What exactly happened in North Sinai today?


[UPDATED: please scroll] Violence erupted in North Sinai early on 1 July 2015. The attack is widely attributed to the local ISIS faction. The below account is of the developing situation with live fact-checking based on open-source intelligence (OSINT).

With the coming celebration of the military takeover of power in Egypt, terrorist attacks have intensified. Or this is at least what some claim. I am not exactly sure how much this is true. Others seem to doubt it as well. Another reason why I doubt the July 3 anniversary is THE reason is because of recent encouragements by ISIS to intensify attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIS was coming anyway, Morsi or not Morsi, Sisi or not Sisi; and its horrors are not restricted to Egypt.

Anyhow, the question in this situation is hardly one’s capability to speculate about what the reason is behind these fierce attacks by ISIS-affiliated terrorists. Instead, I figured there is—perhaps a bit more than usual—too much of rumours and beefed-up images and numbers. And as the great people from reported.ly are a bit busy with the Greek euro crisis, I decided to sum up a few findings from this morning.

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Bulgaria’s ‘chilly welcome’ to Syrian refugees

Bulgaria's chilly welcome to Syrian refugees

[First published on openDemocracy.]

Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.

Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks; food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.

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The Startup Revolution in the Arab World


It’s a fact, the startup ecosystem is blossoming in the Arab world. How did it happen? Who are the main players? How can the Arab diaspora help?

In partnership with WamdaSimplon.co, a French diversity-aiming digital co-working space, and StartupBRICS, a French-written blog on startups in the BRICS countries, are inviting French entrepreneurs and members of the Arab diaspora to discuss this startup revolution.

Several key players will lead the debate:

  • Julien Le Bot, co-founder at Yakwala, a French media focusing on hyperlocal news and data;
  • Rayna Stamboliyska, expert on open data and technology in the Middle East, founder at RS Strategy;
  • Ahmed Chebil, Tunisian entrepreneur (hosting, cloud and data security), via Skype;
  • Aline MayardWamda‘s French Editor;
  • Akram Belkaïd, author of “Être Arabe aujourd’hui”.

The debate will be curated by Hugo Sedouramane, a journalist at l’Opinion and project manager at Club 21ème Siècle. The event is #Simploff 3, and will take place on 2 December 2013, at Simplon.co’s premises in Montreuil.

What the Health, MENA?


Last year, I was closely following doctors’ strikes in Tunisia and Egypt. I wrote the major part of the piece below back in October-November 2012. For various reasons, the piece wasn’t published at that time. I am publishing it here now because the situation hasn’t changed since then: Tunisian doctors continue to stage strikes and Egyptian healthcare system hasn’t improved under now deposed president Morsi’s rule. And it’s about time something gets done to change the status quo.

In a considerable part of the MENA countries, a small part of national budgets are allocated to health [see infographic below]. Such chronic starvation naturally translates into poor status of the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Practitioners have regularly addressed funding deficiency and pandemic mismanagement in the last years, but no adequate response has been given. As is often the case in such stalemates, protests go on strikes to draw attention.

What the Health, MENA? Click to zoom in

What the Health, MENA? Click to zoom in

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Autumn 2013 Collection: MENA Digital News


I have been struggling to find a good format for this. Writing a monthly review can be challenging (length, my own time availability, etc.). But then, a three-month wrap-up is huge…

Thus, I decided to organise the whole as follows: one part covering general developments in the region, another part covering the Mashrek (North Africa, Egypt, Lybia) and the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq), and a third part covering the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula (Qatar, KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain). Enjoy the read, add comments if any (always welcome!) and see you again for the Spring Edition.

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Egypt: Draft Law on Internet Terrorism


Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) has published a transcript of the draft law on combattling terrorism on the internet in Egypt. From what I’ve been told, anti-terror law has been on the table for many years  and the battle against it was that it will inscribe the emergency laws in the criminal code. It seems here that the internet is given a significant attention, at least at the first reading. Whatever the provisions, the draft law aims at legalizing pervasive surveillance and and will be a very convenient tool for jailing bloggers and all kinds of people estimated as junta-noncompliant.

Here are the most notable excerpts after a quick read-through. My comments are in blue.

The draft law contains four chapters: Chapter One is on the general provisions; Chapter Two is on punishment; Chapter Three is on procedural provisions; and Chapter Four deals with international judicial cooperation.

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Syria’s vanishing history


[This was first published on Nature Middle East.]

The war in Syria is laying waste to ancient monuments and artefacts, while archaeologists and citizens scramble to protect what they can.

Syria’s rich cultural heritage, which stretches back to the beginnings of human history, is at risk as fighting ravages the country.

Gathering accurate information is a challenge, but despite the violence, archaeologists and citizens have been trying to document the destruction of historical sites in the wake of all international archaeological missions leaving Syria.

From Babylonians to Arabs and the Crusaders, numerous civilisations have left their mark on Syria. Six of the country’s sites appear on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list: Damascus, Aleppo, the Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Bosra and the Ancient Villages in Northern Syria. Hundreds of monuments are on UNESCO’s Tentative List, and the national heritage register also boasts a wealth of treasures.

Since the unrest began in March 2011, the destruction of cultural sites has often been reported. The cause of damage ranges from shelling and gunfire to army occupation and bombing. Rampant looting and illegal developments on unguarded archaeological sites is also rife.

Syria’s Directorate-General of the Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) is the authority in charge of the maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage, but the ongoing conflict makes DGAM’s remit increasingly difficult.

Before the violence started, about 180 national and international archaeological missions were represented in Syria, but they all left the country in 2011.

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Egypt: Attacks on Churches Continue Amidst Nationwide Violence


The list below sums up continuing sectarian violence nationwide for Friday, August 16. I have started to collect images separately in a dedicated gallery. This is an ongoing work, so please ping us on Twitter (myself or @moftasa) or leave a comment below to let me know if I have missed something or if I need to fix anything below.

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Egypt’s Heritage in Danger


Since the brutal clear-out of the two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, grim and worrisome details of looting and theft emerge. I have already thoroughly documented destruction of diverse Christian properties. Below are details about stolen/looted cultural heritage (museums, archaeological sites, antiquities of all sorts).

This is ongoing work, thanks for letting me know if I’ve missed anything, either by leaving a comment below or through tweeting at me.

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#EgyChurch: Sectarian Violence Wrap-up


Ongoing work, regularly updated. List curated by @moftasa and @MaliciaRogue.

Yesterday was a tough day that saw bloodbath and destruction everywhere. We tried to document and curate things, but I’m realizing some parts 1/ need better focus; and 2/ the current description may be a bit confusing as it mixes updates, different languages and final estimations. Yes, there is life outside Cairo, and while all eyes were on the capital, bloodthirst useless insidious events were taking place elsewhere in the country.

So, below is a (thus far) verified list of Christian churches, schools and institutions having undergone attacks yesterday. I truly hope there won’t be more to add. Don’t forget to label reports with the hashtag #EgyChurch. A dedicated gallery is available here. If you hear of other religious minorities being attacked (Shi’a, Baha’a, etc.), let me know either through a comment below or through Twitter.

Amira Mikhail, Mai El-Sadani and Amir Beshay have independently done high-quality curation as well. Info is available on Amira’s blog.

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[UPDATED] Wrapping Up: Egyptian Security Disperse Muslim Brotherhood Sit-ins


Content below curated by @moftasa & @MaliciaRogue. Translations in French and Arabic coming shortly. Content is regularly updated.

Egypt presidency declared a 30-day long state of emergency starting August 14, 4pm, and orders the Armed Forces to work closely with police to “do what is needed for the calm to return.” Curfew to be instaured after 7pm every evening except today (starting from 9pm); journalists announced to be exempt from curfew. State of emergency gives the state the following extraordinary powers (non-exhaustive):

– Censorship over any texting, media

– Assigning individuals with specific tasks

– Frisking, inspecting and searching any place or individual without court order

– Arrest under suspicion.

– Limiting individual’s transportation, gathering and residency

– Confiscating any prints, flyers and shutting down the publishing source

Mohamed El-Baradei has resigned in the end of the afternoon. The National Salvation Front (NSF) has allegedly issued a statement on the situation. His full resignation letter translated into English is below.

Announcement: For security reasons, the Biblioteca Alexandrina will be closed tomorrow, Aug 15. Reports about hooded armed men inside the building have been denied, but such individuals remain outside of the building and some of the outside glasses have been broken.

The hashtag #EgyChurch is used to curate information on Twitter about attacked churches nationwide.

Comprehensive Wrap-Up of the Events

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins from Al-Jazeera English:

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo. Image from AJE. Click to see full size.

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#UAE94: Thought Trial in the United Arab Emirates


I am finally done curating this awful thing… Five months, twelve hearings, nearly 100 defendants and countless ‘collateral’ victims detained over delirious charges. Albeit some of the defendants belonging to Al-Islah (UAE’s Ikhwan division), this is just a very badly disguised thought trial. The Storify, gathering nearly all that exists in English on the topic, covers the timespan between Jan 29, 2012 and May 20, 2013. It’ll be regularly updated:
View the story “#UAE94: Thought Trial in the UAE”

Bulgaria: Investigative Journalist Receives Death Threats

(French, Bulgarian below / Français et bulgare ci-dessous / Френски и български по-долу)

The Bulgarian chapter of the European Association of Journalists calls for swift measures against death threats received by investigative journalist Hristo Hristov and his family. Hristov has been investigating the history, development and ramifications of intelligence services under the former totalitarian regime and their implications in the current governing bodies.

The press release is available in Bulgarian.

La section bulgare de l’Association des Journalistes Européens appelle à des actions immédiates de la part des pouvoirs compétents en réaction aux menaces de mort adressées au journalisme d’investigation Hristo Hristov et sa famille. Mr Hristov a consacré ses recherches des dernières années à l’histoire, le développement et les évolutions des services secrets de l’ère sovietique et leurs implications dans la gouvernance du pays depuis la chute du Mur de Berlin jusqu’à aujourd’hui.

Le communiqué de presse est disponible en bulgare.

АЕЖ-България настоява компетентните органи бързо да предприемат всички необходими мерки както за гарантиране на живота, здравето и сигурността на колегата и неговите близки, така и за разкриването и осъждането на извършителите на това престъпление.
Комуникето можете да прочетете на сайта на АЕЖ-България.

Refugee brides: the bounties of war


[This op-ed was originally published on FutureChallenges.org.]

“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.” (Richelle Goodrich)

It’s two years now since the Syrian people first took to the streets to protest against the dictatorial iron fist of Bashar Al-Assad. His blood-thirsty repression has left countless injured and dead while more than a million people have fled the country seeking a safer and better life for themselves and their families.

I want to talk here about Syrian refugees and more particularly about women refugees and their daily nightmare. Of course, I could lambast the criminality of  international political sluggishness or argue there is still hope for this beautiful country and its people. But others have done high-voltage political analysis before me and I don’t feel any need to dress up in words my gut instinct that the days of the foul Bashar dictatorship are numbered.

Despite all my keenness, it has taken me months to write this piece. It is not a topic you can address from a distance, and however nonchalant I may be in everyday life, nonchalance is no help when it comes to facing such life stories. Yet despite the unbearable sense of powerlessness I feel, these stories have to be told because patriarchal societies — and I am not targeting solely the patriarchal societies of the Middle East — are fast to condemn and permanently stigmatise women victims of violence simply because their suffering is not seen as equal to men’s. And if we keep silent, this will never change.

Thousands of Syrians have fled to neighbouring Jordan, where they are crowded into camps and struggle in an everyday battle against difficult material conditions and poor healthcare. Security simply does not exist in these camps, which means that physical assaults and rape are a regular occurence, with children as young as 9 being the targets of sexual aggression. Forced marriages are another type of widespread abuse as Syrian women refugees are considered cheap brides, and campaigns to marry them to Syrian or other Arab nationals have gone viral. Such unions are sold under the pretext of protecting women’s virtue at any price, and the arrangements are made through all kinds of channels from social media, and online forums to dedicated secret bureaux for “honour marriages” that span the whole region.

This is not an unprecedented situation: I remember when I was a kid during the Bosnian war how Muslim women also fled to Egypt and other countries in the region. The same ‘save-their-honour’ campaign happened when a sheikh called for local men to marry Bosnian women and girls who had been sexually abused during the war. Similar campaigns have spread that focused on Chechens and Iraqis, and in every case such marriages have led to exploitation and further stigmatization.

The brutality of life away from home

This is an advertisement: "You want to get married? We put you in touch with mademoiselles, hijabis, niqabis and Syrians". Image circulated on Twitter
This is an advert from Egypt: “You want to get married? We put you in touch with mademoiselles, hijabis, niqabis and Syrians”. Image circulated on Twitter

This is an advert from Egypt: “You want to get married? We put you in touch with mademoiselles, hijabis, niqabis and Syrians”. Image circulated on Twitter

How bad is it for women and children in these camps? Extremely bad:

Three girls in our camp were kidnapped. Their kidnappers raped them. Then they brought them back to the camp. Jordanian guys come to harass Syrian girls from the age of six or seven.

Do you need to pee at night? Forget it:

There is no security, it is very dark at night. I come with my daughter, she enters and I stand [outside] waiting for her. There are girls that won’t go to the toilet. And even me, a married woman, I don’t dare to go to the toilet alone. We hold on and wait til the morning comes.

Who are the prospective grooms? Jordanians, Saudis or other Gulf State nationals who offer money to tremendously vulnerable people in acute need not just of cash and basic supplies, but also of protection. They marry Syrian women refugees hoping for shelter… for a few months or even less. In the politically correct jargon, marriage is one ‘of convenience’: actually, it is merely for sex.

Criminal hypocrisy goes even further when some men come with fake marriage permits from local sheikhs. Sheikhs have also been reported to sign marriage certificates for girls under the legal marriage age for a small fee. The marriage gives moral justification to all those men who desire fresh meat in their bed for a while. Local authorities are, of course, aware of this institutionalized and religiously sanctioned prostitution but do nothing to change the horrendous status quo.

Getting married: a business transaction

In Egypt, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians have found refuge, women and girls also face the hardships of poverty, assault and exploitation that lurk behind marriage. Such unions are facilitated by drastically reduced ‘dowries’ (the money a groom needs to pay for his bride), and often enough candidates offer their brides-to-be no assurances about a better life after marriage. The dire economic crisis Egypt is going through at the moment makes men even keener to grab a bargain discount bride.

Marrying a Syrian woman refugee is clearly seen by many men – wealthy or otherwise – as a pure business transaction rather than a question of exploitation. Men have stated in online surveys that “it is a question of supply and demand,”  and the price of doweries plummets as more and more Syrians arrive in refugee camps. Fathers are harassed on a regular daily basis to give up their daughters for marriage, and the ‘generous’ offers they receive range from 100 to 320 euros. Pleasure-seeking rich men, sometimes as old as 70, unscrupulously multiply these speedy, cheap and condition-free unions preying on women and children, sometimes as young as 12.

These bleak times can also push parents to marry off their daughters in an attempt to offer them a somewhat better life. Such precipitated marriages lead to an increase in child marriages: although illegal in both Jordan and Syria, a huge number of unions have been reported where the bride is only 13 or 14 years old. Women themselves may agree to sacrifice themselves in marriages or prostitution.or be persuaded to do so by their relatives.  Finally, the victims can also become the persecutors as such an unbearable situation pushes other women to become pimps… If the women consistently refuse to marry, they may suffer severe retaliation: blackmail, having their tent in the camp burnt down or worse.

Sentencing refugees to shame: forsaken by all?

To help me out, I turned to friends whom I know are aware of the situation: friends, both men and women, I have talked to about the situation over the last few months, friends I have heard reporting with trembling voices how they witnessed an altercation between a Syrian refugee father and an ill-timed prospective groom, friends who take part in campaigns like “Refugees … not captives” (Arabic)… And I asked them all one simple question: “What do you think of Syrian women refugees becoming cheap brides, in countries where they are struggling to find shelter from Assad’s violence and trying to build a life for themselves against all the odds?”

So imagine my surprise to see all the “no, I don’t want to answer such a question” come pouring into my inbox. These people whom I considered as firm defenders of all those who suffer injustice turned out to be cowards. In fact, most of the men and women I asked declined to answer because “they have never thought of marrying a Syrian” (WTF?) or they disingenuously claimed the ‘this-is-a-sensitive-issue’ pretext. What does ‘sensitive’ mean? Should we censor ourselves and sentence these women not just to everyday violence but also to silence? This is plain cowardice, and I did lose friends over this issue but I feel more at peace with myself than I would have if I had merely accepted their pusillanimous stance.

Happily there are others who remain vigilant about injustice wherever it happens. A female friend of mine said that a woman is “not a property that needs to be protected by a man,” and went on to say that for a man to “suggest such a thing can only mean that he simply wants a woman to sleep with. Last but not least, it shows that women are not viewed as human beings who are capable of achieving anything they want.” A male friend shared: “I’ve heard of sick stories of men using this to marry Syrian girls in temporary marriages and other shameful things of the kind … things which I think are neither in Islam nor in humanity.” He highlighted the need to provide Syrian refugees with ways of making a living even if it was work they were overqualified for: “I wish they [governments and refugee organizations] would provide them [the refugees] with the means of making a living according to their qualifications, or even something like cooking or selling things or whatever.”

The road is treacherous, but the spirit is free.
The road is treacherous, but the spirit is free.

I can find no better words to end this taxing account than what a dear friend, himself a refugee, wrote me: “Whether they are single or married, women have the same rights as men and deserve the same kind of respect as men. To think that for a Syrian woman somehow starting a new life or being accepted in a new society requires her to marry is an assault on her dignity and self-respect.”

Road image by Maneula on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Opening the Black Box of Governance: Alleviating Poverty With Data

Let's work together!

[First published on OECD’s website, prior to OECD’s Global Forum for Development.]

The constant rise of Internet and mobile phone use is an opportunity to enable more citizens to engage with governance. Technology can help improve citizen participation in decision-making and can re-energise participation in public life. Transparency and accountability are becoming a diverse and dynamic field for exploration worldwide. Opening the data produced by public administrations is part of an effective approach to poverty alleviation.

Incredible amounts of data are produced every day, by a wide range of stakeholders: governments, media, mobile operators, citizens themselves. Despite the huge potential for using data about society or government for the public good, it is rarely released and shared for public use. Additionally, reliable statistics can be hard to come by or are still the exclusive property of government or corporate officials.

Open Government Data by Justin Grimes on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Open Government Data by Justin Grimes on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Governments and citizens status: it’s complicated


[This post was initially published on FutureChallenges.org.]

I have been mulling over how to frame my thoughts about the ‘relationship trouble’ between the people and the institutions that govern them. On FutureChallenges, Corina Murafa phrased a very interesting perspective; I, however, disagree with her main proposition: “governments, be they local, regional or national, are no better than their constituencies.”

I believe many out there have read Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”, either during the seemingly never-ending philosophy classes at high school or on some whimsical Sunday afternoon later on. In this foundation work, Rousseau firmly rejects a (not only at that time) pervasive idea that people can invest some group or individual with the authority to act on their behalf and rule over them. Instead, Rousseau considers that when you hand over your general rule to another person or entity, this constitutes a kind of slavery. More importantly, the mere fact of recognizing this authority is an abdication of moral agency. Such a surrender is even more striking when  you consider the hostility with which Rousseau approaches the election of representatives to sovereign assemblies: these vote and pass laws that bind citizens to terms and obligations the citizens themselves have not agreed upon.

Now, this is no scoop: many people have come to think that such an infantilizing political system needs to be challenged and reconstructed. Take the #Occupy movements, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, 15M, #IdleNoMore, the huge protests that have erupted even in a country as apathetic as Bulgaria… But I don’t want to get into an analysis of popular movements here: I’d much prefer to talk about a more ’2.0 version’ of a Rousseau-inspired fight against the abdication of moral agency. Let’s talk about Open Government initiatives.

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The Democratic Bahraini Regime Kills Irony Once More


Today March 12 is the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. Initiated by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) back in 2011, the Day aims “to rally everyone in support of a single Internet without restrictions and accessible to all.” RSF released a special report highlighting the “Enemies of the Internet.” The report, which presents the 2012 list of countries, has identified five State Enemies of the Internet: these are all ‘spy’ states as they conduct systematic online surveillance which results in human rights violations. They are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam.

The report also emphasize the importance of advanced technology which enables authoritarian regimes to
spy on their citizens. RSF has thus compiled a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” that is 5 privately held companies which it names ‘digital era mercenaries’ because they sell software used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. With no surprises, these are Gamma Group, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys/Bull and Blue Coat.

I guess the Bahraini repressive regime is greedy for becoming even more famous: in celebration of its excellent rank in the top 5 of the ‘Enemies of the Internet,’ it has arrested 6 tweeps. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights lists the names and a few details on each case. The Bahraini Ministry of Interior cheekily explained:

The General Director of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security announced on Tuesday that a group of individuals were monitored for using social media for defamation of the King. Investigation identified six of them, in which they were referred to the public prosecution.

He said that freedom of expression in protected within the constitution and law, while urging for the best use of social media to avoid breaking the law.

I guess no comment is needed at this point…

[Brevia] Slovenia Backs Net Neutrality


The government adopted an Economic Communications Bill in September 2012, more importantly enforcing net neutrality. The government has also engaged into transposing the EU ‘cookie’ directive after it consistently failed enacting it (along with four other EU countries) and was referred to the European Court of Justice.

On 19 December 2012, the Electronic Communications Bill was passed by the Slovenian Parliament, and the rules are now officially published in the Official Journal on 31 December [PDF]. This makes Slovenia the second EU country — after the Netherlands — to have officially enforced net neutrality in its national legislation.

When will the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda wake up and resume working on enforcing this fundamental principle?

Note: for more on the Cookie Law Enforcement within the EU, check Cookiepedia out.

Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum Results


[This analysis was first published on Jadaliyya.]

Based on numbers reported by Egyptian media outlets, below is a summary of the constitutional referendum vote results broken down by governorate.

What do these numbers tell us?

  • In two stages of voting, average turnout across governorates was 30%, with Egyptians abroad participation being the most notable outlier with a 41% turnout rate.
  • The only three governorates where the majority of voters elected to reject the draft constitution are Cairo, Gharbiyya, and Menofia.

What do these numbers not tell us?

  • Given that the vast majority of eligible voters (68% or 33,855,564) did not participate in the referendum, we can neither conclude that the majority of the eligible voting population supports the constitution, nor can we conclude that a majority rejects it.
  • Only 16,232,035 or 32% of eligible voters have reportedly cast a vote. It is, therefore, misleading to claim that the silence of the other 68% is reflective of support for one position or another.
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The Sinai Peninsula: Egypt’s “Wild West”?


[This op-ed was first published at ISN — ETH Switzerland blog, a place where analyses on international relations and security converge.]

From the series "Sinai's most wanted militants", by Mosa'ab Elshamy. Image used with permission.

From the series “Sinai’s most wanted militants”, by Mosa’ab Elshamy. Image used with permission.

In April of this year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt a “kind of Wild West” after rockets fired from there targeted the resort town of Eilat. According to Netanyahu, the peninsula is exploited by Islamist militants helped by Iran to smuggle weapons and stage attacks on Israel. In August, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed in an attack by Islamist militants who then crossed the border. This is one of a string of violent incidents since Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June.

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Egypt: The Right to Water


This was originally posted on FutureChallenges.com. I am particularly proud of it as it is the first time ever I do an infographic and I dare submit it for publication 🙂

Water is indispensable to human life. As a basic need, it is highly vulnerable to exploitation and has been recognized as a human right in several international human rights treaties and declarations. Addressing the right to water in terms of sustaining life highlights how important proper policies are for securing health and welfare in human populations. One of the greatest challenges Egypt faces today is implementing appropriate measures to close the worrying gap between limited water resources and increasing water demand (see our infographic below).

The Right to Water, an Egyptian Perspective. Click to see full size. Credit: the author (CC-by 3.0)

The Right to Water, an Egyptian Perspective. Click to see full size. Credit: the author (CC-by 3.0)

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No to Cuts: Secure EU Budget for Science


[En français]

Since yesterday (22 November), the European Union holds a very important meeting: EU heads of states decide upon member states budgets. Naturally, EU budget for research is discussed during this meeting, and its amount for the next seven years is determined (re HORIZON 2020, the follow-up of FP7). Researchers have mobilized to have their voices heard as the European Commission proposes the minimal amount of 80 billion euros for HORIZON 2020 budget, opposing the 100 billion euros suggested by the European Parliament. As the initiative No Cuts on Research highlights it, “for the European Research Council (ERC) that means annual increases of about 6% which is just enough to allow the ERC to consolidate its funding activity and its mission to support European leadership in world class research. It will not be sufficient, though, to launch any new activities.” Fears persist, however, that these 80 billion euros melt down to much less.

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Bad Health Care: The Pandemics of Poverty


This was first published on FutureChallenges.org

The content package of this post relates to the “Death Threat,” and addresses non-communicable diseases. The one I want to speak about is poverty. Because all the other NCDs  you can think of — like obesity, cancer, etc. — are just a consequence of pandemic poverty. Pandemic poverty is an incurable pathogen, and its chronic infection causes an infuriating amount of disorders.

When I started following the Egyptian doctors strike, the first thing that came to mind was to wonder how viral it would go. The working conditions of medical practitioners in Egypt provoke a kind of trauma. Generously, the government spends 5.7% of its total budget on health (many countries spend 15%). This inevitably means that if people want access to healthcare, they have to pay out of their own pockets. Which they do. A lot.

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The Freefall of the Egyptian Judiciary


This opinion was wrote back in August of this year. For some reason, the editor for where it was aimed at being published just didn’t take care of it until now. Given the recent developments in the country, this is really a pity for his website. This said, I like the piece (yes, it happens to me that I like what I write), so I didn’t feel like trashing it. And as remembering is important if we want to move forward, I guess publishing this even with some delay is not a totally meaningless idea 🙂

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Egypt: In Knowledge We Trust


[This op-ed was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

Loads of bits and gallons of ink have been spilled over the Arab Spring, the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Arab Winter, etc. Yet not much attention has been paid to education although it all boils down to education, as the general idea goes.

Education is igniting a brain to find and make its own knowledge. Image adapted by the author  (CC-by 2.0)

Education is igniting a brain to find and make its own knowledge. Image adapted by the author (CC-by 2.0)

Of course, you can assume I am just a regular westerner in her late twenties with a secure well-paid job just bashing around behind a mask of self-attributed cheeky maturity. You do have the right to be wrong all along the line. So, before someone starts asking what this rant has to do with education and Arab revolutions, let me put it plainly: a revolution is not only about politics, but also about how we produce our rulers.

I think we should avoid confiding our future to a school of mentally disturbed teachers. In other words, we need to rebuild education and focus the whole process on acquiring the ability to learn and unlearn. People are knowledgeable at any level of their lives, so teaching them what to think rather than how to think is a slap in the face.

Implementation of such an idea is, however, extremely complex and requires more than a little political goodwill. As a recent Guide to Egypt’s Challenges has starkly stated, illiteracy and drop-outs rates are critical — but even more alarming is the quality of education which is unadapted to employment and business markets. In Egypt, 15% of the population falls in the 15-24 age group [pdf] and makes up 30% of the working-age population. Yet this group also suffers the highest unemployment rate: yes, rebuilding education is vital. A committee of experts was established at the dawn of the revolution with the task of defining a fresh curriculum. With all due respect, how do you intend to rejuvenate old-fashioned programs by putting dusty minds to work? This is not a rhetorical question, but let’s proceed.

This committee suggested various changes such as encouraging use of computers in schools and investing more in science and research. A thoughtful article published in 2004 discussed Egypt’s “academic entrepreneurs” and the exciting array of initiatives to promote biotech research in the region. Back then, the hype was already strong for the Nile University, the very first non-profit private research university in the country and the region, “the kind of eye-catching initiative that Egypt’s government hopes will help it close the gap on countries with a more advanced R&D infrastructure”.

Nile University opened its doors in 2006. And the hype was not in vain: its rich applied research curriculum attracted many highly qualified students and professors and soon collaborations with foreign institutions blossomed. In June 2011, the first post-revolution budget was approved, and science was allocated a stunning 0.4% of GDP … Oh well, I am just badmouthing again: 0.4% of GDP is what fabulous scientific achievers like the Slovak Republic and Argentina spend, while Saudi Arabia invests a mere 0.1%. Irony aside, this was the double the funding in 2010, and the plan was to reach 2% of the GDP in 2015, which is ambitious but positive.

I support Nile University. Image by oskay on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

I support Nile University. Image by oskay on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Interestingly enough, bolstering Egypt’s science and research includes the dismantlement of Nile University, Egypt’s research jewel. After the revolution, many of the Mubarak-era decisions were overruled, and in 2011 the government reassigned Nile University’s lands and buildings to the Zewail City of Science and Technology, a veritable monster of pristine glass and steel.

Since then, it’s been dog eat dog. Nile University researchers were forced to quit their labs and rent other facilities, if available, elsewhere to work for a few hours. Although Zewail claims a deal to merge the two is in the making, there is no guarantee that Nile University will remain independent as it wants to. A lawsuit has been filed, negotiations engaged, and even a government offer was made to compensate Nile University for all its outlay in equipping the labs. But what do you want to do with this money with no place to invest it in?

Students elsewhere resume class, but those enrolled in Nile University are still banned from their alma mater by Zewail. On August 28, around 60 students and their professors staged a sit-in to protest the ban on using any of the buildings on campus. Meanwhile, a committee – yes, this is one of Egypt’s fortes – has been formed to address the crisis brewing between a megalomaniac science entity with no staff, no departments, and no curricula on the one hand and a bunch of insolent disobedient youngsters on the other, impertinent enough to want to acquire knowledge in the right conditions.

Images: “Brain Injection” original and the heart sourced here (both CC-by 2.0)

Media in Bulgaria: Outlawing Freedom


[This op-ed was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

Democracy à la Bulgarian

Oligarchy. This sounds like a scary disease in a pathetic soap opera. I agree: oligarchy is a type of plague. It is contagious, insidious and pandemic. Without pathos: the beautiful country I come from suffers from chronic oligarchy.

It is no new illness: Aristotle defined plutocracy centuries ago, and oligarchy is just one of its flavors along with meritocracy or military juntas. The Bulgarian system of oligarchy is pretty straightforward: after 1989, organized crime spread all over at the speed of light. Former sportsmen, policemen and military officers all created their own “security agencies”. Unemployment, inflation, pervasive violence and corruption thus became our familiar everyday Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

But the Apocalypse failed to materialize. What happened instead was that the European Union (EU) announced that the transition to democracy in Bulgaria was achieved in 1999. This was daring – or in more politically correct terms “controversial”. Transitions to democracy are naturally tumultuous both in terms of economics and political development. However, the end of transition should be social, economic, political and judicial stability which means that naturally, transparency and participation of sane citizens should be the main props of the governance processes.

Yet the dirty mirror of Bulgarian democracy reflects the image of the poorest country in the EU where the mafia is an intimate part of the political establishment. The white-collar workers of today are the security entrepreneurs of yesterday. Our big shots started their symbiosis with key politicians very early on at a time when their Russian brothers in arms were resorting to violence as an entry to the political establishment. Such a strategy from the Bulgarian oligarchs later allowed for replacement of unaccommodating managers in corporations and for unlimited credit lines from national banks.


The point where Bulgarian and Russian oligarchs converge is in their use of communication strategies. Secrecy is one of them: you simply do not let people know about your juicy deals. Aggressive PR is the other. People give you the bad eye? Change it: buy campaigns, be sweet to journalists and TV show producers… buy freedom from media. Bulgarian oligarchs learned fast from their Russian counterparts how to transform media power into the political ascendancy which in turn gives economic dominion.

Grow Your Own Media

This sprawling “oligarchization” of mass communications has become especially pervasive since 2009 when the right wing party GERB won the majority of seats in Parliament. This provoked a deep and enduring change in media discourse. Various media watchdogs have observed an ever-deteriorating landscape with respect to media independence.

More importantly, a report from the Bulgarian Media Democracy Foundation detailed the complex interactions observed in 2010. It highlighted what they define as the “mediatization of politics”: instead of being the ombudsman between political institutions and citizens, the media is increasingly becoming a key player in the political arena. The report also underlines the politicization of the media message and its growing subordination to political circles.

Injecting oligarchy-compliant content is not the only consequence of political interference in media freedom. The presidential elections in 2011 prompted the re-organization of the media market. Diversity of ownership of news outlets shrunk severely, resulting in corporate journalism and unclear funding channels. The privately owned media was most affected and is now dominated by hidden political agendas.

Harvesters of Sorrow

We were used to harassment, assaults, death threats, car bombing and various other “accidents” happening to inquisitive journalists. We got used to hysterical female journalists herding around a lewd Prime Minister posing naked for a tabloid. We are also used to reading self-aggrandizing headlines of such staggering importance as “Boyko makes Beker sweat” or “Boyko saves parrots” [the Bulgarian PM’s name is Boyko Borissov]. Panem et circenses are Bulgaria’s media gamemasters.

“The Bulgarian media make democracy sick”, as a professor said recently. If the communicating vessels ‘media’ and ‘ruling majority’ do not break off their incestuous relationship anytime soon, we must fear that the patient’s health status will turn critical.

Image: “Freedom of Speech”, Khalid Albaih (CC-by 2.0)

Updates on #EgyPresElex: irregularities, #SabahiPresser


Updates added as news come out, so check out regularly.

Things unfold really quickly in Egypt. Yesterday, I was writing about the possible options of getting out of the current presidential stranglehold. Things go into the most reasonable and secure direction, IMHO, which is: show how much Shafik does the things wrongly, not only when he was Mubarak’s buddy — because apparently being felool doesn’t prevent Egyptians to vote for him, — but also and more importantly how thirsty for power he is and eager to re-impose the old dictatorship. How? By proving he has cheated during the election process.

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#EgyPresElex: a suggestion for a way out of schizophrenic best evil/least pest


The illusion of free choice Egypt, the country of my heart, held its first presidential elections on May 23-24. I’ll skip the frenzy before, during and after the elections, there are tons of articles, tweets, Storify-curations, Facebook reports and pictures. What is interesting for me to address here is the possibility of having to choose between Morsi and Shafik, the “spare tyre” as dubbed by the Times for the former and the felool and former Mubarak best buddy for the latter.

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Bulgaria to Teach Tunisia How to “Do Democracy”


[This post was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, nobody expected what was going to happen afterwards. Several observers and experts attempted to draw a parallel between events in Tunisia and the dramatic changes that took place in eastern European countries after the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. This comparison was taken so seriously that Bulgarian government announced, after a meeting between the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and his Tunisian interim counterpart, that Bulgaria was opening a special school to teach future Tunisian politicians how to succeed in democratic transition.

When I read about this in nearly all the Bulgarian newspapers, I thought it was some kind of bad joke. When Tunisians went down into the streets, they were protesting against corruption, despotism and joblessness. They were chanting for basic human rights, free speech, and an end to arbitrary repression.

What example could Bulgaria give in these matters after 20 years of democratic transition?

The EC report published in 2008 under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) qualified the situation in Bulgaria as “grave” and highlighted the inadequacy of measures the government was employing to fight corruption. The very last such report, published on July 20 this year, pointed out that while efforts have been made to fight corruption and improve the judiciary, doubts still persist about the how serious the government really is about implementing actual reform.


Democracy in Bulgaria: the unexisting stool with 2.17 legs. Image adapted by the author (CC-by-SA)

Democracy in Bulgaria: the non-existant stool with 2.17 legs. Image adapted by the author (CC-by-SA)

In 2009, the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House ranked Bulgaria 76th out of a total of 196 countries, and indicated erosion of freedom of the press and freedom of speech 1. Moreover, a report from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) pointed out that – with the exception of children’s rights – basic human rights have been dramatically downgraded in 2010. This picturesque landscape is complimented by an “increase in the frequency of arbitrary use of special surveillance devices (SSD) by security services”, the BHC reports. The SSD Act and the Criminal Procedure Code do not provide sufficient safeguards against arbitrary surveillance and the secret monitoring of other forms of private communication.

Five centuries of Ottoman rule ended in 1878 with a liberating war and were followed by several decades of constitutional monarchy. Half-a-century of totalitarian “communism” came after which was another period of anything but a balanced political system. In 1989, Bulgaria was caught up in the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall: the end of the “communist” regime was above all the result of an external breakdown, not an internal uprising. The domino effect initiated in Central Europe eventually reached Bulgaria, of course, but it was the Communist Party that decided on the first changes. The “ex-communists” became socialists2 eager to maintain their influence in the face of an aggressive opposition from the solid body of “anti-communists” making up the United Democratic Forces3 who wanted to take over all the levers of power in the name of democracy. This binary division has resulted in a mafia-like “gray” economy – an inexhaustible source of fraudulent enrichment.

The Constitution (adopted in July 1991) and this rudimentary two party system are clear indicators of the tremendous difficulties involved in building a sane electoral baseline and highlighted the fact that we were simply not ready to make this famous transition to democracy. And this political set is here to stay: the constitution of the parliament such as it is after the most recent elections in 2009 (see figure below) clearly shows the 2 poles (center-left with BSP and the Turkish minority movement4 vs. all the others ranging from center-right to far-right5).


The make-up of Bulgarian Parliament since 2009. Image by the author (CC-by-SA)

The make-up of Bulgarian Parliament since 2009. Image by the author (CC-by-SA)

Nor do things look any better, economically speaking. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. Even though the average salary is said to be  300€/month, the minimal salary remains ridiculously low (270 levs ~ 135€/month) and there are major disparities between the country’s regions. People have not forgotten the huge unemployment rate (18%) less than 10 years ago nor the galloping inflation (550% in 1997). In 2010, 10.2% of the population were unemployed, and the introduction of the euro to the country was postponed to 2015. Recently, the “gray economy” was estimated to make up as much as 40% of GDP. But I guess, we can always assure Tunisians that it is much better to have a “gray economy” than no economy at all, as the Bulgarian Minister of Finances and Transport Traycho Traychev put it a few months ago…

Against such a shabby and uncertain background, I honestly ask myself what kind of “How-To-Do Democracy” handbook Bulgarians can write for Tunisians. The infamous “Bulgarian umbrella” and our flourishing “gray economy” seem to be the only high-profile goods we can export…

[1] The report assigns a numerical ranking to each country based on legal, political, and economic factors; it considers regulations that restrict media content, editorial pressure by the government, intimidation of journalists, and the structure of media ownership.

[2] The socialists gather in the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

[3] SDS is Union of Democratic Forces (in Bulgarian: Съюз на демократичните сили, Sayuz na demokratichnite sili, СДС). For the parliamentary elections in 1997, an alliance named ODS for United Democratic Forces (Bulgarian: Обединени Демократични Сили, ОДС) was formed around SDS.

[4] The Rights and Freedom Movement (DPS; Bulgarian: Движение за права и свободи, Dvizhenie za prava i svobodi; Turkish: Hak ve Özgürlükler Hareketi) is the Turkish and Muslim minority party in Bulgaria.

[5] The current majority party GERB is classified as center-right; Ataka is the far-right movement, and all the other parties are in between these two.

Photo credits: Stool is originally by mrflip (licensed under CC-by-SA 2.0)

Unconcerned by 9/11? Think again!

[This piece was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

My skin is milk-white. I am from Eastern Europe. I am a successful student in Paris, France and I have nothing in common with a North-African girl with her lively French punctuated by Arabic words and her curly hair, often shyly hidden under a veil. I am anything but concerned by what happened on September 11.

Ain’t I?

Such individualities brutally coagulated into the solid, rigid block of “Muslims” – therefore potentially violent, thus probably jihadists – are everywhere around me. I meet them at the university, we buy the same cornflakes in the supermarket, we take the same noisy crowded train every day after work. A few are friends, it feels good having tea with them after an exhausting day of lectures. But the majority of them are just people I don’t know anything about. The fact is though that they have become “the enemy within”. Overnight people who were just living their lives have become terrorists.

But I see something else: myself and others of my age have spent 10 years of our young adult lives under various emergency laws and a regime of institutionalized racism, 10 years of carefully instilled fear of the Other, this cursed Muslim otherness, criminally justified by Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” Only one month after 9/11, Bush’s government voted the Patriot Act, that carte blanche for feds to commit any illegal acts in the name of security, for psychological pressure and unlimited custody based on simple suspicion.

In France, the “plan Vigipirate” has become permanent: armed soldiers patrolling among civilians in train stations have become a standard part of everyday life even though a state of emergency has never been proclaimed. Do you feel secure with these guys hanging around with loaded Famas guns? Do you find it normal that policemen in the streets stop North African people to check their IDs only because these people have dark skins? Even though I am a foreigner in France – and thus equally likely to be controlled – I have never been asked to show my ID. In the métro you are politely asked to report “any item that might seem suspicious” and a forgotten bag leads to the closure of a whole line.

In the sacred name of anti-terrorism, cops dissect phone bills, passports have become biometric and the newest French identity cards will soon contain a RFID chip with all your personal biometric data on it, ensuring that citizens are under total surveillance without knowing it. As stated in the related law, this data will be collected from 45 million “honest French people” and stored in a centralized national biometrical database. This new ID card may also include a second chip, a smart card with a “unique digital signature” that identifies you on e-commerce websites. The data from such commercial transactions will be collected by the Ministry of Interior. The citizen is now an integrally traceable alleged offender with no choice but to obey the panoptic control of CCTV cameras and “security” gates which beep so very often – even in the museums. Say Cheese! You are videoprotected…

You are concerned. Even if you think 9/11 is just a very high-level political conflict quite beyond your comprehension or just a local issue, you should wake up and begin working to counteract ordinary everyday state terrorism. “1984” was fiction, not a “how-to-do-it” manuel.

The battle for Egypt




The dozens of rallies have been alternatively tense, surreal, and frightful, and, at times, whimsical. In between chants against at the government of President Mubarak, demonstrators break out in a dance -- with one of them balancing a broom on his chin -- during a massive rally Tuesday, Feb. 1, at Liberation Square in Cairo. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)


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How to perform responsible research


Mad scientistWhereas professionals from medical care have the Hippocratic oath and researchers on human have the Nuremberg code for ethics to subscribe to, there are no such guidelines for people in sciences. The 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore took place at the end of July this year. The output of this meeting gathering more than 300 individuals from 51 countries is the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity released on September 22.

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In the mood: French minister of education and research on Shanghai ranking


The French version of this posting is available here.

The French newspaper Libération organizes regular chatrooms where questions are adressed to various politicians. On September 15, the guest was Mrs Valérie Pécresse, the French minister of Education and Research. She answered several interesting questions and, among them, the one on the Shanghai ranking published a little ago. I prefer laughing than crying from despair when I read this…

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Bookmark: “We come in peace” – the Chaos Communication Congress announced


We come in peace, said the conquerers of the New World.
We come in peace, says the government, when it comes to colonise, regulate, and militarise the new digital world.
We come in peace, say the nation-state sized companies that have set out to monetise the net and chain the users to their shiny new devices.
We come in peace, we say as hackers, geeks and nerds, when we set out towards the real world and try to change it, because it has intruded into our natural habitat, the cyberspace. Let us explore each other’s truly peaceful intentions at this year’s Chaos Communication Congress 27C3 to be held from Monday December 27 to Thursday December 30, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.

27C3 calls for participation! The following areas are of particular interest this year:

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