Notes from a New Egypt: Witness to the Creation of Narratives, Myths, and Symbols



The curfew is a good indicator of the delicate situation that Egypt is going through at the moment. The most remarkable thing about it is the extent to which the population is respecting it, particularly when compared to the one that the Mubarak regime failed to impose during the uprising in Egypt in early 2011. And it is extraordinary for a city that was characterized by its nocturnal activity, whether it was families strolling by the side of the Nile, young men playing football, or people simply chatting away at a street side café until the small hours.

Though certain regions of the country devoted to tourism are less affected—such as the northwestern coast on the Mediterranean and the southern coast of the Sinai Peninsula—and it is impossible to impose it in the more popular neighborhoods of the capital, much of this vast country comes to a standstill everyday like clockwork. In central Cairo, where most official buildings are situated, movement stops completely everyday from eleven in the evening until six in the morning. This is in fact a significant relief from what was in place prior to August 31, when the curfew started at seven in the evening.

Hani, a taxi driver in his early thirties who for years preferred to work at night, has had his habitual timetable turned upside-down, but despite his frustration, he nevertheless appears to be happy to comply. This is because the curfew is a sort of informal referendum on the support for the measures imposed by the Egyptian Army, as well as a sense of incapacity to resist them by those that oppose it. In Hani’s mind, for example, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood has shown its true colors—in particular, its chauvinism—during the one year that its leader Mohammed Morsi held power, and he is more than happy to see him go.

For Hani, as well as many other Egyptians, the car bomb attack against the Minister of the Interior’s caravan in Cairo earlier this month is further validation that the army is fighting terrorism, violence which, according to him, the Muslim Brotherhood is evidently behind. This is indeed one of the main narratives that General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi—who led the ousting of Morsi from power in early July and now holds the reins of power in the country—is propagating as a justification for the military intervention in the governance of Egypt and the steps taken thereafter.

Key to this narrative is the military operations taking place in the north of the Sinai Peninsula and next to the border with the Gaza Strip. In Sinai, where the army is said to be conducting major operations, movement is forbidden between towns after six in the afternoon, and within towns after eleven in the evening, just like in Cairo. Apache helicopter attacks in this area were front-page news in the official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, and its headline on September 8 read, “The biggest military operation to purify Sinai from the sources of terrorism.” Solid information is hard to come by, but the consensus appears to be that, this time, the Egyptian Army is planning to get rid of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt once and for all.

Central African Republic: Back to War Again?


Over the last week, armed skirmishes around the small city of Bossangoa in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR) led to the death of up to 100 people and the destruction of a number of properties. While incidents like this have been recurrent since a loose coalition of armed groups called Séléka (“alliance” in Sango, the national language) seized the capital Bangui in March 2013, this episode should convince external observers and the international community that the slow normalization, once considered the most likely scenario, is not happening. Instead, a further deterioration in the country’s security is occurring, with a surge of highway banditry and predatory armed groups claiming different allegiances, and a narrative of an ongoing Christian-Muslim war that may have deleterious effects beyond the areas directly affected by fighting.

On September 25, a meeting of “CAR friends” is scheduled to take place alongside the UN General Assembly. Participants should announce stronger political and financial support to the new African Union force (MISCA) that is due to take over from the current Economic Community of Central African States mission, called MICOPAX, and police the whole country. Challenges demand more than a “business as usual” diplomatic initiative; they require a deeper assessment of the situation on the ground and of the regional stakeholders’ interests. The international response should focus on framing a more comprehensive strategy to deal with insecurity in CAR, a looming “religious” war, and the political vacuum created by the last years of François Bozizé’s rule, and the current, extremely weak government.


On September 6, more than 50 people, some of them armed, took over Benzambé, the home village of CAR’s former ruler François Bozizé and near the city of Bossangoa, and killed or made prisoner 20 Séléka fighters. Muslim households, essentially from the Peulh ethnic group, were targeted, and some were killed as revenge for the many abuses against the local Christian population by Séléka elements; robbery also seems to have been a motive for that brutal action. Over the next few days, armed skirmishes happened in other places near Bossangoa and gave some credibility to the emergence of an armed group made up of Bozizé’s supporters and former military. 

At the time of this writing, there is no independent confirmation that those people who fought against the Séléka are organized in a genuine politico-military movement, though Bozizé’s entourage in Paris claims that they are. The weapons and tactics used for the ambushes do prove the presence of former soldiers among them. But there are other possible scenarios, such as self-defense youth groups convinced that Bozizé would soon go back to power and endorse their fighting (and plundering) against local Muslim communities. 

There are at least three aspects of concern that can be pinpointed in this bloody episode. The first is the ongoing polarization between Christian and Muslim communities that could be devastating for the whole country and have consequences for the region, notably in Chad and Cameroon. Séléka fighters were recruited from Muslim communities settled in CAR or in the “three border areas” (Chad, Sudan, and CAR). Others also joined—mostly Sudanese elements settled in CAR or connected with the northern CAR shadow economy, Chadians, and others.

While Séléka fighters have notional inclinations for political Islam, they share a strong sense of communal identity and a will to avenge previous CAR regimes and their beneficiaries identified as Christians (not much of a discriminating factor, as the CAR population is more than 75% Christian). Lay Muslims in CAR today are less likely to be harassed by the Séléka, and most often, there is cooperation. The whole Muslim community is therefore perceived as supporting the Séléka and hostile to the core Christian population. CAR elites play a big role in articulating this narrative based on some limited truth and wide approximations to build a constituency against CAR’s current president, Michel Djotodia, and his armed supporters. The Muslim community also played a strategic role in the economy, and any attempt to disrupt it would negatively affect the urban economy at the risk of a violent reaction by the Chadian contingent of MICOPAX.

Data Map Shows Protests Around the World Increase, With Caveat

Looking at this time-lapse visualization of protests around the world since 1979, one can easily surmise that the spirit of protest exploded during the 1990s, steadily increasing until it seemed to overtake entire continents post-2010. But is the world really overrun with dissent and revolution?

Only sort of. The data driving the visualization is taken from the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), which has drawn on media reporting to georeference nearly a quarter-million events over the past 34 years. And while there has been an increase in media coverage of every type of event since 1979, the number of protests as a percentage of the total number of “events” reported has not increased.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t spikes in the data, as one of the project’s lead researchers, John Beieler, wrote in an email. “There are times when the amount of protests behavior goes up and is higher than average. The past few years is actually one of those times.”

A write-up about this map in Foreign Policy discussed some of these spikes: the protests in South Africa against apartheid, the Arab Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland in the 1980s. If you know where to look in the visualization, you can watch them unfold.

But, with data comes problems. Commenters on the Foreign Policy post quickly pointed out what they saw were the map’s limitations. “Maybe I'm being nit-picky, but I'm just looking at Latin America and I can tell you this is severely underestimating the number of protests, both now and prior to the third wave of democratization,” wrote one user. “Clearly, wrong!! In México we have an permanente[sic] wave of protetest [sic] since 1950 and in the map only appears since 1994,” wrote another.

All the underlying data for this map are derived from text-mining a cross-section of all major international, national, regional, local, and hyper-local news sources; no human hand is involved."The GDELT dataset is generated completely by fully automatic software algorithms operating with no human oversight or intervention and is based on global news media reporting," reads GDELT's Web site.

In general, all data can contain bias, which can lead to a flawed representation of events. And while visualizations can make complex information look simple, they must be coupled with a deeper understanding of the political and social complexities, as well as an awareness of the shortcomings in the data itself. Without this expertise and analysis, the possibility of misinterpretation is high.

Still No Good Options in Syria


Governments, including those that are democratically elected, often display a propensity and determination to act contrary to their self-interest. The quagmire in which the US administration finds itself on Syria is, to a large extent, of its own making. It is unlikely that anything President Barack Obama heard at the G-20 summit or since then will discourage him from ordering surgical military strikes against Syria. Only the US Congress can provide the required discouragement.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad has used brutal force to maintain his repressive regime is not in any doubt. Equally, the situation today is largely due to the pursuit of regime change by the Gulf states and Turkey supported by the US, UK and France. The rebels fighting the regime, all Sunnis armed to the teeth by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and their Western allies, are affiliated either directly or indirectly to al-Qaeda and are engaged in a sectarian war against the Alawites or Shias and Christians. Violence unleashed by them has matched the brutality of regime forces.

The use of chemical weapons is immoral and unacceptable, and must be condemned. Given the nature of the conflict, jumping to conclusions before all the evidence has been analyzed, and conclusively holds one party responsible, is fraught with additional danger. Apart from placing the military might of the US at the disposal of al-Qaeda, military strikes, which appear increasingly likely, will result in another paradoxical situation. Deaths from chemical weapons constitute less than 1 per cent of fatalities since the Syrian civil war began more than two years ago.

Limited enthusiasm for military strikes against Syria is the least of the problems confronting decision-makers in Washington. A concerted campaign to convince the skeptics, both within Congress and outside, may rectify the situation. The more serious implications that need to be factored in include the near certainty that such strikes will strengthen the very forces that constitute a threat to the US’s national security.

Is MONUSCO Lost in Translation?

info-human-righOn August 28, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) suffered its first casualty since Security Council Resolution 2098 in March authorized an offensive Intervention Brigade tasked with “neutralizing” rebel groups. During fighting near Goma in eastern Congo, between Congolese armed forces backed up by MONUSCO’s new brigade and M23 rebels, one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed and several others wounded by artillery fire.

The same evening, MONUSCO promptly denounced the incident, tweeting a statement from Martin Kobler, the new special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) and head of the UN mission.

While this type of statement is expected following such an incident, the choice of the wording used reveals that the mission has yet to adapt its language to its new offensive mandate. This is especially true in the French version, which is presumably the original one since the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a French-speaking country. The use of the French word “meurtre”—meaning “murder” and not the more neutral word “killing” used in the English statement—is at best ill-adapted and at worst misleading in a context where MONUSCO has arguably become a party to the conflict and, therefore, a legitimate target under international law.

Key Conclusions

  • The applicability of international humanitarian law to MONUSCO is widely accepted, despite continuing debate on the scope of its application. This implies that peacekeepers involved in combat become a legitimate target under international law.
  • The creation of MONUSCO’s Intervention Brigade raises serious—although not entirely new—policy and legal questions regarding the impartiality of the mission, the security of UN staff, and the legal standards it must abide by.
  • The deployment of the brigade makes it urgent to seriously address ambiguities that, for the most part, date back to the robust mandate given in 2009 to MONUSCO’s predecessor, MONUC. A good first step would be to adapt the mission’s language to the new operational realities.


The applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL)—also known as the law of armed conflict—to UN peacekeeping forces directly participating in combat has been widely accepted since the UN secretary-general’s adoption of the Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law in 1999. Nonetheless, the UN has always been reluctant to admit it might become a party to a conflict under IHL, not least because of the implications it has on the safety of blue helmets, as one legal scholar recently noted. Indeed, the prohibition of attacks on peacekeepers, which is considered a war crime by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is valid “as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under [IHL].” When the UN becomes a party to the conflict, it forfeits this protection and, as fighters, its peacekeepers consequently become legitimate targets.

As Peacekeeping Becomes More Complex, Progress Needed on Training


UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being asked to take on ever-more complex tasks. They need to be able to take offensive measures against rebels, but they also need to understand the ramifications of their actions under international humanitarian law. They need to ensure the physical protection of civilians but also need to contribute to security sector reform, promote the rule of law, and engage in the protection of human rights. Are UN peacekeepers being trained to carry out their multifaceted roles effectively?

Training is a key element in the success or failure of UN peacekeeping operations. The UN’s historical experience has shown that under-prepared peacekeepers cost lives and endanger missions. Yet training is often taken for granted or considered less relevant than the outcome of an operation.

Key Conclusions

  • In the face of increasingly multidimensional operations, UN peacekeepers need specialized training.
  • Despite advances in training over the last two decades, common standards across trainings and systematic performance indicators are absent.
  • To ensure that peacekeeping operations have access to the right people with the right skills, a more strategic and coordinated approach to training is needed from the UN, member states, and training institutions alike.


“Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it.” Former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous “paradox” implies that a typical soldier is not naturally a good peacekeeper, unless she or he acquires critical knowledge and skills that only specific peacekeeping training can provide.

In practice, special training is needed because UN peacekeeping involves more than the basic military tasks for which soldiers are—or should be—already trained. If soldiers without peacekeeping-specific training might have managed to get by in early UN observation missions with straightforward and limited mandates, this is not the case in modern multidimensional operations, where a number of different and sophisticated skills are required.

For this reason, the Brahimi Report stated that peacekeeping training needs to be understood as a crucial part of effective UN operations. In recent years, the UN has taken steps to implement the Brahimi Report’s recommendations with regard to training. In particular, in May 2008 the Department of Peacekeeping Operations set out a three-year UN Peacekeeping Training Strategy, accompanied in October that year by the first Strategic Peacekeeping Training Needs Assessment. These documents are the cornerstone of ongoing efforts to establish a coherent but constantly evolving training strategy.

Key Global Events to Watch in September

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.



Peace & Security

      • September 5–6: G20 Leaders’ Summit, St. Petersburg, Russia
        The Russian presidency of this year’s G20 summit will focus on three drivers of growth: effective regulation, jobs and investment, and trust and transparency.  Within these broad themes, the summit will discuss several issues indirectly related to security, such as structural unemployment, employment of vulnerable groups, food security, infrastructure, and the fight against corruption. Syria is likely to be discussed only on the margins of the meeting, despite some calls to prioritize it in the meeting’s agenda.
      • September 10–13: Meeting on the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Lusaka, Zambia
        The fourth meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will address implementation and universalization of the convention; stockpile destruction; clearance of affected regions; and victim assistance, among other items. “A large number of States Parties and States not Parties have condemned or otherwise expressed concern with the use of cluster munitions in Syria in 2012 and 2013,” a report released in advance of the meeting said. The summit will focus on obstacles and best practices to move forward. 
      • September 10–27: 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva
        Over 17 days in Geneva, the 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will evaluate periodic reviews on states from Cambodia to Colombia. Updates on human rights situations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, and Sri Lanka are likely to be of particular interest. In addition to reports on individual states, the Council will discuss many thematic topics, such as the protection of human rights defenders and the safety of journalists.
      • September 16: Conference on the New Deal for Somalia, Brussels
        This conference co-hosted by Somalia and the EU will endorse the "New Deal Compact" that will commit the Somali people and their international partners to a set of key priorities and provide new support for the reconstruction of Somalia over the next three years.
      • September 24: Opening of the General Debate of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, New York
        This year’s general debate will run from September 24 to October 2. Ambassador John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda will preside over the debate as the new president of the General Assembly. In addition to their annual speeches in the Assembly, heads of state and ministers from the 193 member states will participate in the usual flurry of side events and bilateral meetings.
      • September 24 & 25: General Assembly Meetings on Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York
        Following a high-level meeting on disability and development on September 23, the post-2015 development agenda is likely to dominate many of the General Assembly discussions this year. On September 24, the Office of the President of the General Assembly convenes the first meeting of the high-level political forum on sustainable development, titled “Building the future we want: from Rio+20 to the post-2015 development agenda.” On September 25, a special event will follow up on efforts made toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which will also look forward to post-2015.
      • September 26: General Assembly Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, New York
        This one-day event will be the UN General Assembly’s first high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament. The meeting follows the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which took place in Oslo in March 2013. The General Assembly meeting seems to have received little publicity, despite the Secretary-General’s strong support for this cause, perhaps because member states themselves are divided over the idea of nuclear-weapon-free world.

With Democracy, Security at Stake in Egypt, How Should the West Respond?


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the confrontation in Egypt have so far failed. The refusal of coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the defense minister, to go along with diplomatic de-escalation, and the excessive force used by security agencies signal that the Egyptian army does not aim at repressing only the Muslim Brotherhood. They are trying to frighten the general population and restore autocratic rule to an Egypt that has tasted freedom and expressed itself repeatedly at the ballot box since 2011.

The US and Europe want to get Egypt back on a more orderly democratic path. This path entails restraining the Egyptian security forces, maintaining relative openness, and moving towards an inclusive polity with Islamist and, if possible, Muslim Brotherhood participation. It also means restoring a modicum of order and stability so that ordinary Egyptians can go about their business without fear of violence or intimidation.

Yet, the security forces are continuing their violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is pledging to continue its protests against the July 3 military takeover. Some Islamists are resisting with arms. About 1,000 people have been killed. What can the United States and the international community do to mitigate the situation?


The civilian government the Egyptian army installed after the coup has pledged an amended constitution by the end of the year, to be approved in a referendum and elections early next year. This is a fast timeline. What can the international community do to try to ensure it is met?

The United States has already postponed delivery of F16s to Egypt and canceled joint military exercises scheduled for the fall to protest General Sisi's crackdown. Inevitably the question of America's $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt will now arise in Washington. It would make sense to refocus the civilian assistance of about $250 million tightly on democratic objectives. Those most concerned with getting Egypt back on a democratic path are recommending suspension of the military portion ($1.2 billion).

This will be opposed by those more concerned with security issues, including maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. A proposal in the US Senate to redirect all Egyptian aid to domestic American priorities was defeated last month by a wide margin (86-13), but that was before the worst of the crackdown. The margin would likely be much closer next month.

Even if the US Congress or the Administration acts to suspend military aid to Egypt, the financial impact will not be immediate. This year's tranche has already been transferred. It will be the better part of another year before money can be blocked. More weapons scheduled for delivery can be delayed, but American industry will spend the year lobbying hard against a funding cut-off, as much of the money is actually spent on US contractors who supply the Egyptian military with materiel and services.

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