Arab exiles: Fleeing nightmares or chasing dreams

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Arab revolutionary dreams turn into anti-revolutionary nightmares, the fortunate ones find safety abroad. But with exile comes unprocessed trauma, guilt, fear, dealing with xenophobia and painful yearnings for home.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 20 October 2019

Imagine knowing that your government has arrested disappeared hundreds of people over the past few weeks.

Imagine knowing that your government has, in the recent past, not balked at the prospect of killing 1,000 protesters… in a single day.

Imagine how much courage it would take to swallow your fear and take to the streets or to continue to protest loudly on social media. And yet this is exactly what brave Egyptians up and down the country have been attempting.

The numbers are a far cry from the millions who broke through the fear barrier and came out, in 2011, to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of rule. But then the regime of the current strongman and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has been doing its utmost to prevent a repeat of the mass uprisings in 2011 and 2013.

The Sisi regime’s determination to bury Egyptian aspirations of bread, freedom, social justice and dignity in the graveyard of ruthless, murderous repression has spurred an untold number of Egyptians to pack up their shattered dreams of liberty and try to piece together their lives in (self-imposed) exile.

Refuge from the storm

Some have headed to safe havens in the region, such as democratic Tunisia, while others with the means or opportunity have moved to Europe or America. While the media image of refugees is of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean on leaky boats or traipsing through the desert, many exiles are actually not officially refugees. They move to the West ostensibly to take up job openings or to pursue postgraduate studies, but they are fleeing a nightmare rather than pursuing a dream.

For many, it takes time to come to terms with the reality that they are exiles, stranded in a foreign land. “After five years of being away from home, it’s kind of crystal clear at this point,” admits Ganzeer, who is currently based in Houston.

This Egyptian street artist who became famous for his revolutionary murals, which were later physically and figuratively whitewashed, had to flee his homeland after pro-regime TV started to spread conspiracy theories that he was, in a case of life outdoing black comedy, both the leader of a sinisterly decadent international alliance of artists out to ruin the image of Egypt’s military and a member of the sinisterly pious Muslim Brotherhood.

Like grief, the first phase of exile is often denial. “I rejected the fact that I couldn’t go back home… For almost a year, I moved from one temporary accommodation to another. Eight flat shares in less than a year,” A1, an exile whose name, identity and country of residence I am withholding because (s)he fears for their life.

“I really don’t enjoy living here, but I’m staying here for the safety and welfare of my children,” an anti-Assad Syrian dissident of Alawite descent told me recently in Potsdam, near Berlin. “I miss Syria every day. Being here makes me feel bad for the family and friends I left behind.”

Stolen lives

Wherever they end up, many find that though they are physically elsewhere, their minds, consciousnesses and hearts are firmly back home. “It feels like someone has stolen my life. The life I know of. The life that I have invested many years, a lot of money and a lot of hard work to build. If feels like someone has taken my family from me,” describes A1.

Not everyone feels pangs of longing for their country in and of itself but they do long for that part of it they call their own. “I don’t miss living in Egypt. I do miss my friends and family there. I miss Sinai and the sea, my favourite place,” the Egyptian novelist and writer Ahmed Naji told me from his new home in Las Vegas, where he is a resident writer at the University of Nevada.

For political exiles, it is tormenting to watch what is going on back home and not feel saddened for the millions still imprisoned in the nightmare. “It drives me crazy. I find myself glued to the screen,” confesses Ganzeer, who has designed a number of biting caricatures of Sisi to protest the Egyptian dictator’s latest crackdown.

Gaining escape velocity

In Arabic we have an expression which roughly translates as “What has passed has passed away,” and some exiles, fearing the power of the distant (geographical) past to trap and entrap them, try to focus their energies on their here and now.

“I don’t want to live in the condition of the exiled writer who resides in one country but his heart and mind are in another country,” says Ahmed Naji.

I grew up with just such an exiled writer. Although we lived in London, my father lived in a bubble: he ran an Arabic-language opposition newspaper, wrote political polemics in Arabic and hung out almost exclusively with fellow Arab dissidents, usually leftists and pan-Arabists.

My late mother, on the other hand, preferred to mix it up. In addition to spending time with Arabs, she had an “everyone welcome” attitude and loved to spend time with immigrants from other diverse backgrounds, not to mention native Brits from all walks of life.

As a multiculturalist, I prefer a broad church of friends and acquaintances wherever I find myself.

“I want to understand the new place and be part of its cultural and literary scene,” Naji elaborates. And for Naji, this may be easier than for many exiles. Although acquiring a sufficient command of English to express himself eloquently and to develop his own voice remains a challenge, the themes he deals with in his literature, such as sex and emotional turmoil, are universal ones.

In fact, it was Naji’s breaking of sexual, rather than political, taboos which unexpectedly landed him in hot water. Although contemporary Egyptian literature has become increasingly open about sex and drugs, an explicit scene in a novel of Naji’s, which was being serialised in a literary magazine, prompted a legal complaint from a reader who claimed rather ridiculously reading it had harmed his health. This mushroomed into a Kafkaesque-Orwellian trial by a brutal regime desperate to virtue signal to religious and social conservatives.

Whimsical whippers

The arbitrary, whimsical, oft random nature of state repression, as well as authoritarian regimes’ vicious brutality are meant to instil terror, and it does – as last year’s chilling, cold-blooded murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi succeeded in doing, and not only for Saudi dissidents.

“I feel cowardly and humiliated, which is a collective feeling afflicting Egyptians at home and abroad,” observes Naji. “Those outside Egypt experience attacks and humiliation. Even here, I receive direct and indirect threats.”  Fear, nebulous or concrete, individual or collective, is a common emotion amongst exiles. On a personal level, even though I am not an exile and enjoy the relative protection of a European passport, I often feel a sense of vague anxiety upon landing in Cairo at the potential trouble my outspoken criticism of the regime and of religion may land me in.

Nevertheless, exiles are generally safer than their counterparts back home. However, this relative safety and security often provokes involuntary feelings of guilt. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time,” Jeje Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC, told me recently.

“People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” she elaborates.

Migrating to Mars

While recognising how fortunate it was to have found a safe haven, A1 finds the anti-refugee, anti-migrant sentiment in Europe hurtful and galling, especially the notion that people come to sponge off the state. “I never received money from their state. Economically speaking, I have brought with me my own education, which is worth at least one million euros of direct and indirect costs,” A1 counters.

As time has drifted by, A1 finds it too exhausting and fatiguing to challenge these prejudices. “I’m sometimes confronted with those Europeans who think I’m here to benefit from their system,” A1 says. “What do I do about it? Nothing. I smile and walk away. I’m too exhausted to explain or argue.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Trumpian America, things are far from cosy for many exiles. “You wouldn’t have expected it from America, given that it’s made up of people from all over,” reflects Ganzeer. “It’s particularly weird to me that I get the sense that there are more people open to the idea of humans migrating to Mars than they are of humans migrating within the vicinity of our planet Earth.”

For those able to observe matters with some variety of detachment or a well-honed sense of irony, there is plenty of bleak humour to be derived from the circus of primetime bigotry. “I diligently follow right-wing news channels and radio stations, not to mention their websites,” says Ahmed Naji. “They are very entertaining and possess wild and fertile imaginations… I enjoy watching them and laugh a lot.”

To hear xenophobic rightwingers speak, you would think the influx of Arab and Muslim exiles and refugees was something new. However, it has been going on for generations, albeit the numbers have grown significantly with the current upheavals in the Middle East.

Arab cultural capitals

Paris and London (and to a lesser extent, New York) traditionally played the roles of intellectual, political and cultural centres of gravity for Arab diasporas, one for Francophones and the other for Anglophones, acting as living labs and testing grounds for ideas crushed at home.

When I was growing up in London, I witnessed this symbiosis firsthand, though I was too young and disinterested to grasp its full significance. Despite the racism of some, London was also a tolerant, welcoming and accommodating place well on its way to becoming possibly the most diverse city in the world.

In London, it is easy to find Arabic newspapers and books, Arab cultural centres and media outlets, Arab hangouts and restaurants, and Arabs from every walk of life. Despite this, it is still not home for some. One Cairo-based Lebanese journalist who ended up in London after being kicked out of Egypt finds the British metropolis demoralising and alienating.

The growing xenophobia in America and the UK are shifting the centre of Arab exile to mainland Europe, and specifically to the German capital, Berlin. “Brexit has made London, and the UK in general, deteriorate in the eyes of the world,” observes Amro Ali, a political sociologist who is currently researching Berlin’s emerging status as the unofficial capital of Arab exile.

“There is something happening that many cannot put their finger on. But there are many dynamic spaces, from theaters to film screenings, to art galleries, and so on, that are thriving in the Arab spaces of Berlin, and that gives it… that positive general mood,” notes Ali.

Interestingly, Berlin has also emerged as a refuge for Israeli progressives and leftists escaping the dominant right-wing ultranationalism and constant conflict at home. “I’m not in physical exile because I can go back to Israel whenever I want,” explains Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli poet and journalist with Iraqi roots. “There is a mental exile, but I’m okay with that, I’m one with that. I miss the good parts of Israel. I don’t miss the bad parts of Israel.”

While Arabs and Israeli have few opportunities to interact in the Middle East, far away from the conflict, they are finding common ground in this cosmopolitan city, despite some incidents of anti-Semitism. “There’s something very beautiful here in Berlin when I can meet Arabs and do literary evenings and literary events with them,” reflects Shemoelof.

Such cultural and social interactions are promising for the future.

Unlike economic migrants, who are vilified in some parts of Germany, refugees and exiles are generally treated with more understanding and sympathy. This is partly because of the difficulties they faced in their homelands and partly because many wish to leave once things calm down.

“The young Syrians I speak to say they want to go back to Syria, unlike their parents who want them to settle down in Germany, but the children want to return to a post-Assad Syria and build it up,” Ali says.

Older Syrian exiles also pine to return home. “I did not spend years as a political activist, go to prison twice and risk my life in Syria to end up living and working in Germany, even if the work is rewarding,” insisted the Syrian exile I met in Potsdam. “It feels like my life’s work has gone down the drain. It’s very depressing.”

These exiles, biding their time in anticipation of changing times, are following in the footsteps of previous waves of exiles, many of whom returned to the Middle East at promising junctures in history, such as the so-called Arab Spring, with the dream of contributing their knowledge and skills to create a better tomorrow at home.

In the meantime, their host societies would do well to make the most of these motivated newcomers.

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The clash between realpolitik and principled politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The contrast between the red card from protesters and the red carpet from officials that greeted Mohammed bin Salman on his world tour highlights the growing global battle between a principled grassroots and a ‘pragmatic’ political leadership.

Image: Bassam Bounenni

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recent world tour was widely viewed as a brazen diplomatic drive to put behind him the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the unwanted spotlight it has cast on the Saudi-led war in and blockade of Yemen, which has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Judging by the official red-carpet welcome which greeted the crown prince almost everywhere he landed, especially in allied Arab states, one would be excused in thinking that MbS, as he is affectionately known in English by his supporters, has weathered the storm.

“The UAE will always be a loving and supportive home for our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” asserted Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of neighbouring UAE, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi stressed the “joint desire to deepen co-operation between our two countries”.

After touring the region, MbS flew to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, where, among other things, he met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who praised the “fruitful interaction” on “ways to further boost economic, cultural and energy ties”.

Beyond the ‘realpolitik’ of the ingratiating leaders who greeted the fumbling pretender prince to the Machiavellian throne, Mohammed bin Salman’s tour triggered cross-border grassroots protest in some of the destinations the Crown Prince visited.

Some Egyptian opposition figures and activists braved the devastation inflicted on Egyptian civil society to protest bin Salman’s visit. However, the most vocal opposition to MbS was voiced in Tunisia, the only country to date where the Arab revolutionary wave has delivered real freedom and democracy.

While Tunisian politicians from the major parties fell over themselves to make Mohammed bin Salman feel at home, they had to do so from within the confines of the airport and presidential palace, because Tunisian civil society simply wanted the Crown Prince to go home.

Had bin Salman toured the capital, he would have been subjected to scenes unfamiliar to him in his homeland. He may have seen the giant banner on the wall of a feminist NGO featuring a man dressed like the Crown Prince brandishing a whip and the unambiguous statement that the “whipper” or “flogger” of women was not welcome. A similar poster featuring MbS holding a chainsaw, in an allusion to the bone saw allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi, insisted that the Saudi royal’s presence would “contaminate” Tunisia, the “land of revolution”.

Protesters also gathered before and during the visit of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia to air their opposition. On a Tunisian radio channel, I heard a group of comics competing to come up with the funniest jokes mocking the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and their own president Beji Caid Essebsi. In Saudi Arabia (not to mention the Gulf, as a whole), this kind of casual irreverence would not only be unthinkable, it would almost certainly land the comics in jail, or far worse.

In short, Tunisians chose principles over petrodollars, dignity over despotism, and the message reached Mohammed bin Salman loud and clear, with the Crown Prince reportedly spending only four hours in Tunisia.

Largely symbolic legal action has also been attempted. The Tunisian journalists union filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor investigate the possibility of referring Mohammed bin Salman to the International Criminal Court, while an earlier complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch (HRW) under Argentina’s universal jurisdiction laws is being investigated by the state prosecutor.

But like earlier efforts by HRW to hold US officials accountable for war crimes in Iraq, this latest challenge has quietly been ignored and MbS arrived at the G20 summit unharassed and apparently untroubled, with the unedifying spectacle of Theresa May, her hollow rhetoric about “British values” defeating extremism notwithstanding, determined to meet the Crown Prince on the sidelines of the G20 summit with her Brexit begging bowl in hand.

This contrast between the reaction of civil society and governments highlights the gaping chasm between the politics of principles and political ‘pragmatism’. Some of this realpolitik is driven by perceived economic and geopolitical self-interest. Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf region, Britain and America have been in (de facto) alliance with the region’s autocrats – not just in Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – in a kind of decades-old ‘oil for political protection programme’.

Then, there are the more shadowy factors at play, such as the Trump administration’s murky business ties, not to mention Donald Trump’s own dictatorial tendencies and contempt for journalists and the media.

Beyond self-interest, there is the issue of self-preservation. MbS has the blood of Yemeni civilians on his hands, but he is not the only one. How about the countries which supply the coalition with arms? Even Qatar, which has recently became a harsh critic of the war, was part of the Saudi-led coalition before the GCC crisis saw the alliance turn on Qatar and unfairly blockade it.

That is not to mention the living leaders, past and present, who also have brutal wars to answer for, including but not limited to, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.

But hypocrisy does not stop at those governments who support or are silent in the face of MbS’s crimes, it also extends to some of Saudi Arabia’s opponents and critics. Despite its grandstanding on the Khashoggi murder, Turkey has gone from being a country with a free press and civil society to the biggest jailer of journalists in the world and a crusher of dissent, not to mention Turkey’s bloody interventions in neighbouring Syria.

Likewise, Iran’s official condemnation of the Khashoggi murder and the strong tone taken by its state-backed media rings hollow when considering what happens to critics and dissidents in Iran, while its criticism of Saudi war-mongering is tragically farcical when seen in light of Tehran’s direct and bloody role in the Syrian war and indirect role in Yemen.

Escaping the hypocrisy and destructiveness of pragmatic support and opportunistic opposition requires the escalation of grassroots action to hold to account all countries and leaders according to the same principles and values. In the longer term, it demands an enforceable system of international law that punishes the crimes and transgressions of the powerful, not just the weak.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 30 November 2018.

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Merry Muslims at Christmas

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite fears of an anti-Christmas jihad, many ordinary Muslims enjoy getting into the spirit of the season.

Father Christmas arrives by camel.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 21 December 2018

Chérif Chekatt, the Strasbourg-born man named as the mass shooter at the city’s beautiful Christmas market killed two, left one victim brain dead and wounded a dozen others. He also reportedly yelled out ‘Allahu Akbar’, which is Arabic for ‘God is Greatest’, during the attack.

If the theory proves accurate that this former criminal, whom French police say was radicalised in prison, was motivated by Islamic extremism, then the target chosen by this ‘gangster jihadi’ has its own twisted logic. Not only is a festive market a soft and hard-to-protect location, it is also hugely symbolic because jihadis believe they are engaged in a religious war with ‘Christendom’ and Christmas is the most important, or at least the most joyous, holiday in the Christian calendar.

This helps explain why this is not the first time that a Christmas market has been targeted by Islamist terrorists. Previous attempts include a foiled plot to bomb the Strasbourg market in 2000 and the truck-ramming at the Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, carried out by criminal-turned-extremist Anis Amri.

Christmas is under siege because there are large numbers of Muslims in the West,” claimed Robert Spencer, the conservative Christian founder of Jihad Watch who is quite literally on a political crusade against Islam in the West, in the wake of the Berlin attack. “The responsibility lies with those who admitted them without regard for Islam’s doctrines of religious warfare and supremacism.”

Chérif Chekatt, it would appear, is part of the armed wing of the wider cultural ‘War on Christmas’, which Western conservatives believe is being waged by Muslims, in collusion with leftists and self-hating liberals.

But do Muslims really hate Christmas and wish to abolish or even to destroy it?

To be sure, ultra-conservative Scrooges and grouches are so set against Christians and Christmas that they refuse even to wish their Christian neighbours and acquaintances a merry Christmas. However, many other conservative Muslims who believe that they should not celebrate or take part in Christmas festivities because they disapprove of the Christian creed that Jesus is the Son of God still wish their colleagues, friends and neighbours ‘Merry Christmas’.

Beyond the rigid conservative edges, tonnes of Muslims do Christmas – and see no contradiction between it and their deep reverence for Jesus. In fact, if my experience is anything to go by, there were almost certainly Muslims wandering around the Strasbourg market – I have barely been to a Christmas market in Europe in which I have not come across Muslims enjoying the delights on display and the warm lighting illuminating the winter’s darkness.

Away from the markets and TV screens, most western Muslims do not mark or celebrate Christmas at home. However, some do. When I was a child growing up in London, my mother, not wishing us to feel left out and wanting to raise our awareness and tolerance of others, allowed us to put up decoration and write Christmas cards, gave our teachers gifts, and even experimented with baking an entire turkey on at least one occasion.

As an atheistic adult married to a non-Muslim, I am pleased to watch our son have fun over Christmas. In fact, with how much Christmas has been secularised and transformed into an entertainment spectacle, it is easily my son’s favourite ‘religious’ festival.

The same goes for some of our Tunisian friends who, despite not being Christian nor living in a Christian-majority country, like to get into the festive mood with a Christmas tree or visit one of the numerous Christmas markets taking place in December.

Xmas at my son’s school in Tunis.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In fact, a few hours before writing this piece, we attended the Christmas market at my son’s school, where more than 90% of those in attendance were Muslim. Even Father Christmas, with his long beard, was being played by a Muslim, or someone who looked remarkably like the father of one of my son’s friends. In keeping with the mood of the occasion, one mother had colour-coordinated her hijab to match the wobbly reindeer’s antlers on her head.

In Jerusalem, where I lived prior to moving to Tunisia, Christmas lasts a very long time, and Father Christmas sometimes arrives riding a camel. There, one is treated to a month of Christmases: Western (25 December), Eastern and Orthodox (7 January) and Jerusalem Armenian (19 January). Many of those coming to view the tree on Bethlehem’s Manger Square or to enter the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, are Muslims.

When I see what a big deal Christmas can be in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, I find fears about the death of the festival in Europe or America rather bemusing and bewildering.

I understand that rapid change can be troubling and that the presence of significant numbers of Muslims in societies where there was barely any a few generations ago can cause anxiety. But Europeans should not allow the actions of a few violent extremists to blacken their view.

There are plenty of Muslims who exist beyond the headlines, out in the murky no-news zones of Greyville, who live in peace with their Christian neighbours and share their sense of Christmas cheer.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 13 December 2018.

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Steve Bannon is being amplified, not silenced

 
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By Khaled Diab

By providing Steve Bannon with an uncritical solo platform, the Oxford Union has failed in its mission as a forum of free and fair debate, succumbing instead to tabloid sensationalism.

Image: Oxford Union

In June of this year, I received an invitation via e-mail from the Oxford Union, to which I readily agreed, cherishing the idea of engaging with the promising young minds who are drawn to this renowned university.

However, I never heard back from them, which I considered rather unprofessional and impolite. But I kept the matter to myself until I discovered that one of the dates the Oxford Union had proposed to host me on had been given over to one of the high priests of the American far-right and what you might call the emerging Fascists International, Steve Bannon. This followed hot on the heels of an aborted invitation to far-right Alternative für Deutschland leader Alice Weidel, who pulled out after sustained protest.

This double whammy has prompted me to speak out.

As anyone who knows me or reads my work is aware, I am a passionate advocate of free speech, but this is not a free speech issue, since conservative, middle-aged, wealthy white men remain the most over-represented group in the public spaces of the Western world, no matter how much they protest to the contrary.

Moreover, Steve Bannon is not a silenced voice who has had his freedom of expression curbed or curtailed. Bannon has built a career saying what he wants, when he wants and has not paid any price for it, not even for his most hateful and untrue pronouncements. Quite the contrary, he has been handsomely rewarded.

Bannon carved out a prominent position for himself in the American far-right movement, which he helped navigate towards the mainstream during his stewardship of Breitbart, the website which created a toxic brand of “news” which erased the line between fact and fiction, propagating a plethora of conspiracy theories, about Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, women, the gay community, the mainstream media, and the man they regarded as the demon-in-chief, Barack Obama.

During the US presidential campaign, Breitbart threw its fantasy-weaving expertise behind Donald Trump, spreading destructive conspiracy theories, including the infamous ‘Pizzagate’ myth, which helped pave the way for not only Trump to enter the White House and make it white again, but for Bannon to join him. Even now that Bannon has been unceremoniously ditched by Trump, he has no shortage of far-right and mainstream platforms hosting him, as he himself noted during his Oxford Union address.

Rather than hosting an already overexposed Bannon, the Oxford Union should have followed through with their invitation to me or any other progressive Arab or Muslim, given the very real sidelining or drowning out of our voices by extremists, both in the Middle East and in the West. This is important both to show that there is a big, wide world beyond extremism, and also to place extremism in its broader context.

To my mind, Steve Bannon no more represents the white Christian mainstream than salafist firebrands represent the mainstream of European Muslims, yet both are given public exposure way beyond the fringes for which they speak by the segments of the media which thrive on sensationalism and baiting audiences.

Instead of living up to its reputation as a forum for genuine debate, the Oxford Union has succumbed to this tabloid sensationalism. This was reflected in the OU’s decision to allow Bannon to speak alone, uninterrupted and unhindered until the final Q&A.

If the debating society was genuine in its stated aim of holding his views up to scrutiny, then it should have invited capable and knowledgeable speakers to argue against Bannon, as occurred when Nigel Farage was invited to discuss Britain’s membership of the EU, back in 2015. It would have also been handy to have an expert and impartial fact checker on hand to wade through the many deceptions Bannon delivered during his talk and in the past.

OU president Stephen Horvath proved woefully ill-equipped for the task, and only managed to ask a handful of meek, sometimes incoherent questions – a performance which, along with the chosen format, has led many fellow students to demand Horvath’s resignation.

Steve Bannon’s long speech was cleverly designed to appeal, like far-right rhetoric often attempts to do, to the economic anxieties of the young students in the audience. He railed against the “Davos” and “Brussels” elites who created what he described as “extinction-level events” – the rise of China, the trillions spent on wars in the Middle East and the 2007/8 financial crisis – which had turned the working class into angry “deplorables”. Bannon described Donald Trump as the symptom of these trends and not their cause.

This is disingenuous deception on so many levels, and Horvath did little to challenge it. As I have observed before, the rise of Trump and of the populist right is not a symptom of growing economic anxiety and inequality in itself, but a symptom of the narratives which blame, as Bannon does, minorities, the struggle for racial equality, migrants, Muslims, feminists and leftists, amongst others, for these challenges, and which whip up anxiety about diminishing privileges among the dominant groups in society.

Moreover, Bannon failed to explain or even mention how, if it is working-class anger that led to the rise of Trump, why it is that Trump voters were generally better-off than those who voted for Clinton, gaining about half the votes of people earning over $50,000, with many very wealthy people voting for Trump. The average Trump voter is, in fact, middle-class, white and Christian.

Bannon also failed to back up his claim that Donald Trump, who is himself a member of the economic elite that Bannon so rhetorically despises, has served the interests of the “deplorables”. In reality, Trump’s tax cuts and inflated military spending, classic Republican and neo-conservative policies, have served to enrich tycoons like him and rich corporations, first and foremost, followed by the 1%, while making life harder for the middle- and working-classes, not to mention for future generations.

Rejecting the ethno-nationalist label, likely in a bid to appeal to his multicultural audience, Bannon went on to claim he was an economic nationalist and that “economic nationalism doesn’t care about your colour, ethnicity, your religion, your gender, your sexual preference.” Despite his protestations, Bannon has this incredible knack for making friends and forging alliances with feverishly ethno-nationalist parties and fascists. Moreover, Breitbart became a hotbed of white nationalism during Bannon’s tenure.

Steve Bannon’s comments on religion rang equally hollow and disingenuous. He claimed that both he and Trump were not Islamophobes, because they had nothing against Muslims, their beef was with Islam – a typical far-right defence which I analyse in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

As an atheist, I have no beef against people criticising Islam, but Bannon is not some impartial or balanced critic, as I explain in my book. He believes that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism” that is set to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” Bannon told a conference hosted by a conservative Catholic organisation, held in the Vatican in 2014.

Bannon is also convinced that there exists an age-old cosmic clash between Islam and Christendom, and that secularism has hobbled the West’s ability to face this supposedly existential threat, leading him to wax nostalgic about recreating a past of noble crusaders in which “our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept [Islam] out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.”

As this brief exposé shows, providing a prestigious platform to a conspiracy theorist without robustly challenging the fictions he has weaved – that we are embroiled in a world war that does not exist, and that the West is losing the battle because it is no longer Christendom – is reckless and irresponsible, especially in light of the dangerous rise in violent far-right extremism.

This is not only because these claims are demonstrably untrue but also because, like jihadist ideology, Bannon’s apocalyptic vision divides the world into two groups of enemies, the near enemy, i.e. the strength-sapping kryptonite of secularism (aka liberals, leftists, feminists, ethnic minorities, LGBT activists, environmentalists, etc.) and the far enemy, mostly Islam.

In this uncompromising vision, the only people who are right are the self-righteous of the American and European far-right, and to hell with the rest of us.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 28 November 2018.

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Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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Dissenting into the abyss

 
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By Khaled Diab

Western inaction against Saudi Arabia is emboldening the region’s regimes to clamp down harder on dissent. But by silencing peaceful and constructive change, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern regimes are paving the way to violent and destructive rage.

Photo: April Brady, Project on Middle East Democracy

Wednesday 17 October 2018

The details of the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, if they prove to be true, are gruesome.

Turkish investigators are convinced that Khashoggi, who was a member of the Saudi establishment but voiced criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was tortured inside the consulate, murdered by a hit squad, cut up into piece and transported out of the consulate.

Although Saudi Arabia started off vehemently denying the accusations, it is now reportedly preparing to admit that Khashoggi died during a botched unauthorised interrogation, echoing the theory floated by Donald Trump that the prominent journalist was killed by “rogue killers“.

The murder of a high-profile, US-based critic on the soil of a major trading partner, which is itself undertaking a major crackdown on dissent, marks a serious escalation of the Saudi clampdown on dissent. The chilling message to Saudi subjects is clear: nobody can get far away enough or have enough friends in high places to protect them against the regime’s wrath if they step out of line.

The uncertain fate of Khashoggi has triggered an outpouring of outrage and concern in the United States, where the journalist had been living in self-imposed exile for the past year or so out of fears for his safety. Colleagues at the Washington Post, where Khashoggi wrote a column critical of the Saudi-led war against Yemen and the kingdom’s crackdown on opposition, have been sounding the alarm and the newspaper’s editorial board has demanded answers about the renowned journalist’s whereabouts and fate.

While the Washington Post has published critical views of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman’s so-called reforms, the US establishment and numerous segments of the media gave, before the controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance broke out, the young crown prince glowing praise, especially during his red carpet visit to the United States earlier this year, where he was greeted both figuratively and literally like royalty.

Given his loud Islamophobia and his numerous attempts to impose a Muslim ban, one would theoretically expect Donald Trump to come down hard on Saudi Arabia. But contrary to the vitriol he normally spews on Twitter, all the US president was able to say about the Khashoggi case was a measured that he was “concerned about that” and his hope that the situation “will sort itself out”, pointing out that he did not wish to rock the boat with Saudi Arabia because it is a major importer of American arms.

Trump’s reaction is disappointing but unsurprising in light of his well-documented admiration for erratic autocrats, his aspirations to become one, his self-serving diplomacy, and his and his son-in-law’s personal business ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes.

Far less understandable are the mental and intellectual contortions being performed by some self-described liberals and self-declared advocates of freedom and democracy. The foremost “liberal” apologist and cheerleader for MBS, as the crown prince is known to his fans, has to be the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman, who fancies himself an expert on the Middle East.

It is not that Friedman was unaware of bin Salman’s tyrannical and repressive ways, both with rivals within his family as well as dissidents and opposition figures; it is that the veteran columnist did not appear to care, arguing that the crown prince’s brutal excesses were necessary for some greater good, a Saudi “Arab Spring”, no less, one that is visible only to MBS’s fan club.

Despite the disappearance of the man he describes as “my friend”, Friedman has been inexplicably mild, respectful and deferential in his comments, tweeting that it would be “disastrous for your diplomacy if he’s been abducted” and that “without constructive critics like him, Saudi econ [sic] reform will fail”.

Possibly drawing inspiration from the Republican “thoughts and prayers” response to gun crime, Friedman published a column on 8 October in which he prayed for the safety of his friend, while outing Khashoggi as an anonymous source without permission, while continuing to defend his indefensible defence of MBS.

This kind of muddled and muzzled reaction is troubling, as the lack of consequences appear to have emboldened the Saudi regime, with Khashoggi only the latest but most high profile Saudi critic abroad to be targeted. This escalation has Saudi exiles spooked and afraid. Exiled dissidents from neighbouring countries are also troubled, including stateless Oslo-based activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, who was deported from the UAE in 2014.

Nevertheless, the growing risks associated with being a critic abroad notwithstanding, the most dangerous place to be a Saudi or Arab dissident, with the notable exceptions of Tunisia and Lebanon, is at home, as I have noted about my native Egypt.

Although Saudi Arabia is the worst offender, its Gulf neighbours, despite being socially and culturally more liberal, are extremely intolerant of dissent. Not only is the domestic media kept on a short leash in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, or even in Iran, journalists and human rights activists who step out of line suffer serious consequences, including intimidation, arrest, travel bans and imprisonment. One popular tactic used by Arab Gulf regimes is to strip dissidents of their citizenship.

But what these regimes fail to comprehend and appreciate is that freedom does not bring chaos and sedition, rather it makes a society stronger and more robust – but even liberty it did not make a country wealthier and more powerful, it is a fundamental right of each and every citizen, and should be the raison d’etre for any state.

Take Tunisia, where freedom has not caused the sky to fall in. Despite its small size and struggling economy, Tunisia has weathered the kind of storms that have pushed other countries in the region towards civil conflict or full-out war, and a powerful reason for this is its post-revolutionary consensual model of democracy and dialogue.

Sadly, the majority of Arab regimes seem to care more for the illusion of the unassailable status of their leaders, even if they end up leading a smouldering ruin, than the common good of their people. By making it impossible for ordinary people to engage in peaceful, constructive change, they make it ever more likely that extremists will engage in violent, destructive rage.

—-

This is an updated version of an article which was published by The New Arab on 9 October 2018.

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In search of the lost city of Londonistan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Our intrepid and fearless reporter visited the fabled capital of  the European Caliphate, Londonistan. What he discovered was shockingly, surprisingly, confoundingly, almost frighteningly… ordinary.

Headless or headscarfed, Londoners like to do their own thing.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 9 September 2018

“Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam,” wrote columnist Andy Ngo in the Wall Street Journal after a recent trip to the British capital, which seems to have coincided with my own visit during which I experienced a very different city.

“I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London’s Muslim communities for myself,” he claimed. Despite this commendable sentiment, Ngo immediately proceeded to launch a polemical diatribe about the capital’s “failed multiculturalism”, in which he does not quote a single London Muslim nor does he appear to have had any actual conversations with these terrifying individuals, as if they have not yet evolved the capacity to speak or he has not discovered the capability to listen.

Instead, he depends on the mood music of imagery, spending most of the column describing the dress code of conservative Muslims on their way to Friday prayers, as if their choice of clothes defines who they are, what they think of others, how they treat their fellow citizens or how they relate to their country.

But as I know from experience, judging a Muslim (or anyone) solely by how (s)he dresses can be highly deceptive. Although extremists undoubtedly exist, if Ngo and others so fearful of the other took the time to spend time with ordinary Muslims, they may be surprised by what they learn.

Take the Iraqi woman whom I happened to chat to on a London bus after I almost landed on her lap when the driver braked too hard. Dressed in a baggy black dress, cloak and headscarf, she was the fabric far-right horror is fashioned from but, in reality, she was cut from a different cloth to their nightmares.

Despite her conservative attire, she was a harsh critic of the sectarianism and religious identity politics that had overrun her native land, despised ISIS and looked back with nostalgia to Iraq’s secular past – though her admiration for the Arab dictators of yesteryear and her poo-pooing of today’s young Arabs as ignorant and apathetic riled me. Moreover, she was a proud Londoner of 30 years and her enthusiasm for the city had not been dimmed by the UK’s role in the disastrous and illegal invasion of her homeland.

At a certain level, I understand how the unknown other can be frightening, especially if there are some extremists in their midst. For instance, as a child in London in the 1980s, I feared skinheads, initially unaware that in addition to the violent and racist fringe who sometimes hurled racial abuse at us or who picked fights with me as a teen, there were leftist or apolitical skinheads – some are trying to reclaim the movement – who loved reggae and ska and hung out with fellow black working class Londoners, many of whom were also skinheads. In the London of today, there are many men with shaved heads (often because they are balding) and sporting elaborate tattoos who have absolutely nothing to do with what used to be known as skinhead culture when I was a kid.

Either through ignorance or malice, Ngo notes that near the mosque in Tower Hamlets he saw a sign which read “Alcohol restricted zone”. This leaves any reader unaware of British law and customs with the impression that, through ‘creeping Sharia’, the local Muslim community had managed to ban alcohol. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as reflected by the enormous number of pubs and off-licences in the area.

In its battle against what it defines as ‘anti-social behaviour’, the UK government has reserved the right to restrict the consumption of alcohol in certain public spaces, such as parks, including in Tower Hamlets and over 600 other places across England and Wales, while the ban on consuming alcohol on the London underground was introduced by that well-known firebrand Islamist Boris Johnson.

This view of alcohol as a social ill or evil has nothing to do with Islam or multiculturalism and stems from Protestant Puritanism. This is reflected in the 19th-century temperance movement. In the United States, where this form of zealotry was far more successful, temperance eventually led to prohibition. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10% of the land mass of the United States.

In today’s America drinking on the streets or in public spaces is prohibited almost everywhere, as I was surprised to discover on my first visit to the country, which makes Ngo’s surprise at the sign he encountered in London, which is relatively rare, appear faux and contrived.

Moreover, the Muslim attitudes to alcohol and drinking are not as straightforward as many believe, as I point out in a chapter dedicated to the theme in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect. Many, many Muslims openly drink, both in the diaspora and in Muslim-majority countries where it is legal, and many Muslims who do not drink tolerate and accept the right of others to consume alcohol.

This diversity of attitudes is reflected in Arab- and Muslim-run establishments. Take the famous Little Arabia on and around Edgware Road, which is home to numerous off-licences and pubs. There, many Middle Eastern eateries, especially the cheaper, faster ones, serve nothing stronger than fruit juice, but some, especially the more upmarket ones, serve wine, beer and spirits from their countries of origin. In fact, for certain types of liberal Arabs, eating mezzas without washing them down with arak would be considered sacrilegious.

While a disproportionate amount of Western media attention is directed at the relatively small number of radical Islamists, missing from the picture is the fact that London is probably the main capital of Middle Eastern secular, progressive and leftist culture outside the Middle East. The city has been drawing a rich and diverse tapestry of Arab and Persian writers, artists, opposition figures, dissidents, exiles and refugees for generations – a few of whom I met during my latest visit.

One ageing Arab intellectual who has lived in London for decades pointed out to me, for instance, a stretch of territory in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which had been a mini Iran in the 1970s and whose inhabitants found themselves stranded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Most Iranians in the area moved to the United States or other parts of the UK.

One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in Andy Ngo’s column is his observation of how, outside the mosque in Tower Hamlets, Muslims and non-Muslims “avoided eye contact with the other”.

As anyone who has lived in or spent time in London will tell you, making eye contact is considered one of the gravest social sins (I exaggerate only slightly), and those who engage in it could elicit silent contempt, a hostile, “Oi, what are you staring at?”, or occasionally even stronger reactions.

This is partly because Londoners guard their private and personal space jealously. The upside of this oft-unfriendly attitude is that Londoners are also generally meticulous respecters of other people’s private and personal space, and their right to do what they wish within its actual or imagined confines.

That is why the streets of London often appear to the outsider like an archipelago of random subcultures, each existing in parallel and each studiously ignoring the other, whether that is the colourful circuses of colour on the buses, tubes, along the embankment of the Thames, or at the city’s huge array of pop-up festivals and carnivals. Nobody even bats an eyelid when, say, a woman dressed in a black coat and hijab shakes hands with a headless street performer dressed in a dark suit.

Despite the growing anti-Muslim sentiment and general xenophobia in the UK, the London of today appears, to my eyes as a relative outsider now, to still be a more open and tolerant place than the city in which I grew up. That is not to say that there is no tension or hatred in the city, especially as inequality sores and socio-economic welfare tumbles. Nevertheless, many of the city’s inhabitants take London’s multicultural kaleidoscope in their stride and seem to thrive on it, especially those who grew up since large-scale immigration began.

I hope London remains London, maintains its unique spirit, and ignores rightwing fear-mongers.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 31 August 2018.

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America’s got 99 problems… but Russia ain’t the main one

 
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By Khaled Diab

The assault on American democracy and its global standing originated not in Moscow but in Washington, and across the length and breadth of the United States. Like the Soviet Empire before it, America is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions

Friday 27 July 2018

“If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all.”

This was rule number three of Thomas Friedman’s ‘Mideast Rules to Live By’. The New York Times columnist wrote the piece in 2006 as an apparent response to harsh criticism of his support of George W Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which Friedman had bellicosely supported, until he ran out of ‘Friedman Units’, which seem to be based on what you can call the neo-con ‘Kristol Ball’ that predicted the war in Iraq would be over in just two months.

Like other cheerleaders of the Iraq war, Friedman not only blamed Arabs for failing to play along with his fantasies but also criticised, in rule number seven, what he perceived as the Arab tendency to tell America: “It’s all your fault for being so stupid.”

Failing to heed his own advice to Arabs of not blaming foreign conspiracies for their plight, Friedman is part of the deafening chorus of blaming Russia for Donald Trump, while Trump supporters blame the Four Ms for America’s perceived decline: minorities, Muslims, migrants and the media. Friedman called alleged Russian meddling “code red” and the “biggest threat to the integrity of our democracy” back in February, and, following the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki, he endorsed the notion that Trump’s approach to Russia is “nothing short of treasonous” – in fact, “treason” has been trending on social media.

When I observe the unedifying debacle that passes for politics in America these days, I wonder why it is the American establishment does not follow its own ‘sage’ advice, which it has delivered for generations to anyone complaining of American meddling, whether it be in Latin America, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, that they should stop complaining about foreign interference and get their own house in order.

That is not to suggest that Russia played no role in attempting to stack the odds in Donald Trump’s favour – the evidence that it did so is increasingly compelling. But it would be like blaming the current Gulf crisis on America, when Donald Trump has only been profiting and benefiting from existing bitter divisions and rivalries between the region’s wasteful and petty-minded autocrats as they seek to keep revolution at bay and jockey for what they perceive to be regional ascendancy.

Moreover, the alleged use of hacking, political dirt and social media bots looks positively minor league compared to the clandestine and covert tactics used by America (and Russia) to shape the political climate in many less powerful nations.

More importantly, America is not some weak and vulnerable “banana republic”, like Guatemala was when the CIA plotted and implemented a coup against the democratically elected revolutionary government of Jacobo Árbenz, which included not just disinformation but also paramilitary shock teams, just because Árbenz’s small-scale agrarian reforms had upset the United Fruit Company.

No, America is (still) the world’s most powerful and richest country. It cannot and will not be brought to its knees by a band of alleged mercenary Russian hackers, oligarchs and intelligence operatives, though they likely had some kind of distorting effect.

No, the assault on American democracy and its global standing originated not in Moscow but in Washington, and across the length and breadth of the United States. Like the Soviet Empire before it, America is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions, its imperial hubris, and its squandering of vast amounts of resources to enrich the very few at the expense of the very, very, very, very many, both abroad and at home.

Russia did not create Donald Trump, the brash, abrasive and corrupt opportunist and chancer. Russia did not transform this self-centred and self-serving business tyrant into a counter-factual television and (social) media sensation, admired by millions, who has been marketing hollow image without any substance and pedalling falsehoods for decades.

Russia did not put a gun to the heads of white, conservative voters and force them to elect an alleged billionaire with zero political experience and zero interest in the plight of other people as the representative of ordinary folk who would “drain the swamp”.

Even suggesting that Russia was responsible for the brainwashing of the Republican electorate would be to give it way too much credit, and too little credit to homegrown propagandists, polemicists and twisters of truth. Of course, Moscow is an old hand at fake news and propaganda. But Sputnik and RT have limited reach in America and can simply not compete with likes of Fox News and Sinclair for the hearts and minds of Middle America.

No, America’s spiralling fall towards fascism and drift towards dictatorship is almost entirely of its own making, and the sooner the establishment owns up to this and owns it, the better for the future.

The Republican base must come to terms with the reality that even if the Four Ms magically vanished from US soil (impossible as that is), America would not magically turn into a white utopian paradise. Chances are America would, at best, become an irrelevant and poorer backwater, at worst, a country caught up in a long and bloody civil war.

The Republican ‘resistance’ must acknowledge and admit that Trump is not the sole creator of this mess. He had two incredibly destructive precursors, their hero, Ronald Reagan, and the former worst US president, George W Bush and his merry band of neo-cons, especially Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Mainstream Democrats need to recognise that, even in the unlikely event that Donald Trump is impeached or resigns, this only constitutes a baby step towards making America sane again. Whether or not he is Putin’s asset, he is most certainly the useful idiot of evangelicals, the alt-right and pro-nativist tycoons. If replaced by Vice-President Mike Pence, the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better.

And, yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and would have made a far more capable and less bigoted president than Donald Trump, but she was too much a part of the establishment to have fixed it. Clinton’s failure was also partly a function of her party’s inability to nominate a true alternative, a change-maker, and its failure, along with the Republicans, to reform America’s antiquated electoral college system and its de facto two-party dictatorship, enabled by the unfair and inflexible first-past the post system.

Then there is the question of economic inequality, which has been steadily widening whether America is under the stewardship of the Republicans or the Democrats. This needs urgent and sustainable action, such as downward redistributive justice, rather than the upward redistributive injustice of Trump’s tax cuts.

Judging by the current state of affairs, it seems unlikely that the political and economic establishment will snap out of its lethargy and inertia… at least, not before it is too late. This leaves the burden on a young generation of progressive politicians, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, veteran outliers, such as Bernie Sanders, and the mounting grassroots popular resistance, which appears to grasp where America’s problems truly lie and where its priorities should be.

_____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 19 July 2018.

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Prisoners of our guilty consciences

 
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By Khaled Diab

The intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society in Egypt leaves Egyptians who are out of the country feeling powerless to help and guilty about the freedoms they enjoy.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Egypt’s war on dissent, opposition and the media shows no sign of abating. Worse still, it appears to have intensified in recent months, ever since the run-up to the presidential “election.” Even the recent Ramadan pardons issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will barely make a dent, because what the regime giveth, in its caprice, it taketh away.

By way of example, several prominent activists and bloggers have recently been arrested. These have included included Wael Abbas, the prominent journalist and blogger who has been shedding light on police brutality and other abuses since the Mubarak years; Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression; labour lawyer and veteran activist Haytham Mohamadeen; former actor Amal Fathy, who was arrested on terrorism charges for posting a profane video condemning the dire socioeconomic state of the country and sexual harassment; satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who is despised by the security services for mocking the police, and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon and activist who allegedly posted tweets that “insulted” the president.

In addition, controversial and daring atheist Sherif Gaber was prevented from leaving the country, detained for several days and then disappeared into the ether, his whereabouts unknown. That is not to mention all those who have been arrested or disappeared that we do not know about, or who are not prominent enough to be reported on by media, or the banal and everyday intimidations, threats and harassment from a security apparatus that has reached the threatening levels of excess that only the threatened can muster up.

It is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened for the millions of people who, set free by a dream, rebelled against their jailers, only to be imprisoned in a nightmare. Rarely have so many sacrificed so much for no visible gain and such an abundance of extra pain. Yes, the situation in Egypt is not (yet) as bad as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, but you know a country is in serious trouble when it builds new prisons at a frantic pace, while shutting down libraries, where jails have become repositories of squandered human talent and potential, and where prisons are home to more freethinkers than the country’s academies.

The situation appears all the more depressing when you consider that it need not have been so, that the Egyptian regime and military could have bowed to the inevitable, instead of attempting to reverse the irreversible. I am made painfully aware of this reality from my temporary base in Tunisia, which now stands where Egypt should and could have been, especially since the pre-revolutionary freedoms Egyptians were able to snatch from the jaws of the Mubarak regime outstripped anything Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his cohorts were willing to concede.

The situation here is far from perfect or ideal, and Tunisia faces enormous challenges, but people are largely free to speak their minds without fear of losing their freedom. Even unauthorized protests are left in peace, governments come and governments go peacefully, political parties try to cobble together compromises and build consensus, and no leader is above reproach or being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Tunisia’s newfound freedom has made it a magnet for activists, dissidents and journalists from across the region. This includes a burgeoning Egyptian community of civil society activists and NGO workers, some of whom gather together to watch Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup, their downsized hopes of a modicum of national success disappointed. One Egyptian who cannot return to Egypt has adopted the FIFA World Cup as a kind of substitute for home, every fleeting hope causing his spirits to soar; every let down knocking him down. “I wish we could take pride in something,” one Tunis-based Egyptian remarked following Egypt’s mediocre performance against Russia. This is, of course, only football, as I am well aware, not being a great lover of the game. But for a traumatised nation with its revolutionary pride shredded and mangled, and its dignity crushed under the boot of junta rule and growing poverty, it is also a lot more than just football.

“Tunisia is an Arab country that was on pretty much the same path as Egypt after the revolution, and so comparing the two was inevitable,” observes Ahmed ElGohary, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which moved its headquarters from Cairo following a campaign of harassment from the state. “Our presence in Tunis is easier for some of us than Europe … but it also accentuates the sense of failure. Any small news item on the radio or the internet about Tunisian politics or human rights reminds you that we could have also had the same space to work and engage in Egypt.”

When confronted with the levels of injustice plaguing Egypt, I feel compelled to use the freedom I enjoy to write about it and to do my bit to confront it. Beyond questions of duty, I have a strong interest in and desire to write about developments in Egypt, even if my years outside the country outnumber my years living in it, but I do try to keep up with regular visits. And I believe I have every right to do so. In fact, I am convinced that everyone has the right to write and speak on any topic they choose, and that they should be judged on their knowledge and abilities, not on their background or situation, and that is why I write about many contexts in many countries. In reality, the only times I have ever heard complaints that my absence disqualifies me from commentary is from some supporters of the regime, for my criticism of it, and some Islamists, for my criticism of their project and my outspoken support of secularism.

That said, writing about Egypt from afar presents certain practical challenges. An important one for someone like me, who likes to write about the human angle, not just the aggregate geopolitical, economic and social picture, is keeping abreast of what is happening on the ground and what people are thinking as individuals. Getting a sense of the mood on the streets is challenging when you rely on occasional visits and secondary sources, yet acquiring the perspectives of individuals is much easier from afar than it once was. This is not ideal, but writers in the country also face challenges, albeit different ones, such as the distortions created by Egypt’s highly polarized political and social scenes, with the heightened levels of propaganda they contain.

“Whenever I write from abroad about Egypt, I’m always afraid that this distance might have made me lose touch with the pulse of the street,” observes Maher Hamoud, the former editor at Daily News Egypt who is currently based in Brussels. “I always cared in my writing (both in Egypt and Europe) about ordinary people and their real-life experiences.”

This distance has led Hamoud towards an increased focus on analysis. “I find myself compensating for this insecurity in writing about Egypt by being more theoretical and analytical (also historical) in my work,” he points out. I have also noticed this trend in my own journalism, though this is also partly a function of becoming more experienced, with editors seeking out my perspective, and being more interested in the connections between various parts of the world and various periods of history.

There is also the drive to contextualise, to highlight that what is occurring in Egypt is tragic, but it is not unprecedented or a uniquely Arab malaise. “I make sure to relate to the ‘developed’ countries and their problems while talking about Egypt,” notes Jehad (Jeje) Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC. “It helps eliminate the ‘othering’ of Egypt and eliminate the white saviour complex that we are less and need saving, and so on.”

Covering Egypt from afar also presents certain moral and ethical challenges. One is the haunting sense of powerlessness and futility. As a journalist and writer, one can attempt to speak truth to power, but what if power does not care to listen? One can attempt to tell the world, but what if the world is preoccupied with other things, or some of it is applauding what is going on? Writing articles and posting tweets appears barely to make a shred of difference against the tide of brutality sweeping the country, the region and other parts of the globe. Does this apparent futility mean you should give up, or continue with greater gusto? Is it enough just to write and speak, or is there more one should be doing? The Sisi regime, like many in the region, may fear the pen more than the sword, and so it prefers to silence or discredit its holder, rather than heed its words.

Then there is the question of guilt. In Egypt, we say those with their hands in the water are unlike those with their hands in the fire. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time. People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” explains Jeje Mohamed.

“I feel guilty because I was luckier than others and was able to leave Egypt at a suitable moment and to continue my work with the same organization. Most of the others were not so fortunate,” says AlGohary. “And this feeling is renewed and grows every time an activist or human rights defender is arrested or banned from traveling.” Carrying around a guilty conscience for simply having got away is a common emotion I have noticed among Egyptian activists and journalists who have left the country or been forced out.

Even though I am not an activist, I also often experience an involuntary surge of guilt when I learn of the latest miscarriage of justice, or carriage of injustice, in Egypt, and think of the courage exhibited by the dwindling rank of colleagues who still manage, against increasingly draconian odds, to report independently and honestly from within Egypt. While journalists and activists are being intimidated, stripped of their freedom and robbed of their dignity, I lead a comfortable and remarkably unthreatening life in a picturesque seaside suburb of Tunis, for the most part. My days are generally spent writing and reading in peace, interspersed with looking after and caring for our son, without having to fear a midnight knock on my door. This affords me the luxury (and it is a huge luxury) to think and express myself, without the stifling shadow of fear and repression to cloud my mind, and perhaps also to see certain things that are not as visible from close up, or which may be distorted by the constant barrage of propaganda.

With everything that is going on in Egypt and the wider region, about which I also write (among many other things), as well as the violent intolerance of dissent exhibited by numerous state and non-state actors across the Middle East, the dissonance caused makes me sometimes feels like I am floating in the tranquil eye of a storm, close enough to observe but not be consumed by the surrounding cyclone.

This distance protects me from the tempest, and my foreign passport offers me a measure of protection from the vengeful whims of the regime when I visit Egypt, albeit much less than in the past. This causes me occasional mild anxiety, as I am aware that the unruly winds could shift and the storm could sweep me up in its destructive, increasingly indiscriminate path. And if someone were to decide to bring me down, they have a wealth of material to twist against me. When I hear some of the far-fetched and ludicrous cases made against dissidents and critics, I occasionally wonder what kind of alleged allegiance(s) they may one day concoct for me, a writer who has always prided myself on my independence.

This anxiety is at it most pronounced whenever I am entering or leaving Egypt. Part of the apprehension is irrational, perhaps founded on the number of times my family was banned from leaving the country when I was a young child. More rationally, I have been detained or delayed a number of times upon arrival or departure, including one marathon interrogation session of several hours, which, along with the random exercising of arbitrary power, makes me wonder whether next time will be “the time,” and whether my fate might be a short stretch of indignity in an overcrowded cell or the long-term deprivation of freedom.

My low-level anxiety is nothing compared to the undoubted fear and pain endured by those on the frontlines, despite all the risks, who were stripped of their freedom, often in degrading and violent ways, for their pains. How must it feel for someone like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) to have survived the hell on earth of reporting on the lethal dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya encampment (which I had visited a couple of weeks beforehand to see what it was like for myself) and, instead of receiving treatment for the trauma all this death and destruction caused, to wait in purgatory for a potential death sentence?

I admire all those who stood up for their principles, even if it meant years in the slammer. The iconic representation of this is Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned by every leader since Mubarak, and is currently serving a five-year sentence. I sometimes wonder what it is like to live the monotony of incarceration, to be deprived not just of your freedom but also of your freedom of choice, to miss out on the milestones your family and friends reach in your absence, and the undoubted heartache you cause them, and the gap you leave in your child’s or children’s lives.

“The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept,” Abd El Fattah wrote in a letter during one of his shorter incarcerations, in 2014, in which he expressed profound longing for Khaled, his son, and Manal, his wife. “We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.”

The letter betrays Abd El Fattah’s sense of disillusionment at the direction Egypt had taken, and reveals how he was motivated mostly by guilt. “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he confessed. “Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”

Abd El Fattah is not just a prisoner of conscience but a prisoner of his own conscience. “It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt,” he wrote.

Guilt is a surprisingly common reaction among survivors of torture and political imprisonment, especially once they return to their “normal” lives, their trauma untreated and often undiagnosed, even though it makes little rational sense. Despite the genuine and profound suffering they have experienced, they often feel bad for the continuing suffering of others and cope by externalizing and contextualizing their own situations in comparison with those who are perhaps worse off than they are. This causes many to suppress their own emotions, with potentially catastrophic consequences, both for the individual and for society, as the collective, cumulative trauma builds up, unresolved and unprocessed.

“I never thought of saying or sharing my feelings because there were bigger stories and deeper feelings, which I thought are more important or bigger than my own. Other people had more than that happening to them,” one former prisoner of conscience was quoted as saying in a rare study of trauma among political activists in post-revolutionary Egypt, carried out by Vivienne Matthies-Boon of the University of Amsterdam. Other effects of the trauma caused by the state’s brutal handling of dissent include polarisation, dehumanisation, demonisation and the normalisation of violence in the community.

Perhaps this desperate effort to contextualise is a last-ditch attempt to cling on to one’s sense of common humanity, which imprisonment and torture seek to destroy, by expressing empathy with others, by resisting the ‘selfish’ allure of personal pain for the solidarity of shared suffering. The alternative is the abyss of desensitisation, despondency and anchorless apathy. “Now my problem is that I don’t feel at all, I don’t fear death, I am not afraid. Right now I am not afraid to lose anybody,” confessed one of the traumatised activists interviewed in the study mentioned above.

Those pushed beyond their breaking points often become desensitised not only to their own suffering but also to the suffering of others. “When I see someone dying or I lose a friend, I am supposed to be really sad,” reflected another activist. “For me now, I am very okay with it … which is dangerous, because I think humans need to be sad about it.”

This provides some insight into how the state’s extreme crackdown on dissent and the mindless violence it has unleashed is not as mindless as it first appears. In a variation of the classic divide and rule mentality, it seems to be aimed at killing solidarity and obliterating hope. The regime also erodes an individual’s sense of certainty and security, and the trust of others in them, through more prosaic but highly punitive measures such as travel bans, the freezing of assets or open-ended legal action that drags on for years and years. By corroding people’s trust in and sympathy for one another and their sense of solidarity, the regime hopes to avert a repeat of the millions who took to the streets in 2011 to 2013.

When I was younger, my mother often criticised fellow Egyptians for their apparent apathy, arguing that those in power do not just give rights on a silver platter, that people must demand and seize their rights. The idea is that, eventually, the cost of opposing the popular will becomes higher than the benefits of oppressing and exploiting the people.

But what happens when a regime, like in Syria or Libya, behaves totally irrationally and finds no price is too high to pay, or makes others pay for its survival, even if it ends up governing a smouldering ruin? Or what happens when the dear leader, or king of kings, or surgeon of surgeons, or philosopher of philosophers, believes that he and the nation are one and the same thing, or, more frighteningly, that the nation is a part of him or subservient to him, and cannot or should not survive without him?

In Egypt, the regime seems bent on turning this logic of protest, dissent and revolution on its head. If there is method to its madness, it is that the cost of opposition should be set so excruciatingly and painfully high that people will desist and no longer resist, believing that resistance is not only futile but will make their situation much worse. Some ex-revolutionaries got that message loud and clear, with quite a few becoming depoliticised. “I just want to be alone … You feel this meaningless feeling,” confessed one participant in the study cited earlier. “You just want to stay at home or to hug someone you love, that is it.”

I do not wish to succumb to apathy and indifference. Although I accept that my writings could land me in trouble and have made reasonable sacrifices for my principles, I have little interest in becoming a martyr without a cause. I do not want to become a prisoner, not in a jail cell nor of my fears. I most certainly do not wish to be broken. And I suspect I can be broken. I do not know whether I possess the physical, mental and emotional strength to withstand torture or the humiliation of political imprisonment, and I am cowardly or courageous enough to admit that I do not wish to find out how strong my mettle is — I prefer that this question remains academic and unanswered.

As much as I dream of and desire freedom for everyone, I am not ready to sacrifice my own freedom to the machinations of the Egyptian regime — at least that is how I feel now, at this moment, when the individual price in Egypt is so high and the collective rewards so negligible.

Better, or at least more effective for me, in my humble, unheroic view, is to be free and to advocate and agitate for the freedom of others, to live to fight, or at least to struggle, another day. In fact, that is one of the motivating factors that led me to move away. I left Mubarak’s Egypt not out of any material need; I had a good career as a journalist, and before that as a teacher. I left to expand my margin of freedom as a journalist and writer and to enlarge my horizons as a human being, as well as to think and write outside the box about back home. This has not just expanded my horizons but also my mission as a journalist, which now includes challenging the false assumptions, misconceptions and biases toward Egypt and the wider region, to show it in a human and humane light, to flesh out its ambiguities, because it is in the ambiguities that the human resides.

Those of us on the outside can use our liberty not only to campaign for the freedom of those who have been deprived of theirs, but to play our modest role in keeping hope alive in the wastelands of hopelessness through which so many are wandering and wondering, to help people dream of a tomorrow that is beyond the nightmares of today.

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Egypt: When the opium of football sharpens the pain of existence

 
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By Khaled Diab

Instead of acting as a pain killer for a traumatised country of heroes treated like zeroes, the World Cup has provided a painful reminder to Egyptians seeking escapism of just how desperate their situation is.

While in Chechnya, Mohamed Salah was exploited for photo ops by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, something which reputedly outraged the Egyptian striker.

Thursday 5 July 2018

When the final whistle blew on Egypt’s encounter with Russia at the World Cup, the sense of national deflation was palpable, even as far away as here, in Tunis, where I had gathered with a group of Egyptian friends and Egypt lovers to watch the match.

At kick off, the mood was fairly optimistic. The team’s performance in the previous match, against Uruguay, had been dignified, only losing at the last minute. Egypt had managed to dominate play for large chunks of the game, but was unable to convert possession into goals.

With Egypt’s not-so-secret weapon, Mohamed Salah, the world-class striker who has won himself a local, regional and global following, deployed in the second game, it was hoped that his talent for scoring would lift the curse of the pharaohs that has so long plagued the national side at the World Cup – which despite being the first African, Arab and Asian side to qualify in history has never won a match at the tournament – and give us the edge over Russia.

These hopes were to be sorely disappointed. The Egyptian team was disorganised and in disarray, with none of the focus of the Uruguay game, and Mo Salah was unable to deliver what was so desperately desired by his compatriots, who hero-worship him as the man who made dignity, principles and kindness great again, with his “sudden assertion of human values within a dehumanising system,” as Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali explains in this essay.

Perhaps the weight of the expectations of nearly 100 million Egyptians proved too much for his injured shoulder to carry, and his nerves buckled under the pressure in the biggest game of his career to date. Or Salah may simply have not been ready to return to the pitch following the banned judo move Sergio Ramos used to bring the Egyptian forward down during Liverpool’s encounter with Real Madrid in the Champion’s League final.

When it became clear that defeat was to be Egypt’s lot, yet again, the previously festive atmosphere turned heavy. “I wish there was something we could take pride in as a nation,” one of the Egyptian friends remarked, somewhat crestfallen, after the match had ended.

Her point was echoed, or should I say amplified and magnified and bellowed, by an Egyptian social media sensation known as Ali Saed. In a Facebook monologue (diatribe, actually) which was viewed over 1.8 million times at the time of writing, Saed asks: “As Egyptians, why can’t we have a joyful moment?”

يارب خدنا من الكوكب ده بقا

Posted by Ali Saed on Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“Look at the street around you,” he asks viewers, as he drives through traffic. “Everyone is troubled and pissed off.” He then launches into a tirade during which he lashes out at the Egyptian celebrities flown out at state expense to Russia, the players and the coach.

“You’ve boiled the blood of 100 million Egyptians; a hundred million Egyptians want some joy. There is nothing to make us happy in this country,” he yells out. “I hope a car hits me while I’m driving and puts me out of my misery.”

It is difficult to see whether this is an entirely genuine meltdown or an expression of very dark humour, but the biting sarcasm is very real. For anyone, like me, not terribly interested in soccer, it is hard to comprehend how someone can be so upset about a match that he expresses suicidal tendencies, even if it is in jest.

But a traumatised, disappointed, disillusioned nation desperately needed the escapism football can provide. Instread, they got the sight of a humiliated squad returning home after losing even to Saudi Arabia, with rumours that Mo Salah’s planned to quit the national team because he did not appreciate being used as a political pawn by the regime and was angered at the mismanagement of the national team’s campaign.

Saed basically admits that he regards football as the opium of the masses and one that he is more than willing to consume to “help us forget” and “make us happy for a while”. It is a sad testament to how desperate a situation is when even escapism does not offer the opportunity of escape.

“I don’t get it. What’s happening to Egypt? Everything in Egypt is black,” Saed laments.

And for all but the hardiest and most diehard of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s supporters, the situation in Egypt appears bleak and desperate indeed. Not only has Egypt witnessed the most concerted, systematic and brutal crackdown on opposition and dissent in living memory during Sisi’s reign of terror, the economy is in tatters, the value of the pound has plummeted, inflation is way up and, as if that was not enough, severe and extreme austerity measures have acted like pain-enhancers administered to Egypt’s weakest and most vulnerable.

This intolerable cruelty is being piled on a population which had enjoyed a euphoric period of heightened pride and dignity and a fleeting sense of hope for the future, when Egyptians rose up en masse, in 2011, and deposed a tyrant, the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Back then Egyptians did not need a superhuman hero on the football pitch, because they were collectively the very human heroes of their own heroic story, in which they would shape their destinies.

Although the military and its various civilian facade have been been trying to bottle up the genie of revolution ever since, this campaign reached an unprecedented intensity under Sisi, as if not only to punish Egyptians for having the audacity to dream but also to eradicate the very idea of and hope for self-determination and popular decision-making from their minds.

The trauma of revolution and the even greater trauma of counterrevolution has resulted not only in titanic levels of despondency, disillusionment and despair but also in a mental health crisis that is looming menacingly, all the more so because it is largely unrecognised and undiagnosed.

But despite the regime’s best efforts to do its worst, it is unable to silence dissent and assassinate hope entirely, as is visible by the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience languishing behind bars.

Recently, “Sisi Leave” was trending in Arabic on social media, due to public anger over austerity measures. With the relentless brutality of the regime, its divide-and-rule strategy and the PTSD suffered by the population, it seems highly unlikely that people will take to the streets to demand the toppling of the regime… at least not in the foreseeable future.

Instead, frustration and pent-up anger will continue to erode the psyche of Egyptians, individually and collectively. In such a depressing climate, it is scarcely surprising that Egyptians seek distraction, escape and pain relief in soccer, or that a talented, principled and a-political footballer should be elevated to the status of near-saviour.

The feel-good buzz the regime had hoped the World Cup would deliver to placate the masses has instead been replaced by an even greater level of seething frustration and anger. But at least shallow, superficial Sissi, Egypt’s self-appointed savior, will no longer need to feel threatened by and jealous of Salah’s popularity.

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This article first appeared in The Washington Post on 25 June 2018.

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