Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Nobel Laureate dies

Naguib Mahfouz, the only Egyptian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died today at age 94. His contributions to literature have been widely remarked upon; his contributions to civil society, and as a result to human rights, have been less so.

Mahfouz wrote about the ordinary Egyptian, creating characters who went through the troubled times of the modern world with dignity, even as they made mistakes. Many other writers followed in his wake; indeed he himself created no new ground.

What does this mean for a country caught between authoritarian rule and an opposition marked in part by a extremist ideology too often given to violence? A country where Naguib Mahfouz can thrive is a place where a third option can take root. A country that can celebrate his celebration of ordinary Egyptians is a place where the experiences of others can affect individuals and broaden their own experiences. It is a country where human rights can be given a place of honor.

Mahfouz of course embodied this in his own life. Cautious about making political statements, he nevertheless believed in remaining true to his literature, and that inevitably drew him into the conflict that Egypt now faces. He didn't turn away from that conflict, and nearly paid for it with his life. Others, such as Faraq Foda, weren't as lucky. He received criticism for not being more political or, from some, for getting too close to the Mubarak regime. But in times such as these, a literature of the ordinary is a political act. He refused to submit to narrow and prefabricated ideas of life. Mahfouz sought to express truths that come out of actual experience, to create a social space where people are allowed and encouraged to follow their imagination. That is one important definition of freedom. Inevitably in times such as these, that becomes not just a political act, but a revolutionary one.

Here is the Washington Post story on his death.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Webcast on Israel/Lebanon

Find out what Amnesty International researchers found out when they visited northern Israel and Lebanon earlier this month as part of an AI mission. AI will sponsor a webcast on Monday, August 28th at 12:00 p.m. EDT with AIUSA's Country Specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority Marty Rosenbluth, who traveled to northern Israel earlier this month as part of the mission. To ask a question in advance or to follow the webcast on the 28th, click here.

Amnesty International today released a report declaring that "Israel's destruction of thousands of homes, strikes on numerous bridges and roads as well as water and fuel storage plants was an integral part of Israel's military strategy in Lebanon, rather than "collateral damage" resulting from the lawful targeting of military objectives." For the full report, click here.

A separate report investigating Hezbollah is expected shortly.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Saad Ibrahim on the 'rough birth of democracy' in the Middle East

A valuable article appears today in the Washington Post by former prisoner of conscience and long-time democracy activist Saad Ibrahim. Here's the full link.

As usual, Professor Ibrahim assesses the current situation with a balanced, nuanced and penetrating perspective. While he praises the Bush administration for its pro-democracy rhetoric, he is sharp in his criticism of them for actions that undermine the rhetoric and for pulling back when democracy leads to the election of people they don't like. While he admits the Israelis have been provoked, he also is sharp for their military response as undermining the future of democracy, which is the one and true hope for long-term peace and stability in the region.

Ibrahim also notes that the alleged turn to radical Islam in the Arab world, which frightens so many in the West, is more complicated. Pointing to public opinion surveys, he notes that none of the Arab government leaders enjoy anything resembling popular support. He concludes with an important message:

"The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be autocratic, corrupt and inept. They are, at best, ambivalent about the fanatical Islamists of the bin Laden variety. More mainstream Islamists with broad support, developed civic dispositions and services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These groups, parties and movements are not inimical to democracy. They have accepted electoral systems and practiced electoral politics, probably too well for Washington's taste. Whether we like it or not, these are the facts. The rest of the Western world must come to grips with the new reality, even if the U.S. president and his secretary of state continue to reject the new offspring of their own policies."

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Strike against Press Freedom

Imagine you are a journalist working for the New York Times and you are working on an international story. You want to check out what foreign papers are saying on the topic, so you start a search to find .... nothing.

That's what's happening at one of the biggest newspapers in Egypt. A recent report indicates that the pro-government al-Ahram paper installed a filter to block many news and web sites from its internal network. That network serves nearly 15,000 staffers, including some 2,000 journalists. One of the sites blocked is, which powers this blog and several other ones on Egypt.

For more, click here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Reports from Israel and Lebanon

Amnesty's research team is reporting back from Lebanon and Israel on the current conflict. Their initial findings are reported regularly on a special blog set up. You can read it here.

The one thing that strikes me is how similar both stories are. Civilians on both sides are taking the brunt of the casualties. The death toll is higher on the Lebanon side, but the bottom line is that both sides are bringing the full brunt of their military weight against civilians and it has to stop. The focus on international efforts now has to be on protecting civilians.

In that regard, the sale of cluster bombs to Israel is the exact wrong thing to be doing at this time. In a letter to President Bush, AIUSA Executive Director Larry Cox states the well-documented fact that "cluster bombs present a high risk of violating the international humanitarian law prohibition on indiscriminate attacks." Cluster bombs inevitably bring a higher civilan toll. They are not a weapon to use by an army concerned about keeping to the laws of war and reducing civilian casualties. Their sale has once before been cut off to Israel because of these concerns.

At the same time, Amnesty is likewise concerned about the supply of armaments to Hezbollah and the continued attacks against Israeli citizens. These have to be condemned in the strongest terms.

The cease-fire is a good step. My own expectation, however is low. I'm guessing there will be provocation by Hezbollah, but one that is small in nature. The question will be, as it was at in the beginning of the conflict, how should the Israelis act. My argument continues to be is that this conflict is strengthening Hezbollah and that peace will be worth keeping over such provocations.