Mohamed Morsi’s ghost will haunt Egypt for a long time

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death in court of Mohamed Morsi completed the incarcerated former Egyptian president’s unlikely metamorphosis from mediocre mundanity to mythical martyr whose political ghost will inspire generations of radical Islamists.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mohamed Morsi, the largely unknown and uncharismatic engineer and one-time professor at Cal State University who was jokingly referred to as the “spare tyre” when his party rolled him out of the closet to run for president in 2012, has gone from a backroom Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik to a widely sung symbol of the Islamist cause following his death in court.

And the creators of this tragic icon – who will almost certainly inspire generations of disgruntled Islamists – are none other than Egypt’s men in khaki. By ousting, arresting, putting on show trial and criminally neglecting until his death the man whose presidency lasted just 12 months, the Egyptian military, led by current president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, made a hero out of a villain, transforming a hugely unpopular leader into the stuff of legend.

Morsi died on Monday 17 June, but his anointment as an immortal martyr of the cause has already begun, with his wife and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members describing his death as martyrdom. Social media was awash with posts from pro-Morsi supporters eulogising the deposed president, including an image of the dead leader with angel wings ascending to the heavens. An Arabic hashtag describing Morsi as the martyr of the Islamic nation was popular on Twitter.

With Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers prohibited from organising a public funeral in Egypt, exiled members living in Turkey took to the streets to express their grief, chanting “Murderer Sisi, martyr Morsi,” with some holding up banners vowing that “putschists will be defeated”.

Islamists and conservatives from across the Muslim world have been paying tribute to his courage and defiance, describing him in terms normally reserved for saints. “History will never forget those tyrants who led to his death by putting him in jail and threatening him with execution,” said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who knows a thing or two about being a tyrant, putting opponents behind bars, including thousands in solitary confinement, and pushing to reinstate the death penalty. “May God rest… our martyr’s soul in peace.”

Morsi’s perceived martyrdom was wholly unnecessary and entirely avoidable. The Muslim Brother was, indeed, the first president in Egypt’s history to be elected in a multicandidate electoral race, but his ineptitude and divisive politics quickly made him incredibly unpopular, even among former supporters.

At the time, many Egyptians I encountered who had voted for him were disappointed that Morsi’s piety had not translated into compassion for his compatriots, let alone competence – that he was an incompetent version of Mubarak but with a beard. Like his predecessor, he also intimidated and locked up critics, and employed violence against protesters.

Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies and ambitions were on full display in November 2012 when he granted himself dictatorial powers, prompting angry protests which forced him to backpedal. Rather than being a conciliatory transitional leader, Morsi was deeply partisan and his top priority was to Islamise to the max the draft constitution and to place Brotherhood loyalists in positions of influence and power.

But it was not just about Morsi’s malice. For a party that had been preparing to govern for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood’s breathtaking incompetence in power confounded most Egyptians. One ironic example of this legendary ineptitude was when a confidential, leak-proof meeting to discuss options for dealing with Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam on the Nile was being broadcast live on television.

The popular discontent with Morsi and his Brotherhood prompted waves of popular protest, culminating in a mass uprising on June 30, 2013.

Had the military stayed out and left matters to run their course, the mass mobilisation on the streets may have eventually forced Morsi to call early elections or led to his government’s downfall. But General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is currently Egypt’s president, had other plans… and ambitions.

Even after the undemocratic coup he engineered, Sisi could have navigated a more pragmatic and conciliatory path — after all, the Muslim Brotherhood was a spent force that had squandered in a few short months most of the popular goodwill it had carefully nurtured through decades of charity work and grassroots activities.

Instead, al-Sisi demanded a “mandate” to eradicate what he described as “terrorism,” perpetrating the bloodiest and cruellest massacre of civilians in Egypt’s modern history, in which over 1,000 civilians were butchered by security forces. This pivotal moment convinced many in the Muslim Brotherhood that politics was not for them and reawakened the movement’s paranoia and persecution complex.

The relentless repression since 2013 has radicalised some former members, propelling them towards more violent movements, and has helped the Brotherhood to regain some of the popular sympathy it has lost.

Rather than stamping out the terrorism the regime claims disingenuously to be fighting, Egypt is now faced with a full-blown insurgency in the Sinai and terrorist attacks on the mainland have become quite common place.

Like George W Bush’s disastrous and self-serving War on Terror, this failure was all too easy to foresee. That Morsi’s death after years of imprisonment and wanton neglect would prompt Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers to view Sisi as a murderer and “enemy of Islam” is also something that has been clear for some years now.

Beyond bleeding-heart humanists like myself, this terrifying possibility could have and should have been abundantly clear to the Egyptian regime. After all, it has been here before: In the 1950s and1960s, then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser undertook a similar crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1966, the Nasser regime took the fateful decision to execute a radical Muslim Brother by the name of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was transformed overnight into a martyr who has inspired violent Islamists ever since, including Osama bin Laden, who was at first embraced by the United States because it shortsightedly wanted to use his zeal against the Soviets in Afghanistan, creating even greater blowback.

This raises the pertinent question of whether there is method in the madness, or only madness in the methods employed by the Sisi regime. Is the Egyptian leader a cunning Machiavellian political operator who, needing a threat sufficiently scary, first needed to create the monster he will spend years attempting to slay, even if it runs the risk of pushing his country over the abyss?

Far more likely is that he simply lacks the capacity to react in any other way. Unlike Mubarak, who despite being a military man spent years in politics before becoming president, Sisi has only ever known the army, with its inflexibility, hierarchy and obedience, and this has made him view the political arena as a literal, rather than a figurative, battlefield.

Source: US Department of State

The silence from Washington will further inflame the false Islamist narrative which alleges that the coup against Morsi was a US-Zionist conspiracy against Islam. Of course, this flies against the evidence, as Morsi actually enjoyed good relations with Washington and continued Mubarak’s policies toward the United States.

Judging by America’s track record in the Middle East, its overriding concern is what Washington defines as its “vital interests”, and ideology plays a surprisingly marginal role. That explains why America has a decades-old special relationship with Saudi Arabia, the self-defined home of Islam, and the other conservative Arab Gulf states.

Nevertheless, Morsi’s perceived martyrdom will lead radical Islamists to bend and twist reality to serve their ideological and political purposes. The conspiracy theories about the evil forces which emerged following Morsi’s downfall will take on new life and ever more elaborate formats after his death, which will be juxtaposed against the angelic image of saintly virtue that has been constructed around the martyred leader, in whose memory and cause some of his followers will also wish to martyr themselves. And this is bad news for Egypt, the Middle East, America and the West.

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The folly of the Arab world’s nuclear enery dream

 
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By Khaled Diab

Investing in nuclear energy makes no economic, geostrategic or environmental sense in the Arab world. Renewables will provide the only sunny future.

Radiation symbol

Friday 10 June 2016

Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima reminds us of the inherent danger of nuclear weapons. Despite being an avid supporter of scientific and technological progress, I often wonder whether humanity had learnt to split the atom too soon, unleashing forces far beyond our capacity to contain and control.

Many will counter that the peaceful use of nuclear power has done humanity a great deal of good. While numerous applications of nuclear technology, such as in medicine, deliver huge benefits and save lives, nuclear energy is a different matter. Deriving energy from nuclear power is expensive, produces the most toxic waste imaginable and is extremely dangerous, as the Fukushima catastrophe and other disasters demonstrate.

Despite this, the Middle East finds itself at a nuclear crossroads, with governments across the region launching or reviving plans to construct nuclear reactors.

The latest development in this regard was the recent announcement that Russia will lend Egypt $25 billion to finance and operate a nuclear power plant which will be built by Russia’s state-owned nuclear giant Rosatom. The Russian tender Egypt accepted was for the construction of a station with a capacity of 4,800 megawatts, at an estimated cost of $10 billion.

“This was a long dream for Egypt, to have a peaceful nuclear programme to produce electricity,” President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said late last year.

And this dream dates back to the very dawn of the nuclear age, when then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser launched Egypt’s nuclear programme in 1954 and the first Soviet-built research reactor came online in 1961. Since then, Egypt’s nuclear ambitions have stalled for a number of political, economic and technological reasons.

The revival of Egypt’s civilian nuclear programme has stirred a lot of debate and controversy, both in the media and in private – as I discovered during a long impromptu debate at a Cairo restaurant recently.

Those who support the initiative believe it present a “realistic” solution to the country’s energy crisis, enhances its energy security, and bring us into the elite club of nuclear nations.

Like many experts, I have numerous doubts and misgivings about these claims. On the environmental level, investing in nuclear energy could have potentially catastrophic consequences.

In addition to the risks of an Egyptian Chernobyl or Fukushima, there are the everyday dangers of radioactive leaks and seepage, not to mention the safe disposal of nuclear waste, which is likely to outlive humanity.

If the “safe” disposal of nuclear waste in technologically advanced and wealthy Germany has proven to be extremely unsafe and dangerous, what chance does poor, inexperienced Egypt stand in averting a future radioactive crisis? Then, there are the more subtle environmental costs. Nuclear power plants are extremely thirsty beasts – consuming the equivalent of a major metropolis – and Egypt suffers serious “water poverty”, by the government’s own admission.

Weighing in on the debate, the renowned Egyptian-American NASA space scientist Farouk el-Baz called Egypt’s nuclear plan “an unstudied political decision” motivated by the desire to catch up with Iran which “spurred Arab countries to enter the nuclear field”.

But if anything, the folly of Iran’s nuclear programme should deter Egypt and the other Arab countries from pursuing nuclear energy, for geo-strategic, economic and social reasons.

Iran’s Bushehr I reactor, which reportedly cost $11 billion to build, provides less than 2% of the country’s electricity requirements, while sanctions may have cost the Islamic Republic as much as $500 billion in lost oil revenue, blocked foreign investments and other opportunity costs, experts estimate. In contrast, supplying all Iran’s electricity needs from solar power would cost a mere $96 billion, according to one estimate.

While Egypt’s non-pariah status will probably mean that its programme will be cheaper, nuclear power is still extremely expensive, especially when compared with solar energy in “sunbelt” regions like the Middle East.

Egyptian solar energy expert Sherife Abdelmessih estimates that nuclear power plants are four times as expensive to construct as solar ones per unit of energy. In addition, he expects that Egypt will pay about $150 per MWh for the power generated by the new nuclear power plant, while the equivalent price for Egyptian wind farms is $45 per MWh.

There are also persuasive geostrategic reasons for Egypt and other Arab countries not to invest in nuclear energy. While proponents believe it will enhance our energy security, it will actually diminish it.

No Arab country possesses the scientific and technological know-how to build their own nuclear facilities and to conduct the extremely costly research required to advance knowledge in this highly developed field, let alone to catch up with the established nuclear powers. This will make Arab civilian nuclear programmes highly dependent on foreign technology and expertise.

In addition, the fuel required to run the power plants will have to be imported, making the country vulnerable to supply disruptions, which could be exploited for political arm-twisting.

In contrast, Egypt, and the wider region, is blessed with abundant sun and wind resources, and the renewable energy sector is still young enough for Egypt to become a major player and innovator in it.

Egypt recognises this opportunity and seeks to extract 20% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2022, but it is not doing enough and this is not enough.

Unlike nuclear power, renewable energy has the potential to create an enormous number of jobs and abundant business opportunities, including start-ups. In addition, it is scalable, meaning that energy can be consumed close to where it is produced, and it paves the way to distributed energy generation, where each building or home can potentially produce its own power and sell its excess supply into the national grid.

Renewable energy technologies are also diverse. For example, a relatively small investment in solar boilers can save Egypt the huge amounts of electricity used to heat water. Moreover, in addition to being cheaper than photovoltaic technology, concentrated solar power, rather than being a water-guzzler, can actually be used to desalinate water, alongside producing electricity.

I cannot help thinking that the $25 billion Egypt is spending on a single nuclear power plant would not have been better invested in pursuing these alternative energy options. In fact, for the entire region, nuclear energy is pure folly and the only sunny future is in renewables.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 June 2016.

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Egypt’s pharaoh illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

The idea that Egyptians are docile sheeple who need a pharaoh to shepherd them is a myth that dates back to the not-so-ancient times of the Nasser era.

Time magazine cover, 29 March 1963. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19630329,00.html

Time magazine cover, 29 March 1963. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19630329,00.html

Tuesday 7 June 2016

I am not pharaoh… After two revolutions, nobody who occupies this chair can become a pharaoh,” Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi reportedly told a select group of intellectuals and thinkers a few weeks ago, insisting that he accepted and respected criticism.

Despite the president’s repeated assurances, Egypt has been in the throes of an intensifying crackdown since the weeks leading up to the fifth anniversary of the 25 January 2011 revolution.

This has had the counter-effect of galvanising a rising tide of dissent, as epitomised by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

The latest high-profile victims of the state’s clampdown is ‘Street Children’, a group of young satirists whose impromptu songs mocking Sisi and his regime, performed on street corners, have become an online sensation, attracting hundreds of thousands of views each.

After the initial arrest of one of their singers, known as Ezz, for allegedly “insulting” state institutions, the remaining members of the band were arrested soon after. The group seems to have upped the ante in their latest videos in which they ridicule “Sisi, my president”, the army and the security services – criticising the devaluation of the pound, the Suez Canal expansion and the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia – and call on Sisi to “have some shame” and step down.

That a band of six young men armed with little more than their vocal cords should provoke such an autocratic reaction is bound to cement, rather than disprove, Sisi’s reputation as Egypt’s latest “pharaoh”.

Some see that as no bad thing. In America and Europe, many commentators are convinced that Egypt can only be ruled by a strong man and so crowning a new “pharaoh” was the only way to save Egypt.

This attitude has its native advocates too, not only among the political old guard but also among those who saw Egypt hanging over a precipice and concluded that the only way to stop it from falling into the abyss was to choose the pharaoh-president over people power.

One-upping other despot worshippers, former antiquities chief Zahi Hawass likened Sisi to a specific pharaoh, Mentuhotep II, who reunited Egypt after it split into two rival kingdoms.

This pharaoh-isation of Egypt’s leaders suggests that there is some kind of continuous, almost dynastic, line which stretches back to the dawn of history, leaving the impression that this is some kind of innate national trait.

There are those who subscribe to the pharaoh theory of Egyptian history in an ill-informed attempt to explain away modern autocracy. Some outsiders are driven by an orientalist conviction that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy,  while those who prop up Egypt’s dictators can sleep easy in the knowledge that this is ultimately what Egyptians want.

Proponents of the theory at home use it to dissuade Egyptians from rising above their station and to demonstrate the apparent futility of seeking to change what has always been so.

The trouble is this is largely a myth – inspired more by Abrahamic scripture than actual history – that started some six decades ago, namely with Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the leader of the 1952 revolutionary coup and the Egyptian republic’s second president.

But even this wasn’t inevitable. The Free Officers which Nasser led were initially committed to civilian rule and strengthening Egypt’s parliamentary democracy. And given the more than a century of struggle to build a modern, egalitarian and fair state which generations of reformers had been waging, this early commitment to democracy was unsurprising.

However, Nasser reneged on the Free Officers’ promise to transition back to elected civilian rule. In this, Nasser was driven by a fervent desire for his revolution to succeed and the  plain old-fashioned hypnotising lure of power. “If I held elections today, [Mustafa] al-Nahas would win, not us. Then our achievement would be nothing,” he said in a meeting shortly after the coup.

In this endeavour, he faced stiff opposition, namely from what he had assumed was his figure-head president, Muhammad Naguib, who wanted the army to return to its barracks after having accomplished their mission of unseating an unjust, British-backed regime.

Instead, Nasser placed Naguib under house arrest, abolished all political parties and started a brutal crackdown on secular and religious dissent, imprisoning liberals, communists and Muslim Brothers. “[Nasser] recognised that democracy was the clear enemy of the cult of character he was trying to establish,” posits journalist and revolutionary Wael Eskandar.

Nasser’s popularity on the Arab street, coupled with shrewd propaganda, enabled him to turn the newly established republic into his personal fiefdom rather than a state of institutions and checks and balances.

In this project, Nasser was inspired not by his ancient pharaonic ancestors nor facilitated by some native Egyptian subservience to the “pharaoh”. It was part of a 20th century trend of the larger-than-life dictator empowered by the advent of mass media. Compared with Stalin and Mao, Nasser was, nevertheless, a gentle pussycat.

Even during Nasser’s tenure, which combined popularity with brutality, many Egyptians refused to believe the lie that they were docile sheeple who needed a father figure – or in the case of Nasser, an amiable brother, cousin or charming boy next door – to shepherd them. In actuality, opposition was often brave and determined.

In a pattern that would repeat itself continuously over the decades, this forced the regime to find other channels to accommodate Egypt’s diverse and dynamic political currents, giving Egypt, even at its worse, more representative governance than most other Arab states.

Moreover, co-option was often, and remains, a more effective tool than coercion, leading many to hitch their cart to the wagon train. “There were many who embraced [Nasser’s] leadership as an active, not passive, choice because, rightly or wrongly, they envisaged themselves as making gains out of it,” points out Jack Shenker, the author of a major new book on the Egyptian revolution.

Today, the regime is also employing a blend of coercion and co-option to protect the state that Nasser built, and Sadat and Mubarak renovated. But without Nasser’s skill, charisma and monopoly of the media, and with a restive population that is no longer willing to buy yesteryear’s mythology, this enterprise seems doomed.

Sisi is right, no Egyptian president can become a “pharaoh” anymore.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on  May 2016.

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Egypt’s other Great Pyramid

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Mogamma, that high temple of Egyptian bureaucracy, will be shut down. Welcome as it is, this will not solve the underlying problem of “el-routine”.

irhab kabab

Friday 22 January 2016

Like the pyramids of Giza, it is a colossal structure known to Egyptians and foreigners alike. Unlike the pyramids, it is the object of almost universal contempt and frustration.

Yes, of course, I am talking about the Mogamma on Tahrir Square, the high temple of the Egyptian bureaucracy, as anyone familiar with Egypt will have realised. Egypt’s “most hated” building, as one news site put it, is slated for closure in 2017, which is bound to result in millions of collective sighs of relief.

And the dimensions of this monolith are truly imposing. The 14-storey complex houses some 30,000 government employees in 1,350 rooms, while some 100,000 citizens navigate its labyrinthine maze of corridors in an oft-futile quest for the magical sequence of stamps required to legitimise their paperwork.

Despite popular belief, the building was not a socialist edifice built by Gamal Abdel-Nasser but was constructed during the era of King Farouq as a symbol of Egypt’s march towards the mid-20th century as Britain vacated its barracks there. Today, that seems like a pipe dream.

Kafkaesque does not even begin to capture the dust-laden, claustrophobic, yet boisterous and loud, alienation felt when one enters this bureaucratic maze. It can only be described as “mogammaesque”: one measure Kafka, one part Orwell, with a liberal dose of Magritte’s surrealism and a dash of native wit. The Mogamma is real-life black comedy coloured by the irrepressible light-heartedness of Egypt.

The indifferent, contemptuous gaze of the typical Mogamma civil-servant-cum-master causes the average visitor to metamorphose from a proud human into a shrinking, trembling, deferential insect. Ingratiating terms of respect – like “pasha”, even though Egypt abolished the gentry decades ago – are tossed around liberally to curry favour, in a variation of the old Egyptian adage: “If the dog has something you need, call him ‘master’.”

Although bureaucracy is a global problem hobbling hundreds of millions of people around the world, the Egyptian version is especially convoluted, snail-paced, impenetrable and arbitrary, making it a haven for corruption and ineptitude.

Despite the dominant and oft-traumatic role bureaucracy plays in Egyptian life, there is surprisingly no widely circulated local word for it, with Egyptians appropriating the English word “routine” to describe it.

However, there is an abundance of words used to describe ways to circumvent it, including “wasta” (“connections”), “mahsoubiya” (“favouritism” ) and “kousa” (“courgette”) to describe string pulling, or “halawa” (“halva”), “shai” (“tea”) or even bakshish (“tip” ) to describe bribery.

Given the outsized and tyrannical role played by bureaucracy in the lives of Egyptians and Egypt’s love of comedy, it is unsurprising that “al-routine” is a staple fare of street humour and popular satire. One Egyptian newspaper used to carry a memorable rogues’ parade of characters working in the civil service who frequented the “Civil Servant’s Teahouse”.

It also features in black comedy, such as in a film which explores the desperate attempts of a poor fisherman, who lives off the state’s radar on his Nile boat, to register his son’s birth retroactively so he can start school.

The Mogamma itself is the star of a 1990s hit film, el-Irhab wal-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab) in which a hard-pressed man who works at Cairo’s sewage treatment plant visits the high temple of bureaucracy in a bid to transfer his son to another school.

The man in charge of transfers is never there and his colleagues are too busy talking on the telephone, preparing vegetables for dinner or constantly praying. When security try to eject him for attacking the bearded civil servant, he manages to grab one of their rifles and triggers a panic that a terrorist attack is in motion.

When asked by the interior minister what his demands are, the hostage-taker and the hostages cannot decide and so decide to order kebabs. When they finally demand the resignation of the entire government, the minister is so incensed he orders the raiding of the building.

Two decades later, real citizens took over Tahrir Square and demanded more than the resignation of the government: the downfall of the entire regime. Although they managed to decapitate it, the body survived and grew a new head.

In 2011, protesters managed to shut down temporarily the despised Mogamaa and, instead of seeking stamps and signatures, revolutionary artists signed and tagged it. The diverse  graffiti included one expressive image of a young activist chiselling away at a pyramid-shaped rendition of the word “corruption”.

And herein lies the crux. The Mogamaa in itself is not the main problem; it is simply a symptom. Closing it down  may remove some of the congestion from downtown Cairo and free up prime real estate, but rebuilding it elsewhere, as has previously been suggested, will not only be a colossal undertaking but will, without reform, result in the same colossal problems downstream.

And with Egypt’s new parliament investigating the state’s chief auditor for “defamation” over his claims of endemic corruption, deep reform, never a serious prospect, now seems an ever-more distant hope.

What Egypt needs is to rationalise its bureaucracy, in both senses of the word, decentralise its highly centralised state architecture, pay civil servants a decent living wage and, above all, weed out the rampant corruption choking citizens. This may result in less comedy but it will put a smile on every Egyptian’s face.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 18 January 2016.

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Sisi’s Suez moment

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Wednesday 12 August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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A Riche chapter of Egyptian history

 
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By Khaled Diab

For a century, Café Riche was a microcosm of Cairo’s bewildering contradictions, and a “refuge from the pain of loneliness”  for intellectuals. 

Image: AUC Press

Image: AUC Press

Tuesday 10 June 2015

With the recent death of Café Riche’s proprietor, Magdy Abdel-Malak, downtown Cairo’s most famous intellectual salon has shut its doors once again – this time, possibly permanently. By so doing, it has gone from a place where significant chapters of Egypt’s modern political, intellectual, cultural and social history were written to become an iconic footnote in the country’s tumultuous modern history.

Though its dated glass-and-wood exterior is unremarkable to the 21st-century passer-by in the city of a thousand minarets and a café on every corner, Riche was at the throbbing heart of Egypt’s intellectual and political life for the greater part of the 20th century.

Riche dates back to what many Egyptians regard as Cairo’s belle époque. Built in 1908 on the grounds of a former royal palace, it started life as a modest coffee shop for the inner city’s wealthy and well-heeled European and elite Egyptian residents.

It gained its name when a Frenchman briefly took over the café’s proprietorship. Just as Khedive Ismail had intended his new European-style capital to be a “Paris on the Nile” – almost bankrupting Egypt in the process – Café Riche was modelled on its Parisian namesake.

Open from 1785 to 1915, the French Café Riche was frequented by some of Paris’s literary and intellectual giants, including legendary writers Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola, of “J’accuse” fame.

Cairo’s Café Riche became a similar cultural and intellectual magnet when it was taken over by Greek-Egyptian Michelle Nicola Bolitez, who was a lover and patron of the arts. He set up a theatre there that soon become one of the most well-known performance spaces in town.

The Cairo in which Riche established its glory was a dizzying city of bewildering contrasts and contradictions. It was a grand European metropolis just down the river from the ancient native city. At once an inclusive multicultural melting pot, it largely excluded the local population who were forced to live by a separate set of laws. An elitist playground for pashas and the nobility, its streets teemed with high-born and minority socialist and nationalist revolutionaries, including a number who barely spoke Arabic. The city was also a space where the shoots of liberal democracy were kept from blossoming by the combined might of the palace and the British.

Café Riche was, in many ways, a microcosm of these different realities. While well-to-do customers enjoyed the singing skills of the likes of then-pro-royalist new talent Um Kalthoum  – who later became the legendary “Star of the Orient” – anti-British agitators printed pamphlets for the 1919 revolution in the café’s basement.

And its involvement in political intrigues did not end there. In 1919, a young medical student sat patiently in wait of prime minister Youssef  Wahba, who was a Riche regular, and as his car approached the young radical attempted but failed to assassinate him.

Back then, revolutionaries clashing with the British sometimes sought shelter inside Riche, which became a regular target of police raids. Nearly a century later, a different generation of revolutionaries, this time revolting against a native tyrant, also found refuge from the teargas-infused utopia of Tahrir Square.

It is reputed that Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his fellow Free Officers partly planned the 1952 revolution in Riche – though other downtown political cafes also claim that honour.

At first, the army’s coup gave a shot in the arm to Egypt’s native leftist and liberal intellectuals, revolutionaries and writers, including Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who held his literary court there for many years.

But these artists and intellectuals soon discovered that Egypt’s management had changed but its intolerance of free thought and dissent had not. Though remembered for his persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser was no more tolerant of secularists who disagreed with him, and his political prisons overflowed with communists, non-Nasserist leftists and old-school Wafdist liberals.

Riche, like downtown Cairo, entered a period of long decline. Anwar al-Sadat, in his bid to neutralise Nasserist influence, cracked down hard on leftists and embraced the Islamists (a decision which was to cost him and Egypt dearly).

This deprived the café of a significant portion of its clientele and those that remained drew in on themselves, disillusioned that their high hopes for Egypt had fallen so low, as the state turned on them and a growing current in society turned away from them. With nowhere left to gather, secular youth either went underground or fell into the cynical arms of apathy, while others rushed into the comforting embrace of Islamist certitude.

This led to a period of intellectual and political navel-gazing in which Riche became the “whole world”, in the words of poet Naguib Sorour, for the dwindling ranks of its oft-hard-drinking punters, for whom Sorour drafted a tongue-in-cheek Protocols of the Wise Men of Riche.

Naguib Mahfouz’s introspective 1983 novel The Day the Leader was Killed is partly set in Café Riche – which is described as a “refuge from the pain of loneliness” – and explores, through the allegory of numerous narrative, the theme of where Egypt’s post-independence experiment went wrong.

Hosni Mubarak’s tenure drove the last nail into the esteemed establishment’s coffin. In 1990, Café Riche closed under mysterious circumstances and was seriously damaged by the 1992 earthquake.

At the birth of the new millennium, I attended its reopening a decade later, during an art festival designed to revive downtown’s downtrodden cultural scene. Colloquial poet of the working class Ahmed Fouad Negm, who seriously lost his way in his final years, was, as his name suggests, the star of the evening. The man who once expressed unbridled contempt for what he viewed as Riche’s fat-cat intellectuals was its guest of honour.

As if to show he still possessed his famed irreverence, he read from his poem ‘Long live the people of my country’ in which he ridiculed what he perceived as the empty rhetoric and detachment from reality of the Richesque, their impotence, and the ease and smugness with which they formulated glib solutions to the country’s woes.

Like Negm himself, the nouveau Riche was a poor imitation, even a parody of its former self. With its framed portraits of the lates and greats who frequented the establishment, it was like walking into a museum or a hall of fame and no longer a buzzing intellectual factory of the future.

At the time, I wondered in an article whether Riche would be able to resurrect its spirit and not just its ghost. Though it still managed to pull in some of the biggest names in Egypt’s intellectual scene, many found it had lost its touch and was far too elitist for Egypt’s more egalitarian young radicals.

Despite its rich history, or because of it, Riche managed to pull in far more tourists than members of the young and re-energised intelligentsia, apart from briefly during the revolution.

Unfortunate as it is in terms of Egypt’ cultural heritage, Riche’s closure will have only a marginal impact on downtown’s cultural scene. The young and creative have returned in droves in recent years, intent on reviving and reinventing Cairo’s heart. They have carved out their own alternative spaces, including art-houses, street art and even old-style tea houses and shisha joints which attract not just radical young men but rebellious young women.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 26 May 2015.

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The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like in Syria and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists  are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region’s defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan-Arab cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Cairo, whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam’s holiest sites by the ISIS of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use religion (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for democracy, socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the Middle East, in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” Tony Blair, who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other’s throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.

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Egypt’s centuries-old leadership vacuum

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of authoritarianism and centuries of non-indigenous rule have led to a shortage of effective native leaders in Egypt, derailing the revolution.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 25 December 2014

Hosni Mubarak, the face which launched thousands of street protests, was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters and numerous corruption charges related to his three decades on Egypt’s republican throne were also dropped.

The news of the ex-dictator’s acquittal has hit activists and pro-revolution Egyptians like a rude kick in the groin, leading to angry protests on campuses across the country. The man who symbolized everything that was wrong with Egypt in 2011 walked scot free under the auspices of the man who presides over everything that’s wrong with Egypt in 2014: Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

By walking free, Mubarak – who inadvertently gave birth to the Egyptian revolution when he stepped down – may harken the revolution’s death knell, at least for the time being.

Some believe the situation is even worse. Writing in the Washington Post, Eric Trager argued that “the ‘revolution’ didn’t die… a true revolution never happened in the first place.” Trager contends that the uprising in Egypt not only failed to bring about revolutionary change, a substantial percentage of the population did not desire it, wishing only for elusive “stability”.

What his assertion overlooks is that many revolutions fail to bring about the radical change they seek, such as the 1848 Spring of Nations revolutionary wave in Europe.

Moreover, if significant opposition is a yardstick, then many of the world’s most iconic revolutions would not qualify as such, including in America and France. Besides, if history is any indication it’s far too early to call the final outcome of the Egyptian revolution, since its French predecessor took generations before it achieved its goals of “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.

Despite Trager’s assertions, it is not apathy or the longing for stability that have foiled Egypt’s revolutionary aspirations.

In my view, it is a question of leadership and its accompanying political culture. On the one hand, there is the deep state which has robustly done everything within its power not to cede power. On the other, it is the leaderless nature of the revolution, which was a strength at first because it made it impossible for the state to control, but became a liability later when strong leadership was urgently required to give the popular uprising direction.

The immediate reason for this was Hosni Mubarak’s 30-odd years of autocratic rule, which deepened the state’s grip on power while eliminating viable alternative leaderships. This followed the preceding three decades of similar dictatorial rule, in the shape of Anwar al-Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser before him.

Some interpret this as a manifestation of some kind of ancient Pharaoh complex on the part of Egyptian leaders. But this reductionist interpretation fails to explain why most of the region’s leadership is likewise deluded, even though their countries were not part of the Ancient Egyptian tradition of the absolute god-king.

Personally, I think Egypt and the Arab world’s leadership crisis can best be attributed to centuries of foreign rule and domination. This had the dual effect of destroying or downgrading the indigenous cadre of leaders and putting in place a damaging leadership culture.

In Egypt’s case, before Mohamed Naguib’s rise to power in 1952, one must go back nearly two and a half millennia to find Egypt’s last native leader: Nectanebo II, who was overthrown in 342BC by a combined Greek and Persian force.

Though Alexander the Great was regarded as a liberator from Persian rule in Egypt – and even the illegitimate son of Egypt’s last pharaoh – and the Ptolemaic dynasty regarded themselves as pharaohs, the Egyptian political and social order was stacked in favor of ethnic Greeks and a Greek-speaking Egyptian elite, leading to numerous rebellions, including the “great revolt” of 205-186 BC.

In the two millennia since the death of the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, the legendary Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Roman rule retained the relative privilege of Egyptian Greeks while adding another layer of exploitation, transforming this fertile, rich country into Rome’s grain silo.

Even when Egypt went from being a province to being an independent imperial power, these Nile-based empires were invariably foreign ones in which the locals were marginalized and largely excluded from the corridors of power. This was the case with the mighty and largely religiously tolerant Fatimid caliphate, which established glittering Cairo near ancient Memphis in the tenth century.

The Mamluk era (1250–1517) saw the novel situation of Egypt being ruled by a caste of warrior slaves. Though Egypt thrived economically and culturally, the centuries of Mamluk rule witnessed chaotic and bloody transitions of power between competing pretenders. Despite the infighting, the Mamluks agreed on one thing: though ostensibly slaves, they were the “true lords” while the supposedly freeborn native Egyptians were their serfs.

When the Ottomans conquered Egypt, they retained the Mamluks as their vassals which, like the Roman era, doubled the tax burden on the Egyptian masses, with a share going towards subsiding the ruling elite’s lavish lifestyles and a share going to Constantinople.

In the early 19th century, Egypt was purged of its Mamluks by a commander in the Ottoman Empire who wanted the country all to himself: Muhammad Ali, who had officially come to reclaim Egypt for the Sultan after Napoleon’s short-lived and disastrous occupation.

Despite being Albanian, Ali is widely regarded as being the father of modern Egypt. Wishing to create a modern state along European lines, he realised the importance of harnessing, educating and empowering (somewhat) the native Egyptian population.

Ali not only developed an advanced industrial base for the country, he also built a modern army, bureaucracy and education system where Egyptian citizens could find opportunities for mobility beyond the farming and industry to which they were previously confined.

But Ali retained the Mamluks fixation on militarism and he was obsessed with building a European-style army to carve out an empire for his dynasty. This placed a huge burden on Egypt’s peasantry in the form of high taxation and conscription.

Given the centuries of militarism of the ruling foreign elites and how the army had become one of the few means of social mobility for the native population, it is no surprise that Egypt’s first modern nationalist leader with any real authority was an army officer, Ahmed Urabi.

Urabi’s rebellion against the vassal Khedive Tawfiq, which threatened Anglo-French interests, led the British to formally occupy Egypt, though they kept the Muhammad Ali dynasty in power as clients. Following the heavy burden placed on Egypt during World War I, opposition to British rule grew massively, leading to the 1919 revolution.

The revolution succeeded in gaining only partial independence for Egypt and resulted in a liberal, democratic parliament, though one that was largely toothless due to the combined influence of the palace and the British.

The seething dissatisfaction with this arrangement led to widespread protests following World War II, but it was only the army that proved to have the clout to dislodge the king and the waning British.

But rather than hand over power to an elected parliament as the Free Officers had promised after an initial transition, the lure of power proved too irresistible. Although Egypt’s new rulers were native Egyptians, rather than dismantle the centuries of imperial legacy hobbling their fellow citizens, they kept in place many of the timeworn instruments of repression and marginalisation, despite some reforms.

Like Egypt’s various foreign rulers, the new officer elite viewed with suspicion any contenders or opponents, crushing and suppressing rivals. Hosni Mubarak went so far as not even to appoint a vice-president.

This centuries-long legacy helped lead to the leaderless revolution of 2011. This does not mean that Egypt is void of talent that can govern the country fairly and effectively. There is plenty of that. However, Egypt’s political culture does not encourage this talent to rise and there are no mechanisms for the peaceful and smooth transfer of power.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2014.

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Save the Nile Delta, President al-Sisi

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Thursday 18 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Egypt’s next president is a… Jew?!

 
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By Khaled Diab

What do conspiracy theories that the mother of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is a Jew say about the Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers propagating them?

A new video claims that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's mother is Jewish. Photo: Sisi campaign's Facebook page.

A new video claims that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s mother is Jewish. Photo: Sisi campaign’s Facebook page.

Monday 12 May 2014

Campaigning for Egypt’s presidential elections, which will take place on May 26-27, officially kicked off on Saturday 3 May, a day after blasts in Cairoand Sinai left at least four people dead. The two-horse race between the army’s man, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and the candidate supported by many revolutionaries, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, is unlikely to deliver any surprises, with the outcome in the ex-army chief’s favour all but a foregone conclusion, most observers believe.

As we approach the big day, one recently released video claims that the “question on the minds of all Egyptians” is not the state of the nosediving economy, wide-scale human rights abuses, the derailed revolution or the quest for elusive stability and security, but whether Sisi’s mother is Jewish.

“The strange thing is that the [military’s media] did not meet with Sisi’s mother nor his maternal uncles, but only with his father’s relatives,” said Saber Mashhour, the maker of this “exposé” – as if there were a conspiracy of silence to hide the former defense minister’s roots.

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But aside from supposed omissions, what evidence does the video present to back up its claims?

The main “evidence” is the circumstantial coincidence of location. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter of Cairo’s old city.

“Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area was always a mixed one, albeit with a strong Jewish character.

“Sisi was raised among Jews. He was raised by Jews,” Mashhour stressed, in case anyone was uncertain about the point he was making.

And what were the implications of Sisi spending his formative years in this way?

It would seem that the Jews, entrepreneurial whizzes that they are, saw an obvious gap in the market and imported “sex and dance” to Egypt, never mind that Egyptians have been swiveling their hips since at least the time of Herodotus. Besides, the maker of this video has very obviously never visited Mea She’arim or any of Israel’s other ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.

To take the outlandish to a whole other continent, the video claims that the Egyptian president most-hated in Israel, Gamal Abdel-Nasser – who also spent a short part of his youth away from his native Alexandria in Cairo near the Jewish Quarter – was childhood chums there with none other than Israeli military icon Moshe Dayan. And these unlikely pals hatched the improbable conspiracy to give Egypt a clobbering in 1967.

Never mind the fact that Dayan was born and grew up in what was then northern Palestine and never entered Egypt in Nasser’s lifetime except as a conqueror.

So, does anyone believe this patent, counterhistorical nonsense?

Well, judging by the fact that the video has clocked up nearly 200,000 hits (at the time of writing) in just two weeks, there are obviously some who do – though a small number, given Egypt’s population of 85 million. The video is most popular among supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which publicised it through its official website and other affiliated social media outlets.

Mashhour, the man behind the documentary, appears to share the same sympathies, and has developed quite a sideline in exposing anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood conspiracy theories for some time now – not to mention the “revelation” that Egypt has become neither an Islamic nor a secular nation, but a Christian one.

Mashhour almost explicitly spells out his allegiances when he makes the preposterous claims in the video that Egyptian Jews never loved Egypt – which goes against all the historical evidence – and hated the Muslim Brotherhood not because they were religious bigots, but because the Islamist movement foiled the Jews’ plans to “control Egypt”.

If these crackpot ideas were coming from just some random guy on the street, they’d be less troubling. However, it appears that Mashhour’s day job was at Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the banned Egyptian offshoot of the famous Qatar-based network.

This could well fuel another brand of conspiracy theory, the type that has had the dangerous consequence of leading to the imprisonment and trial of Al Jazeera journalists on trumped-up and ludicrous charges.

But why, with all the genuine grievances that pro-Morsi supporters have against Sisi since he declared his so-called War on Terror (which is largely a bloody purge against the Brotherhood), focus on this kind of fantastical and fanciful fiction when there is no shortage of damning facts?

This is partly because facts have not put the Egyptian public off Sisi, despite the murderous dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, the outlawing of the Brotherhood and mass death penalties meted out against its members. The savvy ex-general has not only marshalled the media behind him, but is riding and stoking a wave of anti-Brotherhood resentment.

Casting aspersions that Sisi is Jewish and an Israeli agent is perhaps a desperate, last-ditch bid to discredit him. In fact, alleged allegiances to Israel – and especially the United States – are regularly used to defame political opponents in Egypt.

But this also betrays a deeper pathology. Since it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has mostly been an underground movement, and one that has been persecuted to varying degrees by every Egyptian leader since King Farouq, who outlawed it in 1948 following a spate of bombings and assassination attempts. This creates a mentality of paranoia and victimhood.

Founded in response to the trauma felt by conservative Muslims at the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the Muslim Brothers have a tendency to see events in terms of a grand clash of civilisations, between a teetering Islam and a resurgent, hegemonic Christendom.

In this battle of the titans, the Muslim Brotherhood believes that the Jews are very much in the Christian camp, counterhistorical as this may be. “Zionism is perceived to be part of the Western plot against Muslim societies, which means Israel has a contemporary dimension which is not fully connected to its Jewish character,” says Ofir Winter, an Israeli academic specialising in Egyptian politics and Islamism.

Even though Israel is only regarded as a foot-soldier in a new Crusade, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist view of Jews is not only bigoted but anti-Semitic, argues Winter. “The view of the Jews as eternal enemies of Islam, regardless of time and place, and as owners of inherent, almost genetic negative characteristics like meanness, evilness, manipulation, and so on, is very common in the writings of many prominent Islamists,” he observes.

By the same token, this would make much of the conservative anti-Arab rhetoric in Israel equally racist.

Others are not convinced, and argue that Israel and the Jews are tools of political expediency for the Brotherhood. “Frankly, I don’t even buy the caliphate business. I think it’s pure and simple political opportunism really,” counters Mohamed El Dahshan, a prominent Egyptian commentator, blogger and researcher. “Consequently, the Israel business is rhetoric.”

Despite the alarm a possible Brotherhood takeover of power elicited in Israel in the early days of the revolution, this opportunism was perceptible in Mohamed Morsi’s pragmatic stewardship of affairs with Israel, including a warm letter to Shimon Peres which reportedly described the Israeli president as a “great and good friend”.

“The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t really seem to have Israel in their target list. They have always been more focused on building their own organisation and fighting the state,” notes El Dahshan.

El Dahshan’s assertion gets confirmation from the unlikeliest of quarters. Although it is widely assumed, for instance, that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated because of the Camp David Treaty with Israel, his assassins say otherwise. “[Sadat] made that deal and no one killed him or planned to,” said Aboud al-Zomor, one of the convicted plotters. For al-Zomor and his Islamist cohorts, Sadat’s refusal to implement Sharia “was the primary reason that this regime must be removed”.

Even more surprising is the fact that, in addition to vilifying Jews, many Islamists also express admiration for Israel and the Jewish experience as an example to aspire to, as research by Winter and Uriya Shavit of Tel Aviv University has revealed.

“Our book My Enemy, My Mentor contains many Islamist texts which call on Muslim societies to follow the lead of the Jews and Israel and learn from them in different fields, such as religiosity, long-term planning and even women’s rights and democracy,” explains Winter.

Fascinatingly, an audio recording uncovered by Winter, apparently of the popular TV theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who some have accused of anti-Semitism, expressed, back in the 1990s, admiration for the achievements of Israeli democracy: “We hope that our countries will become like this country [i.e. Israel].”

Why? “There, it is the people who govern. There, they do not have the ‘four nines’ which we know in our countries,” he added, referring to the 99.99% of the vote with which Arab dictators once used to “win” elections.

“These kind of narratives are surprising and prove that the Islamists’ view of Israel is more complex than many tend to assume,” concludes Winter.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 May 2014.

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