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Syria: The end of the beginning?

July 18th, 2012 Comments off

Paul Mutter sends in a round-up of today’s momentous news from Syria.

The “Free Syrian Army” has claimed responsibility for a stunning attack on the Assad regime’s inner circle in Damascus. The heretofore unknown organization “Liwa al-Islam” claimed one of its suicide bombers had been responsible, but spokespeople from the FSA countered that they had infiltrated the secure compound where the meeting was held month prior to today and planted bombs there with this meeting in mind. The regime asserts that it was a suicide bombing by “hireling tools that are implementing foreign plots.”

Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat were reportedly killed, along with one of Assad’s top aides. Former Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani was also reportedly killed. Hisham Bekhtyar, head of the General Security Directorate, and the Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar were said to be injured as well (rumors additional top officials’ deaths are swirling around, as are ones that Bashar al-Assad himself was caught in the blast).

What the regime must be really worried about now is that if members of the FSA did carry out the attack as they claim, then it strongly suggests that there were defectors inside the regime’s inner circle who made the bombing happen. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FSA is claiming unnamed members of the Republican Guard Division as accomplices (the Guard is led by Assad’s brother, Maher).

Assad’s clique is no stranger to such internal paranoia – they came to power in a coup, the Muslim Brotherhood targeted Ba’athist Party members in the 70s and 80s, and Bashar’s father stood down an abortive 1984 coup by his brother Rifaat – but the increase in ranking defections this summer, most notably of Manaf Tlass, a general whose father was Syria’s Defense Minister from 1972 to 2002. He is now believed to be hiding in France after defecting earlier this month.

This attack is significant from the rebels’ and the regime’s perspective because of the casualty list and where it occurred. The message is that Assad’s inner circle is not safe, and that inner circle is what keeps Assad himself in power (of course, larger factors, like “Alawite preference” and Russian backing, keep the inner circle in power).

Rula Amin of Al Jazeera reports that there is “[a]nxiety in Damascus as people anticipate a strong govt reaction against the armed rebels on the ground.” Syrian activists report that heavy weapons and Alawite militias have been deployed inside Damascus, and that the Syrian Army is withdrawing forces from the Golan to reinforce Damascus. Demonstrations are taking place in Damascene neighborhoods, as are firefights, and access in and out of the city has reportedly been severely restricted.

There is indeed reason to fear that this attack will lead to reprisals. In the regime’s collective mind, this simply cannot go unanswered. A major new military push against the rebels, if it occurred, could be damaging to them if in their recent push towards Damascus they are stretching their forces too thin.

A reoccupation of areas outside Damascus by the Syrian Army and the paramilitary shabbiha would harm the rebels in the short term, and be deadly for civilians judged to have been helping the rebels. But if they are able to continue holding their gains, such heavy-handedness will benefit the armed opposition in the same way that the depredations of anti-partisan brigades in other wars have undermined an occupying army’s position. Even if the partisans’ movement among the civilian population brings down the hammer on noncombatants, it is precisely because the violence of the “counterinsurgency” strategy pursued – in the Syrian village of Tremesh, for instance – that the partisans’ legitimacy grows in these communities.

Eventually, when such forces become strong enough, it is possible that they can hold back the anti-partisan brigades and protect their operational areas better – in Syria’s case, especially so if defections increase. If this were to happen on a wider scale following the assassinations and fighting in Damascus, the regime would be severely embarrassed. What the regime would do then is difficult to determine. There is talk of a regime retreat to the coastal plain if the army becomes too strained to hold onto the Sunni-dominated inland. Others hope that a decisive moment is coming in Damascus, while less optimistic observers believe this is not a turning point but another indicator that Syria is in for a long, ever-worsening internal conflict along the lines of the 1976-82 conflict.



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Muslim Brotherhood on sectarianism

July 18th, 2012 Comments off
Listening to a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood type talking about sectarianism of the Syrian regime is like listening to George W. Bush talking against war.  

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Egypt’s president meets Palestinian counterpart

July 18th, 2012 Comments off

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Maliki, left, negotiator Saeb Erakat, second left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, right, at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)Egypt's new president hosted the Western-backed Palestinian president Wednesday, avoiding preferential treatment toward the rival Hamas, the Gaza branch of his own Muslim Brotherhood.

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As the Ramadan TV Series Season Approaches, Anticipation and Controversy

July 18th, 2012 Comments off

Ramadan starts Friday, and with it comes the much anticipated Ramadan TV season for this year. Historically the Muslim month of fasting is a time for families reading the Qur’an, one-thirtieth per night for a month, and holding family gatherings after iftar, the moment of breaking the fast after sunset. Fotr the past thirty years or so, it has also been a time for watching soap operas that run nightly for a month, or musical extravaganzas known as fawazir Ramadan or Ramadan puzzles, because they include riddles for the audience to solve.

Each year, the Ramadan offerings are a matter of anticipation. Egyptian and Lebanese production companies produce most of them, but Syrian soap operas hit it big a few years ago, and Turkish soap operas in translation are also popular.

Since many of the soap operas focus on sexual or other taboo themes to ensure ratings (though others have pious religious themes), and many of the musicals involve singing, dancing, and scanty clothing, many Islamists do not consider them appropriate Ramadan fare. Some social scientists have dubbed the fawazir and soap operas the “Christmas-ization” of Ramadan.

Well, it’s almost time again, so we’re seeing lots of talk about the new “season” of Ramadan TV. Here, for example, is a preview of Lebanon’s TV offerings this Ramadan; while this report from Al-Arabiya speculates on whether the rise in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will deter that country’s usual enthusiasm about Ramadan offerings.  Meanwhile, there’s a Gulf effort on Twitter to promote a boycotting of the Ramadan shows,

And of course, it wouldn’t be Ramadan without controversy over at least one show, and celebrity gossip about the stars.

In the first category, a series called ‘Umar al-Faruq, dealing with the second Muslim Caliph, and therefore involving portrayals of many of the most prominent companions of the Prophet, has aroused the ire of Islamists and religious conservatives who oppose the portrayal of any religious figures. The program, produced by Middle East Broadcasting and expected to be aired in most Arab countries and Turkey, has come under fire in Saudi Arabia, where Prince Abdel Aziz bin Fahd, son of the late King Fahd and with an interest in MBC, has warned:

“I swear to God that I disown and distance myself from MBC’s work, especially Umar Al Farooq.I will do my best to stop this series.Qatar must accept God’s will otherwise, we will go to court,” he told Saudi newspapers.

God’s will or the lawyers.

And then there is the celebrity news, since Lebanese singer and Superstar Celebrity Diva Haifa Wehbe announced she was pulling out of her anticipated series because there was insufficient time to complete production before Ramadan due to production delays. The plot sounds fairly typical:

A Cinderella-like tale, Haifa initially plays a poor woman who earns a living on the streets by dancing for passersby. Her character’s fortune changes, however, after an encounter with a wealthy man who falls deeply in love and seeks her hand in marriage.
At some stage during the show, Daher told The Daily Star, Haifa’s character is thrown in jail on false charges fabricated by members of her lover’s family.

Wehbe, not in Cinderella character

Haifa Wehbe (left), who tends to be known, in addition to her singing,  for her frequent display of her generous cleavage, certainly seems ideally suited to the role of a poor Cinderella type. But she ably provides the celebrity gossip quotient for this year’s Ramadan series run-up.


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US Official: "No secret deal with the Muslim Brotherhood!"

July 18th, 2012 Comments off

“…Furthermore, she said the US had made no secret deals with anybody, despite claims in the Egyptian media that the US had backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the presidential election…
Youssef also expressed his fear that Egypt was turning into another Pakistan: “It is similar to the situation [in Pakistan] whereby the US supports the military and the Islamist government at the same time…”



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Ashour on why Libya’s Islamists lost

July 17th, 2012 Comments off

Omar Ashour as a new column up at Project Syndicate explaining Libyan Islamists’ defeat at the hands of a wide-ranging ranging coalition of liberals, independents, conservatives, and, well, almost everyone who was not a self-described Islamist.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what happened to the Islamists? They spearheaded the opposition to Qaddafi, were advised by their Tunisian and Egyptian brethren, and larded their rhetoric with religious symbolism in a conservative Muslim country. For many, however, this was not enough.

A striking difference between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, on the one hand, and Libya’s Islamists on the other is the level of institutionalization and interaction with the masses. In Qaddafi’s four decades in power, Libya’s Islamists could not build local support networks; develop organizational structures, hierarchies, or institutions; or create a parallel system of clinics and social services, as their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan were able to do.

As a result, Libya’s Islamists could not unite in a coalition as large as that of Mahmoud Jibril, the former prime minister under the National Transitional Council, who heads the NFC. Instead, their votes were divided between several parties, six of which are significant.

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990’s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighborhood at the time) and Qaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organizations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990’s harmed Islamists of all brands.

Also see: Analysis: Elections in Libya —the surprises | Libya Herald



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Hamas seeks new Gaza policy from Egypt

July 16th, 2012 Comments off

FILE - In a Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 file photograph, Palestinians wait next to their luggage to leave on a bus from Gaza City to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing. Egypt's new president holds the key to blockaded Gaza, but is signaling that he won't rush to the aid of fellow Islamists from Hamas who rule the territory wedged between Egypt and Israel. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)Egypt's new president holds the key to blockaded Gaza, but he is signaling that he won't rush to help the territory's Hamas rulers by striking a border deal with them, even though they are fellow members of the region's Muslim Brotherhood.

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This picture is circulating by Egyptians

July 15th, 2012 Comments off

It shows two contrasting pictures: the one below is “days of Mubarak” and its shows Muslim Brotherhood leaders calling for the expulsion of the US and Israeli ambassadors from Egypt.  The one above is from “the days of the Supreme Guide [of the Muslim Brotherhood]”.

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Morsi Reaffirms Israel Peace Treaty to Clinton

July 15th, 2012 Comments off

The establishment press in Egypt, al-Ahram (“The Pyramids”), reported cautiously on the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi (from the Muslim Brotherhood party).

1. It noted that Clinton affirmed the US desire that the Egyptian military go to its barracks and leave elected civilians in charge.

2. It said that she likened Egypt’s transition from authoritarian governance to democracy to earlier such transitions in East Asia and Latin America.

3. Clinton reaffirmed the US intention to forgive $1 billion of Egyptian debt.

4. She also spoke of $250 million in aid.

5. She promised to send American businessmen to explore new investments in the Egyptian economy.

6. She said that the current constitutional crisis over the Supreme Administrative Court’s and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’s dismissals of the elected parliament, and Morsi’s attempt to reinstate it, was a matter of internal Egyptian politics in which the US would not interfere.

The interim Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Muhammad Kamil Amr, said that President Morsi had affirmed to him a commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, as well as to an on-going peace process that should end with a two-state solution with 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital, and statehood for the Palestinians. This statement from Amr is the first explicit delineation of Morsi’s exact position on the Camp David accords with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which he springs, has been scathingly critical of Camp David for decades, seeing it as a means of neutralizing Egypt and allowing the Israelis to expropriate the Palestinians at will.

Unfortunately, this position would have been reasonable in the 1990s. Now, rapid Israeli colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has probably made a two-state solution impossible, and Israel’s far rightwing leadership will see Morsi’s position as “radical” and unacceptable. The Likud government is firmly committed to expanding the number of Israeli squatters on Palestinian land, which Morsi opposes.

Meanwhile, there were two demonstrations against Clinton’s visit. Some Coptic Christians demonstrated at the Presidential Palace, complaining of US intervention in Egypt and of Western attempts to use Coptic Chrisitans as a pretext to interfere in Egyptian affairs. I presume that these are Christian leftists.

There was also a demonstration in front of the US embassy, which demanded the release of prisoners held at Guantanamo. I presume these demonstrators included member of the Gama’a al-Islamiya or Islamic Grouping, and perhaps Salafis.

Clinton said that in a democracy we are used to people exercising their right to demonstration.

On Sunday, Sec. Clinton meets with Gen. Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of SCAF and the ultimate power in Egypt. The US says it is pressuring Tantawi to leave the political domain to the politicians.

Ironically, some Egyptians, and perhaps including the officer corps, have a strange conspiracy theory that the US wanted to install the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt. I can’t tell you how wrong this theory is. The US had no leverage in Egypt, and largely let things take their course, though they may have strong-armed the Egyptian army into not shooting civilians down in the streets. The US would have prefered that Mubarak’s gang remain in power, but can work with a moderate fundamentalist.

The US just wants a few things from Egypt: Keeping trade flowing through the Red Sea and Suez Canal; the security of Israel; the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States… (Did I say, ‘the security of Israel?)

The problem for the US will not be that Morsi wants to abrogate Camp David. It will be that he wants to implement it, along with the framework President Jimmy Carter thought essential to it, of peace with the Palestinians. The far rightwing Israeli government has abandoned Camp David and Oslo in favor of exuberant expansionism and the permanent denial of statehood to the Palestinians. The US secretly supports Israel’s most outrageous stances, which will make trouble for relations with Cairo if the Brotherhood manages to get real power.

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A Subtle Saudi Message About Morsi and the MB?

July 13th, 2012 Comments off

I already commented on the questionable timing and choice of destination of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s first trip abroad, since the visit to Saudi Arabia might fuel complaints that the Muslim Brotherhood is under Saudi influence.

I’m a few days late in noticing the Saudis are helping that impression along on their own: the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat ran a major story (image above left) on the history of relations between the Kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood. The story is in Arabic at the link, but let’s take a closer look at the photo (from 1936) that they chose to illustrate it:

Why yes, that (the man in the fez) is the late Hasan al-Banna, Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, bowing and kissing the hand of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, the man called “Ibn Saud” in the West, the founder of Saudi Arabia and father of all Saudi Kings down to the present time, including King ‘Abdullah, who has welcomed President Morsi, follower of Banna, to Egypt.

No subtle messages there? Or perhaps not so subtle?


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