Julian Assange's TV debut

The first episode of Julian Assange's new TV show, The World Tomorrow, premiered on RT today with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as the first guest. Aside from a quick intro and a goofy theme song by M.I.A., it's a pretty spartan affair, consisting solely of Assange and his translators speaking with Nasrallah over skype. The newsiest quote was probably Nasrallah's fairly staunch defense of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters:

From the beginning of the events in Syria, we’ve had constant contact with the Syrian leadership.  We’e spoken as friends, giving each other advice about the importance of carrying out reforms. Right from the beginning, I personally found that President Assad was very willing to carry out radical reforms. This used to reassure us regarding the positions that we took.[...]

We contacted even elements of the opposition to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime. These parties rejectged dialoguel. Right from the beginning we’ve had a regime that is willing to undergo reforms and open to dialogue. On the other side, you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue and is not prepared to accept any reforms. All it wants is to bring down the regime.

The house-arrested Assange is a fairly generous interviewer by cable news standards, letting his guest do most of the talking. The questions were mostly softballs along the lines of "What was your earliest memory as a boy?," "How did you manage to keep your people together under enemy fire?" and "Why do you think the United States government is so scared of [Hezbollah satellite network] al-Manar?

Things got a bit odd with Assange's last question, in which he asked the reglious extremist, "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of God, the ultimate superpower? Shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?" Not surprisingly, Nasrallah didn't buy the premise of the question. 

It wasn't the most penetrating interview -- interestingly, there was only one question about the contents of a WikiLeaks cable and Nasrallah denied the veracity of it -- but that's probably why Nasrallah was willing to talk with him in the first place. (According to Assange, this was his first interview with "western" media since the 2006 war with Israel.) If he can keep getting the kind of high-profile guests who would never go near a mainstream journalist with a ten-foot poll, the show will probably continue to be worth watching.

Who would you like to see sit down with Assange next?



Egypt's invisible strongman

If you were to hold a contest for the most powerful person in Egypt today, the debate would likely center on an array of well-known personalities: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) perhaps, or a bevy of Islamists -- Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater comes to mind. But the true power behind the throne in Cairo may be a figure that few have heard of: a graying, bespectacled judge named Farouk Sultan.

Sultan is the chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court. According to Egypt's provisional constitution, that also makes him the head of the commission overseeing the upcoming presidential elections. And it imbues him with near unassailable powers: The constitution says the commission's decisions "will be final and carry the force of law" -- they are not subject to review or appeal by any other body.

It's a power that recently came into stark relief when Sultan's Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) disqualified three of the leading presidential contenders. The candidates had until today to appeal the decision -- but their petition only goes back to the body that disqualified in the first place, and must be limited to narrow issues of legal interpretation.

Sultan's background that is giving many heartburn about his newly pivotal role in Egyptian affairs. George Washington University professor Nathan Brown wrote in 2009, upon Sultan's selection as chief justice by Hosni Mubarak, that the appointment "stunned observers" because Sultan's career "brought him through some of the more sordid parts of the Egyptian judicial apparatus" -- the courts most susceptible to pressure from the Mubarak regime.

"He doesn't have the academic background [of many other Egyptian judges], and his background was entirely outside of the Constitutional Court, which is the first alarm," said Amir Marghany, an Egyptian lawyer who has previously offered legal counsel to Egypt's al-Wasat Party. "At the end of the day, he is a Mubarak appointee."

Egypt's Mubarak-era Constitutional Court was actually largely free from political influence until the early 2000s, issuing a series of rulings that ran counter to the regime's wishes. But Mubarak subsequently moved to curb the court's independence, abolishing a tradition that allowed members of the Constitutional Court to nominate a chief justice. By appointing pliable judges to the top spot, Mubarak gained control over one of the last levers of state power that had previously escaped his grasp.

As Brown put it in a recent conversation, Sultan "is basically seen to have been put on there to control the court, not issue the type of inconvenient rulings that it has in the past."

There's another wrinkle to this story: Sultan turned 70 last year, the age at which Egyptian judges are required to retire.  That means he has to step down at the end of the judicial year -- shortly after the upcoming presidential elections. And as everyone knows, there are fewer people less influenced by political constraints than those already on their way out the door. Egyptian power brokers, beware.