Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

In addition, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or prospects for peace. 

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Syria needs joint Arab action to end violence

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is up to the Arab world to stop the bloodshed in Syria – unlikely as this may sound, and despite Arab League failure so far.

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan’s third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Thursday 19 September 2013

Like back in 1958, Syria is again the volatile battlefield of a medley of rival local, regional and international actors. But unlike then, Syria has not managed this time to edge back from the brink. Instead, it has become embroiled in a bloody and devastating civil war – not to mention a proxy war – that shows no sign of letting up.

When the tyrant insisted on making peaceful change impossible, he ended up making violent change inevitable. What had started as a non-violent social uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship quickly escalated as bloody repression led disgusted army officers to defect and take up arms against the state’s increasingly violent repression.

Divisions within the Arab world over Syria are rife, as they are among the major international players, between hawks and doves, ideologues and pragmatists, humanitarians and power brokers. Bizarre allegiances have formed and shifted. Currently backing the Syrian government are Russia, Iran, China and Hizbullah, with the opposition supported by the US, the UK, France and wealthy Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey has gone from being an ally of Damascus (early in the conflict) to headquartering the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Egypt is shifting towards a more pro-Assad position, on the back of the threat of US air strikes against a fellow Arab state, a public sense of grievance against Washington for its perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Islamist sentiment which has turned many Egyptians against everything toppled President Mohamed Morsi stood for.

As each state and non-state player competes to advance or safeguard its own “vital interests”, few of the active players seem to have an interest in the well-being of Syrians and Syria. And it is the conflict mongers who are enjoying the upper hand, with arms flooding into Syria, escalating the fighting further.

At the United Nations, it looks like a sequel of the Cold War is at play, with the United States trying to preserve its dwindling hegemony in the Middle East, and Russia struggling to claw back some of its lost influence. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama both seem to be suffering from chronic irony deficiency, the symptoms of which are a severely inhibited ability to see the plain hypocrisy of their rhetoric and the destructiveness of their positions.

 The UN should have been the right address for defusing this conflict from its earliest days, but such is the nature of this world body that when it is most needed, it is usually at its most impotent.  This has to do with its faulty architecture, which concentrates real power, including the dreaded veto, in the hands of just five countries.

Even today, it is not too late for the United Nations to redeem itself. The permanent members of the Security Council can decide to set aside their narrow self-interests and, for a change, agree to pursue the greater good of humanity by deploying tens of thousands of blue helmets with a robust mandate to end the violence. But given the ongoing deadlock, despite the relative breakthrough on chemical weapons, this seems highly improbable.

But with the international community fixated on chemical weapons but in paralysis over action to stop the plentiful non-chemical killings, it must be time now for the region to pull up its bootstraps and pitch in to sort out this mess, depressingly unlikely as it may seem – and that means action by the Arab League.

Like with many other crises before, the Arab League’s efforts, genuine as they were at some points, have amounted to nothing. Even the Arab League’s daring act of suspending Syria and imposing sanctions on the Damascus regime did little to intimidate Assad, underscoring just how little leverage Arab countries seem to exercise over each other.

Like the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine, the Arab League peace plan  for Syria lies on the shelf collecting dust following the withdrawal of its monitors from Syria in January 2012 owing to “a harsh new government crackdown”, in the words of Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

These failures do not encourage optimism, especially in light of how divided the League is over the way forward and how some of its members in the Gulf are actively sending arms and funds to the rebels.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Although the civil war in Syria is far away for members of the UN Security Council and so does not immediately challenge their security, the Arab League cannot afford to be so complacent, especially given the danger that the conflict can spill over into the wider region in an unpredictable and unexpected ways.

The Assad regime, now that it has turned much of the country into rubble and displaced millions, may be suffering from war fatigue, and could be looking round for an exit strategy. The rebels are at a military disadvantage and are in deadlock in their efforts to dislodge the regime militarily, and so may also be looking for a return to more peaceful means. This may make Arab mediation efforts more fruitful this time around.

Moreover, Arab League efforts are likely to be seen as more legitimate by the regime and the main rebel factions, not to mention the wider Arab world. In fact, the eventual prospect of returning Syria, where the ideology of pan-Arabism was born, to the Arab fold, could be used as a carrot to draw Damascus towards a negotiated solution.

So what can the Arab League do? The top priority upon which everyone should be able to agree – even those helping to bankroll the conflict – is that the violence needs to stop, both for humanitarian reasons and for pragmatic self-interest.

Taking a leaf out of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and its peacekeeping efforts across the continent, the Arab League can work towards negotiating a ceasefire and deploying peacekeepers from Arab countries that do not have a direct stake in the conflict. In fact, the Arab League needs to forge its own mutual security mechanism, in light of the growing likelihood of armed conflict within and between states in the region, while success could help pave the way to more enduring regional integration once this specific volatile period has passed.

Once the guns fall silent, Arab League mediators can help hammer out an interim agreement for the peaceful transition of power.

Although this seems like an unlikely scenario, especially in light of the Arab League’s reputation as an ineffectual talking shop, largely due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce its resolutions, there are precedents. Arab mediation efforts successfully stopped Black September in Jordan from turning into a full-blown civil war and, eventually and after too much bloodshed, helped end the Lebanese civil war.

Today, the stakes are arguably far higher, as Syria is a more pivotal state in a region which is already far more volatile, making it in every Arab state’s interest to take action. Whether they will step up is a very open question. For example, the Gulf states, who wrongly think they are far away and who have for decades seen Syria’s secular pan-Arabism as a threat, are trying to use their petrodollars to hold back the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions or to give them a conservative, Islamic hew, may feel less inclined to join efforts to end the conflict.

But ultimately, when fellow Arabs are being slaughtered and their country turned to dust, allied Arab action is the human and humane action to take.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 September 2013.

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US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas – a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Egypt’s coup de quoi!?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Wednesday 10 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Syria’s Sunni v Shi’a myth

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

Tuesday 2 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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