The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

_____

This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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Muslim women in short skirts and the Tunisia paradox

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (beards and long trousers). The path to gender equality lies in internal reform, as Tunisia demonstrates.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

While not quite the face that launched a thousand ships, a photo of Afghan women in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul helped convince Donald Trump to commit more troops to Afghanistan rather than to pull out of the unwinnable war, according to information revealed by The Washington Post.

National security adviser HR McMaster had wanted to show Trump that “Western norms had existed there before and could return,” according to the report. That the national security adviser would choose this means of persuasion and that the president would be convinced by it betray a profound misunderstanding of Muslim women, their status and how to liberate them.

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (and long trousers), i.e. the Taliban. Regardless of what an invader professes to offer, people tend not to take kindly to being maimed, killed and occupied for their ‘liberty’, which strengthens the hand of those fighting the occupier.

More importantly, Muslim women do not need American (mostly) men with guns to empower them. The reverse is usually true, as reflected by the worsening status of Iraqi women since the US invasion in 2003, which occurred long before ISIS came on the scene. In contrast, the most successful experiments in female emancipation in the Muslim world have been organic and internal, drawing inspiration, not imposition, from the West.

A case in point is Tunisia. In the cosmopolitan capital Tunis, where I live, you do not need to consult grainy black-and-white photos, women dressed in short skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops and tight jeans abound on the streets, while many of the beaches are filled with local women sunbathing or swimming in bikinis, who often share the water with their burkini-clad conservative compatriots – even if they do often view one another with mutual contempt.

Of course, clothes are only fabric-deep and are an unreliable bellwethers of a woman’s religious beliefs and of how empowered she is, as I highlight in my new book Islam for the Politically Incorrect. There are women who dress in revealing clothes but are religiously conservative and pious, and there are women who wear a hijab but barely practise their faith and are sexually liberal.

What is far more significant is the progress Tunisian women have made. In some respects, they are ahead of many of their western counterparts. For instance, abortion was legalised in Tunisia several years before it was in the United States. Today, almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. However, despite being highly educated, Tunisian women make up a far smaller fraction of the labour force than their western peers.

While Tunisian women established an actual feminist movement almost a century ago and it has been two centuries since some Tunisian men started advocating for women’s rights, it was not until their country gained independence that women’s rights began to advance in earnest. Freed of their French overlords, Tunisians were finally liberated from the equating of religious conservatism with authenticity during the struggle for independence and could pursue a progressive programme of reform and modernisation in earnest.

Habib Bourguiba, leader of the liberation movement and the country’s first post-independence president, is often credited with putting in place the enlightened and progressive legal framework which has so benefited Tunisian women in comparison with their Arab neighbours.

But Bourguiba did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did he operate in one, even if he was a dictator. Bourguiba took over the reins of the nationalist movement at a time when women (not to mention women-friendly men) were playing an increasingly prominent role in civil society, journalism, anti-French activity and in demanding gender equality. This long tradition of hard battles and hard-won gains, underpinned by the foresight of the early codification of equality in law, can be seen today.

The received wisdom among many observers was that the revolution of 2010/11 would spell disaster for women’s rights in Tunisia, that dictatorship was the only way to impose modern secular values on a society presumed to be steeped in religion and tradition.

While a significant percentage of Tunisians are, like many Americans, deeply religious and conservative, the country’s founding vision has proven remarkably durable, despite recent economic hardship and the uncertainty of revolution, thanks to the robust activism of Tunisian women and secular forces, as well as to the relatively enlightened pragmatism of the country’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahdha.

More impressively still, it seems that the cause of gender equality is progressing, rather than regressing – which would appear paradoxical, especially when compared to the much of the wider region. In fact, recent weeks have seen frenzied activity in this regard. Backed by civil society and cross-party support, Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

A couple of weeks later, on Tunisian Women’s Day, President Beji Caed Essibsi unveiled plans to annul an unconstitutional circular or decree barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men and called on the government to review Tunisia’s archaic and unequal Islamic inheritance laws, which grant men double the inheritance of women.

The proposed marriage reform has met with little opposition from mainstream Islamists, even if some conservative men I have encountered have been outraged and baffled by the move. Speaking on a popular FM music channel, Ennahdha’s vice-president and co-founder Abdelfattah Mourou called the question of whom a woman chooses to marry one of “personal choice” – though he did hint that if she wanted to please her God, she would not marry out of the religious fold.

However, the issue of inheritance has proven far more thorny, as anything relating to money tends to be. While men safeguarding male privilege would be unsurprising, many of the staunchest opponents to the proposed inheritance reform are reportedly conservative women. “I have spoken with so many women who feel strongly about this,” Ennahdha’s Mona Ibrahim was quoted as saying.

Secular women feel just as strongly about the issue, albeit from the opposite direction. For instance, a friend, Shiraz, is married to a French man who was obliged to ‘convert’ to marry her, but this is, at the end of the day, a simple procedure that, for the pragmatist, is neither here nor there. In addition,

“What bothers me the most is the question of inheritance. Why should a man get double what a woman gets?” Shiraz asks. “It is just so unfair.” At times the injustice is multiplied, Shiraz points out, in the case of, say, rural women who go to the city to work and send back large chunks of their earnings to their parents who use the money to buy land or build a house. When the parents die, they are entitled to half of what their brothers receive.

The controversy over inheritance has sparked a heated but civil debate in Tunisia, with religious and secular voices falling on both sides of the debate. However, President Essibsi’s proposal has whipped up a storm of protest, as well as a wave of support, for Tunisia and Tunisians across the region, both in the real world and on social media, with one nutty and fanatical Egyptian columnist proposing the Arab world declare a holy war against Tunisia’s ‘apostasy’.

Further illustrating how hell hath no fury like middle-aged conservative men scorned, clerics at Egypt’s al-Azhar, traditionally considered the highest seat of Sunni learning in the world, expressed the kind of outrage and fury one normally associates with mass murder at how their Tunisian counterparts had broken with orthodoxy, not to mention al-Azhar’s theological hegemony, to back equal inheritance rights.

Tunisia’s Grand Mufti Othman Batikh’s response to the attacks, in contrast, was measured and dignified, pointing out that Islam was not set in stone, and that past interpretations that suited one age needed to be reinterpreted in light of the changing circumstances of another age.

Whether or not the ambitious inheritance reforms, which civil society has been advocating for some years, succeeds is uncertain, but it has opened up a necessary public debate and provided liberals and progressives with much-needed momentum.

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The sound of religious discord

 
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By Khaled Diab

We need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims.

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots?
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. A bill before the Israeli Knesset intended to deprive Muslim muezzins of their loudspeakers initially met with stiff resistance from Ultra-Orthodox Jews, both Haredim and Hassidim, who became temporary allies with Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish leftist politicians.

United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, who serves as health minister in the current cabinet, threatened to torpedo the proposal, not out of love of the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, or for his Muslim neighbours but because he, like the Shas party, feared it could also be used to curb the rights of Jews to make holy noise. “Since the technology developed, loudspeakers have been used to announce the onset of Shabbat,” Litzman noted last week. Indeed, a siren is sounded across Jerusalem and can be clearly heard in many Arab neighbourhoods.

Now Litzman has reportedly withdrawn his appeal after he was apparently reassured that an exception for the Shabbat siren would be included in the proposed legislation, paving the way to a preliminary reading at the Knesset.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians and their allies – within Israel, in Arab and Muslim countries and in the wider world – are outraged by this discriminatory initiative. They see it as yet another example of ultra-nationalist Israelis attempting to silence Palestinians and erase another poignant symbol of their culture.

This explains why there have been numerous protests against the bill, with Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Mashal, warning Israel that it was “playing with fire”. Turkey, with which Israel has recently mended diplomatic fences, also expressed outrage, as did Jordanian football fans. In addition to the expected condemnation by Islamists, secular and Christian Palestinians have also been vocal in their opposition to the draft legislation.

“If mosques are silenced, we will make sure that the muezzin will be heard in churches, in Nazareth, in Haifa, in Jaffa and in Jerusalem,”  Basel Ghattas, a Knesset member who belongs to the Joint List, said defiantly. “This bill poses a danger not only to mosques or to Muslim Arab citizens, but also endangers churches and Christian Arabs and the Palestinian identity.”

And churches have already been tolling their solidarity. The adhan was even heard in the Knesset when a couple of Arab parliamentarians recited the call to prayer, in a sort of holy filibuster, while some of their Jewish counterparts heckled them.

Some defenders of the bill will protest that the draft legislation is not targeted at mosques but at all houses of worship that make excessive noise. But that would be disingenuous.

The original wording of the bill, which was introduced by Moti Yogev of the far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party, did not mince words about its intended target, mosques, and the wording was changed to encompass all houses of worship only after the justice system objected to it as discriminatory.

If the bill were truly about controlling overly zealous holy noise, then existing noise pollution regulations would suffice, as head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh has pointed out, and numerous grassroots compromises have been hammered out in mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

In fact, this is how most Western countries tackle the issue – noise regulations that apply to everyone, religious and secular alike. However, MK Yogev’s clear intention – to single out Muslims’ public presence – isn’t satisfied by laws that are inclusive such as these. There is more than an echo of the rise of Trump and other far-right demagogues, who find the idea of legislation targeting only Muslims appealing.

Moreover, a non-discriminatory law would not exempt the Jewish siren or the blaring speakers used during Jewish holy days, including in predominantly Arab areas, such as Sheikh Jarrah, which is the location of the Shimon Hatzadik tomb, where a noisy annual festival pumps up the decibels and blocks roads.

If it were a question of preserving tranquillity, then the mayor of mixed Lod would not have decided to protest the noise made by mosques by creating a competing ding by blaring out a traditional Jewish prayer from city hall at the same time as the adhan.

What this reveals is that holy sound has become an under-appreciated and under-reported battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, it sometimes strikes me that during periods of high tension or in areas near settlers, mosques appear to get louder. In East Jerusalem, where I live, I have noticed that mosques are at their loudest during periods when there are protests or clashes with Israeli forces.

Beyond the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian context, the excessive sound pollution caused by mosques has not gone without objection, albeit of an often-muted nature as the loud protests of the pious can silence dissent. In a number of Muslim societies, a sign of the growing sway of Islamists and the intimidation they exercise, not to mention overcrowding, is the growing number and volume of calls to prayer, with tiny corner mosques run by Salafists often sporting the loudest amplifiers.

An early example of efforts to bring this phenomenon under control was Tunisia’s first president and independence leader Habib Bourguiba whom, a Tunisian friend informed me, banned loudspeakers during the dawn prayer (al-fajr) out of consideration for the sick, students and workers who needed to sleep.

Several Muslim countries, including Jordan, the UAE and Turkey have a unified adhan to minimise the cacophony caused by numerous mosques calling the faithful to pray at slightly different times, causing a sort of sound cascade. Egypt, whose loud and rebellious population defeats any attempts at noise control, also tried but failed to introduce such a system.

From a functional perspective, the adhan has effectively become obsolete in the 21st century. With the proliferation of alarm clocks, including Mecca-themed ones, apps, SMS alerts and other technologies, the adhan broadcast by the mosque no longer serves a practical purpose.

Of course, the adhan is inextricably linked to the cultural identity of Muslim societies around the world, in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Despite my annoyance at being flung out of bed, especially when the speaker is so loud that it sounds like you are sleeping atop a minaret, I have been moved by the sublime beauty of the adhan when performed by capable muezzins, such as when I have heard it from rooftops near al-Azhar and al-Hussein mosques in Cairo.

However, we need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, as well as children, the elderly and the sick.

One way to do this is by preserving both the beauty and tradition of the adhan. Since the call to prayer only serves an aesthetic purpose in our high-tech world, muezzins should return to their roots, climb the minaret and give us only acoustic renditions of the adhan.

But this unplugged adhan is not something the Israeli Knesset can or should impose.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2016.

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Violence: The path of least resistance

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the proven futility of blood-letting for both Israelis and Palestinians, violence is exercising an irresistible magnetic force.

Monday 19 October 2015

Like a giant mosquito, the surveillance helicopter buzzes overhead for much of the day and night to keep an eye on the Palestinian protesters and rioters beneath, and perhaps also to intimidate.

From our island of tranquillity atop the Mount of Olives – home to the world’s most important Jewish cemetery and where Jesus reportedly wept over Jerusalem – we hear the chanting of protesters downhill, the boom of sound bombs, and shots being fired.

Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Palestinian towns and villages in Israel, as well as Gaza, are, once again, teetering on the edge of wide-scale revolt. Like the summer of 2014, no single day passes without numerous protests and clashes occurring across the increasingly isolated spaces and enclaves inhabited by the Palestinians.

This has revived the periodic speculation of whether the long-awaited third intifada has arrived. The stone was the symbol of the first intifada, and the suicide belt of the second. If this is the third intifada, then it’s symbol may become the knife or the car as a ramming weapon.

For me, the question of whether this counts as an intifada is far less significant than the type of uprising it evolves into – violent or peaceful.

Israeli attempts at firefighting are only causing the flames to burn harder. Harsher rules of engagement which are encouraging Israeli security forces to become more trigger-happy and the apparent extra-judicial killing of a number of suspected or alleged Palestinian attackers has only provoked further anger and fear.

Extremists on the right are, like pyromaniacs, dousing petrol on the fire by calling for ever-tougher, more violent Israeli action.

On the other side of the fence, a growing minority of Palestinian civilians are turning to violence, with numerous attempted and actual stabbing attacks against often random Israeli passers-by, which achieves nothing but provoking Israeli fury and fear.

This raises the question of why it is, despite the proven inefficacy of blood-letting for both sides, violence appears to be exercising an irresistible magnetic force, drawing the situation towards the precipice of war.

In my view, this is because violence, in a way, is the path of least resistance. For Israel, it is far easier to use an iron fist to deal with the symptoms rather than treat the disease itself: the decades-old occupation and the attendant injustices it metes out on the Palestinian population. “The real problem is that Israel has chosen occupation over peace,” jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti wrote from his prison cell.

In addition, the fog of escalating conflict is a good cover for ideological settlers to drag the rest of Israeli society reluctantly towards completing the settlement enterprise and rendering impossible the dreams of Palestinian independence.

On the Palestinian side, the resort to violence seems to be fuelled largely by despair at the worsening situation, the accelerating loss of their lands and livelihoods, the repressive restrictions on their movements, the draconian martial law many of them live under. This is reflected in how all the attacks seem to be carried out by “lone wolves”.

There is also the lack of leadership and vision among Palestinian leaders, and their inability, partly due to Israeli restrictions, to mobilise wide-scale and sustained protest. Palestinians are also disillusioned by the lack of international support and the precious few fruits peaceful means – from negotiations to protest – seem to have borne.

If the world has ignored years of peaceful protest, Palestinian radicals claim, then violence is the only way to liberate Palestinians from occupation. But in the toss-up between the olive branch and the gun, it is peaceful agitation against the occupation which has delivered the most promising results, as demonstrated by the greater success of the first intifada compared with the second.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Dutch in De Morgen on 14 October 2015.

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A utopian refuge for refugees?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can an Egyptian billionaires vision of turning a Mediterranean island into a just republic for refugees help solve the refugee crisis?

Monday 14 September 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

This verse from the poem by Emma Lazarus titled The New Colossus was not quite the words used by Naguib Sawiris, but it seems to be what he meant. The Egyptian billionaire caused a tempest when he announced his wish to purchase a Mediterranean island – possibly near Rhodes, where the original Colossus stood – to provide shelter for the region’s desperate refugees.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll [declare] its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted. And this brave, new refugee republic would be named Ilan, the Egyptian tycoon later elaborated, in  honour of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose haunting image shook the world.

With neighbouring countries unable to cope further with the influx of Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf states doing almost nothing to take them in – while even contributing by proxy to the Syrian refugee crisis and directly in Yemen – Sawiris is the latest entrepreneur to step into the void. One prominent example was Turkey’s yoghurt moghul, Hamdi Ulukaya, who pledged to give away more than half his $1.4 billion fortune to help Kurdish and other refugees.

Sawiris’s proposal resonated so widely because it is an appealing and symbolic notion which tugs at the heartstrings. As untold thousands of refugees take to the sea to escape the shipwreck of failed and failing nation states, Aylan island will provide them with a safe haven from the storm, and a place where they can live in dignity, and not be “treated and used like cattle,” in Sawiris’s word.

The scheme, though extremely costly for the Egyptian billionaire, sounds impressively self-sufficient. Housing, educational and other infrastructure on the uninhabited island would be built, and presumably operated, by the refugees themselves, providing them with a shot at independence and dignity, rather than the marginalisation and unemployment that often greets those fleeing conflict.

Sawiris’s implied faith in the refugees’ abilities, work ethic and potential for productivity is an implicit jab at Europe’s anti-immigrant right, who regard refugees and migrants as  lazy layabouts and a threat to their way of life. It would also help boost Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees by providing it with a purpose-built refuge.

That said, despite the presence of numerous candidate islands and the welcome income to the cash-strapped treasuries of Greece or Italy, it seems unlikely that either country will take enthusiastically to the scheme.

One major stumbling block is the question of sovereignty. Which European country would be willing to cede territory, which would be declared “independent”, to the eccentric scheme of a foreign billionaire?

Even if they were to accept this or were to retain sovereignty, there would be the possible fear that, rather than an alternative for refugees which would sidestep the European mainland, the island would simply become a stepping stone to Europe, rather like the Italian island of Lampedussa or the Greek island of Kos. This would especially be the case if Sawiris’s idealistic project ends up becoming little more than a glorified refugee camp, rather than a utopian republic.

But it is Sawiris’s almost Platonic discourse of  a just republic for refugees that is probably the most appealing to the Arab public’s ear, especially if, against the odds and expectations, this idealised and idyllic oasis can succeed where Arab regimes have failed. In fact, it would be extremely poignant – even poetic – if refugees fleeing murderous dictatorships and blood-thirsty non-state groups managed to construct a functioning and productive society which respects individual freedom and dignity. If successful, I imagine it would attract Arab immigrants, not just refugees.

In addition to the challenge of building an effective society from scratch by truamatised people from diverse backgrounds, one wonders whether Sawiris will have the commitment to carry through such a feat.

It is true that Sawiris was a self-declared supporter (and fairly enthusiastic for a businessman who made the bulk of his fortune under Mubarak) of the 2011 revolution, helping set up the “Council of Wisemen” which was rejected by Egypt’s revolutionary youth.

However, like with many Egyptians, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi spooked him, and the party he established, the Free Egyptians Party, backed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign for president, despite the clearly undemocratic way al-Sisi had got to where he was and his violent repression of dissent.

This raises the question of whether rich Egyptians and Arabs can help lead their societies down the path to freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

Some Arab tycoons are joining the growing movement of billionaires committed to philanthropy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has voiced his intentions to give away his considerable fortune.

Despite the undoubted value of philanthropy and the importance of interclass solidarity, the world’s billionaires are more a part of the problem than the solution, especially when you consider that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world, and 85 or so billionaires are worth as much, in economic terms, as half of humanity.

This is the case in the Arab world, and perhaps more so. Not only is economic inequality massive, and widening, the region has become a living laboratory for unfettered neo-liberal economics and a stronghold for crony capitalism.

The intimate links, both explicit and implicit, between the business elites, the military and repressive regimes across the region mean that, no matter how well-meaning, the individual efforts of (relatively) enlightened tycoons are no substitute for systematic and fundamental change and reform.

More than greater philanthropy, the Arab world is crying out for greater social democracy, equity, solidarity, welfare systems, education and justice for all.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 September 2015.

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The Middle Eastern century that wasn’t

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the post-Ottoman order crumbles around us, would the Middle East would have been better or worse off had Turkey remained neutral during World War I?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A recent visit to Istanbul coincided with “Victory Day”, which marks the successful conclusion of the final battle of the Greco-Turkish wars, which Turkey calls its War of Independence.

While we wandered through streets draped with giant red Turkish flags and superhuman-sized portraits of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk”, the father of the modern Turkish republic, my brain began to ponder a number of what-ifs.

As the century-old post-Ottoman regional order collapses all around us, I began to wonder what would have happened had Turkey not taken its disastrous decision to enter World War I or had emerged victorious from that murderous conflict. Would the Middle East be a better or worse place than it is today, or just different?

In light of how actual history is a complex and messy affair, often hinging on apparently mundane events as well as monumental moments, it is impossible to know how things could have been but it is possible to construct scenarios of how they could have turned out. And given how the current regional (dis)order depends on the events of a century ago, charting alternative realities can help illuminate our contemporary situation.

It is far easier to speculate about what would not have occurred. Had Turkey emerged victorious or not taken up arms, the Ottoman empire would not have been partitioned, and the Sykes-Picot carve up, which has given the Middle East some of its most troubled borders, would not have taken place – at least not then.

In addition, with the exception of the Maghreb and Egypt, French and British influence in the Middle East would have been negligible. However, German hegemony may have occupied a similar position. It is also possible that Mustafa Kemal would not have become Atatürk, as his outsized influence on Turkish history was a product of the existential anarchy triggered by the collapse of the old order.

But could Turkey have avoided war?

Owing to its weakness, the Ottoman empire was not regarded, in the pre-war years, as a useful ally and was shunned by all the major European powers, with the exception of Russia, but the terms offered by the Tsar would have turned Turkey into a Russian protectorate.

When war broke out, the “Three Pashas” effectively ruling the Ottoman empire felt that Turkey was obliged to enter the fray. They did not care on which side Turkey fought and regarded the conflict as an opportunity to “organise its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads”, in the words of Talaat Pasha, the grand vizier.

This strikes me as a strange expectation of war, that it would somehow lead to reform under fire. It seems to me that had Turkey maintained its original position of neutrality, it stood a better chance of achieving these goals. At the very least, it could have avoided the bloodiest excesses executed in the madness and fog of war, such as the Armenian genocide and the mass killings of other minorities, including Assyrians and Greeks.

It is entirely possible, of course, that a neutral Turkey would have been sucked into the black hole anyway – that powerful was its gravitational pull. Or it may have successfully dodged the First World War but been ambushed by the Second.

Neutrality also carried the risk of retribution from powers greedy for Ottoman land, at least that is what some Turkish leaders feared. “If we stayed neutral, whichever side won would surely punish Turkey for not having joined them, and would satisfy their territorial ambitions at our expense,” Talaat Pasha confided in his diary.

But had Turkey successfully sidestepped the conflict and the Ottoman empire survived the war, would this have been good, bad or simply different for the region?

The original “sick man of Europe”, the Ottoman empire was in a state of terminal decline long before the “Great War”. Relatively stagnant economically and scientifically, it was unable to keep pace with its European rivals.

As Ottoman power diminished, despite the Tanzimat and other modernisation drives, the empire became less tolerant and more oppressive and reactionary. This was especially so as it shed territory to foreign conquest, particularly Russia, and confronted the rise of nationalism, first in its European territories and then in its Arab regions.

Even without World War I, the unravelling of the Ottoman empire is likely to have continued. And with the Three Pashas transforming the democratic and liberal Young Turks movement into an absolute and ultranationalist dictatorship, Turkey’s reaction to the emancipation movements among the peoples under its control is likely to have been brutal and harsh – possibly more so than without the distraction of World War I, though the tyrants would not have been able to conceal their crimes behind the thick fog of total war.

There is also the chance that, without the mayhem of World War I, the murderous rule of the Three Pashas – who came to power in a 1913 coup – would have been short-lived and the progressive Young Turks factions, such as the Freedom and Accord party, may have managed to regain power.

Rather than the implosion which occurred following World War I and the power vacuum it created, such a moderate leadership in Istanbul, which preferred jaw-jaw over war-war, could have potentially managed the crumbling of the empire, the possession of which was becoming too costly for the Turks anyway, in a gradual and more enlightened manner.

Such a progressive devolution of power may have helped prevent many of the rivalries and hatreds which have dogged the region for the past century. In addition, it may have helped the region’s diverse populations maintain the advantages of the former Ottoman empire without its warts: a frontierless territory minus the imperial subjugation.

Without World War I, it is possible, but perhaps improbable, that an alternative reality which successfully squares the circle of local self-determination and regional integration would have emerged, either as a loose confederation of nation-states or a union of equal peoples living side by side in enriching diversity.

And transgressing narrow nationalism and factionalism remains, a century on from the Great War, the best hope for saving the Middle East from its current “world war”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 September 2015.

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The empire must not strike back

 
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By Khaled Diab

Nostalgia for empire in the Middle East misses two points: we’re not witnessing the “final end of imperialism” and imperialism did not bring order.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Thursday 11 June 2015

When it comes to the Middle East, nostalgia politics is in vogue. While ISIS is busy “restoring” an a-historical caliphate, others are pining for the apparently lost innocence of empire.

Robert Kaplan expressed profound admiration for the supposed benefits that empire brought to the Middle East and some other parts of the world. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” the intellectual who was named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 global thinker in 2011 declared in the same magazine.

This supposed world-beating thinker seems convinced that “the age-old clusters of civilisations” has immunised Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to the worst excesses of the current upheavals. Kaplan fails to answer why it is that, if this were so, the region’s most ancient cluster of civilisations, namely Syria and Iraq, are currently experiencing the most devastating tumult, while civilisation’s traditional backwaters of the Gulf are, at least superficially, relatively stable, for now.

At a certain level, I can understand Kaplan’s nostalgia for the Ottoman, and before it Roman, empire. After all, despite their ancestors’ painful divorce from the Ottomans, some Arabs shared in Turkey’s new sense of “Ottomania” – at least when Erdogan was still considered an Arab hero.

And at its best, the Ottoman empire was a de-centralised empire of relative local autonomy, marked by tolerance, prosperity, multiculturalism and, hard as it is to imagine today, a borderless space not unlike the modern European Union. The Tanzimat of the mid-19th century, among other things, created a common citizenship, erased ethnic and religious inequality and even decriminalised homosexuality, though they marked the beginning of more direct rule.

The Ottoman empire’s status as the “sick man of Europe” infected all its provinces and its strident and toxic form of Turkic nationalism – epitomised by the Young Turks, who introduced democracy to the Ottoman empire but then briskly withdrew it – did not lead to stability but catastrophe.

The “Three Pashas” in charge not only disastrously decided to join World War I, precipitating the collapse of the empire, they also engaged in a fit of bloodlust against the Armenians that makes ISIS look like amateurs.

The region’s new imperial management did not fare much better. Though the British and the French accelerated the region’s modernising impulse, they only paid lip service to the vaunted values of modernity, and hardly brought the stability Kaplan so values.

The great distance from and the lack of shared history with their subjects resulted in a callous disregard for their needs. This was reflected in everything from the Sykes-Picot arbitrary drawing of borders and the brutal suppression of regular uprisings to the imperial assumption that the region’s resources were the sole property of London and Paris.

Likewise, independence and post-colonial leaders promises of freedom were dashed when the foreign elites that had previously ruled were largely replaced by, in many ways, an equally “foreign” domestic elite, who looked and spoke like the “liberated” populations but behaved like their former masters.

Arabs originally saw America as an ally and kindred spirit for its apparent support for national self-determination and opposition to Anglo-French hegemony in the region. But instead the US largely replaced the direct rule of its predecessors, with the client-state model in which those who behaved could literally get away with murder, while local leaders seen to step out of line were “contained” or eliminated.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today… is really about the final end of imperialism,” Kaplan claims.

I expect this declaration to go the same way as Francis Fukuyama’s the “end of history” or George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”, i.e. into the dustbin of history. Moreover, this nostalgia for past empire, like the clash of civilisations theory, not only misdiagnoses the disease but also prescribes the wrong medicine.

“The demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organising and stabilising the region,” Kaplan writes wistfully… and wishfully.

Any level-headed analysis of the US’s decades-long involvement in the Middle East will conclude that Washington has done little to organise and stabilise the region. From its traditional role of propping up “friendly” dictators and autocrats and its subversion of numerous independence movements, to its disastrous decision to return to the era of military invasion and direct rule in Iraq, Washington has been a major contributor to regional chaos and instability.

Far from marking the “end of imperialism”, what we are witnessing today, a century after the implosion of the Ottoman empire, is its resurgence. In this new scramble for the Middle East, we are witnessing the petty sultans of the region’s crumbling states trying to hold on to their micro-empires; non-state armed groups trying to usurp them; Iran and the emerging powers of the Gulf seeking to expand their spheres of influence; and America’s longstanding hegemony being challenged by the new-old kid on the block, Russia, and newcomer China.

As the old order collapses, perhaps the Middle East does needs a new “imperial” age, but along the lines of a people’s empire. Just like the member states of the European Union decided voluntarily and democratically to unite territory that had only ever been integrated through conquest, the peoples of the Middle East could benefit greatly if the current conflicts and crises push them towards a voluntary union of equals.

However, at every geopolitical strata, there are currently too many enemies stacked against such an endeavour. But just as the EU would have appeared to be a delusional fantasy during World War II, perhaps this indicates that there is hope for our troubled region yet.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 May 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.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Spring of hope amid winter of despair

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Palestinians in Israel, the recent race for the Knesset was both the worst of elections and the best.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Monday 30 March 2015

It was the worst of elections. It was the best of elections. It was the winter of despair but also the spring of hope.

Such is the nature of Israel’s highly fractured and divided political landscape that election night can deliver a number of winners, as well as multiple losers.

Leftist Jews in Tel Aviv and elsewhere wandered around dazed and shell-shocked by the news that Binyamin Netanyahu had not only survived but that Likud had put a six seat lead between it and its nearest rival, the Zionist Union, despite what the polls had forecast.

Although Palestinians shared the left’s revulsion towards Netanyahu’s Velcro grip on power, compounded by the fear of what further damage a strong far-right alliance could cause them, Arab voters in Israel were also in high spirits.

In fact, there was jubilation in Nazareth and other Arab towns and villages at the news that a coalition of Arab (and progressive Jewish) parties had made the unprecedented achievement of finishing third in the elections.

Less than two months after it was formed, the Joint List – an unlikely and once-improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish progressive leftists and Islamists – had managed the previously unimaginable and become the Jewish state’s third-largest party.

This apparent unity in Arab political ranks spurred Palestinians in Israel, who had grown increasingly disillusioned and apathetic towards the political process in recent elections, to go out and vote, including many who had never done so before.

For example, Tamer Nafar of the socially aware and politically active Palestinian hip-hop band DAM recorded a pre-election video in which he raps about having never voted in his life, until now.

Some voters hoped that the Joint List would put Arabs on Israel’s political radar and force their Jewish compatriots to notice them. “I want Israelis to realise … that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East,” one voter asserted.

And the Joint List has certainly succeeded in putting Arabs on the Knesset’s map. “I’m delighted with their performance,” Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and activist, told me. “They ran an honest, democratic campaign, unlike Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu’s bid for re-election raised eyebrows and drew accusations of scare-mongering and racism, both from Jews and Arabs. In addition to his well-rehearsed and repeated warnings about the imminent and “existential threat” from notional Iranian nukes – which he has been rehashing at the American Congress since 1996 – Netanyahu talked, like a paranoid Middle Eastern despot, of an unholy alliance of foreigners and leftists out to unseat him.

Moreover, when polls forecasted that Likud was falling behind, Netanyahu sought to galvanise the party’s traditional but increasingly apathetic support base by tapping into its deepest prejudices, fears and anxieties. “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls,” he warned ominously, in one of the election’s ugliest moments. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

This contrasts sharply with the measured, inclusive campaign spearheaded by the Joint List’s leader and perhaps Israel’s fastest-rising political star, Ayman Odeh. With his background in the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, he has moved the Arab coalition he heads away from identity politics and towards questions of universal social and economic justice.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” he insists. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

With Arabs being the most under-privileged segment of Israeli society, they are the focus of a 10-year programme devised by Odeh to narrow inequalities. “It’s a win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society,” he explained. Taking a leaf out of Martin Luther King’s civil rights handbook, Odeh even plans a march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of this programme.

Odeh’s Joint List also intends to champion the cause of their Palestinian compatriots in the occupied territories. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” he said. “And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.”

But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not holding their breaths for any improvements to their lot. While many praise the Joint List and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even endorsed it, Palestinians generally doubt the Arab coalition can overcome the ultranationalist, rightwing juggernaut.

Despite this, there is a line of thinking among Palestinian activists that the ideological honesty of a hard-right government may make life worse for them but it will work out better in the long term because it will lead to more international isolation for Israel and will prompt more countries to view it as a pariah.

“[This is] a much better outcome than the so-called leftwing government that disguises itself as a lamb with the cover of the international community, yet perpetuates the status quo and continued colony building in ‪‎Palestine,” one Jerusalemite said, reflecting this sentiment.

In Gaza, where the differences between most Israeli parties are hair-splittingly small, “people are not hopeful at all”, describes Majd Al Waheidi, a young journalist who rose to prominence during last summer’s war.

“[Ordinary] people in Gaza don’t really care or differentiate between Israeli parties… They say all of them are the same enemy who denies our rights and freedom,” she elaborates. “Maybe there’s a sense of frustration because Netanyahu has made it again but this frustration is only between intellectuals and experts who know the threat of Netanyahu on Gaza.”

Buttu is more upbeat. “I am under no illusions that the Joint List will be able to be miracle workers: the tide of racism is too high,” she says. “But they will push back and, as always, push for an end to Israel’s military rule, blockade over Gaza and colonisation of the West Bank.”

For the Joint List, the going will be both tough and unclear. “They face an uphill battle. They obviously won’t join any coalition, as they cannot be partners to the occupation but they will be front and centre in pushing back against the racist legislation,” adds Buttu.

On the other side of the aisle, even the Zionist Union is unlikely to reach out to the Joint List, even to block Netanyahu, if history is anything to go by, as no Arab party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition before.

The best hope for the Joint List having any parliamentary clout is a “national unity” government (President Reuven Rivlin’s preferred outcome), which would leave it in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition. But if Netanyahu succeeds in his determination to form a rightwing, ultra-nationalist coalition, this would place the Zionist Union at the helm of the opposition, putting the Joint List out in the cold or, at most, in a supporting role.

Regardless of whether it leads the opposition or not, some are convinced that the Joint List will have negligible influence on Israel’s politics. “[It] is going to have zero influence through parliament on Israeli domestic or foreign policies,” the prominent Israeli dissident New Historian Ilan Pappé told me.

Conversely, the Joint List is likely to have a profound impact on Palestinian politics, argues Pappé. “The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian representatives in the Knesset are formations based on a certain Palestinian strategic logic that adheres to the two-state  solution as the only way forward,” he maintains. “As the chances and prospects of such a solution seem to disappear daily, we are all in need of a new strategy.”

And this new strategy? A civil rights struggle which will deliver “a true ANC-kind of leadership to follow and be part of, for a better future,” believes Pappé.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 March 2015.

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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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