Egypt’s rebels without a pause

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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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Egyptian presidential election: Who should the revolution vote for?

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By Osama Diab

Egyptian revolutionaries dream of electing a president who emerged from Tahrir square, but should they vote for pragmatism or principle?

Tuesday 22 May 2012

When Egyptian go to cast their votes on Wednesday, they will not just be choosing their president for the next four years, but in the process of selecting Egypt’s first democratically elected president,  they will be setting the tone  and shaping the identity of the nation and the political system perhaps for decades to come.

Some call it the Second Republic, while others call it the Third Republic, but regardless of how many republics we have witnessed since the monarchy was overthrow in 1954, what is certain is that the post-revolutionary system will be radically different, or at least this is what the revolutionaries are hoping for, especially in light of the desperate attempts to reproduce the old regime but with new faces.

In order to avoid the re-establishment of the Mubarak regime itself and to prevent the possible emergence of an Islamist single-party political system, the pro-democracy revolutionary forces are excluding the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and other Islamists, as well as ministers who served under Mubarak, such as one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa.

Having identified who not support, deciding on who to vote for is proving much tougher, and many are still undecided. The Tahrir voting bloc is torn between three main candidates: Khaled Ali, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Abdel-moniem Aboul Fotouh.

Khaled Ali seems to be the candidate who best represents the revolution’s spirit of “bread, freedom and social justice”. Despite his history of labour activism, young age and his key role in the toppling of Mubarak, Ali is probably the one with the slimmest chances of winning among the three major revolutionary candidates. However, many idealists are still giving him their support and refuse to vote tactically against what they stand for.

The real dilemma is about choosing between Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi, both of whose ideological background stands against many of the principles of the revolution. Even though Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a believer in democracy and was expelled from the Islamist movement when he announced his intention to run for president, he still praises Hassan el-Banna’s regressive political project and compares his vision with that of the Brotherhood’s founding father.

Hassan el-Banna’s ideology was centred around his belief in a one-party Islamic system, because he believed that a multi-party political system would promote division and strife and that no nation could develop under such system. Aboul Fotouh’s followers, even though they might have some reservations about his anti-democratic tendencies, think he is flexible, adaptive and has the biggest chance of defeating reactionary candidates from the former regime and the Brotherhood.

“I consider my choice to be a tactical one. Aboul Fotouh is the only candidate from Tahrir square that has a serious chance of winning,” says Ahmed Atef Fayed, a 32-year-old psychiatrist from Alexandria who camped in Tahrir square to overthrow Mubarak and defines himself as a secularist. “I understand the concerns of my secular friends and Aboul Fotouh definitely belongs to an opposite political ideology that progressive powers need to work hard on the streets to compete with one day, but in the meantime he is an opposite that I could imagine living with, unlike candidates from the Brotherhood or the former regime.”

An example of Aboul Fotouh’s diversion from el-Banna’s principles that reassures secularists like Fayed is his plan to lift all exceptional laws that restrict freedoms, such as the emergency law and legislation that govern the formation of political parties and journalism, as well as his stance towards unrestricted freedom of innovation and expression. Despite distancing himself from the foundation on which the Muslim Brotherhood was built, Aboul Fotouh still seems to be at least emotionally tied to the founder of the Islamist movement, as reflected by thesection on his website dedicated to el-Banna, or the “Martyr Imam” as his followers prefer to call him.

Hamdeen Sabahi is also haunted by and diverted from his ideological roots. A self-described Nasserist in 2012 will obviously face questions and concerns about his position towards multiparty democracy. However, his supporters see in him the only major secular candidate that is both revolutionary and not part of the former regime. Just like Aboul Fotouh, Sabahi still makes statements about how his programme is inspired by former president and leader of the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but in reality and under the pressure of the revolution’s calls for political freedom, it isn’t really. He, for example, advocates the right to form independent unions, political parties, and promotes the strengthening of civil society and democratic institutions – all of which were anathema to his idol.

Even though the programmes of both Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi look good, at least on paper, and are distant from the schools of thought of their historical political idols, el-Banna’s political project seems to be more of a threat today than Nasserism. There are fears that the rise of political Islam and radical Islamist groups, such as the Salafi al-Nour party, will try to influence Aboul Fotouh’s policies in return for their electoral support. The rising popularity of Sabahi, as indicated by various opinion polls, reveal that an increasing number of Tahrir voters feel less threatened by Nasserism, which they regard as a dying ideology, than by a single-party Islamist system that appears to be gaining ground.

And if Sabahi wins, this carries the additional advantage of enhancing political diversity and creating a true multiparty system in Egypt, instead of establishing a political spectrum which is only made up of different shades of Islamism.


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Egypt needs fundamental, not fundamentalist rights

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By Osama Diab

 Egypt’s new constitution should focus on democracy, equality and human rights, not religious identity or military budgets.

Sunday 1 April 2012

“We don’t need a constitution or legislation. Egypt needs love, devotion and conscience,” says this Dervish-like protester. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When millions of Egyptians took to the streets last year and chanted “the people want to bring down the regime,” they were clear about what they wanted the regime to do, but not about the kind of system they would like to replace it with. Since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in February last year, debate over the country’s identity has been fierce amid a power vacuum characterised by no clear plan or time frame for a peaceful transition of power and to democracy.

The intensity of the dispute peaked this week following the appointment of the 100-member constitution-writing committee by the parliament – composed mostly of Islamists. The interim constitutional declaration grants the parliament the power to “elect a provisional assembly composed of 100 members which will prepare a new draft constitution”.

Exercising this right, the Islamist-dominated parliament allocated about two-thirds of the 100 seats to figures from an Islamist background. The committee, of which 50% are members of the parliament, met for the first time this week to plan their task – an expectedly difficult one with three powerful ideological and political groups having conflicting interests in the writing of the constitution.

Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), are looking to maintain and entrench their privileged position in the new constitution. SCAF wants to be independent of any elected body’s supervision and key to this would be no parliamentary oversight over its finances. A list of SCAF-sponsored supraconstitutional principles, issued by the deputy prime minister Ali al-Selmy last autumn, was rejected by liberals, Islamists and leftists amid concerns of constitutionally establishing a deep military state. Article 9 of the document explicitly states that SCAF is solely responsible for all matters concerning the armed forces. It also grants the military the right to approve all legislation pertaining to its affairs including its budget.

The second player is the Islamist parliamentary bloc, who argue that they are currently the only elected representative authority in the country and that their choice would be the most reflective of the people’s choice; not to mention that they have the constitutional power to elect and appoint a constitution-writing committee.

An Islamist-designed constitution raises concerns from the third group – minorities and non-religious political forces, including different shades of leftwing and liberal politics, that would like the constitution to secure social, political and personal freedoms and equality rather than emphasise Egypt’s religious identity and discuss the military budget. Their argument is that a “temporary” parliamentary majority, that will be gone in four years, should not have a monopoly right over drafting a “permanent” constitution that will govern Egypt for generations to come.

Despite possessing only minimal representation in parliament, the political left still exercise some degree of influence by dominating civil society, especially human rights organisations, while the liberals maintain control of the media and much of the economy.

There are also fears that a potential showdown between the military and the Brotherhood could have a devastating effect on the country’s transition to democracy in a repeat of the 1954 scenario when the Brotherhood clashed with the then military rulers over writing the constitution and the sharing of power, especially after a public exchange of aggressive statements a few days ago over the Brotherhood’s demands for the dissolution of the military-appointed government.

The constitution, however, is not the right place to debate these matters. The constitution’s role should be to tackle fundamental issues such as personal freedoms, equality before the law, citizenship and democracy. On top of this, it should organise the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial powers while setting the stage for all the political powers to compete equally and freely. Issues that are fluid and prone to change, such as the military budget and religious identity, should not be entrenched in the document.

Risking even further Islamist domination, the strife and disappointment have caused many non-Islamist members to withdraw from the committee as a gesture of protest against the under-representation of many groups.

Ziad Bahaa al-Din, a lawyer and parliamentarian who withdrew from the committee, wrote in an article for al-Shorouk newspaper that was translated into English by the Arabist blog saying that “all of Egypt – including all its legal, constitutional and academic experts, labour leaders, NGOs, judges, intellectuals, and writers, men and women, Muslims and Christians, people young and old – […] will be represented in the Constituent Assembly by 50 people, while the MPs alone have reserved the remaining half for themselves.”

The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups should realise that in drafting a constitution, parliamentary representation should be irrelevant, not just because it is temporary, but also because bigger religious or political groups should not be able to grant themselves greater rights. Democracy, equality and human rights should be the backbone of the new constitution; the role of the constitution in a democracy should be to limit, not increase, power of the majority over the minority.

This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 31 March 2012.

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Revolution@1: Egypt must learn from 1952

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By Osama Diab

 Like in 1952, the army is trying to silence opposition with the Muslim Brotherhood’s help. But can the Tahrir mentality stop history from repeating?

Friday 13 January 2012

In the final days of 2011, Egypt witnessed a crackdown on human rights organisations, while the ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his sons awaited a trial that seems more likely to be decided in the court of public opinion than through a fair trial. If you believe that history repeats itself, it might be time to revisit Egypt’s history to see what it can tell us about how the situation may unfold in 2012.

Attacks on a police station on 25 January 1952 ( a notable date, it seems) by the British forces in Ismailia sparked a popular uprising in the form of nationwide riots which set the stage for a military coup on 23 July, which became known as the1952 revolution. To commemorate the 50 police officers who died while resisting British occupation, 25th January was named Police Day and declared an official holiday in 2009. Fast-forward 59 years, where the once revered police has become a symbol of a corrupt and brutal ruling elite. On this 25 January 2011, people took to the streets not to defend the national police, but to protest against its brutality and corruption.

Despite the different motives for each uprising, the outcome was similar: a council of military officers took power to administer a transitional period. In 1952, a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of 14 middle-ranking military officers who conducted the coup took over running the country until 1956. Although the Free Officers had promised free and fair democratic elections, the RCC decided that they would be better able to run the transition if there were no political parties or a parliament. In 1953, they took the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political force for the three decades prior to 1952.

Today’s Ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is unlikely to tighten its grip on power in the same way. Wide-scale nationalisation and the global rise of socialism allowed the RCC to gain economic and political power their contemporary equivalents are unlikely to hold, and the scale of organised popular protest in 1952 was far more limited than today. However, the armed forces still enjoys many of the economic advantages they gained in 1952  and continue to use similar techniques to crackdown on building a healthy democratic life that threatens not only their privileges, but their whole existence.

When the military police raided local and international human rights organisations that have been active in both pre- and post-revolution Egypt in uncovering and documenting government (and now military) human rights abuses, the army justified its actions with the same argument used to dissolve political parties on 16 January 1953: “suspicion” that these organisations received illegal foreign funds. And the reason: after political parties were tamed by successive regimes in Egypt, civil society represents the biggest challenge to Egypt’s authoritarian rulers.

Another striking similarity is that both the SCAF and the RCC have been intolerant of labour strikes, protests and sit-ins. Shortly after 1952, two 18-year-old labour activists were sentenced to death, less than three weeks after the armed forces took over power, for taking part in a strike in the delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. Even though no one was executed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the SCAF has nevertheless passed a law to criminalise protests, strikes and sit-ins that “that interrupt private or state owned businesses or affect the economy in any way”.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both transitions was also very similar: allying itself with the military ruling council, while ignoring the military crackdown on media, civil society and political organisations. In both revolutions, the Muslim Brotherhood has been employed to disengage protests and break up sit-ins. In 1953, the Muslim Brotherhood silently watched the dissolution of all “counter-revolutionary” political parties on 17 January because the Islamist group hoped to run the country or at least co-run Egypt with the RCC.

This time round, the Muslim Brotherhood is repeating the same timeworn trick. They have been cautious to criticise the SCAF’s actions and grave human rights violations. They have hardly taken part in any major demonstration called for by other political groups against military police brutality, and their reaction to the crackdown on human rights organisations has been mild.

The military-brotherhood honeymoon period ended shortly after the 1952 revolution when they clashed over Egypt’s new constitution, and the Brotherhood was itself dissolved on 29 October 1954 after the regime accused it of attempting to assassinate then President Gamal Abdul Nasser (which the Brotherhood would try to do on numerous occasions), and many of their leaders were either sentenced to death or put in jail for long sentences. They had fallen into a trap of their own making. They were a victim of the absolute power and authority they contributed to produce.

The army was aiming for an Arab socialist, secular constitution while the brotherhood obviously wanted more Islamic law in it. It is expected that a similar clash will emerge between the military council and Egypt’s Islamist forces. Early signs of this clash already emerged back in November when Islamist groups took to the street for the first time to oppose the SCAF’s supra-constitutional governing principles that aim to grant the military political powers many have defined as illegitimate.

The story of Abdel-Qader Ouda exemplifies how conspiring to share power and halting the democratic process is not the best idea, even for the conspirators involved. Ouda, a Muslim Brotherhood judge and jurist, was asked by the military rulers of the time to help disperse a large protest in front of the Abdeen presidential palace in March 1954. This judge who was used by the military regime to calm down angry protesters was sentenced to death by the same regime along with other Brotherhood members after being accused of the alleged attempt to assassinate Nasser a few months later.

However, despite the striking similarities, there are still a few major differences. Even though there is no reason to believe that the contemporary military junta are more well-intentioned or moderate, in the circumstances surrounding the new revolution, they face more pressure and challenges that will hinder them from committing such acts as executing political leaders and labour activists.

The SCAF, unlike the revolutionary RCC, is the established order and, hence, lacks the vision that can empower it to win the heart and minds of the Egyptian people despite its abuses. Unimaginatively, today’s generals only seem to have the obsolete argument of stability, whereas the RCC carried out almost immediate reform,  such as land redistribution and free education, and took considerable steps towards building a more equal society.

Armed with $1.3 billion in US military aid, Egypt’s SCAF seem to care more about its image abroad than did the RCC, which was quite clearly in a clash with the West anyway. For example, they immediately retreated after the US expressed “deep concern” over the recent crackdown on human rights organisation.

In addition, the emergence of the Tahrir mindset among the masses and the so-called “Facebook generation” of activists acting as a watchdog over the transitional process and who will not hesitate to take to the streets again if they sense any diversion from the path to democracy has severely restricted the army’s freedom of manoeuvre. This generation is equipped with tools its predecessors did not possess, such as online citizen journalism, and despite so many hurdles along the way, they don’t willing to give up on their battle any time soon. While the SCAF defines the revolution as the 18-day protest that ended with the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the youth of the revolution still believe it to be an ongoing struggle.

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Israelis for Palestine

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By Dana Moss

Left-wing Israelis do not buy Netanyahu’s scare tactics and look forward to living side by side with an independent Palestine.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

When Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, landed in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he promised the Israeli public that he would “defend a people under assault from those who oppose [Israel’s] very existence”.

The government’s sound bites are sending the average Israeli into panic wondering about the exact nature of the existential threat, which Netanyahu alludes to, posed by the Palestinian quest to join the UN.

Yet behind the smoke and mirrors, Netanyahu is trying to prevent the very step that would save Israel – the recognition of a Palestinian state on the borders of 4 June, 1967.

The current government bluster about the implications of the Palestinian UN bid is partly intended to distract mainstream Israeli society from recognising that this a line that the Israeli left has been pushing for the past few decades.

The left – composed of various political parties and a small, though active, civil society scene – encompasses a  spectrum of opinion that is both Zionist and non-Zionist. At bottom, however, it possesses the belief that a two-state solution and a division of the land is necessary to enable Israel to live up to its claims of having a demographic Jewish majority and adhering to a democratic system in which one people do not rule over another.

While it is true that, in the past, left-wing governments contributed to settlement building, in recent years this constellation of left-wing Israeli groupings have taken active steps to oppose such policies.

As a member of the left wing of Israeli society, I want to say loud and clear that we do not buy into Netanyahu’s scare tactics. A Palestinian state next to Israel will be a win-win situation for both our peoples. The lengthy occupation has harmed Israel, endangered its future as a homeland for the Jewish people and eroded the fabric of its society – it is time for it to end.

While opinions are divided as to the real-life utility of the UN bid in effecting change on the ground, it is clear that this Palestinian attempt to seize the initiative is an innovative step to break the current apathy over negotiations which have lasted over 18 years but have not yet culminated in an independent Palestinian state.

The specifics of the current Israeli government’s opposition to Abu Mazen’s initiative smacks of hypocrisy. At bottom, the Palestinian initiative mirrors Israel’s own history and its own attempts to gain recognition at the very same arena in 1948. Much like the Jewish people, the Palestinian are a people with a culture and a history, and they deserve their own state – this should not be patronisingly bestowed by Israel, but is an inherent right.

Moreover, other than the specific arena in which this Palestinian bid is being aired, nothing suggested therein is new. This initiative asks the UN to focus on the territorial aspects of the conflict according to parameters that have, in theory, been agreed to by previous Israeli governments.

The intangibles of the conflict, its more complicated and emotional aspects – the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees – will, as Mahmoud Abbas made clear, be dealt with in direct negotiations. The UN bid will not replace these negotiations.

As a result, this initiative is not intended to demonise Israel as a whole, but, in the words of Abbas, to delegitimise Israel’s occupation. There is little divergence here with the stance of the Israeli left, which has long viewed the occupation as illegitimate.

Netanyahu’s stated opposition to the Palestinian UN bid is based on the straw man argument that it is a unilateral step that bypasses bilateral negotiations. Yet the Israeli left has spent the past two years of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister opposing his various initiatives to expand settlements, or create facts on the ground – for how can negotiations take place when, simultaneously, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements in East Jerusalem, which has been ear-marked as Palestine’s future capital?

 It is clear to a vocal sector of Israel’s society that Netanyahu is not sincere about reaching a peaceful resolution with our neighbours. Were a different government in place, Israel could have built on the momentum of this declaration to thresh out the remaining issues with the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Netanyahu is busy undermining Abu Mazen – with grave consequences for Israel’s security, as Israel is unlikely to find a more willing partner.

Instead of securing Israel’s future, Netanyahu would rather maintain the support of his own domestic right-wing base and prevent his own political eclipse by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s racist and reckless foreign minister. Yet this right-wing base does not represent the whole country.

Other voices are speaking up. These voices strongly oppose foolhardy steps by the US congress to block funds to the Palestinian Authority should it succeed in its bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

That is why, instead of greeting this initiative with the doom and gloom heralded by the government, some Israelis chose to welcome this event with joint celebrations. These include the Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace and the Israeli branch of the One Voice movement.

Earlier in September, demonstrations took place in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, held by the Meretz Political party. Meanwhile, demonstratons took place at major traffic intersections across the country on the day of the UN speeches. 

Veteran Israeli political analysts are speaking up in the Israeli media, with voices such as Zvi Barel proposing further steps for the international community, such as establishing embassies in the West Bank and recognising Palestinian passports.

Polls continuously show that mainstream Israeli society does, at bottom, believe in a two-state solution to the conflict. Netanyahu’s legacy at the UN will be to blind the silent Israeli majority to the reality that Palestine’s bid for recognition at the UN could bring closer those wishes.

As the government won’t say it, I will say it instead: Palestine, alf mabrouk, congratulations. I look forward to living side by side with you.


This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

An Arabic version of this article appeared in al-Sharq al-Awsat on 2 October 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.

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Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

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By Khaled Diab

 It is high time for Israelis and Palestinians – with grassroots support from Egyptians – to unlock their latent people’s power and forge a popular peace.

Monday 15 August 2011

Although it has primarily focused on domestic issues, the Egyptian revolution has sent ripples of hope and shockwaves of fear across the Middle East. Not only has Egypt traditionally been regarded as the unspoken leader of the Arab world, the dramatic exhibition of people power in action has inspired ordinary people everywhere and terrified the region’s fossilised leadership. 

As Egyptians grapple to redefine their relationship with those who govern them, questions are being asked about how the revolution will affect Egypt’s foreign policy. One area of particular interest is how the ‘New Egypt’ will relate to Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. 

Like other political elites across the Middle East, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – including both Fatah and Hamas – have been eyeing the Egyptian revolution with nervousness, because it threatens to upset the status quo on which they depend. But reality is gradually sinking in.

Many questions about the future remain. Can post-revolution Egypt play a more dynamic mediating role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Will Egypt’s cold peace with Israel chill further? Will popular anger at Israel’s occupation spill over into Egypt ‘tearing up’ its peace accord with Israel, as many Israelis fear? Is the enthusiasm of some Palestinians that Egypt’s ’return to dignity’ will help their cause warranted? How will the Egyptian revolution affect Israeli and Palestinian politics and how the two sides relate to each other, and to Egypt?

I will seek to answer these questions, as well as to consider how Egypt can best walk the tight rope of championing the Palestinian cause and nudging Israel towards a just resolution of the conflict, without returning to the ‘bad old days’ of futile belligerence. I will also explore what role the largely uninvolved Egyptian grassroots and civil society can play in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

First, I will consider the Israeli response to the revolution and how the revolution has played out among Israel’s political class, the general public and progressive activists. When the revolution first broke in late January, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and establishment was one of concern and even panic, though ministers and officials were initially ordered not to make any public statements on the issue.

This ‘wait and see’ attitude rapidly shifted when the Mubarak regime looked in real danger of collapsing. Israel’s hard-line prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu even toured Europe and the United States to try to convince Western leaders to prop up the collapsing and corrupt dictator, though he now, at least rhetorically, welcomes the prospect of democracy in Egypt.

So what was behind this diplomatic panic and why was Israel, which describes itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy”, so fearful of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations?

In Israel, like in the United States and some parts of Europe, Mubarak was seen as a ‘benign dictator’ who protected both Western and Israeli interests against the perceived threat of extremist Islamism and kept Israel’s western front, historically the most dangerous, quiet.

In addition, many Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have long been lecturing that the reason that peace has been elusive is not due to the Israeli occupation but to the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Now what if the dawn of Arab democracy arrives and Israel still fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world?

In addition, I suspect that the current extremist Israeli government, despite its rhetoric of wanting peace with the Palestinians if only there were a true “partner for peace”, feared the unknown impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Palestinian question. Would Palestinians follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples of mass protest and disobedience? Would a revolutionary Egypt ratchet up the pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians or, worse, side more clearly and robustly with the Palestinians?

Among the general Israeli public who know little about Egypt and the Arab world, and understand it even less, the experts and officials who lined up to deliver dire warning that Egypt could well become the “next Iran” and tear up the Camp David peace treaty pumped up the fear level among a population which already felt isolated, surrounded and beleaguered.

A typical response was delivered by Israel’s president Shimon Peres in February. Expressing his feeling that Mubarak’s “contribution to peace will never be forgotten”, he warned that “”Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace.” 

At the time, I wrote that such fears were unfounded: that Egypt was no Iran and that the country was unlikely to renege on its peace treaty with Israel, though, given the plight of the Palestinians, “this probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier”. 

Since then, events seem to have largely confirmed my analysis. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force in the post-revolutionary landscape, it is by no means the only show in town, despite backroom deals between its leadership and the army’s top brass. In fact, a July poll showed that the Ikhwan’s approval rating stood at only around 17%.

In addition, now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism. Despite its official opposition to peace with Israel and its call for the Camp David agreement to be reviewed, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be up to “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”. 

And it appears that most Egyptians desire peace. Two recent polls (here and here) showed that, in addition to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of maintaining the peace deal with Israel. 

But it would be a mistake to think that the Egyptian revolution lacks support in Israel. Not only have some in the liberal and progressive end of the Israeli media spectrum expressed support for the revolution, a number of voices in its more conservative reaches have also publicised their backing. 

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastised Israel’s former deputy prime minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for expressing admiration for Mubarak. “The unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget,” he wrote.

More importantly, the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general enjoy a surprising amount of grassroots support in Israel, especially among the young and liberal, with various groups releasing songs and letters of support. I have personally encountered numerous Israelis who wax enthusiastic about it. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement,” he added.

As if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. Moreover, the protests provide a perhaps unprecedented opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians (both Israelis citizens and those in the West Bank and Gaza) to rally around a common issue – housing shortages – that affect them all.

Although the protests have so far remained apolitical, more and more Israelis are connecting the housing crisis within Israel to the generous state subsidies lavished on West Bank settlements and the high cost of maintaining the occupation.

By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together,” Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation,” they went on to caution. 

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

Palestinian reactions to the Egyptian revolution have been complex and divided, both at the official and popular level. Fatah, which received a lot of backing from the Egyptian regime, tried to walk the tight rope of supporting both Mubarak and the “legitimate demands” of the people. 

“We hope that Egypt manages to overcome this crisis while preserving its achievements and meeting the legitimate demands for democracy, political reform, and popular participation,” was Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reaction in early February, according to the al-Ayyam newspaper.

 The extremist Islamist group Hamas, too, has been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution. Although Hamas despised the former Egyptian regime’s hostility to the movement and Egypt’s collaboration in the blockade of Gaza, the secular nature of the youth spearheading the revolution and the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood worried the Islamic movement. In addition, like the PA, Hamas also benefits from the status quo and has entertained fears that the Egyptian people’s example might inspire Gazans to rise up against Hamas and its increasingly repressive rule.

 Hamas witnessed an inkling of this possibility when a Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ in Gaza against the Islamist movement attracted 10,000 members within only three days, despite the intermittent power cuts and relatively low internet penetration in the Strip.

This might explain why both Hamas and the PA suppressed, in the early days of the revolution, rallies in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

However, at the grassroots level, the majority of Palestinians seem to feel solidarity with their Egyptian neighbours. Ever since I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, most Palestinians I have encountered have reacted very positively to the Egyptian revolution. Everywhere I go, I receive warm congratulations as if I was the father or the midwife of the uprising!

While out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their demoralising plight to enthuse about the achievements of the Egyptian people. “You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me, in a typical reaction.

Even in the more glitzy surroundings of a luxury hotel in Ramallah, at an official celebration of the 23 July revolution hosted by the Egyptian consulate, Salam Fayyad launched into rhetorical acrobatics to pay tribute to both the 1952 and 2011 revolutions, even though the latter only came about because the earlier failed to deliver on its promises.

In addition to awakening hopes that the Egyptian revolution will lead Egypt to become more supportive of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the protest movement in Egypt has inspired some dedicated young Palestinian activists, under the umbrella of the so-called March 15 movement, to agitate for change

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

 However, their demands were not wholesale regime change, but reconciliation. “Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” Z, one of the young founders of the movement in Ramallah, explained to me.

That said, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population. “The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

This sense that whatever happens, the Palestinians are screwed might help explain why quite a few Palestinians I meet are despondent about the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution, with some expressing their expectations that Egyptian will revert to dictatorship. A few, probably drawing on their sense of powerlessness, have even expressed their suspicions that the revolution is not an expression of the will of the Egyptian people but a joint CIA-Mossad conspiracy.

Nevertheless, a number of observers believe that the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – despite its clear weaknesses – was partly a sign of the success of the youth protest movement. It was inspired, they say, by the fear that ordinary Palestinians would follow the Tunisian and Egyptian lead and rise up against the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In addition, it has been viewed as an indication of the more robust role post-revolutionary Egypt can play in the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing has been interpreted as an early indication of the New Egypt’s more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Palestinians.

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

We are only a few short weeks away from the moment of truth, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the United Nations and demand the world body’s recognition of Palestine as a state. 

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.”

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant Palestinians the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

And I’m not the only one with misgivings. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist told me: “I think that nothing will really change on the ground.” He added: “I am really afraid of the PA because they will not ask for a full membership of the UN and instead they will go for non-member status which will not help us in this movement but they will sell it to us as a victory.”

The main reason that Palestinians might shy away from demanding full membership is a function of the way the UN operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But if that is the case, it looks like Israel has decided to call their bluff.

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility.

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, including Egypt, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab Spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution. 

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Until now, the impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, a number of positive and negative ramifications can be discerned.

On the negative side, the upheavals in Egypt and other parts of the region connected to the Arab Spring have diverted much of the global interest away from the Palestinians question. It has also enabled Israel to more or less quietly create more ‘facts on the ground’ ahead of the Palestinians plan to go to the UN in September. This can be seen, for instance, in the accelerated rate of evictions, displacements and demolitions in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ of the West Bank this year.

On the positive side, Egypt has already taken some action that was aimed at improving the situation, such as brokering the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and easing restrictions on Gaza. More intangibly, the Egyptian revolution has provided both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership with a taste of what can happen when an unjust and untenable status quo is left to fester unattended for too long.

In the longer term, many commentators have expressed hope that a democratic Egypt can play a more robust and vibrant role as a peace broker and help mediate some form of reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Some more militant and extremist Palestinians hope, and many Israelis fear, that Egypt will become more hostile and belligerent in its support of the Palestinian cause and its opposition to the occupation.

Personally, I don’t expect either outcome is likely. However, a democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood might act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. That said, for many years to come, Egypt will be embroiled primarily in domestic affairs. This includes the construction of a new political system, fixing the economy, addressing inequalities, combating corruption, dealing with sectarian tensions, and more. Moreover, even a democratic Egypt will lack the clout to impose a resolution and Egyptians have learnt through long and bitter experience that belligerence leads nowhere.

So, it would perhaps be a mistake for those Israelis and Palestinians who pine for peace to await an Egyptian saviour. Instead, they should look to the more intangible support that Egypt can provide, namely that they need not await a foreign messiah because their true saviour is within themselves.

Egypt has provided Palestinians and Israelis, long cynical and disillusioned that the powers that be can bring about any meaningful change in their situation, with a dose of much-needed hope and inspiration, especially in their own latent powers as people.

People power: the missing link

I am a strong believer in the idea that ‘people power’ is the missing link in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority of the discourse relating to the conflict focuses on a top-down solutions in which an international broker or brokers bring the two parties together to the negotiating table and lean on them until they kiss and make up and agree to live together happily ever after.

The trouble with this model is that it overlooks the fact that no external mediator enjoys the kind of clout or willpower necessary to push through a resolution. In addition, it ignores the glaring disparities in power between Israelis and Palestinians. It also turns a blind eye to the fractured and divided political landscape on both sides which makes reaching a consensus over the painful realities both sides must accept for the sake of peace a task of Herculean proportions.

This is particularly the case given the decades-long mutual distrust and loathing, which renders the necessary groundswell of popular opinion required to achieve peace impossible to attain.

I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just act as passive by-standers. Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation. And the best way to do this, as the ‘Arab Awakening’ is illustrating, is through mass, peaceful joint activism.

For many years, a minority of activists on both sides have joined forces and found common cause in opposing the occupation, settlement building, the separation wall and home demolitions and evictions. This needs to be stepped up and activists must find creative ways of inspiring the mainstream – they need to make their movement go viral.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, and the current housing protests could be a good foundation upon which to build such a movement.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to overcome their own apathy and passivity and help facilitate and mediate such a ‘people’s peace’. For the sake of peace and the future, Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and act in active and open solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and export the spirit of their revolution to neighours who are in desperate need of it.

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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The death throes of Arab dictatorships

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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 3 February 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article appeared in Ukrainian Week on 3 February 2011.

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For a questionable cause

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By Khaled Diab

Should organisations raising money for foreign militaries or to perpetuate occupations enjoy charitable status?

22 October 2010

Ideally, there would be no need for charity. But in a world of inequality and vulnerability, private donations can mean the difference between life and death, dignity and humiliation, or subsistence and sustainability.

But even when it comes to charity, not all causes are created equal. Contrast, for instance, the global generosity following the 2004 Asian tsunami with the trickle of funds in the wake of the recent floods in Pakistan.

Some of the most effective fundraising occurs for objectives that I and many others would not define as charitable and for causes that are already so flush with cash it leaves you wondering why they need more.

Take the Israeli army. At a single glitzy charity gala in New York earlier this year, an impressive $20 million (£12.5 million) was donated in one evening by the rich guests. This event was organised by Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, the main US organisation raising funds for Israeli soldiers on active duty, which raised nearly $50 million in 2008. Similar fundraising operations exist in a number of European countries, as a recent investigation by the Inter Press Service revealed.

With Israel possessing the most powerful military in the Middle East and one of the richest and best-equipped in the world, many will be scratching their heads as to why the IDF needs ‘charity’. Not only are soldiers the responsibility of the army they serve – and by extension the government – surely the IDF can afford to take care of its own. After all, it swallows up at least 6% of Israel’s GDP and receives some $3 billion a year in US military aid. It is high time that Washington converted this to civilian aid and made it conditional on progress towards a final peace settlement.

Moreover, there are numerous ethical objections to defining this kind of fundraising as charity and exempting it from taxes. Despite its name, the IDF is not just about defence, it is also about attack, unless you happen to believe that attack is the best form of defence.

Although Israel has the right, like any other country, to possess an army, its military is involved in an ugly occupation, regularly invades or mounts incursions into neighbouring countries and territories, and some of its soldiers commit human rights violations and even war crimes. One way to ensure that taxpayers do not become unwitting accomplices would be to remove the tax exemption of organisations raising money for foreign militaries or soldiers by not allowing them to register as charities.

But even if the IDF were, as it claims, “the most moral army in the world”, should it or other militaries even be allowed to fundraise abroad?

There is a case to be made for outlawing charities whose purpose is to serve foreign militaries. One reason for this is that there is no guarantee that the money raised won’t be used to commit human rights violations or potentially reward individuals who have committed war crimes – which would compromise the fundamental legal role of charities to serve ‘the public benefit’.

Some are bound to protest that organisations such as Friends of the IDF are not raising funds for the army itself but for the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of its active soldiers. But this is a disingenuous argument: by removing some of the burden of caring for soldiers, these charities not only indirectly enhance the readiness of an army, they also enable the state to divert more of its own resources to purchasing arms and other combat-related activities.

Another reason is that it is not inconceivable that foreign armies receiving tax-free charitable donations could compromise the national security or undermine the foreign policy of the donating country, not to mention threaten regional or global stability. Navigating the minefield of deciding which armies are ‘worthy’ charity cases is not only incredibly subjective, it can also potentially backfire.

While charitable activity targeted at armies, especially those of allied powers, falls into a somewhat grey area, charitable activities that contravene international law and the government’s own legal position are more clear cut. Yet numerous charities, from Christian evangelists to pro-settler Jews, support illegal Israeli settlement activities. The New York Times identified at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past decade.

Despite the questionable nature of the pro-IDF and pro-settler organisations mentioned above, we must not forget nor lose sight of the fact that Jewish charities and civil society organisations raise funds for numerous worthy causes and we can learn a lot from the solidarity Jewish communities around the world show one another. In addition, many Jews, particularly progressive ones, are actively involved in fundraising and volunteering for many non-Jewish causes, as well as activities aimed at improving the lives of Palestinians living under occupation.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 19 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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