The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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News of revolution (part II): Voice of the Arabs or Nasserist mouthpiece?

 
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By Osama Diab

The Voice of the Arabs steered Egypt from isolationism and towards a pan-Arabist vision in which Nasser was the anointed leader of the Arab world.

Friday 5 October 2012

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser utilised Voice of the Arabs to reach the masses, such as this crowd in Syria, across the region. Photo: al-Ahram.

A few waves of unrest followed the British Occupation of Egypt with two important milestones: 1906 and 1919. In 1906, unrest erupted when five British officers accidentally injured an Egyptian villager and killed home-grown pigeons while pigeon shooting in the village of Denshwai. Villagers’ anger and the death of one of the British officers due to heatstroke during the dispute resulted in death sentence for four of the villagers, including the owners of the pigeons, and dozens more received varying sentences in a court dominated by British officers and their Egyptian allies.

It is believed that this incident fuelled a rapid grown Egyptian national sentiment and was a key landmark in the development of Egypt’s modern national identity.

The other major milestone was when nationwide demonstration in March and April of 1919 led to the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922 followed by the writing of a ‘liberal constitution’ in 1923. The emphasis in Egyptian national identity in the 1920s was culturally and territorially linked to its Pharaonic and pre-Islamic past which established the basis for a separate Egyptian sense of nationalism. Charles Smith, the American professor of Middle Eastern studies, writes that it was inspired by a foreign elites’ vision of indigenous nationalism and then further reinforced by the historic discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in 1922. “This separate identity, and distinctiveness as Muslims from other Muslims, caused Egyptians to refuse to become involved in non-Egyptian issues, or to do so only in situations where Egyptian paramouncy would be assured,” he wrote.

The 1920s was a decade of consensus over this liberal and secular version of nationalism before the emergence of Islamic and Arab nationalism a decade later. In Redefining the Egyptian nation, the 1930s and the 1940s, some scholars argue, were an era of “supra-Egyptianism”, when a younger generation became more interested in the Arab, Muslim and Eastern worlds and presupposed the existence of a larger community to which Egypt belongs while not totally rejecting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Egyptian state and culture.

Up until the late 1940s, Egyptian national identity, these scholars assert, could be divided into two systems: a territorial imagining and a Western-influenced image of Egypt where a myth of common descent was created and modern Egyptians started to link themselves to ancient Egyptians. The dominant brand for at least a decade after the 1919 revolution advocated the culture and values of Mediterranean civilisation and the modern West. Politically, it assumed a necessary linkage between the state and the nation, whereas the supra-Egyptian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s and the 1940s situated Egypt in its wider Arab, Islamic and Eastern context and vis-a-vis the West.

Despite being the product of the imaginings of Western orientalists on Egypt and despite being driven mainly by a newly emerged middle class and educated elite, these nationalist movements seem to have appealed to the vast majority of Egyptians who suffered from foreign occupation. The struggle against the remnants of British rule and the privileged class of Turks remained in the 1930s and in the 1940s. In 1952, a secret movement within the army called the Free Officers Association brought this long struggle against the monarchy and British rule almost to an end when they carried out a coup against King Farouq and forced him into exile.

The rise of Egyptian military officers to power caused tragic changes in the development of Egyptian nationalism. For the first time, national sentiments were propagated by the official government and the new ruling elite instead of being directed against them. Also for the first time, the mass media’s potential in building national consensus was exploited by the state. It was a brand of nationalism that capitalised on the ‘supra-Egyptianism’ that had been building over the preceding two decades; one that centred on Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. However, the new leadership developed an authoritarian single-party regime and cracked down on all the democratic, or rather semi-democratic, institutions the country had built up during its struggle against imperialism and the monarchy, such as the parliament and political parties.

Despite developing socialist policies, such as the wide-scale redistribution of land, the nationalisation of most key industries and enterprises, the new leadership heavily cracked down on protests, labour strikes and any form of dissidence or opposition. Less than three weeks after the Armed Forces took over power, two teenage labour activists were sentenced to death, for taking part in a strike in the Delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. In 1953, they made the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political party at the time which had emerged from the nationalist anti-colonial movement of 1919.

For obvious reasons, these political change took a heavy toll on the media scene. The relatively pluralistic and vibrant media scene that had prevailed before the 1952 revolution and was defined by the dynamism of the political scene and the struggle for independence was replaced by a much more monolithic and strictly monitored media environment after 1952. Newspapers which existed before the 1952 revolution started to be closed by the government, one after the other, and many journalists were jailed in the process.

In short, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser performed a process of institutionalising national identity through the dissolution of parliament and all political parties, instead establishing a single-party political system to facilitate the process of political and social engineering he was about to initiate. Nasser realised the importance of mass media and once he began to establish his power as the uncontested ruler of the country, he started to propagate his new doctrines of social transformation through the radio to convey the government’s new plans and policies to the masses.

Nasser’s most significant media project was the powerful megaphone of Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) station, which employed the latest in radio technology to shape and influence larger communities in the Egyptian president’s ideological war against his opponents, both within Egypt and in the wider Arab world. “Like no other Egyptian or Arab leader before him, or among his contemporaries, Nasser recognised the immense power of radio, a power which, as a dazzling orator, he had used vigorously and effectively,” writes Adeed Dawisha, the Iraqi professor of political science.

Voice of the Arabs started life in 1953 with a transmission of only half an hour a day. However, in 1963, Nasser’s radio completed a new 1,000 kilowatt medium-wave transmitting station that was considered to be the most powerful radio transmitter in the world at the time. It extended Voice of the Arabs’ transmission time to 24-hours a day and helped convey its anti-imperialist and pan-Arab message to the whole of the Middle East, which further established its position as the flagship station of the Arab renaissance.

The Jordanian scholar and media personality Mahmoud Shalabieh argues that before the revolution of 1952, broadcasting had no national goals, and that it was Nasser who was the first to harness its power to develop Egypt and the rest of the world culturally and politically. Even though television was introduced in 1960, its growth was relatively slow in the beginning. It was confined to urban and rich audiences and was, hence, an ineffective tool of mass persuasion compared to radio, which had already been around for a few decades, reached Egypt’s most remote areas and was heard across the Arab world.

The late Wilton Wynn, described as a “dean of foreign correspondents” who was reporting for AP from Egypt during the Nasser years, observed, in his Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, the phenomenal popularity ofVoice of the Arabs: “A Saudi Arabian merchant buying a radio stipulated that he wanted a set ‘that picks up the ‘Voice of the Arabs’. The Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and Jericho gathered in vast throngs at public places daily to hear the fiery broadcasts of the ‘Voice’.”

Nasser banked on Egypt’s existing regional cultural superiority which was due to what Dawisha describes as a “post-Napoleonic renaissance in Egypt, which opened the country and its population to Western civilisation a full century before the rest of the Arab world”. In describing Egypt’s intellectual pre-eminence, he notes that: “In 1947, for example, Cairo boasted 14 daily newspapers and 23 weeklies . . . Egypt was the only Arab country with a viable film industry, and Egyptian movies in the 1940s and the 1950s competed vigorously with their Western counterparts in Arab movie theatres. Kamal al-Shenawy was as beloved a heartthrob as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power; Isma’il Yassin was a bigger comedic name than Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and Fatin Hamama and Layla Murad were far more popular leading ladies than Vivien Lay or Doris Day.”

The same applied to music. “Egyptian singers and musicians were household names throughout the region, the most revered and beloved of whom was the majestic Umm Kulthum, an Arab icon, whose legendary five-hour concerts on the first Thursday gathered people around the radio sets in Baghdad, Damascus, Casablanca, Amman, and other cities throughout the Arab world,” Dawisha describes.

The Voice of the Arabs station was deployed to propagate the image of Egypt within its three circles: the Arab, African and Islamic worlds (probably in that order of importance). In his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser stated that “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked.” The station’s motto was that “the Voice of the Arabs speaks for the Arabs, struggles for them and expresses their unity” and it defined Egypt as “in the service of the Arab nation and its struggle against Western imperialism and its lackeys in the Arab world”.

With no rivals allowed to emerge, the state-run radio’s main theme was that the Arabs should unite under Nasser’s leadership, a theme that was used on every possible occasion and through all possible channels, with variations to suit the medium and the audience. At times, a religious tone was even employed. “This decisive turning point in the Arab world was the creation of Arab unity. Almighty Allah wanted this unification and nobody can change God’s will. Nasser has been ordained by the will of God to lead this unity,” one broadcast claimed.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Nasser was a charismatic leader with massive popular support due to his being perceived as the culmination of Egypt’s nationalist struggle for independence and a symbol of the country finally falling back into the hands of its rightful owners. He realised the importance of the media and he banked well on anti-imperialist sentiments and a strong desire for national sovereignty that had been gradually welling up over at least the preceding seven decades.

Charles Smith argue that the new military leadership managed to combine Egyptian nationalism and the more regional Arab nationalism through a supra-national identity in which Egypt was perceived as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than merely an equal member of it. This notion seems to have made distinct Egyptian and Arab brands of nationalism conflate rather than conflict for a period of time – at least up until the Nasserist brand of pan-Arabism began to crumble following the 1967 defeat, during which Voice of the Arabs broadcasted outrageous claims of victory, and until Egypt was suspended from the Arab league in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel.

 

This is the second part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part III will deal with the reawakening of Egypto-centric nationalism during the Sadat era.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Hostility to the West may shape Egyptian politics

 
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By Osama Diab

Islamists and Arab Socialists share a history of clashing with foreign influences.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Egypt has been moving fast with its plan to ‘modernise’ its economy, ever since the 1992 economic reform programme aimed at deregulating the market. This plan, encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, privatised public sector entities and carried out legal, tax and administrative reform to make the country friendlier to both local and foreign investors. Since then, ruthless, corrupt capitalism has been imposed on a poor nation that only managed to put food on the table with the help of socialist policies, such as subsidised food and energy, and free education.

It wasn’t just neo-liberal economic policies that were imposed on the people by an unelected regime. Relative secularism and friendship with Israel and the US were also introduced, against the will of many of the people. Egypt was named in 2009 by Gallup as the most religious country on the planet, but its regime was relatively secular and was engaged in a fierce battle with Egypt ‘s Islamist groups.

With the 25 January revolution, Egyptians revolted against 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule which left behind a dire economic situation and a very poor human rights record. Now, in the aftermath, Egyptians seem to relate mainly to two political groups or ideologies that better meet their religious and socialist standards. The first is Islamism; the second is the Arab Socialism inspired by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology, calling for Arab unity, socialist economics and promoting anti-imperialism.

Despite these ideologies sitting on opposite ends on Egypt’s political spectrum – with Islamists representing the religious right and Arab Socialists the secular left – they still have a lot in common.

The fact that both groups have traditionally and historically collided with the West could help both sides score a few political points amidst increasing xenophobia. This is caused by a repetitive state-run media narrative that foreign elements, attempting to destabilise Egypt, were behind the chaos caused during the revolution.

On top of this media rhetoric, many Egyptians realise that their strategic geographic location at the intersection of the world’s three major continents is a great asset, but could also be a great curse. This leaves them with a constant sense that danger is always around the corner. This is fed by the reality that Egypt, throughout its history, was occupied by successive colonial powers from the Romans through to the Arabs, the Ottomans and the Brits.

Even though Egyptian xenophobia has traditionally been directed towards Israel, the US and the West, it has now grown to include new names, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What is more, it includes certain Egyptian political groups who are perceived as arms for these powers. This leaves many in Egypt fearing their own shadow.

This narrative was also abused internally by leaders who wanted to gain a heroic status as Egypt’s guardians against the ambitions of colonial powers. The only political groups that are able to thrive in this atmosphere of mistrust are ones who actually promote it; again, Islamists and Arab Socialists who constantly accuse the West of being at war with Islam and the Arab world respectively.

Political groups, or figures that lack this history of clashing with the West, are accused of collaboration. A senior position in an international organisation or even a PhD from a foreign university could now be enough to destroy a politician’s career in Egypt .

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is suffering from such accusations prior to his presedential campaign. This is due to the false idea that he gave the US the green light to invade Iraq when he led the IAEA. Amr Hamzawi, a young and vibrant Egyptian politician and human rights activist who received both his master’s degree and PhD in Europe and is currently the Middle East research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is seen at best by many cautious people as “too foreign” or “too Western”, if not actually serving a foreign agenda.

Blaming anything and everything on foreign powers did not appear to heal Egypt’s serious wounds after the 1952 military coup, which eventually replaced a monarchy with a totalitarian socialist republican regime. There is no reason to think why it might now.

By managing to overthrow a regime that was a friend of the US and Israel, Egyptians have proved that they can defeat all conspiracy theories and achieve impossible heights if they put their differences and divisions aside. However, Egyptians will find it very hard to achieve stability, democracy and economic prosperity if they don’t stop conveniently blaming all their problems on factors taking place beyond the country’s borders.

In order to build a healthy democracy in Egypt, we will have to work closely with international organisations, allow foreign as well as local media to report freely, stop accusing politicians of serving a covert agenda, integrate ourselves with the rest of the democratic world, and most importantly, ensure minorities have equal rights.

One would hope that this state of extreme cultural and political paranoia is only a short-term result of the severe shocks Egypt has been suffering lately. An age-old tourism industry and traces of what was once a melting pot for people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds can potentially put Egypt on the path to democracy and prosperity – if Egyptians abandon these obsolete ideas about foreign agendas and treason.

This article was first published in the New Statesman on 2 June 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Rebel without a hope

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like an ageing rocker, Muammar el-Gaddafi is on a mission to rid Africa of poverty and conflict. But are his dreams of a United State of African to prove as futile as his earlier visions of Arab unity?

February 2009

There is something of the ageing rock star about the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qathafi (pronounced Gaddafi in the Libyan dialect). It’s not just his unkempt hair, his eccentric sense of dress, his insistence on sleeping in a tent and the female bodyguards who surround him like tough-as-nails and confident groupies – and how all this confuses the staid and conventional leaders he visits.

The Libyan leader sees himself as being antiestablishment and has a penchant for rubbing the political the Arab, African and western political establishment up the wrong way. But after four decades at the top, he is the establishment and his radical rhetoric is wearing very thin.

Gaddafi actually reminds me somewhat of Bob Geldof: he had a couple of early hits, failed to make it into the rebels’ hall of fame and has kept his dimming star alight by projecting himself as a saviour and harbinger of world peace.

Isolated by the American-led sanctions regime and ridiculed by his Arab counterparts, Gaddafi embraced his African brethren – and African leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, helped break Libya’s international isolation. After angrily turning his back on the frustrating quest for Arab unity, Gaddafi has centred his attentions on African unity.

In co-operation with South Africa and Nigeria, Libya played a pivotal role in transforming the toothless body known as the Organisation of African Unity into the nascent African Union which was established in 2002 – which many disappointed Africans dismiss as another impotent talking shop where African leaders get to rub shoulders at taxpayers’ expense.

Earlier this month, Gaddafi was elected chairman of the AU, not to mention hailed as “king of kings” by his entourage of tribal African leader.

The maverick – some would say delusional – colonel then wasted no time in rocking the boat, ruffling feathers and pushing his reality-lite visions. He not only dismissively asserted that democracy could not work in Africa because of tribalism, he urged the assembled leaders to merge into a single “United States of Africa”.

I like it when people think out of the box, but Gaddafi’s idea is so far out there that it belongs on another continent that has not yet been discovered. I am a believer in gradual integration and may be even the eventual emergence of some kind of loose union.

However, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. Too many African states are having trouble enough ending or avoiding conflict within their arbitrary borders that going for an even larger geographical union is bound to spell disaster – or at the very least total paralysis.

In addition, the AU has generally failed to live up to expectations. Its key successes relate to the peacekeeping efforts in such hotspots as Darfur and Somalia, as well as interventions in support of democracy in Togo and Mauritania. But the continent’s overall democratic deficit remains huge, and the AU’s mechanisms for promoting greater integration and transparency, as well as rooting out corruption, have so far failed to achieve significant results. How on earth can this dysfunctional body be transformed overnight into a US of Af, as Gaddafi wishes?

Despite support from some AU members, such as Senegal, most Africans have reacted sceptically, with some African leaders suspicious that the Libyan leader – who used to support myriad revolutionary groups – is out to topple them by other means.

“Gaddafi should first let African countries sort out their myriad domestic problems before they can start aspiring for grander things,” an editorial in Kenya’s the Standard sensibly pointed out. “Unity won’t be an automatic panacea to the insurmountable problems we are likely to face. We should learn from the European Union where countries are strictly vetted before admission to the bloc.”

“Unlike Europe, Africa has not succeeded in moving beyond the most rudimentary stages of the [integration] process,” argues Gerrit Olivier, co-director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg. “African countries, in spite of the notions of African unity and pan-Africanism, stick rigidly and evangelically to the Westphalian model of absolute national sovereignty.”

And therein lies one of the key stumbling blocks along the road to African, as well as Arab, integration. Whereas post-war Europe has pursued a pragmatic gradualist policy, in Africa and the Arab world – grappling with the dual curse of colonial legacy and corrupt and ineffective leadership – hollow and haughty rhetoric traditionally took the place of concrete action. The AU has been an attempt at pragmatism, but Gaddafi is doing his best to derail that.

“Gaddafi must stop promoting dictatorship and supporting leaders who do not respect the wishes of their people with reckless proclamations like his infamous ‘revolutionaries do not retire’,” advises Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, deputy director of the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa.

Although he has modernised Libya and done it some good, the isolation he has brought to the country, the wastage of its oil wealth on promoting global revolution and other crackpot schemes, as well as his oppression and poor human rights record, count greatly against him.

Of course, in his warped view, Gaddafi doesn’t see it that way. Officially, he retired from politics in 1979 and holds no official title but, in an Orwellian twist, he calls himself “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. The country, which he calls a “jamahiriya” (a term he coined to mean government by the masses), is supposed to be run by a collection of local popular assemblies, but no prizes for guessing who actually calls the shots.

Gaddafi has not been idle on the domestic front either, and is following up his ‘Africa unite’ hit with an ‘I wanna be anarchy’ scheme that is just as muddled but almost charmingly naïve in its idealism. Disillusioned by widespread corruption, Gaddafi has urged Libyans to endorse his proposal to dismantle the government and give the oil wealth directly to the people.

When I read the news, I thought that some good – instead of the occasional hassle at airports – could finally come out my having been born in Libya, and I could apply for citizenship to get some of that action. Seriously, while I applaud the idea of giving Libyan’s a fair stake of their country’s oil wealth, how does he propose that Libya function without a government?

Four decades at Libya’s helm have done his sense of reality no good and it’s time for Gaddafi to actually retire. His people could do without this particular comeback kid.

A shorter version of this column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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