Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

Saudi Arabia: A Step Backward

by Ed Husain Friday, October 28, 2011

Saudi Arabia's newly-appointed crown prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz attends a news conference in Mecca in this December 26, 2006 file photo (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).

I was in Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died in 2005. There was genuine remorse among Saudis young and old at the passing of the king. Portraits of the king covered car windows for weeks—a spontaneous and unprecedented outburst of Saudi national grief. There was also hope that the new king, Abdullah, would help bring Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. That dream ended yesterday with the appointment of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince, or de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as King Abdullah continues to undergo hospital treatment for his declining health condition.

In the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and London there was some relief that Prince Nayef, as expected, had become crown prince. In contrast, young Saudis on Twitter, Saudi democracy activists, and vocal women were filled with foreboding as to what lies ahead in their country. Granted, Nayef has been a vociferous enemy of al-Qaeda elements inside Saudi Arabia and eliminated hundreds of operatives, while arresting thousands since 2003. But this was not because he opposed jihadi ideology or Islamist thinking. His public attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood come not because he differs with their brand of Salafi Islam, but because they seek to undermine the House of Saud.

It was the same Nayef that after 9/11 said the attacks were a Jewish plot and “the Saudis [were] being framed” because fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were revealed to be Saudi. Read more »

A NATO-backed Islamist State in Libya?

by Ed Husain Monday, October 24, 2011

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil (center) chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), stands during the national anthem as the NTC announce the liberation of Libya in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

It took Libya’s current leader three full days to appear in public after Qaddafi’s killing. He was scheduled at a press conference on Thursday morning—he appeared on Sunday. Then, rather than speak in Tripoli, he addressed a mass gathering in Benghazi, annoying vast swaths of the Libyan population who are still unsure as to why they would recognize his National Transitional Council (NTC). They complain about the domination of the NTC by people from Benghazi. As though these complications were not enough for a divided people, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil then opened a premature, ill-conceived public schism between Libya’s secularists and Islamists by declaring that Libya is an “Islamic state.”

Fortunately, among Muslim activists and Arabs in particular, there is no real consensus on what an Islamic state really means. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan recently spoke in Egypt about how a secular state was the best model for Muslims. Tunisia’s Rashid Ghannoushi has made bold statements about the caliphate (or Islamic state) being a chapter of the Muslim past. But it is unclear whether Libya will opt for the Turkish or Tunisian wisdom. Read more »

Guest Post: Ongoing Blunders in Egypt

by Ed Husain Friday, October 21, 2011

An Egyptian man walks past graffiti depicting Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and a message reading "no to military rule" in downtown Cairo on September 23, 2011 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

This post is written by my colleague, Allison Blough, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a fluent Arabic speaker, lived in Egypt between 2007 and 2010, and has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Arabic from Duke University.

With the media focused on Qaddafi’s death, it is important not to lose sight of the Arab world’s most populous and perhaps most important test case for emerging democracy: Egypt. For months, Egyptian criticism of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been mounting. With a transitional period characterized thus far more by an expansion of military power than a transfer to an elected civilian government, many Egyptians who once chanted “the army and the people are one hand” during January’s Tahrir protests now shout “the people want the fall of the [SCAF] field marshal.” On October 9, frustration turned to ire when more than two dozen mostly Coptic Christian protesters were killed, the majority by military armored vehicles and live ammunition. Read more »

Book Recommendation: Telling the Egyptian Story

by Ed Husain Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sayyid Qutb’s Egyptian prison writings helped provide al-Qaeda and a host of other terrorist organizations with the religious and political justifications for their actions. Most know that Qutb spent some time studying in the late 1940s in Colorado. But who remembers that he first spent time in New York and Washington, DC? Or that he also visited California and Stanford University? Qutb has become a household name for those remotely interested in the motivation of Islamist radicals—but what was his full name?

Did you know that Egypt’s President Nasser died from his second heart attack within one year? Or that Anwar al-Sadat met his wife Jehan when she was only fifteen? And that she was part Welsh? Or that Mubarak successfully managed to negotiate the cancellation of twenty billion dollars of Egyptian debt immediately after the first Gulf war? Who remembers today that Gamal Mubarak, now on trial, once visited the White House under the guise of coming to the United States to renew his pilot’s license?

My friend and CFR colleague Steven Cook has just published a splendid book, The Struggle for Egypt, which provides us with a timely and accessible history of modern Egypt and its key political players: the military, the Wafd, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Read more »

Arab Leaders Remain Irresponsible

by Ed Husain Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf shakes hands with Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi during a visit to the tomb of Egypt's former president Anwar al-Sadat in Cairo on October 6, 2011 (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters).

For two weekends in a row, Arab leaders have shamelessly blamed “outsiders” and “conspiracies” rather than accept the consequences of their failures.

After the military killing of at least twenty-six innocent Coptic Christian protestors in Cairo on October 9, Egypt’s prime minister spoke of an outside conspiracy. To what was he referring?

At the Arab League meeting this weekend, Arab foreign ministers sat and listened to Syria’s representative deny unrest in his country and hold “outsiders” and “conspiracies” responsible for exaggerating a situation that “is increasingly under control.” It is as though three thousand of his fellow citizens had not been killed for demanding freedom and justice.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a handsome recipient of U.S. military aid for decades, has in recent weeks indirectly accused Egyptian democracy and human rights activists who accept Western funding of being agents of an outside conspiracy to destabilize Egypt. Such was the claim, too, of the Mubarak regime in its dying days. Read more »

Western Blind Spots in Syria

by Ed Husain Monday, October 17, 2011

Supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad wave flags and hold pictures of him during a rally at al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus on October 12, 2011 (Khaled al-Hariri/Courtesy Reuters).

I am in London today. Syria has one ambassador in most countries, but in the UK it maintains two. The official diplomat is the chain-smoking Sami Khiyami, but the real ambassador is Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras—a high-profile cardiologist to many of the UK’s wealthiest people. Assad himself was partly educated in Britain. His wife, Asma, was born and raised here. She was once a J.P. Morgan banker who still maintains friends in this city. As such, the chattering classes in England feel they have special access to the latest developments in Syria.

There is a false confidence in the air here, much like in Washington, DC, but made worse in Britain by the post-imperial snobbery that somehow Brits understand the politics of the Middle East better than Americans. In London, personal ties of the Assad family to this city only add to this complex. The British rumor mill has no shortage of stories on Syria.

First, there were reports that Assad would seek political refuge in Britain within weeks. But that was before the murder of three thousand innocent people.

Second, and more recently, there were reports that Asma Assad had flown to London with her children in protest at her husband’s actions. Soon, she would seek a divorce in public.

Third, the official ambassador, Sami Khiyami, is expected to be defecting anytime soon. He is, they say, being contained by the real ambassador, the Assad father-in-law, to prevent embarrassment of the Assads back in Damascus. Read more »

Saudi Advice to Egypt’s Muslim Radicals

by Ed Husain Friday, October 14, 2011

Once upon a time, Shaikh Salman al-Awdah was Saudi Arabia’s most vociferous voice calling for sharia as state law. A country that stones adulterers, beheads murders, and amputates the limbs of thieves was not sufficiently sharia-compliant for him. The U.S. forces stationed in the Gulf riled him.

Yesterday, I highlighted Shaikh Salman’s appeal among young Arabs today. As a liberal Muslim, I cannot agree with Shaikh Salman’s conservative stance on many issues, including women’s rights, or his claim that potential Egyptian presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei also demands sharia as state law, or tatbiq al sharia. But placed within his Saudi and Salafi context he is a relative moderate.

Moreover, when Egypt’s Salafis were slamming the Tahrir Square revolution as secular, Westernized, and haram or religiously forbidden, Shaikh Salman’s sincere support for the besieged protestors struck a chord with millions. See some of his responses in Arabic here. Read more »