The death of sanity in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The sentencing to death of former president Mohamed Morsi is the latest chapter in Egypt’s comedy of terrors that could push the country over the edge

Wednesday 27 May 2015

It may well go down in history as Egypt’s show trial of the century – one that is not only unjust but also positively Kafkaesque in its absurdity and self-defeating surrealism.

Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, along with 105 co-defendants, has been sentenced to death for a prison break during the upheavals of the 2011 revolution. On the ethical level, this trial is a travesty because Morsi did not enjoy due process in a highly politicised trial which Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair” and “a charade based on null and void procedures”.

In addition, as a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I find the reckless abandon with which Egyptian courts have been handing out death sentences to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters both wrong and highly troubling. And this is occurring just when Egypt seemed to be a country on the road to phasing out capital punishment.

The fact that a handful of the hundreds on death row have been executed may indicate that Morsi will never actually be put to death. However, even life in prison without first going through a fair trial before an impartial court would be an inhumane and profound injustice.

Beyond issues of ethics and morality, Morsi’s sentence – the most symbolic of the recent persecution of the Brotherhood which has seen hundreds of protesters killed and thousands of supporters thrown behind bars, not to mention legion secular activists – could possibly push the situation in Egypt over the edge.

Within hours of the verdict, reports emerged that three judges were shot dead in the Sinai, possibly in connection with the trial. And just as Morsi’s ouster escalated the insurgency in the desert peninsula, his death sentence is likely to play a similar role, not just in Sinai but also on the Egyptian mainland.

And the tragedy of the situation is that it need not have been so. In fact, the past two years have been a veritable comedy of terrors in Egypt.

Morsi’s dictatorial grab for power which began in November 2012, his knack for losing friends and whipping up popular disapproval, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s colossal incompetence and mismanagement of the country meant that the movement which had made successive governments quake for some eight decades had lost its political legitimacy and become a spent force.

Instead of giving Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum following the huge protests of 30 June 2013, had the military steered the country towards early elections, much of the subsequent blood and tears could have been avoided.

However, the Egyptian military decided to follow the path of greatest resistance. After Morsi’s ouster, the al-Sisi regime used oppression and persecution where magnanimity and reconciliation would have been far more effective.

Rather than finish off the movement, the regime’s myopic and bloody purge – which included the deadly dispersals of largely peaceful sit-ins, mass arrests, trials in kangaroo courts and the outlawing of the Brotherhood  – has strengthened and radicalised what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly won it back some of the public sympathy it has lost.

It has also sent out a message to many Islamists that the political process is not for them and that peaceful change through democracy will not occur. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to renounce violence in the 1970s was a controversial one – which led to violent splinter groups being formed – but the movement’s successful use of its soft power silenced many of its Islamist critics and even drew in new and unlikely supporters when the persecution of Egypt’s secular dissidents left it as the main opposition movement. A significant percentage of these supporters will now likely follow the path of political violence, convinced that the secular state is irredeemably “evil” and “un-Islamic”.

After their disastrous year in power and given their theological basis, I do not entertain delusions, like some do, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy. Like far-right movements in Europe, the Brotherhood’s leadership saw the democratic process not as a tool for the peaceful transfer of power but as a drawbridge leading into the palace which they would slam firmly shut afterwards.

But the Brotherhood’s antidemocratic tendencies are no excuse to persecute and demonise the movement. Having it involved in the political process is far better than turning its members into social pariahs and outcasts who, with nothing left to lose, may prove willing to lose everything.

But, sadly, in Egypt’s zero-sum political culture, there is far too much of a winner-takes-all mentality. Following Mubarak’s removal from power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brutally clung on to power for as long as it took to load the dice in its favour, especially when it came to the protection of its huge economic fiefdom. The army had hoped that going through the motions of “democratisation” would lead to the emergence of a toothless parliament and lame duck president which, like in the Turkey of yesteryear, could be controlled from behind the scenes.

Instead of playing ball, the Muslim Brotherhood set their own power grab in motion, with Morsi ironically appointing al-Sisi to head up SCAF because he apparently believed he was sympathetic to their cause and was junior and inexperienced enough to dominate and control. When Morsi started ruling by presidential decree, this not only made him hugely unpopular across Egypt but also set him on a collision course with the army.

The military saw Morsi’s grand failures and mounting opposition to his rule as its ticket to return visibly to the driver’s seat. Buoyed by ephemeral popularity, the al-Sisi regime has massively overplayed its hand. Egypt has seen a tidal wave of state violence and oppression, not just of the Brotherhood but also of the secular opposition.

This manic exercise of state power has seen Sisimania wane considerably. This is reflected in how al-Sisi is no longer the media darling he was before gaining office. Despite massive crackdowns on the press, voices of dissent and criticism are rising once again in the media, with some even calling for early elections.

With the state’s machinery of repression working at full throttle, al-Sisi’s regime is faced with stark choices: either follow al-Assad’s path and possibly push the country into the abyss, or follow Tunisia’s path of reconciliation, consensus politics and democratisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 May 2015.

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Dispelling the curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Conflict between Nile basin countries has been averted. But unless effective action is taken, a water war remains a distinct future possibility.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

War has been avoided. As Yemen becomes the latest battleground in what future historians might call the Middle East’s “World War”, news like this is welcome indeed.

The averted casus belli was the Grand Renaissance Dam – slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – which Ethiopia began constructing in 2011 at the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies some 60% of the great river’s water.

This move made Egypt very nervous and angered decision-makers in Cairo. This was owing to fears that the new barrier would adversely affect the flow of water downstream, bringing potential drought and turning Egypt from the “gift of the Nile” into its curse.

Once completed, the dam will actually have a negligible impact on river flow to Sudan and Egypt, unless Ethiopia decides to divert its waters to irrigation projects elsewhere. Ethiopia even claims it will increase water to Egypt because of the lower evaporation levels in its temperate highlands.

However, the 65.5 billion cubic meters –the equivalent of about one year’s flow to Egypt – required to fill the Great Renaissance’s reservoir troubled Cairo because it could potentially affect millions of farmers and harm the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

These fears – both real and exaggerated – prompted Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, to engage in some poetic sabre-rattling. “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” he threatened in 2013.

And his government considered moving beyond semantics. A closed cabinet meeting which was accidentally and embarrassingly broadcast live on air showed ministers brainstorming ideas for spreading disinformation, dispatching special forces and backing rebels in Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed defence minister who ousted his patron following mass protests, began by pursuing a similarly inflexible position, with Egypt lobbying the international community to halt the project.

Despite al-Sisi’s reckless willingness to go to war in Yemen and his brutal and violent repression of opposition, he wisely decided that diplomacy was more effective than force with Ethiopia. “We have chosen co-operation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” al-Sisi said on the occasion of the inking of a declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reassured.

But despite this landmark deal, we are not out of the woods yet. The three countries still need to agree on the pace at which the new dam’s reservoir will be filled – which could prove to be a difficult barrier to cross.

More fundamentally, the longstanding dispute over the allocation of the Nile’s water resources is the greatest potential flashpoint. This could escalate the proxy conflicts between Cairo and Addis Ababa into the kind of full-fledged “water war” which experts have been warning about for decades.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan, leaving Ethiopia high and dry. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic meters, the country is struggling against water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

In such circumstances, it is understandable that Egyptians regard any reduction in flow as an “existential threat” and a national security issue of the first degree.

But Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are also completely justified in being vexed at this unfair distribution. When they were not in a position to make use of the Nile’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue.

However, this situation has changed radically. Ethiopia is developing rapidly and its population is exploding, reaching over 96 million in 2014, which is larger than Egypt’s. Addis Ababa understandably wishes to exploit more of the rains which fall on its territory.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism regarding quotas, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in 2010 seeking to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan.

But the reality is that redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt, as it can actually get by on considerably less water.

For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

Above all, Egypt needs to save its arable land, perhaps the most fertile in the world, which is under threat from rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. Rising sea levels and the Aswan High Dam’s retention of the silt which used to regenerate the Nile Delta have placed Egypt’s bread basket under severe threat of collapse. This environmental-catastrophe-in-the-making must be addressed urgently.

With the right investment, innovation and planning, the curse of the Nile can be averted and it can continue to be a gift, not just to Egypt, but all the countries through which it flows.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 April 2015.

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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Israel and Egypt’s insane alliance against Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite Egypt’s mediating role, it is no impartial broker on Gaza. It shares Israel’s view that Hamas can be crushed and suffocated into submission.

Photo: UNRWA

Photo: UNRWA

Sunday 10 August 2014

Egypt-Israel-Gaza is possibly one of the most bizarre and perhaps twisted love-hate triangles of recent times. Washington’s credentials as an honest broker have rightly been questioned over the years, and Egypt was traditionally seen as a welcome counterbalance to US bias, but can Cairo today be seen as a pro-Palestinian or even impartial broker?

Not really. For the past year or so, ever since Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi became the de facto leader and then president of Egypt, his regime has been an enthusiastic accomplice in the Israeli-led blockade against Gaza, completely sealing off the Rafah crossing and destroying hundreds of tunnels into the Sinai which provided the Gazan economy with some respite from the siege.

Taking a page out of Israel’s handbook, Egyptian officials leaked plans to Reuters earlier this year that Egypt intends to topple Hamas by, among other things, fomenting dissent in Gaza and backing Fatah.

On top of that, military-aligned television presenters and hosts have been ratcheting up the rhetoric and disinformation against Hamas in Gaza. Despite the continued presence of critical voices, including normally pro-regime anchors, this anti-Hamas propaganda reached fever pitch when hostilities began in early July.

Tawfik Okasha, the military junta’s leading TV cheerleader, praised Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and mocked Gazans on his show. “Gazans are not men,” he taunted live on air. “If they were men, they would revolt against Hamas.”

“Bless you, Netanyahu, and may God give us more like you who will rid us of Hamas, the root of corruption, treason and collaboration with the Brotherhood,” tweeted Azza Sami, a journalist with the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper.

Egypt’s stance has, unsurprisingly, met with much praise in Israel. However, this Egyptian-Israeli love affair has set alarm bells ringing even among normally staunch supporters of Israel. For instance, the conservative, generally pro-Israel Wall Street Journal ran a long feature on this “unlikely alliance” which laid much of the blame for the escalation to open warfare on the excessive “squeezing” of Hamas.

For their part, Palestinians have generally reacted with bewilderment and anger that a country they regarded as an ally has left Gaza to burn, regardless of what they think about Hamas. Many Palestinian I encounter ask me, with a tone of severe disappointment and betrayal in their voices, what Egypt’s game is and why it is allowing fellow Arabs to die in this way.

Some Palestinians and Arab sympathisers have gone so far as to see the hidden hand of conspiracy theories at work, and are convinced that al-Sisi and his regime are US and Zionist agents.

Despite the fact that the al-Sisi regime, under worldwide attack for its lack of democratic legitimacy and widespread human rights abuses, wants Washington on side, this is certainly not the case.

Egypt’s punitive approach towards Hamas is actually not all that new, though it has become far more severe. The Mubarak regime also distrusted and disliked Hamas and played its part in maintaining the Israeli blockade. Even Morsi, the Muslim Brother, did little to alleviate Gaza’s suffering, though he eased the blockade slightly.

The Egyptian president’s strident hostility towards Hamas actually stems from al-Sisi’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement he has persecuted since toppling his Brotherhood predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, following massive protests. The Egyptian regime has falsely alleged that Hamas was guilty of stealing Egyptian resources during Morsi’s 12-month term in office and is behind an insurgency in the Sinai.

This may partly be out of genuine conviction but is also certainly a political ruse to keep popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment and hostility high to justify al-Sisi’s self-declared “war on terrorism”, to manufacture consent, like in Israel, by creating a frightening common enemy, and to crush opposition.

Where once Arab leaders sometimes used Israel as an excuse to silence dissent and delay reform, al-Sisi has come up with a troublingly innovative new formula: blame the Palestinians. And a surprisingly large, if dwindling, number of Egyptians are swallowing the rhetoric.

With all this hostility in the air, Egypt has decided effectively to fight a proxy war against Hamas, by sitting on the sidelines and letting Israel bloody its hands in Gaza, with the trapped civilian population paying a deadly and heavy price, in the hope that its Islamist adversary will collapse.

However, Israeli-Egyptian calculations that Hamas can be brought down or tamed through violence are enormous miscalculations. Although Hamas’s resorting to rocket attacks after some two years of respecting a ceasefire were disastrous and stupid, and walked straight into the trap set by extremist forces in Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian pincer movement over the past year had so cornered the movement that it is now fighting an existential battle in which it has nothing left to lose and, as it sees it, everything to gain.

In addition, even if Hamas falls, there is no guarantee that Fatah will take over, and even if it did, many Gazans will view it as a traitor and collaborator. There is also a strong chance that more radical groups will take over control of the Strip.

With Egypt as mediator and Israel as protagonist on the same misguided line regarding the need to contain, and preferably, topple Hamas, I am sceptical that the current talks in Cairo will lead to a lasting and durable solution, since for that to happen, requires the lifting of the blockade and the reconnecting of Gaza to the West Bank.

The sad, ironic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “contained” without a single shot being fired now, or in 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. Yes, I find Hamas’s extremist ideology and its past of suicide bombings abhorrent, and, like Israel’s militarism, its swift recourse to violence despite its proven futility has been extremely costly. However, ever since coming to power, Hamas, burdened with the responsibility of governing under siege, has displayed far more pragmatism than Israel.

Hamas not only dropped its calls for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, the party has consistently indicated its willingness to accept a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders. Before the latest conflict, Hamas even went so far as to cede political control to the PA and a government of technocrats in the desperate hope that this would lead to the lifting of the siege.

Despite all these clear overtures, Israel’s extremist, jingoistic government, desperate not to give up the territory in the West Bank conquered in 1967 and blinded by ideological hatred towards Hamas (which Israel once misguidedly supported as a counterbalance against the PLO), has refused to play ball and find a way to coexist.

If Israel and Egypt fail to find a way to live non-violently with Hamas, history will continue to repeat itself, each time more tragically than the preceding time. And Gaza will become not only the graveyard of innocent civilians but also the burial ground for the prospects for peace for generations to come.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2014.

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Egypt’s accidental democracy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bad as things are now, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, despite his dictatorial tendencies, may unwittingly preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Image: al-Sisi's official Facebook page.

In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy. Image: al-Sisi’s official Facebook page.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Egypt is witnessing a new dawn of freedom – at least it is, according to Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. “Our two glorious revolutions have paved the way to an era devoted to strength, not hostility… which defends the rule of law, enhancing the judiciary and security, while maintaining rights and freedoms,” al-Sisi told the jubilant audience at his inaugural address.

So “iconic” is this moment that al-Sisi called on Egyptian artists to create masterpieces that would “travel the world and commemorate all the martyrs”.

So what is this unique model that will honour the sacrifices of all those who suffered, and those who paid the ultimate price, over the past three years to build a better, fairer and freer Egypt?

Having analysed his speech and his behaviour to date, the only singular element in al-Sisi’s vision of liberty is that it has our new president at its heart.

In a speech which lasted close to an hour, I only noticed one mention of “democracy”. “You proved that your ability does not stop at toppling tyrannical and failed regimes but you also translated it into a democratic will through the ballot box,” he said.

This, I feel, encapsulates al-Sisi’s attitude towards democracy: the will of the people is welcome as long as it limits itself to giving him a licence to act as he sees fit. In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy.

This was reflected in his populist calls last summer for the public to take to the streets and give him a mandate to fight what he called “terrorism and violence”. He echoed the same sentiment when he rather aloofly told Egyptians before the elections that he expected an 80% turnout – as if he could order citizens to do his bidding, as if they were subordinate soldiers in the military.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has often been compared to Nasser. I have joked that he does share something in common with the legendary Egyptian president: they are the only two Egyptian presidents not named Muhammad.

But in reality there are some likenesses between the two men. In addition to their respective wars on the Muslim Brotherhood and deep suspicion of the Islamist movement, al-Sisi seems to pursue a Nasserist-light conception of freedom.

In rhetoric at least, he focuses a lot on national, social and cultural freedom to the detriment of political and personal freedom. “Egypt must be open in its international relations,” al-Sisi emphasised. “But the era of subordination is over.” To the rest of the region, the president promised that Egypt would regain her status “as an older sister”.

Unlike his Islamist predecessor, al-Sisi praised the role of Egyptian women, albeit to a predominantly middle-aged male audience. “I will do all I can to ensure that [Egyptian women] are represented fairly in the representative councils and in executive positions,” he promised.

But so far this has only been rhetorical, as reflected by his appointment of just four women to his early-worm first government, unchanged from the previous cabinet, drawing criticism from the National Council of Women.

The president also pledged more for the country’s marginalised youth who “lit the fuse of revolution” and for the downtrodden poor who “have endured so much and seen their suffering multiply”.

How al-Sisi intends to square this with his previous statements calling on the poor to tighten their belts further, not to mention his pro-business agenda and his efforts to rehabilitate Egypt’s “patriotic and honourable” businessmen was unclear, especially since he presented no electoral programme during the elections.

Nevertheless, he promised all Egyptians that they would “reap the fruits during this presidential term and we will accomplish the unprecedented”. How? Through vague pledges to invest in industry, tourism and agriculture, as well as renewable energy. Though I think that his pledge to install energy-saving bulbs in every home is unambitious – he should work to place solar boilers on every roof.

Perhaps through mass philanthropy? Hoping to lead by example, the president pledge to give away half his salary and half his wealth to Egypt and called on others to follow his example. Whether many will take up his call remains to be seen. But a more effective mechanism would be to pursue, rather than rehabilitate, all those corrupt tycoons, and put in place a fair and effective tax system.

His recent pormises go contrary to his previous efforts to lower expectations of what can be achieved to avoid the pitfall into which his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, fell by promising change within 100 days.

And it is likely to prove an equally poisonous chalice, especially when Egyptians discover no meaningful alteration to their well-being, coupled with the expected return of the disgraced Mubarak business elite.

But al-Sisi has an ace up his sleeve: the national security card. “There will be no co-operation with and no appeasement of those who wish to undermine the state’s prestige,” he vowed. “And the near future will witness the Egyptian state regaining its prestige.”

And this week’s multiple attacks on the metro, which killed one, is not only a worrying portent but can provide the regime with the opportunity to crack down even more heavily.

“I will not permit the emergence of a parallel leadership to rival the state. There will not be a second leadership. There will be only one leadership,” he warned ominously later in the speech, for good measure.

Ostensibly, al-Sisi possesses the tools to make this no idle threat, as already demonstrated when he ran Egypt from the background as its uncrowned king. The new president exercises apparent control over both the military and civilian arms of the state, and has tamed much of the mainstream media to his will – and so it would be natural to expect him to consolidate his grip to such an extent that he could become an elected dictator for life.

But counterintuitive as it may sound, al-Sisi may, despite his dictatorial tendencies, unwittingly and inadvertently preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Although a snap public holiday and a third day of voting were announced to mobilise the vote, not to mention the hysteria in the visual media urging citizens to exercise their democratic duty, the turnout remained relatively low.

This has given the new president a much lower mandate than he had hoped for. More importantly, the decision of millions of voters to stay home and not join in the love fest has punctured his image as the popular saviour the Egyptian masses were awaiting.

This weak support base – which is bound to get weaker when his well-oiled propaganda machine is no longer able to counter the reality of his probable failure to resolve Egypt’s myriad problems and the vested interests his regime is likely to serve – is likely embolden his critics, activists and even the currently docile mainstream media.

This week’s ludicurous verdict in the Al Jazeera trial, based on non-existent evidence, is extremely troubling. But if it’s intention was to cow the media and critics of the regime, the effectiveness of this kind of extremely punitive exercise seems to have succumbed to the law of diminishing marginal returns.

While the pro-Sisi fan club in the visual media cheered on, the print and alternative media, as well as Egypt’s courageous human rights activists, refused to be intimidated and took a more critical position, with some journalists lamenting the degeneration of the country’s once-respected judiciary, while veteran human rights activist Negad Borai condemned the judiciary for losing its sense of “justice, consicence and humanity“.

Rather than be cowed, social media has been swept by a tidal wave of contempt and satire, with every action, remark made and idea fielded by al-Sisi mocked mercilessly. If al-Sisi hoped to restore the state’s “prestige” and “aura” through his person, then he is far from declaring mission accomplished.

This refusal by growing numbers to tow the party line leaves al-Sisi with some stark choices. One option would be to muster what is left of the might of a state massively weakened by more than three years of revolutionary upheaval and decades of mismanagement to brutally repress dissent. But with the state already in top gear when it comes to repression and brutality, this is an unsustainable path, and could push the country off the cliff into a millions-strong uprising or, worst, open warfare.

The other choice is to be pragmatic and to learn the art of political compromise and consensus politics. The state is showing some early, tentative signs of pursuing this path. If al-Sisi chooses this path – which I hope, for the sake of Egypt, he will – he may still, whether or not he intends it, find himself going down in history as the harbinger of Egyptian democracy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Daily News Egypton 21 June 2014.

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Egypt’s next president is a… Jew?!

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 12 May 2014

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

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

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

[YouTube:”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2Y-dF7YKxw”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, does anyone believe this patent, counterhistorical nonsense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 May 2014.

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Egypt’s return of the “noble” outlaws

 
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By Bel Trew and Osama Diab

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

Wednesday 19 February 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 25 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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The square root of the Egyptian revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

25 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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My enemy’s friend is… my ally

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 20th January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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