buddhas, they are attempting to erase the complexity of the lands they temporarily control. Their use of the internet to disseminate these acts is entirely hypocritical but one can be sure they have cherry picked a way to justify doing so.
When I visited the magnificent ruins of Cyrene while taking a break from covering the war in Libya in 2011, they were totally unprotected. I doubt this has changed significantly if at all. Naively, I viewed Libya’s past as being a possible key to its post-Qaddafi future. With places like Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha situated not far from sprawling beaches, Libya could’ve theoretically developed a nascent tourist industry just south of the EU. Instead, Libya is mired in a factional, fratricidal war with no effective legitimate government. At present these spellbinding sites are under threat. With Cyrene’s proximity to Derna, it may be first on the list.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is this concept that somehow the plight of human lives and historic places are in some twisted competition for the world’s attention. This is an immense oversimplification of international affairs. It is framed as if the world community has to choose between UNESCO or UNHCR. All these challenges must be met simultaneously. The idea of the issues are somehow at moral parity is offensive to some but the two priorities really aren’t in any acutual competition. Most of this perception comes from media’s emphasis of events.
The ruins of the ancient world have the capacity to surpass the petty politics that isolate and entrap us in the present. These ancient marvels can bridge an understanding that predates our present impasses. Therein lies their intrinsic value to all humankind.
New York- How did we get here? This is what you may be wondering with the news today that a group of 21 Egyptian Copts were mass beheaded in an unspecified area of coastal Tripolitania by salafi-jihadis in Libya that pledged bayah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State a continent away. Like my recent post on the revolution lost in Syria to anti-everything elements, Libya was a place in 2011 that, while incredibly dangerous, welcomed journalists in droves.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the Tunis and Tahrir revolutions ushered in a new wave of journalist wunderkinds, several of whom are today well established while still not yet 30. Now Libya is a hostile place across the board riven by parallel governments concomitantly claiming to be the legitimate rulers while salafis move in and operate freely. I would perhaps return to Libya, but with far greater caution than during my trips in 2011.
With the news of the Copts’ execution, there may be am even larger state actor moving into the fray. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has stated that Cairo has the right to “retaliate” in what would transparently be an act of revenge..if Egyptian security forces could discern who carried out the executions. The Egyptian air force, along with that of the UAE, already carried out bombing runs last August to smash Islamist weapons caches in and around Tripoli to no avail.
Egypt has been deeply intertwined in the Libyan remittance economy for decades. I recall speaking to my uncle in Heliopolis in March 2011 who had been a geologist for the Libyan petroleum industry in the first half of the 1970s. He described lightly-populated Libya as a migrant worker “colony” of the Nile Valley dwellers who left their densely people region to send much needed cash home to their families in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
The gruesome IS video reportedly alludes to “Rome” in the context of the medievally framed apocalyptic prophecy regarding the village of Dabiq in Aleppo Governorate. In IS propaganda, Rome symbolizes the West as a whole, the lands of ancient Christendom, and frankly anyone deemed kufr in IS’s takfiri thought world. The group has tightly shrouded itself in the mantle of the Judgement Day speak as part of its purported belief to be defending the prophet and the ummah as a whole. A battle for the town of Dabiq would spark the ushering in of the end of days in which Constantinople and Rome would fall to ‘the Muslims’ (orthodox Sunnis only).
Seeing as Libya was part of ancient Rome (see Cyrene and Leptis Magna), and in the early twentieth century the Italians colonized Libya, their reference to being “south of Rome” is duly a calculated one meant to get Libyans themselves onto their agenda. Should Egypt formally enter the battle for Libya, it will likely only complicate that mess further. The Egyptian state is struggling in Sinai these days with regular attacks on the military there demonstrating the lack of knowledge of the physical and human geography on the Peninsula. I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to have the Egyptians expand their failing war on terror into their western neighbor. For the Coptic hostages, it is too late.
New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.
These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.
Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’
At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.
Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”
New York- Three years ago today a bloody revolution kicked off in earnest in Benghazi, Libya which ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, longest dictatorial regime in post-colonial Africa surpassing even that of Omar Bongo in Gabon who ruled that country for 41.5 years. The locals referred to the happening as the “February 17th revolution.” I’ll never forget the fortitude of the Libyan people in the face of immense, violent repression.
Here are a few selected images from that time.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
Addis Ababa- Crashed the African Union HQ here in Addis yesterday to do research on my next Jamestown article. Absolutely fascinating, rather quiet place. I just showed up at the front gate, which took me a bit to locate, handed them my California driver’s license which got me a visitor badge, and walked in and wandered around. I was looking for information on a certain volatile political situation in the region and stumbled into the AU’s Situation Room, a fascinating office with a large flatscreen monitor with live news feeds from all over the continent (and these days that’s a lot of information). But what was most notable was the glittering, massive new AU complex being constructed by the Chinese government in the neighboring lot. It was as if the Jamestown Foundation’s China in Africa conference had suddenly sprung to life.
After working on my story at the AU-and an AU representative telling me the Chinese were unrelenting in their pursuit of primacy in not only Ethiopia but in all of Africa-it became blatantly obvious that anywhere where the political space allowed them, the Chinese were ready to move in overnight. I snooped around a sprawling construction site that cast wide shadows over corrugated aluminum shanties. It felt like I was breathing in some globalization cliché but it was all too visceral. It looked to be a hideously cheap structure that was being built at a breakneck pace. Progress at any cost looks to be the Chinese model here in the Horn of Africa. Click here for a bit of Chinese propaganda on the whole operation.
In other TWD news, my last three destinations have not cooled off in the slightest. The Bahraini government grabbed another human rights activist in a night raid. Back in Cairo, the Egyptian army showed it is not as benevolent as many had thought as they raged during renewed protests calling for Mubarak and family to be tried. And in Libya, a group of journos, including a gal from Harvard I had socialized with on a few occasions, were captured by Qaddafist forces outside of Brega. Hope to god they are ok. Damn dangerous there. The fuse continues to burn. I’m off to Lalibela to explore the 12th century rock churches and expect to hassled by an army of touts. Should be fun. Been wanting to go there for about a decade.
Cairo- I had one of those accidentally fantastic days in Cairo today. Spent most of the day lazing around Zamalek, shot a few phot’s of some killer post-revolutionary street murals, and all I ate were two heaping bowls of mega tasty kushari– Egypt’s national veg dish. One thing I have to say about Egypt is it is so easy to eat vegetarian here, especially when compared to Libya’s obsession with chicken. I’m a bit psyched that my Khalifa Haftar story which went out yesterday seems to have gotten some legs. Reuters did a story on my article today-Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe–think-tank as did The Telegraph–Libya: rebels send trained forces to the front, telling youth to stay back-(which I’m guessing picked up on the Reuters story) and I just concluded an interview with CNN down in Atlanta.
I did a funky trip out to Giza tonight and the local fellaheen were a bit freaked out my my unorthodox ways. I ended up tramping around this slum in the dark, pitch black, muddy, horse crap littered warrens full of the classic “hello mister” routine. The Egyptian government or maybe antiquities authority has built this gigantic separation wall cutting the slum off from the pyramids which I definitely do not remember on my last trip to Cairo in 1998. I felt like I was walking through the West Bank without the bifurcated olive groves and hundreds of cats crawling through mountains of rubbish instead. After a while I finally made it to the gate just in time to catch the French version of the sound & light show with a group of aged French couples. It was incredible. I expected some 1970s time warp laser show experience, and while there were vestiges of that, the whole deal was really well put together. One of those long, tiring days to where I wish I was not leaving tomorrow. But off to little Bahrain I go en route to Addis Ababa. More adventures before heading home and doing the Massachusetts Avenue shuffle in a few weeks. I’m starting to really like Cairo. Just wish the hotels were a bit better.
In this issue:
• Yemen’s Recently Defected General Ali Muhsin by Michael Horton
• Yemen’s Shayhk Zindani by Andrew McGregor
• Three Top Shia Militia Leaders/Political Operatives in Southern Iraq by Rafid Fadhil Ali
• The New-From Way Back-Military Commander of Libya’s Rebels, Khalifa Haftar by myself.
In other TWD news, I rode the train from Alexandria to Cairo today with a photojournalist from the EU that I’d met in Libya a few weeks back who has spent loads of time in Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus since the 1990s. I asked him what on earth ever happened to the Renny Harlin film I saw being shot in Gori in October 2009 (“Hollywood Comes to Gori”) while we were trading stories about Saakashvilli-stan. He told me that film, initially titled simply Georgia was now completed and was going to come out as Five Days of August. He described how he ended up playing himself in the film and gave me the lowdown on getting an Abkhaz ‘visa‘ and informed me that it’s possible to cross from Zugdidi to Sukhumi, something I was unaware of following the 2008 war-I thought it was probably now only possible from Sochi. He gave me some insight into director Renny Harlin’s motivation to make the film which sounded like it had something to do with growing up in Finland as a Cold War frontline state and the bitter legacy of the 1939-1940 ‘Winter War‘ between the Soviet Union and Finland. Good times. Here is the trailer:
In other utterly random Hollywood TWD crossover news, a cool Dutchman who I was hanging out with at the weird al-Wahat journo hotel in Benghazi named Harald Doorbos had a movie made about his adventures in the Balkans back in the day chasing the ghost of Radovan Karadzic called The Hunting Party that starred Richard Gere and Terrence Howard. Here is the trailer for that: