The sacred right to ‘insult’

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By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt’s] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt’s mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad’s determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad’s imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the Mubarak era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt’s civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour’s page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although atheism can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion’ of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I’ve never heard of any member of Egypt’s marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad’ or ‘crusade’ against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist humour – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ [‘Oh Shit’] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God’s various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the Muammar Gaddafi of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak’s attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious society, the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of freedom embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, Islam itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian’s interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists’ lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what’s defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and Christianity can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective’ for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith’, and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its minorities, not only Christians and Baha’is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.


This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

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By Osama Diab

The ornamental ‘official opposition’ in Egypt is as dangerous as the authoritarian regime itself.

Thursday 13 October

Even though I was quite clearly no big fan of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, I wasn’t very keen on any of the official opposition during his era either and I never saw any of these parties as a viable alternative to his rule. The reason I describe it as the “official opposition” is to distinguish it from the movements and people who contributed greatly to shaping a new, more dynamic Egyptian political scene and have emerged from outside the traditional political parties and organised political groups.

The perceived lack of alternatives was not indicative of an actual absence. The ineffectiveness of the opposition wasn’t an accident or a pure coincidence, it was a deliberate strategy of the Mubarak regime which always endeavoured to purge any meaningful opposition from the political scene.

For Mubarak, what was more important than choosing his ministers and consultants was selecting those who, on paper, stood against him and his ruling party. In order for the opposition to serve its purpose as deemed by the regime, their leaders needed to be dull, highly uncharismatic, distant, lacking in vision and, most importantly, unwilling in any way to challenge his authority.

Mubarak’s tamed and carefully selected opposition – regardless of its position on the political spectrum – used to praise his wisdom in running the country day and night. Some presidential candidates in the 2005 election, such as the leader of the miniature Ummah party Ahmed al-Sabahi – a 90-year-old spring chicken at the time who insisted that everyone call him Mr President and vowed to reintroduce the fez – even went as far as to say that he would vote for Mubarak because he found him to be the best candidate.

This opposition, knowing no other role, are still prisoners of this subservient ‘court jester’ mentality. Even though Egypt has seen radical changes and a revolution, they seem to be programmed to serve the same purpose with any ruler. They are now serving the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the same way they served and were loyal to Mubarak.

After SCAF’s meeting last week with political parties led by al-Wafd and the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the political parties signed a document in which they “declared their full support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their appreciation of its role in protecting the revolution”.

This also explains why the real opposition and revolutionary forces were not invited to the meeting. The youth movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which was the real driving force behind the revolution, were not invited because their radical mentality makes it obvious they won’t settle for a few cosmetic concessions in return for a few seats in parliament. They are also more likely not to recognise the SCAF as Egypt’s legitimate rulers.

Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood and other forms of official opposition have a long history of abandoning the struggle in return for a few parliamentary seats or even just the permission to exist, and some are infamous for striking deals with successive regimes. New youth revolutionary groups are yet to be corrupted, but until this happens, they will stay unrecognised and uninvited by the SCAF and any authoritarian ruler. I still remember when the former heir apparent Gamal Mubarak mocked a man who dared to ask him, when he still had a senior position in the National Democratic Party, if he was willing to engage in a dialogue with opposition youth groups.

Most of the parties which met with the SCAF to discuss the future of the country did not play an active role in the sweeping revolution, some even actually worked against it, while others were cautious participants who steered clear of the front line. The Brotherhood and other official opposition parties did not risk officially joining the revolution until they were sure Mubarak’s days in power were numbered, and only then did they decide to jump opportunistically on to the revolutionary bandwagon.

Just like the previous regime, SCAF want a malleable opposition they can control . It seeks an opposition that will help them stay in power rather than compete with them for power, and that is willing to abandon its ideals for representation in parliament. In short, what the SCAF wants is an opposition they can trust.

The SCAF has made clear its intentions that it is here to stay, and by signing this document the official opposition helped the generals to anchor their position as the long-term rulers of the country, rather than its interim leadership for the six-month transitional period like they promised after the revolution.

I am sceptical that the official opposition under the Mubarak regime which has now switched to admiring the emperor’s new clothes can deliver any meaningful change. Though it calls itself the opposition, it is actually an integral component in the survival of a corrupt political system many are working hard to reform or remove.

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The danger of an elected dictatorship in Egypt

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 By Osama Diab

The army is giving Egyptians a stark choice: choose freedom and endure anarchy, or choose stability and put up with us.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Last week, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reactivated Mubarak’s 2010 extension of the emergency law,  it suggested holding a referendum on the reactivation to give its decision a sheen of legitimacy. If the emergency law passes through legal channels, it will allow SCAF to silence its opponents while claiming it has popular support for its actions.

Where once authoritarianism was imposed on Egyptians, Egypt is now facing the risk of “democratically” choosing to be governed autocratically, where the people themselves call for or support authoritarian practices such as military trials, emergency laws, etc.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s de facto military rulers have cracked down on media outlets,allegedly tried 12,000 people before military courts, reactivated Hosni Mubarak’s highly unpopular emergency law , and outlined no clear time frame for the transition to a civilian government – things even Mubarak wouldn’t have dared to do in post-revolution Egypt. But what is perhaps most appalling is that a growing number of people is supportive of this.

After the defeat and withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, the lack of security and this anarchy-like state have driven many people to express their willingness to trade in their dream of democracy in return for ‘normalcy’ by supporting authoritarian practices in the hope of stopping the country from descending into the absolute state of lawlessness they fear.

As a result, many Egyptian have voted in favour of reactivating Mubarak’s emergency law. On the Masrawy news website, 59% of those who took part in a poll agreed that the emergency law should be reactivated. The figure of an al-Shorouk online poll was nearly half.

There is no doubt that the past seven months since Mubarak’s ouster have been so overwhelming that many are now ready to give up their dream of democracy. The perceived rise in crime and the struggling economy have shifted many people’s priorities to security and stability over human rights and democracy.

The SCAF has capitalised on this fear to boost its popularity – at least in comparison with the former regime. May be some Egyptians are still grateful for the army’s refusal to open fire at protesters, especially when compared to the savagery of other armies in the region, or perhaps people simply see the military as the last line of defence against anarchy. This is why their use of Mubarakist techniques has worked better than it did for the man himself.

Unlike the ousted president, they seem to have successfully managed to draw some public support for them and stoked up opposition against pro-democracy activists. On top of the relative credibility they enjoy, the public support expressed for arbitrary laws is a result of the SCAF’s relatively effective propaganda which links stability to their policies and their way of administering the country, whilst connecting chaos and instability to those who dare to oppose them.

The message the rulers are trying to send is simple: if you want freedom you have to endure prospects of a wide-scale war with Israel, looting and thuggery, a collapsing tourism industry, a struggling economy, and a security vacuum. If you want stability, all you have to endure is us.

The SCAF has tried relentlessly to link chaos and mayhem to human rights and political activism by accusing many key players in the revolution, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Kifaya (Enough) coalition, of trying to destabilise the country and serving foreign agendas.

Despite being accustomed to working under an authoritarian regime,and the smear campaigns and the heavy-handed security that come with the territory, rights activists now also need to grow accustomed to working under popular “dissuport”.

Political and rights activists are now slowly losing their status as “heroes” and are gradually being cast as the “villains” instead of the regime. Opposing Mubarak’s dictatorship was seen as a heroic act. Opposing SCAF is being seen by a growing number of Egyptians as a form of “treachery”. 

Intensive propaganda has associated human rights, in the minds of many, with vandalism, chaos, instability and conspiracy. The main danger to democracy that Egypt is facing is not the practices of the military rulers, but the public support for such practices.

The SCAF should not be deceived or lulled into a false sense of security by this support, which is probably going to be short-lived and is only a result of the horrors of recent months.

Once the memory of the chaos becomes distant enough and the revolutionary dust settles, people will again start realising the government’s failure to deliver better living conditions, to enhance the rule of law, to fight corruption and to push for greater civil liberties.

Rulers with a security-only mentality who fail to address economic, legal and social issues run the risk of sharing Mubarak’s destiny or even worse, because next time people will make sure not to go home with an unfinished revolution or trust anyone but themselves to take charge of the transitional period.

Employing tired, old narratives and displaying a severe lack of political imagination, which is a typical characteristic of military rulers, would only serve to remind Egyptians of the old regime they despised for long undermining the power, energy and creativity of the people.

Civil rights and genuine stability can only come together, and the Egyptian revolution proved that the heavy hand of security can no longer achieve stability on its own.

Soon enough, those Egyptians who believe that military strongmen are more capable of maintaining public order than democratically elected civilian governments will discover that this idea is nothing short of a myth. What we have is not really a choice between freedom and stability, but a choice between having both or neither.

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Lessons in revolt

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By Khaled Diab

Although designed to instil loyalty to the regime, Egyptian schools have been breeding grounds for rebellion and revolt.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Although education systems around the world seek to produce “good citizens”, schools in Arab countries have the additional function of teaching students to obey – and fear – the regime.

“The curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking,” the Arab Human Development Report complained in 2003.

While few would dispute that Arab state schools try to inculcate subservience, it appears no one bothered to ask whether they were succeeding. But now, research by Hania Sobhy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London suggests that in Egypt, at least, this most central exercise in promoting conformity and obedience has been deftly subverted and disobeyed by pupils, and to a lesser extent by teachers.

In addition to certain school subjects with an overtly “patriotic” focus that exalt the “achievements” of the state and effectively equate the Egyptian regime with the nation, the school day itself starts with the highly regimented morning assembly. “The central ritual of Egyptian schools is the taboor (line up),” Sobhy said.

The taboor is supposedly a time for pupils to connect with their nation and express patriotism by saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. In a telling indication of where the former regime’s priorities lay, what many would regard as a hollow ritual is so hallowed by the ministry of education that it is “decreed and carefully delineated”, Sobhy pointed out.

Yet, “more often than not, taboor is not in fact prepared nor performed,” she said. “More importantly, most secondary school students do not attend.”

When the taboor does take place, most youngsters fail to salute the flag or sing alternative – usually obscene – versions of the national anthem which, according to Sobhy, are “typically variations on themes of abuse by the nation, disentitlement and failure, of being violated or raped by the nation, or the nation being a ‘prostitute’.”

This rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given that outside the official curriculum school provides pupils with harsh lessons on class, youth exclusion, arbitrary punishment and the importance of connections. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children – lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” Sobhy said.

This is a far cry from the 1952 revolution’s promise to provide free and equitable education for all Egyptians. In Egypt today, anything approaching quality education is provided only in the private sphere.

In addition to a plethora of private schools of varying quality and cost for those who can afford them, the dysfunctional state system itself is also largely stratified and class-based, with middle-class children going to general secondary schools, while the bulk of poorer pupils attend the marginalised and chronically underfunded technical schools.

Moreover, the state system has gone through a de facto privatisation in which underpaid teachers are unable or unwilling to teach in the classroom and coerce pupils – often using corporal punishment, even though it is banned – into taking private lessons if they want to pass their exams. This failure has transformed state schools into breeding grounds for disaffection.

“The level of boldness and opposition voiced point to how deep the resentment [and] anger … runs among large segments of the population,” Sobhy said. “There was a surprising level of ‘politicised’ and highly oppositional discourses given the stereotypes of apathy and submissiveness.”

And despite the best attempts of the state and teachers to beat pupils down, the youngsters interviewed by Sobhy demonstrated political awareness and voiced a powerful note of defiance similar to that expressed by millions on the streets of Egypt this year. “We don’t have belonging. We are growing up in an age when the country doesn’t give us anything,” one girl told her.

In this regard, Sobhy views schools as a weather vane of the mood in Egypt as a whole: they highlighted “the themes and content of the grievances that fuelled the popular movement that deposed Mubarak”.

“Would we be like this if we did not have all this theft and corruption?” one boy told her, while another insisted: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed … We need all new people.”

Less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike, organising sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools. “The demonstrations and chants – and the security presence and threats – were really similar to many of the scenes we saw in January,” Sobhy said.

The experience of young Egyptians in state schools shows that coming generations are both politically aware and are no longer willing to accept the scraps that fall from the regime’s table. Providing them with quality education and decent job prospects is not only good for them and good for Egypt, it will also be good for any future government’s survival.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 10 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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Egypt and Israel: cold peace or cold war?

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By Khaled Diab

Relations between Israel and post-revolution Egypt are proving tetchy – but ordinary people hold the keys to peace.

Friday 2 September 2011

It was a tense week in Egyptian-Israeli relations. It all started when unknown assailants crossed from Sinai to carry out a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in southern Israel, which left eight Israelis dead.

Terror was met with more terror and counter-terror, as Israel bombed embattled Gaza, leading to the deaths of at least 14 people, despite the absence of evidence that Gazans were behind the attack (some of the alleged perpetrators appear to be Egyptians), and Islamist militants in Gaza fired their Grad rockets into southern Israel.

In a reckless act that could have escalated the situation dangerously, Israeli troops – in a gunship that crossed the border, according to Egyptian security sources – also killed three Egyptian army and police personnel, apparently by accident.

Fortunately, Egypt refrained from taking a leaf out of Israel’s book and did not give chase across the border to apprehend the killers. Instead, it sensibly decided to follow the diplomatic track and demand an apology and a joint investigation into the incident. A statement announcing the withdrawal of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel was later retracted.

Though military tensions seem to have subsided, an escalating war of words is brewing between Egypt and Israel. In Israel, in addition to anger, grief and a desire for vengeance, allegations are flying that Egypt has “lost control” of Sinai. For its part, Egypt counters that the Israeli security apparatus was pretty much caught with its pants down in its failure to protect its borders. There is also a widespread foreboding that this is just a taste of things to come in post-revolution Egypt.

Egypt has also been gripped by anger, grief and calls for vengeance. Outraged protesters have spent days besieging the Israeli embassy – with one even climbing 21 storeys to replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one – to demand the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and the severing of ties.

So, what does the future hold for Egyptian-Israeli relations in light of this latest spat, the Egyptian revolution, the current hardline Israeli government and Palestinian plans to go to the UN next month to seek international recognition? Will the cold peace endure, escalate into a new cold war or warm into a big thaw?

At this juncture, it is very hard to tell which way the wind will blow. My reading of the situation – which I elaborated on at a recent conference – is that in spite of this recent flare-up the Egyptian-Israeli status quo will remain essentially unchanged, though relations between the two governments are likely to grow frostier.

A democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood is likely to collaborate less with Israel on security issues, such as the Mubarak’s regime’s unpopular involvement in the Gaza blockade, and might, I have argued, act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. In fact, some analysts and diplomats have concluded that the attack on Gaza was cut short out of fear of straining relations with Cairo further.

In my view, Israeli fears that a more radical regime, probably led by the Muslim Brotherhood, would “tear up” the Camp David peace accords are unfounded. Not only is the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood a lot less than doomsayers have been warning – a recent poll showed its approval rating to be just 17% – now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s official opposition to peace with Israel, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be decided by “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”.

Moreover, the anger on the streets and the strong anti-Israeli stance taken by opposition politicians and ordinary Egyptians notwithstanding, there is little appetite in Egypt to return to the bad old days of confrontation. A number of recent polls, including this one, show that the vast majority of Egyptians are in favour of maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

Even radical critics of Israel, such as the popular novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who famously refused to have one of his best-selling novels translated into Hebrew, has not called for the reneging of the accord.

Instead, he has demanded that Egypt renegotiate the articles relating to the presence of Egyptian troops in the Sinai. Perhaps al-Aswany will be disappointed to learn that senior figures in the Israel Defence Forces are, following last week’s attack, in full agreement with this suggestion.

It may take two to tango but in the case of Egyptian-Israeli relations, the dance is a three-way one, with the Palestinians making up the hate triangle. Despite the generally pessimistic tone of the Israeli discourse on the Egyptian revolution, Israel is not a passive bystander and can do much to improve future ties with Egypt, namely by working towards or reaching a just resolution with the Palestinians, the thorn in the side of Egyptian-Israeli ties.

Next month’s Palestinian bid to go to the UN should not be read as an act of hostility but as a desperate plea for freedom and justice, albeit a misguided one – something that an increasing number of Israelis are growing to realise. Sadly, such enlightenment is not shared by the ideologues currently leading the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership; both the PA and Hamas benefit in their own warped ways from the status quo.

With such inertia, what can be done to change the dynamics of the situation for the better? I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just sit back and wait for their ineffective leaders to do something or wait for the arrival some unknown saviour.

Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation, through mass, peaceful joint activism. Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and help facilitate and mediate such a “people’s peace”.


This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. Read the related discussion here.

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A tale of two media

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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s independent media have earned their revolutionary stripes, while the state’s mouthpieces have simply switched allegiance to the ‘new emperor’. But which model will endure?

Wednesday 17 August 2011

In his final 18 days as president, Hosni Mubarak looked increasingly detached from the rapidly changing reality around him. The contrast between the gilded cocoon in which he lived and the seething anger on the streets was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by his final speech.

The whole of Egypt was out on the streets or glued to their television sets – as were millions across the world – in excited anticipation that the dictator would finally concede defeat on February 10. When he appeared on air, a couple of hours late, he delivered a recorded message that was a study in mediocrity and cliché.

With the pallor of a made-up corpse in an ill-lit funeral parlour, he paid lip service to Egypt’s youth – whom he patronisingly referred to as his “sons and daughters” – but defiantly refused to step down, claiming that he would not succumb to “foreign dictations”. In Tahrir square, this was met with cries of disbelief, hoots of derision and quite a number of raised shoes.

A similar contrast in narratives was discernible in how the revolution was being covered by the Egyptian media. While intrepid journalists working for Egypt’s independent media continued their ever-bolder defiance of the regime of recent years to report on the historic events gripping the country, the regime’s tame mouthpieces mostly continued, right up to the eleventh hour of Mubarak’s downfall, to describe the protesters as “hooligans” and the protests themselves as being orchestrated by “foreign powers”.

This awoke memories in the minds of some commentators of the public media’s disgraceful performance during the 1967 war with Israel, when they broadcast fictitious reports of Egyptian victories until the bitter reality emerged a few days later.

“With the revolution in full force, few thought the state’s toothless and incompetent television would actually revert to Voice of the Arabs strategies of completely fraudulent reports of the protests,” wrote media scholar Adel Iskandar in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s best-selling independent daily. “In retrospect, the content from those 18 days has since become iconic – from fake foreign-trained protesters and KFC conspiracies to an empty Tahrir and massive pro-Mubarak rallies.”

Sawt el-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) was the Nasser-era pan-Arabist revolutionary broadcaster which was, despite it clear propaganda mission, was popular with millions of Egyptian and Arabs up until the 1967 defeat. In the early weeks of the current revolution, the state media reverted to old form with ludicruous reports that the protesters on Tahrir Square were only a handful of foreigners and foreign-trained agents whose allegiance was allegedly bought with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, despite the fact that the KFC restaurant on the square was closed down at the start of the protests and a makeshift clinic to treat protesters was erected outside it.

In a comically transparent real-life adaptation of Orwell’s “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia”, the state-owned media now endorses the revolution – and the vandals have become heroes.

Despite this, old ways die hard. “On the whole, I would say the changes we’ve seen to the ‘end product’ of the Egyptian media have been largely cosmetic – although that doesn’t mean that more substantive reform isn’t underway below the surface,” The Guardian‘s Jack Shenker told me.

“There has been no meaningful change in the state media since the revolution,” echoes Amira Mohsen, a young journalist who used to work for Nile TV, the state-owned satellite news channel. “It would appear that the self-censorship that had always been in place still exists and has only switched to suit the requirements of the new [military] regime.”

After two years at Nile TV, Mohsen resigned last September, months before the revolution, out of outrage, at the endemic corruption, nepotism and propaganda she witnessed at the broadcaster, she said.

“I was exhausted and disgusted by the level of corruption taking place at all levels in Maspero [the Nile-side premises of Egypt’s broadcasting building],” she explained. “I also felt Egyptian state media was not journalism but rather working as public relations for the regime.”

While defections of journalists disillusioned with the state-run media, like Mohsen’s, have long occurred, the trickle only became a flood in the wake of the revolution.

“For decades, conscientious media workers had suffered in silence as failed and corrupt government policies were promoted across the airwaves and in print,” wrote Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who replaced Mubarak loyalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed as interim secretary-general of the Egyptian Journalists’ Union, in the Guardian in February. “Therefore, when the revolution erupted journalists were among the first on the street and among those who gave blood for the cause.”

In addition to resignations, strikes and walkouts across the state-run broadcast and print media, at least one government-employed journalist paid for reporting on the revolution with his life. Ahmed Mahmoud, a photographer with the largest government newspaper, al-Ahram, was shot in the head while filming police attacking protesters from the balcony of his home.

Prior to the revolution, the state-owned media was not uniformly propagandist, and certain journalists on the government’s payroll sailed very close to the wind. One example is al-Ahram Weekly under the editorship of Hani Shukrallah. As it is published in English and hence does not reach a mass Egyptian audience, the regime kept less of a close eye on it.

But Shukrallah’s bold editorial approach eventually got his superiors within the Ahram conglomerate nervous and he was removed from the Weekly in 2005. He recently returned to head up the newspaper’s new English portal in which he has infused his trademark outspokenness. For instance, weeks before the revolution, when a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve, he penned his very own J’accuse.

“I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” he wrote. “But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced.”

Another example is Salama Ahmed Salama, Egypt’s archetypal non-partisan journalist, despite having worked for decades for al-Ahram, whose front page was dominated for most of the past three decades with Mubarak’s image.

Although he accepted that the newspaper he dedicated so many years to was the “façade of the system”, he is a strong believer in press freedom and tested the system constantly until he left the government flagship to help set up the highly respected independent al-Shorouk. “The reader will get a different taste of modern journalism,” Salama promised in his first editorial for the upstart paper in 2009.

And it seems to have kept its word.

“I think that al-Shorouk is the most professional and objective newspaper on the market in Egypt,” says Mohsen. Unlike some of the other independent Egyptian newspapers, especially the opposition ones, which are clearly partisan or sensationalist, al-Shorouk does not shy away from complexity or controversy, but, like Salama himself, it steers clear of political allegiances and polemics, even in the wake of the revolution. 

But al-Shorouk is not alone, and nor was Egypt’s newfound media freedom built in a day. One of the first newspapers to push the political boundaries to their limit was the opposition al-Dustour, which was set up in 1995 by Ibrahim Eissa in Cyprus, due to Egypt’s restrictive press laws at the time. The government banned the outspoken and oft-sensationalist ‘foreign’ paper in 1998 but it managed to resurface again in 2005.

The growing boldness of Egyptian civil society and the opposition movement has been mirrored in the independent media which, in recent years, has slaughtered most of Egypt’s sacred political cows. For example, the unspoken journalistic taboos which forbade, above all, open criticism of Mubarak in the media was demolished by an increasingly iconoclastic press which openly criticised the then president for refusing to step down, covered rumours of his ill-health and expressed its opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency from his father.

So successful has the independent media been that al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004, quickly overtook the stagnant al-Ahram to become Egypt’s most popular and respected newspaper whose official circulation figures may be a little lower than the government flagship but its actual readership is far higher, according to numerous independent experts. And despite an internet blackout and animosity from the collapsing regime in the early days of the revolution, the more open atmosphere has been good for the independent press. For example, al-Shorouk saw its circulation double to reach 150,000 copies in the first weeks of the uprising.

Although private television, which the government kept on a tight lead, was years behind the printed press, it has come into its own over the past few months. Private channels have developed a niche in prime-time talk shows with key figures in the revolution. One such interview, with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who set up a Facebook page which helped facilitate the revolution, became so iconic that it is credited with giving the revolution a “shot of adrenaline in the heart”, according to Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, at a moment of deadlock when it looked at risk of losing steam.

And state-run broadcasters have not been immune to this trend. “Amr Khaled and Mohamed ElBaradei on state TV. Regular phone-ins from the ‘revolutionary youth’,” observes Shenker. “There is a broadening of the parameters of debate, that’s undeniable.”

So, what does the future hold for Egypt’s media? It is difficult to say and a lot depends on the kind of Egypt which emerges from the ruins of the former regime. On the positive side, Egyptian journalists are enjoying perhaps unprecedented freedoms and a new freedom of information bill which is currently in the pipeline could empower them to do their jobs better.

However, a number of clouds loom on the horizon. One is the self-censorship practised by some journalists weary of getting into a confrontation with Egypt’s de facto interim rulers, the oft-fearsome Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). “The notion of a benign, paternalistic deity at the apex of Egyptian politics remains, except in place of Mubarak we now have SCAF,” reflects Shenker. “And the mindless repetition of regressive narratives designed to delegitimise those who challenge that deity… continues as well, in the realms of both state and private media.”

Although headless, Egypt’s formidable propaganda apparatus is still largely intact. Many Egyptians have called for the complete dismantling of the Ministry of Information and the State Information Service, as well as for the removal of subsidies to the state-owned media.

However, Egyptians should be wary of private ownership too, which is not always beneficial, as the News International scandal in the UK and US is proving. The revolution provides Egyptians with a golden opportunity to learn from their own mistakes and those of the West to redefine the media landscape in a way that promotes truly free journalism.

Government media subsidies can be kept in place but should be channelled through a firewall which ensures independence, while private media should be encouraged, as much as possible, to be set up through non-interfering trusts and foundations.

“Kalam garayed” (“newspaper speak”) has long been a derisive term in Egypt which reflects the intuitive distrust in which Egyptian hold the media. Perhaps in the wake of the tumultuous changes gripping the country, future generations will seek “kalam garayed” as a positive thing.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 12 August 2011.

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The Arab Spring’s bottom line

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By Khaled Diab

The Arab uprisings are not just about democracy and dignity. But with domestic and global economic crises, how likely are they to deliver on bread and butter issues?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The ideals of the ‘Arab Spring’ or have largely been dominated by the high, yet somewhat abstract, demands for liberté and égalité. This ‘Arab Awakening’ has been portrayed as an epic battle pitting the enlightened forces of democracy and dignity against the dark powers of dictatorship and despotism.

Based on this vision, the revolutionary discourse within the Arab world – and public debate beyond it – has mostly focused on making the political process more open and transparent, as well as applying the rule of law fairly and equally. 

While these issues are of critical importance to the future of the region, since they will help ensure that the poor or marginalised are not trampled on by the rich or powerful, and protect minorities from sometimes hostile majorities, the picture is missing a vital element: fraternité

You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow, as a number of mature Western democracies shaken by recent unrest are learning.

In fact, although the uprisings are regularly viewed as something uniquely Arab and separate from the rest of the world, I see them as part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young. In fact, the Arab world and Europe share surprising similar youth unemployment rates (around 20% and 25% respectively). 

That would explain why, a couple of years before young Tunisians and Egyptians took to the streets, their Greek peers across the Mediterranean were out in force protesting not only against police brutality but growing youth unemployment (which stands at over 40%). Despite the ugly and selfish scenes of looting and theft that have accompanied the UK riots, one important factor behind them is the economic and social marginalisation of young people – who are raised in a society of ‘born consumers’ yet too often deprived of their birthright.

This raises the question of why, given the obvious importance of economic justice and the strong presence of labour movements and unions in the protests, issues of job creation, wealth generation and economic solidarity have been left to fester by the wayside? 

In Tunisia, for example, the pace of reform has been incredibly sluggish, with little beyond a cash handout scheme appearing since the revolution. “There hasn’t been enough provided or offered,” one Tunisian economics professor complained. “The few programmes that came were late or insufficient.” 

This is doubly ironic when considering that in Egypt and Tunisia trade unions and workers were a vital driving force behind the protests, holding regular strikes and sit-ins. Even the 6 April youth movement, which called for the first protest of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January, was originally set up to express solidarity with textile workers.

One reason is the nature of the popular uprisings themselves. In Tunisia and Egypt, in order to topple the old order, they needed to appeal to all strata of society – young and old, rich and poor, socialist and conservative. To do this, they focused on the lowest common denominator: regime change, the creation of a level political playing field and the protection of human rights. 

But there has been no consensus about how to proceed on other pressing issues, and the once-united opposition has splintered into political factions. In addition, in Egypt, many of the revolution’s leaders, though young, come from educated and relatively privileged middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, and so few were likely to seriously challenge the country’s underlying economic structure, despite its harsh inequalities. 

Moreover, the surviving elements of the political elite that have been leading the country in the interim have been working hard to ensure that as much of the old system remains intact as possible. Towards that end, Egypt’s supreme council for the armed forces has skewed the post-revolutionary political system, at least in the short term, away from the young and radical and towards more conservative opposition forces. 

This is epitomised by the electoral pact between the liberal al-Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice parties, which numerous analysts say is likely to emerge as the largest bloc in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Although the two parties are bitterly divided over questions of secularism versus religion, which threaten their alliance, they have remarkably similar neo-liberal economic agendas. 

Another factor might be termed the “death of political ideology”. In Arab countries, as in many other parts of the world, neither past socialism nor current neo-liberalism have delivered satisfactory results: one brought a relative equality of poverty while the other reaped a massive inequality of wealth. 

In fact, the Egyptian and Tunisian economies have not been doing at all badly in recent years, yet the fruits have only gone to a small minority with the rest of society excluded from the rewards. And with the high price tag attached to the recent domestic upheavals and global economic fragility, fuelled by the debt crises in the United States and Europe, the economic cake is unlikely to grow much but though the demands on it are likely to do so. 

One part of the solution is to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. But that alone will not bridge the gaping economic chasm. Egypt and Tunisia need to build (and in some cases rebuild) their welfare and solidarity infrastructures.

In Egypt, for example, the interim government has taken some steps in the right direction. The budget for the fiscal year that started in July sets a new government sector minimum wage at LE 700 (£72) per month, which though modest and insufficient will nonetheless boost the incomes of several million people. 

In order to finance such measures, the government is depending partly on foreign donors but also on the gradual introduction of progressive taxation, as well as indirect taxes. In fact, in a country where tax evasion has long been a problem, Egyptian tax revenues have actually risen by 16% – perhaps a sign of a greater sense of ownership of the political process and solidarity.

Still, the tax burden on the wealthier strata of society remains minuscule in comparison with the egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe and, if the Arab democratic spring is not to turn into a winter of economic discontent, then the haves need to do more to empower the have-nots.


This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 12 August 2011. Discussion of this article is available here.

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

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By Khaled Diab

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

Monday 15 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People power: the missing link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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No country for old generals

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By Khaled Diab

In addition to withdrawing from the political front line, the army must also leave justice to the legal system.

Saturday 12 March 2011

The military leadership currently running Egypt is sending out mixed and troubling signals. 

Foremost among them are its continued failure to suspend the state of emergency which has been in place almost continuously since 1967. In the past, emergency laws were used to censor free speech, arrest opposition figures, and allow the police and security agencies to act with impunity.

Under emergency rule, military tribunals also had powers to try civilians in closed sessions, without due process.

The urgency of scrapping the state of emergency could hardly have been demonstrated more graphically than when the Supreme Military Court sentenced an Egyptian protester to five years in prison, in a session lasting only a few short days.

Witnesses and fellow protesters were outraged, arguing that the charges against Amr Abdallah Elbihiry – of assaulting a public official and breaching the curfew – were false.

Human rights activists are convinced that Elbihiry’s real crime was to be protesting at a time when the army wanted to curtail demonstrations.

“It takes them weeks, months, even years to try the criminals, murderers, and money launderers from the regime, yet this young man gets indicted in less than a week,” one outraged activist complained.

Human rights groups have demanded Elbihiry’s immediate release and a retrial before a civilian court. They are also voicing concern over hundreds of other trials which they say have taken place since the Egyptian revolution broke out on January 25.

Protesters and many other Egyptians, too, are troubled by the army’s apparent will to stifle protest. They see this as a breach of the good faith the military professes, and a contradiction of its claim to recognise that people were making legitimate demands during the revolution.

The army’s decision, shortly after Mubarak’s forced resignation, to clear protestors from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, may indeed have been motivated by a desire to return the country to normality. Similarly, its calls to workers to end strikes and return may stem from worries about the impact the revolution was having on the Egyptian economy.

However, the army has done little to reassure the public or meet the demands made by the protesters. Rather, its actions have only succeeded in ensuring that protests will drag on far longer than necessary, as demonstrated by the mass rallies that have taken place on a weekly basis since the army took effective control of the country.

At the same time, there have been some promising signs of the continuing momentum of the revolution, such as the March 4 resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a man appointed by ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

The final nail in the coffin for Shafiq’s political career came in a heated televised debate with prominent opposition figures, during which this one-time air force chief and aviation minister proved that he was out of touch with the popular mood and the new realities of Egypt.

Not only did Shafiq persist in claiming that he did not know who was behind the violence perpetrated by Mubarak loyalists on what has become known as ‘Bloody Wednesday’, he also defended the need to keep in place, albeit in altered form, the state security apparatus that is so widely reviled by Egyptians.

His replacement as prime minister, the respected academic Essam Sharaf, also served as a minister under Mubarak for a time, but resigned in disgust at the corruption surrounding him. Sharaf took part in the revolution and was among the names that the opposition put forward as an acceptable interim premier.

Protesters have also been gratified by many of the proposed amendments to the constitution which will be voted on in a referendum on 19 March, and which are intended to facilitate free elections until such time as a new parliament drafts a permanent constitution.

Nevertheless, a number of unresolved issues remain, including the excessive powers granted to the president, which the amendments leave untouched.

Although the army still commands a great deal of respect among the population, it may be misreading the situation. Like the Mubarak regime before it, although to a lesser degree, it underestimates the will and determination of the people, and their newfound confidence that they alone can and will build the Egypt of tomorrow.

The military does not appear to have a single cohesive approach. There is the conservative old guard, especially within the army’s high command, represented by the commander-in-chief, Field-Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. This grouping seems convinced that procrastination coupled with some superficial changes is going to be enough to appease the public.

Then there are the pragmatists, such as the army’s second-in-command and chief-of-staff Sami Hafez Anan, who appear to realise that the game is up and that Egyptians will no longer tolerate a politicised army.

But especially among middle-ranking officers and ordinary soldiers, there are those who actually believe in and support the revolution, and hence wish to engineer the swiftest possible transition to democratic civilian rule.

Those within this camp are, as the weathered expression has it, on the right side of history, and the rest of the army would do well to fall in line with them, if it wants to avoid squandering the affection and respect it has earned thus far in the revolution.

One immediate and easy way of boosting public confidence would be to annul the state of emergency, used to unfairly punish and even kill untold numbers of Egyptians over the years. It is disingenuous for the army to argue, as it has done so far, that it will abolish the law once the situation stabilises.

One of the reasons that life has not returned to normal is precisely because annulling the emergency laws is one of the most fundamental, core demands of the revolution. The continued misuse of these laws, as in Elbihiry’s case, will only serve to further feed the cycle of dissatisfaction and protest.

Post-revolutionary Egypt cannot continue with a state of emergency in place. What is needed instead is a state of freedom, dignity, equality and opportunity for all citizens. And the sooner the army comprehends this political reality, the better it will be for everyone.

 This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 8 March 2011.


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Indiana Hawass and the pharaoh’s curse

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By Osama Diab

Zahi Hawass may liken himself to Indiana Jones, but the minister of antiquities is one artifact of the old regime Egyptians want to live without.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s top archaeologists, symbolises the point where our proud and glorious past intersects with a bleak and uncertain present. In the minds of many Egyptians, he is associated with Egypt’s modern corrupt rulers rather than the great pharaohs of ancient times.

In Arabic, the word ‘pharaoh’ always has positive connotations except when it’s used to describe an absolute and ruthless ruler or manager. This is exactly the kind of pharaoh Hawass was in the eyes of many of his compatriots.

Since Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office, protests that demanded the removal of Hawass from his position as minister of antiquities were uninterrupted. These were held by fellow archaeologists, the guards of heritage sites, or simply Tahrir Square protesters who see him as an antiquity that they have no interest in embalming from the era of Egypt’s most recent pharaoh, Mubarak.

This pressure has yielded results and Hawass did lose the job he was offered during the 18-day revolution in a cabinet shuffle that aimed, but failed, to calm down angry anti-Mubarak protesters.

If Egyptian archaeology was a country, then certainly Hawass would be its Mubarak. Just like his former boss, he is besieged by allegations about his business interests, accusations of turning Egypt’s archaeology into a one-man show by claiming credit for scientific findings and being the sole speaker about Egyptology in the local and international media. Of course, he’s also committed the unforgivable sin of being one of Mubarak’s favourite men.

Hawass is the epitome of the kind of self-centred, egocentric and possibly charismatic figure that the revolution has risen against, along with the kind of Mubarak-era politics he used to symbolise. Even though he’s been called Egypt’s Indiana Jones, the name that probably describes him best is his very own, Zahi, which means vain or conceited in Arabic.

Evidence of his narcissistic personality is not difficult to find. In April, he launched a clothing line named after himself in Harrods, and his latest book, A Secret Voyage, is Egypt’s most expensive book ever, carrying a price tag of 22,000 Egyptian pounds (about £2,300) with only 750 copies printed, and all signed by Egyptian archaeologists.

With his rock-star attitude, Hawass might have managed to bring archaeology more into the headlines – not necessarily because of his fine discoveries or first-class research, but mainly because of his rather eccentric behaviour. Even though the man was, or made himself, synonymous with Egyptian archaeology in the minds of many, whoever succeeds Hawass is certainly not going to be the media sensation he managed to be. Hawass will be missed by journalists searching for colourful and amusing stories, but unlike his ancestors, this pharaoh’s mystique might be short-lived as a symbol of an unpopular bygone era in Egypt’s history.

The sacking of Hawass, Egypt’s latest victim of the revolution, shows that the 18-day revolution was only the mother of numerous baby revolutions against little pharaohs or mini-Mubaraks in ministries, universities, factories, political parties and so on, and his departure marks another victory for those trying to clear the country of its deep-rooted authoritarianism.

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 22 July 2011. Discussion of this article is available here. Republished with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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