مواجهة الفساد والعدالة الانتقالية

 
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بقلم اسامة دياب ومحمد الشيوي

يجب تطوير تصور العدالة الاانتقالية ليشمل الجرائم الاقتصادية لان فساد نظام مبارك لا ينفصل عن ممارسات أخرى كانتهاكات حقوق الإنسان وتزوير إرادة الناخبين.

الجمعة 11 ابريل 2014

كثُر الحديث في الآونة الأخيرة عن التصالح مع رموز النظام السابق، ويستند مؤيدو التصالح مع رموز نظام مبارك إلى أن هذه هي أسرع الطرق للحصول على بعض من الأموال المنهوبة بدلا من اللجوء إلى عملية قضائية مرهقة وطويلة خصيصا في ظل الأزمة المالية التي تمر بها مصر وتتجلى في الانخفاض الشديد في احتياطي النقد الأجنبي، وزيادة العجز في الميزانية بالإضافة إلى بطء معدلات النمو.

اتفقت الحكومات المتعاقبة منذ ثورة الخامس والعشرين من يناير على أهمية التصالح كمخرج لأزمتنا الاقتصادية، وكان قد شدد حسن مالك رجل الأعمال الإخواني ورئيس مجلس إدارة الجمعية المصرية لتنمية الأعمال “ابدأ” في حديث لصحيفة الأهرام بتاريخ ٢٠١٣/٥/١٣ على أهمية التصالح مع رموز النظام السابق  للدفع بعجلة الاقتصاد وإعادة الأموال المهربة، وطرح مبادرته للتصالح كعلاج لأزماتنا الاقتصادية والاجتماعية.

وعبر أيضا تحالف ما بعد ٣٠ يونيو المعادي للإخوان على أهمية التصالح كضرورة اقتصادية واجتماعية ودليل على إن مصر مفتوحة “للجميع”، بعدما أكد هاني صلاح، المتحدث الرسمي باسم مجلس الوزراء في حكومة حازم الببلاوي على أن أي فرد يطرح مبادرة شريفة، لا يسعهم إلا أن يستمعوا إليه “من أجل بلادنا الحبيبة” وأن مصر بعد ٣٠ يونيو مفتوحة على الخارج والقضاء نزيه وشامخ والحكومة تتقبل أي مبادرات مصالحة.

ولكن هل هي حقا كذلك، وهل فعلا يحمل التصالح في طياته العلاج السحري لأزماتنا السياسية والاجتماعية والاقتصادية الطاحنة؟

تكمن المشكلة في أنه بالرغم من دور الجرائم الاقتصادية كتربة خصبة تنمو وتترعرع في ظلها فلسفة الانتهاكات البدنية، مع ثبوت وجود علاقة طردية بين انتهاكات حقوق الإنسان وجرائم الفساد المالي، عادة ما يولي الخطاب الحقوقي (سواء الأهلي أو الحكومي) أهمية خاصة للحقوق المدنية والسياسية على حساب الحقوق الاقتصادية، ولذا يجب تطوير تصور وخطاب أشمل وأعم للعدالة انتقالية يشمل الجرائم الاقتصادية وليس فقط الانتهاكات الجسدية المباشرة، وهو ما لم يحدث في مصر حيث صنف النظام جرائم الفساد المالي كجريمة أقل وأيسر من قتل المتظاهرين -على سبيل المثال- يسمح فيها بالتصالح مقابل دفع مبلغ مالي تحدده السلطات دون ضابط أو مراقبة. من المهم التركيز على أن هذا التفاوت في حالة مصر يحدث على المستوى الخطابي فقط، حيث لم يُعاقب في أغلب الحالات مرتكبي انتهاكات حقوق الإنسان بمختلف أشكالها.

وفي سياق قضايا الفساد المالي، تقضي أغلب أحكام الإدانة في قضايا الفساد والمال العام بدفع قيمة الضرر أو رد الشئ، بالإضافة إلى تغريم الشخصية السياسية المدانة بالفساد، بالإضافة إلى قدرة الدولة على مصادرة أموال المتهمين بالفساد داخليا ووجود قرارات بتجميد أموالهم في الكثير من، إن لم يكن أغلب، الولايات القضائية التي توجد بها أموال رجال عصر مبارك، هذا بالإضافة إلى الكلفة الاجتماعية لإفلات الفاسدين من العقاب، خاصة بعد أن انتفض ضدهم الملايين في ثورة يناير، وتنم أيضا عن ضعف قدرة الدولة في مواجهة الفساد مما يشجع على استمرار إفقاره لملايين المصريين على حساب قلة قليلة من المنتفعين.

ويؤثر التصالح كذلك على فرصة مصر في استعادة أموالها المنهوبة من الخارج، ففي تونس على سبيل المثال تم الإفراج عن الأموال المجمدة لبعض الأفراد بناء على طلب السلطات التونسية برغم اعتقاد السلطات السويسرية بأحقية بقاء هؤلاء الأفراد على قائمة الحظر، وهو الأمر الذي قد يحدث في مصر حال استمرار صفقات التصالح مع رموز النظام السابق، فمن الممكن أن تطلب السلطات المصرية رفع الحظر عن بعض الأسماء التي تم التصالح معها، وهو بالفعل ما يتوقع حدوثه وأن يكون من ضمن شروط صفقات التصالح.

وعادة لا تمتلك الدولة النامية، ضحية الفساد، الخبرات التقنية اللازمة للتعامل مع ملفات الفساد واستعادة الأموال بعد سقوط نظامها السياسي، وعادة ما يستميت النظام المخلوع للحيلولة دون تجميد ورد هذه الأموال بكل السبل المشروعة والغير المشروعة، فضلا عن عدم مقدرة تلك الدول على دفع تكاليف التقاضي الدولي العالي التكلفة، وعادة ما يكون قدرة النظام المخلوع المادية نتيجة نهب المال العام أفضل من قدرة الدولة المنهكة اقتصاديا في أمور التقاضي وتوكيل المحامين.

ومن هنا تنبع الأهمية في مصر وكل الدول التي تعاني من الفساد من إيجاد حل بديل للتعامل مع ملفات الفساد واسع النطاق خاصة بعد سقوط الأنظمة، فلا التصالح سيعيد الأموال المنهوبة ولا هو يبعث برسالة فحواها أن عصر الفساد ونهب الشعوب انتهى بعقاب الآثمين، بل في الواقع هو يضيع على مصر فرصة استعادة الأموال المنهوبة إلا ما تنعم علينا به رجال مبارك من أرض هنا وبعض الملايين القليلة هناك، مثل التصالح في قضية رشيد والذي حدد بـ ٢ مليون دولار، والتصالح في قضية أكرم عضاضة والمغربي، والتي قضت المحكمة برد الأرض محل الفساد إلى الدولة.

البديل؟

ونرى إنه يجب أن يكون هناك  مسار بديل للعدالة في ظل توتر وإنهاك المؤسسات الذي قد يجعل خيار التصالح خيارا مريحا، في ظل قدرة ضعيفة لمؤسسات العدالة في مصر على إدانة نظام مبارك عن سنوات الفساد المالي والسياسي، بسبب ضعفها وفسادها وخضوعها لصراع سياسي وسيطرة شبكة مصالح مبارك على جزء كبير من مفاصل الدولة.

لا نؤيد بالضرورة الحبس أو تغليظ العقوبة في الجرائم المالية لكن فساد نظام مبارك لا ينفصل عن ممارسات أخرى كانتهاكات حقوق الإنسان وتزوير إرادة الناخبين، فلذا ندعو لنظرة أكثر شمولية لجرائم النظام السابق، فالتصالح مع رموز نظام مبارك لن يكون في جرائم المال العام فقط بل عن تزوير إرادة الناخبين في كافة الانتخابات الرئاسية والبرلمانية والمجلية وانتهاكات حقوق الإنسان والفساد السياسي، فمن المثبت وهو ما سنناقشه بالتفصيل العلاقة الطردية بين الفساد الاقتصادي والقمع السياسي وانتهاكات حقوق الإنسان.

فحتى في حالات التي تكون فيها الدولة بمنظومة عدالتها مستقرة، يكون القضاء العادي عادة معني بالقضايا الفردية، أما الجرائم الممنهجة من تزوير انتخابات وتعذيب وفساد واسع النطاق عادة ما يحتاج إلى مسار بديل للعدالة بعد سقوط الأنظمة الديكتاتورية (بافتراض سقوطها في الحالة المصرية) ونظرة أكثر شمولية للجرائم السياسية والاجتماعية والجنائية والاقتصادية الممنهجة ونقط الالتقاط بينهم وربطهم ببعض، ولذا وجد مفهوم العدالة الانتقالية الذي بمقدرته أن ينظر في انتهاكات حقبة زمنية طويلة سابقة والانتهاكات والجرائم الممنهجة التي يصعب على القضاء العادي التعامل معها، ولكم من أجل تحقيق ذلك يجب علاج قصور هام في تجارب العدالة الانتقالية السابقة، وهو عدم إدراجها للجرائم الاقتصادية ضمن نطاق عملها.

فيبدو أن الحكومة الحالية تقع في فخ قديم وهو فصل الجرائم الاقتصادية عن بقية انتهاكات حقوق الإنسان “التقليدية” مثل القتل والتعذيب، فيسمح مثلا “قانون التصالح” بالتسوية مع المستثمر في جرائم الفساد ولكن شددت الحكومة في أكثر من مناسبة أنه لن يتم التصالح مع من قتل المتظاهرين خلال ثورة يناير، وذلك لدواعي احتياج الدولة لاستثمارات من رجال أعمال ولإعادة الثقة في الاقتصاد المصري، وانطلاقا من هذا، قد تم بدء عملية التصالح مع رجال أعمال ووزراء سابقين يتم من خلالها دفع مبلغ مادي في مقابل إسقاط التهم الموجهة له من فساد أو استغلال لسلطته السياسية لجني منفعة خاصة، المشكلة في هذا المفهوم تكمن في إغفالها الارتباط القوي بين الجرائم الاقتصادية وانتهاكات حقوق الإنسان بشكل عام.

الانتهاكات الجسدية لحقوق الإنسان هي نتيجة حتمية للجرائم الاقتصادية أو جرائم الفساد واسع النطاق من قبل أشخاص الذين يشغلون وظيفة عامة ومرتبطة ارتباط وثيق بها، ولأجل ترسيخ وتقوية نظام سياسي مبني علي الاستغلال الاقتصادي، تتجه الحكومات إلي استخدام القمع والعنف من النظم الأمنية ضد المواطنين. الجرائم الاقتصادية إذن هي وسيلة لتعزيز منظومة حكم معينة، علاوة علي ذلك فهذه السياسات يأتي معها انتهاكات اقتصادية أخري مثل العمل القسري وانتهاك الحق في أجر عادل.

الملفت للنظر هنا هو أن العدالة الانتقالية، نتيجة لكونها جزء من حركة حقوق الإنسان، تعمل بنفس منطق الحكومة المصرية الحالية. فالعدالة الانتقالية عادة ما تركز اهتمامها علي محاكمة وتقصي الانتهاكات المتعلقة بالجسد كالقتل والتعذيب (المعروفة بالحقوق المدنية والسياسية) ولا تركز علي الإطار الاقتصادي والمجتمعي الذي يحتضن تلك الانتهاكات في مقدمتها جرائم الفساد في الحالة المصرية. نتائج هذا الانفصام عادة ما تكون سلبية من ناحية محاولة تحقيق العدالة لجرائم الماضي، فهي تعتبر حل سطحي لمشاكل معقدة.

عدم إدراج الجرائم الاقتصادية الممنهجة (بمعني أنه تم “تطبعيها” كسياسة اقتصادية شرعية) يؤدي إلي عدم إمكانية النظر والتحقيق في كافة السياسات والشبكات والأشخاص الذين ساهموا في ظهور الفساد وانتشاره واستفادوا منه. بالرغم من ذلك، توجد حركة من خبراء ونشطاء في هذا المجال يطالبوا بأهمية أحذ نظرة أكثر شمولية للعدالة الانتقالية بمنطق أن أي مكاسب من عملية انتقالية سوف تتلاشي إذ لم يتم القضاء علي الأسباب الجذرية التي أدت إلي القمع والعنف.

يتم الاستشهاد في مصر بتجربة جنوب أفريقيا، في إشارة إلي عمليات العفو مقابل الحقيقة التي مرت بها البلد بعد سقوط نظام الفصل العنصري (الأبارتيد) هناك. تجربة جنوب أفريقيا حاضرة بقوّة في النقاشات حول العدالة الانتقالية والمصالحة، لكن سياسة العفو في الحقيقة فشلت في إحقاق العدالة لضحايا الفصل العنصري، وفقا لهوارد فارني القاضي الذي عمل في لجنة الحقيقة والمصالحة في جنوب أفريقيا. بناء عليه، فأن سياسات التصالح المتبناة من قبل الحكومة لدواعي اقتصادية مضرة لمسار العدالة في مصر، فهي تعتبر ضياع لفرصة ثمينة لمعرفة كيف كانت تعمل سياسات نظام مبارك الاقتصادية في إطار واحد مع القمع الجسدي ضد المصريين وأيضا تبعث الرسالة أن العدالة تستطيع أن تباع وتشتري بالثمن المناسب. سيكون من الضروري لتحقيق العدل تبني منظومة أكثر شمولية لمفهوم العدالة الانتقالية يتم إدراج فيها الجرائم الاقتصادية، وهكذا، تستطيع آليات العدالة الانتقالية كلجان الحقيقة ولجان الغربلة العمل كمسار بديل لسياسات التصالح الغير عادلة من ناحية، ومن ناحية أخري كبديل المحاكم العادية الغير قادرة علي العمل علي هذا الملف نظرا لتسييسها وعملها في إطار غير مستقر.

أطروحة التصالح من أجل النهوض بالاقتصاد التي تبنتها حكومات ما بعد الثورة تدلل على نظرة ضيقة لإدارة الملف الاقتصادي والخطاب المسيطر الذي يختصر النجاح الاقتصادي في جذب الاستثمارات الأجنبية، ونذكر جميعا النجاح الهائل الذي حققته الحكومات السابقة على الثورة -خاصة حكومة أحمد نظيف- والمؤشرات القياسية في جذب الاستثمارات الأجنبية، وتزامن هذا النمو المطرد في قدوم الاستثمارات الأجنبية إلى مصر مع زيادة حالة الاحتقان الاجتماعي والاعتصامات والإضرابات حتى توجت بثورة ٢٥ يناير، التي قامت ضد النظام ذاته الذي دخلت كل هذه الاستثمارات في عهده، مما يدل بما لا يدع مجالا للشك أن قدوم الاستثمارات الأجنبية ليس هو الحل السحري والفوري لأزماتنا الكثيرة والمتنوعة.

ففي الأعوام السابقة على الثورة، شهدت مصر معدلات نمو في الناتج المحلي الإجمالي تصل إلى الـ ٧٪ لمدة ثلاث سنوات متتالية، وتدفقات من الاستثمارات الأجنبية وضعتها على قمة الدول الأفريقية من حيث جذب الاستثمارات الأجنبية، ففي عام ٢٠٠٧ على سبيل المثال، دخل مصر ما يزيد على ١٠ مليار دولار مما يمثل نحو ثلث إجمالي التدفقات الرأسمالية إلى أفريقيا، ولكن لم تؤد هذه الأموال إلى حدوث رخاء وسلم اجتماعي بدليل ما شهده عامان ٢٠٠٨ و٢٠٠٩ من أعداد قياسية من الإضرابات الاعتصامات العمالية، ولعلنا نذكر منها ما حدث في ٦ إبريل ٢٠٠٨ والعشرات من الاعتصامات العمالية أمام مجلس الشعب التي استمرت لشهور طويلة في ٢٠٠٩.

فهل ستعود التصالحات بالنفع الاقتصادي على مصر وبث جو من الثقة في مناخها الاستثماري مما يؤدي إلى تدفق الأموال والخيرات على مصر وتحقيق الاستقرار المنشود؟

إذا كانت هناك نية للنهوض الاقتصادي وارتفاع مستوى المعيشة للمواطن الفقير والمعدم، يجب ألا يكون التركيز على توفير مناخ استثماري مبني على العمالة الرخيصة والدعم الحكومي للمصانع كثيفة الطاقة وانحياز أعمى لصالح المستثمر فلنا في السنوات السابقة للثورة عبرة، فهذه الفلسفة الاستثمارية لا تبني اقتصاديات قوية أو تنتشل المعدمين من الفقر، بل يكاد يكون من أهم أهدافها الحفاظ على الفقر ورخص العمالة كعنصر من عناصر الإنتاج، وتؤدي هذه الفلسفة الاستثمارية التي تتفرد بها الدول النامية إلى تركيز الثروة الجديدة في أيدي قلة قليلة مما يؤدي إلى توسيع الفجوة الاقتصادية بين الطبقات الاجتماعية والاقتصادية المختلفة، وتؤدي أيضا إلى تضخم وزيادة في الأسعار تزود من صعوبات وضغوطات الحياة بالنسبة للفقراء والمعدمين مما يؤدي بطبيعة الحال إلى زيادة الاحتقان وتهديد السلم العام.

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This article first appeared on Mada Masr on 31 March 2014. Republished here with the authors’ consent.

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By Bel Trew and Osama Diab

Three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, fugitive tycoons are scrambling to buy back their freedom… at knock-down prices.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

As crowds packed streets throughout Egypt during the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it wasn’t only the politicians and generals in Cairo who were scrambling to protect their interests. With the old regime teetering, business tycoons connected to the regime packed up their bags – and their billions – and fled the country.

One of them was Hussein Salem, who was nicknamed the “Father of Sharm el-Sheikh” for his ownership of multiple hotels in the coastal resort city. Salem made billions of dollars in the energy, arms, and hospitality industry in Mubarak’s Egypt – he was so close to the former president that the two even invested together, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy. It was a lucrative alliance for Salem: In the early 2000s, Mubarak granted him a monopoly over gas exports to Jordan, Israel, and Spain. Salem used this deal to sell gas at below-market rates for years, according to an Egyptian court ruling, costing the country more than $700 million.

Salem hasn’t been back to Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, and for good reason. As post-uprising Egypt looked to recoup the millions stolen by Mubarak and his cronies, a series of court cases focused on the corrupt business practices of Salem and his family. In October 2011, Salem – along with his son, Khaled, and daughter, Magda – were found guilty of making illicit gains on their gas sales, and sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail. In June 2012, he was convicted of selling gas to Israel at below-market prices, and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail, and ordered, along with other defendants, to pay $412 million in fines.

Salem, however, holds Spanish citizenship, which has allowed him to dodge the Egyptian legal system. He is now living in Majorca, Spain, and is wanted by Interpol along with his son and daughter. Spanish courts, however, have refused to extradite him to Egypt because the two nations do not have judicial or legal bilateral co-operation agreements and the courts’ uncertainty about the fairness of Egypt’s legal process.

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem’s fortunes – and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen – may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt’s generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: cancel my convictions and I’ll give Egypt millions.

Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.

“Mr Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen … your initiative is really appreciated,” said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. “Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country.”

Since the overthrow of Morsi, Salah continued, Egypt is more open to initiatives of “reconciliation” – and he expects other Mubarak-era fugitive businessmen to propose similar deals. Reconciliation deals can either be reached by committees appointed by the prime minister and justice minister, or they can be brokered by the general prosecutor, who is appointed by the president.

Reconciliation, however, seems to mean little more than dropping corruption charges in exchange for cash. During another phone-in on 9 January, Salem offered the government a $3.6 million fund to boost tourism and repair police stations, churches and mosques in exchange for his freedom. That’s actually a drastic decrease compared to his pre-coup proposal: in May 2012, just before Morsi became president, Salem offered at least half his estimated $1.6 billion in wealth in exchange for settling the charges against him, according to Abdel-Aziz.

Three years after protests against the sort of business cronyism that gutted Egypt’s economy, the country is now considering turning to the very people who robbed the country for a financial bailout. Despite protesters’ widespread demands for social justice, post-revolutionary Egypt has witnessed precious few improvements: Transparency International ranks Egypt 114 out of 177 countries on its “Corruption Perception Index,” and its position has actually fallen since 2011.

The relationship between Mubarak-era business tycoons and the Egyptian government appeared to have been severed long ago, as the prosecutions targeting these businessmen were launched by the interim military government that followed Mubarak. But ”reconciliation” could allow the new military-backed government to reestablish the same powerful networks of loyal businessmen that flourished under Mubarak.

The process “opens the door for more corruption and escaping justice,” said Ghada Ali Moussa, a political scientist who heads up the Governance Centre, a government agency dedicated to preventing corruption and advancing transparency. “[Salem's prospective reconciliation deal] will be an ideal prototype for others to follow.”

Other businessmen with ties to the Mubarak regime are also lining up their reconciliation offers. Mubarak’s minister of foreign trade and industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, is in similar talks with the government and is set to put in another offer, Moussa said. Rachid, who was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail and at least $330 million in fines for squandering public funds and profiteering, fled to Dubai during the 2011 uprising.

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s consolidation of power could also increase Egypt’s willingness to cut reconciliation deals. While much normal government business has been on hold under the current interim government, a strongman in the presidential palace and a new parliament could change that.

“There will be a climate for such reconciliation to materialise,” Ibrahim el-Henedy, Egypt’s deputy justice minister and head of the Illicit Gains Authority, the body in charge of investigating corruption, told FP. “It’s all about the offer of reconciliation: which is better for Egypt, to reconcile or not?”

Even though Salem was “among the worst” of the country’s corrupt businessmen and has been ordered to pay some of the biggest fines, Henedy said, the government was still interested in striking a reconciliation deal.

Salem’s lawyer, Tarek Abdel-Aziz, also believes that the time is ripe to settle his client’s disagreements with the Egyptian government. He told FP he is working on an official reconciliation offer, which will be submitted to the authorities now that Morsi has been ousted. His client is “very optimistic,” the lawyer said.

“Now, thank God, there is an existing system that takes care of all Egyptians,” Abdel-Aziz said. “Today we have a new regime – hopefully a just regime that will move things forward.”

Abdel-Aziz denied that Salem was tied to Mubarak and said the charges were politically motivated. However, a leaked document from the Illicit Gains Authority shows that the Salems and the Mubaraks – together with other businessmen tied to the old regime – invested together in an offshore fund registered in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax haven.

The investment fund, which was called the Egypt Fund, invested in 18 Egyptian companies in the cement, banking, real estate, steel, oil, food, and agricultural industries. The head of investor relations at EFG Hermes bank, Hanzada Nessim, wrote in an e-mail that her bank set up the Egypt Fund in 1997. When asked whether EFG Hermes was aware of the investors behind the fund, Nessim wrote that the bank was fully informed of the investors’ identities and that no allegations of wrongdoing had been levied against them at the time.

While Salem and Mubarak were not personally listed as contributors, the fund included companies owned by their children: Clelia Assets Corporation, owned by Khaled and Magda Salem, invested $3 million; and Pan World Investments Corporation, owned by Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, invested $250,000. The offshore fund would have provided significant tax breaks to its investors, as well as allowing them to shield their investments from prying eyes.

Salem not only bilked Egypt – he also stole from the United States. In 1979, his company, the Egyptian American Transport and Service Corporation (EATSCO), was granted a contract to ship military goods from the United States to Egypt. The deal came in the wake of the Camp David Accords, when US military sales started to flood in to Cairo, making shipping a potentially lucrative business.

Salem, however, tried to boost his profits by charging the US Defense Department for inflated shipment costs. Between 1979 and 1981, according to US court documents, EATSCO submitted false invoices for 34 shipments, which overcharged the Pentagon by $8 million. In 1983, Salem pled guilty to felony charges in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia. The fines and civil claims settlements paid by Salem and the companies involved in the scheme totaled more than $4 million.

Most of Salem’s millions came from sweetheart deals in Egypt, where he received preferential treatment from his allies at the top echelons of government. In April 2011, Mubarak-era spy chief Omar Suleiman testified before an Egyptian prosecutor that Salem’s company, the East Mediterranean Gas Company, was handed the monopoly over gas exports to Israel, Jordan, and Spain in the early 2000s, bypassing the usual bidding process. Suleiman was asked to testify as Egypt’s intelligence services were allegedly involved in brokering the gas deals.

Suleiman said Salem had been friends with Mubarak for more than 20 years, and that his experience in business dealings with Israel was the reason he was chosen for the deal.

“[Salem] had dealt with the Israelis before with MIDOR,” Suleiman said, referencing Salem’s time as chairman for the Middle East Oil Refining Company, an Israel-Egyptian project established in 1993 to build a joint refinery on the North coast of Egypt and to extend an oil pipeline to Israel.

Seven years later, Salem sold 37% of the East Mediterranean Gas Company for $4.2 billion, according to the Israeli business news website Globes.

It’s not hard to see why Salem is pushing so hard for reconciliation. If Egypt refuses to cut a deal and negotiates an extradition agreement, it could win back his frozen assets in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Spain. The extradition would allow Egypt to convict Salem in person, and many countries – including the ones where Salem stashed his wealth – require such a final verdict if they are to return his stolen assets.

If successfully extradited back home, Salem would also be obliged to pay more than $4 billion in fines and restitution, and he would serve 22 years in prison based on his combined sentences by Egyptian courts.

A reconciliation deal, on the other hand, would not only place Salem back in the good graces of the Egyptian government, it would also effectively end foreign investigations into whether his wealth is the result of illicit gain.

“It would be very difficult for the Swiss authorities to continue prosecution against Hussein Salem if the Egyptian authorities drop any charges against him,” said Olivier Longchamp, officer for international financial relations at the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration. “Money can only be seized if it has been proven to be of illegal origin.”

Now, three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, Salem appears closer to his goal than ever before. In an ironic turn, he is now hailing the military-backed government for combating the same underhanded business dealings of which, for many Egyptians, he is the symbol. As he put it in January, ”the era of corruption and injustice is gone now.”

This feature first appeared in Foreign Policy on 7 February 2014. It is republished here with the authors’ consent.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The new constitution says Egypt is a “gift” that will “write a new history for humanity”. Should neighbours welcome or fear greater Egyptian influence?

Saturday 25 January 2014

For the past three years, Egyptian history has been in overdrive. After six decades with just four presidents, Egypt is already into its fourth leader since January 2011, and a fifth, possibly General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will take over the helm soon. In that same span of accelerated time, Egypt has seen a mind-spinning array of revolutions, counterrevolutions, anti-revolutions, coups, evolutions and devolutions… often simultaneously.

Needless to say, the past 36 months have been an emotional rollercoaster and space jump for Egyptians, especially those at the frontline of the revolution, but also for those, like me, observing from the sidelines.

Although I shun nationalism and the word  patriotism troubles me, during the 18 days it took to topple Hosni Mubarak, I was the proudest I’d ever been of my birth nationality. Despite dreading the hangover which would follow, I too was caught up in the euphoria of the moment, that “beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom”, as I wrote back then.

On this, the third anniversary of the mass uprising that has succeeded in mobilising millions again and again and again, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not the Egyptian revolution has been defeated.

Though many have been reading the revolution its last rites, I am of the conviction that the uprising may have been contained for the time being, but the aspirations and it unleashed are uncontainable. And like “liberté, égalité, fraternité” survived to fight another day, “bread, freedom, dignity” will remain a rallying cry for generations.

Another question which has preoccupied many is what are the ramifications of events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, for the Middle East, and how will it shape or reshape Egypt’s regional role?

In some quarters of Egyptian society, the domestic issues the revolution has focused on have been rather too bread and butter for their tastes, and they dream of Egypt (re)gaining its regional clout.

This is reflected in the flowery, sometimes jingoistic preamble of the new constitution which takes poetic licence with Egypt’s place in the world. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile to Egyptians, and the gift of Egyptians to humanity,” reads the very first sentence of the constitution’s preamble.

Taking note of the conflicts between East and West, and North and South, which have torn apart the world, the founding document declares Egypt’s intention to help “write a new history for humanity”.

What is the likelihood that Egypt will fulfil these dizzyingly high aspirations?

Given that the world is a much bigger and more complicated place than at the dawn of civilisation and Egypt is only a middle-income, middle-sized country, any role it can play is bound to be limited, even at the best of times.

Nevertheless, many Arabs expect Egypt to play a central role in regional affairs. I am constantly surprised by the number of Palestinians I meet who regard Egypt’s natural position as the central player in the region, even repeating the tired platitude which I had once assumed was mostly a domestic comforter – that Egypt is the “Mother of the World”.

At one level, it is touching to observe how Palestinians, despite the multitude of problems they face, take such a keen interest in my country’s affairs, feeling elation for our successes and depression for our failures. “We have always looked to Egypt for inspiration and support,” one Palestinian I met recently told me.

The Israeli perspective is more complicated. Many Israelis, especially the young and progressive, voiced support for the Egyptian revolution and sent messages of solidarity, including in song, to the protestors, while the epicentre of the 2011 social protests in Israel, Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, was known as “Tahrir Square” to many demonstrators.

However, when it came to the Israeli political establishment, fear and fear-mongering were the order of the day. “I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution,” I wrote before Mubarak’s downfall, in response to Israeli concerns that Egypt would become “another Iran”. “The cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.”

And as time would tell, when they gained power, the Muslim Brotherhood proved keen on maintaining the peace, for reasons of realpolitik. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi even earning accolades from Israel for his government’s mediation of the 2012 military confrontation between Israel and Gaza.

Moreover, today Egypt’s policies towards the Palestinians are even more in line with Israel’s than they were under Mubarak, and to greater public approval. Tragically, this has translated into Egypt becoming an even greater accomplice in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the vilification of Gazans, and whispers that the regime may be planning to do what has eluded Israel: topple Hamas.

Yet many Palestinians and Arabs still hold out hope that Egypt will play a benign role in the neighbourhood. “Egypt is the bellwether Arab state,” an Emirati journalist and commentator put it to me succinctly. And this “bellwether” role could explain why the Gulf has been pumping billions into the Egyptian economy – to keep the revolutionary bug at bay and to buy political leverage.

And once upon a time, Egypt was not only the most populous Arab country but also its wealthiest. This gave it automatic top dog status, with mixed results.

On the plus side, Egypt launched the Arab world’s first modernising project in the 19th century, has long been an intellectual and cultural dynamo, helped its neighbours resist imperialism in the 20th century, played a pivotal role in constructing a sense of post-colonial pride, and acted in solidarity with non-aligned countries everywhere.

But there is an ugly underbelly to Egypt’s regional influence, and ignorance of it or failure to appreciate it could have serious consequences. For example, even if Egypt was a major anti-colonial influence, it was also an imperial power in its own right.

Khedive Muhammad Ali may have freed Egypt from Ottoman rule but his son, Ibrahim Pasha, ruthlessly and bloodily built his father an empire which, at some point or other, encompassed the Hijaz, Sudan, parts of Anatolia, much of the Levant and Crete, with even Constantinople within military but not political reach. However, imperial Egypt proved as unpopular as any other imperial power in the conquered regions, particularly Sudan.

Following the 1952 revolution/coup, or revolutionary coup, Egypt became a powerhouse of anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism. It lent support to some countries seeking independence and provided inspiration to others, with millions dreaming that the Arab world could become a single nation under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

But the only actual attempt to realise this dream ended in both tragedy and farce. Even though Nasser did not want to enter into a union with Syria, the Syrian government, fearing a communist takeover, forced his hand.

Instead of the United Arab Republic being a marriage of equals, Nasser quickly destroyed Syrian democracy and turned it into the personal fiefdom of his most-trusted confidante, the highly incompetent Abdel-Hakim Amer – perhaps evoking bitter memories of Ibrahim Pasha amongst Syrians.

Then there was what many have called Egypt’s “Vietnam” in Yemen, not to mention the disasters of the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.

How much and what kind of a regional role or influence – and whether it will be benign or aggressive – Egypt will have in the coming years will depend on many factors. But it is certainly possible that, if elected president, al-Sisi, like many leaders during tumultuous times before him, will involve Egypt actively, perhaps even aggressively, in regional politics to distract attention away from pressing domestic issues or to fill the country’s empty coffers.

But rather than exporting the troubling brand of nationalistic chauvinism that has been emerging in recent months, what I’d like to see is Egypt sharing the irrepressible spirit of the Republic of Tahrir so that, together, the region can grow free.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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The square root of the Egyptian revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Egyptian revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. The dreams it unleashed are impossiblee to contain.

25 January 2014

The word “revolution” perfectly encapsulates the events of the past three years. It is almost as if Egypt was strapped into history’s rollercoaster and taken on the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, demoralising, deadly ride in generations.

Meanwhile, the country has gone through a spin cycle so intense and severe that its political, social and economic fabric is in tatters and it is unclear whether this will be rewoven into silk or polyester. For the time being, we’re left with a blood-soaked rag, as the Egyptian regime undertakes one of its bloodiest political purges in recent history and faces an increasingly deadly Islamist insurgency.

The Egyptian people’s success in defeating three dictators (Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi) in as many years caused short-lived elation which was quickly eclipsed by the dictatorial tendencies of Egypt’s leadership.

On the third anniversary of  the Egyptian revolution, it seems increasingly likely that Egypt’s latest despot, albeit one with a “popular mandate”, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will run for president, consolidating and deepening his grip on power, especially if the presidential vote precedes parliamentary elections.

While a significant proportion of the Egyptian population – weary after three years of instability and unrest – seem to welcome this eventuality, a growing number of people are beginning to see through the current regime’s hollow democratic rhetoric and are becoming fearful of its brutally autocratic methods. For their part, the pro-Morsi camp continues to scream democratic legitimacy while dreaming of divine dictatorship.

The polarisation between two autocratic visions has left those who aspire for and believe in the values of the revolution with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of despair. “We view ourselves back at square one, because what is happening now could be more dangerous, more complicated than what was there before January 25, 2011,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th April Youth Movement which helped spearhead the revolution, said back in August, shortly after the blood-soaked dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adawiya protest camp.

And “more dangerous” it has proven to be. Not only have unknown numbers of Morsi supporters been killed and thousands more imprisoned, with the Muslim Brotherhood branded a “terrorist organisation”, the regime is now turning its attention back to the secular activists it had temporarily neglected while it dealt with its former Brothers.

“Nothing symbolised the end of it all like the protest law and Maher and others getting arrested,” confessed one activist. “We are now in a situation that is even worse than what we had under Mubarak.”

It is a sad indictment of the direction matters have taken in Egypt and of the power of the counterrevolution’s counteroffensive that three of the most prominent youth leaders who were behind the anti-Mubarak uprising – Maher, Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Douma – all received politically motivated three-year sentences last month… for protesting, of all things.

So, does all this mean that the revolution is dead and done for?

Well, all things considered, our short-term prognosis must be that the revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. To borrow a military analogy that our de facto leaders would understand, the battle may be lost but the war is far from over.

If we can take the past as a compass for the future, revolutions are often betrayed or defeated – either by the old guard or the revolutionaries themselves – but the dreams and ideals they unleash are impossible to repress.

Take the French Revolution. In its immediate wake, France went through Robespierre’s “reign of terror”, which makes the current crackdown in Egypt look like junior league, a bloody civil war and wars with neighbouring states. It also resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat and, after that, the restoration of the monarchy, among other setbacks.

One can only imagine the despair and disillusionment felt by those French citizens who believed in the revolution’s original objectives. Yet the French revolution’s vision – summed up pithily in those three eternal words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – survived to fight another day… and another… and another… inspiring  struggles for freedom across Europe and the world. And, in France, it was eventually and largely realised, albeit after five non-consecutive republics.

Likewise in Egypt, whether it gets a new military dictator or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back, bleak as the outlook may seem now. Although the revolution’s goals are unlikely to be achieved any time soon, its rallying call of “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” will resonate for generations to come.

In addition, what can be called the spirit of Tahrir Square, though it is really the spirit of revolutionary Egypt as a whole, may be suppressed and even repressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. Although Egypt’s political class does not seem to have  read the memo that the times have changed, Egyptians have already overcome and overthrown the most oppressive dictatorship of all: the despot inside their minds, the tyranny of fear.

Even if Egyptians now allow themselves to be intimidated into acquiescence or worn down into submitting to the status quo, this will only be temporary. They are bound to rise again, much to the admiration and respect of outside observers like myself, to demand more than a few crumbs of bread, a foot of freedom or a drop of dignity.

There is a latent, implicit recognition of this reality amongst the political elite. Although both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are autocratic in nature, they both talk the language of democracy, freedom and equality. This is visible in al-Sisi’s constant reference to popular “mandates” and obeying the “will of the people”. It is also apparent in the Brotherhood’s constant references to “legitimacy” and their claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a betrayal of the revolution.

Moreover, even if there is no clear sign of light at the end of the tunnel politically, Egypt is in the early throes of a profound social and cultural revolution which is rising from the grassroots up. This can be seen in the clear antiauthoritarianism of many Egyptians, the growing independence of young people, the increasing social and political assertiveness of women, not to mention previously unnoticed minorities, such as non-believers.

In 2011, I argued that Egypt’s uprising would only succeed if it set off a true social (r)evolution – and, unexpectedly, this seems to be one of its few true successes to date. And with time, as society changes from the bottom, up, so will its political landscape.

“I still have confidence that one day we will see a new Egypt,” Ahmed Maher said. “My generation might not see these changes. We might be paving the way for the new generation to see these changes.”

And sadly, though I wish that the millions of Egyptians who have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, in pursuit of the revolution’s ideals would be rewarded for their pains, they are likely to be the lost generation. The true gains from their efforts will only be reaped by the next generation… or even the one after that.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Daily News Egypt on 16 January 2014.

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My enemy’s friend is… my ally

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood accuse each other of being American stooges while discreetly courting Washington.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 20th January 2014

The Egyptian revolution has overturned numerous pearls of traditional wisdom. By rising up in their millions against a corrupt and repressive leadership, Egyptians proved that they don’t believe “the eye should not rise above the brow,” that one should “keep out of harm’s way and sing to it,” or that “the door that brings in a draught should be shut tight for peace of mind.”

Not to be left out, the counter-revolution has also been redefining a number of ancient proverbs. No longer is the enemy of my enemy considered my friend. Rather, my enemy’s friend is, discreetly and surreptitiously, my ally. This paradoxical paradigm is nowhere more apparent than in the conflicting relationship of the two main competing factions – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – with the United States.

According to prevalent Muslim Brotherhood mythology, the downfall of President Mohamed Morsi was engineered by an unholy alliance consisting of the Egyptian military, led by Morsi-appointed General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Washington, and Israel cast in worst supporting role.

When I visited the pro-Morsi, Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp, which was murderously dispersed in mid-August, several of the protesters I spoke to were convinced that a US-Zionist conspiracy was afoot.

This was encapsulated in a poster which one of the protesters insisted on taking me to view, which featured Barack Obama, dressed as pharaoh, holding an al-Sisi dog on a short leash, with a Star of David bandanna round his neck.

Nevertheless, in a bizarre form of ideological dissonance, these same protesters were hostile towards local media and saw the Anglo-American press as their champions, with many calling on Washington and the West to take decisive action against the coup, and to reinstate Morsi.

And this contradictory position is not just one subscribed to by the Brotherhood’s rank and file. “America tried to abort the Egyptian revolution by spending $105 million on Egyptian and foreign organisations in a few months with the aim of causing chaos,” claimed Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council and the movement’s official spokesperson in Arabic.

Yet while in power, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood cosied up to Washington, as well as American and Western public opinion. “Contrary to the Brotherhood’s anti-American slogans, Morsi’s priority was to maintain good relations with Washington,” an Egyptian diplomat said.

And devoid as the Muslim Brotherhood proved of actual policies, despite decades of sloganeering and posturing, Morsi’s foreign policy “simply copied the Mubarak regime”, as one Egyptian analyst put it.

This keenness to please Washington was reflected in the Morsi government’s mediation of the military confrontation between Israel and Gaza in November 2012. This earned the former president plaudits from the United States, which he seemed to have interpreted as a green light to grant himself “absolute power”.

This has, of course, been fodder for the Muslim Brotherhood’s enemies. In a similar fashion to their Islamist opponents, pro-military Egyptians allege that it is Morsi, not al-Sisi, who is an American agent.

Some also subscribe to some pretty outlandish conspiracy theories that come straight out of the “Birther” handbook. For example, it is rumoured in some Egyptian circles that Barack Obama is a secret Brotherhood member and that the 2012 presidential elections were rigged, at the behest of Washington, in favour of Morsi.

And, according to this viewpoint, the conspiracy is far from over, as reflected by the controversy over statements made by former US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson. One lawyer has even gone so far as to file a complaint against Morsi’s wife, alleging that she is conspiring with the American administration to topple al-Sisi and sow sedition and terrorism in Egypt.

It is ironic that supporters of the institution which benefits from the greatest US support – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid annually – should cry conspiracy in this way.

Awareness of this contradiction could be partly behind the calls issued by Tamarod – the youth-led movement, whose name translates as Rebellion, which spearheaded the anti-Morsi protests – to reject American military aid.

At a deeper level, what is behind this paradox of “my enemy’s friend is my ally”?

One undeniable factor is America’s own behaviour. Although the US talks the talk when it comes to democracy, freedom and self-determination, Washington often walks roughshod over these principles when it considers its “vital interests” are at stake.

In Egypt’s case, that manifested itself in Washington’s longstanding support for malleable dictators, including Hosni Mubarak, and Anwar al-Sadat before him. Since the 2011 uprising, the Obama administration has tended to prefer “stability” over principle, weighing in behind the country’s strong man of the moment, whether it is Mubarak, Morsi, Field Marshal Tantawi or General al-Sisi.

Domestically, the instability and uncertainty that has reigned over the past three years has laid fertile ground for the emergence of conspiracy theories. Moreover, for their own historical reasons, both the secular and Islamist movements have striven to rid Egypt of foreign influence, whether it was Ottoman, British, Soviet or American.

This took off in earnest with another revolution almost a century ago, led by Egyptian centrist and rightist liberals, mainly al-Wafd. Not long after, Hassan al-Banna set up the Muslim Brotherhood, also to counteract British influence, but shunning al-Wafd’s secular liberalism in favour of conservative Islam. For leftists, the benchmark for secular, pan-Arabist independence was, at least ostensibly, set by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who spearheaded the 1952 revolution/military coup.

However, for all three streams, aspirations for complete sovereignty became tempered by realpolitik, and the realisation that any regime has a relatively low chance of survival without Washington’s blessing. Despite this, it remains politically expedient to cast aspersions that America is your enemy’s friend while, simultaneously, discreetly courting Washington as an ally.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 13 January 2014.

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The Arab-Israeli war of narratives

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, Egyptians and Israelis still cannot agree on the conflict’s name, date or outcome.

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Wednesday 9 October 2013

That history is written by the victors is one of those truisms that is actually often untrue. Take the Torah. It hardly paints a flattering picture of the “victor”, Egypt, the regional superpower of the time. In fact, the Biblical narrative comes across as an anti-Egyptian propagandistic diatribe which depicts a very different Egypt to the official pharaonic propaganda.

The modern world, in which the majority of societies are literate, showcases the energetic resilience of competing narratives – and mythologies – of the same event. This is nowhere more apparent than across enemy lines. In the Arab-Israeli context, I have been exposed to the conflicting histories on both sides of the divide.

I am currently reminded of this reality when I consider how both Egyptians and Israelis are (separately) marking the 40th anniversary of the same war, yet are unable to agree on its name nor even its date – let alone its outcome.

Employing the Hebrew calendar, Israel has already commemorated the 1973 Yom Kippur war, while Egypt, using the Gregorian calendar, celebrated the October war on the 6th of the month. To add to the temporal confusion, Egypt also marks, but with much less pomp and ceremony, the anniversary of the war on 10 Ramadan, the date on which the war began according to the Islamic calendar, which shifts back 11 or so days each solar year.

In Egypt, this year’s celebrations were bound to be spectacular. The army released a special jubilee logo and urged Egyptians everywhere to take part in the planned festivities, as well as to fly the Egyptian flag from their windows.

In light of the bloody upheavals of the last couple of months and the massive question marks hanging in the air, rejoicing over a moment of past glory can provide some much-needed feel-good optimism for a population worn down by nearly three years of revolution and counter-revolution.

With Egyptian society more polarised than ever, this symbolically significant anniversary is a golden opportunity for the military to cobble together a semblance of national unity – and to score a propaganda point against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular critics of military rule.

Not to be left out, the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance urged its supporters to converge on Tahrir Square. Seeking to cut them off at the pass, the pro-military Tamarod movement is mobilising its followers to mount rival demonstrations, also in Tahrir.

This raised the spectre that the commemoration of a landmark war, and the supposed national unity it instilled, could descend into bloody street battles. Given the symbolic importance of this anniversary, the Egyptian authorities warned ominously that they will not allow anyone to spoil their party. In all, at least 50 people died in the protests.

Over the past four decades, both Egypt’s armed forces and its top brass have used the October “victory” as a central plank of their claim to legitimacy – as defenders of Egypt’s borders, reclaimers of its land and restorers of its honour.

Anwar al-Sadat, the president who launched the surprise attack against Israel, never tired of reminding the Egyptian people that he was the architect of that war, and his government went on a naming spree to mark the historic conflict: a political magazine, two of Cairo’s satellite cities, an elevated highway which now spans most of Cairo, and much more.

Sadat was assassinated during a military parade celebrating the very same October war in 1981, and shortly thereafter his vice-president took over the helm. Not to be left out of October’s glorious radiance, Hosni Mubarak, who was commander of the air force at the time, claimed to have flown the first sortie of the 1973 war.

In leaked secret recordings of private conversations between Mubarak and his doctor in prison, the former president talked at length about his “completely secret” airstrike.

In addition, Mubarak’s lawyer has said that the toppled leader was planning to write a book about his and the airforce’s role in the war. An unpublished manuscript on Mubarak’s exploits dating back to the late 1970s is also due out soon.

General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister who responded to a popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi by removing the president, is widely regarded as the real driving force behind Egypt’s current brutal and bloody “transition.”

With talk of him being the “new Nasser” and “Egypt’s Eisenhower”, not to mention a campaign urging him to run for office, speculation is rife that Sisi might have ambitions to become Egypt’s next president.

Since Sisi is too young to have played a role in the 1973 war, it is unclear how and whether he will exploit its legacy if he does mount a bid for the top job in the land. But if Sisi decides to go against his promises and assurances, it would not surprise me if he announced it amid the nationalistic euphoria which will accompany the 40th anniversary of the “glorious victory”.

But was it actually a victory?

Now back to thqt other war, Yom Kippur, which took place at the exact same time and place as the October war, but with a different outcome. Although Israel originally described it as a stalemate, and despite the trauma the war caused to the national psyche as reflected in the endless post-mortems, Israel now claims it as a heroic act in which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

So who was right? In some ways, both sides were.

In the first phase of the war, Egypt’s spectacular crossing of the Suez Canal, with closely coordinated military backing from Syria on Israel’s northern front, and the Arab oil embargo constituted the most successful example of joint Arab action in the 20th century. Egypt’s ingeniously low-tech breaching of the once-insurmountable Bar-Lev Line and early advances caused such panic among Israeli leaders that Golda Meir’s inner circle may have come perilously close to deploying the “bomb in the basement”.

(As an aside, though Israel does not allow its media to mention with certainty the presence of an “alleged” Israeli nuclear arsenal, I think this episode eloquently underscores the urgent need for Israel to become part of regional efforts to rid the Middle East of WMD.)

But what is not taught in Egyptian school textbooks, rarely shown in its media and totally ignored in the October war panorama in Cairo’s Nasr City district is that the victory turned to stalemate and, within a matter of 10 days, when Israeli troops had crossed to the western side of the canal and got to within a 100km of Cairo, to near defeat.

By the time I was born on 30 October, which some Egyptians I encounter regard as a glorious coincidence, large-scale combat had ended, Israel was in possession of 1,600 square kilometers of land on the Egyptian mainland, but was surrounded by Egyptian forces or natural barriers, while the Egyptian third army was under siege in Sinai, though it maintained its combat integrity and advanced to occupy extra land to the east.

The blanking out of these latter Egyptian losses – which I have mainly learnt about over the years from foreign sources – is dangerous. It encourages a false sense of might among Egyptian and Arab critics of the peace treaty with Israel, who are often under the false impression that Egypt had defeated Israel, while all it had managed was to avoid a defeat as crushing as 1967.

This misapprehension also makes Sadat’s subsequent diplomatic manoeuvres seem more baffling than they actually were. In addition to his strong conviction that diplomacy was the ultimate solution –  similar to his predecessor Nasser’s own private beliefs  – Sadat was faced with a desperate deadlock on the battlefield and growing public pressure to deliver the victorious return of every inch of Egyptian territory he had promised the people.

Although Israel’s assessment of the 1973 war is more honest and it has drawn many lessons from it, most have been of a military nature, such as the need to neutralise its most dangerous neighbour, Egypt, through a treaty to end to hostilities.

Before Israelis rush to congratulate themselves that the Arabs have more bombast than bombs, they should pause to consider that they too possess an arsenal of potent weapons of mass self-deception. Despite Israel’s existential angst which has caused it to be in a constant state of military over-preparedness and often to underestimate its own might, it also entertains destructive mythologies.

In spite of the knock to Israel’s military prestige and sense of security delivered in 1973, the country is still punch-drunk on the stunning 1967 victory. This has lured the Israeli establishment and society to believe that there can be a military solution to Israel’s every problem, and rather than forge a comprehensive peace in the 1970s which included the Palestinians, it settled for removing Egypt from the equation.

But what this overlooks is that the 1967 war did not actually end, like the creation of the world in Genesis, in six days but continued until 1973′s stalemate, that Arab weakness and division were as much or perhaps more of a factor in the victory than Israeli might and prowess, and that Israel’s military dominance is underwritten by a superpower whose continued willingness or ability to support are not guaranteed.

The 40th anniversary of the October/Yom Kippur war should give Egyptians and Israelis pause to reflect on the futility of armed conflict between them, to realise the destructiveness of jingoism and to work on the popular level to enlarge the circle of peace to include the Palestinians.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2013.

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Israel, the puppet master with no strings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Why is Israel, despite being a minor player, is seen by so many Egyptians and others in the region as the master puppeteer behind the crisis in Egypt?

Thursday 29 August 2013

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with "beautiful hair"?

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with “perfect hair”? Photo: Itzike

When news emerged that Hosni Mubarak was to be released from prison, I joked that Egypt was actually in the throes of a grand plot to punish the Egyptian people for having dared to topple their dictator. Part of this ‘conspiracy’ was the planting of provocateurs – Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mohammed Morsi and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – to lead the country off a cliff.

Of course, I was sarcastically expressing my frustration at the incomprehensible magnitude of the incompetence displayed by Egypt’s leaders, the shattering – one shard at a time – of the Egyptian people’s dreams of revolution, as well as mocking the improbable conspiracy theories that have been floating around.

One of the most outlandish was the assertion by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps trying to fill a little of the void left by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel was behind the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

His evidence? A Jewish-French intellectual, unnamed by Erdoğan, who said, in 2011, that the Muslim Brotherhood would not take power, even if elected, because “democracy is not the ballot box.” The intellectual in question, an aide later revealed to AP, was none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Unfortunately, Erdoğan did not elaborate on how BHL, as he is often called in France, came to work for the Israelis. Nor did he explain how Lévy managed to brainwash millions of Egyptians into coming out to the streets to demand Morsi’s departure, providing the army with the necessary cover and support to mount its coup, or what inside track the French philosopher enjoys with General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Although this conspiracy theory may actually appeal to Lévy’s over-inflated sense of himself – whose shallow philosophy has been described as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” – he is not a one-man intelligence agency. In fact, he is little more than the French equivalent of the “liberator of Kabul” John Simpson and “gut feeling,” “cab driver told me,” world-shaper Thomas Friedman.

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In fact, anyone who actually watches the YouTube video can see that Levy is taking part in a panel discussion and is expressing his view that even if the Brotherhood won at the ballot box, he would not personally regard this as democratic. “Democracy is not only elections, it is values,” he asserted.

But, sadly, Erdoğan is not alone in spreading absurd rumours of this kind. In Egypt itself, there are some people in most camps who allege that Israel, usually in collaboration with the United States, is the master puppeteer behind the crisis there. For instance, one poster at the Rabaa protest shows US President Barack Obama dressed as pharaoh leading al-Sisi like a dog wearing a Star of David collar, while another –  which has stirred controversy in Egypt –  shows a Star of David stamped on the neck of a soldier. On the other side of the political spectrum, a caricature that appeared in a leading newspaper shows pro-Morsi protesters asking how to say ”Occupy Egypt and save us”  in Hebrew.

This attitude strikes me as being particularly pronounced and most vitriolic in the pro-Morsi camp. “America and the Zionists were against Morsi. But they will fail in their project,” said one protester at the Raba’a al-Adawiya sit-in, which I visited days before it was violently dispersed.

One outspoken young man who pushed through the crowd to speak to me claimed shockingly, outrageously and preposterously: “Hitler killed the Jews for his people. Al-Sisi is killing his people for the Jews.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those in the pro-military camp who believe that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are agents of the United States and Israel.

It may be news for many Israelis to learn that, while still in power, Morsi, who is most famous in Israel for describing Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”, was described as a “Zionist” by one prominent anti-Brotherhood, secular cleric.

Riding the wave of suspicion toward the United States and Israel, the youth-led Tamarud movement, which helped spearhead the opposition against Morsi with a petition signed by millions calling for his departure, has launched a new petition campaign demanding the cessation of US aid and the cancellation of the Camp David accords, which would enable Egypt to fix its “broken” sovereignty.

Many Israelis and Jews will see this as yet another sign of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s irredeemable anti-Semitism. Although racism and prejudice, bred partly by generations of conflict, are certainly a factor, the reality is far more complex and nuanced.

Like Syria before it, Egypt has become a proxy political battleground for numerous regional and international players, with the biggest hitters being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey. And the fog of conflict ensures that along with real-world conspiracies, outlandish conspiracy theories also float around.

However, compared with these other players active backing of one side or the other, and even both, Israel’s role has been a passive, backseat one. If that is the case, why is Israel included among the top league of foreign meddlers, movers and shakers in Egypt?

Part of the reason is the perception that Israel is Washington’s loyal regional lapdog – or, more outlandishly, the tail that wags the dog – and as anti-American sentiment grows, Israel suffers by association.

In addition, there is the long history of actual plots in which Israel was involved – from the Lavon Affair and the Suez war to Netanyahu’s shuttle diplomacy to defend Mubarak – that gives fantastical conspiracy theories a superficial sheen of credibility.

Another factor is the emotive weight of utilising a decades-old enemy as a powerful weapon for discrediting political adversaries, which has been a long tradition in the Arab world – though more and more Egyptians are becoming sceptical of them.

However, the danger is that this distorts the reality of the situation. In fact, what’s happening in Egypt, in my view, is more a “clash within civilisations” than between them. This is illustrated in the United States’ overriding interest in “stability” to protect its interests, and that is why Washington backs the army right or wrong, because it incorrectly sees the military as Egypt’s only guarantor of stability.

The mutual dehumanisation and demonisation that has been going on for generations has sadly made Arabs and Israelis all too willing to believe the most implausible, inhumane theories about each other. This is reflected in how a significant number of Arabs have adopted the ancient Christian idea of the Jewish “blood libel” and how a large number of Israelis have reversed that blood libel and utilised it against the Palestinians, as demonstrated in the recent al-Durah affair.

But there is a danger to this. By attributing to your enemies a subhuman character and superhuman powers, you propel them out of the real world and into the realm of otherworldliness, leading to the untrue conviction that you are powerless to transform foe into friend and war into peace. But at a time when populism is more important than wisdom, suggesting that your common enemy is your opponent’s “friend”  is just too tempting an opportunity to miss.

 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 27 August 2013.

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Egypt and the West: the liberal-Islamist paradox

 
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Why do some Western liberals committed to democracy, gender equality and minority support a president and movement that respects none of these?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

One of the gatekeepers at the protest encampment in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi outside the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion.

But then when he caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for – on the advice of fellow hacks, I had not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of journalists being attacked andbeaten up – his manner shifted perceptibly, welcoming me warmly and ushering me in promptly.

And he was not alone. Once I began to interview one young man, a crowd formed around me, all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, and express their support for the deposed president. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Quite a number were convinced that Morsi’s unseating was a Western conspiracy, yet they were keen for me to communicate their message to the West.

What was behind this? Part of the reason is simple pragmatism and real politick. Despite US pro-democracy rhetoric, it is generally accepted round these parts, and often true, that few leaders last long – or can be reinstated – without Washington’s approval. That explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to reassure and even court the US and its Western allies.

Another factor is the relatively sympathetic hearing the Muslim Brotherhood has received in the European and American media, especially the more progressive and liberal segments. This is a far cry from the anti-Morsi hostility, even demonisation, pervading Egyptian society, though there are some segments of the independent media trying to give Morsi and the Brotherhood the fair hearing the Islamist media denied secularists.

Some might see a contradiction in how people who believe in freedom and equality, especially for women and minorities, are now throwing their weight behind a man and movement who have spared few efforts to promote inequality, especially for women and minorities.

What is behind this paradoxical Western liberal-Egyptian Islamist union? After much reflection, analysis and debate, I have come up with a number of explanations. In some segments of the mainstream media, especially those closely aligned to government, there is also a question of pragmatism, and “protecting US interests” involved returning Morsi to power, since Washington tends to prefer “stability” over principle.

In the liberal/progressive reaches where principle matters most, there has been confusion over which principles take priority, mixed in with a profound misunderstanding (sometimes wilful) of Egypt’s political reality.

This is clearly illustrated in the fixation on democratic process over undemocratic reality, that the ballot box should be respected even when its outcome is undemocratic. Yes, it is true that Morsi was elected democratically, but the sheer scale of protests against him acted effectively as a popular impeachment.

Moreover, Morsi was no democrat and he did not preside over a democracy. This is reflected in the undue influence the military exercised over Egyptian politics. In fact, those who are convinced that the army re-entered politics with Morsi’s ouster should be made aware that the generals never actually left.

Over and above this, the office of president remained far too powerful, which enabled Morsi to temporarily grant himself superhuman powers to push through a troublingly undemocratic constitution. Then there was the clamping down on protests, the intimidating of opponents, not to mention the attempts to push through legislation to limit protest and to pass NGO laws that were “more draconian” than Hosni Mubarak’s.

Such behaviour would have probably led to the prosecution of the president in a country with more robust and independent checks and balances.

Beyond this is the fact that Morsi’s behaviour did not fit into the liberal discourse on moderate Islamism. Partly in reaction to the ugly discrimination and bigotry unleashed by George W Bush’s “War on Terror” and the prevalent rightwing idea that Islam and democracy don’t mix, I was among those who said that the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamists could survive in a democracy, despite the inherent tensions in reconciling “God’s law” with man’s.

Sadly, Morsi and his entourage behaved as though they were a poorly acted parody of anti-Muslim stereotypes. Faced with Morsi’s project to become Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator and to establish a theocracy, millions took to the streets in protests at least as large as those which ousted Mubarak.

Yet numerous liberal and leftist observers chose to gloss over this. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this reticence to the fullest. While their representatives speak at length about “democratic legitimacy” to the outside world, protesters at pro-Morsi rallies chant for Shari’a and the downfall of secularism. “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular,” a song playing all over the Raba’a encampment said in no uncertain terms.

But why would people committed to democracy, human rights and equality take such counter-intuitive stances? Part of the problem is that the world is a complex, morally ambiguous place which throws tricky conundrums at us.

Many Western progressives are used to seeing Muslims as the underdogs, either as vulnerable minorities in the West or as the victims of Western aggression. It is true that in Europe and the United States the issue is about providing members of a religious minority with the space and respect to exercise their faith freely. But in Egypt, where Muslims are free to practice every tenet of their religion, the Muslim Brotherhood project is about imposing their conservative religious vision on society as a whole.

But this does not, as some liberals wary of criticising the Brotherhood might feel, in any way imply that Islam or Muslims are incompatible with democracy, only the current Brotherhood project is. The majority of Egyptians are pious Muslims and yet they have risked their lives and livelihoods for nearly three years, toppling three dictators along the way (Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Morsi), for the sake of democracy, freedom and socioeconomic justice.

In Tunisia, where they have Islamists with more common sense and tolerance, the Ennahda party has, despite opposition and controversy, steered a fairly pluralistic route. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they wasted no time on the question of Shari’a, even though the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of it. “The values of justice, liberty and equality are Islamic values, and they are in the constitution,” explains Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s chief.

And contrary to the popular legend, the clash in Egypt is not between a secular elite and the conservative masses. Morsi’s opponents include pious and liberal, rich and poor, young and old, men and especially women. It brings together those who wish to keep religion out of politics with those who felt Morsi was serving just the Brotherhood and had ruined the country further, rather than rebuilt it.

Of course, some outsiders express support for Morsi as the lesser of two evils, with the Brotherhood cast as being better than the army. Though I share a similar aversion to the junta, for millions of Egyptians who caught a glimpse of the Islamist abyss ahead, they decided that taking their chances with the military was safer.

That is not to say that Egyptians generally prefer dictatorship over democracy, as some have asserted. Egyptians still want democracy more than ever, but they trust the military to deliver it more than they do the Brotherhood and other Islamists. This trust is very likely to prove unfounded, as it did during the first transition.

But many Egyptians feel that gaining their freedom from men with guns will be easier than trying to wrest it from men who claim to have God on their side.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 9 August 2013.

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Egypt explained… in five YouTube videos

 
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By Khaled Diab

A child’s vision of freedom, infamous last words, street democracy, loving men in uniform, and men in hijabs. Seeing Egypt through Egyptian eyes.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Egypt has been in the clutches of revolution since 25 January 2011, when protests first erupted against the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi at the beginning of July this year, the clashes between pro-Morsi supporters, anti-Morsi protesters and the military have continued. Too much of the coverage of these events has ignored the voices of Egyptians, both leaders and the public.

Presented here is a personal selection of these voices, from a precociously perceptive 12-year-old boy’s analysis of Egypt’s democratic deficit and the eerie parallel between two presidents’ infamous last words, to aerial views of Egyptian street democracy in action and a retrospective of a more progressive age, when women walked bare-haired and Muslim Brothers were told they should don the hijab.

1. Democracy for dummies

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Although this interview was posted online a few months ago, it has gone viral since the 30 June mass protests, with over 3.3 million views at the time of writing.

Despite his youth, Ali Ahmed (12) manages, in less than three minutes, to display a grasp of democracy, the shortcomings of the Egyptian political system and why the Islamist had lost their political legitimacy that would put most politicians, not to mention media pundits, to shame.

What I like about this film is how Ahmed’s eloquence challenges all the lazy stereotypes floating around. Secular democracy is not just supported by the “elite”. Muslims do “get” and want democracy. Being poor does not mean you support the Islamists. And, above all, that Egypt’s youth, who have spearheaded the revolution from the start, are often far wiser not just than their years but also than their elders.

Some have suggested that this young lad should become president one day. Personally, I think the need for him is more urgent. He should be appointed as a non-partisan arbiter of the current transition. Perhaps only then will the political establishment be shamed into acting like grown-ups.

2. Street-level democracy

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This aerial footage provides a bird’s-eye view of the unbelievable river of humanity that took to Cairo’s streets, not just in the iconic Tahrir Square but across the metropolis, on 30 June to give Mohammed Morsi an unforgettable first anniversary present.

From the sky, it almost looks as though the entire city has turned out to tell the president to leave. And similar scenes played themselves out in Egypt’s other major cities, small towns and even villages. It is a reflection of just how skilled Egyptians have become at mass mobilisation that this spectacle does not inspire the same level of awe as it did back in 2011.

The millions of Egyptians who flooded the streets in protests – reportedly larger than those which toppled Hosni Mubarak – are a damning indictment of just how divisive and disastrous Morsi’s 12 months in power were.

Although Morsi had designs on becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator, this impasse was not entirely of his making. Much of the problem was institutional and can be traced back to Egypt’s botched “transition”. Rather than true reform, the military was more interested in protecting its interests with a democratic fig leaf. This left the excessive powers of the presidency intact, the military over-powerful, the parliament toothless and robbed Egypt of a robust and fair constitution.

3. (In)famous last words

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Despite being rambling and poorly orated, Mohamed Morsi’s final speech as president was interesting both for what it said and what it implied, for both its text and subtext. Defiantly, the president told Egyptians that he would not step down, even if it cost his blood.

As if repeating a mantra not only to convince a sceptical public but perhaps also himself, Morsi used the word “legitimacy” 56 times. Naturally the president’s supporters agreed with him wholeheartedly, while millions of protesters disagreed vehemently (the question of Morsi’s legitimacy is a thorny issue indeed.)

Speaking of which, it is unnerving just how eerily Morsi’s words echoed the final speech of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Both men’s tones seemed detached from the reality surrounding them. Both men insisted that they would only cede power at the ballot box. Both leaders claimed that their clinging on to power was not personal but was for the good of Egypt. Ironically, despite their well-documented anti-revolutionary credentials, the two presidents insisted that they were selflessly serving the revolution. And both warned ominously that they were the only guarantors of the country’s stability.

Still haunted by the spectre of dictators past, millions of Egyptians decided that it was time to exorcise this ghost of dictator present before he could take full form as the iron fist of dictatorship future.

4. Egypt ♥ the army

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Protesters greeted news of Morsi’s forcible removal from power with jubilation late into the night, against the backdrop of a fireworks display and laser show on Tahrir Square.

Despite the fact that the army had technically committed a coup, I can understand the source of the joy – the protesters felt they had taken on another tyrant and won. They were also relieved that this quasi-dictator was out of office before he could grow up and become a despot with a capital D.

Less understandable, and far more troubling, is the rekindled love affair between large swathes of the Egyptian public and the military. This echoes the elation with the army that occurred after Mubarak’s downfall – also technically a ‘coup’ – when millions of Egyptians truly believed that the “army and the people are a single hand”.

But when that hand turned to an iron fist crushing dissent and a heavy boot trampling on the demands of the revolution during the first transition, people quickly fell out of love with the generals. This time round, as the army goes on a killing spree of pro-Morsi protesters, that will happen again. These battered lovers will soon discover that the military may have ousted Morsi because he was an enemy of democracy, but the junta are hardly its friends either.

This time there are clear signs that the infatuation will be much shorter, as more and more voices are raised: Neither Morsi nor the military.

5. Men in hijabs

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This film is not about current events in Egypt, but it is a fascinating backgrounder. This rare footage of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, president from 1956-1970, hero to millions of Arabs and villain of the West, is interesting partly because it shows a human side – chatty, laughing, humorous, intimate – to a man whom history depicts as larger than life.

But more fascinating is the insight it provides into how Egyptian society and politics have changed over the decades. In this speech, Nasser relates his Free Officers’ well-known early overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, back in 1953, but from a personal vantage point.

Nasser asked the movement’s leader what the Brotherhood’s political demands were, and the General Guide told Nasser that he wanted him to make every Egyptian woman wear the hijab.

Dedicated secularist and modernist that he was, Nasser balked at the idea. “If I did that, people would say: ‘We’ve gone back to the days of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah [the Mad Caliph] who used to make people go out at night, not during the day,” the president joked.

And back then, the vast majority of Egyptian women not only wore their hair loose, many donned the latest fashions, even mini-skirts and revealing summer dresses. Moreover, revolutionary rhetoric, if not social reality, was generally empowering to women and depicted them as partners in Egypt’s development.

As a reflection of this vastly different social reality, the General Guide’s own daughter, Nasser informs us, did not wear a headscarf. In addition, one of the farmers in the audience shouted out: “Let [the General Guide] wear one,” to peels of approving laughter. As my wife points out, it is quite hard to imagine someone in even an urban audience, like in Cairo, saying that today.

More crucially, this anecdote is also a damning indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood. At a time when Egypt had just undergone revolutionary change and needed to focus on how to develop its way out of poverty, all this Islamist group could think of was women’s hair.

Likewise, since Morsi’s ascent, they have busied themselves with whether or not Sharia should be the primary or one of several sources of legislation; rural women’s “unclean breasts”; and safeguarding “morality and public decency”. All this at a time when the economy was imploding and society collapsing around their ears.

Of course, Nasser was no angel. His hatred of the Brotherhood led him to suppress the movement mercilessly, as well as to silence all secular dissent, especially from communists, but also liberals and socialists who dared to disagree.

Contrasting Nasser with the Brotherhood and future hopes for Egyptian democracy raises some thorny questions. Is democracy without social freedom or social freedom without democracy better? Which is more important: individual freedom or collective freedom? If one must choose, is it better to be free of want or free of spirit? If the majority choose to be ruled by religion, what happens to the minority who do not believe in it or do not wish to practise it?

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 July 2013.

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Nawal El Saadawi: “I am against stability. We need revolution.”

 
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By Nikolaj Nielsen

Renowned author and feminist Nawal El Saadawi believes that her fellow Egyptians “must pay the price for freedom”.

Thursday 11 July 2013

 

Imprisoned by former president Anwar Sadat, exiled by Hosni Mubarak, and hated by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, 81-year old dissident and feminist Nawal El Saadawi still sees hope for an Egypt free from the clutches of religious and military rule.

“We will never allow a military government rule or a religious Islamic rule, never,” she told me in Brussels on Wednesday (10 July).

Nawal El Saadawi in Brussels. Photo: ©Nikolaj Nielsen

An avid campaigner for women’s rights in a society deeply ingrained with patriarchal values, Saadawi was a director in the ministry of health in the 1960s working to stop female circumcision.

Her campaign for women’s rights continued, despite her being jailed in 1981 over her publications.

Released two months after the assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat, she fled Egypt in 1988 following numerous threats against her life.

“Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed,” she said.

The liberation of women from religious and patriarchal doctrines is a common theme in her numerous novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction books, some translated into 30 different languages.

Upon her return to Egypt in 2009 after a three-year exile for a play she wrote, Saadawi moved to set up the Egyptian Women’s Union, which she formed at Tahrir square in January 2011.

“I was trying all my life to organise women and so, two years ago, we started the Egyptian Women’s Union. Fifty percent of our members are young men who are progressive and non-patriarchal,” she noted.

Both the United States and Europe can keep their aid, she says, noting that their conditions have condemned Egypt to poverty, submission, and misery.

“The free market is not free, it is only free for the powerful to exploit the weak,” she noted.

Saadawi describes governments in the US and in Europe as capitalist, patriarchal and theocratic systems that promote class oppression.

The EU, for its part, handed over approximately €1 billion in aid to Egypt from 2007 onwards.

But a report published by the European Court of Auditors in June said corruption and lack of accountability squandered funds paid directly to the Egyptian authorities.

The court said women’s and minorities’ rights were not given sufficient attention despite the critical need for urgent action to counter the tide of growing intolerance.

“The whole philosophy of the world, capitalism, patriarchy, and religions – we are still living in the post-modern slave system,” she said.

As for the Americans, Saadawi says they buy influence over the Egyptian military elite, which is complicit in forging a false sense of stability for Israel’s benefit.

“Revolution came out in the streets because we are fed up with poverty. We are forced into poverty by US aid. US aid increased poverty in Egypt,” she noted.

On Thursday (11 July), the US approved the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt despite the political unrest in the country.

The planes are set for delivery in the next few weeks.

Not a military coup

Despite her criticism of US-Egyptian-military scheming, Saadawi describes the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, their arrests, and forced isolation by the army as part of an ongoing revolution to establish a civil secular society based on social justice.

The deposition of Egypt’s fifth president Mohamed Morsi is not a military coup, she insists.

She said the army was initially reluctant to intervene, but armed Muslim brothers forced their hand in a revolution that has yet to see its final outcome.

“I heard women and children screaming because of the bullets and blood oozing on Tahrir square and people were saying where is the army?” she said.

With Morsi out, Saadawi says there is now a greater chance to put in place a secular constitution where everyone is equal, regardless of religion, gender or class.

“We must write this constitution before any election,” she said.

But the task ahead is fraught with difficulties.

On Wednesday, an arrest warrant was issued for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, for inciting violence in a speech that saw thousands take to the streets.

Nine other warrants on the leadership were also issued.

Critics say the arrests risk usurping the interim government’s plan for national unity.

Saadawi, for her part, dismisses the warning.

National unity, she says, will come from a fiercely independent and free-thinking younger generation.

“I am against stability. We need revolution. We need to move ahead and pay the price for freedom,” she said.

___

Follow Nikolaj Nielsen on Twitter.

This article first appeared on EUobserver.comIt is published here with the author’s consent.

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