Racists exploit BDS and Israel to advance their agendas of hatred

 
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By Khaled Diab

As recent motions in the German Bundestag and US Congress reveal, both the BDS and pro-Israel movements are exploited by racists as fig leafs to further their agendas. These racists must be exposed and challenged.

Friday 24 May 2019

Taking a leaf out of the US Congress‘s playbook, Germany’s Bundestag has labelled the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic” in a non-binding resolution which enjoyed cross-party support.

Given that Germany has, in recent years, instated or participated in numerous sanctions programmes, one would think that its parliament could tell the difference between targeting a repressive regime and hating an entire people.

After all, I do not regard Germany’s earlier decision to sanction the Syrian regime for bombing its own people, or its embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its warmongering in Yemen, as expressions of anti-Arabism or Islamophobia. Instead, they are efforts to deploy ‘soft weapons’ to curb or stop these conflicts – or at the very least not to profit from them or be a party to them.

Likewise, the entire EU, including Germany, as well as Israel and many Jewish groups, boycotted Austria briefly after Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party became part of the governing coalition in 2000.

“The pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic… [and] recall the most terrible phase of German history,” the motion issued by the German federal parliament stated.

Although I admire Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed by the Hitler regime, and the country’s determination to avoid a repeat of that tragedy amid a massing current of anti-Semitism, this effort to equate the present BDS movement with Germany’s dark Nazi past is way off the mark.

There is no equivalence between a totalitarian, genocidal state which stripped Jews of their rights and very nearly succeeded in exterminating European Jewry, and a civil society campaign which defends the human rights of Palestinians and opposes the decades-old Israeli occupation. Suggesting that the two are the same is tantamount to blaming the victims for their demise.

What adds insult to injury is the German far-right’s efforts to jump cynically on the anti-BDS bandwagon.

It is beyond ironic that the extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which claims to be Israel’s “one true friend” in the Bundestag while simultaneously stoking anti-Semitism and nurturing nostalgia for the Third Reich, has put forward the harshest alternative resolution, calling for an outright ban of BDS in Germany.

This must appear to be a can’t-lose proposition to the far-right party, which can now deflect criticism of its anti-Jewish agenda while disguising its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in a cloak of virtuosity. Moreover, European anti-Semites supporting Israel is not as odd as it sounds because they have long regarded it as channel for removing Jews from the West.

This variety of stealthy anti-Semitism needs to be challenged as actively as open racism against Jews.

Those, like the Green party, who voted for the resolution on the progressive end of the spectrum are inflicting unforeseeable damage on German democracy, by curtailing citizens’ freedom of expression and action. It also sends the implicit message that even peaceful forms of Palestinian resistance are not acceptable in some western eyes.

That is not to say the German authorities should stop challenging and combating the poison of anti-Semitism, but they should focus on actual incidents of Judeophobia, rather than stigmatising an entire anti-occupation movement.

Although the principles of BDS are not anti-Semitic, in and of themselves, the movement can and does attract anti-Semites.

Some racists instrumentalise the movement to cover up their irrational hatred of Jews and to conceal their hateful bigotry behind a sheen of respectability. Others allow their sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people to plunge them down the rabbit hole of rabid racism.

This leads to the sorry and troubling situation in which some pro-Palestinians perpetuate the vilest and filthiest of anti-Semitic tropes, such as the myth that wealthy Jews covertly run the world through their alleged control of the global banking system, not to mention the seemingly supernatural powers they ascribe to Israel and the Mossad.

Some truly ludicrous variations of this which I have heard or encountered include the myths that the Israeli Mossad was behind everything from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group and the master puppeteer behind the Syrian civil war.

Most sickening is when a BDS supporter or pro-Palestinian sympathiser downplays or downright denies the Holocaust, either by claiming the Holocaust never took place or by insultingly insinuating that the Zionist movement played a role in the persecution of Jews in order to win sympathy for their cause, thereby simultaneously blaming the victims and absolving the perpetrators.

A recent example of this was a short video downplaying the extent of Nazi extermination drive and purporting to reveal “the truth behind the Holocaust and how Zionism benefited from it”, which was posted by AJ+ Arabic last week. Al Jazeera quickly deleted the offensive tweet and suspended the two journalists whom it said made and published it.

It is imperative that efforts to combat and weed out this insidious racism are scaled up, both in the Arab world and the West, for the integrity of the pro-Palestinian movement and for the safety and security of Jews.

While the BDS movement is clearly not racist, it is not necessarily as effective as some think, nor as ethically straightforward as its advocates believe, and a convincing moral case can be made for supporting, opposing or modifying it.

One thorny question relates to the issue of fairness. Although it is completely understandable that Palestinians would focus on their own cause and engage in a boycott of their oppressor, it is less clear why outsiders would choose this cause over others.

For many pro-Palestinian activists, their support is part of a broader humanist worldview that opposes injustice and oppression wherever it occurs and regardless of whomever commits it, such as is the case with Jewish supporters of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Palestine and Israel are of enormous symbolic, political and historical importance, both in the Middle East and the West.

However, some are guilty of selective outrage and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. For instance, there are those who rail against the crimes and injustices of the Israeli occupation while defending the crimes and injustices of, for instance, the Assad regime.

Then, there is the conundrum of collective punishment, especially when it comes to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and the blanket “anti-normalisation” movement in the Arab world, which impacts even Israeli progressives, such as celebrated author and academic Shlomo Sand, and sometimes even Israeli journalists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Amira Hass.

And, as the anti-normalisation camp becomes more vocal in Palestine, on the back of a quarter of a century of disappointment and decades of dispossession, this also inhibits joint action between Palestinian and Israeli civil society and citizens, as several peace activists confessed to me during a recent visit to Ramallah.

But the reality is that Palestinians will not be freed by BDS alone. In addition to a targeted boycott of the institutions that facilitate the occupation, there needs to be targeted engagement between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews. The goal of the conflict needs to shift from vanquishing a determined enemy who refuses to bow down to gaining a steadfast ally to bow to in mutual respect.

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Giulio Regeni is the tip of Egypt’s police brutality iceberg

 
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By Khaled Diab

Many Egyptians find the allegation that the Italian student was killed by Egypt’s notorious security apparatus chillingly plausible. Italy must shed its former enthusiasm for the Sisi regime.

giulio-regeni

Thursday 12 May 2016

During a rambling and at times bewildering speech responding to accusations that his regime had “sold” two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudis, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seized the opportunity to defend his government’s record on the Giulio Regeni case.

“We Egyptians started circulating these allegations and lies, we made this problem ourselves, we made this problem for Egypt,” he said, sounding like a cross father scolding his children. “I’ve told you before – there are evil-doers among us who are accusing us [of responsibility].”

Following Egyptian assurances of a thorough and independent investigation, Sisi’s comments are bound to provoke dismay and anger in Italy, which has already recalled its ambassador over Egypt’s perceived obstructionism and its failure to hand over vital evidence.

Despite the denials from many segments of officialdom and in the echo chamber of the pro-regime media, I and many, many Egyptians, especially activists and independent journalists, find the working theory that Regeni was killed by one of the many tentacles of Egypt’s notorious security apparatus entirely plausible, not to mention chillingly so.

For me, as an Egyptian, the only surprise is that this happened to a foreigner from a wealthy, developed country. In an unofficial revival of the dual legal system that Egypt used to have during colonial times, Westerners, given the likelihood that their governments will make a stink, have generally been off-bounds to the guardians of the state’s insecurity.

In a sad indictment of the ill regard in which Egypt holds its people, even having dual citizenship affords one more protection than solely possessing Egyptian nationality. This, along with the fact that I don’t write in Arabic and live abroad, is, I am convinced, one of the reasons that I have not yet got into serious trouble for my critical journalism. I believe that the eight-hour interrogation to which I was subjected last time I visited Egypt potentially could have ended much worse were I only an Egyptian.

That is why I feel understanding for Egyptian activists and journalists who have gone into de facto self-imposed exile, after fighting a losing battle for seemingly no returns. As for those who, against all the odds and at the risk of their freedom or even their lives, have stayed to continue the struggle, I feel nothing but immense awe and admiration for their courage: from relatives and friends, to journalists and rights defenders like Hossam Bahgat, who continues to expose the concealed workings of the regime despite harassment and the decision to freeze his assets, or Aida Seif Eldawla and her team at the Nadeem centre who continue to support victims of torture and violence, despite repeated attempts to shut them down.

Though almost all the regime’s victims are Egyptians, over the past five turbulent years, during which xenophobia has grown due to the portrayal of the 2011 revolution as a foreign conspiracy, foreign journalists, activists and aid workers have become more of a target, as the Al Jazeera trials and the earlier American NGO crackdown attest.

But, as far as I’m aware, no Westerner has ever been tortured or killed by the security services. The only case that comes close is that of the French resident of Cairo, Eric Lang, who was reportedly beaten to death by inmates in a holding cell. The Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was shot dead while covering the violent, bloody dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adaweya sit-in in support of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

My personal suspicion is that Regeni’s death was an “accident”, caused by the lawlessness which now governs Egyptian law enforcement. One plausible scenario is that the researcher, who confessed to colleagues that he was being watched and feared for his life, was picked up to be interrogated. Once detained, he may have refused to answer questions or talked back too much, leading them to get rougher and rougher, until he died in their hands.

I personally doubt that any orders came from high up, especially as the embattled regime needs all the overseas allies it can get and Italy is Egypt’s main trading partner in the EU.

But little restraint exists when it comes to Egyptians, who have few defenders from the current “reign of terror”.

To give a taste of the magnitude, Corriere Della Sera recently published a list of 735 Egyptians who have been disappeared over the past eight months, while tens of thousands have been detained over the past three years. In addition, 7,420 civilians have been tried by military courts, many in summary mass trials, since October 2014, according to the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms.

Regeni’s death and the rot within the Egyptian regime which it has exposed should give certain Italian politicians and journalists pause for thought over their previous enthusiasm for Sisi. Some have described Sisi as “courageous” and “enlightened” because he was mounting a “revolution” within Islam.

To Egyptian secularists and intellectuals, many of whom are rotting behind bars, the notion that our incoherent, iron-fisted leader is some kind of enlightened reformer will come across as a cruel joke. Sisi is not a revolutionary, he is a counter-revolutionary.

That is why it is important for Italy and the wider EU not to fall for the regime’s disingenuous “warnings” that not supporting it would “endanger the whole of the Mediterranean and Europe”, as Sisi warned in an interview with La Repubblica, by delivering Egypt to radical jihadists.

Human rights are supposed to be a central pillar of Europe’s relationship with Egypt and the rest of the region. It is high time for Italy and the EU to start seriously demanding from Egypt and its other Med partners respect for these fundamental principles and to implement serious democratic, social and economic reforms. These are the true safeguards against radicalisation and terrorism.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extendedversion of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere Della Sera on 16 May 2016.

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Egypt’s borderline paranoia

 
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By Khaled Diab

My interrogation at the Egyptian border about my journalism and opinions is not about state security, but the insecurity of a paranoid state,

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Following the crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, concerns have been raised about lax security at Egypt’s airports. Although the jury is out on what actually happened, I can report that there is one area of border security in which Egypt excels: policing the minds of its own citizens.

I got a taste of this during a recent trip to Sinai. Given my Arab and journalistic background, entering and leaving Israel is sometimes akin to playing the lottery, with the winning ticket being a simple, straightforward, untroubled passage.

As we approached the Eilat-Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt, I felt a sense of trepidation, like a gambler watching the roulette wheel spin.

Although we were travelling for leisure, the mutual distrust and cold peace between my native and host countries meant there was a pretty high chance that my passage would be far from leisurely.

On the Israeli side, everything went so smoothly — with the women working in the small terminal so charmed by our son that they tried to tempt him behind the counter — that I allowed myself the luxury of hoping the same would happen on the Egyptian side.

Alas, it was not to prove so. Fortunately, after a while, they stamped the passports of my wife and son and let them leave – though my prolonged absence got my wife very worried.

Alone in the dusty, rundown terminal, I watched the Israeli and other tourists — many of whom were heading for Taba’s casinos — swan through the terminal with barely a cursory glance at their travel documents. In fact, with the passport control booth regularly unmanned, confused tourists actually had to search around for an official to check their documents.

Security is a well-documented concern at smaller Egyptian airports and crossings, though it is pretty tight in Cairo’s main international airport.

This was symbolically driven home to me on the way back. At the point where the Egyptian and Israeli crossings meet, two bored and unfit-looking Egyptian guards sat chewing the fat. On the Israeli side, a mean-looking body-builder type with an automatic weapon marched regimentally up and down, eyes camouflaged by his mirror sunglasses.

This hit-or-miss attitude to citizen security made me feel all the more offended by the long wait that was being forced upon me by the guardians of the security of the regime. I reflected to myself that being an Egyptian is not worth much, even in Egypt.

That partly explains why I haven’t renewed my Egyptian passport since it expired a number of years ago. I now enter the country on my European passport, which ironically provides greater protection, though less so than before, as illustrated by the Al Jazeera English trials.

With time on my hands, I began to wonder what was going on and my mind began to wander, in light of the increasingly arbitrary exercising of emergency powers in Egypt, between likely and more fanciful possibilities.

After a couple of hours, I was finally taken upstairs and led into the office of a senior officer. The air-conditioning in the spartan room was set to Arctic and the AC unit, as if mimicking some ancient form of torture, was dripping loudly into a bucket at the back.

Unlike my recent interrogation at Ben Gurion airport, my interrogator was far friendlier and exceedingly polite, regularly remarking on how “talking to you is really enjoyable” in an ambiguous tone of voice. In a way, I felt like I was the special guest on a surreal, Kafkaesque talk show, with the host exhibiting what might have been, under other circumstances, a flattering interest in my career and ideas.

The idealist in me was screaming to tell my interrogator that he was intruding on my privacy, while the realist counselled patience. Fearful of escalating the situation at a time when Egypt is undergoing one of the largest crackdowns in its modern history, with hundreds literally vanishing into thin air and thousands behind bars, I listened to the voice of caution.

After satisfying the officer’s curiosity about what I was doing living in Jerusalem, he wanted to know what I’d produced recently about the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Our exchange got even more philosophical when he switched his line of questioning to my beliefs. When he asked me whether I was still a Muslim, I tried to deflect his question by arguing that it was an issue of private conviction. When he persisted, we got into an exchange about the difference between being a-religious, agnostic and atheistic, and where I stood on that spectrum.

But all this turned out to be the appetizer. What most concerned the state security officer seemed to be my journalism about Egypt and my views on the situation there, including in the troubled Sinai.

As I expressed my honest views of Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the absence of democracy in Egypt, I wondered what my interrogator was making of what he was hearing. However, he was giving nothing away. Showing the kind of balanced interviewing style absent from the pro-regime media, he simply probed my opinions, without passing judgement.

I don’t know how much of my interrogation was based on information the authorities already had and how much was a fishing expedition. Though I’m certainly on state security’s radar — as demonstrated by the fact that they knew I was a journalist at Cairo airport when I passed through there last summer, without me have declared myself as such — a lot of it was fishing, since the officer confiscated my computer and phone, and called me back for a number of rounds of questioning. However, I’m unlikely to find out, short of another revolution throwing up my file, as the previous one had done with my father’s.

However, as I sat waiting, I realised that the information I had already volunteered could be used to concoct a “compelling” case against me, especially with all the show trials that have occurred over the past couple of years.

Based in Israel/Palestine, I am highly critical of the regime, write for the Israeli media and, even worse from the regime’s perspective, Al Jazeera, and have photos of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp on my computer. In addition, though many Egyptians have become more open and tolerant towards atheists in recent times, the regime has a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde approach to non-believers, which has depended largely on the personal convictions and whims of individual judges and officials.

I could not resist a wry smile at the dizzying array of charges or suspicions that could be directed my way: “Zionist agent,” “Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser,” “insulting the president,”  “defaming religion,” to mention but a few.

After nearly eight hours in custody, I was released and was not bothered again during my stay, except for one brief visit to my hotel. Having a foreign passport, writing in English, living abroad and perhaps encountering a relatively open-minded officer meant that I am far more fortunate than the thousands of courageous prisoners of conscience filling Egypt’s prisons.

I fear that the crash of the Russian airplane, if it proves to be terrorism, will result in another, severe round of repression in which the regime will use the so-called “war on terror” to muzzle and imprison its critics.

An early sign of this is the shocking summons and detention by military intelligence of one of Egypt’s foremost journalists and human rights defenders, Hossam Bahgat, who, on the back of an enormous campaign for his release, has been let go for now but charges against him are still being investigated.

In Egypt, it would seem, critical journalists too often wind up behind bars, while hypocritical ones tend to get their own TV shows.

Of course, Egypt is not alone. To varying degrees, most of the Middle East treats journalists and freethinkers with an enormous dose of suspicion and paranoia. But they are fighting a losing battle, especially in the information age, as ideas cannot be silenced, arrested or detained at the border. Indeed, Bahgat’s articles are now enjoying an online renaissance with a global wave of readers triggered by concern about his arrest.

Egypt needs to stop searching people’s political and intellectual baggage and focus its attentions on the actual luggage moving through its airports. It’s the insecurity of the state that has to be shed before there can be true state security in Egypt.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 November 2015.

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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Egypt’s accidental democracy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bad as things are now, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, despite his dictatorial tendencies, may unwittingly preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Image: al-Sisi's official Facebook page.

In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy. Image: al-Sisi’s official Facebook page.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Egypt is witnessing a new dawn of freedom – at least it is, according to Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. “Our two glorious revolutions have paved the way to an era devoted to strength, not hostility… which defends the rule of law, enhancing the judiciary and security, while maintaining rights and freedoms,” al-Sisi told the jubilant audience at his inaugural address.

So “iconic” is this moment that al-Sisi called on Egyptian artists to create masterpieces that would “travel the world and commemorate all the martyrs”.

So what is this unique model that will honour the sacrifices of all those who suffered, and those who paid the ultimate price, over the past three years to build a better, fairer and freer Egypt?

Having analysed his speech and his behaviour to date, the only singular element in al-Sisi’s vision of liberty is that it has our new president at its heart.

In a speech which lasted close to an hour, I only noticed one mention of “democracy”. “You proved that your ability does not stop at toppling tyrannical and failed regimes but you also translated it into a democratic will through the ballot box,” he said.

This, I feel, encapsulates al-Sisi’s attitude towards democracy: the will of the people is welcome as long as it limits itself to giving him a licence to act as he sees fit. In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy.

This was reflected in his populist calls last summer for the public to take to the streets and give him a mandate to fight what he called “terrorism and violence”. He echoed the same sentiment when he rather aloofly told Egyptians before the elections that he expected an 80% turnout – as if he could order citizens to do his bidding, as if they were subordinate soldiers in the military.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has often been compared to Nasser. I have joked that he does share something in common with the legendary Egyptian president: they are the only two Egyptian presidents not named Muhammad.

But in reality there are some likenesses between the two men. In addition to their respective wars on the Muslim Brotherhood and deep suspicion of the Islamist movement, al-Sisi seems to pursue a Nasserist-light conception of freedom.

In rhetoric at least, he focuses a lot on national, social and cultural freedom to the detriment of political and personal freedom. “Egypt must be open in its international relations,” al-Sisi emphasised. “But the era of subordination is over.” To the rest of the region, the president promised that Egypt would regain her status “as an older sister”.

Unlike his Islamist predecessor, al-Sisi praised the role of Egyptian women, albeit to a predominantly middle-aged male audience. “I will do all I can to ensure that [Egyptian women] are represented fairly in the representative councils and in executive positions,” he promised.

But so far this has only been rhetorical, as reflected by his appointment of just four women to his early-worm first government, unchanged from the previous cabinet, drawing criticism from the National Council of Women.

The president also pledged more for the country’s marginalised youth who “lit the fuse of revolution” and for the downtrodden poor who “have endured so much and seen their suffering multiply”.

How al-Sisi intends to square this with his previous statements calling on the poor to tighten their belts further, not to mention his pro-business agenda and his efforts to rehabilitate Egypt’s “patriotic and honourable” businessmen was unclear, especially since he presented no electoral programme during the elections.

Nevertheless, he promised all Egyptians that they would “reap the fruits during this presidential term and we will accomplish the unprecedented”. How? Through vague pledges to invest in industry, tourism and agriculture, as well as renewable energy. Though I think that his pledge to install energy-saving bulbs in every home is unambitious – he should work to place solar boilers on every roof.

Perhaps through mass philanthropy? Hoping to lead by example, the president pledge to give away half his salary and half his wealth to Egypt and called on others to follow his example. Whether many will take up his call remains to be seen. But a more effective mechanism would be to pursue, rather than rehabilitate, all those corrupt tycoons, and put in place a fair and effective tax system.

His recent pormises go contrary to his previous efforts to lower expectations of what can be achieved to avoid the pitfall into which his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, fell by promising change within 100 days.

And it is likely to prove an equally poisonous chalice, especially when Egyptians discover no meaningful alteration to their well-being, coupled with the expected return of the disgraced Mubarak business elite.

But al-Sisi has an ace up his sleeve: the national security card. “There will be no co-operation with and no appeasement of those who wish to undermine the state’s prestige,” he vowed. “And the near future will witness the Egyptian state regaining its prestige.”

And this week’s multiple attacks on the metro, which killed one, is not only a worrying portent but can provide the regime with the opportunity to crack down even more heavily.

“I will not permit the emergence of a parallel leadership to rival the state. There will not be a second leadership. There will be only one leadership,” he warned ominously later in the speech, for good measure.

Ostensibly, al-Sisi possesses the tools to make this no idle threat, as already demonstrated when he ran Egypt from the background as its uncrowned king. The new president exercises apparent control over both the military and civilian arms of the state, and has tamed much of the mainstream media to his will – and so it would be natural to expect him to consolidate his grip to such an extent that he could become an elected dictator for life.

But counterintuitive as it may sound, al-Sisi may, despite his dictatorial tendencies, unwittingly and inadvertently preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Although a snap public holiday and a third day of voting were announced to mobilise the vote, not to mention the hysteria in the visual media urging citizens to exercise their democratic duty, the turnout remained relatively low.

This has given the new president a much lower mandate than he had hoped for. More importantly, the decision of millions of voters to stay home and not join in the love fest has punctured his image as the popular saviour the Egyptian masses were awaiting.

This weak support base – which is bound to get weaker when his well-oiled propaganda machine is no longer able to counter the reality of his probable failure to resolve Egypt’s myriad problems and the vested interests his regime is likely to serve – is likely embolden his critics, activists and even the currently docile mainstream media.

This week’s ludicurous verdict in the Al Jazeera trial, based on non-existent evidence, is extremely troubling. But if it’s intention was to cow the media and critics of the regime, the effectiveness of this kind of extremely punitive exercise seems to have succumbed to the law of diminishing marginal returns.

While the pro-Sisi fan club in the visual media cheered on, the print and alternative media, as well as Egypt’s courageous human rights activists, refused to be intimidated and took a more critical position, with some journalists lamenting the degeneration of the country’s once-respected judiciary, while veteran human rights activist Negad Borai condemned the judiciary for losing its sense of “justice, consicence and humanity“.

Rather than be cowed, social media has been swept by a tidal wave of contempt and satire, with every action, remark made and idea fielded by al-Sisi mocked mercilessly. If al-Sisi hoped to restore the state’s “prestige” and “aura” through his person, then he is far from declaring mission accomplished.

This refusal by growing numbers to tow the party line leaves al-Sisi with some stark choices. One option would be to muster what is left of the might of a state massively weakened by more than three years of revolutionary upheaval and decades of mismanagement to brutally repress dissent. But with the state already in top gear when it comes to repression and brutality, this is an unsustainable path, and could push the country off the cliff into a millions-strong uprising or, worst, open warfare.

The other choice is to be pragmatic and to learn the art of political compromise and consensus politics. The state is showing some early, tentative signs of pursuing this path. If al-Sisi chooses this path – which I hope, for the sake of Egypt, he will – he may still, whether or not he intends it, find himself going down in history as the harbinger of Egyptian democracy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Daily News Egypton 21 June 2014.

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Egypt’s next president is a… Jew?!

 
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By Khaled Diab

What do conspiracy theories that the mother of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is a Jew say about the Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers propagating them?

A new video claims that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's mother is Jewish. Photo: Sisi campaign's Facebook page.

A new video claims that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s mother is Jewish. Photo: Sisi campaign’s Facebook page.

Monday 12 May 2014

Campaigning for Egypt’s presidential elections, which will take place on May 26-27, officially kicked off on Saturday 3 May, a day after blasts in Cairoand Sinai left at least four people dead. The two-horse race between the army’s man, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and the candidate supported by many revolutionaries, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, is unlikely to deliver any surprises, with the outcome in the ex-army chief’s favour all but a foregone conclusion, most observers believe.

As we approach the big day, one recently released video claims that the “question on the minds of all Egyptians” is not the state of the nosediving economy, wide-scale human rights abuses, the derailed revolution or the quest for elusive stability and security, but whether Sisi’s mother is Jewish.

“The strange thing is that the [military’s media] did not meet with Sisi’s mother nor his maternal uncles, but only with his father’s relatives,” said Saber Mashhour, the maker of this “exposé” – as if there were a conspiracy of silence to hide the former defense minister’s roots.

[YouTube:”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2Y-dF7YKxw”]

But aside from supposed omissions, what evidence does the video present to back up its claims?

The main “evidence” is the circumstantial coincidence of location. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter of Cairo’s old city.

“Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area was always a mixed one, albeit with a strong Jewish character.

“Sisi was raised among Jews. He was raised by Jews,” Mashhour stressed, in case anyone was uncertain about the point he was making.

And what were the implications of Sisi spending his formative years in this way?

It would seem that the Jews, entrepreneurial whizzes that they are, saw an obvious gap in the market and imported “sex and dance” to Egypt, never mind that Egyptians have been swiveling their hips since at least the time of Herodotus. Besides, the maker of this video has very obviously never visited Mea She’arim or any of Israel’s other ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.

To take the outlandish to a whole other continent, the video claims that the Egyptian president most-hated in Israel, Gamal Abdel-Nasser – who also spent a short part of his youth away from his native Alexandria in Cairo near the Jewish Quarter – was childhood chums there with none other than Israeli military icon Moshe Dayan. And these unlikely pals hatched the improbable conspiracy to give Egypt a clobbering in 1967.

Never mind the fact that Dayan was born and grew up in what was then northern Palestine and never entered Egypt in Nasser’s lifetime except as a conqueror.

So, does anyone believe this patent, counterhistorical nonsense?

Well, judging by the fact that the video has clocked up nearly 200,000 hits (at the time of writing) in just two weeks, there are obviously some who do – though a small number, given Egypt’s population of 85 million. The video is most popular among supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which publicised it through its official website and other affiliated social media outlets.

Mashhour, the man behind the documentary, appears to share the same sympathies, and has developed quite a sideline in exposing anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood conspiracy theories for some time now – not to mention the “revelation” that Egypt has become neither an Islamic nor a secular nation, but a Christian one.

Mashhour almost explicitly spells out his allegiances when he makes the preposterous claims in the video that Egyptian Jews never loved Egypt – which goes against all the historical evidence – and hated the Muslim Brotherhood not because they were religious bigots, but because the Islamist movement foiled the Jews’ plans to “control Egypt”.

If these crackpot ideas were coming from just some random guy on the street, they’d be less troubling. However, it appears that Mashhour’s day job was at Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the banned Egyptian offshoot of the famous Qatar-based network.

This could well fuel another brand of conspiracy theory, the type that has had the dangerous consequence of leading to the imprisonment and trial of Al Jazeera journalists on trumped-up and ludicrous charges.

But why, with all the genuine grievances that pro-Morsi supporters have against Sisi since he declared his so-called War on Terror (which is largely a bloody purge against the Brotherhood), focus on this kind of fantastical and fanciful fiction when there is no shortage of damning facts?

This is partly because facts have not put the Egyptian public off Sisi, despite the murderous dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, the outlawing of the Brotherhood and mass death penalties meted out against its members. The savvy ex-general has not only marshalled the media behind him, but is riding and stoking a wave of anti-Brotherhood resentment.

Casting aspersions that Sisi is Jewish and an Israeli agent is perhaps a desperate, last-ditch bid to discredit him. In fact, alleged allegiances to Israel – and especially the United States – are regularly used to defame political opponents in Egypt.

But this also betrays a deeper pathology. Since it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has mostly been an underground movement, and one that has been persecuted to varying degrees by every Egyptian leader since King Farouq, who outlawed it in 1948 following a spate of bombings and assassination attempts. This creates a mentality of paranoia and victimhood.

Founded in response to the trauma felt by conservative Muslims at the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the Muslim Brothers have a tendency to see events in terms of a grand clash of civilisations, between a teetering Islam and a resurgent, hegemonic Christendom.

In this battle of the titans, the Muslim Brotherhood believes that the Jews are very much in the Christian camp, counterhistorical as this may be. “Zionism is perceived to be part of the Western plot against Muslim societies, which means Israel has a contemporary dimension which is not fully connected to its Jewish character,” says Ofir Winter, an Israeli academic specialising in Egyptian politics and Islamism.

Even though Israel is only regarded as a foot-soldier in a new Crusade, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist view of Jews is not only bigoted but anti-Semitic, argues Winter. “The view of the Jews as eternal enemies of Islam, regardless of time and place, and as owners of inherent, almost genetic negative characteristics like meanness, evilness, manipulation, and so on, is very common in the writings of many prominent Islamists,” he observes.

By the same token, this would make much of the conservative anti-Arab rhetoric in Israel equally racist.

Others are not convinced, and argue that Israel and the Jews are tools of political expediency for the Brotherhood. “Frankly, I don’t even buy the caliphate business. I think it’s pure and simple political opportunism really,” counters Mohamed El Dahshan, a prominent Egyptian commentator, blogger and researcher. “Consequently, the Israel business is rhetoric.”

Despite the alarm a possible Brotherhood takeover of power elicited in Israel in the early days of the revolution, this opportunism was perceptible in Mohamed Morsi’s pragmatic stewardship of affairs with Israel, including a warm letter to Shimon Peres which reportedly described the Israeli president as a “great and good friend”.

“The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t really seem to have Israel in their target list. They have always been more focused on building their own organisation and fighting the state,” notes El Dahshan.

El Dahshan’s assertion gets confirmation from the unlikeliest of quarters. Although it is widely assumed, for instance, that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated because of the Camp David Treaty with Israel, his assassins say otherwise. “[Sadat] made that deal and no one killed him or planned to,” said Aboud al-Zomor, one of the convicted plotters. For al-Zomor and his Islamist cohorts, Sadat’s refusal to implement Sharia “was the primary reason that this regime must be removed”.

Even more surprising is the fact that, in addition to vilifying Jews, many Islamists also express admiration for Israel and the Jewish experience as an example to aspire to, as research by Winter and Uriya Shavit of Tel Aviv University has revealed.

“Our book My Enemy, My Mentor contains many Islamist texts which call on Muslim societies to follow the lead of the Jews and Israel and learn from them in different fields, such as religiosity, long-term planning and even women’s rights and democracy,” explains Winter.

Fascinatingly, an audio recording uncovered by Winter, apparently of the popular TV theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who some have accused of anti-Semitism, expressed, back in the 1990s, admiration for the achievements of Israeli democracy: “We hope that our countries will become like this country [i.e. Israel].”

Why? “There, it is the people who govern. There, they do not have the ‘four nines’ which we know in our countries,” he added, referring to the 99.99% of the vote with which Arab dictators once used to “win” elections.

“These kind of narratives are surprising and prove that the Islamists’ view of Israel is more complex than many tend to assume,” concludes Winter.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 May 2014.

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Egypt’s coup de quoi!?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The millions on the streets, not dressed in khaki, democratically ejected Mohamed Morsi. Now it’s time to remove the military from Egypt’s politics. 

Wednesday 10 July 2013

As an Egyptian abroad, I cannot but bow my head in admiration and appreciation at what my compatriots have achieved back home… again. In the space of less than two-and-a-half years, millions and millions of ordinary men and women with no previous experience in revolt have bravely and unflinchingly stared down and defied authority… and shaken its authority to the core.

They endured hardship, intimidation, violence and constant uncertainty to topple a tyrant, send the generals scurrying to take cover behind the veil of a flawed democracy, and bring down a would-be dictator-in-the-making.

The sight of millions and millions of people setting aside their daily worries and rivalries to come out again and again and again to tell their leaders – Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood – never again will we tolerate dictatorship has been truly inspiring to behold.

And it is not just the big picture. Zoom into the imposing, awe-inspiring crowds and you witness thousands of individual stories that can bring a tear to your eye, swell pride in your chest, storm your brain, flood your emotions, raise your spirits with a chuckle and even restore your faith in humanity (at least for a while).

And all this from a people who, until 25 January 2011, were seen, and saw themselves, as apathetic, even docile, in the face of authority. “Why do the Egyptian people not rise up,” was a common question, famously asked by Alaa al-Aswani, but also other concerned Egyptians, including myself.

Today, Egyptians have not only rewritten their political rule book, they need to think about revising their phrasebook of popular proverbs. Out will go such defeatist sayings as “Keep away from harm and sing to it”, “Shut the door that brings in a draught” and “The eye cannot rise above the brow”.

With all this in mind, it is unsurprising that millions were swept up in an irresistible tsunami of elation, and partied all night long. But a collective hangover is bound to set in once people wake up to the Herculean tasks still ahead – and the worrying signs of new clouds forming up above and on the horizon.

But not everyone was celebrating. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and their supporters were, in contrast, actively grieving. This is, of course, understandable. After decades of waiting underground and then in the wings, they not only lost their newfound grip on power, they also saw their president arrested, as well as other leading Brothers, and a number of Islamist broadcasters shut down, not to mention Al Jazeera Mubashir.

This sends out troubling signals of a return to the bad old days when the Brotherhood was barely tolerated, outlawed or outright persecuted. We must be vigilant that this never occurs, that the Islamists remain part of Egypt’s political landscape and that they are allowed to make future bids for power. Not only is this what freedom and equality is about, it also avoids their grievances boiling over to create a more toxic conflict.

Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers are understandably – though hypocritically, given how Mohamed Morsi tried to turn the presidency into a Brotherhood fiefdom and all the antidemocratic measures he passed – crying foul, and claiming that what happened in Egypt was a ‘military coup d’etat’.

While I can see why Brotherhood/FJP supporters would use such a charged term in this context. Less understandable is why the term is being bandied around by so many in the Arab and Western media. In fact, given how much blood, sweat and tears millions have invested in ousting Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians must feel insulted that their defiant efforts are being so apparently denigrated.

Although some who use the ‘C’ word do so out of vested interests, many others do so out of genuine concern. Coups are usually antidemocratic and lead to the rise of dictators and authoritarianism. And I see where the confusion is coming from: the army serves a 48-hour ultimatum and then deposes the democratically elected leader.

Indeed, the army did forcibly remove Morsi from office, but this was not the product of a secret plot in murky underground sleeper cells, but was the response to what have been described as the biggest protests in Egyptian, some say human, history. And the millions of people out on the streets who forced the military to take such drastic action were not wearing khaki, as far as I could see.

If we’re going to describe the events of the past days as a ‘coup’, should we also call the entire Egyptian revolution a ‘palace coup’. After all, even if the 18 days of protest put the sword in front of Mubarak, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF) which pushed him to fall on it. Moreover, the army has not yet really gone away, given that it set the rules of the ‘democratic’ game during the transitional phase, laid down red lines to protect its interests, dissolved parliament and how it is believed to still hold major backroom influence over Egypt’s political machinery.

Besides, all the hand-wringing over the unceremonious jettisoning of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader overlooks the crucial rider that Morsi was also democratically ejected. Democracy is ultimately about the will of the people. Just as voters give politicians mandates, they can withdraw them – and they don’t need to wait to do it via the ballot box if the need is pressing, and they can deliver their vote of no confidence via the streets.

And what a spectacular vote of no confidence it was. When he was voted into office last year, Morsi managed only a puny 13.2 million votes, even though he was running only against one candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. Meanwhile, with turnout at just over half and many actively boycotting the vote, the ‘no’ candidate got about as many votes as the two hopefuls combined.

Contrast this with the estimated 17 million people who took to the streets on 30 June, and the millions more after. That’s not to mention the 22 million signatures the Tamrod petition managed to collect.

Those who argue that the electorate should have kept their grievances for the ballot box ignore the fact that the street is a legitimate democratic forum – in fact, it is the purest form of direct democracy – as reflected by the constitutional protection of people’s right to protest in every mature democracy.

And those who refuse to acknowledge that Egyptians don’t yet live in a stable system like the UK’s – which hasn’t experienced a coup since Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Rump parliament in 1653 – do not generally offer much of an alternative. What was the population to do in the face of Morsi’s stubborn refusal to cede power? Storm the Bastille, so to speak, with all the loss of life that would have involved? Descend into civil war like Syria and Libya did? Perhaps had Syria’s generals forced Bashar al-Assad out, the situation there would be imperfect but far better than today.

While concerns over the potentially dangerous precedent this sets are valid, if a future president faces the same level of widespread and sustained opposition, (s)he deserves to go. In addition, a neglected flip side is that if Morsi had been left to nourish his pseudo-dictatorial tendencies, that would have also set a perhaps more dangerous precedent in a country where the spectre of dictatorship has still not gone away.

Some might see this as little more than a debate over semantics. But this is hugely politicised terminology, which can be used, in the wrong hands, to de-legitimise the revolution and the unprecedented opposition to Morsi.

I should stress that all of the above does not mean that Egyptians should trust, much less express undying devotion to, the military, as a worrying number of people are doing. The people and the army are not a “single hand”. After six decades of military or ex-military dictators, we can safely say that the army got us into this mess in the first place. Moreover, while some in the SCAF undoubtedly act out of an interest in the greater good, collectively the generals are out to preserve, as much as they can, what is left of the military’s privileged status.

This underscores the crucial point that Egyptians should not just say ‘no’ to Morsi, but also to the military. Egypt is under new management, and that management is the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 4 July 2013.

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Syria’s Sunni v Shi’a myth

 
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Insisting falsely that the Syrian conflict is sectarian will tear the country apart once Assad  is gone and place the Alawite minority in grave danger.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

A recent poll on Al Jazeera Arabic’s website asked who was responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a sectarian conflict: the Sunnis or the Shi’a? Around 95% of those who voted blamed the deterioration on the Shi’a.

Although this result is shocking in its own right, what I find more confounding is the question itself. One would expect of a reputable Arab news channel not to play the sectarian game and reduce the conflict in Syria to a simplistic Sunni v Shi’a equation.

In unspoken recognition of this, Al Jazeera quietly changed the options to “the regime and its allies” or “the jihadists”, though this did not go unnoticed on social media.

And it is not just Al Jazeera that has been guilty of this intellectual folly and dangerous reductionism. Many segments of the Arab and the international media have been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

“The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders,” the New York Times informs us. In an article for the Sunday Independent, veteran British war correspondent Robert Fisk warned that the region was now in the grips of a “titanic Islamic struggle” between Sunnis and Shi’a which “now dwarfs the Arab revolutions.”

I am well aware of the Sunni-Shi’a schism which dates back to the very dawn of Islam. I also recognise that a growing number of those involved in the Syrian conflict, especially foreign volunteers (both Sunni and the smaller number of Shi’a jihadists), increasingly see the conflict in such glaring sectarian terms.

However, the reality of the situation is that the civil war in Syria, though it has escalated tremendously, remains essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership and its associated elite (as well as those who feared instability) and the masses tired of bowing their heads.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite does not make Syria an “Alawite regime“, as some contend. There are those who point to how the army’s top brass is dominated by career Alawite officers.

But this is partly a legacy of the divide and rule of the French mandate with its view that the Alawites were the only “warlike race” in Syria, as well as the fact that the military is often one of the few means for the marginalised to get ahead. In addition, fearing how some Sunnis viewed his ascent to power, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, surrounded himself with some of the loyalist of these Alawite officers.

In addition, most of the regime and the Syrian civilian elite which profits from it are Sunnis. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Alawite population still festers in poverty and marginalization – and many of these are struggling against the regime.

Over and above this, influential segments of the Alawite intelligentsia are on the side of the opposition, such as the courageous journalist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was jailed, discredited and persecuted for her opposition. “My heart is broken and I’ll never be at peace again, but I will not stop fighting Assad’s regime, no matter what the post-Assad future holds,” she wrote defiantly.

More fundamentally, the state’s official ideology is pan-Arabist, secular Ba’athism, which though authoritarian is, in principle, blind to ethnicity and religion. Appropriately enough, the original Ba’ath party was established by a Christian (Michel Aflaq), a Sunni (Salah al-Din al-Bitar) and an Alawite (Zaki al-Arsuzi).

This makes secular Syria’s alliance with theocratic Iran in recent years all the more puzzling. There are those who attribute it to some form of Shi’a solidarity or even a sinister Shi’a plot to subvert the Sunni order. But the Syria-Iran axis can be explained simply – and better – using classical geopolitics.

When the Syrian and Iranian regimes first became strategic allies during the Iran-Iraq war, it was more out of a shared opposition towards Iraq than any admiration for each other. More recently, the two countries’ increasing isolation, as well as western hostility towards them, brought them ever closer, as did their common animosity towards the United States and Israel.

However, under less desperate circumstances the two regimes would have likely been enemies. Their ideologies and political visions are mutual anathema, and as for any supposed Shi’a solidarity, Iranians, like Sunnis, traditionally perceive Alawites as heretics.

In fact, it wasn’t until Hafez al-Assad became president that any real effort was made to integrate Alawites into the wider Shi’a community. Seeking recognition for his sect, the former Syrian president, who seized power in a 1970 coup, managed to persuade Musa Sadr, an Iranian-Lebanese cleric, to issue a fatwa recognising Alawites as Shi’a.

What about Hizbullah, some might ask? Doesn’t its close ties with Syria and the fact that it is fighting on the side of the regime betray this sectarianism?

No, not really. If anything, it reveals careful and cynical political calculations. Hizbullah does not want to lose one of its major backers, while the Assad regime needs all the firepower it can muster to survive.

Those who suspect the Assad regime of harbouring overpowering sympathies for the Shi’a of Lebanon need only rewind to 1976. In this early stage of the Lebanese civil war, Syria intervened not on the side of the Shi’a but on the side of the Maronites to push back the advancing PLO-Lebanese National Movement forces, and sat by and did nothing when Israel invaded the Shi’a-dominated south of Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad even allegedly helped install the Maronite Elias Sarkis as president.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary, some insist on the Sunni-Shi’a dimension. But this folly has potentially very serious consequences. If the sectarian idea gains further traction, then it will likely tear the country apart once the Assad regime is defeated, derailing future efforts to rebuild.

More ominously, once the guns fall silent, the hapless Alawite minority could pay a heavy price for this mythical clash if the Sunni majority decide to blame them collectively for Assad’s abuses, conveniently forgetting the fact that most of the regime is Sunni.

Beyond Syria’s borders, if the conflict continues to be viewed through the Sunni-Shi’a prism, there is the danger that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ignite the flames of sectarianism across the region.

The current conflict in Syria (and the tensions in the wider Middle East) are not about some ancient feud regarding the status of Ali, but were and remain essentially a battle between the disenfranchised population and the entrenched and corrupt establishment.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 30 June 2013.

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