The curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt is certainly the gift of the Nile, but the great river could become east Africa’s curse. What are the chances of a future ‘water war’?

14 December 2010

The Nile - ©Khaled Diab

The Nile when it arrives in Cairo. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the world’s attention distracted by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi did not need a whistleblower to cause his country diplomatic embarrassment: he proved more than capable of doing that all by himself.

Zenawi accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in his country and warned that Egypt would be defeated if it tried to invade Ethiopia. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story,” he boasted, rather inaccurately. But why would Zenawi, a presumably seasoned politician who has led his country for almost two decades, make such wild allegations without supplying a shred of evidence to back them up, and why now?

Sceptics may conclude that fomenting a manufactured foreign crisis is a classic tactic to divert attention away from the questionable elections earlier this year, which helped Zenawi retain his grip on power and gave his party all but two seats in the parliament. And Zenawi, despite defeating Ethiopia’s “red terror” when he himself was a rebel leader, has largely worn out his welcome with millions of Ethiopians, particularly those living in the cities, as I witnessed first hand while travelling in the country at the time of the 2005 elections.

Zenawi’s political offensive seems to have caught Egypt unawares, with the ageing and increasingly frail-looking President Hosni Mubarak appearing miffed by Ethiopia’s posturing when asked about it by al-Jazeera last week. Nevertheless, like its counterpart in Addis Ababa, the Cairo regime could find a foreign distraction convenient, embroiled as it also is in allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation during last month’s parliamentary elections.

But are there any reasonable grounds for Zenawi’s allegations? Whether or not Egypt is actually backing rebels in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians may be inclined to believe the claim, simply because Egypt has previous form when it comes to meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs.

After Egypt conquered Sudan in the 19th-century, it launched a further campaign to invade Ethiopia, which ended in failure in 1875. In the aftermath of the second world war, Egypt made a cheeky claim for Eritrea at the Paris peace conference, which undoubtedly incensed the Ethiopians. In more recent times, Egypt and other Arab countries provided support to the Eritrean independence movement, in a kind of proxy Arab-Israeli war. However, for all his other failings, President Mubarak has taken a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards relations with Ethiopia.

But why this animosity between two countries who – beyond sporadic trading missions that stretch back to ancient times, and the religious link between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches – have actually had limited contact and interest in each other’s affairs over the centuries?

Well, one issue above all else has been clouding the waters: the Nile. It is only fairly recently that the discovery was made that some 85% of the Nile’s waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Five years ago, when I sat in a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it was somewhat overwhelming to reflect that here I was many thousands of miles away, floating on Egypt’s life-support system.

Herodcreating sotus once said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile but, in a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for the “eternal river”, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt, one of the driest places on earth, would be little more than a barren desert dotted by occasional oases.

Given Egypt’s almost complete dependence on water from outside its own borders, the Nile is viewed as a major “national security” issue – and one whose importance is growing. To secure its supply, Egypt signed an agreement with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 which gave Egypt 48bn cubic metres of the Nile’s total flow of an average 88bn cubic metres. Following independence, Sudan upped its share to 18.5bn cubic metres and Egypt got 55.5bn.

When the other Nile basin countries were not in a position to make use of the river’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue. However, in recent years they have pursued a drive for more equitable redistribution of the Nile’s resources through the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia understandably wishes to exploit the rains that fall on its territory to develop its agricultural sector, to stave off starvation, to generate electricity and to stimulate development. Towards that end, it has constructed a number of dams in recent years, including a mega dam.

Despite Egypt’s expressed commitment to sharing the river, the country can barely make ends meet with its current mega quota of Nile water. And, with a burgeoning population and an even drier climate thanks to global warming, Egypt will need even more water in the future. That is why it has been blocking moves to change quotas.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in May to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan. So, could this impasse eventually lead to a water war on the Nile? The idea is not far-fetched, as a number of conflicts already partly revolve around water, including Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1999, the UN, predicting that water would be the main cause of conflict in Africa over the following 25 years, identified the Nile basin as a major flashpoint.

Averting this looming catastrophe involves careful diplomacy, the development of appropriate alternative sources of water (including desalination) and, perhaps above all, urgent population control.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 December 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Deserts, desolation and development

 
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Amid the sweltering heat and omnipresent dust, Andrew Eatwell discovers Sudan’s hospitable and friendly face – and its rapidly developing capital.

13 October 2010

“Good luck,” the Egyptian immigration official said with a wry smile as he stamped me out of Egypt at the port in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. I was heading for Sudan – a 20-hour ferry ride south across Lake Nasser and a place where relatively few Western travellers dare tread. Given everything you read in the international media and on Western governments’ websites about Egypt’s war-torn, Islamist-ruled neighbour, I felt certain at least a little luck would be needed.

My fears – and those of friends and relatives who worried I would be caught up in one of Sudan’s myriad conflicts or taken hostage by Islamist extremists – proved unfounded. They started to dissipate on the ageing, overloaded passenger ferry that shuttles people and all manner of cargo once a week between the two countries. Crushed in between washing machines, satellite dishes, cutlery sets and the odd metal detector, my travelling companion, Dan, and I quickly got talking to Sudanese travellers and traders. Some were returning from visiting relatives in Egypt, some were there for business, but almost all were bringing something home with them. “Everything is too expensive in Sudan, that’s why we go to Egypt,” one man told me as we sat in the shade of a lifeboat.

We spent the night in that same spot. Two white westerners – a Brit (me) and a New Zealander (Dan, friend and fellow Arabic language student from Cairo) – and a dozen Sudanese guys lying in a row, our backs on the hard, hot metal deck, our legs dangling over the edge of the ferry as the waters of Lake Nasser glided blackly passed. Every square inch of space was taken – filled with cargo or people sprawled on the open deck or on benches or the floor in the stuffy seating areas below. Going to the toilet or the canteen in the dark involved navigating an assault course of human limbs.

We both found the genuine, friendly curiosity of our fellow Sudanese passengers refreshing after months spent in Egypt where decades of mass tourism and too many touts sometimes leave you with the unpleasant feeling that the locals view every Westerner as a walking wallet.

Wadi Haifa

Stepping off the ferry at Wadi Haifa. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

The ferry’s arrival in Wadi Halfa was as chaotic as its departure. People rushed ashore and cargo was hauled overboard onto the small concrete dock before both – almost interchangeably – were loaded onto trucks and busses for the short trip across a patch of barren wasteland to the immigration and customs offices. I was prepared for the worst: a thorough grilling by the immigration police and a full search of my backpack – Britain is not exactly on good terms with the Omar al-Bashir regime. Instead, we were waved through customs with barely a hitch. Our Sudanese visas, acquired equally painlessly at the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo for $100, were checked and the immigration officer stamped us into the country before jovially quipping: “Welcome to Alaska!” as we walked out of the warehouse-like office into near 50-degree heat.

Heat, dust and hospitality

Wadi Halfa, a few kilometres inland from the lake, proved to be a foretaste of every other Sudanese town we would visit. A few dusty streets, a dusty central square, a few dusty cafes and a couple of lokandas – cheap, basic hotels with, yes, dusty rooms and even dustier bedding. Heat and dust are the two defining elements of northern Sudan in summer – air so hot you can feel your lungs warming with every breath and dust that gets into every bodily crevice. Removing it is almost impossible, in part because water is in short supply and a shower – unless your definition of one involves a jug and bucket of brown liquid – is almost unheard of in many places.

Even at night, the heat can be unbearable and joining the locals in hauling your bed outside into the sandy courtyard of the lokanda to catch a slight breeze is often the only way to get some sleep and avoid drowning in your own sweat.

Road to Atbara

On the "road" to Atbara, 150km from anything, except sand and some trees. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

From Wadi Halfa we travelled south through the Nubian Desert to Dongola, then southeast to Karima and Atbara, tracing, as best we could, the course of the Nile and encountering progressively bigger but no less dusty, ramshackle towns.  At times, amid the sand storms that frequently blew up in the afternoons, driving through vast expanses of desert, crammed into the back of a bus, car or minibus, could best be described as voyaging through the insides of a vacuum cleaner. And in that desolate desert environment, there is certainly a sense of being in a vacuum – nothing for miles, eerie silence and no signs of life, or sporadically, life that once was in the form of cattle and camel carcasses slowly decaying by the side of the road.

The fact there were paved roads at all surprised me. From the research I had done on northern Sudan, I had expected gruelling, bone-jarring journeys on dirt tracks through the desert. Instead, we encountered new black tarmac everywhere – the results, locals were only too happy to tell me, of Chinese investment in the last couple of years.

In most towns, at least as far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners and the locals were genuinely curious about why we were there. A tea or coffee – and it is good coffee! – at one of the numerous street stalls run by brightly clad women frequently resulted in long conversations with our fellow drinkers, usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, and almost always about football. More than once, however, politics came up: they asked about America, the embargo, and about the West. Some said they wanted to emigrate, others blamed the West for Sudan’s problems. No one ever mentioned al-Bashir by name, nor did they want to talk about Darfur or the south. Many, a little surprisingly, said that the situation was improving, that they were struggling less now than in the past to live. In northern Sudan, at least, I came away with the impression from what I saw and heard that things were gradually getting better – though I very much doubt people in Darfur or South Sudan, which I have yet to visit, would say the same.

Begrawiya pyramids

At the foot of the Begrawiya pyramids. Smaller than their Egyptian cousins, but impressive. Photo: Andrew Eatwell.

South of Atbara, about a third of the way to Khartoum and just off the main Khartoum-Port Sudan road, the Begrawiya pyramids rise from the desert. Built 2,500 years ago by the Meroitic Pharaohs when the area was arable and verdant, the cluster of tombs sit half-buried by the sand. Though dwarfed in scale by their more famous counterparts in Egypt, they are just as impressive in their own right – helped by the fact that they are not thronged by tourists. We were the only visitors that day and the sense of desolation and of a civilisation lost was overwhelming as we sat staring out at the bleak desert in the shadow of the ancient tombs.

Khartoum: where the rivers and cultures meet

Stuck without transport in the middle of nowhere, we managed to finally flag down a road train after a waterless hour standing in blistering heat on the side of the road. Six hours later we rolled – slowly, painfully slowly – into the Sudanese capital. After saying goodbye to the affable, talkative truck driver, a Moroccan with a Sudanese wife transporting UN food aid from Port Sudan to South Sudan, we checked into a rundown hotel near the city’s main souq.

The area, like much of the capital, felt like an oversized version of every other Sudanese town we had visited, albeit livelier and more cosmopolitan. The shops bustled with activity during the day and the street cafés were alive at all hours. Along the Nile, not far from where the Blue and White Niles meet, new glass-and-steel office buildings were under construction and from the hostel window we could see a more upscale hotel: the Plaza, its rooftop sign written in Chinese.

We spent several pleasant days between central Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital’s more conservative sister city on the other side of the river, wandering the streets, browsing the souq’s stalls, soaking up the atmosphere over spiced coffee and fresh juices (alcohol is illegal), oh, and rediscovering the luxury of a shower.

For the first time since entering Sudan, in Khartoum I got a feeling that we were leaving the Arab world and entering sub-Saharan Africa. In the cafes, South Sudanese from different tribes sat in groups alongside Arab Sudanese from the north, Christians shopped and drank alongside Muslims. It seemed that in the more cosmopolitan, business-oriented atmosphere of the city, the divisions that have put Sudan on the world map for bloodshed and violence could easily be forgotten – perhaps too easily.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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More to Sudan than meets the West’s eye

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.

24 September 2010

Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.

Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.

“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”

The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.

While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.

Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.

In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.

Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.

In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.

Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.

“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.

Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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The ICC and Darfur

 
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By Tom Kenis*

The ICC indictment of Sudan’s leadership merits a balanced appraisal.

September 2008

In July 2008, the International Criminal Court submitted, upon the request of the United Nations Security Council, charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, having already done so for Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Muhammad Harun and a local militia leader. None have so far been brought into custody, nor is this likely to happen in the near or even remote future.

“Politically motivated,” cried the Sudanese government. “Double standards, and neo-colonial bullying,” charged African, Arab and many European commentators. The tacit welcoming of the ruling by America, itself not a signatory and fierce opponent of the ICC, surprised few, given Sudan’s oil-laden geology. This, in turn, explains the eerily quiet wind blowing from China, which meets close to seven percent of its oil imports from the regime in Khartoum. (Credible) conspiracy theories aside, many analysts fear a Sudanese backlash, a hardening of positions, undermining a tenuous peace process, and turning out more harmful in the end to the very people the court ruling is supposed to rush to the aid of.

All of the above is true. The ICC, set up in 2002, has picked out small fry, a sitting leader of an Arab state at that, the adverse connotations of which have not gone unnoticed in the region. In many ways, the ICC merely ups the ante, shielding behind the cloak of internationalism self-interested policies and the chess game of jostling powers that weaker states have historically been victims of and at best spectators to.

And yet we cannot dismiss the notion that the voices raised against the ruling, and hence in defence of a government that at best utterly fails to act in defence of its own citizens, with horrible consequences, are all but devoid of ulterior motives. The court’s ruling is indeed a heavily politicised one, but so would a now hypothetical decision to the contrary. At one extreme, currying favour with the regime in Sudan inculpates one to the charge of wishing to secure access to the nation’s natural resources, while proponents of the ruling are accused of wishing a regime change for the sake of gaining a toehold to those same resources. Concurrently, some advocates of the court’s decision aspire to divert attention from their own misdeeds in the human rights arena, while detractors fear the legal dire straits such a precedent might put them in. Worse infringements occur in other places, so why intervene here? Indeed, arguments and ammunition are easily found in support of either position.

To those with no material stake in the imbroglio, the question then boils down to one of inclination, optimistic or pessimistic, as to the ability of the mechanisms hitherto employed to alleviate and ultimately solve a question of extreme human suffering. Do the actions of the ICC represent something new, or should such an instrument be seen as merely the sum of its constituent parts, a continuation of old policies, lorded over by self-interested nation states? Can the ICC transcend the balance of powers? Is the ICC, in plain English, capable of saving lives? The wider question should, but perhaps given the inchoate state of the institution, cannot easily be disentangled from the concrete case of Darfur before it.

International bodies are only as effective as their participating countries allow them to become. A prime example is arguably the United Nations, once paralysed by the Cold War stalemate, somewhat invigorated since, but stilly hamstrung by its veto-wielders’ reluctance to reform and adapt to changing international relations. Perhaps the ICC, an organisation that is legally speaking not part of the UN, can play a reinforcing, complementary role, hand-in-glove with the trend of expanding international laws. Whether the challenge of justice-over-the-weak v justice-for-all can be overcome, only time will tell.

The shifting of the balance towards universal success v a quick demise of the ICC will take place in the penumbra of smaller nations, between ardent supporters and stern detractors. Those countries seeking an advantage in opposing the court now, might one day find themselves in need of more robust international policing. The inverse, one should add, will arise just as easily. The clear choice for governments here and now is between short-term self-interest and its long-term variant. The difference is significant. Today, two very passionate foes of expanded international jurisprudence, Israel and the United States, already find themselves applauding the court’s ruling on Darfur. A verdict according to double standards will only serve to accentuate those double standards and increase the pressure to address other, more complex, even more intractable conflicts. Alas, small fry first.

The ruling appears not yet to have unleashed the feared deterioration on the ground, despite one senior Sudanese official reacting furiously, threatening to turn Darfur into a graveyard. On the contrary, the initial response of the Sudanese government has been one of increased responsiveness, at least in tone, to international pressure. With perhaps a cynical stretch of the imagination, white faces, too, will soon pop up in the dock at The Hague. If we include the ad hoc tribunal for Yugoslavia this has already happened. Of course, all gains, especially as modest as these, can be reversed. However, one must also recognise even modest gains for what they are: timid beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless.

*Tom Kenis is a Belgian NGO worker. Published with the author’s permission. ©Tom Kenis.

This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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Who’s responsible for the Arab world’s mess?

 
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By Khaled Diab

A UN report has reignited the controversy over who is to blame for the sorry state of the Arab world: Arabs or the West?

1 August 2009

First, the good news. Arab countries have the lowest levels of malnutrition and hunger in the developing world, have made “striking progress” in extending the lives of their citizens, abject poverty is comparatively low and, surprisingly (for me at least), levels of income inequality are moderate across most of the region. These are some of the few silver linings contained in the latest disillusioning and disturbing Arab Human Development Report (AHDR).

Despite the bad international press the conflicts in the region draw, the Arab world is, based on its level of violent crime, just about the safest place in the world. The real threat to people’s safety comes not from outlaws but from those above the law, an altogether different gang of criminals: Arab leaders and foreign occupiers.

The AHDR concludes that the Arab state is often “a threat to human security, instead of its chief support”. This edition of the report has shifted its perspective from collective security and development to the emerging perspective of individual “human security”. It describes human security as “the rearguard of human development” which “focuses on enabling peoples to contain or avert threats to their lives, livelihoods and human dignity”.

The report identifies seven categories of threats which can be divided into two broad groups: internal and external. One of the greatest of these threats, as hinted above, is the state’s role as defender of a ruling elite rather than champion of all the people. This is achieved through repressive security measures and a bloated security apparatus, built-in institutional weakness, and the co-opting of nationalism to serve the survival of the regime.

In the absence of impartial law and order and as a side effect of political and economic powerlessness, women are particularly vulnerable to abuse. “Arab women, like many of their peers in other regions, sustain both direct and indirect violence,” the AHDR observes.

In this, as with so many other issues, taking a regional perspective masks the massive differences between individual countries. In fact, there is a mind-boggling diversity of societies: from multi-ethnic Sudan to largely homogenous Egypt, from dirt-poor Yemen to the super-rich princedoms in the Gulf, from the largely secular Lebanon and Tunisia to the autocratic theocracy of Saudi Arabia. For example, the proportion of women who get married before they are 18 ranges from a massive 45% in Somalia to 2% in Algeria.

In my view, the Arab state’s failure to serve its citizens is intimately connected – both as a cause and effect – with the region’s lacklustre economic performance, as is the region’s instability. Shockingly, the AHDR quotes World Bank figures that show the region’s economies to have grown collectively by a mere 6.4% in real terms in the quarter of a century between 1980 and 2004.

This is partly due to the Arab world’s addiction – both direct and indirect – to oil-fuelled growth, and the dismantling of the industrial infrastructure in the more industrialised states that occurred as part of the so-called ‘reforms’ pushed by the World Bank and IMF. In fact, today, Arab countries are less industrialised than they were in 1970.

Modest economic growth or even stagnation in itself is not a problem if the fruits are distributed equitably and the population is stable. But Arab elites are increasingly hogging big slices of the economic pie, while the ‘youth bulge’ has led to mass unemployment in most countries, especially among young people. To add pain to indignity, the ‘structural reforms’ many countries had to undergo mean that subsidies and other benefits are becoming almost non-existent.

And the region’s ecological carrying capacity is being strained by its continued population growth and global environmental pressures. Ironically, although the Arab world is a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it is set to become one of the main victims of climate change, as the region’s water sources dry up and desertification spreads on the back of rising temperatures.

Another more controversial external threat is foreign military occupation and intervention. “Many of the threats to human security discussed in the report coalesce in situations of occupation, conflict and military intervention,” the authors note, drawing on the evidence of three case studies covering Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and Somalia. “They spark both resistance and a cycle of violence and counter-violence that engulfs occupied and occupier alike [and] undercut human security in other Arab and neighbouring countries.”

In an apparent pre-emptive bid at damage control with the US and Israel, the UNDP, according to the report’s lead consultant, moved the chapter on foreign occupation to the end of what is billed as an “independent” report. “[This] undermines the impact of Israeli occupation in Palestine and American occupation in Iraq to human security,” Mustapha Kamel al-Sayed, who disowned the report, told al-Masry al-Youm.

This has sparked some heated debate among Arab intellectuals, with some going so far as to suggest that the AHDR is little more than intellectual cover for Western expansionism in the region. Some have even linked the report’s absence for the last four years with ill intent. “Suddenly, out of nowhere, it appears again this year to lecture us about security, while foreign military occupations and interferences, and their catastrophic consequences on the region are at the bottom of its concerns,” wrote one journalist.

But such an attitude risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater since, to my mind, it lets off Arab leaders too lightly. Foreign occupation is definitely a major threat – and outright disaster for the societies directly affected – and deserves far more than footnote status. But we most not overlook that, almost without exception, Arab regimes, whether they are Western clients or not, are a major cause of insecurity for their peoples – in fact, the ruling elite often behaves as though they were a foreign occupier.

In addition, the AHDR has taken the consistent and anti-interventionist stance that: “sustainable change can only come from within”. It even argues that the region’s increasingly dynamic and outspoken civil society offer the best hope for the future.

The UNDP may have toned things down somewhat to deflect some of the heat it might get from the United States, but this does not make it an instrument of ‘Western imperialism’. After all, it also seemed to be appeasing Arabs by dropping a chapter on the “ticking bomb” of identity conflicts. “The casualties of the situation in South Sudan, civil war in Lebanon and other such conflicts are very high and yet this chapter was reduced to two pages integrated into another chapter,” al-Sayed pointed out.

Arabs and those interested in assisting the region to develop would do well to pay close attention to the seven “building blocks” of human security outlined in the AHDR, which range from empowering women and economic diversification to guaranteeing the rule of law and protecting the environment.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

 

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What about the Western warlords?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Cherie Blair’s chastisement of the African Union for not co-operating with the International Criminal Court is pretty rich coming from the wife of a man many believe is a war criminal.

18 July 2009

Cherie Blair's article

Cherie Blair's article

Lightly disguised under her maiden name which she uses for professional purposes, Cherie Booth, the wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, took the African Union to task on Saturday in The Guardian over its decision not to co-operate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) – and, by implication, not to assist in executing the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. She wrote:

 The truly disheartening part of this resolution is that it is backed not just by those countries who have opposed the ICC from the start but also by those – the majority on the African continent – who have signed the Rome treaty [establishing the ICC].

Yes, I too find it a terrible shame that African – and Arab – countries have shown solidarity with a war criminal. I even wrote a column about it for The Guardian in April. I concluded:

There is a widespread belief that, in the ugly balance of reality, African and Arab lives are worth less than Western ones. But by expressing solidarity with a known mass murderer, Arabs and Africans are also cheapening the value of their own lives.

Booth expresses a similar frustration: “It is disheartening to see politicians showing their solidarity with the Bashirs of the world rather than with the victims of mass rapes, murders and mutilations.”

Had this article come from someone else, I would’ve found it easier to swallow. But this person expressing how “depressing” and “disheartening” those benighted Africans are just happens to be the wife of a man widely perceived as a war criminal, one of the worst living warlords in the West (I’ve outlined before the powerful case for indicting both George W Bush and Tony Blair for war crimes and crimes against humanity).

 Well, Cherie, how do you suggest we should feel towards people who not only show “solidarity” but actually share a house with an alleged war criminal? Should we find that equally “depressing” and “disheartening”?

Naturally, no wife is her husband’s keeper nor vice versa; and I don’t hold Cherie responsible for Tony’s war-mongering. But surely a woman of as much conscience as she professes should take a moral stand against injustice wherever it is perpetrated. After all, as a barrister, Cherie Booth QC should be aware that justice is blind.

If she feels unable to speak up for justice at home, then I would advise Ms Booth to keep her opinion on this matter to herself because Africans will undoubtedly find it pretty cheeky that the wife of the co-author of the Afghan and Iraq catastrophes should condemn their inaction.

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