Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

 
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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod were confident that their campaign, which was dreamed up in a small Dokki flat, would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barack Obama’s plan to “listen” when he visits Israel and Palestine is not enough, the US president must act to launch a people’s peace process.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Sages through the ages have told us that listening is a virtue – and US President Barack Obama is apparently heeding their advice. According to the new US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama “wants to listen” during his upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

But is this wise?

“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry explained. And more recently, a senior US official noted: “The Israelis and Palestinians must decide what they want to do, and we’ll be happy to help.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible course of action. One of the things the United States is most regularly criticised for is its dictatorial foreign policy tendency to impose its will on smaller countries.

In addition, the sympathetic and optimistic might read into Obama’s reticence a judicious and prudent silence. After all, if Washington plans to (re-)launch a serious new bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama may be keeping his cards close to his chest, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of peace and the potentially dire consequences of further failure.

But judging by Obama’s first term and the state of the union speech inaugurating his second – in which the only mention of the Holy Mess was the president’s reiteration of his oft-repeated pledge to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” – “listening”, the sceptic in me is tempted to conclude, sounds a lot like code for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo has been the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, as I predicted even before he became president and after his famous Cairo speech.

“The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US,” Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. And in case anyone was in any doubt that this would be more than a photo-op, Obama will be feted wherever he goes and offered the Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit – perhaps in an effort by Shimon Peres to exercise damage control following Binyamin Netanyahu’s disastrous attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process.

And if media reports are to be believed, security, or at least the illusion of it, will trump peace. The American president, Israel’s Channel 10 has claimed, intends to tell Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June 2013.

So, rather than chart a course towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s visit could trigger a plunge towards regional conflict. Meanwhile, the true “window of opportunity” and key to Israel’s future security, the Palestinians, will be ignored, relegated to non-issue status, even if they deserve their freedom and dignity, rather like they were during the Israeli elections.

However, Palestinian impatience and frustration is simmering near boiling point – with renewed talk of a third intifada, though a full-scale uprising has yet to erupt – as reflected in the collective prisoner hunger strike and demonstrations to end detention without trial following the death in Israeli custody of Arafat Jaradat.

But inaction on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not an option – at least not for anyone desiring a better and fairer future, and avoiding future escalations of the conflict. In addition, if Obama wishes to secure a lasting legacy for his presidency and to earn the Nobel peace prize he was prematurely awarded, he must do more than listen. He must take robust action.

But what can and should the American president do?

Well, freed of the spectre of re-election, Obama has the space, if he so wishes, to work towards radically redefining the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, in my view, is for him to announce publicly that the failed, discredited and ineffective Oslo process will be abandoned.

One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. To address this shortcoming, Obama should announce his intention to turn peace mediation into a truly multilateral process not only by giving the toothless Quartet real teeth but also by bringing in the Arab League and other influential and important members of the international community.

In order to focus the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ minds, Obama should harness and mobilise all the diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks at his disposal – and encourage international partners to do the same.

For example, he should significantly downsize US military aid to Israel – though this seems highly improbably, given new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances that American military assistance would continue, even as the United States hangs precariously off a fiscal cliff – and security assistance to the PA. Obama should also make continued aid to both sides contingent on progress towards peace. In Gaza, where far too many sticks have been deployed, inhumanely and ineffectually, Obama should offer to end its destructive international isolation and he should start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership – perhaps even visiting the Strip, which would be a huge symbolic act of peace and conciliation.

Of course, as decades of foreign meddling going back to the 1947 partition plan and before have clearly demonstrated, there can be no lasting resolution without broad domestic buy-in, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

This involves forcing the leaders on both sides – who are blighted with serious visionary myopia, lack courage, represent too many vested interests, and suffer from ideological paralysis and ineptitude – to take action by giving representatives of every strata of Palestinian and Israeli society seats at the negotiating table.

This may seem like a recipe for chaos, disaster and deadlock, but I am convinced that direct public dialogue and participation is essential if this impasse is ever to be overcome. One factor that has held back a peace deal, even at the most pragmatic and optimistic of times, is the fear that the negotiators would not be able to sell the agreement to their respective constituencies, particularly the radical elements among them.

By involving the public from the start, the entire process is given democratic legitimacy and ensures that there will be a groundswell of popular opinion for any accord when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Moreover, such a process would allow an honest public debate to emerge, within both societies and between them, which would most likely strengthen the hand of moderates and pragmatists, allowing the emergence of robust pro-peace alliances, and would shed light on who the true villains of the peace are.

Most importantly perhaps, public involvement would challenge the current levels of endemic popular apathy, cynicism, distrust and despair by empowering people to take direct responsibility for their future, and that of their children. And with apathy and despair, the best allies of extremists, out of the way, pragmatism and moderation might finally win the day.

Some might wonder how on earth you’re going to get two such fractured and divided societies, not to mention determined foes, to agree on the colour of the stationery, let alone the outlines of a comprehensive peace deal.

Well, poll after poll after poll keep suggesting to us that the public in Israel and Palestine are more sensible than their leaders, so it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test. Moreover, “comprehensive” is unlikely to happen, because as bitter experience shows, no wand exists to magic away decades of animosity and wrong turns.

Instead, we should take an immediate and incremental approach. Anything agreed on by the majority of people on both sides, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, should be put to an immediate referendum and implemented straight away. This would gradually improve the situation, create positive momentum, and build a house of peace, shalom, salom, or even salom, one brick at a time.

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear,” Obama said in Cairo, at the beginning of his first term. I hope he lives up to this responsibility by supporting and facilitating a peace of the people, by the people and for the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

Contrary to the distorted and Cairo-centric media view of Egypt, Egyptians have an extraordinary breadth of views about  revolutionising their country.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

I have been horrified by some of the Western news coverage of Egypt. It seemed from British and American outlets that the Salafis were in power, that the pyramids were about to be blown up, the temples covered in wax, tourism brought to an end… the shock-horror stories abounded and no-one seemed to question the reality of these rather creative ‘reports’.

I love Egypt, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to find out for myself. I began to read Arab and Western news, Arab blogs of all persuasions, and two striking realisations became immediately obvious. One was that the news could not be trusted (duh!) and the other was a more complex realisation: Egypt now has elbow room for political discussion, but no real practical political experience or knowledge to draw upon.

It was like reading the idealistic debates of middle-class, first year political science undergraduates with no life experience. Add to the pot the constant silly declarations from rather smug religious ‘spokesmen’ intent on displaying how ‘pure’ they are… It made for pretty depressing reading.

So the crunch came: I had to go back and see for myself, hear the voices, look at the situation on the ground and come to my own conclusions. I went with no political or religious agenda: I have no political alignment, and I am not active in any particular religion, but I am not an atheist either. I felt, deep in my gut, that it was really important not to judge the situation based on these superficial presentations, not to have preformed ideas and to try and listen to the voices without filtering them through my own cultural and spiritual values. The voices need to be understood from within the struggle….after all the solution comes from within, not from without.

I talked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to Catholics, Copts, secularists, people in the souk, the bus drivers, expats, regular visitors and I even managed to find a neo-fascist white supremacist. I talked to whoever I could, which caused a bit of a stir to action by the tourist police and the security services at one point. Needless to say I was not hauled off and slung in jail and after a couple of hours of fevered phone calls, furtive discussions and sideways glances, I was off the hook. Phew.

The voices on the street told me of the joy of freedom finally and the growing unease regarding the gradual collapse of law and order, the piles of rubbish, fear of the growing sense of power and arrogance among the Salafis, and the lack of tourists and their money. The feeling on the streets lurched from desperation to euphoria and then seemed to settle into a slow dawn of understanding of just how hard it is going to be to get Egypt on its feet.

I went through similar swings of emotion and the enormity of the task Egypt has ahead of her is still unfolding itself before me, as my understanding of the complexity of the situation grows. In reality, there is no real government, but there are technocrats put in place to keep the wheels turning while Egypt decides her next move. Although President Mohamed Morsi was heavily criticised for the appointments in his cabinet, in truth there was little else he could have done. Few people outside of the old regime know how to actually run the country, and the nearest contender is the Muslim Brotherhood with their long experience in social work. A situation oft described as being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The secularists wanted a revolutionary government but what do they mean by that? They wanted new ideas people. What new ideas? Who would implement them and how? The country is currently teetering on the edge of collapse. It does not need experimental ideas for now, but requires the kind of stability that can act as a foundation upon which new ideas, once properly and practically formed, can be cemented. And those new ideas need to come from a place of understanding, of knowing the long-term effects and ramifications of the practical application of a specific policy. I was truly saddened to see just how fragmented, politically illiterate (in terms of actual application) and out of touch the secular opposition is. A strong opposition keeps a government in check and prepares to become a government itself.

The dizzying array of various socialist workers parties, their parroting of outdated Marxist speak acquired from text books and their complete inability to truly connect with and understand the vast voting underbelly of the country brought to mind a scene from the 1979 Monty Python comedy film The Life of Brian. There is a wonderful scene in which the Jewish underclass, straining under Roman military rule, are assembled for a day at the Colosseum and begin a discussion about revolution. It quickly dissolves into spats between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front… you get the idea.

I mean really? A 19th century political theory dreamed up by a couple of Germans and expanded upon by the Russians (who immediately began squabbling and fragmenting into factions)? And you think anything born out of that era and culture is going to even remotely fit in Egypt? It would be like feeding Russian boiled cabbage to Sicilians. Similarly, Adam Smith’s free market economic theory would fit Egypt like a round peg in a square hole. And don’t get me started on the remote possibility of a theocracy…shudder…. Egypt needs its own structure: take a lesson from the West… we made a mess, don’t copy us; grow your own sustainable future, that way it will last.

During my visit, there was so much information, so many voices that had important and valuable things to say that it is impossible to do them justice in one article. So over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of articles and two in-depth interviews (on with an FJP parliamentarian and the other with a secularist). I want to cover the many political, religious, economic and gender issues that emerged from the conversations: people spoke passionately, honestly and from the heart and I want these voices, voices from the streets and villages far away from Cairo to have a chance to be heard.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Social media and the end of nationalism as we know it

 
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By Osama Diab

As social media strip away the space and time separating like-minded people, is the notion of “nationalism” becoming too small for us?

Friday 8 June 2012

Not in the very distant past, the media and media platforms were mostly specific to individual countries, and the interactivity and communicativeness of traditional media was very minimal. Unlike social media, people from two ends of the world were unable to communicate directly and form communities using traditional media, such as radio or TV. The rise of social media has given rise to virtual spaces in which virtual communities can be formed and flourish. But what effect will this have on actual physical spaces and communities that are based on geographical proximity?

The idea of cosmopolitanism can be traced back thousands of years at least to the time of ancient Greek philosophy. However, historically, cosmopolitanism was confined to philosophy and was limited to haughty debate among philosophers, sociologists and academics. This might be changing now, and due to the renewed interest in globalisation, cosmopolitanism might find its way to the grassroots level. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist argues that “[cosmopolitanism] has left the realm of philosophical castles in the air and has entered reality”.

Nationalism, based on geography, wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the mass media. Benedict Anderson, the Irish scholar, argues that print-capitalism laid the bases for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print-langauges capable of dissemination through the market”. Today, the world is becoming more compressed in terms of time and space, crushed by faster transportation and communication, and the closing of distances this involves. When we take into consideration the speed at which data travels, time and space actually almost completely collapse.

Will our unprecedented ability to communicate through time and space increase the scope of imagined “national” communities? If nationalism in essence is the ability to identify and belong to a people in a particular geographical area, what are the factors that determine the size and the scope of this area of community?

Benedict Anderson famously argues in his book Imagined Communities that speakers of the different variety of English, French, and Spanish who would often find it difficult to understand one another, became able to communicate and understand through print and paper. They then became aware of the other similar people in their ‘langauge-field’, forming the so-called imagined communities. Driven by the capitalists’ desire to enlarge markets, they pushed out the boundaries of their community to form larger communities.

Anderson links the emergence of nationalist ideologies with the emergence of print capitalism. According to Anderson’s theory, the limit of which people will imagine a community is, at least, partially dependent on the media they share and the interest of media owners (the capitalists) in unifying factors, such as language, in order to get a larger amount of people to consume their products. In this process, many minority languages and cultures might be suppressed, but nevertheless, bridges of understanding and empathy are arguably built. So what happens when the media cross national boundaries to cover the whole globe and the interests of capitalists becomes transnational?

In a similar manner to how profit-driven capitalism encouraged the “assembly”, or convergence, of vernaculars into a single language, enabling people identify with a larger community for the first time, the modern multinational corporation and global media encourages people to “learn” a global language. This phenomenon is like Anderson’s print-capitalism but on a much larger scale.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese corporate strategist, states that global firms must share a common language and that mother country identity must give way to corporate identity. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca inevitably intensifies the level of communication and shared cultural experiences between people from different parts of the world at an unprecedented rate.

Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish social anthropologist, argues that in order for a transnational corporation to operate in a global world, it must not have ties with any particular location and develop a more decentralised approach by getting rid of the central headquarters mentality. The global forward-looking firms must create a system of values to be shared by company managers regardless of their backgrounds or whereabouts to replace “the glue nation-based orientation once provided”.

This is why in multinational or transnational corporations, who in some cases, are bigger, wealthier and more powerful than states, the role of the human resource management is to create a culture and identity for the company which will develop a feeling of loyalty similar to that citizens feel towards a state. In this model, the corporation an employee works for becomes part of their identity in what Hannerz calls the “transnational source of identity”. The same applies to social and political movements which share the same cause. The “we are the 99%” slogan is mostly associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but was used in many other Occupy camps around the world.

Paradoxically, the very regime that created and was the engine behind globalised free trade is now being fought and criticised using the tools and weapons it created. If we take Occupy activists from two different countries as an example, they would probably communicate and coordinate in English using Google Mail, Facebook or Skype and transfer money through an HSBC account and they might even book a conference hall in the Hilton for their annual meeting. This makes the anti-globalisation movement quite globalised and highly reliant on transnational corporate brands to express its anti-corporate sentiments.

It seems inevitable that we, and more certainly future generations, will be less likely to identify ourselves primarily in terms of a narrow geographical areas, and more likely to associate along more cosmopolitan lines, according to political or cultural identity, for example. This will require a new approach to studying these phenomena such as Beck’s “cosmopolitan sociology”.

It might be useful here to draw on Raymond Williams theory of the three cultural moments: dominant, emergent and residual. In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

Cosmopolitanism is no longer a naïve and rosy vision that the world will become more pacifistic and a better place to live, but rather a perception of the self where national borders play a less significant role in the modern person’s identity, or rather multiple identities. It is also useful not to view cosmopolitanism and nationalism as conflicting and mutually exclusive. Human beings are capable of ‘hosting’ multiple identities. Therefore, the growth in cosmopolitanism doesn’t instantly suggest a decline in nationalism, but would just add a new layer of empathy which is the ‘cosmo’, or the globe, that wasn’t commonplace before due to the relative limitation in means of transport and communication.

It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity. An Egyptian Marxist might be able to identify more with an Italian Marxist than with a ‘fellow’ Egyptian Islamist. Amid the increasing importance and impact of virtual places, geographic spaces will begin to face some serious competition. Sharing your concerns with someone thousands miles away from you while thinking of your next door neighbour as a stranger might be an increasing phenomenon in the near future.

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ركوب حافلة المدرسة معاً في القدس

 
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بوجود تفاعل محدود بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين كيف يمكننا منع الأصوات المتطرّفة من الكلام
بلغ انعدام الثقة بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين درجة أن كل تصرّف تقريباً من قبل الطرف الآخر يُنظَر إليه عبر منشور الشك والريبة. خذ على سبيل المثال خط قطار القدس الخفيف. عندما يبدأ هذا القطار عمله قريباً، سوف يصل غرب المدينة اليهودي مع شرقها الفلسطيني.

ينظر العديد من الفلسطينيين، الذين ينتابهم القلق حول التوسع الاستيطاني الإسرائيلي المستمر، إلى القطار الجديد على أنه جزء من خطة إسرائيلية لإحكام القبضة على مدينة القدس بأكملها، وليس كخدمة نقل مفيدة. بالنسبة للعديد من الإسرائيليين، فإن فكرة مشاركة الفلسطينيين كركّاب هي احتمال يثير الخوف والبغضاء.

ويعود ذلك جزئياً إلى أنه بوجود اتصال شخصي محدد بين الجانبين، فإن أصوات المتطرفين هي الأعلى. ويعتبر تجنب الوصول إلى هذا الوضع النهائي من انعدام الثقة رحلة طويلة يجب أن تبدأ مبكراً بقدر الإمكان في الحياة. قد يكون إقناع الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين أن يصبحوا زملاء في ركوب الحافلة المدرسية، على سبيل المثال، واحداً من أكبر التحديات التي تواجه هؤلاء الذين يسعون لتحقيق مستقبل من التعايش المشترك.

تهدف شبكة “يداً بيد” التعليمية الثنائية اللغة إلى توفير فرصة كهذه بالضبط. تتكون الشبكة التي تأسست عام 1997 من قبل عامل اجتماعي إسرائيلي أمريكي، هو لي غوردون ومعلم فلسطيني إسرائيلي هو أمين خلف، من أربع مدارس يستطيع فيها اليهود والفلسطينيون الإسرائيليون الدراسة معاً باللغتين العربية والعبرية. وتقع أكبر المدارس، والتي تضم 500 تلميذ في مدينة القدس.

تمشّياً مع هدف المدرسة بتشجيع المساواة التامة بين العرب واليهود، لا يعرف التلاميذ أحياناً بل لا يهمهم عرقية زملائهم في المدرسة. “لا ينظر التلاميذ في المدرسة إلى بعضهم بعضاً كيهود أو عرب، بل يستخدمون معايير خاصة بهم” يشرح أيرا كيريم العامل الاجتماعي الأمريكي، ودليلي هذا اليوم. “الأمور التي تهمهم هي أمور مثل: هل هذا الشخص مادة لصديق جيد، هل هذا التلميذ جيد المعشر، هل يجيد لعبة كرة القدم؟”

“نتعلم أن نحب الناس لشخصيتهم وليس للمكان الذي يأتون منه أو لدينهم.” تقول روث، وهي تلميذة يهودية.

رغم ذلك، ورغم أفضل جهود المدرسة فإن عدم المساواة يزحف إلى المعادلة. نظرياً يجب أن يضمن توجيه المدرسة ثنائي اللغة أن يصبح جميع الطلبة على كفاءة متساوية في العبرية والعربية، تشرح إيناس ديب، المسؤولة عن البرامج التعليمية في المدرسة.

“إلا أن التلاميذ العرب بشكل عام يتكلمون العبرية بصورة أفضل مما يتكلّم التلاميذ اليهود اللغة العربية”، تقول السيدة ديب. “العبرية هي اللغة السائدة … يتكلم التلاميذ العرب العبرية خارج المدرسة، بعكس معظم التلاميذ اليهود ]الذين لا يتكلمون العربية[“.

رغم هذه الفروقات اللغوية، التي تعمل المدرسة وأهالي الطلبة على التعامل معها، يؤكد التلاميذ على الشعور العام بالمساواة والثقة. “لا توجد فروقات هنا بين التلاميذ اليهود والفلسطينيين. بعكس الوضع خارج المدرسة، نشعر هنا بالمساواة” يوافق مؤيد وجوهان، وهما مراهقان فلسطينيان يدرسان في المدرسة.

ولكن واقع المدينة المقسّمة ليس بعيداً أبداً عن بوابات المدرسة. عندما أصرّيت على سؤال التلميذين الصغيرين عما إذا كانا يتفاعلان اجتماعياً مع أصدقائهم اليهود، أجابا بالإيجاب، ولكنهما أشارا إلى أن الجيران اليهود والفلسطينيين ليسوا دائماً متسامحين ومتفهّمين.

تفعل مدرسة “يداً بيد” كما يشير اسمها، ما بوسعها لتشجيع الحوار الصادق والاحترام المتبادل بين التلاميذ والأهالي على حد سواء، يقول كيريم، “ندرّس أن سفك الدماء لن يحل النزاع أو يحقق السلام”، تضيف السيدة ديب.

ورغم أن ذلك يدعو إلى الثناء، فإن السؤال حول الفرق الذي حققه بضعة ألاف من الأطفال درسوا “يداً بيد” وغيرها من المدارس المماثلة هو سؤال مثير للمشاعر. “ليست لدينا مشاعر زائفة بأن هذه المدرسة سوف تحقق السلام بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين” يعترف أحد الآباء اليهود الإسرائيليين لي. “ولكن يتوجب عليك أن تفعل شيئاً، وكل شيء مهما كان صغيراً يحقق فرقاً. ويتوجب عليك أن تبدأ بنفسك”.

“توفر هذه المدرسة بصيصاً من الأمل للمستقبل، ولأجل أطفالنا، نحتاج لأن نوفر لهم كل قدر ممكن من الأمل”، أضافت صديقته الحميمة، وهي أم فلسطينية.

ولكن حتى يتسنى الإبقاء على هذا الأمل منيراً، وربما المساعدة على زيادة جذوة اشتعاله فإننا نحتاج للدعم. تعتمد “يداً بيد” في ثلث تمويلها على الأقل على التبرعات الدولية الخاصة، التي تأثرت كثيراً بالتباطؤ الاقتصادي. إذا فشلت في الحصول على المزيد من الأموال فقد تضطر للحد من نشاطاتها.

رأي كاتب هذا المقال أن “يداً بيد” لا تستحق المساعدة فحسب، ولكن هذا النوع من التعليم ثنائي اللغة يجب أن يتوفّر بشكل عالمي أكثر حتى يتسنى مساعدة الأجيال المقبلة على تعلّم العيش معاً.

 
This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service on 26 July 2011.
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Can peace be as simple as child’s play?

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict they have inherited. So can joint schools help them learn to live together?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict and conflict is the ‘normal’ backdrop to their childhoods, which can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.

In terms of the future, perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood here is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating the hatred, distrust and fear that fuel the conflict.

One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers rather than foes. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.

Set up in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is currently made up of four schools. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art $11-million Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is of part-Lebanese heritage, also visited the school in her capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, much to the delight of the school kids.

Lacking her talent and celebrity, the buzz of excitement and the frenzied commotion surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence but were what you’d expect from hundreds of youngsters counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom on the last day of term. The key difference was that the kids in question were speaking an organic mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language and dress as a guide, to tell them apart.

And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can’t tell one another apart or don’t care to. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the
corridors. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

In addition, the conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension. “During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn’t let it get in the way of our friendships,” describe Mu’eed.

Hand in Hand promotes honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.

This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Palestinian-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum. “Palestine’s history was a missing link in our history lessons,” observed Hatem Mater, a father at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand’s pupils. “I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth.”

Although this is commendable, how much difference can Hand in Hand and other schools like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation. Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.  This motivation is similar to the one that drove the Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to settle together for the past four decades.

“We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and
Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts – change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself.”

And this gradual change can be viewed in the shifting attitudes of the parents
themselves. “My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me,” writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school who defines herself as Orthodox, which shows that, despite stereotypes, it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. “Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” a Palestinian mother told me.

Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.

This article first appeared in The National on 29 July 2011.

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Riding the school bus together in Jerusalem

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schooling has the potential to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis. So why aren’t there more of them?

Arabic version

Thursday 28 July 2011

Pupils joyously evacuate the school for the summer. ©Photo:Khaled Diab

The mutual distrust between Israelis and Palestinians is such that almost every action by the other side is viewed through a prism of suspicion. Take the Jerusalem light railway. When it finally starts operating, it will connect the Jewish west of the city with the Palestinian east.

Many Palestinians, concerned over Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion, see the new tram not as a useful transportation service but as part of an Israeli plan to cement its grip on the whole of Jerusalem. For many Israelis, the idea of becoming fellow passengers with Palestinians is a prospect that elicits both fear and loathing.

This is partly because, with little personal contact between the two sides, the voices of extremists are the loudest. Avoiding an arrival at this terminal state of distrust is a long journey that should start as early as possible in life. Perhaps persuading Israelis and Palestinians to become fellow passengers on the school bus, so to speak, is one of the biggest challenges facing those who seek a future of coexistence.

The Hand in Hand bilingual education network aims to provide just such an opportunity. Founded in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the network is currently comprised of four schools where Israeli-Jews and Palestinians can study together in both Arabic and Hebrew. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

In line with the school’s aim of promoting complete equality between Arabs and Jews, the children often don’t know or care about the ethnicity of their schoolmates. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like: is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

“We learn to love people for who they are more than where they come from or what religion they believe in,” writes Ruth, a Jewish pupil, in a letter to an American supporter.

Nevertheless, despite the school’s best efforts, inequalities do creep in. In theory, the school’s bilingual approach should ensure that all the pupils become equally proficient in Hebrew and Arabic, explains Inas Deeb, who is in charge of educational programmes at the school.

“However, Arab pupils generally speak better Hebrew than Jewish pupils speak Arabic,” says Deeb. “Hebrew is the dominant language… Arab kids speak Hebrew outside the school, unlike most of the Jewish kids [who do not speak Arabic].”

Despite these linguistic disparities, which the school and parents are working to tackle, pupils confirm the general sense of equality and trust. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city is never far from the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

As its name suggests, Hand in Hand does its best to promote honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike, says Kerem. “We teach that bloodletting will not resolve the conflict or bring about peace,” adds Deeb.

Although this is commendable, the question of how much difference the few thousand children who have studied at Hand in Hand and other schools like it can make is a poignant one. “We have no illusions that this school will bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts. And you have to start with yourself.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” his good friend, a Palestinian mother, chimed in.

But to keep this glimmer alight and perhaps help it burn more intensely requires support. Hand in Hand depends for at least a third of its funding on international private donations, which have been hit hard by the global recession. If it fails to raise more funds, it may be forced to cut back its activities.

It is the opinion of this author that not only does Hand in Hand deserve a helping hand, but that this kind of bilingual education should become more universally available in order to help the next generations to learn to live together.

This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service on 26 July 2011.

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Egypt’s counter-revolutionary bogeyman

 
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By Osama Diab

Fear of retaliation from the old regime shouldn’t be used to limit Egyptians’ hard-won freedoms and attack peaceful protesters.

Monday 2 May 2011

Egyptian hopes for a more democratic future were crushed on Friday when security forces from the police and military raided Tahrir Square in Cairo, leaving two people dead and arresting 41. The army blamed counter-revolutionary elements for provoking the clashes and denied responsibility for the bloodshed.

The attacks on protesters came two weeks after the recently appointed cabinet passed a law restricting protests. The minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelaziz el-Guindy, told Egyptian television that this was a measure to protect the revolution.

The violence in Tahrir wasn’t the only act justified with this scapegoat. The demolition of Sufi shrines, the burning of a Christian church in Atfih and the subsequent violence, and even labour strikes and sit-ins have all been described as counter-revolutionary acts.

The law, which was approved by the ruling supreme council of the armed forces in the absence of a parliament, makes participating in protests and strikes that hinder the work of public institutions or authorities during a state of emergency illegal. This kind of vagueness and open-endedness could make any strike or protest subject to this law, which provides for punishment of up to three years in prison.

Deposed president Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years with an emergency law that was instituted after the assassination of former president Anwar el-Sadat by Islamists in 1981. Since then, Mubarak used Islamists as an excuse to crack down on any attempt at political change. Just a few hours before leaving office, he told Christiane Amanpour of ABC television that if he left now, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

With a new military regime in place, signs of similar Mubarak tactics are starting to emerge. This time, Islamists, last season’s scare tactic, are replaced with the remnants of the previous regime – Egypt’s new bogeyman.

This fear of a counter-revolution could potentially be extended to include all sorts of freedoms. Restrictions could be put on the media and civil society, for example, claiming that some of its elements are part of a counter-revolutionary plan.

The law against demonstrations, nevertheless, was welcomed by many to end the “politics of the street” in which whoever has control over the streets of Egypt has influence over public policy.

Despite the harm that might occur from taking every simple demand to the streets during this critical time, this should have been dealt with through swift reforms rather than criminalising protests.

Political stability is always something to aspire to, but the best means of achieving it is still up for debate. What Egypt needs now is genuine stability driven by social equality, political freedom and a fair enforcement of law, rather than a fake stability imposed by oppressive laws and the heavy hand of brutal security. The policies of Mubarak and his cohort of Arab dictators have all led to instability, despite an endless number of oppressive laws and brutal security forces.

There are plenty of existing laws that could be used against remnants of Mubarak’s regime who try to instigate chaos. Corruption, hooliganism and vandalism are already punishable in the courts.

“Any move to curb freedom of assembly and the right to strike in Egypt would be an alarming step backwards and an insult to those who risked – and lost – their lives calling for change over the last two months,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said.

Egypt has had enough of the politics of fear and division, and if the revolution is to achieve its goals, loose accusations of “counter-revolution” should not be used by any group to win support or justify actions that otherwise cannot be justified.

Until now, no one has had a clear understanding of what this counter-revolutionary threat is, what its goals are, what is it trying to achieve, or its methods of achieving it. But it has been used by some groups to accuse their opponents and abused by those in power to restrict freedoms.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 April 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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The Muslim Brotherhood: empowered by its weakness

 
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By Osama Diab

The revolution in Egypt succeeded because it had no Islamist  face, and the Muslim Brotherhood has benefited from maintaining a soft presence.

3 March 2011

Many were terrified that if Egypt’s imposed, relatively secular Mubarak regime collapsed, things might go the Islamist way. Based on this conception (or misconception), many had favoured President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship to elections that might bring men with beards who would ban females from driving, throw stones at adulterers and arrest unveiled women.

The ousted president, in his last interview with ABC’s Christiana Amanpour a few days before he stepped down, threatened that if he left office the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt — a rhetoric his regime long used to scare people of change.

However, Tahrir Square had a different story to tell. The demands were simple, basic and quite universal: a new constitution, democratic elections, the end of the state of emergency, and the fall of Mubarak and his corrupt regime. We didn’t see a single protester demanding the application of sharia law or the restoration of the Islamic caliphate during the 18-day revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood was actually a late participant rather than the driving force behind the revolution. The Brotherhood’s weak presence actually gave hope and encouraged many who were hesitant to join the party in Tahrir Square. The number of protesters increased every day, of whom many were liberal, secular Egyptians.

We also witnessed the White House and the West gradually abandoning Mubarak after a long history of support for his regime, possibly encouraged by the fact that the revolution was not an ‘anti-everything-Western’ uprising led by the mullahs, or perhaps embarrassed by not supporting a peaceful revolution with universal, legitimate demands. One of the reasons behind this revolution’s success was its peaceful and diverse nature, representing people from a wide range of sectors of Egyptian society.

As a result of the revolution – in which the Brotherhood was just one group among many other political groups and parties – the Brotherhood decided to set up a civil political party named the Freedom and Justice Party, open to all Egyptians to join, including Coptic Christians and people of other faiths. The prospective party also took out any reference to religion or Islam from its name following the example of the ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development party.

The Brotherhood was previously portrayed as a mighty political organisation by the regime itself as a way to attract the support of those who opposed them inside and outside Egypt and to help maintain the status quo. I personally have often been asked, at the first sign of my criticising Mubarak, if I would prefer the Brotherhood, as if there were no third option.

The Egyptian revolution has reduced everyone including the Brotherhood to their actual size, since now everything is more transparent and the regime’s many propaganda arms are no longer interested in repeating the collapsed regime’s lies. No revolution would have happened had it been driven by radical Islamists, just as the Muslim Brotherhood would not have fared so well without this relatively secular revolution. This means that everyone, including the Brotherhood itself, has benefited from finally displaying the real size of this Islamist party, which is significantly smaller than what we were made to believe.

Mubarak gave the Brotherhood anabolic steroids, so to speak, so as to represent them as a threat to those who are not in favour of having another trouble-making theocracy in the region. He did that while cracking down on all other secular opposition that might have represented a favourable alternative to his regime in the West and for the many Egyptians not supportive of the Brotherhood.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, as the country’s political structure takes shape, the Brotherhood will emerge as one political party among many. And when all the politically inactive Egyptian liberals take to the ballots, once again the Brotherhood will further be reduced to its actual size. The Brotherhood has said it will work to promote democracy in Egypt but does not intend to field a candidate for president.

While the world is closely watching Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has a great opportunity to abandon some of its former discriminatory ideas against women and religious minorities and reach a political maturity that could allow it to share power and be part of decision- and policy-making in a future democratic Egypt. The revolution worked hard and the protesters risked their lives to fight all forms of inequality and oppression from which Egyptians have long suffered. The Islamic movement should stay true to this spirit of the revolution, which allowed it to become an officially recognised political party rather than a banned group chased by Mubarak’s security apparatus.

 

This article first appeared on Worldpress.org. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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An Arab model for democracy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The time is ripe to crystallise a creative vision for Egyptian democracy, one that can perhaps be used as a model by other Arab countries.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

On Friday 18 February, as many as 2 million Egyptians gathered on the now-aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square for what was dubbed the Friday of Victory and Continuity. And the assembled throngs – resembling, at once, a World Cup victory celebration, Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner and a performing arts festival – had plenty of reason to celebrate, given that the revolution had succeeded, just one week earlier, in toppling, one could even say dethroning, Hosni Mubarak, the country’s pseudo-king for the past three decades.

But crying victory was somewhat premature, for the revolution will not be truly victorious until the old regime is replaced completely by a free and fair system that responds to the will of the people – not to mention triggers a profound process of social evolution.

The protesters and organisers are well aware of the dangers ahead and the Friday of Victory was a subtle warning  to put the army on notice that reneging on the revolution’s demands was not an option the people were willing to contemplate.

Ever since Mubarak’s ouster on Friday 11 February, the army’s supreme council has been in charge of the country. In the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, the army won many fans among the Egyptian population for its intelligent and relatively enlightened handling of the demonstrations and its support for what it called the “legitimate demands” of the people, which prompted demonstrators to coin the slogan that the “army and the people are a single hand”.

Although expressing this level of trust was partly tactical in order to keep the army on the people’s side against Mubarak’s state security apparatus, police and other assorted thugs, it still caused me a certain amount of concern. The army may have extended a hand of peace to the population but what about its other hand: is it holding an olive branch or getting ready to slap the people in the face or, worst, crush them with a fist of steel when the opportunity arises?

After all, it is the army or its men who have run the country for the past 60-odd years, during which time the country has not had a single civilian president. That said, Mubarak, though he was a military man, had sidelined the army with his ‘businessmen’s cabinet’ and his strengthening of state security.

Naturally, there is the chance that the army is dealing with the people in good faith, and reluctantly executed what amounted to a sort of coup d’etat when Mubarak refused to go and to hand over his powers to an interim ‘council of the wise’. Then again, the military might see this as the perfect opportunity to re-launch its waning star, especially as it has suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, ostensibly to meet the demands of the revolution, but effectively creating a situation of martial law which can potentially be abused.

So vigilance must be the order of the day. And the Coalition of the Revolution Youth, one of the main forces behind the demonstrations, has vowed to continue mass protest action until the revolution’s demands are met, including the ending of the decades-old ‘state of emergency‘, the creation of a temporary transitional presidential council and technocratic government drawn from across the political spectrum, and a clear timetable for the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.

But in addition to this constant grassroots pressure perhaps it is also high time for the revolutionaries to force the army’s hand by creating certain facts on the ground. For example, the military has created its own diverse constitutional review committee, headed by the prominent judge Tarek el-Bishry to oversee the crafting of a new constitution. Although el-Bishry is highly respected among most of the opposition, the demonstrators need to ensure that the new document meets the people’s demands and expectations.

One way to do this is for the revolutionaries to set up their own parallel committee drawn from across the political and social spectrum whose members will not only deliberate among themselves but will launch a broad public debate on the content of the new constitution. In order to gather input from every strata of society, the power of traditional, online and social media can be harnessed, as well as good old-fashioned surveys.

Moreover, to guarantee maximum legitimacy and to avert any chance that the army or any other vested political interest can manipulate the process, the popular committee should pledge that any document it produces will be put to a referendum.

In addition to efforts to optimise the nascent Egyptian democracies founding document, the time is ripe, given that any action or inaction now will have ramifications far into the future, to crystallise a clear vision for Egyptian democracy, one that can perhaps be used as a model by other Arab countries.

At present, little or no effort is being made to visualise a democracy that meets local circumstances and needs. This is understandable, given that the revolution has a multitude of immediate concerns with which to deal. Nevertheless, if Egyptians are to create a system that suits them, then they must dare to unleash the creativity so abundantly demonstrated in this revolution further.

One concern that has regularly been voiced is that, after sixty years of either one-party rule or a toothless multiparty system, Egypt has been left with few viable political parties on which to rest its democracy. Moreover, the youth who unleashed and steered this secular revolution do not fit easily or comfortably into any of the existing political parties.

In Egypt, there has been talk of relaxing the country’s draconian party formation rules to allow all political currents to create their own parties in time for the elections. There is also the option of allowing protest movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and Kefaya (Enough), to register as parties.

However, even if a new slew of parties can be set up in time for elections, they will be, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood and the reinvented secular ‘official’ opposition parties, they will be largely unknown to the public.

In my view, this contemporary reality provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the mechanics of democracy, and especially the party political system. Given that they provide certain advantages, such as unity of purpose and discipline, political parties are the cornerstones upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built.

That said, they suffer from certain severe drawbacks, such as the pressure they exert on members to tow a party line, even if they do not believe in it. In democracies, perhaps the most acute example of the ‘tyranny’ of parties is the first-past-the-post system. In the United States, for instance, the system has evolved to the point where voters have only two realistic options to choose from and many feel that the two main parties are so alike in their politics that they resemble more branded merchandise than true alternatives.

In fact, the dangers of partisan politics were foreseen by some of America’s ‘founding fathers’. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

I believe that Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-partisan representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto. This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key issues – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for several years.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence of factionalism and unrepresentative ‘representative democracy’, politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which the people are consulted directly on vital issues and in which concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives can take immediate action, if they gather enough signatures, rather than have to wait for the next elections to voice their views.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity not only to reinvent their country’s politics but to reinvent democracy itself.

 

This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 22 February 2011.

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