Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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The truth about Islamic reformations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

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Make diplomacy, not war

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world is paying the price for Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s foiled attempts to reform the United Nations into an effective force to resolve conflicts.

Photo: UN

Photo: UN

Tuesday 1 March 2016

As Egyptian diplomacy shifts from the art of the possible to the farce of the improbable, Egypt bids farewell to perhaps its most capable and accomplished international diplomat.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 93, whose long life included an illustrious academic career, long service in the Egyptian government, as well as a stint as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in his hometown, Cairo, on Tuesday 16 February.

Born into a prominent aristocratic family in 1922, Boutros-Ghali was the grandson of his namesake, Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated for his perceived pro-British stance.

Raised in a cosmopolitan environment at a time when Egypt was a more diverse country, Boutros-Ghali possessed an easy multiculturalism. This was reflected in his mastery of French and English, as well as his decades-long marriage to Leia Nadler, who was born into a wealthy Alexandrian Jewish family.

After gaining qualifications from Cairo and Paris, Boutros-Ghali became an eminent professor of international law and international relations at Cairo University. He departed academia, though he was to return regularly, to enter politics in the 1970s.

Egypt’s embattled president at the time, Anwar al-Sadat, took Boutros-Ghali on board to aid him in his controversial bid to forge peace with Israel. In Arab eyes, this is the darkest point in his long career.

Despite his public support for Sadat, Boutros-Ghali had many private misgivings about the peace process: Israel’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian question, Arab rejectionism, as well as Sadat’s acquiescence to Menachem Begin’s demands, his cavalier attitude towards the Arab world and the president’s undermining of the Egyptian negotiating team.

“Sadat had concluded that Egypt could not undertake a major effort to gain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people as long as Egyptian territory lay under Israeli control,” the frustrated diplomat wrote in his diary. “I was convinced that no treaty of peace could endure unless it included measures for Palestinian rights.”

One can only imagine how different the Israeli-Palestinian context would have been today had Israel sought a peace deal with the Palestinians alongside Egypt, had the Arabs dropped their rejectionist posturing and joined Egypt to form a united front, and had Sadat courted the Arab world instead of berating it.

But the idea that Boutros-Ghali had sold out the Arab and African cause is an unfair one. He just pursued it in his own way, whether you agree with it or not, as his subsequent track record shows.

For example, Boutros-Ghali humbly never took public credit for one of his most significant achievements, both symbolically and politically, the secret talks he held to help negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela.

As the first African and Arab to become UN Secretary General, in 1991, the mild-mannered, self-effacing, but tough Egyptian sought to transform the international body at a time when the world was taking new form after the end of the Cold War.

Against the backdrop of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Boutros-Ghali quickly set to work, formulating an innovative Agenda for Peace which expanded the then focus on peacekeeping to embrace preventive diplomacy, and to  encompass post-conflict peacebuilding.

But for the law-professor-turned-diplomat, the new world order would not be made by peace alone. To complete a complementary trinity of sorts, Boutros-Ghali formulated an Agenda for Development and an Agenda for Democratisation, which was his parting gift as he was being pushed out of office.

Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda. Photo: UN

Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda.
Photo: UN

Barely two years after formulating his blueprint for preventing, making and keeping peace, the Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were bludgeoned to death, occurred.

While an independent report found that Boutros-Ghali and his team had missed important signals that a genocide was imminent, the team document apportioned most of the blame on the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council: their failure to provide peacekeepers with a mandate to use military force and their unwillingness to send troops once the mass killings began.

“We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces,” the then American president Bill Clinton said dismissively, despite desperate UN appeals.

Frustrated by Western stalling, Boutros-Ghali turned to African heads of state. “I begged them to send troops,” he disclosed at the time. “Unfortunately, let us say with great humility, I failed. It is a scandal.”

The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

At around the same time, Bosnian Serbs massacred over 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in Srebenicia despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. A later investigation partly blamed the UN’s “philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence” for enabling the mass killings. However, as with Rwanda, most of the blame was placed at the feet of the Security Council and its unwillingness to commit enough troops and give them the mandate to use force.

This inertia caused by individual member states, especially those seated on the Security Council, was what Boutros-Ghali had presciently attempted to shore up with his Agenda for Peace. Although the document did not call for the rethinking of the Security Council, it did recommend the establishment of forces to prevent conflict and enforce the peace, a special peace fund and the right for the UN to levy taxes to finance operations.

But now that the United States had become the world’s sole superpower, it was in no mood for such multilateral reforms. Although Boutros-Ghali’s constant drive for reform and his relative prioritisation of Africa and developing countries endeared him to most member states, Washington was livid.

This said more about Pax Americana than it did about Boutros Ghali. As Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out at the time, this scion of a wealthy Egyptian family was no “dangerous subversive” but an “enlightened conservative”.

And the experience of being booted out of the UN was enlightening for Boutros-Ghali. “It would be some time before I fully realised that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough,” he wrote. “Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.”

Boutros-Ghali spent the rest of his years promoting, in his cautious, “enlightened conservative” kind of way, pluralism, multilateralism, and multiculturalism, which he viewed as “the essence of democracy”.

Among other things, he became secretary-general of la Francophonie, the French equivalent of the British Commonwealth, and served as director of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.

With the Middle East ablaze and the international community unable to cope with the spreading flames, one thing is clear: the world needs to appoint another reformer to lead the UN and to empower him or her to reinvent it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 February 2016.

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Sisi’s Suez moment

 
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By Khaled Diab

Suez Canal II is not about economics. It is a symbol of how President Sisi is supposedly navigating Egypt through narrow straits towards modernity.

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Sequels rarely match up to the original, most film buffs will tell you. But judging by the trailers and the blitz publicity campaign, Suez Canal II will be every bit as significant as its predecessor.

Dubbed as Egypt’s “gift to the world”, inaugural ceremony for the new channel of the Suez Caal promised to “dazzle the world”. The spectacle included an air and naval show, fireworks, folklore performances and even a performance of Verdi’s classic opera, Aida.

On Wednesday 5 August, the front page of the semi-official al-Akhbar newspaper carried an image of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the helm of a ship steering it through the canal, with smiling citizens waving flags enthusiastically in the background.

The symbolism is clear. The ship is presumably Egypt, the canal is the narrow strait the country is currently navigating, the  destination is a brighter future and every Egyptian is firmly behind their president. But with all the pomp, swagger and bluster in the air, perhaps nautical metaphors are not the most appropriate: unseen icebergs and the Titanic spring to mind.

More subtly, the image echoes the propaganda during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. For instance, in a nationalist song from 1963, the legendary heartthrob Abdel-Haleem Hafez sang:

Our president is a navigator. He’s taking us across.

He’s a worker and farmer. He’s one of us.

And perhaps behind al-Sisi’s surprising choice of megaproject is an unspoken wish that the Suez Canal will propel him to legendary status, as it did Nasser. After all, the canal sealed Nasser’s reputation when he nationalised it, triggering the 1956 Suez Crisis, known to Egyptians as the Tripartite Aggression.

The Suez Canal was also important to Anwar al-Sadat, who was often lionised as the architect of the “crossing of the canal” during the 1973 war with Israel. Mubarak did not have a Suez moment but he did have plenty of waterways, from the stalled al-Salam (Peace) Canal to make the Sinai bloom and the Toshka white elephant to create a new Nile valley in the Western desert.

In fact, the Suez Canal has been an important nationalist symbol since its construction. For Khedive Ismail, it was a central plank – along with rapid industrialisation and the new Cairo he built as the “Paris on the Nile” – of Egypt’s steady march to modernity.

Symbolism aside, does Suez Canal II actually live up to the hype? Strictly speaking, the megaproject is not a new canal but a 72-km parallel channel to extend the existing one. And it is not even the first such expansion – there were previous ones in 1955 and 1980.

This makes the notion that it is a second Suez Canal and an engineering feat on a par with the first seem ludicrous, considering that the original waterway was 164-km long and completely revolutionised shipping from Asia to Europe by giving vessels a massive 7,000-km shortcut.

In actuality, Egypt, perhaps in light of the rapid de-development of the region, seems to be downsizing its mega-dreams compared with previous generations. But the boastfulness and adulation surrounding them is as grandiose as ever.

That is not to say Suez Canal II is not without engineering merit. Unlike the original French-conceived canal, the new channel was completely designed and implemented by Egypt. Moreover, unlike its predecessor, it did not result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Egyptian forced labourers.

Unlike many previous megaprojects, not only was this project actually completed, it was finished ahead of time, in a record single year, which some have seen as a positive sign for the future. In addition, unlike the original, the expansion is domestically financed, largely through investment certificates sold to citizens, which could act as a promising model for future initiatives.

Unlike in the 19th century, whether it succeeds or fails, Suez Canal II is unlikely to help bankrupt an already highly indebted nation. However, Egypt may have trouble paying back citizens if its projections prove unfounded.

According to government projections, the expanded capacity and faster passage time will propel the canal’s revenues from the current $5.5 billion to an astonishing $13.5 billion. Many international and local experts are sceptical this will happen because the canal is currently running at below capacity anyway and the rate of annual growth in global shipping would have to be considerably higher than it is today.

Though they make a strong case and one I find highly persuasive, it is possible the experts are wrong, as officials keep reminding us, and Egypt will confound its critics, as it did in 1956 when everyone expected the country would not be able to operate the canal after removing its British and French management.

Personally, I believe this was a massive missed opportunity. Rather than focus on an initiative of questionable and marginal benefit, the government should have chosen a megaproject of true national importance.

As I’ve argued before, instead of Suez Canal II, the billions sunk into dredging the desert sand should have gone to shoring up the Nile Delta, which is threatened by rising sea levels and sinking sediment. Although experts have been warning for decades of these dangers, Egypt has taken almost no action to save its breadbasket and home to nearly half its population.

Now that is truly a sinking ship that needs to be navigated to a safe port before it is too late.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 August 2015.

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Dispelling the curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Conflict between Nile basin countries has been averted. But unless effective action is taken, a water war remains a distinct future possibility.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

War has been avoided. As Yemen becomes the latest battleground in what future historians might call the Middle East’s “World War”, news like this is welcome indeed.

The averted casus belli was the Grand Renaissance Dam – slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – which Ethiopia began constructing in 2011 at the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies some 60% of the great river’s water.

This move made Egypt very nervous and angered decision-makers in Cairo. This was owing to fears that the new barrier would adversely affect the flow of water downstream, bringing potential drought and turning Egypt from the “gift of the Nile” into its curse.

Once completed, the dam will actually have a negligible impact on river flow to Sudan and Egypt, unless Ethiopia decides to divert its waters to irrigation projects elsewhere. Ethiopia even claims it will increase water to Egypt because of the lower evaporation levels in its temperate highlands.

However, the 65.5 billion cubic meters –the equivalent of about one year’s flow to Egypt – required to fill the Great Renaissance’s reservoir troubled Cairo because it could potentially affect millions of farmers and harm the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

These fears – both real and exaggerated – prompted Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, to engage in some poetic sabre-rattling. “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” he threatened in 2013.

And his government considered moving beyond semantics. A closed cabinet meeting which was accidentally and embarrassingly broadcast live on air showed ministers brainstorming ideas for spreading disinformation, dispatching special forces and backing rebels in Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed defence minister who ousted his patron following mass protests, began by pursuing a similarly inflexible position, with Egypt lobbying the international community to halt the project.

Despite al-Sisi’s reckless willingness to go to war in Yemen and his brutal and violent repression of opposition, he wisely decided that diplomacy was more effective than force with Ethiopia. “We have chosen co-operation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” al-Sisi said on the occasion of the inking of a declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reassured.

But despite this landmark deal, we are not out of the woods yet. The three countries still need to agree on the pace at which the new dam’s reservoir will be filled – which could prove to be a difficult barrier to cross.

More fundamentally, the longstanding dispute over the allocation of the Nile’s water resources is the greatest potential flashpoint. This could escalate the proxy conflicts between Cairo and Addis Ababa into the kind of full-fledged “water war” which experts have been warning about for decades.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan, leaving Ethiopia high and dry. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic meters, the country is struggling against water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

In such circumstances, it is understandable that Egyptians regard any reduction in flow as an “existential threat” and a national security issue of the first degree.

But Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are also completely justified in being vexed at this unfair distribution. When they were not in a position to make use of the Nile’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue.

However, this situation has changed radically. Ethiopia is developing rapidly and its population is exploding, reaching over 96 million in 2014, which is larger than Egypt’s. Addis Ababa understandably wishes to exploit more of the rains which fall on its territory.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism regarding quotas, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in 2010 seeking to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan.

But the reality is that redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt, as it can actually get by on considerably less water.

For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

Above all, Egypt needs to save its arable land, perhaps the most fertile in the world, which is under threat from rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. Rising sea levels and the Aswan High Dam’s retention of the silt which used to regenerate the Nile Delta have placed Egypt’s bread basket under severe threat of collapse. This environmental-catastrophe-in-the-making must be addressed urgently.

With the right investment, innovation and planning, the curse of the Nile can be averted and it can continue to be a gift, not just to Egypt, but all the countries through which it flows.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 April 2015.

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Save the Nile Delta, President al-Sisi

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt would be much better off saving the sinking ship of the Nile Delta instead of building a white elephant Suez Canal II.

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Thursday 18 September 2014

Egyptian presidents have long been fond of symbolic mega-projects. In addition to the practical benefits they were expected to perform, these show-pieces had the dual purpose of demonstrating how apparently visionary the dictator of the moment was, his patriotism and benign influence, as well as a tool for cobbling together a semblance of national unity and purpose.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser had the Aswan High Dam, which was intended to electrify the public towards his ambitious Arab socialist development programme. However, disagreement over financing prompted him, in 1956, to nationalise the Suez Canal to pay for the dam, leading to war with Britain, France and Israel. Anwar al-Sadat’s mega-project was to cross the Suez Canal militarily to regain the Sinai territory Egypt lost to Israel in 1967, and defeat not only Egypt’s neighbouring enemy but also to silence his domestic ones.

Hosni Mubarak had his Toshka project which was meant to create a new Nile Valley to absorb some of the country’s runaway population growth and the alarming loss of arable land to urban development. Toskha would achieve this by diverting water from Lake Nasser into the desert with the aim of expanding Egypt’s agricultural acerage by 10%. Despite its noble ambitions, “Mubarak’s pyramid”, as this largely aborted super mega-project was described, has only delivered a molehill due to mismanagement and poor planning.

Only a few months into his presidency, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has already broken ground on his own mega-project, billed not as the new Nile Valley but as the new Suez Canal. While Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Sadat’s army crossed it, Sisi’s ambition is to expand the waterway by building a second, 72km-long channel that is expected to boost the traffic passing through Suez. The project also fits into the government’s ambition to transform the Suez region into an industrial, technological and international trading hub.

But this poorly conceived project is already smashing against the rocks of unexpected problems. On a fundamental level, some experts wonder whether the extension will actually boost the Canal’s capacity, since more than 90km of the waterway will remain single-carriage. In addition, there may simply not been enough additional demand from shipping to justify the new investment.

On top of that, the project has already run into expensive technical complications. Ignoring warnings by irrigation experts, the digging began too close to the original Canal which has caused the site to fill with groundwater. Pumping the excess water out carries a price tag of $1 million per day.

It is my view that, rather than yet another white elephant mega-project, Egypt would be much better off diverting the estimated $8.4 billion it will cost to build Suez Canal II to another, far more pressing mega-project: Nile Delta I.

Since ancient times, the Nile Delta, which covers 25,000 square kilometres and houses nearly half of Egypt’s population, has been the national breadbasket but also that of various empires. Yet this extremely fertile fan of land in the middle of the desert is under serious threat from a two-pronged attack: rising sea levels caused by global warming and sinking sediment due to the silt being blocked upstream by the Aswan High Dam.

The Delta is quite literally sinking into the sea, but few officials seem unduly alarmed by this impending shipwreck. Despite the economic, social and national security implications of this catastrophe-in-the-making, no Egyptian government has taken any substantial action to beat back this erosion, aside from constructing a few measly dykes and barriers to protect important urban areas on the coast.

This is doubly surprising in light of the decades of forewarnings provided by both local and international experts. For example, more than a quarter of a century ago, researchers at the Smithsonian Institute delivered dire warnings about future disaster.

Today, the alarm amongst experts has reached fever pitch. “The total [area of the Delta] expected to be impacted by a rising of the sea level by one metre during this century will be 8,033 square kilometres, which is nearly 33% of the total area of the Nile Delta,” predicted Khaled Ouda, a geologist at Egypt’s Assiut University, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year.

In addition to the loss of precious agricultural land, this would turn millions of people in one of the most densely populated places on Earth climate refugees.

Given that rising sea levels and a sinking delta would redraw Egypt’s natural map more radically than ISIS has redrawn Iraq and Syria’s political one, the price of averting this disaster is surprisingly low – less than half al-Sisi’s Suez Canal project.

A plan proposed by Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza involves the construction of a concrete wall along the Delta’s entire coastline and skirting it with a plastic diaphragm to prevent saltwater seepage. Total estimated cost: just $3 billion. The remaining billions can be invested in building impenetrable barriers several metres below sea level to hold the crumbling Delta in place and avoid sea water salinating the Delta’s aquifer.

Beyond these emergency measures, Egypt needs innovative solutions to replenish the Nile Delta through restoring the flow of natural silt, which not only protects against sea erosion but also acts as a powerful natural fertiliser. But this is more easily said than done, since the silt is sitting at the bottom of Lake Nasser a thousand kilometres downstream.

Inaction on these fronts will make the fallout from the revolutions and counterrevolutions that have gripped Egypt since 2011 seem like a minor distraction. Failing to protect the gift that is the Delta will turn the Nile into a curse for Egypt.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 September 2014.

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Robert Mugabe and ethical tourism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.

So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.

According to a story in the UK daily,  The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.

But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.

“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”

In its defence…

The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if  UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.

The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”

Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.

According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”

The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.

So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”

Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.

Guilt-edged tourism

The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?

This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.

Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?

In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.

The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.

 

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The power of Palestinian ingenuity

 
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By Khaled Diab

Outsiders are more likely to associate Palestine with statehood-pending than patent-pending, but innovation is crucial to building a better future.

Monday 16 January 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

An integrated ‘smart’ system that manages all the devices in your home and business seamlessly. A robot that automatically turns the soil in your garden and waters the plants. Low-cost retinal scanners. Although these innovations may sound run-of-the-mill in Tokyo or Silicon Valley, in tiny, remote Ramallah, they represent the cutting-edge in Palestine’s emerging knowledge sector.

Now into its sixth edition, the ‘Made in Palestine’ fair seeks to change all this by putting Palestine on the global innovation map, before it even makes it on to the world’s political map. The annual exhibition and conference is organised by al-Nayzak, an NGO that works to nurture and incubate the creative and innovative potential of Palestinians from a young age.

But can Palestinian innovators match the success scored by their neighbour, rival and occupier, Israel, which has risen to become the region’s scientific and innovation powerhouse?

Many of the exhibitors and innovators I spoke to in Ramallah were hopeful. Some pointed out that the bumpy road to Palestinian and Arab innovation was already paved with a fair number of good inventions and ideas, but these often did not see the light of day, due to bureaucracy, a shortage of financing, and the absence of a strong industrial and research base.

“The state of Palestinian innovation is similar to that of the Arab world in general,” believes Ahmed Maani, who developed the Tsunami which, despite its destructive name, uses ultrasound to repel insects rather than kill them. “We have thousands of Arab innovators, and tens of thousands of innovations, but they remain neglected and marginalised.”

The situation Maani describes was well summed up in the UN’s sobering Arab Human Development Report, which stated that Arab countries only invested 0.4% of their collective GDP in R&D, compared to 2-3% in the industrialised world.

“But above all, Arab societies and peoples still live with the mentality of the defeated and do not trust any Arab technology,” notes Maani who, despite dedicating six years of his life to developing his latest product, often sees it marketed among Palestinians as being made in Israel because Palestinians do not believe that they can produce any quality products.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The Palestinians have a number of specific factors in their favour and challenges which hinder them. To its advantage, the Palestinian population is among the best-educated in the Arab world. In addition, its large, diverse and extensive diaspora can, as the Jewish diaspora has demonstrated next door, play a pivotal role in both fuelling innovation and financing it. Moreover, if the conflict is ever resolved, the Israelis and Palestinians could become natural partners in business and innovation.

However, for the time being, the Israeli occupation is possibly the biggest single inhibitor of Palestinian innovation and economic development in general. Noting that investing in Palestinian innovation requires “a certain type of intrepid and foolhardy investor”, Maani points to the additional challenges of the restrictions on Palestinian movement, the small size of the Palestinian market and the difficulties and associated high costs involved in exporting.

That said, the circumstances of the occupation can also stimulate the creativity of the ingenious Palestinians. For example, the young innovator Ibrahim Nassar from Hebron, inspired by the movement restrictions Palestinians face, came up with a device which can be used by doctors to diagnose and monitor, via the mobile phone network, heart patients remotely with complete accuracy and reliability.

More generally, Palestinians are planning to wean themselves off their expensive and unreliable dependence on Israel for their energy needs through green investment and innovation. This preoccupation was reflected in many of the Made in Palestine innovations: compressed-air and solar-powered cars, a wind turbine made of recycled material, recycled car oil and solar-powered water desalination.

In the broader context, the Palestinian authority views economic development, partly founded on innovation, as a top priority and a prerequisite for statehood. What has become known as “Fayyadism”, after the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, posits that the first step on the path to statehood is through changing the Palestinians own state of being and building a de facto state-in-waiting.

“Creativity, innovation and excellence are vital tools in the hands of young people building the future of Palestine,” Fayyad said at Made in Palestine’s award ceremony, where an automated potato planter rolled away with the top prize.

But Fayyad admitted that this required wide ranging reforms, including greater support for innovators, the creation of a culture which values innovation, and narrowing the skills gap between the education system and the job market.

This article first appeared in The National on 12 January 2012.

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Should Arabs treat Erdoğan as a hero?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome across the Arab world. But should Arabs welcome or be weary of Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East?

Friday 23 September 2011

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch. 

“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions. 

Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him. 

But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”. 

With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward. 

Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.

But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control. 

In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. 

The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire. 

So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.

Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.

Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.” 

Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order. 

Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.

In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.

Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness. 

Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.

Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved. 

After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?

I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East. 

But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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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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