Pres. Trump’s 10/18 National Strategy for Counterterrorism

6 Oct

In the past, I was asked to respond to earlier National Strategies and the QDR. After I responded, my boss, Steve Metz would castigate my comments, but our research group as a whole might have some useful discussion. I indulged in this on Twitter and assemble the comments here.


Dr. Sherifa Zuhur‏ @SherifaZuhur


The White House: “President Trump has released a new National Strategy for Counterterrorism that will protect American citizens and interests at home and abroad.” (the Executive Review section). Do continue to read the actual document here:


My response is that this new strategy will not make our nation safer; in other words less safe than it might be if the strategy involved building a true international partnership in counterterrorism.

Part of the dilemma concerns partisan political themes which have been embedded in this strategy, which itself should be non-partisan. Naturally, the document is constrained by a certain level of vagueness or generality, and perhaps its crafters will elaborate. Probably not to me, however.


This NSCT was written for Pres. #Trump, not by him. He neither understands nor supports key elements in it. It declares that “America First does not mean America alone” yet Trump’s words & actions re. trade, diplomacy and foreign policy have attacked certain key partnerships abroad. And notably where terrorist influence has been strongest – thus attacking “US interests abroad.”

This strategy specifies “working with our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Allies and partners” yet Trump has acted & issued statements which attack the import and purpose of NATO.

It claims to counter ALL #terrorists and “not focus on a single organization” yet, the President has given a thumbs up to white supremacists and the NRA, which stands in the way of important counters to domestic terrorism. Although the document eventually mentions certain right wing organizations, very odd examples are included, while major racist, fascist bodies in the U.S. are not.

Echoing President Trump’s comments in various public for a, the document self-congratulates on having ” liberated nearly all of” #ISIS‘ territory. Ask any expert on #ISIS: its franchises are active, dangerous and spread around the world.

The strategy’s stated goals rework and enhance Pres. George W. Bush’s “4 Ds” as stated in his NSCT of February ’03 in the ‘global war on terror’: to defeat (terrorists) deny (them sanctuary, support and sponsorship) diminish conditions which terrorists exploit, and defend the U.S. The authors of this National Strategy, fifteen years hence, have not thought through the contradictions implied by a fascist, nationalist America First framework as in the punitive actions on (legal and illegal) immigrants in defending “strong borders.”

Perhaps the greatest failures of this NSCt and previous Nat’l Strategies for Counterterrorism have been in failing to erase “Terrorists’ ability to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize to violence.” And in drawing too sharp a line between domestic and international attacks.   Meanwhile, the Islamic State (and other groups) found ways to inspire and claim the actions of individuals who were not initially closely connected to it, for the purposes of terrorism. It accepted a bay’3a (oath of fealty) simply by a telephone call, or other communication. This has exaggerated the reach of the organization but made it far more difficult to “end,” “deny,” or defeat.

Yet this Oct. ’18 NSCT red flags #refugees to #Europe as if a) #IS had not already created networks there and b) anti-#migration is a bona fide counterterrorism strategy!! It names two perpetrators in the ’15 #Paris attacks, who posed (important!) as refugees. This is as flawed an approach to grand strategy as was invading #Iraq while targeting #AlQaeda in #Afghanistan , without considering the impact of each action and their respective, yet conflicting sets of goals.

The authors of this NSCT guess that #ISIS, #AQ and ‘other groups’ (names a few, but notably NOT the Taliban (!)) will “probably prioritize regional goals over attacks against the homeland or US interests” But it doesn’t spell out the downside of such attacks, nor any need for or means of response.


It defines #Iran as the “most prominent” sponsor of state terror, via IRGC-QF & Hizbullah and others. But if nations like #Israel or the #US aren’t also sources of ‘state terror’, they must adhere to #Geneva conventions. Here, in a shocking short paragraph, we see the plan to retain Guantanamo. It will fool some readers because it claims that doing so is a “use” of the the Law of Armed Combat when in fact, prisoners in Guantanamo were treated with shocking and flagrant violations of the LOAC.   The retention of Guantanamo, and the ‘forever’ prisoners there continues to be Li a violation of LOAC. Moreover, this is a clearly partisan move by #Trump, he promised his supporters to keep #Gitmo open because Obama promised to close it. Its use actually endangers Americans everywhere and diminishes the shining status of the #US‘s claim to provide a ‘rule of law’ as a principle of governance.

Ironically, the new NSCT is weak in explaining exactly HOW it will “COUNTER EXISTING AND EMERGING TERRORIST FUNDING METHODS” (p. 24) – an area of great interest to the Dept. of the Treasury. For example, President Trump’s idle boast that the US could have prevented #ISIS from selling oil is sheer delusion; #IS sold some of that oil to #Assad who used it to continue making electricity. Many experts were well aware of #iS‘ funding methods since late 2012-2013 (for some elaboration see my chapter in ) but the US was markedly unable to interrupt them, as they consist of: voluntary donations in response to private fundraising; use of oil income, but also drugs, kidnapping ransoms, antiquities proceeds, & more – all documented, but with no off-switch. (President Assad’s supporting militias and thugs also obtained funds from such sources.)


This Stategy promises that the U.S. Government will “educate the public on how to prepare for, respond during, and quickly recover after an [terrorist] attack.” There are so many questions here! The government has failed to train schools to prepare for, respond to and recover from school shootings and most of all, it has failed to support gun controls, no doubt because of the active funding to political candidates by the National Rifle Association.


So now, the government is going to train all citizens, whether they are accessible in such institutions as schools or not. How will this training be shared? In electronic training courses (if like any I took through the U.S. Army, may God help everyone! Ok, learning to create a unique password in cases of kidnapping might be useful as well as how to resist spilling secrets under torture.)? On television? In direct mailed sets of information? Going door to door?

Under the section “countering violent extremist ideologies” this Strategy paradoxically asserts that 1) terrorist ideologies “contain elements w. enduring appeal” – yet 2) we will show “their claims are false & do not offer effective solutions.” This is also an area of counterterrorism which has been stunningly unsuccessful and has produced comedically ridiculous efforts such as media claims that certain terrorists were homosexuals, engaged in porm, or that an American Catholic could force Muslims not to use the word “jihad”, or convoluted claims, articles, papers and books trying to demonstrate that the outcomes of U.S. foreign policy have not been deleterious to Muslim populations abroad.


As this has been an area of failure resulting in a wave of recruitment to terrorist organizations of a 2.0 generation despite all manner of propagandistic “Narrative” builders, it seems especially crucial to explain and introduce some new element here, and not merely mention how the propaganda will be shared (using civil society, going online, etc. which are detailed)

Eid al-Adha Reflections

21 Aug

This year, I am completely isolated from my old family, my family when I was married, my ‘chosen family’ of friends (a few are here, but they are celebrating Eid with their own families, or they aren’t Muslim).  I am cut off from the funny little mosque in Carlisle PA with the friendly and completely disparate attendees and whose inner circle determined their own Eid date by their own moon-sighting, choosing to not follow Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

I’m reading about Israa al-Ghamgham of Qatif who may soon be beheaded in Saudi Arabia for protesting, and then I read five excellent short stories, or excerpts of stories about the Eid from Egypt – available here  (

These evoked all kinds of old memories about the Eid when I lived in Cairo.  As a student (beginning graduate school), I was supposed to live in the women’s dorm in Zamalak, but couldn’t stand it.  I moved into a flat on the 10th story of a building on Champillion St. not too far from the Judges’ syndicate, and the office of the filmmaker, Youssef Chahine.  In the street were the auto body repairmen; the block reverberated with the sound of hammers clanging on metal all day.  The bedroom had a mirrored ceiling, and there was a small cot near the bed; the simsar had indicated this was for a servant.  The building was guarded by three bawaba; one of whom could not speak, but he made noises of great indignation whenever I broke any of the unwritten rules of the building.  Their task was to prevent entry of any unwanted visitors, which could mean any and all visitors except for certain persistent vendors.

One such was the milk boy – not a boy, but not yet a man.  He forced me to buy gamoosa milk at least 3 times a week.  I explained that I didn’t drink milk, when he said all foreigners drank milk, but only put it in my coffee.  All my energy was used up in arguing with him not to come further into the flat than putting the milk in the refrigerator.  Occasionally, another man came and banged on the door and ranted on and on about the sins of the flat’s owner.  My friends were usually halted by the bawaba, unless I went downstairs to bring them up, until the middle of the year, when I shattered my kneecap and couldn’t walk properly for a long time (and moved to another flat on the ground floor with a roommate at the other end of Zamalak near the now-extinct footbridge to Imbaba).

I had been a vegetarian for more than 10 years, but after some extreme weight loss in my early 20s, I began eating meat and chicken again.  However, in Egypt in those years, there were restrictions on buying meat. One had to queue up at the butchers’ on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I was still struggling with the switchup in Arabic dialect in my shopping, still asking for “banadura” instead of “tamatim,” and the names of the various cuts of meat were confusing.  I decided on the day before the Eid that I needed ground meat, and found just the right place and a small enough amount (I was going to go camping for most of the Eid holiday far away up beyond Marsa Matruh, and I didn’t want meat spoiling).  As I returned from classes and then shopping, the gruesome sights and sounds of animals being slaughtered in the streets were all around me.

As I entered the foyer of my building, the bawaba were slaughtering a huge animal right there — blood was all over the marble floor, on the walls and I ran past, not waiting for the elevator, up the 10 flights.  I can’t remember if I cooked the ground meat or not; I think not, but I didn’t venture out for the rest of the evening.  This memory of feeling Cairo suddenly turned into a slaughterhouse dissipated after the long drive up north and out into the desert, but I suppose I will always associate it with the Eid.  And long discussions at the time about how the First World can afford to embrace vegetarianism, non-smoking, and environmentalism, but Egypt could and should not, as people need their pleasures in this life (that roughly was the position of some other students).

This horror of meat and death returned when I lived in Damascus, and then again when I had married an Egyptian living in the U.S. and he told me that he planned to buy a lamb, and either split it with a friend, or bring it home and kill it in the bathroom.  He said that just to see me wince.  I urged him to buy no more than a quarter since we’d have to freeze much of that, and then I didn’t want any of it.


Sirhan Sirhan: The Forever Prisoner and Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassination. By Sherifa Zuhur

6 Jun


Most of the article below was published in Al Jazeera English‘s Opinion section on June 5th.  I haven’t blogged for a while, and so I thought I’d put the entire piece I wrote here.  This took me years to research.   Rose Lynn Mangan and Adel Sirhan explained certain details to me. Mangan who died in 2017, put her research online where it is still accessible.

Here is the AJ article:

Sirhan Sirhan’s crime is one mired in the tragedy of Palestine. If the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy was a conspiracy extending beyond Sirhan, then we may speculate about a power struggle between key American political forces. Sirhan’s 50 years in prison are colored by the failures of the U.S. criminal justice system in which racial disparities are apparent. A poor young unconnected Palestinian was easily convicted, and accused of political fanaticism. Today, Sirhan would likely have been charged with terrorism.

His case may remind us of the many Palestinian prisoners confined for years in Israel’s jails, and that some are ‘forever prisoners.’   Sirhan Sirhan has been denied 15 times. He was originally scheduled for release in 1984. Now 74 years old, this forever prisoner has served longer in jail than any Palestinian prisoner in Israel including Nael Barghouti, who was imprisoned for 33 years, released and then re-imprisoned.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944 in Jerusalem, the fifth son of Christian Orthodox parents.   His father, Bishara, originally from Taybeh, worked for the British mandate government in Jerusalem’s water department, and his mother, Mary Muzher was from Bethlehem. Sirhan witnessed the bombing of Damascus Gate as a child, the death of his older brother, a man disemboweled by a bomb and other traumatic sights. In 1948, with Israel’s seizure of mandate and Arab properties, Sirhan’s father lost his job. The family had to move from Musrara to the Jordanian controlled area of East Jerusalem, where they shared a single room with 9 other families. They immigrated to the U.S. when Sirhan was 12, but his father returned to Palestine after a family dispute.

Sirhan had worked in several gas stations where two owners subsequently told the FBI he was an excellent worker, never made problems and never expressed any nationalist views. He attended horse races, was interested in becoming a jockey and was bright and completed two years of community college. He was fascinated with the idea of mind control. He also worked as an exercise boy at the Granja Vista Del Rio ranch, but was fired, after he fell from a horse and tried to collect insurance. He and his immigrant family were motivated to keep away from serious trouble, nor were they connected to any radical organizations. His sister Aida, married an American but came home to die at the age of 29 from leukemia in 1965.

Sirhan was not a gun person, but acquired a gun in March of 1968 “for target practice” from his brother when he asked him to find him one. He acted strangely in the days just prior to the assassination on June 5, 1968. He stated that he drove downtown that night because there was supposed to be an anniversary celebration of the Six Day War, but he had the wrong date. He stopped at the Ambassador Hotel, where he quickly drank four Tom Collins cocktails. Kennedy, who had won the California presidential primary elections, spoke in the main ballroom. In a change of previous security plans, he was guided to exit through the kitchen and pantry area. Kennedy was shaking busboy Jean Romero’s hand, when Sirhan, facing him, shot him. Five others were also hit and wounded: Paul Schrade, William Weisel, Ira Goldstein, Elizabeth Evans, and Irwin Stroll.

RFK had a small security detail. Congress did not authorize protection of presidential candidates until after his assassination. He wanted to be able to see and touch people, and he was reportedly averse to being spied on by the FBI. Two of his acting guards, Roosevelt Grier, a football player and Rafer Johnson, an Olympic star tackled Sirhan, and witnesses heard him say, “I can explain. I did it for my country.” An Ace security guard, Thane Eugene Cesar was standing behind RFK. There was also Bill Barry, an ex-FBI agent who had followed Kennedy into the kitchen pantry area, and two more Ace guards.

Numerous investigators and Sirhan’s later defense teams believe that a second shooter was involved. An audio recording made that night by a freelance reporter, Stanislaw Pruszynski revealed the sounds of up to thirteen bullets according to analysts and that there was insufficient time between certain firings for one weapon to have been used. Other details indicated that at least nine shots were fired.

Sirhan’s Cadet model Iver-Johnson .22 revolver had only eight bullets. Three bullets hit Kennedy, two remaining in his body and one tearing through his arm. A fourth bullet passed through his coat without injuring him. All three bullets traveled back to front, right to left, and upwards. The bullets remained in the bodies of the five others who were shot. It was claimed that the bullet that passed through Kennedy’s coat then made a U-turn and hit Schrade, standing behind Kennedy, in the head. There were three bullet holes in the ceiling and two bullets lodged in a door frame, which the LAPD destroyed, along with the ceiling tiles. I mention aspects of the evidence and ballistics because Sirhan’s researcher, Rose Lynn Mangan meticulously detailed these disparities and many others prior to her 2017 death.

According to the medical examiner and coroner, Thomas Noguchi, the bullet which impacted Kennedy behind his right ear was fired a distance of one inch, and no greater than two inches. Yet, according to witnesses, Sirhan was four to seven feet in front of him. Some held that he had turned his head at that moment and so Sirhan might have hit him. But it is problematic that Thane Eugene Cesar, the Ace security guard who stood behind Kennedy might have fired, indeed Don Schulman, an eyewitness was certain he had done so. Cesar claimed that he drew his weapon but that it was a .38 and it was never checked. In fact, he had owned a .22, which he claimed to have sold.

Sirhan’s attorneys William and Laurie Duseck maintain in a 2011 filing intended to lead to another appeal for Sirhan, that the bullet hitting Kennedy’s neck was not from Sirhan’s gun and the bullet in evidence was switched for another bullet. Not incidentally, William Pepper was the attorney for James Earl Ray in the trial for the murder of Martin Luther King and argues that a conspiracy took place then. Much earlier, criminalist Larry Baggett stated that the bullets hitting Kennedy and Wiesel were not fired by the same gun. The same was maintained by Professor Herbert McDonnell in a 1973 affidavit. Rose Lynn Mangan discovered many other anomalies, and mislabelings in the evidence, finding that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the neck, which should have read ‘TN31’ on its base, instead reads ‘DWTN.’ The LAPD seized all photographs taken at the scene by Scott Enyart as Sirhan was firing his gun. They returned only 20 percent of them, did not use them at trial. The photos went missing from the state archives. Enyart initiated a suit in 1996, but then the LAPD said they “found” the photographs. Enyart said they did not depict the events in the pantry, and then they were stolen prior to this civil trial.

Several witnesses claimed to have seen three persons entering, a woman in a polka dot dress with another man, and a man of Sirhan’s appearance and that afterwards she, with another man leaving the scene, was heard to have said “We got him. We killed Kennedy.” Then there was the claim that three CIA operatives were in the ballroom, named by filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan as David Sanchez Morales (El Gordo) who was supposed to be stationed in Laos, Gordon Campbell, both of whom had worked at the CIA base in Miami, JM-Wave, and George Joannides, chief of the psychological warfare operations at JM-Wave. Morales might have been motivated by what Cubans viewed as the Kennedy brothers’ betrayal in the Bay of Pigs incident.   But critics showed that Campbell was dead, and two Bulova salesmen were present, and others disputed Morales’ identification. Despite this possible red herring, Lisa Pease (she has a book coming out this year) has argued that CIA and FBI linked persons may have played a role in the cover-up of evidence tampering and failings in Sirhan’s first defense, and have been responsible for the assassination.

Sirhan claims to remember nothing, beyond parking, being led inside the hotel, being angry and drinking.   A clipping was found in his pocket which quoted Kennedy: “the United States should without delay sell Israel the 50 Phantom jets she has so long been promised.” More damning, a notebook was found in his home that contained repetitive scrawlings of “RFK must die.” His demeanor was, however, not of a drunk man. He refused to give his name, or any details when taken into custody, or even to speak in Arabic.

To Americans reading about the radical Palestinian political groups, which emerged in the wake of Black September 1970, it seemed a no-brainer that an Arab would become an assassin. As recently as May 24, 2018, an article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper tried to characterize Sirhan as the first “lone wolf” killer. As someone who writes on terrorism, I’ve learned that most “lone wolves” are in fact not alone – they are assisted or instructed.

Sirhan’s notebook also contained a sentence that Kennedy must die by June 5th. It was suggested this was because it was the anniversary of the 1967 war, although the Sirhan family’s trauma and displacement was in 1948.   He and his defense and psychological experts have argued this writing and the shooting was done under hypnosis.   A version of how this might have been accomplished was fictionalized in Margaret Truman and Donald Bains’ murder Experiment in Murder, detailing the hypnosis and manipulation of a fictional Arab-American named Iskander Itani to murder a fictional U.S. president.

Why might others have wanted to kill Robert F. Kennedy? To prevent him from becoming president, perhaps ending the war in Vietnam sooner than occurred. Others held that he might succeed in uncovering who had killed his brother John. According to his own son, RFK had not supposedly accepted the official version of the JFK assassination.  He had expressed some suspicions of Lyndon B. Johnson’s involvement directly to Johnson. Many in the CIA felt that RFK had treated them unfairly. In any case, RFK’s death was a huge loss for the liberals and left in America, as he was charismatic, bore the Kennedy name, and had been expected to win the presidency and carry on his brother John’s legacy.   Due to Kennedy’s assassination, Hubert Humphrey ran for president and lost to Richard Nixon. That blocked any success in returning to the policies John Kennedy had initiated.

Sirhan’s testimony could not help him. Either he was political motivated or he was insane in the eyes of the public, except for those who began to believe that a conspiracy was at work. The idea of “diminished capacity” was too novel a concept in 1968. Furthermore many Americans didn’t understand Sirhan’s Palestinian identity, since many newspapers simply identified him as Jordanian. If they did know who the Palestinians were, they were unsympathetic.

Sirhan explained that he admired RFK, but felt betrayed by his staunch support of Israel and intent to send 50 bombers to Israel.   His defense attorneys argued that he had been hypnotized, and that due to his prior traumatic experiences, was not fully responsible due to diminished capacity. This defense was discounted. Some aspects of the evidence were never satisfactorily explained, and elements of the evidence were omitted or improperly recorded, or destroyed when controlled by the Special Unit Senator, rather than the Los Angeles Police Department.

Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber. However, the California Supreme Court ruled all capital cases to be a violation of California’s Constitution and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.   Sirhan was housed in San Quentin Prison. His brother, Adel and his mother would travel to San Francisco to see him and stayed with a Palestinian friend, who remembered Adel’s assertions, that Sirhan wasn’t responsible for the assassination, even though he opened fire. He was then transferred to CTF in Soledad until 1992, and then to the state prison in Corcoran.

While in he was in San Quentin, gunmen of the Black September group burst into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum on March 1, 1973, and took ten hostages including the U.S. ambassador to the Sudan, Cleo A. Noel, and the Deputy Chief of Mission, George Curtis Moore, the Saudi ambassador, Shaykh Abdullah al-Malhouk, his wife and children, and the Belgian and Jordanian charges d’affairs to Sudan. First the militants demanded the release of some members of the Bader-Meinhoff gang and Sirhan Sirhan. Then they asked for the release of 90 Arabs being held by the Jordanian government, including Abu Daoud. President Nixon refused to negotiate and the gunmen killed their three Western hostages, before they were captured by Sudanese authorities. The U.S. believed that Yasir Arafat was part of the direction of this operation and the PLO gave the order to kill the three hostages. This incident obviously did nothing to help Sirhan with his legal efforts at a reversal, a new trial or his parole hearings. He also could not assist himself by showing remorse for his crime, as he claimed not to remember it.

Sirhan’s subsequent attorney, Larry Teeter argued that his first attorney, Grant Cooper had been compromised by a conflict of interest and Sirhan won the right to a new trial   Teeter tried to have the venue for this new trial moved to Fresno, California and this motion was denied. Meanwhile Sirhan’s brother, Adel who had handled his affairs, died in the spring of 2001.

After 9/11 Sirhan was bizarrely accused of some connection to the suicide bombers because he had suddenly shaved his head and acquired a television just two days before the attacks. His brother Munir explained to me that Sirhan was watching the television during the attacks and had covered his head with a towel, as he was cold. Apparently the guards were suspicious of his mail, and that he was reading the Qur’an. Although Christian, he was trying to retain his knowledge of the Arabic language. The warden placed special restrictions on him; he was questioned by the FBI, and was unable to see visitors for a long period.

Teeter died in 2005, and Sirhan had no counsel for some years.   In 2011, Sirhan’s defense team Pepper and Duseck filed a motion for a new trial based on evidentiary claims. These were supposed to include the testimony of Nina Rhodes-Hughes, a witness in the pantry, who said despite her claim that there were two shooters, the authorities altered her account.   Besides Ms. Rhodes-Hughes, there were four others who heard more than eight shots, and there were other problematic details in evidence. The U.S. District Court rejected this motion.

Sirhan had also shot Paul Schrade, a Kennedy confidante, the director of the United Auto Workers union, who recovered. At the age of 91, he testified at Sirhan’s 2016 parole hearing. He has long believed there was a second shooter. He called for Sirhan’s release and said “the evidence clearly shows that Sirhan Sirhan could not and did not shoot Senator Bob Kennedy,” but his testimony was disregarded by, and at one point, mocked by the parole commissioner

In October 2009, Sirhan was transferred to a solitary cell at Pleasant Valley State Prison and then moved back to Corcoran. He was then moved to the Richard J. Donovan prison in San Diego on November 22, 2013.   Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. met with him there, and he supports Schrade’s call for a reinvestigation of the assassination, as does his sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Sirhan’s father, mother, and brothers, except for one, have all died. When his mother was still alive, she prayed that he would be released, forgiven, she said, as in the Biblical story of the prodigal son. This small woman, whose only valuables on arrival to the U.S. were two mother-of-pearl brooches marked ‘Jerusalem,’ never saw that day. His brother Adel shared that the family never again celebrated Christmas after 1968; “what’s the point when your family member is in jail?” Unspoken was the word “forever.”

Perceptions of the RFK assassination are split between those who see evidence of a conspiracy and those who do not. The world has changed since 1968. There are far more who express empathy with Palestinians today. Sirhan has always articulated distress at his people’s treatment.

What Palestinian youth may think of Sirhan is another difficult question. It may be difficult for them to embrace his story as one of nationalist heroism when he denies any conscious knowledge of committing the assassination. They may quite well understand the radical period of Palestinian politics in which this case was framed, or not. Many Palestinian youth are thoroughly aware of the perversion of justice in Israel’s criminal system, and so, extending from that, they may understand Sirhan’s predicament.

Thoughts on #Iran Protests.

17 Jan

Thoughts on #IranProtests
Sherifa Zuhur

The significance of the Iran Protests which began December 28, 2017 and which have continued (today is January 17, 2018) despite massive arrests cannot be overstated.
People of all walks of life are challenging the leadership of the Islamic Republic and calling for an Iranian Republic. That calls into question the clerical or theocratic nature of the regime and the already dubious argument of vilayat-e faqih, or rule of the cleric.

The Islamic revolution, or rather, the revolution against Mohammad Shah Pahlavi which exploded, resulted in a struggle for power and ended up in an elevation of Islamism, has changed the Muslim world. Instead of moving forward, it has in many regards, moved backwards. Salafism has burgeoned in Sunni majority populations – a philosophy which is very close to that of the Islamic Republic, and in the GCC countries. Governments have used Islamism to defeat enemies and constrain friends. We can speculate that if Iranians were able to successfully change their form of government, this would affect the rising number of those who believe that religious rather than national identity should dictate laws, policies and systems of justice. Iran’s protesters have been shouting:

Down with (the) dictator
Hardliners, reformers, your adventure is over!
Every night will be the same (with protests) until we get back our rights
Clerics get lost!
Sayed Ali, shame on you, let go of power
Death to Khamenei, Death to Rouhani

There have been many comparisons to the 2009-10 protests, and some were self-serving arguments which basically postulated that if Islamist reformers were not involved in the Iran protests, they were suspect, and could not succeed. Many pundits claim that the Green Movement was larger, but it extended only to a few cities, whereas these recent protests broke out throughout Iran. Such arguments betray a sense of identification by some Western advisors on Iran and certain Iranians with the Islamic Republic, particularly arguments that a retraction or restructuring of the Obama administration’s-engineered Iran Deal would be catastrophic. In a thread put forth in the media, some tried to expose the ‘hand’ of hardliners in the original airing of grievances and their economic nature; but peoples’ despair clearly goes far beyond the specifics that were presented.

The ferocity of the Iranian regime in repressing its own dissidents and dual nationals has been on display for years. And yet, acts of protests are continuing. Even where the regime tried to organize counter-protests, some involving schoolchildren chanted against the government and the Basij. Strikes have taken place. The major news outlets stopped major stories after only a week to 10 days; only those keenly interested are following. One of Tehran’s Friday imam’s claimed that all those saying “no to Gaza, no to Lebanon” in a refutation of the regime’s regional policy were supporters of Netanyahu. But even this kneejerk effort to taint the protests doesn’t seem to have been effective.
It is too soon to conclude that all of this will not result – now or later – in substantive changes to Iran’s leadership and governance.

Building a One-Candidate Election.

12 Jan

Update to the below post written a few weeks ago.  The campaign now opens and the only qualifying candidates are Sisi and Ghad al-Thawra Party leader Moussa Mostafa, who is a Sisi supporter.  He agreed to run at nearly the last minute, apparently to give the campaign some semblance of legitimacy and has 20 MP endorsements (all he needed to qualify).

Although Moussa Mostafa claims he is not a “fake candidate” ( it’s hard to forget the way he treated Ayman Nour, the actual founder of the Ghad Party – back when Mubarak allowed only token opposition parties and was determined to oust Nour, and did so.

Over these few weeks, the only credible challenger, Sami Annan, who once outranked Sisi, was arrested at gunpoint on 1/23/18, abducted and formally disqualified as a candidate.  His son gave a statement saying the family had no idea of his whereabouts.  Worse than that, Annan’s would-be vice presidential candidate, Judge Hisham Geneina was attacked. His assailants tried to abduct him, but when prevented by passersby, they beat and stabbed him.  The government arrested 3 men and is claiming this was ‘just a kidnapping attempt.’

What was suspicious was: no-one was allowed to get into the ambulance with him. Geneina had been a chief auditor for Pres. Sisi and uncovered evidence of massive financial losses due to corruption.  Rather than be praised for doing his job, he was fired, and faced charges himself.

Khaled Ali dropped out of the race last week, saying that people’s aspirations for a new beginning were for now unfortunately on hold.  It wasn’t clear if he was going to be allowed to run in any case (see below)

Then came rumors that El-Sayyed al-Badawi of the Wafd would put up a candidacy; or that he was asked to do so, but the Wafd leadership voted 42 to 4 against putting up al-Badawi as a candidate.


President Sisi’s supporters started the Alashan Tabneeha (So You Can Build It) – a petition and support campaign for the re-election of Pres. Sisi to a second term. It has offices all over Egypt.  The campaign is not collecting donations, but wants to generate a sense of participation and excitement in a race that increasingly lacks strong challengers.

President Sisi himself had not yet announced his candidacy when I first wrote this post, but has now done so.  The election expected to produce a president by the beginning of April, if there’s no run-off. If there is a run-off, then the results will be announced at the beginning of May. He won the 2014 election with 96.1% of the vote; slightly less than 47.5% of Egypt’s eligible voters (53 million) participated in the election.

LT GEN Sami Anan, 69 who was fired from his post as Army Chief of Staff by ex-Pres. Morsi may run for President. Anan founded the Arabism Egypt Party in 2014. The Party has announced its decision to back him, and he has sufficient support by Egyptian MPs to run for office.

Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, nephew of the late Pres. had announced his intention to run as well – he is a critic of Sisi’s, and resigned from parliament over violations of human rights.  However, on January 15, he announced he would not run for president, citing possible danger to his campaign workers (it’s not clear whether this means threats from Egypt’s security services or from supporters of President Sisi.

Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer might or might not be able to run, the decision will be made known by March 7. He was charged with making a rude gesture and if convicted, cannot run in the election.  If he is permitted to run in the election, he is not expected to gain wide support outside of his liberal base.

Five days ago, Ahmed Shafiq, who had announced his candidacy from the UAE withdrew from the election. He was then deported from the UAE and appeared to be under arrest at a hotel, until he announced that he would not be running. The countering reports about his status have been further troubled by the sense that his statements were coerced. Shafiq briefly served as Prime Minister of Egypt from Jan. 29 to March 3, 2011, and he narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election to Mohamed Morsi

President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win re-election in March. But the appearance of a mandate will be stronger if there is a better turnout. The president-elect must win 51%. That is perhaps the purpose of booster campaign, Alashan Tabneeha.

Some of Sisi’s supporters have turned against him because of human rights violations, a crackdown on civil society impacting liberals, freedom of the press, and NGOs, the decision to cede 2 islands to Saudi Arabia, and the economic austerity measures – inflation is high, the pound is worth only half what it was.

The stated goals of the Alashan Tabneeha campaign were cleansing the country of terrorism, completing Sisi’s megaprojects, ending corruption, promoting education, and protecting its leadership. It held a conference in the UAE in December, has sought support from Egyptians living in Europe and had collected 12 million signatures by Dec. 24. A number of members of parliament joined the campaign initially. Whether supporting it or not, 508 members of Egypt’s 596 member parliament are said to support Sisi.

The presidential campaign is going to be quite speedy, only one month allowed for campaigning and then elections to be held from 26 – 28th of March

Pres. Sisi faces a difficult task in the campaign against terrorists in the northern Sinai peninsula (which has been fiercely fought since the summer of 2013. Also sporadic acts of violence, sabotage and attacks on Christians have plagued Egypt’s mainland. Aspects of the counterterrorist campaign have been disputed such as the use of military trials and torture against detainees, the evacuation of Sinai residents, the exclusion of journalists from the Sinai (or their arrest) and a seeming inability to curtail the intelligence collected by the terrorists. Even these measures have failed to prevent large-scale attacks on the military and on civilians, as on Nov. 24th at the Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed where 311were massacred; and 9 Christians were killed at the end of December. These attacks heightened as Sisi first took over, and Pres. Morsi was arrested, then they abated somewhat, but analysts say there have been 2,000 attacks over the last three years.

Yemen: Assassination of Saleh –

5 Dec

End of Saleh’s third life.

I became interested in Yemen due to a professor (of Iranian studies) who traveled and photographed extensively there. However, I found that few Middle East studies or Arab studies texts covered Yemen. Oddly, I was assigned as a faculty sponsor Col. Taysir Ali Abdullah al-Saleh in my third year at the SSI, at the Army War College. In the aftermath of Saleh’s assassination yesterday, various family members have been killed; have long wondered how Taysir fared.

Ali Abdullah Saleh obituary The Guardian

President of Yemen for 34 years whose refusal to leave the political stage plunged his country into further turmoil

Brian Whitaker

Monday 4 December 2017 12.57 EST Last modified on Monday 4 December 2017 17.00 EST

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been killed aged 75, held power in Yemen for almost 34 years – an extraordinary feat in one of the world’s most fractious countries. He likened his survival technique to “dancing on the heads of snakes” and his political career ended much as it had begun, in turmoil.

Between 1974 and 1978, the Yemen Arab Republic had three presidents in quick succession. Two were assassinated and the third fled after less than a month in office. A four-man presidential council then took over, in which Saleh soon emerged as leader. In July 1978, the People’s Assembly elected him president of the republic and commander of the armed forces, but there were few who expected him to last very long.

Coming from a lesser branch of the Hashid tribal grouping, he was born in the village of Beit al-Ahmar, near the capital Sana’a. With minimal education, he had risen through the military but had little in the way of a political base – a problem that he set about correcting during his first few years in office. What he lacked in education he made up for with his shrewd handling of people, gradually building a consensus which, besides the military, embraced businessmen and technocrats along with tribal and religious leaders. He had no particular ideology beyond republicanism and nationalism.

The high point of his presidency came in 1990 when, after years of on-off negotiations, Saleh’s Yemen Arab Republic united with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen – the southern part of the country that had been ruled by Marxists since the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967. This initially resulted in a power-sharing agreement for the unified state – a coalition in which the ruling party from each side shared power and a presidential council chaired by Saleh with Ali Salem al-Beidh, the southern leader, as his deputy.

At the same time, Yemen opened up its political system; new newspapers and magazines proliferated and more than 20 parties competed in the 1993 parliamentary elections – the first to be held in the Arabian peninsula under universal suffrage. Promising as this seemed at the time, it was something of a mirage. The former regimes of north and south had unresolved differences which were allowed to persist under the guise of democratic differences rather than using democracy as a means to resolve them. Most important of these differences was the failure to properly merge the armies of the former northern and southern states, which led to them coming to blows during a brief war in 1994 that was won by Saleh’s forces.


With his southern rivals out of the way and the whole army under his command, Saleh had an opportunity to consolidate Yemen’s national unity but instead he allowed grievances in the south to simmer, leading to a revival of separatist activism. From 2004, at the opposite end of the country, Saleh also fought an intermittent war against Zaidi rebels known as the Houthis, as well as militants linked to al-Qaida in various parts of the country. Saleh’s relationship with the jihadists was always somewhat ambivalent. They had helped him defeat the southern forces in 1994, and though he always claimed al-Qaida was an enemy, he had an interest in not eradicating it. Without the threat from al-Qaida, western countries would have been far less interested in giving him aid.

For years, Saleh was reputedly a regular chewer of qat – Yemen’s national drug – and, since it causes wakefulness, would often follow it up with tipples of whisky in order to sleep. It was at the whisky stage that Saleh got most of his worst ideas, according to one former prime minister who used to unplug his phone at 10pm to avoid presidential calls.

Saleh was also happy to play the democratic game so long as he kept on winning. In 1999 he submitted his own presidency to the electorate for the first time – and won easily, though it undoubtedly helped to have an opponent from his own party (whose campaign expenses Saleh had promised to pay). In 2005, he announced that he was stepping down. “Let’s transfer power peacefully,” he said. “People are fed up with us, and we are fed up with power.” Naturally, his party pleaded with him to stay and Saleh, feigning reluctance, remained in his palace.

Had he left office at that point, he would have done so with a fair record of achievements. He had unified the two halves of the country, had overseen the introduction of a multiparty system and had finally settled Yemen’s borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as the maritime border with Eritrea.

Like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh was widely thought to be grooming his son, Ahmad, to succeed him in the presidency. Legally, he was due to retire in 2013, though he had been making moves to change the constitution and continue for longer. His rule had also become increasingly repressive, with the local media in particular under almost constant attack. Then came the Arab spring.


At the start of 2011, popular uprisings broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, giving Yemenis ideas about political change, too. It soon became clear that the northern rebels and southern separatists were not the only malcontents; in fact almost the entire country had turned against Saleh’s rule.

While claiming that he was willing to leave office if allowed do so “with dignity” his behaviour suggested otherwise. Despite being abandoned by many within his own ranks, he clung on regardless while his power evaporated all around him.

There was a narrow escape in June 2011 when a bomb exploded in the private mosque of his presidential palace. Several of the worshippers were killed and Saleh, seriously injured, was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

Protest demonstrations in Yemen continued and it was not until February 2012 that Saleh was finally cajoled into leaving office. Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, he was replaced by his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but the deal also allowed Saleh to stay in Yemen and granted him immunity from prosecution.

This proved disastrous because it allowed Saleh to make mischief from the sidelines. He still had a considerable support network and used it relentlessly to undermine his successor.

In pursuit of that goal he also formed a surprising alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi rebels. It was only because of Saleh’s support that the Houthis were able to seize control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2014, causing Hadi to flee. This later resulted in a Saudi-led military intervention aimed at restoring Hadi’s government – and a continuing humanitarian catastrophe.

Last week, in what seems to have been a planned move, Saleh turned on his Houthi allies and attempted to wrest control of the capital from them. He had clearly lost none of his political ambition but, for once, his snake-dancing skills failed him and Yemen’s wiliest politician came to a brutal and humiliating end.

He is survived by several children, including Ahmad, a former military commander.

• Ali Abdullah Saleh, politician, born 21 March 1942; died 4 December 2017


Introduction to Conflicting Interests in Egypt: Political, Business, Religious, Gender, Popular Culture. By Sherifa Zuhur and Marlyn Tadros.

10 Jul

Here is the Part I of the Introduction to Conflicting Interests in Egypt. It’s not in the actual book (don’t know a polite way to comment on this, so I won’t) … but it should be!

Conflicting Interests in Egypt: Political, Business, Religious, Gender, Popular Culture. By Sherifa Zuhur and Marlyn Tadros.

Lewiston, N.Y. and Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales, 2017.

This book explores aspects of politics, protest, security and culture in post-revolutionary Egypt. These resulted in conflict among various interest groups in Egyptian society an the breaking down of the social foundation of politics. Two long-time observers and scholars of Egypt’s politics and culture collaborate in this book.

Sherifa Zuhur and Marlyn Tadros

Egypt was one of the earliest centralized political entities of the ancient world. To all who study politics, it is held up as an example of a society, which unified around the need to manage its resources. Small communities coalesced under two distinct Kingdoms of Lower Egypt in the Delta and the red desert land of Upper Egypt. When these two united and were symbolized in the Pharaoh’s double crown, the nation reached an important point in its survival and development.
Spiritual and temporal life were subordinated to a system of authority whose monuments still inspire awe and wonder. Thereafter, an incredible mosaic of Pharaonic, Islamic, Mediterranean, African and western cultures continue to be expressed in Egypt and felt and seen in every lifestyle from the poorest to the most exclusive. For reasons explored in this book, the revolution of January 25th 2011 seems to have eroded the ability of different interest groups in this society to ally, if not unify with each other.
In Amam al-‘arsh, (Before the Throne) Nobel prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz tries the leaders of Egypt before the court of Osiris, the sun god. One by one from the Pharaohs to Anwar al-Sadat, their contributions and their shortcomings or damages to Egypt are presented and judged.1. Part of the extraordinary breakthrough of the revolution of January 25, 2011 was due to a desire for justice and to lessen the power of a single autocratic ruler to govern his country and oppress his populace. A body of scholarship shows that feudalism, authoritarianism, political violence create their own culture, so one way of explaining the current dilemma is to blame the patterns and pre-existing structures of the ‘deep state.’ Another avenue is to explore the conflicts among and disappointments of the general public.
Rather than directly judging Egypt’s current government on its policies and strategies, we aim in this book to expose the fissures that divide Egyptians today – that emanate from them, as well as from the failures of leadership. Indeed it seems at this moment in history, that peoples’ consciousness and interests are irrevocably dividing them – immigrants and host nations, nationalists and globalists, the religious and the secular, poor and wealthy, formerly colonized and former colonizers. Despite these divisions, there remains a creative current of satire and madcap humor, which Egyptians wield to more clearly define the failure, or the as-yet unrealized promises of Egypt’s revolution. The woes of the security state, the manipulation of the media, the plague of violence against women, and the fundamental distrust of various factions for each other are apparent.
We explore the rise of Occidentalism, or Egypt’s obsession with the west and its influence, which corresponds to the west’s utilization of Orientalism. In so doing, we uncover various conspiracy theories which Egyptians believe about the revolution of January 25, 2011, the coup of July 3, 2013 and each other. We delve into the problematic use of conspiracist thinking in explanations of Egypt’s political shifts, and how these relate to Occidentalism, and the long-standing tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic minority. Some of the conflicts we uncover are masked by Egyptian’s resort to songs and tropes of national unity, which are actually very fragile or even illusory – “we are one hand.” An example is the friction between the Islamists and the Coptic Christians in Egypt that worsened over the years due to the failure of the state to protect its minority citizens.
Dr. Marlyn Tadros, human rights defender and one of the earliest promoters of social media in Egypt, describes the use of Egyptian humor on social media as the revolution evolved and she explores broadcast media’s impact on political dissent. . Humor and satire in the Egyptian context have been used as a form of dissent, and as a weapon against oppression. If the ‘street’ is ill equipped to accept democracy, perhaps humor will bridge that gap because humor challenges people’s previously held notions. Satire therefore reflects the evolving psychology of the masses as well as indirectly affecting and enhancing people’s cognitive consciousness. As such, it may challenge authority as in the case of the Egyptian revolution where it has revealed a pattern of eroding distrust towards the authorities.

Together, the authors, who are both longtime advocates of women’s rights as well as democracy, expose the horrendous new use of violence in public against women during and following the January 25, 2011 revolution. Tadros sees the use of rape and harassment as a shocking denouement for a society in which women have struggled so hard to move into the public sphere and attained professional respect despite many constraints in social attitudes and unfair legislation. Whether under the armed forces’ [SCAF’s] brief but decidedly momentous rule following the ouster of President Mubarak, under the religious regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, or under the subsequent current military regime, violence against women persisted with varied manifestations. Zuhur explores how Syrian refugee women who arrived in Egypt were also subjected to similar violence. The authors explored the justifications given for public violence against women and the perceived political gain from women’s victimization, as well as questioning the cultural and social implications of this violence.
Dr. Sherifa Zuhur, who has written widely about Islamist movements in and outside of Egypt, provides the background and analyzes the state’s response to the insurgency in the northern Sinai peninsula, which worsened in August of 2013. She provides a cameo of an ultra-supporter of the Sisi movement, Sama al-Masri and the sarcastic popular tropes, including anti-Americanism, that al-Masri utilized on private video channels. Al-Masri interestingly draws on Egypt’s dance and music traditions.
Zuhur writes about the role of Egypt’s big businessmen, and the question of whether or not a counterrevolution has occurred. Zuhur relates the outcome of trials of ex-President Mubarak and his allies, associates, and relatives. She also questions the role of the military in response to those who ask “who really rules Egypt today?” Tadros shows the manipulation of the public by prominent media personalities who thus further the goals of the security state-within-the-state.
The volume provides coverage of a tumultuous and contested time in Egypt’s history, a crucial period when its revolutionary dreams could be manifested, lost, or salvaged only in part, as the country attempts to stay afloat economically. The quest for less authoritarianism, more justice and freedom appear as complicated as ever.

1. Naguib Mahfouz, Amam al-‘Arsh (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1983).

How to Conduct Research Interviews – Sherifa Zuhur

5 Apr

Embarking on Research Interviews

Dr. Sherifa Zuhur


(I want to encourage scholars and students, in the face of severe cuts to academic, scientific and humanities funding, to continue doing interviews, but to learn how in a less teleological manner than I did, when I was a student in Egypt. I’m also a big supporter of free journalism and believe that academics must read journalists, but develop and pursue their own hypotheses. )


You’re writing a paper, a senior thesis, need interviews for your master’s thesis or dissertation. You aren’t a journalism student, you aren’t even comfortable carrying on conversations at a party or during a class break. While interviewing you must adopt a new persona – to the extent that you can — loosen up and act like an old-fashioned bartender or maître d’ who takes the time to get to know his/her customers, asking questions in a friendly manner – but not as pointed as those of the amateur detective. You are a person meeting someone else for the first time (usually) who wants to obtain relevant facts about them and from them. You should practice such conversational interrogation skills with classmates, colleagues, friends, roommates, significant others prior to interviewing. Imitate or channel your elders who swiftly interview unknown guests at family dinners. If you have no-one in your life to help you with this, then you should at least rehearse your questions once you develop them (see below).


Whether you have excellent social skills or not, you’ve demonstrated your intelligence and perseverance in your coursework, and these qualities will assist you in the interview process. Your first step is to prepare yourself to describe yourself and your research very succinctly and clearly in one or two sentences. You must describe yourself so your subjects understand your positionality vis a vis the topic. I am from country X, at university X, in X major, my advisor is X (many people won’t know or care who this is, but a few might).  Some respondents will want to know how you speak the language. Explain. I took X many years of language X, or I learned it as a child.


**** Oops! So you think you’re going to do interviews without knowing the language of your respondents? Yes, you can, but it will be difficult. You can bring a translator (but you’ll be relying on their interpretation). If your language skills are sub-par, then explain to your respondent that you want to interview them in English, but be prepared with an accurate version of your questions in the relevant language.****


Rejection of an Interview Opportunity If you are a foreigner, you may then receive a curt rejection. “I don’t speak to Americans.” Or as I did “I don’t speak to anyone at an American university.” Somehow you must phrase your request so that it becomes a desirable invitation. You can mention that you’ve spoken to another interviewee, or persons in nearby town X. Or, “Well, I could write the topic without doing interviews, but I want to know what people really think, instead of taking Western reporters’ views as the only perspective.”   You can add, “If you aren’t interested, do you know someone else who will speak with me” (And if they agree, you should also ask them about other possible interviewees if you want multiple interviews and are using the snowballing method).   If they are dead-set against being interviewed, then politely apologize and continue on to the next prospect.


Purpose of Your Interviews.

You must explain to your interview subjects what you’re doing and also why you are interviewing them. You cannot set out in a fog of theoretical prefacing; saying that you are contextualizing your subject as many of your interlocutors won’t understand that, nor will your readers. I recognize this is more difficult for some types of interviews than for others and that history students keen to avoid teleological methodology may not do very well here – because interview material SHOULD help you form and state hypotheses. But you cannot fish blindly – so try rephrasing your main research question in the form of a purpose, i.e.


(drawing from my own field interviews)


  1. a)   I am trying to find out how much of an impact Hizbullah had on residents’ lives in this area.


  1. b) I want to know what women think about Islamist ideology on gender.


  1. c) what if there is a war with Iran – what will happen to oil facilities?


  1. a) was acceptable but a more neutral introductory question was

I want to know how the war has affected the lives of people in this area (the area chosen is where HZB dominates, although not in the entire area) – granted, I did that research in ’99 and the hawadith, the pseudonymic, apologetic term for the war, were still an important trope of political/social orientation.


  1. b) is a fail – because I had to construct a model of Islamist ideology on gender FROM my respondents’ visions and reactions.   But everyone I spoke to aimed towards a positive or negative interpretation of Islamism & was concerned that I was representing the opposite of whatever they thought.


Here were other ways of getting at that:


b revised) I want to know if the Islamiyyun (because Islamists was a disputed term then) are affecting society/women/politics …. I used all 3 of these terms.


  1. c) was fine when addressed to CEOs, upper level officials, but made others inappropriately nervous.


After you plan how to describe your research – then ask yourself what you hope to uncover, or reveal (the verb I used in my own first book title) through the interview process.  Do not decide on your findings before you obtain them!


You may have multiple purposes – you may wish to understand your interlocutors social, economic or political status. That goes into the profile you construct of interviewees prior to research questions to be asked of many – if you are doing multiple interviews. If it’s a single interview, then this information is still quite important.    If you are developing a structured interview, then these questions pertaining to profile will help you in any quantification – of age/background etc. to particular attitudes for ex.


This requires some background research on your own part. Look the person up on the Web, review any statements by or about them, and birthdate, place, education, known associations, employment. Familiarize yourself with micro-areas, villages, towns, suburbs. Go visit them if possible and try to find out what they were like at the time your respondent was growing up. You may well say, oh Sherifa, you could take the buses all over Syria at the time you lived there, but I can’t do that. At least make an effort to know the physical, social, and political ‘location’ of your respondent for ex. that Giza was once quite individual villages which now appear to blend together as empty spaces were filled in – and that their inhabitants included important families A, B or C. Don’t leave this background information out, telling yourself that you’re not an anthropologist and you don’t need it. You most certainly must combine the roles of anthropologist, historian, police investigator, general snoop dog on your subject, and learn to discern accurate information from gossip along the way.


If you can’t visit these places, make that part of the interview – it’s usually useful to know your subject’s perception of his/her own environment and how and when your subject became conscious of his/her own social location.


Here’s a good general reading on interviews –


Please note, he presents the option of an open-ended interview as if it is ‘unstructured.’ In oral history, the open-ended interview is a desirable path, but it need not be unstructured. Rather, you add on questions to encourage your respondent to keep speaking when they become engaged in the conversation with you. In oral history, one guideline is to ask “historically relevant” questions. You are seeking a bigger picture, not simply chronically the life or thoughts of an individual.


Many of these guidelines are relevant


However, if you aren’t an oral historian, some of this isn’t relevant. You are responsible for clarifying the situation of ownership over the material of the interview itself. You aren’t required to give your materials to a repository (I didn’t, but wish I had) but you may wish to do that if you see that others could benefit from this material.


How Many Interviews? Another interesting possibility is to interview multiple subjects who necessarily view one event or experience differently than others. For example, you might be interviewing people of one faction or group opposed to another, or whose families fought one another, or who were part of the same organization or institute, and yet had decidedly different experiences.   Then, a ‘history’ becomes the meeting point of differing perceptions of an event, and its impact.


Your field, finances, time and access may determine how many interviews you carry out. More is not necessarily better. Perhaps your research focuses on a single figure, those who knew that figure, or you plan to publish the interview in full – which will necessarily limit the number of interviews. If you’re studying a philosopher, or a theorist, for example, you might only research that individual. You might submit questions in advance to an interviewee, but then expect more polished and less spontaneous responses.   In this case, it seems the researcher had read an early (1993) interview of Butler, but should perhaps have informed her in advance of her questions.   (See where Butler says she doesn’t remember, doesn’t reread her own work) Yet there is value in her response on performativity.


If you are in sociology, economics, or politics, you may need to select a representative sample and the size must relate to the total size and composition of your topic, or population. A recent study of Syria’s millions of refugees used a sample of only 130 people, and acknowledged that it wasn’t representative, but nonetheless issues recommendations on the basis of the information. Any large study will more likely require a questionnaire and you must decide if you are additionally interviewing in order to obtain qualitative as well quantifiable responses.  Snowballing is another method – just acknowledge your use of this method.   Public opinion surveys aren’t the same as research interviews! Treat the material accordingly.


Questions  The next step is to formulate questions. In a qualitative interview, you want to use open-ended questions; those which cannot be answered by a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If respondents answer with a yes or a no, you need to rethink and then reformulate the question.   As my research combined sociology with history, political science and also religion, I frequently failed in this effort. For example, in one questionnaire (which I memorized) I asked “Should Egypt be an Islamic state?” To my dismay, all of my respondents answered that it was an Islamic state and tended not to elaborate on that & we then got off-track discussing Saudi Arabia or Iran. On the one hand, that in itself was informative on their views of Wahhabism, revolutionary Iranian Islamism, and their opinions that Egypt wasn’t similar.

Try to cleanse your questions of pre-formed judgments which ‘lead’ the interviewee. For example, don’t say “You have a reputation for being very controversial,” but instead formulate a question about the source of that controversy … i.e. “you wrote a book on the non-existence of God .. what was the immediate or later response to it?”


Obtain permission from your respondents. Use a release form with a signature or obtain their oral permission. Depending on your field, topic or goals, you may be concealing or including their names. I found that promising and holding to anonymity was extremely useful in interviews of individuals who fear oversight by their countries’ security apparatuses. But in other cases, I interviewed officials or leaders who could either speak freely, or not, however it was understood their names would be used.   It is understood that in academic research, the lens and opinion of the researcher determines how material should be presented. Some members of the general public don’t understand this. You may encounter individuals who won’t allow you to publish their views unless you show them the quote, or section on them prior to publication. This is NOT the preferred journalistic or academic standard as it encourages self-censorship, censorship or promotion of that individual’s stand or position to the detriment of your own. Be careful here! If you want to interview a president in office or a CEO by name, expect such an outcome, or be prepared for some sort of negative response post-interview – it may happen, or not.   As an academic, you only have a responsibility to correctly convey your own insights. You are not bound, as I was, in DoD to correctly interpret national security policy (which is itself, often vague and therefore more open than one might think).


Now here’s where your rehearsal or practice session comes in – ask some version of these questions to your roommate – or if you can, a classmate. Yes, I know your roommate doesn’t know anything about X – but he does know about some other matter/event/person. Also practice reading your questions aloud and try to eliminate sub-clauses and extremely complex terms. You should not sound as if you’re reading, but speaking with your respondent. You also want to practice recording an interview, either on an I-Phone notes, IPod, or an old fashioned recorder – make sure you know how to start, stop and review.  Yes, you want a recording! E-questions or those submitted in writing lack the same authenticity and tone of recorded or in-person interviews. You can hear emotion (or lack thereof) in your respondent’s voice. He or she may get angry. That’s important too. Back off. Apologize and start over. Or don’t apologize, but just shift gears into a new topic area, make up a different question.  In a written questionnaire, the problem is that your formal phrasing provides a shortcut – a highly educated respondent will be able to respond with some text you can use immediately, but you won’t have learned or sensed what your respondent thinks about the question.


When your respondent is especially animated about something, ask a second question, or just say “can you tell me more about that?” When you complete your questions, ask your respondent if s/he would like to add anything, or invite them to speak on something that you might have skipped over before.



Here I want to paraphrase and cite Marlyn Tadros from her chapter on humor, Twitter & the revolution from our forthcoming book on Egypt:   After Egypt’s revolution, Hazem Isma’il was his party’s favorite to run for president (but he was bypassed from this opportunity because his mother was a U.S. citizen). He answered every journalistic question with the very American phrasing “I’m so happy you asked me that question, and then blah, blah.” People made fun of this tendency as it seemed that he did this to give himself a second to answer the question which he certainly wasn’t prepared to answer. She quotes a series of tweets on this such as:


@M7mdAboSoliman iwaa tisma’a lihad yo[q]illak fi bidayat kalamuh ana sa’id innak sa’altni al-sua’al da. Ummu amrikiya [don’t listen to anyone who begins his sentence with ‘I am happy you asked me this question’. His mother is American.][i]


The irony to some Egyptians was this salafi leader’s pretense at authenticity though he had this American styling (and it did not help that it was revealed that he had plastic surgery to alter his nose).


You may interview a dissembler or a distractor – the Distractor may stall on a question or actually ignore your question and then begin speechifying on his/her own favorite topic or a point that he/she wishes to make. Let him do this. Then ask the question again.


Perils of Outside Interference in Your Questions. To newbies who use fixers. (For journalists, and some traveling researchers, a fixer is a person – sometimes, a local journalist — who is hired to help arrange an interview, or the entire story. This person may drive you, guide you, translate and will suggest interviewees to whom s/he has access) Don’t let your fixer suggest questions in the interview; you need to shape your own interview. Yes, you will have conversations with the fixers in which they are trying to determine what you want to know. I should probably write another blog entry about using fixers as the important differences between journalism and academic research play in here; and also the topic of keeping safe while interviewing.


Sometimes another person attends the interview, a relative, a cohort or colleague of the individual you are interviewing and that person may interrupt or attempt to lead the interview in a different direction. Just let them know you’ll be happy to hear their comments as soon as you conclude your questions.


Other Problems. You may run into a person who is or is not an academic, but feels ownership over the topic and who may give you trouble, or even threaten you during or following an interview. If you are a student, alert your professor or dissertation supervisor of any such a threat, but know that the respondent has no right to threaten you, particularly if they agreed to meet with you or be interviewed in the first place. Don’t let people with psychological problems or jealousy derail your efforts, or radically change the course of your research.


Several of us have experienced this with regard to closed movements – religious movements which try to control information about the group in question. It’s fine to shift gears and use secondary sources, or seek a different respondent if this particular person gives you trouble.


Or, maybe you start out in an interview and it disintegrates for some different reason. You may want to apologize to the respondent and just call it a day. If you are a single woman do be professional, and yet aware that male respondents might flirt or act unprofessionally in an interview setting. It may help if someone else is present, but that might not be possible.


Post-Interview.   Make written notes prior to transcribing your interview. Where it took place, what time and date, any special circumstances (terrible storm, gunfire made some of my interviews memorable – were other people present). Then write out the profile information you’ve gathered.


Next, a useful technique is to make headings on 3 x 5 cards – especially if you have multiple interviews, but also otherwise. What stood out to you? What did you hear that you hadn’t even imagined or thought about prior to the interview? For example, I wrote one heading under ‘PR’ for a theme in a leader’s interview in which he complained about not being able to speak to Americans and I had played along saying – “Ok, if you could, what would you say?” Was he propagandizing to me, or responding to a previous interview? I had to decide how to interpret this information.


Analyze what you learned from the interview. This process may take longer than you think.   You may decide you need additional interviews, or to narrow or broaden your approach to the topic. For example if I couldn’t interview people who were contemporaries with a particular figure, I might decide to write about another contemporary or rival of his in the same piece. What have you learned from this primary source – interview responses that you weren’t aware of? Can you limit this to a series of key findings? What if your respondent presented nothing new or unexpected? Did he or she verify any key fact for you?


Decide where to directly quote your interviewee and where to paraphrase. If your respondents have said they MUST see the material before you publish (you are highly advised NOT to offer such review) then you must contact them prior.   In such cases, the use of anonymity or partial anonymity is quite useful.


Re-read your secondary sources and other primary sources on the topic.   Maybe something from your interviews is reflected or hinted at here and you will notice it. Do this after completing or at least embarking on your analysis so you won’t be so influenced by pre-existing analyses.


For the Quantifiers. Re-check the neutrality of your phrasing. Run your numbers and consider what the interesting correlations mean. People under 30 think X but people over 50 think Y? Yes, that’s important. I was warned that people wouldn’t be interested in my data, but I devoted a chapter of my dissertation to it anyway and I’m glad I did as it illustrated a growing trend that many sought to deny.   However, be prepared to summarize your findings for those who don’t want to read the nuances or complications in that data.


Visuals. What about documentaries or research questions which are part of a video project? Here, you need to more carefully edit your questions with your audience in mind. Ideally you could tape more than one session and then edit down to your needs. Your product will be more of a cameo of the interviewee than is the case in a standard interview & you have to think about it visually. Yes, you can conduct a ‘talking heads’ interview, but it is much more appealing to present an interviewee in the context of the subject of the interview or in his/her residence, along with something meaningful to them. It depends whether your primary aim is as a videographer or an academic; and you may choose to introduce other materials, photographs etc.   A useful course, or part of a course could be taught by professional filmmakers/videographers along with academics as their intentions differ.


If you don’t use video, consider taking a photograph of your interviewee if s/he agrees (and remember if it was an anonymous interview, you can’t use this without permission).


Citation   Your interviews are primary sources. As such they should be listed separately in your bibliography or reference list. The source is the respondent, not you – don’t list them under your last name (unless your publisher requires you to do so). If you have promised anonymity, then the form is Personal Interview with Mr. X, give the location and date, or Personal interview by the author/your full name with Mr. X.


Never, never, never falsify this information!   Journalists and academics who do so are committing an intellectual crime.


If you feel that oral information is important, but this wasn’t a true interview, then use the format: Personal communication by Full Name of Respondent on date and the method (telephone, email, or the location if it was in person).


[i] Abu Sulaiman, [M7mdAboSoliman] October 23, 2012, accessed, December 18, 2016,

The Islamic State’s Threats to Voters in ’16 US Elections

7 Nov

Sherifa Zuhur

I was asked to give my comments on ‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi’s recent audiotape and also ISIS’ statement on U.S. elections. I’ll start with the second, much easier task.

ISIS oppose elections in the U.S. and more importantly it opposes democracy in any Islamic society and the idealized Islamic state – the Caliphate.  Their latest document provides the doctrinal reasons for doing so.  While there might be political rationale for changing positions on this question (as did the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas), the Islamic State will pursue, to the bitter end, the religious justifications for arguing against a democratic, populist form of government (one which would unseat authoritarian modes of government, such as their own).

Their argument against voters participation in the U.S. election is firstly:

that both sides – GOP and Democrats – are inimical to the interests of Islam and Muslims.

Here is a translation of the document.  Walking through it provides little novelty to those familiar with the group, but there might be some surprises for those who don’t read texts.

IS  directs their argument in these initial arguments to/about Muslims by calling such elections an ‘apostate’ vote.  Thus the Gore-Bush election and that of Obama were also acts of apostasy.  They are especially bitter to former mujahid/neosalafi Safar Hawali who has spoken out against jihadism on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government (you can look him up in works on extremism in Saudi Arabia).  But also towards Muslims who voted for Bush in Florida

Similarly “murtaddin” (renouncers of Islam and thus apostates) are the MuslimBrotherhood and “sister sects” who support participation in the U.S. elections and have done so for other elections, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine.

ISIS say the only difference between Hilary Clinton and Trump is that the former is more skilled in political correctness.

ISIS is fiercely opposed to feminism (it would not acknowledge being anti-woman) and opposes Hilary as a “female feminist” & cites the well-known hadith “Never shall a people who give their leadership to a woman be successful.” (incidentally, this was a reference to the daughter of a Sassanian ruler).

#ISIS states that both Trump & HRC “committed themselves to the Jewish state” – meaning Israel, as indeed, have nearly all U.S. candidates, not only for president, but other positions.

The group condemns the outcome of elections by commenting on President Obama’s actions in the Muslim world – his invasion of Iraq & Sham, interference in Libya, his drone strikes Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The Islamic State regards  HRC  as the more dangerous candidate — she is  able to lead more Muslims astray (into apostasy) by exploiting the notion of a liberal Islam or moderate Muslims.  To this they contrast Trump’s (or his advisors) definition of radical Islam as being distinct from Islam.  They write that he needs to understand that their proposals ARE Islam itself (which is ironically, the attack of right-wing analysts on all Muslims).

The group shows its intentions of not only attacking the legitimacy of elections but the rhetorical and  ‘false divisions’ of Muslims that have been created by Western (and also some Muslim) politicians, media and analysis.

If anything, this document shows that the Islamic state and all its ilk, whether al-Qa’ida offshoots or the #Jihad 3.0 variant of ISIS that may emerge in a few years, will always oppose Western-style democracy & its imposition or growth in Islamic lands.

The next doctrinally-based argument is to decry all that which is not based on Shari’ah; and all who accept  human-made legislation, judges, rulers who impose it – as tawaghit.

ISIS underscores its uncompromising view of tawhid — the single and sole authority of Allah —  in this document and aims to associate the Western or democratic vision of Islamic world with sin and apostasy.

The document goes on to condemn those who are affiliates or associates in apostasy; and who fail to act against it, as apostates.  Thereby it condemns ideal of popular legislation and voter participation as ‘ar-rida bi-kufr, kufr’;  silent consent in apostasy is apostasy.

It condemns those who ‘fight’ for the supporters of apostate democracy (which could mean the Sunni soldiers of the Iraqi Defense Forces) or any supporters of the U.S. and all those allies of Christians & Jews — a much widern net.

“Fear of deportation and abuse” is not an excuse for association with kufr  (apostasy) or Christians or Jews (This could be seen as a reference to Trump’s campaign and the urging of U.S. Muslim organizations to get out and vote against a candidate who threatens their presence in the United States.

ISIS writes that although one could argue this is coercion, the proper response to coercion is hijrah or flight (to an Islamic state) but not association with apostasy or its support.

The document makes many allusions to the early Muslims who betrayed the Muslims; and states that when angels seize sinners’ souls, they will ask didn’t they have the opportunity to emigrate (wasn’t the world sufficiently broad for them to take another alternative) instead of committing apostasy.

ISIS warns that even those with good intentions — for example to defend Muslims — who commit shirk, will be punished.

The document then states that given all of these preceding proofs, it is licit, and indeed obligatory to kill all those participating in the US apostate elections, for they are renegade apostates or Crusaders.

The language here is clearly directed at the popular electoral process:  “Say O Disbelievers, we do not worship the people”.

The Islamic State makes it clear that it is threatening threat  “Crusader” voters as well including women, who aren’t merely married and subjugated to their husband’s vote, they are voting on their own.  This may seem a bit of an obscure reference, but it pertains to the waging of violence on women.

The document concludes by asking Allah to wreak calamity on US election day like none other in American’s “pathetic history.” So does this mean that ISIS has planned violent actions?  It may have, and it would be foolish to assume that any intended by “lone wolves” might not be connected to IS Western-targeted planning departments.

In sum, this document illustrates the Islamic State’s uncompromising insistence that its Caliphate represents true Muslims – as compared to nation states & democratization even in the face of the group’s assured defeat in  Mosul and following that in Raqqa.

President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s Impact on Egypt – Sherifa Zuhur

21 Oct


I was asked to communicate President al-Sisi’s impact on Egypt by a journalist, who said he intended to put my responses into an article for the Wall Street Journal (9/8/16).  As far as I know, it wasn’t printed, but there were a few other similar pieces which came out at that time which were highly critical, if not condemnations of Egypt.  I assumed that my responses did not please the editors, but I thought they might interest you!

– President Sisi’s most important and potentially lasting effects on Egypt are:


  1. Imbuing in Egyptians the sense that their President (and therefore their other officials and institutions) must be accountable to them; justify policies and meet their needs. The President began a series of public addresses which were essentially follow-ups/report cards on specific issues. This was despite the fact that he cannot (and one would not expect him to be able to) summarize all of the forward and retrograde currents; and the fact that in certain instances those dealing with fraud were then prosecuted by the state.


  1. As Defense Minister and then President, he moved – at the public’s and the military leadership’s behest — against the oldest, strongest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, Freedom and Justice. Here, Egypt’s path diverged from other nations impacted by the Arab Spring. It would be grandstanding to say that Egypt has by these means chosen a secular state, because its legal system is only semi-secular and one must acknowledge the support of certain salafi groups for the current government. This meant there is a check to the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom & Justice Party’s longstanding animosity to Egypt’s Copts, and ambiguous attitude toward’s women’s rights and other human and intellectual rights. It meant that President Morsi’s language which indicated that his tribe or ‘people’ were Islamists and Brethren and not all Egyptians was unsuccessful. This course of action meant his presiding over a purge which impacted liberals and youth as well as Islamists, and however popular with an internal majority, has been sharply criticized outside of the country.


  1. Sisi has presided over the most active counterterrorism campaign(s) in the country’s history for some decades, and the main impetus of that campaign — in the northern Sinai — has been fiercely fought. By and large, the situation in the rest of Egypt has been stabilized.

As a response to this problem and the resistance funded or supported by the Islamists discussed in (b), he has unfortunately curtailed Egyptians political rights by not altering the so-called protest law (107 of ’13 approved under acting Pres. Mansour). Parliament’s upholding of this law, and approval of many laws and edicts introduced in the absence of a legislature is one of the obstacles impeding better relations between Egypt’s highly divided liberals and government supporters. In the long term, a movement towards expressions of political freedom (which do not endanger others or destroy property and cause havoc as was seen on campuses and in the streets) and away from the use of military courts would be highly desirable. It seems that Egypt was unable to establish a direction for its policies free of these political limits despite the revolution, and admission that Egyptian political rights prior to it were insufficient.


  1. President Sisi faced a huge challenge in stabilizing and selecting projects and policies to move the country forward economically. His oversight of several grand projects – the ‘second’ or additional Suez Canal, the new administrative capitol city, and the medical city, among them — will at least temporarily employ many Egyptians in their construction. These should help improve Suez trade and decentralization in the future; the more immediate economic stabilizer is the $12 billion IMF loan. Other imperatives to ameliorate the rising cost of living, un- and under- employment and failing public utilities and service have presented challenges. Foreign direct investment may rise, but it is still a difficult road for investors, and President Sisi’s government has reviewed the exchange rate policy and adjusted currency rates (another adjustment may be required); and tried, but not yet addressed ambiguous tax policies. Foreign direct investment still presents many obstacles and restrictions to would-be investors.


Leveling austerity measures on Egypt’s large poor and almost-poor population is very unpopular. Such measures were unpopular in the UK, but the public’s safety net is stronger. Outbursts on social media show the strength of popular resentment that the current government has neither brought “bread” – nor dignity, freedom and an end to corruption (the ideals of the January 25th, 2011 revolution).


  1. Pres. Sisi impressed me and others as knowing and understanding how far Egypt had to travel to democracy and wrote, as you know in his SRP in 2006, some observations about the potential to and obstacles in the way of democracy in the Arab Islamic world. To this end, I personally was hoping he would make good his promises to improve Egypt’s educational system, which is in very dire straits, and to address the hype and problems with academic and intellectual freedom in Egypt.   The latter is not helped by the conspiratorial tone of the media seeing “foreign hands” here, there and everywhere. But the media reflects a lack of critical thought, which in turn, can only be addressed with standards of tolerance, which must be introduced in and throughout the educational system.


If he does so, I hope that new policies will not direct thousands of low-income students to vocational schools as seems to have developed out of the not-fully-realized state socialist policies of the past. I believe Pres. Sisi himself is an egalitarian, but much depends on who may advise and craft reform of that nature.


  1. President Sisi has upheld the framework of the Camp David Accords. A further large-scale war would be disastrous for Egypt, but on the other hand it remains to be seen if he can move forward peace between the Palestinians and Israel. He had encouraged meetings between Israel and the Palestinians to be hosted by Russia, and presented a plan to President Abbas recently which offers land in the Sinai to add to the PA territory in Gaza. Abbas has rejected this plan outright, and Sisi has run the risk of being accused of giving away Egyptian land (as in the Tiran/Sanafir islands uproar).   But the offer indicates a proactive dimension to President Sisi’s leadership which might bear more fruit on this issue in the future.


On other regional matters, Egypt’s government has engaged with Ethiopia since the building of the Renaissance Dam – which could threaten the Nile’s water supply which is crucial to Egypt and the Sudan– began. It has rather inexplicably and irrationally backed Assad’s government in Syria, but stated that its support is for fighting terrorism. However, since the huge numbers of Syrian casualties and displacement indicate that the rebellion is not, in fact a matter of terrorism, but a strongly supported aim at regime change — one must be aware of Egypt’s fear that a post-Assad government would bring to power Islamists unfriendly to it, or more specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood. President Sisi’s generally good relations with Saudi Arabia have been ruffled by their differences on Syria, and current economic problems in the Kingdom, but Saudi-Egyptian ties are likely to remain close.