The Sudanese democracy demonstrators were the first to protest at Saudi Arabia’s interference in their revolution. We all knew that the Saudis and the Emiratis had been funnelling millions of dollars into the regime of Omar al-Bashir, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and now chucked out of power by a Sisi-like military cabal. But it was the sit-in protesters who first thought up the slogan: “We do not want Saudi aid even if we have to eat beans and falafel!”
It was shouted, of course, along with the more familiar chants of ‘revolution of the people”.
Few noticed this little development – save, to give it credit, The Washington Post – but the dozens of waterlogged bodies being dragged from the Nile should focus our attention on the support which the Emiratis and especially the Saudis are now lavishing upon the pseudo-transitional military government in Sudan.
Two very different political waves are sweeping through the
Middle East and north Africa. Popular protests are overthrowing the
leaders of military regimes for the first time since the failed Arab
Spring of 2011. At the same time, dictators are seeking to further
monopolise power by killing, jailing or intimidating opponents who want
personal and national liberty.
Dictators in Sudan and Algeria, who between them had held power
for 50 years, were driven from office in the space of a single month in
April, though the regimes they headed are still there. The ousting of
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, now under arrest, came after 16 weeks
of protests. Hundreds of thousands continue to demonstrate, chanting
“civilian rule, civilian rule” and “we will remain in the street until
power is handed over to civilian authority”.
The protesters are conscious of one of the “what not to do” lessons of 2011, when mass demonstrations in Egypt got rid of President Hosni Mubarak, only to see him replaced two years later by an even more authoritarian dictatorship led by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. A referendum is to be held over three days from this Saturday on constitutional amendments that will enable el-Sisi to stay in power until 2030.
Ivanka Trump, daughter of the US president and wife of Middle East “expert” Jared Kushner
– he who has supposedly produced a Middle East “peace plan” to be
revealed after Benjamin Netanyahu wins the Israeli elections – has just
given her support to a regime which has locked up women political
prisoners, “disappeared” others, and whose army forcibly carried out
virginity tests on female protesters during the Tahrir Square
revolution. Well, what more do you expect from the Trump menagerie?
Her tweeted praise, encouragement and support went to Egypt – and especially to its president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who gained a presidential victory last year with the support of 97.08 per cent of the Egyptian electorate. Ivanka obviously drew the necessary conclusions: this was a free and fair election and showed only how much President Sisi’s people loved him after his military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013. By extraordinary chance, the very same Sisi (just four days after Ivanka’s tweet) is in Washington today – yes, today: Tuesday – to meet with her father, Donald Trump.
It was comical, farcical, droll. An actor’s dream if you were going
to put the drama on stage or screen – but the three principal characters
were actors themselves. The lead player, as usual in Egypt, was His Excellency Field Marshal President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
and the theme of this theatrical production was an old and familiar
one: the power of trade unions and the fear of real revolution.
But we’ll start with the latest act, virtually ignored in the
West where freedom of speech, workers’ rights and liberty are
“precious”, “sacrosanct”, “close to our hearts”. This week, two
prominent Egyptian actors, Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga, were expelled
from the government-controlled Egyptian actors’ union for “treachery”.
They were condemned for “betraying the nation” and working for “the
agenda of conspirators against Egypt’s security and stability”. The head
of the union told AFP that the two men “will no longer be allowed to
act in Egypt”.
Although Waked won the best actor award at the Dubai film festival five years ago and starred in Syriana with George Clooney, the starring performance of both men came last Monday when they used the platform of a US congressional hearing to condemn the worsening human rights situation in Egypt and the extraordinary legislation which may allow Sisi to stay in power until 2034.
Suakin sits along Sudan’s Red Sea coast, a small grouping of faded
buildings and historical ruins containing a proud fishing community. The
town is a coastal village and the main attraction is the ancient
ruins—some dating back to the fifteenth century—as well as the outer
shell of a British fort that persists as a symbol of Sudan’s colonial
past. In its prime, Suakin was a key transit point for African Muslims
on the pilgrimage to Mecca, but with the advent of air travel the town
has fallen from prominence, an abandonment only made worse by the
collapse of Sudan’s tourist industry.
Yet in January
2018, Suakin was at the center of a rapid deterioration of diplomatic
relations between Sudan and its northern neighbor Egypt, triggering talk
of possible war between the two nations. In December 2017 Turkish
President Recep Erdoğan visited Suakin ostensibly to inspect the
large-scale restoration of the historical town financed by the Turkish
government. Then a few weeks later, in January 2018, Erdoğan returned to
Sudan to sign among many other agreements, a deal to hand over Suakin
to Turkey altogether—just for tourism, both governments maintain—which
Sudan’s neighbors have interpreted as an act of aggression.
The situation in Suakin is emblematic of increasingly complicated geopolitical relations in Africa’s northeast corner. From Egypt to Tanzania, decades of political ambivalence around unsettled borders, access to the sea, and ambiguous agreements about the waters of the Nile are flaring up. Much of this tension is left over from Britain’s colonial history in the region, but some is entirely new, aggravated by simmering conflicts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. There are also centuries of connection between the various states as well as internal realignments that complicate the situation further.
There’s water in the basement. The doors and windows of the apartment
no longer shut properly. For many months of the year the road outside
the tower block in the Abu Qir neighbourhood of Alexandria is covered in
a thick brown sludge.
Egypt’s second city, with a population of more than five million, is sinking.
The sprawling coastal metropolis, renowned as one of the world’s most ancient and venerable ports, is under attack from both the sea and from the land.
“Egypt is a gift of the Nile!” Schoolchildren the world over who have studied the history of the Pharaohs know that quote from the great Greek historian and traveler Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC. In the century before the birth of Christ, the Latin poet Albius Tibullus paid tribute to the river, for “along thy bank not any prayer is made to Jove for fruitful showers. On thee they call!”1 And yet this thousand-year-old blessing is under threat and in Cairo, specialists and civil servants alike, on condition of anonymity, admit that Egypt’s struggle to retain control over the waters of the world’s longest river is off to a very bad start.
I admit that when I began these notes in the autumn of 2014, some six months after the election of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the previous May, I wanted to build a case in support of el shaab (the people). By that I mean the unprecedented number of Egyptians who had taken to the streets the summer before, calling for the army to assist in the ouster of then president Mohamed Morsi. The grievances against the Islamist president were many, including violence perpetrated by his Freedom and Justice Party and the most overreaching power grab of any Egyptian president (he granted himself extrajudicial constitutional powers). Amid a rapidly declining economy and a general sense of disarray, popular dissent had escalated. Millions of Egyptians poured into the streets, underhandedly encouraged by long-standing forces of the “deep state”—the army and state security services.
On a winter evening in Tahrir Square, young skateboarders were practising their moves in front of the huge Soviet-style Mogamma building. Nonchalant policemen and couples of all ages watched, and nobody seemed to notice the dust and the deafening traffic, scourges of life in Cairo that no revolution has ever tackled.
It felt like a long time since 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians crowded into this vast square in the ‘January revolution’, demanding the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and ‘Bread, freedom, and social justice!’ In 2013 at least as many gathered again in Tahrir to call for the departure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, whom they had democratically elected president; in a military coup backed by a section of Egyptian society, the army regained control on 30 June (1). A fledgling pro-Morsi resistance was crushed, and around a thousand people died, on 14 August in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Thousands of arrests followed. In June 2014 Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi became president with 97% of the vote.
Which country, due to hold a presidential election next month, is led by an autocrat who, having eliminated any serious competition, is basically running against himself?
Hints: A political analyst in that country has said, as a reminder of the deliberate ineffectiveness of electoral competitors, “Some figures are allowed in, like backup dancers.” Indeed, the most serious challenger to the incumbent president has been barred from contesting the election, which denies him a platform to broadcast accusations of corruption that could involve the president.