This past week, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn't know what to make of this whole "freedom" thing.
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I'm not sure what the U.S. government was hoping to achieve by suspending some of its military assistance to Egypt, but whatever it was -- it failed.
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"At least we're number one at something, even if it's from the bottom," quipped one of my friends in Cairo. We had just finished reading the recently issued World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014, which rates Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. The report is based on the WEF's Global Competitiveness Indicator, an aggregate of 114 indicators grouped under 12 categories of "drivers of productivity and prosperity," including institutions, financial markets, technological readiness, and health and education, among others.
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The visible displeasure of Moroccans over the past week has shaken the government all the way up to the top: The almighty king of Morocco was compelled to issue a declaration after days of protests, backtracking on a decision he had taken a week earlier.
It seems that popular pressure does work. Sometimes.
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Finding spaces for sanity and reason amidst Egypt's extreme polarization can be a difficult task when political factions seem intent on walking the road to extremism. Luckily for the rest of us, a small minority seems to be holding the middle ground.
The Egyptian minister of defense, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, called for people to take the streets last Friday, to give him and the army a "mandate" to "combat terrorism" -- code for "inflict as much physical damage on the Muslim Brotherhood as you possibly can." The masses -- in the absence of any real estimates we've been told millions, 30 million even -- seemed to heed his call; hours later violence exploded, leaving over 50 people dead overnight.
The Third Square Facebook Page
At times it was the plague. At others it was cholera or scabies.
Supporters of the military takeover in Egypt sure aren't shy about expressing their contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Now they're spreading rumors about the outbreak of various horrible diseases amid the pro-Morsy protestors who are camped out in the center of Cairo. There's no basis for any of the accusations -- and that's not really the point. Morsy-haters are eager to depict the sympathizers of the deposed president as a bunch of dirty and illiterate bumpkins.
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You’d think we'd won the World Cup: cars honking, loud celebratory music, people carrying flags. There are also flags hanging from the military helicopters flying at low altitude above Egypt's main cities.
The joke's on us, though. This isn't a cup, it's a coup. A military coup against a failed president, but a coup nonetheless. This is no time for celebration.
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TUNIS, Tunisia — The humming of the censorship equipment that ran in Tunis is barely audible, but intimidating nevertheless. You can't help but feel a certain awe as you stand in front of the modest-looking server that was used for so many years to curtail the online freedoms of Tunisians.
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Hundreds of thousands of readers saw this image in their newspaper: A woman in a niqab with a bruised and bloodied left eye that you might miss at first glance -- but which you can't un-see once you've noticed it. It is a visually compelling advertisement, definitely a strong beginning for a campaign by the King Khaled Foundation to "end abuse in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." The ad featured an anti-violence slogan, followed by a list of numbers to report cases of domestic abuses. In an ultra-conservative environment that has routinely avoided dealing with such issues, the campaign is a welcome breath of fresh air.
Lately I've found myself thinking back to those horrible American soap operas (the "Bold and the Beautiful," etc.) that my late grandmother used to watch. She managed to find interest in what seemed to me like a sickeningly repetitive story (love, betrayal, and borderline incestuous relationships). Each season introduced new protagonists and guest stars who frolicked alongside the core cast. This ensured, for lack of a new storyline, some diversity of faces and names to keep the audience entertained (or at least mildly interested).
I don't know much about the code of conduct of U.N. Peacekeepers, such as those deployed in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But I'm going to assume that it's probably OK for peacekeepers to post photos of people that they meet on their Facebook group even if they are politically sensitive.
MINURSO Facebook Page
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Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:
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What has changed in Tunisia since opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated? I've asked many Tunisian friends that question. Most remained silent for a few seconds, smiled sadly, and whispered, "not much." One, a well-known activist, noted bitterly that what was clear was that Belaid didn't die "for that incompetent man (Laarayadh) to become prime minister".
Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
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RABAT, Morocco – Yegor Talikov, a street musician, was playing his saxophone on the Hotel Balima plaza in Rabat. Some passersby slowed down without stopping, but a few did gather around, occasionally making song requests that the musician was happy to oblige.
Photo by Mohamed El Dahshan
There is one tradition that Muslims and Jews in the West agree on: They both like to eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. It's a way of marking a day that both acknowledge to be special and joyful, but without the big family dinner and all the attendant hoopla. It's a gesture that contains just the right hint of detachment: "I'm happy, but it's not really my day to celebrate."
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What happens when you are the head of a poor household -- so poor that there is only a single room for you, your spouse, and your three children, ages 15 to 20 -- and suddenly, as you protest near the presidential palace, you become the victim of an abhorrent injustice that thrusts you into the national limelight? Or, to be precise, your naked body is being kicked by the police, hit with batons, and dragged from the limbs across the cold asphalt, all caught by a television camera and broadcast live to millions of homes.
It's been two years since Ben Ali packed his suitcase along with the passwords to his foreign bank accounts and fled, in extremis, the wrath of the courageous people of Tunisia, leaving behind some incredibly tacky trinkets and a country in need of fundamental rebuilding -- but which first had to discover the full extent of the damage done.
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"I called people up so they would join the revolution. And they died. I let (Ahmed) Harara walk onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and he was blinded. My friends, who weren't into politics but whom I talked into coming to the streets, died... All so you would block porn sites, you sons of bitches?"
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An Egyptian expatriate friend asked me recently about the state of the Egyptian military back home.
It's a difficult question. The military has always been mysterious, and that's just as true in respect to its business interests as its military capabilities. The former, however, appears to be more jealously guarded than the latter.
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My father recently bought a new copy of an old book. We couldn't buy it earlier because it was virtually impossible to get one when Hosni Mubarak was president. You'll understand why when you hear the title: Dictatorship for Beginners: Bahgatos, President of Greater Bahgatia. (You can see a copy here -- in Arabic, but you don't have to understand the text to enjoy it).
"The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities," John Dalberg-Acton wrote in 1877. Egypt now seems to be reveling in its failure to pass that test. (Though I should add that a certain degree of caution is advisable here.)
This week I attended two events in Cairo devoted to Egypt's economic situation, but the setting could easily have been any point in the decade prior to the January 2011 revolution -- for better or for worse.
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With her white hijab and the slight gap between her teeth, Fatma Nabil looks like my cousin. She probably looks like everybody's cousin.
Yet after presenting the afternoon news last week, Fatma became the most recognizable face on Egyptian television: She is, after all, Egypt's first veiled TV news anchor. Ever.
Their budgets may be a tad tighter and their delegations smaller, but developing countries are no less excited about the Olympics than their northern counterparts. There are, in fact, a number of transition countries with Olympic stories that are making big waves in their home nations and around the world. (And the clumsy responses of the International Olympic Committee almost always help to make the waves even bigger.) Here's a brief roundup of the Nations in Transition Olympic News (let's call this our NiTON review):
1. The South Sudanese athlete with no flag
The rigid IOC rigid rulebook stipulates that a new country's application to join the organization must take two years. South Sudan, which has declared independence in July 2011, falls short of this criterion. The IOC, with its usual brilliance, suggested that the South Sudanese athletes compete under the Sudanese flag -- not the most sensitive suggestion for the various parties involved, considering that South Sudan recently celebrated the first anniversary of secession from its northern neighbor.
What a waste of ink and pixels. On Monday, with much brouhaha, Egypt commemorated 60 years since the deposing of King Farouk by a military movement that called itself "The Free Officers." That movement went on to dominate the country both politically and economically for the following six decades. As the leading figures in the movement died off, they propped up new protégés (such as Hosni Mubarak) to take over from them.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.