The Arab-Israeli war of narratives

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By Khaled Diab

On the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, Egyptians and Israelis still cannot agree on the conflict’s name, date or outcome.

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Wednesday 9 October 2013

That history is written by the victors is one of those truisms that is actually often untrue. Take the Torah. It hardly paints a flattering picture of the “victor”, Egypt, the regional superpower of the time. In fact, the Biblical narrative comes across as an anti-Egyptian propagandistic diatribe which depicts a very different Egypt to the official pharaonic propaganda.

The modern world, in which the majority of societies are literate, showcases the energetic resilience of competing narratives – and mythologies – of the same event. This is nowhere more apparent than across enemy lines. In the Arab-Israeli context, I have been exposed to the conflicting histories on both sides of the divide.

I am currently reminded of this reality when I consider how both Egyptians and Israelis are (separately) marking the 40th anniversary of the same war, yet are unable to agree on its name nor even its date – let alone its outcome.

Employing the Hebrew calendar, Israel has already commemorated the 1973 Yom Kippur war, while Egypt, using the Gregorian calendar, celebrated the October war on the 6th of the month. To add to the temporal confusion, Egypt also marks, but with much less pomp and ceremony, the anniversary of the war on 10 Ramadan, the date on which the war began according to the Islamic calendar, which shifts back 11 or so days each solar year.

In Egypt, this year’s celebrations were bound to be spectacular. The army released a special jubilee logo and urged Egyptians everywhere to take part in the planned festivities, as well as to fly the Egyptian flag from their windows.

In light of the bloody upheavals of the last couple of months and the massive question marks hanging in the air, rejoicing over a moment of past glory can provide some much-needed feel-good optimism for a population worn down by nearly three years of revolution and counter-revolution.

With Egyptian society more polarised than ever, this symbolically significant anniversary is a golden opportunity for the military to cobble together a semblance of national unity – and to score a propaganda point against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular critics of military rule.

Not to be left out, the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance urged its supporters to converge on Tahrir Square. Seeking to cut them off at the pass, the pro-military Tamarod movement is mobilising its followers to mount rival demonstrations, also in Tahrir.

This raised the spectre that the commemoration of a landmark war, and the supposed national unity it instilled, could descend into bloody street battles. Given the symbolic importance of this anniversary, the Egyptian authorities warned ominously that they will not allow anyone to spoil their party. In all, at least 50 people died in the protests.

Over the past four decades, both Egypt’s armed forces and its top brass have used the October “victory” as a central plank of their claim to legitimacy – as defenders of Egypt’s borders, reclaimers of its land and restorers of its honour.

Anwar al-Sadat, the president who launched the surprise attack against Israel, never tired of reminding the Egyptian people that he was the architect of that war, and his government went on a naming spree to mark the historic conflict: a political magazine, two of Cairo’s satellite cities, an elevated highway which now spans most of Cairo, and much more.

Sadat was assassinated during a military parade celebrating the very same October war in 1981, and shortly thereafter his vice-president took over the helm. Not to be left out of October’s glorious radiance, Hosni Mubarak, who was commander of the air force at the time, claimed to have flown the first sortie of the 1973 war.

In leaked secret recordings of private conversations between Mubarak and his doctor in prison, the former president talked at length about his “completely secret” airstrike.

In addition, Mubarak’s lawyer has said that the toppled leader was planning to write a book about his and the airforce’s role in the war. An unpublished manuscript on Mubarak’s exploits dating back to the late 1970s is also due out soon.

General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister who responded to a popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi by removing the president, is widely regarded as the real driving force behind Egypt’s current brutal and bloody “transition.”

With talk of him being the “new Nasser” and “Egypt’s Eisenhower”, not to mention a campaign urging him to run for office, speculation is rife that Sisi might have ambitions to become Egypt’s next president.

Since Sisi is too young to have played a role in the 1973 war, it is unclear how and whether he will exploit its legacy if he does mount a bid for the top job in the land. But if Sisi decides to go against his promises and assurances, it would not surprise me if he announced it amid the nationalistic euphoria which will accompany the 40th anniversary of the “glorious victory”.

But was it actually a victory?

Now back to thqt other war, Yom Kippur, which took place at the exact same time and place as the October war, but with a different outcome. Although Israel originally described it as a stalemate, and despite the trauma the war caused to the national psyche as reflected in the endless post-mortems, Israel now claims it as a heroic act in which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

So who was right? In some ways, both sides were.

In the first phase of the war, Egypt’s spectacular crossing of the Suez Canal, with closely coordinated military backing from Syria on Israel’s northern front, and the Arab oil embargo constituted the most successful example of joint Arab action in the 20th century. Egypt’s ingeniously low-tech breaching of the once-insurmountable Bar-Lev Line and early advances caused such panic among Israeli leaders that Golda Meir’s inner circle may have come perilously close to deploying the “bomb in the basement”.

(As an aside, though Israel does not allow its media to mention with certainty the presence of an “alleged” Israeli nuclear arsenal, I think this episode eloquently underscores the urgent need for Israel to become part of regional efforts to rid the Middle East of WMD.)

But what is not taught in Egyptian school textbooks, rarely shown in its media and totally ignored in the October war panorama in Cairo’s Nasr City district is that the victory turned to stalemate and, within a matter of 10 days, when Israeli troops had crossed to the western side of the canal and got to within a 100km of Cairo, to near defeat.

By the time I was born on 30 October, which some Egyptians I encounter regard as a glorious coincidence, large-scale combat had ended, Israel was in possession of 1,600 square kilometers of land on the Egyptian mainland, but was surrounded by Egyptian forces or natural barriers, while the Egyptian third army was under siege in Sinai, though it maintained its combat integrity and advanced to occupy extra land to the east.

The blanking out of these latter Egyptian losses – which I have mainly learnt about over the years from foreign sources – is dangerous. It encourages a false sense of might among Egyptian and Arab critics of the peace treaty with Israel, who are often under the false impression that Egypt had defeated Israel, while all it had managed was to avoid a defeat as crushing as 1967.

This misapprehension also makes Sadat’s subsequent diplomatic manoeuvres seem more baffling than they actually were. In addition to his strong conviction that diplomacy was the ultimate solution –  similar to his predecessor Nasser’s own private beliefs  – Sadat was faced with a desperate deadlock on the battlefield and growing public pressure to deliver the victorious return of every inch of Egyptian territory he had promised the people.

Although Israel’s assessment of the 1973 war is more honest and it has drawn many lessons from it, most have been of a military nature, such as the need to neutralise its most dangerous neighbour, Egypt, through a treaty to end to hostilities.

Before Israelis rush to congratulate themselves that the Arabs have more bombast than bombs, they should pause to consider that they too possess an arsenal of potent weapons of mass self-deception. Despite Israel’s existential angst which has caused it to be in a constant state of military over-preparedness and often to underestimate its own might, it also entertains destructive mythologies.

In spite of the knock to Israel’s military prestige and sense of security delivered in 1973, the country is still punch-drunk on the stunning 1967 victory. This has lured the Israeli establishment and society to believe that there can be a military solution to Israel’s every problem, and rather than forge a comprehensive peace in the 1970s which included the Palestinians, it settled for removing Egypt from the equation.

But what this overlooks is that the 1967 war did not actually end, like the creation of the world in Genesis, in six days but continued until 1973’s stalemate, that Arab weakness and division were as much or perhaps more of a factor in the victory than Israeli might and prowess, and that Israel’s military dominance is underwritten by a superpower whose continued willingness or ability to support are not guaranteed.

The 40th anniversary of the October/Yom Kippur war should give Egyptians and Israelis pause to reflect on the futility of armed conflict between them, to realise the destructiveness of jingoism and to work on the popular level to enlarge the circle of peace to include the Palestinians.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2013.

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The six-day curse

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By Khaled Diab

Rather than an almost miraculous blessing, Israel’s six-day victory in 1967 has proven to be a naksa for Israelis and Arabs alike.

Monday 6 June 2011

In the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there have been precious few win-win situations, and each side’s victory is usually the other’s loss; its joy, the other’s grief. The most striking example is the dichotomy between the sorrowful Palestinian Nakba Day  – which was marked, this year, by thousands of Palestinian refugees attempting to return symbolically to their abandoned homes – and Israel’s Independence Day, with all its zealous flag-waving, partying and national joy. 

Another notable example is the contrast between the nakba-rhyming naksa (or ‘setback’), which commemorates the Arabs’ crushing defeat at the hands of Israel in June 1967, and Jerusalem Day, which celebrates Israel’s stunning six-day victory and the ‘reunification’ of the Holy City – although even among Israelis, Jerusalem Day is not much of a cause for celebration and “most people in Israel don’t even know, and don’t care, why it even exists”, according to Yossi Sarid

“Jerusalem 2011 is a sad city pretending to be glad,” adds Sarid. 

The "No dividing Jerusalem" petitioner never takes a holiday. Photo: ©K. Diab

And the gladdest were the right-wing settler and religious Zionist movements. On 1 June, I came across hundreds of Israeli youths dressed in celebratory white shirts and matching kippahs streaming excitedly out of the city’s Damascus Gate (Bab el-Khalil) in East Jerusalem, in unspoken defiance and insensitivity to the passers-by in this predominantly Palestinian section of the city. 

In the Mamilla shopping arcade, just outside the old city’s walls, an obsessive petitioner, who haunts shoppers at the mall on an apparently daily basis, didn’t even take Jerusalem Day off from his quest to collect signatures to keep Jerusalem “united”. He implored shoppers and strollers to sign his petition urging the prime minister not to “divide” the city. Perhaps he’d mistaken Binyamin Netanyahu for some sort of closet peacenik who cared about international law and the rights of the Palestinians. He’d also obviously missed Bibi’s reality-defying speech to the US Congress in which he said quite unequivocally: “Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel”.

Inside the old town, near Zion Gate, a group of jubilant performers dressed up as Israeli flags danced the Horah, a circle dance originally imported from the Balkans by Romanian Jews which has become the quintessential folk dance in Israel and somewhat resembles maypole dancing, but without the pole. 

Horah dance on Jerusalem Day

Performing the Horah or dancing on the grave of the peace process? Image: ©Khaled Diab

Though the dance was well-choreographed and pleasant enough to behold and the joy of the dancers seemed genuine, what they were celebrating – the conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank – made it seem like they were cheerfully running circles around the prospects of a peaceful resolution to the conflict, rather like the settlement ring around Jerusalem, and dancing on the grave of the peace process. 

Other aspects of the Jerusalem Day celebrations were not as good-natured. For the first time, the focal point of the day’s main event, the so-called Flag Dance, was provocatively the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, where settlers have been making hostile inroads in recent years. 

Tens of thousands of settlers marched from there, through Damascus Gate, finishing off at the Western Wall. During the procession, some marchers were witnessed chanting offensive slogans, including the worryingly violent “Death to leftists” and “Butcher the Arabs”, not to mention “Muhammad is dead” (which is something of a bizarre insult, considering that everyone knows that). 

In many ways, Jerusalem Day is a poignant symbol of how Israel’s 1967 victory was perhaps more of a naksa (setback) for Israelis – albeit a disguised one – than for Arabs, for whom it was an overwhelming defeat. Prior to the war, many Israelis saw their young state as militarily vulnerable, and this apprehension created a certain pragmatism in a number of Israeli circles about the need for peaceful coexistence. 

This was perhaps best embodied in the views of Israel’s second prime minister Moshe Sharett, who exchanged secret peace overtures with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the early 1950s. Unfortunately for posterity, these efforts were torpedoed by David Ben-Gurion, the Lavon Affair and the fact that the Egyptian leadership feared that the “Arab Street” was not yet willing to accommodate Israel. 

The 1967 war bred a dangerous philosophy in Israel which blended unilateralism and militarism with complacency over the long-term consequences of continued occupation of large swathes of Arab land and exercising military control over the lives of millions of Arabs. This was perhaps the course of least resistance, considering Israel’s fractured political landscape, which provides the ideal habitat for hawks to turn the doves into lame ducks. 

Naturally, there were Israelis at the time who wanted to use the captured lands (with the notable exception of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank) as a bargaining chip towards a peace settlement with the country’s Arab neighbours. But these voices were too few and too disorganised amid the euphoria and greed triggered by overwhelming victory and the apparent Arab intransigence signified by the famous “three nos” of the Arab League’s Khartoum Resolution. 

However, the well-organised and ideologically driven settler movement quickly moved to sideline these voices of reconciliation by establishing the first illegal settlements. While this was going on, Israel’s political class was either happy to let them have their way or allowed themselves to be bullied and browbeaten into acquiescence. 

In fact, Israel’s “miraculous” military success also turned Religious Zionism, with its uncompromising attitude towards the conquered lands, especially the West Bank (which Israel officially calls Judea and Samaria), from a marginal movement and thrust it right into the Israeli mainstream. 

Since then, the settler movement has worked hard to establish “facts on the ground” to guarantee the “integrity” of the “Land of Israel”. For example, the settler population has tripled since the launch of the Oslo peace process, thereby derailing the two-state solution by slicing up much of the land that was earmarked for the future Palestinian state. 

Although the idea of “land for peace” emerged internationally in the wake of the war, as embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 242, many Israeli leaders have been motivated by an underlying assumption that, with time, military superiority could deliver both. 

Meanwhile, the crushing defeat gradually led many Arabs and Palestinians to become far more realistic about the effectiveness of an armed solution to the conflict. Even the Khartoum Resolution, despite its rejectionist tone, recognised that diplomacy, not war, was the way forward. 

The late Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat was the first Arab leader to act openly on this philosophy. Even though he instigated the 1973 war, his aims were tactical: to readjust the military balance of power and force Israel to the negotiating table. Despite initial Arab hostility towards Sadat’s peace overtures and their anger over Egypt’s separate peace deal with Israel, not to mention Sadat’s arrogant condescension and sidelining of the other Arabs, all the Arab states eventually accepted the premise openly. On a side note, one can only speculate about how much stronger Egypt’s bargaining power would have been had the other Arabs presented a united front with, rather than against Egypt, and had Israel agreed to comprehensive rather than bilateral talks.   

Today, Arab countries not only accept this principle but have offered Israel, through the Arab Peace Initiative, full recognition and normalisation in return for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories (the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis. 

Despite this, Israel’s leadership continues to procrastinate, preferring mushrooming settlements to a comprehensive settlement, apparently secure in the belief that military might will prove right in the end. But this sort of battlefield diplomacy is bound to fail and will lead to Israel living in a state of perpetual conflict which, though it may appear manageable today, could easily backfire in the future. 

History has shown repeatedly that denying a people their rights cannot continue indefinitely, especially if the wave of change currently washing across the region inspires the Palestinians to mount a mass peaceful movement for their rights. Like the Arabs have learnt through bitter experience, Israelis may one day discover that what they reject today may seem like an unattainable dream in the future. 

Ordinary Israelis need to wake up fast to how the settler movement has taken their collective fate, and that of their children and grandchildren, hostage and to mobilise en masse against the settlements while Israel is still in a position to do so. They should take to the streets and say clearly: “Yes to a comprehensive settlement. No to the comprehensive settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” 

As in the story of Genesis which inspired the Israeli name for this war, many of the seeds of the current sorry state of affairs were planted in those six fateful days. It’s time to bring about the dawn of the seventh day of justice and reconciliation. Only then can we all rest.

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Egypt’s counter-revolutionary bogeyman

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By Osama Diab

Fear of retaliation from the old regime shouldn’t be used to limit Egyptians’ hard-won freedoms and attack peaceful protesters.

Monday 2 May 2011

Egyptian hopes for a more democratic future were crushed on Friday when security forces from the police and military raided Tahrir Square in Cairo, leaving two people dead and arresting 41. The army blamed counter-revolutionary elements for provoking the clashes and denied responsibility for the bloodshed.

The attacks on protesters came two weeks after the recently appointed cabinet passed a law restricting protests. The minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelaziz el-Guindy, told Egyptian television that this was a measure to protect the revolution.

The violence in Tahrir wasn’t the only act justified with this scapegoat. The demolition of Sufi shrines, the burning of a Christian church in Atfih and the subsequent violence, and even labour strikes and sit-ins have all been described as counter-revolutionary acts.

The law, which was approved by the ruling supreme council of the armed forces in the absence of a parliament, makes participating in protests and strikes that hinder the work of public institutions or authorities during a state of emergency illegal. This kind of vagueness and open-endedness could make any strike or protest subject to this law, which provides for punishment of up to three years in prison.

Deposed president Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years with an emergency law that was instituted after the assassination of former president Anwar el-Sadat by Islamists in 1981. Since then, Mubarak used Islamists as an excuse to crack down on any attempt at political change. Just a few hours before leaving office, he told Christiane Amanpour of ABC television that if he left now, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

With a new military regime in place, signs of similar Mubarak tactics are starting to emerge. This time, Islamists, last season’s scare tactic, are replaced with the remnants of the previous regime – Egypt’s new bogeyman.

This fear of a counter-revolution could potentially be extended to include all sorts of freedoms. Restrictions could be put on the media and civil society, for example, claiming that some of its elements are part of a counter-revolutionary plan.

The law against demonstrations, nevertheless, was welcomed by many to end the “politics of the street” in which whoever has control over the streets of Egypt has influence over public policy.

Despite the harm that might occur from taking every simple demand to the streets during this critical time, this should have been dealt with through swift reforms rather than criminalising protests.

Political stability is always something to aspire to, but the best means of achieving it is still up for debate. What Egypt needs now is genuine stability driven by social equality, political freedom and a fair enforcement of law, rather than a fake stability imposed by oppressive laws and the heavy hand of brutal security. The policies of Mubarak and his cohort of Arab dictators have all led to instability, despite an endless number of oppressive laws and brutal security forces.

There are plenty of existing laws that could be used against remnants of Mubarak’s regime who try to instigate chaos. Corruption, hooliganism and vandalism are already punishable in the courts.

“Any move to curb freedom of assembly and the right to strike in Egypt would be an alarming step backwards and an insult to those who risked – and lost – their lives calling for change over the last two months,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said.

Egypt has had enough of the politics of fear and division, and if the revolution is to achieve its goals, loose accusations of “counter-revolution” should not be used by any group to win support or justify actions that otherwise cannot be justified.

Until now, no one has had a clear understanding of what this counter-revolutionary threat is, what its goals are, what is it trying to achieve, or its methods of achieving it. But it has been used by some groups to accuse their opponents and abused by those in power to restrict freedoms.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 April 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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When the revolution comes…

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By Khaled Diab

A democratic Egypt will not go to war with Israel, but for the cold peace to thaw, Israel must ends its occupation.

9 February 2011

The unfolding revolution in Egypt has not only caused nervousness among Arab dictators but it has also sent shockwaves throughout Israeli society, with fears that the end of the Mubarak dictatorship will lead to an Islamist takeover of the country, the tearing up of the peace treaty between the two countries and perhaps even full-out war.

But are these fears justified? Could Egypt really become the next Middle Eastern theocracy? Well, in my honest opinion, those who warn or fear such an eventuality have either not been following the situation in Egypt closely or are ideologically disinclined to believe that Egyptians and Arabs are capable of forging and maintaining a democracy.

Since protests began on 25 January, I have been following events very closely. In fact, for an expatriate Egyptian who has long dreamed of democracy in his homeland, the demonstrations have made compulsive viewing and have filled me with the urge to fly back to Egypt. In all the endless hours of footage I’ve watched, I have not seen any protesters chanting Islamist slogans, burning American or Israeli flags, or chanting death to Israel.

Instead, protesters, mostly ordinary people from across Egypt and from all walks of life and from the country‘s two main religious groups, are out to protest economic inequality and demand their political freedom. They have been making very clear and precise demands: the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak and his entire regime, the appointment of a transitional “national salvation” government and the holding of free and fair democratic elections as soon as possible.

Although millions have taken to the streets, the demonstrations have been peaceful and orderly, and this in a country famed for its semi-disorganised chaos, and despite the regime’s best efforts to lock down communications and transport networks. In fact, the only violence so far has come from the government and not the people, as demonstrated by the violent police reaction to early protests and the government-backed goons and thugs that turned Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of the protests into a battlefield in a bid to intimidate the protesters into submission.

But still they refused to be intimidated, those Egyptians whom so many had dismissed, including themselves, as lacking the steadfastness and wherewithal to challenge the status quo. In spite of the fallen and despite being beaten, battered, abandoned and under siege, they came out in their millions across the country for the ‘Friday of Departure’, although at the time of writing the diehard dictator was still refusing to depart.

When not under attack by police or the regime’s thugs, the demos have often been marked by an almost carnival air, with people singing and dancing and employing the wry wit for which Egyptians are well-known throughout the Arab world to scathing effect.

Despite all these clear singles, there are widespread fears in Israel that the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings to take over power. “In a situation of chaos, an organised Islamist body can seize control of a country. It happened in Iran. It happened in other instances,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reflecting the tone of speculation across much of the Israeli political spectrum.

So, could we be on the path towards the creation of the Islamic Republic of Egypt?

Well, the longstanding theory, exploited by Mubarak and other dictators, that when presented with democratic choice, Arabs would vote in Islamists who would then strip citizens of their democratic rights and so it is best to prop up friendly dictators is not only inaccurate but insulting, arrogant and unfair. It is like saying that democracy is something only “civilised” peoples can comprehend and uphold, and, hence, Arabs have no right to aspire to it.

I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution, even if Iran itself, for propaganda purposes, has drawn parallels between its own revolution and current events in Egypt.

But there is a world of difference between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. For one, the Egyptian Sunni clergy are not politicised and are not held in the same kind of awe as their Shi’a counterparts. Iran had the charismatic and “holy” cult figure Ayatollah Khomeini, while the Muslim Brotherhood is largely made up of conservative and rather grey professionals in suits, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.

More significantly, the party missed the boat in this revolution by refusing to take part in the protests, which were actually initiated by disaffected and disempowered youth, or back them until it was clear to everyone that they were unstoppable. The movement’s top brass, under the conservative and cautious leadership of Mohammed Badie, have proven themselves not only to be out of touch with the popular mood, but also with the younger, more open-minded generation within their own ranks.

In addition, one factor behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s apparent success and popularity, with the movement often described as Egypt’s largest opposition party, is the fact that they were kind of the “last man left standing” after the secular opposition was purged, starting in the 1970s under former president Anwar el-Sadat who also backed the Islamist current as a counterbalance to his powerful secular opponents.

But now, with freedom beckoning and plurality around the corner, the Brotherhood can no longer play the dual role of being both the last protest party for the disenfranchised and the demon used by the regime to scare the outside world. In fact, with the emergence of democracy, the Brotherhood, as Egypt’s second oldest party (though one that has been banned for most of its existence), would only be one of Egypt’s many political and social movements, albeit a fairly influential one, and could perhaps eventually morph into a sort of “Muslim Democratic” party. As a secular progressive, I have little love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but if there are Egyptians who wish to vote for them, that‘s their choice to make.

That said, even for religious Egyptians, the Brotherhood is not the only show in town, especially since more and more people are discovering that their slogan “Islam is the answer” has not really answered anything. For example, one hijabbed female protester interviewed by al-Jazeera insisted that, though she was a devout Muslim, she would not vote for the Brotherhood, because, for her, religion was a private affair.

More importantly, I cannot help thinking that Israel is drawing the wrong lessons from the Iranian revolution. To my mind, what the Iranian revolution demonstrates is that if you suppress people’s desire for freedom for too long and back tyrants and dictators, then eventually extremism will emerge. Had the CIA not bankrolled a coup d’etat against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953 and reinstated the Shah, then the Islamic revolution would probably never have occurred and the West would enjoy more cordial relations with a free and democratic Iran.

By urging the United States and Europe to help Mubarak cling on to power, Israel could unwittingly be helping to create the monster it fears. Luckily, it appears that US President Barack Obama has apparently drawn the correct lessons from history with his insistence that only the Egyptian people can determine their leaders.

Besides, at its heart, the Arab-Israeli conflict is about land and a clash of competing nationalisms. For instance, it wasn’t so long ago that Israel and the United States feared Arab secularists and supported Islamists as a counterbalance against them.

So, Israelis would do well to heed the advice of one protester on Tahrir Square. “If Israel continues to support Mubarak, we will start to hate Israel more and more,” he said. “Israel has to give up. Now Israel is a friend of one man, of Mubarak, but tomorrow it needs to be a friend of 80 million.”

Moreover, democracy is a value that you either believe in or you do not. You cannot say that dictatorship is fine as long as it serves our interests and affects other people. To illustrate how ridiculous this notion is, it would be like saying that because Israel voted in the most extremist government in living memory, Israelis no longer deserve to rule themselves and should have a dictatorship imposed upon them.

So, what are the likely effects of democracy on Egypt’s relations with Israel?

Since most of Egypt’s political class is unhappy with Israel’s ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.

Nevertheless, the peace treaty is binding on Egypt, has brought it stability and most Egyptians do not want to go to war with Israel, so I don’t think any Egyptian government would risk reneging on it. It is likely, however, to do the bare minimum to respect it and, fuelled by popular sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, will probably end Egypt’s co-operation in maintaining the inhumane Gaza blockade.

If Israel values its relationship with Egypt and wishes the current cold peace to thaw and become a warm one, then it needs to reach a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as that festering wound remains, Israeli-Egyptian relations will remain rocky and tense.

So, in many ways, the ball is in Israel’s court. Although Israelis are fond of saying that Arabs and Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, and they have missed a fair number of those, the evidence suggests that the main obstacle to peace has been Israeli intransigence, founded on military might and a reluctance to cede conquered territory. But this has come at a heavy human price for the Palestinians, who live under an increasingly draconian and repressive occupation. It has also carried a heavy moral price for Israel and isolated it not only regionally but increasingly internationally.

As then President Anwar el-Sadat warned with prescience in his historic speech to the Knesset in 1977: “In all sincerity, I tell you that there can be no peace without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to overlook or brush aside this cause.”

This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post on 5 February 2011.

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The death throes of Arab dictatorships

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By Khaled Diab

Will the unfolding popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt lead to the region’s dictators falling one after the other like dominos?

Thursday 3 February 2011

For me as an Egyptian, watching the dramatic events of recent days unfold has been inspiring, moving and worrying all at the same time. Despite usually being a cool-headed journalistic observer, I have found myself fighting back tears of joy and pride on numerous occasions.

For a country whose political life usually limps forward (and quite often backward), the drama of recent days has throttled along like a high-speed political drama. The old adage that a week is a long time in politics has been fast-forwarded in Egypt, and every hour, even every minute, brings new developments with it.

Ever since the Tunisian uprising broke out and especially since the downfall of its president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the question on everyone’s lips has been whether people in Egypt, the largest and most central Arab country, and other states in the region would follow the Tunisian example. Of course, I and some other observers were expecting matters to come to a head this year, because of the mounting opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s (read profile) rule as we approach the presidential elections, slated for the autumn of 2011, but no on expected, even in their wildest dreams, anything approaching the mass protests that have shaken the country in recent days.

Even a fortnight ago, it seemed uncertain as to whether Egypt would actually catch the Tunisian bug and, through it, cure itself of the Mubarak virus. After all, for most of the past decade, Egyptian political and trades union activists, and other civil society actors, had been campaigning and agitating for change. They even created a broad-based umbrella movement which united all of Egypt’s opposition forces – progressive, conservative, leftist, Nasserist and Islamist – towards the common goal of bringing to an end the Mubarak regime under the simple banner ‘Kefaya’ (‘Enough’). But Kefaya was clearly not enough to mobilise ordinary Egyptians, who seemed to be weighed down by the heavy chains of disillusionment, apathy and fear.

Disappointed at the mainstream opposition’s inability to create new momentum, Egypt’s young people, long sidelined and undervalued, decided to take matters into their own hands and created, in 2008, the 6 April Youth Movement, originally to call, through social networking technologies, for a general strike in solidarity with strikers in Mahallah el-Kubra, Egypt’s main textile production centre. Although the movement’s success had been limited, this all changed on Tuesday 25 January 2011, Egypt’s Police Day (a day of celebration for the regime, not the people), when it called on Egyptians to take to the street in a “day of anger”. Spurred on and emboldened by the sweet success of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Egyptians took to the streets in untold thousands across the country.

The “Friday of anger”, on 28 January, delivered a fatal blow to the regime and most expect it to be the final nail in the coffin of the presidency. At the time of writing, Mubarak continues to cling on to power desperately and delusionally, playing out a perverse and surreal pantomime in which he dissolved the government and appointed a vice president (for the first time) and a new prime minister, both members of the old guard.

Regardless of what tricks the no-longer-president tries to pull off, most Egyptians demand and expect his ouster. But how many more Egyptians Mubarak is willing to sacrifice at the altar of his ego, in addition to the many scores of dead and injured already, remains an open question. Another crucial question is whose side the army will ultimately choose: the people’s, the defunct regime’s or perhaps simply its own.

Every passing moment increases the risks to Egyptians, in terms of their safety as relative anarchy breaks out following the disappearance of Egypt’s beloathed police force – which impromptu neighbourhood protection committees are trying to combat – and their economic well-being, as the financial and tourism markets take a battering. Tourists have fled the country, the stock market fell by around 6% for two days running before trading was suspended, while regional and global markets are growing jittery at the unrest, and the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound against the dollar is at its lowest in six years.

But what or who will replace the fallen regimes in Egypt and Tunisia? In many parts of Europe and the United States, there has been a longstanding fear, exploited by Mubarak and other dictators, that when presented with democratic choice, Arabs would vote in Islamists who would then strip citizens of their democratic rights – in a sort of “one citizen, one vote, one time” – and turn their countries against the West.

For that reason, many argue that pragmatism and realpolitik call for the propping up of friendly dictators – a very distasteful notion, indeed, especially as the United States dithers over whether or not to withdraw its support from Mubarak.

In the two ongoing revolutions, the fears of an Islamist takeover appear to be unfounded, especially in Tunisia, probably the most secular country in the region, where the protests began out of sympathy with the suicide of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself alive after his wares were confiscated by police, in an echo of the actions of Czech student Jan Palach, who also set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which aimed to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček.

Since then, Tunisians of all ages and backgrounds have been out on the streets in force, chanting for democracy and freedom, not for Islam or Shari’a. “This Muslim fundamentalist thing in North Africa is a scarecrow,” insisted one Tunisian protester. In addition, women, modern, courageous, outspoken have been clearly visible among the crowds in a country where gender equality has gone furthest in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, the fears are still being voiced, as I’ve personally experienced in the number of times I’ve been asked by journalists and ordinary people about the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood would seize power in Egypt.

While recognising that nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility, I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution, in an Arab version of Iran’s “Islamic revolution”, even if Iran itself drew parallels between 1979 and current events in Egypt and, rather cheekily considering its own crushing of mass protests in 2009, called on the Egyptian regime to submit to protesters’ demands.

However, there is a world of difference between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. For one, the Egyptian Sunni clergy are not politicised and are not held in the same kind of awe as their Shi’a counterpart. Iran had the charismatic and “holy” cult figure Ayatollah Khomeini, while the Muslim Brotherhood is largely made up of conservative and rather grey professionals in suits, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Significantly, the party missed the boat in this revolution by refusing to take part in the protests or back them until it appeared that they were unstoppable. The movement’s top brass, under the conservative and cautious leadership of Mohammed Badie, have proven themselves not only to be out of touch with the popular mood, but also with the younger, more open-minded generation within their own ranks.

In addition, one factor behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s apparent success and popularity, with the movement often described as Egypt’s largest opposition party, is the fact that they were kind of the “last man left standing” after the secular opposition was purged, starting in the 1970s under former president Anwar el-Sadat who also backed the Islamist current as a counterbalance to his powerful secular opponents. Moreover, no matter how oppressive the regime became, it could not shut down mosques, natural meeting points for Islamists, without provoking public opprobrium.

But now, with freedom beckoning and plurality around the corner, the Brotherhood can no longer play the dual role of being both the last protest party for the disenfranchised and the demon used by the regime to scare the outside world. In fact, with the emergence of democracy, the Brotherhood would only be one of Egypt’s many political and social movements, albeit a fairly influential one, perhaps even a sort of “Muslim Democratic” party.

So, can this popular revolution spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt?

History would suggest that popular uprisings have a tendency to spark a chain reaction in countries with similar conditions, as occurred in Europe in the 1848 “Springtime of the Peoples” and the 1989 “Autumn of Nations”. Since the Middle East is not short of dictatorships, we could well see a domino effect, though I hope it will be more successful than 1848 and not result in oligarchial rule as occurred in so many places post-1989.

A number of countries are already experiencing unrest and there have been suggestions that they could be next in line. These include Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. Events in Egypt often resonate in Yemen. For instance, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, or coup d’etat, of 1952, revolutionary forces took over North Yemen, creating the Yemen Arab Republic. Although Yemeni tensions and disaffection have been high for some time, protesters are only now explicitly calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power even longer than Mubarak, but Yemenis may have trouble mobilising to the same degree as Egyptians and Tunisians.

Although anger and resentment is greater than in Egypt, “civil society is weaker here and the culture of popular opposition is far less here”, observes Aidroos Al Naqeeb, who heads the socialist party bloc in the Yemeni parliament. In addition, Yemeni society, which is largely tribal, has a weaker sense of national identity and is more fragile than Egypt and Tunisia, with growing secessionist pressure in South Yemen, not to mention the Shia’a or “Houthi” insurgency in the northwest of the country.

Jordan has also experienced protests to demand political and economic reforms. “Jordanians are all for the revolution in Egypt and are cheering for change there,” a Jordanian journalist told me. “Those amongst them who talk about change in Jordan, mainly talk about reforms but not changing the regime.”

This is partly due to the awe, respect, fear and love in which the monarchy is held, the journalist notes, which would explain why Jordanians are calling for the resignation of the government, even though it was appointed by the king who, in any case, is the one who holds executive authority. With that kind of deference to the monarchy, the tensions between indigenous Jordanians (East Bankers) and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, and how much Jordanians value the stability they enjoy in a dangerous and volatile neighbourhood, Jordan is unlikely to be next in line for popular revolution, but could push harder for gradual evolution.

How far popular uprisings and revolutions spread in the Middle East and what their long-term consequences will be is impossible to predict. But one thing is for certain, after decades of stagnation, the region will never be quite the same and we may finally see the dawning of true independence in which local peoples have shaken off not only foreign rule but domestic despotism.

This article appeared in Ukrainian Week on 3 February 2011.

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Learning from the Sadat years

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By Khaled Diab

The Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel remain controversial, but Arabs and Israelis can draw lessons from Anwar el-Sadat’s quest for peace.

1 March 2010

Nearly three decades after his death, the former Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, remains a controversial figure. In Israel and many parts of the West, he is best remembered for his daring trip to Jerusalem, where he became the first and only Arab leader to address the Israeli Knesset, and his deadlock-breaking peace accord with Israel.

But the rosy image of Sadat as world statesman, visionary and peacemaker overlook his questionable domestic human rights record, his dictatorial bent, his disastrous economic policy, the insipid corruption of his regime and his aloofness and arrogance towards other Arab countries.

In Egypt and the Arab world, he is celebrated for the victories he scored in the early parts of the 1973 war, the first time an Arab power had shown the titan of Israel’s military might to be vulnerable and so soon after the crushing defeat in 1967.

However, Sadat’s subsequent peace deal with Israel was far more controversial. Although many Arab leaders privately accepted that peace with Israel was necessary and inevitable – including Sadat’s predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser who conducted promising secret peace contacts with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett – none at the time were bold enough to say it publicly. Rather than working with Sadat to create a unified Arab position to negotiations, they turned on him instead.

In Egypt, opinion was and remains divided, with many viewing the Camp David Accords as a betrayal. However, most Egyptians, tired of what is widely viewed as the Arab desire to defend the Palestinian cause to “the very last Egyptian”, grudgingly accept the benefits of a cold peace.

Today, with a general Arab consensus on the need for a settlement with Israel, as embodied in the Saudi peace plan, criticism of Sadat has become more muted and nuanced: his vision is accepted, though his unilateral tactics are still widely questioned.

Now, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looking as dire and insoluble as ever, what lessons can be learnt from the Sadat experiment?

One important lesson is the importance of symbolism and gesture politics in helping prospective peacemakers scale the walls of paranoia and distrust that separate Israelis and Arabs.

On both sides, many will say that the obstacles to peace – an ultranationalist, right-wing government in Israel, the rise of ultra-conservative Hamas in Gaza, the deadly Israeli siege of the Strip and the disarray and infighting among the Palestinian factions – are insurmountable. But things didn’t look particularly rosy back in the mid-1970s either, when war seemed to be the only show in town.

Then, as now, Israel was led by an ideologically rigid right-wing prime minister who, though he talked of the need for peace, was reluctant to negotiate with the Arabs or give up an inch of the dream of creating Eretz Yisrael. By going to Jerusalem and appealing to the Israeli people directly, Sadat forced Menachem Begin’s hand with a deft masterstroke.

Today’s Arab leaders could do well to learn that, faced with a powerful opponent who nevertheless fears them, a standoffish offer of peace, no matter how attractive, means little when it comes from a great distance. It needs to be delivered in person wrapped in olive branches.

In fact, the need for direct contact and negotiations between politicians from Israel and the frontline Arab states, not to mention the Arab and Israeli peoples, is greater than ever, given the level of mutual dehumanisation and distrust. That does not mean that economic and political ties should be immediately normalised – that will be one of the fruits of eventual peace – but there should be a broad and sincere dialogue and cultural exchange between those on both sides who wish to build enduring peace.

Israel could also draw similar lessons about the value of direct contact. Separated as they are behind physical and ideological walls, ordinary Israelis have negligible contact with their Palestinian neighbours, the people they most need to understand and coexist with. Israel needs to learn the language of its neighbourhood and start dealing with the Palestinians and Arabs in a way that will win them over – a good start would be to end its destructive and counterproductive blockade of Gaza.

In addition, both Israelis and Palestinians need to learn that violence has failed to resolve the conflict and will continue to do so. Israel needs to learn that its gung-ho “deterrent policy” deters little but the prospect for peace, while the Palestinian factions who advocate and employ violence need to realise that it achieves little beyond provoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour. Both sides would do well to learn from the tactics employed by their non-violent peace movements.

In the end, pragmatism is the only solution. As Sadat said in a 1978 speech in Cairo: “Peace is much more precious than a piece of land… let there be no more wars.”

It’s high time for Arabs to overcome their reticence to talk directly with Israel and for Israel to overcome its reluctance to negotiate a simultaneous settlement on all fronts. What we need, but are unlikely to get, is a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This article was written for the Common Ground News Service on 25 February 2010.

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