Beyond the Arab winter

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the Middle East stumbles perilously close to its own “world war”, seeds of change are already sprouting hopes of a better century ahead.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

The fate of the Middle East was sealed in the blood-drenched trenches of World War I.  Out of the smouldering ashes of the Ottoman empire arose dreams of national freedom which were dashed by European imperialism, post-colonial despotism and neo-colonialism.

A century on, nothing has changed and everything has changed. As these hundred years of dreams and nightmares, of illusion and disillusion, with a few measures of delusion, reach their dissolution point, what does the next century hold in store for the region?

Trying to forecast something as complex, unfathomable and random as the future is reckless at best, and a fool’s errand in these highly volatile and tumultuous times. But my intention here is not to gaze into a crystal ball. Rather, like gardeners or farmers, it is essential that we locate the blight and the weeds suffocating our societies, and identify the seeds and shoots of a better tomorrow so that we can nurture them.

In 2011, with great courage, determination and vision, millions of Arabs decided to shake their societies from their apathetic nightmarish slumber to walk the dream of equality, socioeconomic justice and dignity. Now for tens of millions that dream has become a nightmare, the gates to paradise had a hidden trapdoor down into hell.

Early talk of an “Arab Spring” has given way to gloomy reflections about the Arab winter. With all the heavy clouds hanging over our region, it looks like we’re in for seriously stormy times ahead. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have already plunged into the abyss, while numerous other countries, including my native Egypt, are wobbling on the edge of the precipice, at risk of falling off the cliff at any time.

Despite their role in destabilising the region by proxy, the Gulf states, with the exception of Bahrain, have not yet witnessed any major upheavals. However, they are far more vulnerable than they appear at first sight.

This is especially the case as the reserves of petro-dollars available to placate the population hurtle downwards with the huge drop in global oil prices, and the war in Yemen looks set to turn into a long-drawn out Vietnamesque catastrophe.

With three UN Security Council members involved militarily in Syria, even major global powers find themselves at risk of being sucked into the Middle Eastern black hole, at risk of coming to direct blows. But they feel the risk is worth it as they scramble to stake their claims in the new Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman regional order collapses.

Add to this the Saudi-Iran tussle, as well as the short-lived and ever-changing alliances and animosities of the other regional powers, and it is clear that the Middle East stands perilously close to being completely engulfed by its own “world war”.

Amid this gloom and doom, are there any signs of hope on the horizon?

In many parts of the Middle East, winter is actually a fertile period when water-starved, sun-drenched vegetation finally receive the sustenance they need to grow. And the region’s social and political soil is showing signs of this kind of winter growth.

Many misread the situation as a sign either of the invincible strength of authoritarian despotism or the tyrannical terror of religious fundamentalism.

But rather than revival, the extreme violence we are witnessing is a sign of the bloody, long-drawn death throes of three forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Whether these deaths will result in the birth of a better Middle East will depend on whether the seeds of change currently showing early shoots will be nurtured into full blossom.

The one thing Arab regimes and Islamists alike fear the most is free thought and its expression because they can be deployed as weapons of mass disobedience. But even brutal oppression and murder have done little to arrest the proliferation of this particular WMD. Ultimately, no amount of thuggery from regimes or Islamists will force Arabs to abandon their thirst for knowledge and their hunger to speak their minds.

Despite appearances to the contrary, another area where the ground has shifted majorly is religion. The failed “Islamism is the solution” formula, as well as the bullying of fundamentalists, has convinced millions of Arabs that the relationship between religion and politics must be changed.

The rise of ISIS and the political abuse of religion by many regimes, particularly the absolutist monarchies, has driven home to many the urgent need for secularisation. If religion does not move to its rightful spheres – the private and spiritual – in the near future, then hell will have no fury like the region’s fanatics scorned.

Gender is another area where a largely unseen, sometimes underground, revolution is taking place. In numerous countries, women have had enough of being told to wait for their rights and are trying to seize them – and they have plenty of male allies too.

But for these shoots to truly blossom and bloom may require the oil era, which has been more of a curse than a blessing, to come to an end. Only then perhaps will the people of the Middle East have enough breathing space to overcome the combined yoke of domestic dictatorship and foreign hegemony and to build a borderless region of prosperity and justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 November 2015.

 

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The West’s hidden tribalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflicts Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart?

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Thursday 17 September 2015

The disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya – and the increasingly likely redrawing of their maps once the dust settles – are widely regarded, both in the West and within the Arab world, as a symptom of tribalism and sectarianism which the “artificial borders” imposed by the imperial powers were unable to contain.

While it is true that many of the conflicts in the region have taken on a tribal, sectarian or even religious dimension, or a combination of the three, they did not start that way. The idea that centuries-old Sunni-Shia animosities are behind the violence in, say, Syria or Yemen, are simply self-serving myths and half-truths.

Yet the media and politicians continue to fixate on this conviction, echoing  the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir’s infamous quip that: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world – the rest are just tribes with flags.”

While a number of countries in the region are small enough to qualify as a tribe with a flag, this is not unique to the Arab world. And I’m not just thinking of Africa and other developing societies here.

Despite the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism and the shining light of reason, the West, after all these centuries, has not shaken off many elements of its traditional tribalism, and new forms of tribalism have also emerged.

As a small example, take Belgium, the country of which I am a naturalised citizen. Not belonging to either of its two main linguistic communities, I have often been baffled by the amount of mutual bitterness and distrust on view.

The quiet conflict between Flemings and Walloons that has been simmering for over a century could easily be framed in “tribal” terms – what is (ethno-)nationalism, after all, except a broader form of tribalism. However, to do so, would be to oversimplify an extremely complex situation.

As for “artificial borders”, Europe, like the Middle East, is replete with them. The two world wars were, at least partly, a case of borderline insanity.

Belgium is a prime example of how fake European frontiers are. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and the dissolution of the First French Empire, what is today Belgium was handed over to the Dutch king William I.

Like Sunnis in modern-day Iraq, the Protestant minority controlled the state, though all citizens theoretically enjoyed legal equality.

Some 15 years later, as revolution fomented in neighbouring France, the Catholic majority of the Southern Netherlands revolted in what become known as the Belgian Revolution. How much of it was sectarian and religious and how much a reaction to William I unlimited (despotic) power and his bulldozer approach to modernisation (imposing modern notions of equality on his traditionalist subjects and stripping the Catholic church of its centuries-old privileges) is hard to ascertain.

Sect was the apparent driver of the conflict back then. Language is today.

Responding to the uprising, the great European powers agreed to give “Belgium” its independence, drawing lines in the mud similar to those they would draw later in the Middle Eastern sand. Belgium was destined to serve as a buffer zone (read: regular punching bag) between Germany, France and the Netherlands.

And faultlines like this abound across Europe. In fact, there isn’t a country in Europe whose borders are not artificial, whose historical frontiers do not overlap with that of its neighbours and whose population is not a messy mix of peoples.

This raises the question of how and why it is that European states manage to keep their tribal undercurrents in check, while the Middle East is apparently being torn asunder by the very same forces.

That’s because it is not. If it were, then Egypt should be – due to its apparently more homogenous nature and far clearer historical boundaries, not to mention the regional headstart it got as a modern nation-state – the most stable country in the region.

Tribalism is the symptom, rather than the cause, of the Middle East’s ills. Unlike the generally much older nation-state experiment in Europe, many Arab states have failed and others are on the brink of failure.

This is due to a complex mix of poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, economic and gender inequality, poverty, under-education, foreign domination, overpopulation, environmental stress, and more. The vacuum left by this enormous, state-shaped black hole has enabled the demons of  tribalism and sectarianism to rear their ugly heads.

That does not mean that the West is immune. It is simply cushioned by effective governance, relative prosperity, greater freedom and the painful memory of the totally destructive power of modern-day tribalism, both between nations and within them.

But there is no room for complacency. Disintegration can come fast, like a chain reaction, order can quickly descend into disorder, and the most “civilised” can rapidly more into the most “barbaric”.

Many of the ingredients of that sort of unravelling are already in place, but the secret combination that unleashes mayhem has not yet been mixed together. Early signs of this include the growing “tribalism” within and between European states, including the Greek-German standoff and the rising spectre of far-right nationalism from France to Hungary, not to mention huge levels of youth unemployment, growing hardship and inequity.

Across  the Atlantic, the United States has among the greatest inequalities in the advanced industrialised world, enormous inter-racial tensions, massive gun crime, mass incarceration, growing class divisions, and rising animosity between the north and south.

While Western societies appear robust enough today to deal with these challenges, the chance still exists that, with time, the “never again” of yesteryear will become the “not again” of tomorrow. Let’s hope that does not happen.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 September 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.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas – a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Aanslag op Amerikaans consulaat in Benghazi valt niet uit de lucht

 
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Door Badra Djait

De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi was geen verrassing. De voortekens waren al lang zichtbaar.

Dinsdag 18 september 2012

De Amerikaanse ambassadeur in Libië, Christopher Stevens, is samen met drie andere medewerkers om het leven gekomen bij een raketaanval in Benghazi. Aanleiding voor de aanslag is een anti-Islam film uit America.

Hoe is het mogelijk dat er raketten konden worden afgevuurd op een Amerikaans consulaat, dat de Libische betogers het gebouw in brand konden steken, en dat het lichaam van de Amerikaanse ambassadeur voor het oog van de hele wereld over straat kon worden gesleurd? De Amerikanen hadden de aanslag in Benghazi minstens moeten voorzien.

Ten eerste is zes jaar geleden iets gelijkaardigs gebeurd naar aanleiding van de Deense Muhammad cartoons. Toen in Libië bekend werd dat een Italiaanse minister, Roberto Calderoli, een T-shirt met een spotprent van de profeet droeg, verzamelden spontaan een duizendtal mensen zich voor het Italiaans consulaat in Benghazi op 17 februari 2006. De betogers waren er zelfs in geslaagd het Italiaans consulaat in lichterlaaie te zetten, waarop de Libische politie het vuur opende op de betogers. Minstens tien doden waren er gevallen.

Vijf jaar later – toen de Arabische revolutie uitbrak – riep de Libische oppositie op om de dood van de betogers tegen de Muhammad cartoons te herinneren. Er moest betoogd worden tegen Gaddafi op 17 februari 2011 omdat die bij de demonstratie tegen de cartoons de zijde van het Westen had gekozen tegen de Islam. Vandaar dat de Libische revolutie van 2011 ook wel de “cartoonrevolutie” werd genoemd.

Met andere woorden, de ambassadeur en zijn medewerkers hadden de Libische ambassade moeten verlaten, eens het protest in Cairo aan de Amerikaanse ambassade tegen de spotfilm over Muhammad is uitgebroken.

Een tweede reden waarom de VS de aanslag op het consulaat hadden moeten voorzien, is dat ze wist dat Benghazi bekend staat als een bolwerk voor gevoelige extremisten. Uit het rapport al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq van de US Military Academy bleek dat 18% van de al-Qaedastrijders uit de wereld die naar Irak kwamen om te vechten tegen de geallieerde troepen voornamelijk afkomstig waren uit Oost-Libië, waaronder Benghazi.

Verbaast het dan dat na de NAVO-interventie de voorzitter van de Libische oppositie, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in zijn overwinningstoespraak in Benghazi liet weten dat Libië de sharia tot de officiële wet van het land zal verklaren. De eerder liberale voorzitter moest rekening houden met de ideeën van zijn conservatieve achterban. Zelfs de vlag van al-Qaeda werd er omhoog gehesen op het gerechtsgebouw van Benghazi na de bevrijding van het land door de NAVO.

Ten derde is het adagium van het buitenlands beleid “de vijand van mijn vijand is mijn vriend” op korte tijd zo vaak toegepast met wisselende vijanden en vrienden dat de Libiërs de Amerikanen niet meer konden vertrouwen.

De religieuze extremisten die voornamelijk in Oost-Libië zaten, waren vanaf de jaren tachtig bekend als beduchte politieke vijanden van Gaddafi. De toenmalige Libische gevangenissen waren vol met de “bebaarde mannen”. Dat is ook de reden waarom het westen na 9/11 toenadering zocht tot Gaddafi op zoek naar steun voor haar “war on terror”.  De CIA, de Britse en de Libische inlichtingendiensten wisselden toen honderden namen van Libische islamistische verdachten uit. Vandaar dat Moussa Koussa, voormalig hoofd van de Libische inlichtingendiensten vorig jaar veilig werd overgebracht naar Qatar na een tussenstop in Groot-Brittanië.

Niet alleen werden gegevens over islamistische verdachten uitgewisseld, ook wilde de VS de marteling van al-Qaeda verdachten uitbesteden aan gevangenissen buiten hun controle. Een bekend voorbeeld is Abdelhakim Belhadj, de voormalige leider van het fundamentalistische Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Hij werd samen met zijn zwangere vrouw opgepakt in Maleisië. Beiden werden gemarteld door de CIA in Bangkok en vervolgens uitgeleverd aan de willekeur van Gaddafi. Dat werd recent nogmaals bevestigd door het rapport van Human Rights Watch getiteld ‘Delivered into enemy hands. US-led abuse and rendition of opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya‘.

Maar Gaddafi behandelde de islamisten én hun familieleden zo slecht dat de modale Libiër zich begon te keren tegen Gaddafi. Toen Fathi Terbil werd gearresteerd in februari 2011 – Fathi Terbil was een mensenrechtenactivist die de familieleden vertegenwoordigde van de honderden gevangenen die bij rellen in de beruchte Abu Salim gevangenis in Tripoli in 1996 door veiligheidsdiensten werden vermoord en van de gedode betogers in 2006 naar aanleiding van de Muhammad cartoons – begon de oppositie in het oosten van Libië zich serieus te roeren.

De Libische oppositie kreeg al snel steun van het westen. En plots werden de “voormalige al-Qaeda verdachten” de vrienden van het westen, en werd Gaddafi de gemeenschappelijke vijand. Getuige het feit dat de door de CIA gemartelde Belhadj werd benoemd tot de militaire leider van de Libische oppositie.

Het is dan ook wereldvreemd dat de VS zich publiekelijk afvraagt “hoe zo’n aanslag kon gebeuren in een land dat met Amerikaanse steun werd bevrijd”, terwijl voorgaande info in Libië als algemene kennis wordt beschouwd. De Libiërs zien de VS niet als een land dat hen bevrijd heeft omdat ze democratie wilde brengen, wel omdat ze eigen belangen heeft. Het principe “vergeven en vergeten” geldt hier niet. De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi valt dus niet uit de lucht.

 

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The liberation of exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

My father’s secret police file reveals that my newly wed parents were right to flee Egypt. But I’m grateful for the liberation of “exile”.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

‘This is your life’ was a British TV show in which special guests were taken by surprise on a trip down memory lane with the aid of a ‘big red book’ of their lives.

Though this format never made it to Egypt, the secret police, diligent to a fault when it comes to documenting the achievements of Egyptians, ran for decades its own Orwellian biographical service, accumulating clandestine archives on the “enemies” of the state.

That such documents existed would surprise only the most naïve Egyptians, as most dissidents, opposition politicians, political activists and critical writers and journalists have long suspected there was a binder with their name on it lying in some dusty state security archive or dungeon. On occasion, I have been curious whether I, or other outspoken members of my family and circle of friends, had an unofficial state biographer and what information my unauthorised biography contained. Who knows, perhaps I am privileged enough to have multiple biographers, including an Israeli one chronicling my sojourn here.

The idea that anyone would ever be able to lay hands on their file once seemed like a distant fantasy. But in the mayhem and chaos that followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime, revolutionaries were able to enter a number of state security fortresses – which some likened to the storming of the Bastille – and get their hands on numerous files before they could be destroyed by panicked agents.

It turns out that state security’s prolific biographers had profiled my own father. A dissident for the greater part of his life now, he entered one of those ransacked “temples of torture” and a revolutionary who recognised him handed him 25 partially scorched pages from his police file. The fragments of my father’s unauthorised biography, while containing a smattering of facts, were mainly a work of creative fiction. In addition to detailed information about his family in Egypt, the file contained a number of far-fetched claims – foremost among them was that he had once led a militia in South Lebanon.

“I never even learnt how to shoot a gun,” my father, whose poor eyesight had got him out of military service, told the BBC, his tone reflecting his utter disbelief. The mere suggestion that my bespectacled, somewhat corpulent old man – who has come no nearer to commanding columns than those found on a newspaper page – was some kind of Arab Che Guevara or was capable of wielding anything more threatening than a pen is truly amusing.

My father regards the very existence of his state security file as a sign of the state’s profound insecurity and weakness. He also believes that the tall tales it contains were not the fevered workings of a paranoid mind, but were a carefully crafted attempt to fit him up in the event that they ever got their hands on him. “They were preparing something to get rid of me. There was a plan to do something,” he speculated.

If he is right, then my parents’ decision to flee Egypt was a wise one and saved us all the grief of political imprisonment, a show trial, or perhaps worse.

But what my father’s file doesn’t contain is the human consequences of dissent and exile, and the profound role it has played in shaping an entire family.

When my father learnt that he was being watched, my parents decided to get married in a hurry and the nearest they got to a honeymoon was to flee to Libya, which was relatively open and booming in the early 1970s, before Gadaffi had gone completely mad.

I was born in Tripoli (as was one of my brothers) and, though I remember almost nothing consciously of our sojourn there, my birthplace has cast a shadow over my life. For example, exhibiting a comparable level of paranoia to the Egyptian regime, American Homeland Insecurity has quizzed me as to whether my toddler self ever served in the Libyan armed forces, which would give a whole new meaning to infantry.

From Libya, my parents decided to move on to the UK, at a time when it was still relatively easy to immigrate because my folks were against the idea of seeking political asylum. But my mother returned to Egypt to give birth to my sister (the only sibling born in Egypt) among her family while my father sorted out a place for us to live. What was supposed to be a short visit morphed into a three-year enforced stay as the Egyptian regime effectively held us hostage in a bid to lure my father back.

My courageous and versatile mother, who was juggling the demands of caring for three children and holding down a job, took the government to court and the judge always ruled in her favour, yet each time we went to the airport, we found our name on the notorious “banned from travel” list. Actually, I should point out here that, though my father is the official dissident of the family, my mother is the real rebel, willing to go against social convention to stay true to her convictions. In addition, she is the founding mother of our democratic household.

Eventually, the court was able to impose its will and we finally made it out of the country, only to embark on a long tour of the Middle East trying to find a country which wasn’t pissed off with my father where we could meet and finish the paperwork to move to Britain.

For the next decade or so, we lived in London and were unable to visit family in Egypt. During that time, my mother lost her mother and one of her sisters, losses made the more painful by distance. The memories I have of my favourite grandmother are shrouded in mist: I recall her lovingly tending her birds, kissing the food into their beaks, in her intriguing rooftop pigeon coop, and the frenzied activity she coordinated on the eve of Eid to produce delicious homemade sweets.

In a way, our return to Egypt did not end my sense of “exile”. Although I felt a strong bond of belonging at a certain level, some aspects of life there remained foreign to me and quite a few compatriots viewed me as an honorary foreigner. In addition, my years abroad had bred in me a certain wanderlust and I eventually departed the banks of the Nile once again.

Despite the challenges of distance, I do not share the sentiments of many Egyptian and Arab political and economic migrants who lament their estrangement and long passionately to return. But, unlike for some, such as Palestinians and Arab Jews, my “exile” is an entirely voluntary one and, hence, different.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the formative years of my life have played a part in shaping my personality and identity, and gave me an early object lesson in the importance of being your own person and thinking your own thoughts.

Despite the occasional conflicts between them, I am thrilled by my multiple identities (at once Egyptian, Arab, British, Belgian, European and, above all, human). Each has its own distinct voice in my head, reminding me that the world is a complex place that can be viewed from so many different perspectives. Learning other languages can also help you savour the various accents of life with different tongues.

Being one half of an international couple has been a hugely mind-expanding experience, involving, as it has, tripping round the world with my wife. Our toddler son’s multicultural background is already showing signs of instilling in him a sense of adventure: he is currently missing travelling and has been loudly demanding to go on a plane, switching languages to make his point absolutely clear.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I spent its entirety in Egypt and I usually conclude that it would have been much the duller. I am profoundly grateful for the kaleidoscope of experiences the accident of my birth has opened up to me. Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself at home just about anywhere.

—-

You can follow Khaled Diab on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DiabolicalIdea

This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 9 July 2012.

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Islamist-driven democracy is not a snowball in hell

 
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By Osama Diab 

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden and secularists are not all Atatürk . They can work together to achieve democracy.

Friday 28 October 2011

After the announcement of Libya’s transitional leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil that the country will be embracing Islamic law and the victory of the moderate Islamist an-Nahda party in the Tunisian parliamentary elections and the expectation of a similar result next month in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, secularists not just need to accept the fact that Islamists will be part of the region’s political future, they actually might be at the forefront of shaping it.

Secularists should not panic though, as being at the political forefront during this difficult transition to democracy might be more of a curse than a blessing. Likewise, to make up for their lack of experience in handling such historical responsibilities, Islamists should start learning a lesson or two from recent events in the region and also lessons from the broader historical context. There are many facts that – if realised – could actually turn Islamists from a feared group of religious fanatics into a force pushing for more civil liberties.

Firstly, the realisation that the current political demographics that seem to be on their side are not eternal. The number of political parties and ideologies that once seemed invincible and now only exist in history books are numerous. Nazism, Fascism, Communism and even regional political movements like Arab Nationalism, were all once sweeping ideologies in certain historical and regional contexts. The systematic mistreatment of citizens, human rights violations and restriction on freedoms is what accelerated the demise of these ideologies.

If Islamists don’t push for more civil rights, their power might be unsustainable and short-lived. The revolutions across the Arab world were not for or against specific ideologies; they were rebellions against abuse, corruption and dictatorship.

Islamists should not be deceived by the support of their core ideological followers. This support is not necessarily unconditional. For example, even though Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak imposed a relatively secular regime and fought a fierce battle with Islamist groups, that didn’t stop millions of pro-democracy secularists from revolting against him. Similarly, former Tunisian president Zien el-Abidine Ben Ali also presented himself as the last defence line against fanatical Islamists, yet hundreds of thousands of Tunisian secularists preferred the risk of ending up with an elected Islamist regime to Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship.

Even within the realm of Islamism, many young Muslim Brotherhood members have rebelled against their old guard and conservative leaders, and decided to join and form other – often secular – parties.

Ruling by Islam is not the ultimate protection either. The Ottoman Empire, which was the Caliphate of Islam and stretched over three continents and more than 15 countries until the early 20th century, was dismantled by the progressive Young Turks laying the foundation for what had later become the secular Republic of Turkey.

This year’s uprisings against some of the cruellest military dictatorships in the region show that no regime, regardless of its material strength, is immune to popular revolts. Amidst this appetite for protest and political activity, it will be increasingly hard for any group, including Islamists, to practise absolute power and disregard the needs of the majority and the rights of the minorities.

Unlike many other secularists, I wouldn’t be quick to announce the clinical death of democracy before it is even born just because a religious conservative party, which has even expressed its commitment to secular democracy, has won a 40% relative majority in the Tunisian parliament. Islamism is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of thought. Self-described Islamists include many highly educated academics, and widely disagree over fundamental issues even among themselves. The portrayal of an Islamist as a one-dimensional evil fanatic inspired by the Taliban is just a simplistic, lazy and inaccurate view.

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden, and sharing some of the legislative power with them doesn’t necessarily put democracy at risk if they learn to understand the rules of the democratic game. Secularists need to be there fighting against and with Islamists to achieve democracy in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and Islamists need to understand that a secular government and institutions that respect human rights regardless of religion, gender, political affiliation, etc. is the only guarantee for the stability and sustainability of the political process as a whole and a safeguard for Islamists as an integral part of this process.

The moderate and progressive views of some Islamists was the reason why Karim Medhat Ennarah, a devoted, left-wing human rights activist, decided to support the former senior Brotherhood member Abdelmoniem Aboul Fotouh: “I have always had a lot of respect for Aboul Fotouh, despite my disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s had a reputable career as an opposition figure, most notably his work with the Arab Doctors Federation and his efforts to break the siege on Gaza.”

Ennarah beleivesAboul Fotouh has expressed progressive views on issues relating to personal and religious liberties and is more proactive on the ground and among the people than Mohamed Elbaradei, a liberal opposition leader and a potential presidential candidate whom Ennarah previously supported.

I have vowed to never resist democratic change just because ‘I’ think its outcome might be unfavourable. This is not at all a call for secularists to raise the white flag without a fight. An Islamist victory in next month’s Egyptian elections is not yet a foregone conclusion. Secularists should fight the parliamentary battle fiercely, yet peacefully and gracefully, and act as a lobbying power for more democratic gains in the future even if parliament does become dominated by Islamists.
“I don’t know if Islamists can be a threat to pluralism if they were in power. There are so many uncertainties surrounding them,” says Ennarah. “But I do know, however, that wholesale exclusion of a political group that has the support of a significant percentage of the population is a much more tangible threat to pluralism.”

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True people power in Libya

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gaddafi and his corrupt ‘jamahiriya’ may be gone, but Libyans should not give up on the dream of a direct democracy for the masses.

Monday 24 October 2011

Now that Gaddafi is dead, many Libyans are upbeat about the future, despite decades of autocratic rule and months of war.

“There is now an excellent opportunity to build a government from scratch and, after 42 years of one-man rule, Libyans want democracy,” Yusra Tekbali, a Libyan-American journalist who was in Libya during the early days of the uprising told me. “I think Libya can be the first real democracy in the region.”

Although Libyans dream of freedom and dignity, what the future actually has in store remains a very open question, with the National Transitional Council already facing allegations of torture and human rights abuses, and uncertainty regarding whether the Western powers who helped topple Gaddafi – and have already been lining up in an unseemly and opportunistic queue to demand that Libya grease their palsm with lucrative oil contracts – will ultimately choose self-interest or principle.

These worries aside, there’s the question of which model of democracy will work best in Libya. “Libyans have no experience in ruling themselves, so trial and error is to be expected,” Tekbali observes.

Of course, Gaddafi would say that Libyans already had decades of experience of bottom-up self-rule. The one-time “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” would probably quote at length from his slim and surreal work, the Green Book, about the deficiencies of representative liberal democracies – stopping off on the way to discuss women’s menstrual cycles and the evils of sports clubs – and how the true answer lies in direct democracy.

In Gaddafi’s imagination, if not in practice, contemporary Libya was the living manifestation of the Green Book’s utopian “Third Universal Theory”, which he formulated as an alternative both to capitalism and Marxism. Transformed in the mid-1970s into a “jamahiriya” (a term Gaddafi coined to mean government by the masses), Libya was supposedly run directly by popular committees representing all parts of the country and all walks of life.

“The striking innovation in the Libyan political system since Gaddafi came to power resulted from his desire to replace subnational traditional leaders with administrators with the skills needed to modernise the country,” a US government study of Libya from the 1980s noted.

Although Gaddafi was supposed to hold no political positions of authority beyond the honorific “Leader of the Revolution”, his position as head of the General People’s Congress meant that he remained effectively in charge and the people’s committees were little more than a fig leaf designed to cover the naked brutality of his autocracy. Meanwhile, the revolutionary committees’ role to “supervise people power” was actually code for monitoring and suppression.

“It is ironic, then,” the American study concluded, “that the changes intended to enfranchise the citizenry have instead served primarily to bolster Gaddafi’s personal power by diminishing governmental checks and balances on his executive power and eliminating all other power bases.”

Given their bitter experience of living under Gaddafi’s “direct democracy”, Libyans may be excused if they desire never to embrace it again. Nevertheless, there is a powerful case to be made for governing Libya through direct democracy.

Although I do not share Gaddafi’s contempt for liberal and representative democracy – which, though imperfect, is among the best political systems we’ve ever had – importing the western model wholesale, as Libya’s interim government seems intent on doing, is perhaps not the best way forward.

Personally, I am convinced that direct democracy is the best option for Libya – and other Arab countries. This is partly because Libya does not possess the party political infrastructure for effective representative democracy, and the rush to create parties could be counterproductive.

Even in countries with political parties, like Egypt, the official opposition is unable to deliver on the people’s demands. In addition, the new parties that have been formed do not represent large swathes of the population, particularly the young people who risked everything in a bid to change their societies, and are likely to be too weak or too dominated by vested interests to bring about meaningful change.

In principle, too, direct democracy – the model that was practised in ancient Athens – is superior to its representative cousin which, through the “authoritarianism” of party politics, can sometimes exclude the majority and can lead to de facto oligarchies.

 “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

Though implementing direct democracy in the modern mass context might would have been seen as a pipe dream in Washington’s day, with the aid of modern technology, it is a feasible possibility.

Of course, direct democracy also suffers from its own drawbacks, such as the risk of majority “tyranny”, which could leave minorities and other vulnerable groups exposed. In addition, the sheer weight of constant participation could lead to political fatigue or apathy among the population and, hence, the hijacking of the political process by those on the political fringes who are more likely to be active.

A hybrid system could overcome these shortcomings. A parliament made up of elected representatives, but without political parties, could take care of the day-to-day business of government. This would provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. Important legislative issues would be decided through direct consultation with the population. In addition, every citizen would have the right to propose legislation and start motions.

With the right constitutional safeguards in place to protect all groups, there is no reason why every Libyan should not have both the right and duty to shape the future of their country directly and ensure that no new dictator emerges to fill Gaddafi’s shoes.

This column first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. The related discussion is available here.

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Law and order in Libya

 
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By Khaled Diab

Muammar Gaddafi once lived above the law, but his killers must not be permitted the same impunity to get away with murder. Justice must be done, even for fallen despots.

Monday 24 October 2011

After four decades as Libya’s tyrannical and idiosyncratic leader, Muammar Gaddafi has the unenviable distinction of being the first dethroned Arab leader to be killed during the ‘Arab Spring’. His death has been met with a mix of jubilation, disbelief and revulsion, and has been used as an opportunity by Libya’s interim leadership to proclaim an end to the civil war.

It must have been eerie and weird for most Libyans to wake up the day after his death to a Gaddafi-free Libya, since most of them do not remember a Libya without its “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. I recall the strange sensation I felt when Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and he had ruled Egypt for considerably less long and was not as omnipresent or omnipotent as Gaddafi in Libya. 

Even as a non-Libyan who happened to be born in Tripoli in the 1970s, when Gaddafi was still a young revolutionary, it took some time for the idea that the despotic-yet-colourful Libyan leader was no more. Hate him, or love him (as a minority still do), he had succeeded in shaping Libya so much in his own image that both Libyans and the outside world will take a long period of adjustment to come to terms with a Libya which is not Gaddafi-faced.

 Although I can understand the motivation behind his apparent murder and why most Libyans believe he got his just deserts, his apparent assassination nevertheless troubles me greatly.

After decades of abusing his power and months of civil war, it is perhaps not surprising that he who lived by the gun, at least by proxy, should die by it too. Besides, spontaneous executions of brutal fallen dictators are not uncommon – think of Romania. Nor are extra-judicial killings in the chaotic aftermath of bloody conflict. Think of the bloody purges in Europe following World War II.

Some in the Western media have described Gaddafi’s murder as “clood blooded”. Personally, I would liken it to a crime of passion. Cold-blooded suggest premeditation, which doesn’t appear to be the case here, unlike, say, was the case with the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden, or the British assassination squads that were active during the Irish War of Independence, or Israel’s extra-judicial killing of Palestinian militants.

That said, although Gaddafi’s murder is easy to understand, I find it extremely difficult to condone. In terms of principle, killing Gaddafi was wrong, because even fallen despots have the right to a fair trial, and I’m against the death penalty. “A trial would have been exhausting. I get it,” one Libyan told me. “This can’t be a healthy indicator for Libya’s future, but at the same time that’s a little difficult to predict right now.”

In my opinion, Gadaffi’s murder sends out the wrong signal, as does the unedifying spectacle of his body being put on undignified public display in cold storage facility in Misrate as the National Transitional Council bickers over what to do with the corpse. One reason why Libyans opposed Gaddafi was because of the arbitrary brutality of his rule and the relative absence of the rule of law. Through their actions, Gaddafi’s killers appointed themselves as judge, jury and executioner. And if it emerges that his murder was ordered from up high and was not the action of a renegade element, then this bodes ill.  

In order to demonstrate clearly that Libya is under fairer, more humane – and hopefully temporary – management, the NTC must launch a full and impartial investigation into his death and bring his killers to justice, no matter who they turn out to be and even if Gaddafi’s unknown murderers are considered to be heroes by many Libyans.

By so doing, the NTC will prove that the rule of law trumps all other considerations and that not only are the Gaddafis no longer above the law but neither are their killers. Finding and trying the killers of a loathed dictator will also help arrest Libya’s possible descent into bloody retribution and counter-retribution by sending out the clear message that no murder is acceptable, even that of a deposed tyrant.

 

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Should Arabs treat Erdoğan as a hero?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome across the Arab world. But should Arabs welcome or be weary of Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East?

Friday 23 September 2011

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch. 

“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions. 

Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him. 

But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”. 

With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward. 

Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.

But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control. 

In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. 

The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire. 

So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.

Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.

Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.” 

Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order. 

Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.

In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.

Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness. 

Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.

Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved. 

After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?

I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East. 

But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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