Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

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

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, 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, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. 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.

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The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Hypocrisy and the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

In their reactions to Donald Trump’s hypocritical Jerusalem declaration, many Arab and Muslims leaders have exhibited their own grotesque double standards.

At the behest of the Turkish president, Islamic leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit to denounce Trump’s declaration.
Source: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Twitter account

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Exercising his peerless talent to make enemies and infuriate people, Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there changes nothing on the ground – except perhaps highlighting the extent of American hypocrisy and how Washington was never an impartial broker.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a city of enormous symbolic significance, not just to Jews and westerners but also to Arab Muslims and Christians, and the Palestinian struggle has been at the heart of Arab and Muslim consciousness for generations.

This partly explains why a merely symbolic announcement from Trump has triggered such angry reactions both in Arab corridors of power and on the streets. Another factor is the need to forge a semblance of unity in this bitterly divided region.

Arab League foreign ministers warned that Trump’s move “deepens tension, ignites anger and threatens to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” as though it was not already mired in both.

In keeping with the League’s track record of futile, toothless endeavours, the ministers said they would seek a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s move, as though the US was not a veto-wielding permanent member.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, urged the Arab world to adopt economic sanctions against the United States. While Bassil was outspoken in his defence of Palestine, his position towards Palestinians is a different matter.

The foreign minister has previously stirred controversy with his opposition to the naturalisation of not only the recently arrived Syrian refugees but also the Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades. Bassil is even against allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children if they are married to a Palestinian or a Syrian.

While Bassil is an extreme and bigoted example, loving Palestine but disliking the Palestinians is a fairly common dissonance in Lebanon. This is reflected in how angry protesters clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Beirut, with some denouncing the US as the “enemy of Palestine”.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees call Lebanon home, many of whom live in poverty and socio-economic marginalisation, excluded from numerous professions, in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, including the infamous Shatila in southern Beirut.

Of course, Lebanon has been a frontline state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has integrated some Palestinians and its failure to integrate the remainder partly rests on the fear of what this would do to the country’s delicate balance of power, which dangerously and precariously hinges on a sectarian fulcrum. Some Lebanese are opposed to the integration of Palestinians on the grounds that this keeps the Palestinian cause alive, even if it exacts a heavy human cost.

At a rally in Beirut last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking by video link, urged Palestinians to rise up against Israel and vowed that “Jerusalem and Palestine and the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in all its factions” would become his group’s top priority.

One wonders why the Palestinians of Syria were not a priority for Nasrallah, whose militia has been actively supporting the Assad regime in its destruction of Syria, including Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, upon which the regime and its allies have inflicted a cruel siege and fought a number of battles.

Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to lead Islamic efforts to resist the US move, even hosting a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to prove his point. Calling Israel a “child-murderer state”, Erdoğan pledged to “continue our struggle within law and democracy… Our road map will show that it will not be easy for them to realize their plans.” What Erdoğan failed to mention is that he has almost destroyed Turkey’s democracy and undermined the rule of law through a systematic campaign to jail journalists and critics and to purge the state of opponents and enemies, both real and perceived.

After the summit, Erdoğan pledged to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. However, he built a cunning escape hatch into his plan by claiming that he could not, for now, open this embassy, because East Jerusalem is under occupation. This sounds like low-risk grandstanding to me, as Turkey already has a consulate in Sheikh Jarrah. He could declare that the embassy, if he really wanted, and hang a sign outside, even if it pissed off the Israelis or led to the Israeli taking action against the consulate-cum-embassy.

The reason Erdoğan talks the walk but does not walk the talk is because of all the Turkish interests at stake. What is also absent from Erdoğan’s inflammatory remarks is that, increasingly isolated like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, he ratified a lucrative reconciliation deal last year with Israel, the country he accused of infanticide.

While Turkey has longstanding official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which severely reprimanded Egypt for its peace deal with Israel and ostensibly upholds the Arab boycott of Israel, is seeking closer ties, not to work towards peace and reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to build a mutual alliance against Iran, Riyadh’s belligerent regional rival.

Regardless of which side of the Gulf spat they stand on, much of the Gulf Co-operation Council has been hungrily eyeing Israeli technology, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all finding covert paths, via middle countries, through which to import Israeli products, including military ones.

This, along with Saudi Arabia’s hatred of Hamas and murderous starvation of Yemen, could explain the muted reaction from Riyadh compared with other Arab and Muslim capitals. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to build an axis of autocrats with wannabe dictator Donald Trump in Washington.

Egypt’s reaction has also been fairly reserved. This is partly because of the mutual appreciation society President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi enjoys with Donald Trump, and partly because Egypt has an ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians.

On the one hand, the Egyptian regime has helped Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing mostly closed and has stoked hatred and fear towards Hamas. On the other hand, Egypt has been a central mediator, though hardly an unbiased broker, in intra-Palestinian efforts to mend bridges, helping clinch the recent reconciliation accord between Fatah and Hamas.

Beyond the regimes, on the street, where outrage is generally more genuine, much of the anger has been on behalf of stones and symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, and has featured a troubling element of religious bigotry.

Over and above the chanting of tired and outdated slogans, there has been little in the way of creative new approaches to break the deadlock and support the Palestinians.

____

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in German in Die Zeit on 14 December 2017.

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From Gaza’s sinking boat to the Tahini Sea

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gazans Amer and Saleh felt “condemned to failure”, so they decided to escape to Europe. Sadly, their aborted endeavour ended in narrowly averted death.

In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this  maximum-security prison. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this maximum-security prison.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Amer and Saleh have been inseparable friends since childhood, so it was only natural that when Amer decided to escape the destitution and despair of Gaza for the promised continent of Europe Saleh would join him. The two young men narrowly avoided death on the Mediterranean, only to be spent a stint in Egyptian prison before being deported back to Gaza, where they pass the days broke, in debt and without hope.

How did you come up with the idea of smuggling yourselves out of Gaza and into Europe?

Amer: It was my idea – after I had looked a lot for legitimate ways to get out of the country.

What made you want to leave the country?

Amer: I finished university, business management. There’s no work and, you know, there’s the blockade and all the problems we’re in. Even unemployment benefits, when we go to apply for them, you only receive benefits for three months every five years. The benefits are from UNRWA and the government.

I thought a lot about starting a small business, like a mini-market. But, no, there are no successful business in this place. There’s no capital. And if you open up a mini-market and want to sell, who are you going to sell to? Workers. But the workers have no work. There’s no cement or supplies. All this makes a difference.

There’s a shortage of goods and prices are high. So, there was no room to do anything. I had a small amount of money. I was looking for a Schengen visa or something to get me out of here, and then apply for asylum in Sweden or Norway. But you need powerful connections to get a visa.

There are no embassies in Gaza and you need a permit to get out. This made it impossible. At the same time, my family would suggest that I get engaged or married. But how am I supposed to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage? My father works but his income is modest… My father works to feed us, and that’s all he can afford.

Saleh: My background is almost the same as Amer’s. Amer thought about opening a small business and opened a mini-market. I thought the same, and opened one up too. My shop is still open but life is horrid. There is no life; people are not living.

Having a business is useless. You end up in debt to suppliers and merchants, and your customers are in debt to you. People owe you money but you can’t collect it because they don’t have it. People in the camps have very low incomes and a lot of needs. They’re the living dead. The only thing that is sheltering their dignities are the walls around them. And many people don’t have that. Since the war, many are still stuck in tents.

There’s no cement to build and, even if there was, there’s no money for them to even think about reconstructing. Someone’s home was bombed because his son ran out on to the street or was wearing a black shirt – you know, for petty reasons. But his house vanished and now he’s on the street, without an income or family.

Once you came up with the idea of fleeing, how did you research it?

Saleh: We asked around a lot. We spoke to people who had gone or had tried.

Amer: We’d been monitoring this for some time on the internet and other sources.

How did you determine the credibility of a particular smuggler?

Amer: We investigated who succeeded and asked people who have tried. What motivated us to find the money and pay it in total confidence was that an earlier boat made it. This gave us extra impetus.

Were you not afraid to lose the cash you’d raised?

Amer: Like I said, the fact that a ship made it before, motivated us to the extent that we were willing to get into debt to go. I borrowed some money from my father and my maternal uncle. I only had $500 saved up. My mother had a ring which she sold.

How much did it cost you in total?

Amer: $3,500 each. You go from here to Alexandria and from Alexandria to Italy. In Rafah, I paid $2,000. The local smugglers here delivered us to the smugglers in Egypt. In Egypt, they requested the rest of the amount.

Why is it more expensive to get out of Gaza, then to go through Egypt and onwards to Italy?

Amer: I didn’t leave officially. I went through a tunnel. I escaped at the end of the tunnel era, in August of last year. I wanted to go from Gaza to Egypt officially, without paying the $2,000 and then find me a smuggler in Egypt. But the coordination fees for leaving officially were about $1,700 and they also asked for a bank transfer, so I put my trust in God and went for the more guaranteed option.

At the time, there were still a few tunnels that had not been destroyed. I crossed through a tunnel between Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah. Then, some people picked us up and took us by bus to Arish. We were a mess after the tunnel and so we looked like farmers. We also left at 5am, so there was no-one about. I saw nobody on the road to Arish. They would sometimes go off-road or into the desert to avoid police checkpoints. They knew all the alternative routes. We arrived in Arish and the smuggler rented a chalet for the 12 of us. We faced our first problem. We had an agreement that the $3,500 also included food and drink, everything. We were surprised when we were told that we’d have to pay for food and drink.

When we were in Gaza, the smuggler gave us the impression that Italy was only a few short miles away. The advantages they promised us decreased constantly. But I only had $200 in my pocket which were supposed to last me till I reached Italy, where I would find a solution.

We faced some complications. We spent three days in Alexandria and a day on a farm in Rashid. It was really messed up. It was our first time in Egypt.

We went down to the beach in Alexandria at about 3am. There were about 300 of us. It was two loads. There were people from Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Djibouti and Iraq. We were taken from one boat to another in the middle of the water, until we reached the larger craft that was supposed to take us to Italy. But it didn’t take us to Italy. We reached about half way through Egypt’s territorial waters when we were intercepted by an Egyptian vessel.

Saleh: We were only an hour and a half away from international waters.

Amer: We were transferred to prison, where we spent about 23 days.

Saleh: The boat we were in was stopped, but the other one managed to get away and sank. We learnt about it in prison.

Amer: There were two ships due to depart, a few days apart. Some of our friends got on the first ship. We were about to board the first boat, when they told us that it was full. We were upset about this. We were sent back and told to wait for the second ship.

It was a stroke of fate. I thanked God that I didn’t board it.

Saleh: When I found out, I prayed out of gratitude.

But we mourned the loss of some of our friends who were onboard. We had some friends from Egypt who were fleeing conscription. Reading the names of those who drowned was really hard. It was a shock to us in prison.

Although it sank before we departed, the smugglers didn’t inform us. They claimed that it had arrived in Italy and the young people were happy and enjoying themselves.

Do you recall the dates?

The first ship was on 7 September 2014 and we departed on about 11 September. We then spent 23 days in prison and were transferred to Arish.

How were you treated in prison?

You might know what Egyptian prisons are like. I’ve never been to prison in Gaza. See my misfortune: I go to jail in Egypt. They treated us like dirt. They didn’t hit us but insults can sometimes be worse than being struck. They used the vilest language against us and were very harsh.

We had to survive on cheese triangles and dry bread. After three days, the Palestinian embassy arrived and began to send us food. They began to punish us in other ways, like depriving us of the toilets.

To be honest, the Palestinian embassy did what it could but it had no power to do anything except arrange our meals and deportation back to Gaza. My family thought that the ship we were on was the one that had sunk. It was like a wake at home. They were weeping for us.

It’s weird that we were held for 23 days. Every day, they told us that we would be transferred to the public prosecutor and from there deported. The embassy did its best to expedite our deportation. But there were those without passports or identity documents. I had a temporary passport. That was one reason for the delay. Another was stubbornness from the officers because we were Palestinians. But there were some officers who were sympathetic. Some were upset for us and came to soothe us with some kind words. But the majority were unkind.

We dealt both with the army and the police. The army captured us first and their treatment was a lot more refined. They told us to be patient and expressed understanding that our circumstances were tough. Even the general came to speak with us, and arranged meals for us. The army made us feel we were humans. The police treated us like animals.

How did your families react when they saw you?

They organised a huge party and my father slaughtered a sheep. The debt and money lost were not important. They believed their son was dead and suddenly they find him alive.

Had they not tried to stop you?

Yes, they had tried to stop us from leaving. They told us it was dangerous. But we had insisted. Like I said before, the smugglers had led us to think that Italy was a short hop away and that everything was arranged and would run smoothly. They persuaded us that we would ride on a seaworthy ship where we would have space to sit and we’d receive decent food. They turned the sea into tehina for us [They promised us the moon].

And do you still have the debt you clocked up to pay for the trip?

I haven’t repaid a penny of it. The people we owe money to are understanding. They’re in the same boat as we are. Some were waiting to see if my journey went well, they would then send their own children.

I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs.

How do you feel now that you’ve been home for several months?

We feel down.

Saleh: Our troubles have been doubled.

You fled shortly after the war. Did the war influence your decision?

Amer: Of course. Every couple of years, you face a war. Every year, you’re at risk of death. Death is inevitable. But for you to wait for death, then you live in terror. For you to sit and wait for death, that is incredibly hard.

Saleh: Every home in Gaza, has someone who died, was injured or imprisoned.

Amer: This is no life. You’re not married. You don’t have work. In short, why are you alive? This led us to the conclusion that we have to emigrate. But after we were deported from Egypt, our passports were cancelled and we’re not allowed to apply for another passport for five years, we don’t know what to do.

And were the authorities here sympathetic?

Saleh: Yes, they know well the predicament we’re in. They are here and live with us, and they can see how horrendous conditions are. They say, if you can get out, then good luck.

How do you look to the future?

We don’t look to the future at all.

Amer: When I was younger, at school, people used to ask, what do you want to be when you grow up, an engineer or a doctor? Believe me, I swear, I don’t recall what I wanted to become. Either I forgot or I never thought about it. Why? From when I was a child, I could see my older siblings who were graduates and unemployed.

Today, I’m looking for a craft to complement my education but my family forced me to finish my education and didn’t deprive me of the opportunity. Even if it would put them into debt, I had to get an education.

But I wanted to learn a craft so that I can find something to do in life. I see jobs around me require connections. Everything requires string pulling in this society, and businesses are failing. Nothing is working.

Saleh: We live every day as it comes.

Amer: We’re nearly 25 and we still get pocket money from our families. How much longer must my dad support me? My father is approaching 60. One day we all have to die. My brother has his own kids whom he can barely feed. Is he going to feed me too? We’re leaving it to God.

Saleh: We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time. Dealing with others brings problems. I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here. We all want to work, we want money, we want, we want, we want. If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.

Has this increased the level of violence between young people?

Amer: Of course. There are tonnes of fights. No-one feels for you, unless they’re like you. For example, we’ve been friends for 14 or 15 years and we’ve never had a fight or insulted each other. Why? Because we’re of the same clay. His problem is my problem. When I started a project, he started a project. When I failed, he failed. When I travelled, he travelled. When I was deported, so was he.

Saleh: We’re together for the sweet and the bitter.

Amer: But when you meet someone who’s better off than you and brings you to a restaurant like this, it can be embarrassing. Now, I limit my circle of friends to avoid embarrassment. It’s rare to find a posh person who doesn’t look down on you.

Getting started is what’s tough. I wish someone would just put me on the start of the path, so that I can find my way. But you are condemned to be a failure before you can even start. And this is our problem: we have no starting point. This is not just our problem, it’s the problem of the majority of young people.

 

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One year on: Gazans feel the pain of being abandoned by Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although the Israeli siege of Gaza hurts more materially, the Egyptian blockade is more painful emotionally. It is also counterproductive.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 July 2015

With all the paranoia and distrust in the air, many fellow Egyptians may well declare me temporarily insane for having ventured into the Gaza Strip, which I visited late last month. The Palestinian enclave is depicted by influential segments of the Egyptian media as a hornet’s nest of terrorism and anti-Egypt sentiment.

But I’d like to reassure my compatriots that they can breathe a sigh of relief. This born and (partially) bred Egyptian made it in and out of Gaza in one piece, and has emerged – after seeing the destitution, destruction and psychological ruin there – more convinced than ever that the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt must end.

In case any readers assume that I’m pro-Hamas or even pro-Muslim Brotherhood, let me make it clear from the outset that I am a committed secularist and a robust critic of Islamism and religious fundamentalism in all its forms. But as a rationalist, I take an evidence-based approach to reality. This means that I don’t buy the popular conspiracy theories in Egypt about Gaza.

With a straight face, Egypt’s pro-military media has been spreading numerous myths. These include reports that Hamas is behind the Sinai insurgency; that it aided and abetted Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, including a spectacular prison break involving Mohammed Morsi before he became president; and that the blackouts and petrol shortages afflicting a country of 85 million inhabitants were caused because the Morsi regime supposedly diverted supplies to an impoverished territory of 1.8 million people.

But memories are short. In reality, Morsi was not as sympathetic to Gazans as is widely believed today. He continued his predecessor Hosni Mubarak’s blockade policy, and even destroyed smuggling tunnels and worked to stop the flow of fuel into the Strip. In fact, Morsi was regularly praised in the Israeli press and by politicians, while being attacked by Hamas officials as crueller than Mubarak.

But Gazans are not the type to hold a grudge against Egyptians, regardless of what the Egyptian government does or doesn’t do.

Although I was not afraid to enter Gaza, I was somewhat apprehensive about what kind of reception I would get from a population that had suffered so much under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. But despite the criticism of Egypt I heard from pretty much everyone I met in Gaza, I was still the recipient of Gazans’ famed hospitality and generosity – and I got to hear their nostalgic memories of the days when no border existed between Egypt and Gaza.

People in Gaza are generally bewildered and hurt by Egypt’s participation in the blockade and the smears against them in the Egyptian media, which they feel adds political insult to the injury of living under siege. “Why is Egypt doing this to us?” was a common question I heard, and I had many long discussions on the subject.

Despite the hardship caused by Israel’s wartime destruction of lives and property, as well as its land and sea blockade, Gazans tend to find Egypt’s blockade more emotionally painful because they view Egypt as a traditional and staunch ally. “We regard Egyptians as our brothers, and we share a long history together,” one older, secular Gazan told me. “But Egyptians now regard us as Muslim Brotherhood.”

“For most people, their only exit is the Rafah crossing,” the deputy foreign minister of Hamas, Ghazi Hamad, told me. “When Egypt closes it, the Gaza Strip becomes a giant prison. It’s like a cage.”

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In Palestinian Rafah, from the rooftop of a destroyed building near the crossing, which has mostly been shut tight since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, Egyptian Rafah – with its newly leveled “buffer zone” – is visible mockingly in the distance, with its broken promise of relief and escape. Meanwhile, the network of tunnels that had provided just such relief and escape, as well as contraband weapons, lies collapsed under the ground.

By coincidence, the Rafah crossing was open during my visit, but only for three days and only for those coming from Egypt into Gaza. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 people were registered on a Hamas waiting list to go abroad, including the sick and wounded, and those with work or family commitments abroad; thousands more wait in the wings. “We have wounded people who have died because they couldn’t get out from either Erez or Rafah to receive treatment,” Hamad told me told me. “You also have people who have lost their university placements.”

I met one of these academics, who returned to Gaza after last summer’s war to check on his family and take them with him to Malaysia, where he planned to complete his doctorate in English literature. “The plan was to spend two or three months in Gaza, but almost nine months later, I am stuck and can’t leave,” he told me at a beachside cafe, the frustration of limbo visible on his face. “If I had stayed, I could have finished my Ph.D. by now.”

“Egypt has to open Rafah, not as charity, but as a duty towards fellow human beings,” he added.

Beyond the humanitarian imperative, opening up Rafah has important geo-strategic benefits for Egypt. It is not in Egypt’s self-interest to have an island of suffering and seething frustration on the border of the already restive Sinai region. In 2008, hundreds of thousands of Gazans breached the wall and entered Sinai. That time, they went shopping and peacefully returned to their homes. With the multiplied level of destitution, next time something like this happens, they may refuse to return.

But Egypt shouldn’t view Gaza solely as a threat. Opportunities abound: Gaza’s presence on its doorstep can actually help reduce the restiveness in Sinai by giving residents of the economically challenged peninsula a nearby export market.

Moreover, though nearly 170 times the size of Gaza, the sparsely populated Sinai is home to a third of the Palestinian enclave’s population. An open economic area between the two could be a win-win for both sides.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 June 2015.

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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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Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

In order bring a halt to the multiplying human tragedy in Gaza, the Arab League should convene an emergency summit there. 

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Monday 21 July 2014

Sunday was the bloodiest day of fighting since Israel lauched what it calls Operation Protective Edge. In almost two week, some 375 Palestinians, including 270 civilians, and 20 Israeli, including 2 civilians, have been killed, according to the United Nations.

The Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby described Israel’s shelling of the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza which killed at least 62 Palestinians on Sunday as a “war crime“. Despite this, the League has done precious little to intervene, beyond holding a foreign ministers meeting last week and urging international protection for Gaza’s civilians.

Well, this is just where our fine Arab leaders can really throw their weight and show us their mettle by acting as human shields.

Instead of foreign ministers meeting to discuss Gaza in Cairo, the Arab League’s heads of state and government should gather in Gaza itself in what would certainly constitute an “extraordinary session” in both word and deed.

Like the courageous international activists holed up in a Gaza hospital to protect it against planned Israeli airstrikes, Arab leaders can become a highly potent and symbolic human shield to protect the vulnerable and captive population of Gaza.

Just picture the scene. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the two King Abdullahs and other Arab leaders pass through the hermetically sealed Rafah crossing in a long and snaking motorcade which is met by a weary but relieved crowd pleased that the Arab world has finally showed its solidarity with them in such a high-profile manner.

In a show of sympathy with the suffering population, they could also visit hospitals, destroyed homes and grieving families. This would not only win them plaudits in Palestinian circles but also with their own publics at home.

The deployment of such a top-level Arab peace corps would almost certainly bring about a ceasefire, as the possible death of a president or monarch would constitute too great a risk for Israel, which wouldn’t want to widen the scope of the conflict. As for Hamas, it would, after such a spectacular gesture, want to keep fellow Arab leaders on side as it seeks to emerge from its international and regional isolation.

On the Gazan-Israeli front, which is stuck in a short-play time loop that is gradually spiralling towards total disaster, a cessation of hostilities will not be sufficient to stop history from repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.

In Gaza, the assembled Arab leaders with a mandate from the rest of the Arab League should offer to help the UN assemble a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force which would be deployed along all Gaza’s borders. Its mission would be to stop the targeting of civilians, which constitutes a war crime for both sides, albeit of hugely varying magnitudes, since Israel has only had two civilian death so far.

The blue helmets would, first and foremost, protect Gaza’s vulnerable and besieged civilians from the wounding trauma of being trapped and under attack. In addition, the international force would protect the socially marginalised and economically deprived residents of southern Israel from the militant rockets which – though they have caused only a fraction of the deaths and damage that results from Israel’s far superior firepower – nonetheless have resulted in significant fear, especially among children. These civilians deserve to live in security.

More importantly, Gaza needs to emerge from its isolation, which is both inhumane and has caused a humanitarian disaster. At the extraordinary session in Gaza, Egypt should indicate that, for the sake of the people of Gaza and regardless of what Cairo thinks of the Hamas regime, it will unilaterally end its side of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while the Arab league would announce the creation of a special Gaza fund to rebuild the battered strip and its shattered economy. This should be the minimum Arabs aim for, and bringing Gaza into the Arab fold can be achieved without Israel’s acquiescence or co-operation.

Beyond this, the Arab League should demand Israel to follow suit and end its sea and land blockade of Gaza and any future military operations there, in return for guarantees that Gaza-based militants will stop attacks against Israel. The details of such a wide-ranging package can be hammered out in Cairo between representatives of Hamas and Israel, whom, given the hostility between the two sides, can convene separately under Egyptian auspices.

More fundamentally, the League could use this golden and highly symbolic opportunity in Gaza to go over the heads of Israel’s intransigent and extremist government to appeal directly to the Israeli electorate and public by re-floating its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel comprehensive peace in return for a comprehensive settlement.

It is highly improbable that the vision I have outlined here will have many takers or stands much of a chance of success, as there are too many barriers which stand in the way. These include the Israeli government’s intransigence and ultra-nationalism, Hamas’s re-emerging radicalism and traditional rejectionist stance towards peace efforts, despite its indication that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, divisions within Palestinian ranks, despite the recent national unity agreement, and the current turbulent and divided nature of the wider Arab world.

Nevertheless, what I seek to demonstrate with this thought experiment and wishful mental exercise is that, without creative and fundamental solutions to the Gaza question and the wider conflict, history will continue to repeat itself indefinitely, while the human tragedy will multiply and mushroom.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Daily News Egypt on 15 July 2014.

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Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

 
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By Khaled Diab

 It is high time for Israelis and Palestinians – with grassroots support from Egyptians – to unlock their latent people’s power and forge a popular peace.

Monday 15 August 2011

Although it has primarily focused on domestic issues, the Egyptian revolution has sent ripples of hope and shockwaves of fear across the Middle East. Not only has Egypt traditionally been regarded as the unspoken leader of the Arab world, the dramatic exhibition of people power in action has inspired ordinary people everywhere and terrified the region’s fossilised leadership. 

As Egyptians grapple to redefine their relationship with those who govern them, questions are being asked about how the revolution will affect Egypt’s foreign policy. One area of particular interest is how the ‘New Egypt’ will relate to Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. 

Like other political elites across the Middle East, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – including both Fatah and Hamas – have been eyeing the Egyptian revolution with nervousness, because it threatens to upset the status quo on which they depend. But reality is gradually sinking in.

Many questions about the future remain. Can post-revolution Egypt play a more dynamic mediating role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Will Egypt’s cold peace with Israel chill further? Will popular anger at Israel’s occupation spill over into Egypt ‘tearing up’ its peace accord with Israel, as many Israelis fear? Is the enthusiasm of some Palestinians that Egypt’s ’return to dignity’ will help their cause warranted? How will the Egyptian revolution affect Israeli and Palestinian politics and how the two sides relate to each other, and to Egypt?

I will seek to answer these questions, as well as to consider how Egypt can best walk the tight rope of championing the Palestinian cause and nudging Israel towards a just resolution of the conflict, without returning to the ‘bad old days’ of futile belligerence. I will also explore what role the largely uninvolved Egyptian grassroots and civil society can play in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

First, I will consider the Israeli response to the revolution and how the revolution has played out among Israel’s political class, the general public and progressive activists. When the revolution first broke in late January, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and establishment was one of concern and even panic, though ministers and officials were initially ordered not to make any public statements on the issue.

This ‘wait and see’ attitude rapidly shifted when the Mubarak regime looked in real danger of collapsing. Israel’s hard-line prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu even toured Europe and the United States to try to convince Western leaders to prop up the collapsing and corrupt dictator, though he now, at least rhetorically, welcomes the prospect of democracy in Egypt.

So what was behind this diplomatic panic and why was Israel, which describes itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy”, so fearful of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations?

In Israel, like in the United States and some parts of Europe, Mubarak was seen as a ‘benign dictator’ who protected both Western and Israeli interests against the perceived threat of extremist Islamism and kept Israel’s western front, historically the most dangerous, quiet.

In addition, many Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have long been lecturing that the reason that peace has been elusive is not due to the Israeli occupation but to the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Now what if the dawn of Arab democracy arrives and Israel still fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world?

In addition, I suspect that the current extremist Israeli government, despite its rhetoric of wanting peace with the Palestinians if only there were a true “partner for peace”, feared the unknown impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Palestinian question. Would Palestinians follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples of mass protest and disobedience? Would a revolutionary Egypt ratchet up the pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians or, worse, side more clearly and robustly with the Palestinians?

Among the general Israeli public who know little about Egypt and the Arab world, and understand it even less, the experts and officials who lined up to deliver dire warning that Egypt could well become the “next Iran” and tear up the Camp David peace treaty pumped up the fear level among a population which already felt isolated, surrounded and beleaguered.

A typical response was delivered by Israel’s president Shimon Peres in February. Expressing his feeling that Mubarak’s “contribution to peace will never be forgotten”, he warned that “”Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace.” 

At the time, I wrote that such fears were unfounded: that Egypt was no Iran and that the country was unlikely to renege on its peace treaty with Israel, though, given the plight of the Palestinians, “this probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier”. 

Since then, events seem to have largely confirmed my analysis. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force in the post-revolutionary landscape, it is by no means the only show in town, despite backroom deals between its leadership and the army’s top brass. In fact, a July poll showed that the Ikhwan’s approval rating stood at only around 17%.

In addition, now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism. Despite its official opposition to peace with Israel and its call for the Camp David agreement to be reviewed, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be up to “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”. 

And it appears that most Egyptians desire peace. Two recent polls (here and here) showed that, in addition to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of maintaining the peace deal with Israel. 

But it would be a mistake to think that the Egyptian revolution lacks support in Israel. Not only have some in the liberal and progressive end of the Israeli media spectrum expressed support for the revolution, a number of voices in its more conservative reaches have also publicised their backing. 

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastised Israel’s former deputy prime minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for expressing admiration for Mubarak. “The unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget,” he wrote.

More importantly, the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general enjoy a surprising amount of grassroots support in Israel, especially among the young and liberal, with various groups releasing songs and letters of support. I have personally encountered numerous Israelis who wax enthusiastic about it. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement,” he added.

As if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. Moreover, the protests provide a perhaps unprecedented opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians (both Israelis citizens and those in the West Bank and Gaza) to rally around a common issue – housing shortages – that affect them all.

Although the protests have so far remained apolitical, more and more Israelis are connecting the housing crisis within Israel to the generous state subsidies lavished on West Bank settlements and the high cost of maintaining the occupation.

By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together,” Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation,” they went on to caution. 

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

Palestinian reactions to the Egyptian revolution have been complex and divided, both at the official and popular level. Fatah, which received a lot of backing from the Egyptian regime, tried to walk the tight rope of supporting both Mubarak and the “legitimate demands” of the people. 

“We hope that Egypt manages to overcome this crisis while preserving its achievements and meeting the legitimate demands for democracy, political reform, and popular participation,” was Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reaction in early February, according to the al-Ayyam newspaper.

 The extremist Islamist group Hamas, too, has been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution. Although Hamas despised the former Egyptian regime’s hostility to the movement and Egypt’s collaboration in the blockade of Gaza, the secular nature of the youth spearheading the revolution and the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood worried the Islamic movement. In addition, like the PA, Hamas also benefits from the status quo and has entertained fears that the Egyptian people’s example might inspire Gazans to rise up against Hamas and its increasingly repressive rule.

 Hamas witnessed an inkling of this possibility when a Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ in Gaza against the Islamist movement attracted 10,000 members within only three days, despite the intermittent power cuts and relatively low internet penetration in the Strip.

This might explain why both Hamas and the PA suppressed, in the early days of the revolution, rallies in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

However, at the grassroots level, the majority of Palestinians seem to feel solidarity with their Egyptian neighbours. Ever since I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, most Palestinians I have encountered have reacted very positively to the Egyptian revolution. Everywhere I go, I receive warm congratulations as if I was the father or the midwife of the uprising!

While out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their demoralising plight to enthuse about the achievements of the Egyptian people. “You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me, in a typical reaction.

Even in the more glitzy surroundings of a luxury hotel in Ramallah, at an official celebration of the 23 July revolution hosted by the Egyptian consulate, Salam Fayyad launched into rhetorical acrobatics to pay tribute to both the 1952 and 2011 revolutions, even though the latter only came about because the earlier failed to deliver on its promises.

In addition to awakening hopes that the Egyptian revolution will lead Egypt to become more supportive of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the protest movement in Egypt has inspired some dedicated young Palestinian activists, under the umbrella of the so-called March 15 movement, to agitate for change

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

 However, their demands were not wholesale regime change, but reconciliation. “Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” Z, one of the young founders of the movement in Ramallah, explained to me.

That said, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population. “The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

This sense that whatever happens, the Palestinians are screwed might help explain why quite a few Palestinians I meet are despondent about the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution, with some expressing their expectations that Egyptian will revert to dictatorship. A few, probably drawing on their sense of powerlessness, have even expressed their suspicions that the revolution is not an expression of the will of the Egyptian people but a joint CIA-Mossad conspiracy.

Nevertheless, a number of observers believe that the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – despite its clear weaknesses – was partly a sign of the success of the youth protest movement. It was inspired, they say, by the fear that ordinary Palestinians would follow the Tunisian and Egyptian lead and rise up against the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In addition, it has been viewed as an indication of the more robust role post-revolutionary Egypt can play in the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing has been interpreted as an early indication of the New Egypt’s more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Palestinians.

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

We are only a few short weeks away from the moment of truth, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the United Nations and demand the world body’s recognition of Palestine as a state. 

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.”

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant Palestinians the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

And I’m not the only one with misgivings. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist told me: “I think that nothing will really change on the ground.” He added: “I am really afraid of the PA because they will not ask for a full membership of the UN and instead they will go for non-member status which will not help us in this movement but they will sell it to us as a victory.”

The main reason that Palestinians might shy away from demanding full membership is a function of the way the UN operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But if that is the case, it looks like Israel has decided to call their bluff.

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility.

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, including Egypt, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab Spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution. 

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Until now, the impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, a number of positive and negative ramifications can be discerned.

On the negative side, the upheavals in Egypt and other parts of the region connected to the Arab Spring have diverted much of the global interest away from the Palestinians question. It has also enabled Israel to more or less quietly create more ‘facts on the ground’ ahead of the Palestinians plan to go to the UN in September. This can be seen, for instance, in the accelerated rate of evictions, displacements and demolitions in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ of the West Bank this year.

On the positive side, Egypt has already taken some action that was aimed at improving the situation, such as brokering the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and easing restrictions on Gaza. More intangibly, the Egyptian revolution has provided both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership with a taste of what can happen when an unjust and untenable status quo is left to fester unattended for too long.

In the longer term, many commentators have expressed hope that a democratic Egypt can play a more robust and vibrant role as a peace broker and help mediate some form of reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Some more militant and extremist Palestinians hope, and many Israelis fear, that Egypt will become more hostile and belligerent in its support of the Palestinian cause and its opposition to the occupation.

Personally, I don’t expect either outcome is likely. However, a democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood might act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. That said, for many years to come, Egypt will be embroiled primarily in domestic affairs. This includes the construction of a new political system, fixing the economy, addressing inequalities, combating corruption, dealing with sectarian tensions, and more. Moreover, even a democratic Egypt will lack the clout to impose a resolution and Egyptians have learnt through long and bitter experience that belligerence leads nowhere.

So, it would perhaps be a mistake for those Israelis and Palestinians who pine for peace to await an Egyptian saviour. Instead, they should look to the more intangible support that Egypt can provide, namely that they need not await a foreign messiah because their true saviour is within themselves.

Egypt has provided Palestinians and Israelis, long cynical and disillusioned that the powers that be can bring about any meaningful change in their situation, with a dose of much-needed hope and inspiration, especially in their own latent powers as people.

People power: the missing link

I am a strong believer in the idea that ‘people power’ is the missing link in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority of the discourse relating to the conflict focuses on a top-down solutions in which an international broker or brokers bring the two parties together to the negotiating table and lean on them until they kiss and make up and agree to live together happily ever after.

The trouble with this model is that it overlooks the fact that no external mediator enjoys the kind of clout or willpower necessary to push through a resolution. In addition, it ignores the glaring disparities in power between Israelis and Palestinians. It also turns a blind eye to the fractured and divided political landscape on both sides which makes reaching a consensus over the painful realities both sides must accept for the sake of peace a task of Herculean proportions.

This is particularly the case given the decades-long mutual distrust and loathing, which renders the necessary groundswell of popular opinion required to achieve peace impossible to attain.

I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just act as passive by-standers. Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation. And the best way to do this, as the ‘Arab Awakening’ is illustrating, is through mass, peaceful joint activism.

For many years, a minority of activists on both sides have joined forces and found common cause in opposing the occupation, settlement building, the separation wall and home demolitions and evictions. This needs to be stepped up and activists must find creative ways of inspiring the mainstream – they need to make their movement go viral.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, and the current housing protests could be a good foundation upon which to build such a movement.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to overcome their own apathy and passivity and help facilitate and mediate such a ‘people’s peace’. For the sake of peace and the future, Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and act in active and open solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and export the spirit of their revolution to neighours who are in desperate need of it.

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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People of the border

 
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By Osama Diab

Rafah, a city divided between Gaza and Egypt, and between war and peace, prays for the opening of the border crossing.

January 2009

Ambulance workers at the Rafah border crossing. Image © Copyright Osama Diab.

Ambulance workers at the Rafah border crossing. Image © Copyright Osama Diab.

The Rafah border crossing has sparked endless controversy since the start of the Israeli attacks on Gaza on December 27. Egypt’s point-blank refusal to open the border is interpreted by many in the Arab world as a gesture of support for Israel’s war on Gaza, mainly to weaken Hamas, which has ties to Egypt’s outlawed but often tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. The visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni a few hours before the attacks confirmed, in the minds of many, the doubts that Egypt might have been notified, turning scepticism into certainty about Egypt’s position on the war. Demonstrations were held outside Egyptian embassies in almost every Arab capital and many European cities.

The Egyptian government is furious at the accusations and stated that Egypt’s support for the Palestinian cause is indisputable. President Hosni Mubarak says opening the crossing will deepen the divide between Gaza and the West Bank. He also described the opening of the border as an “Israeli trap”, and that once Egypt opened the crossing unconditionally, Israel would go ahead and close its borders with Gaza.

Leaving this political storm behind, I travelled to the border town of Rafah to see for myself what the people who live closest to the crossing, and the war, think about the conflict, and how it affects them. An air of gloom and doom hung over the small town. All the streets leading to the borders were blocked by the army and it seemed that the only people on the streets were there for necessity.

Under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the agreed border separated the then-Israeli occupied Gaza from Egypt by cutting the town of Rafah into two halves. However, both sides of the town still share a lot in common, and many still have extended family on the other side of the border. And with Palestinian kufiyas wrapped around most necks and people speaking a more Palestinian than Egyptian dialect, the people of Egyptian Rafah still share a lot with their Palestinian neighbours, despite the divide.

“What is happening in Gaza is a shame. I can’t describe how I feel, but I always pray for my brothers in Gaza,” said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a shopkeeper in Egyptian Rafah. “The effect of the war on us is dire; the ground shakes under us every time Israel sends a bomb. We are afraid and we feel that death is near.”

The opening of the crossing has economic benefits and brings money into Egyptian Rafah. When Gazans destroyed part of the border wall on January 23, 2008, tens of thousands of people from the Strip flooded into Rafah and the nearby town of Arish to buy supplies that were scarce due to the siege on their city. The hole in the wall meant Gazans could buy up a couple of weeks of supplies and cash for the people of Egyptian Rafah people. It was reported that everything was sold for up to triple its normal market price.

Ayman, our driver in Rafah, described it best when he said that the government should open the border because the Gazans desperately need supplies and Rafah’s people are desperate for money. Moreover, with the border open permanently, this kind of profiteering could be eliminated, enabling Gazans to get their supplies at decent prices and generating a constant stream of business for locals in Rafah.

The general fear that if the border is open, Gazans, out of desperation, will flood into Sinai and sound the death knell for the Strip. The Egyptians of Rafah and Arish disagree and believe that Gazans will get what they need and head back to their homes because they do not want to leave Palestine and their land. “Gazans are attached to their land and don’t want to leave Palestine. If they had the intention to leave, they would’ve done so a long time ago,” argues Abdel-Hamid.

It seems that the people of the border are more relaxed than the Egyptian government about opening the crossing. They are convinced it won’t have the serious consequences Cairo claims and fears. Egyptian officials may be project on the Gazans what they would do if they were in their shoes. Most would think, and no one would blame them, that it is wise to escape the violence that has already claimed more than 800 Gazan lives, but this is not necessarily how people who have fought a lifetime for their land behave.

Since opening the border can save the lives of hundreds of women and children by letting people temporarily out of the war zone and letting doctors in, and since the people who are going to be directly affected by it on the Egyptian side are actually calling for it, why not just open it up?

Egypt’s position on this war is very similar to its position on the Lebanon war two years ago, when Mubarak called Hizbullah’s action an “adventure”, accusing the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah of dragging his whole nation into war. History is repeating itself and Mubarak is also accusing Hamas of being adventurous and dragging Gaza into war. Blaming the war entirely on Hamas is an opinion only shared by Mubarak, Bush and Israeli politicians. It makes a lot of sense, since Egypt’s leadership, the US and Israel share the same enemy, militant Islamic groups.

My argument has always been that Islamic groups are hindering political reform in Egypt because their presence is used by secular regimes as an excuse to become more oppressive. But what the United States, Egypt and Israel are doing is creating unprecedented support for these groups on the Egyptian street, which will only lead to more political complexity and turmoil. Egypt’s regime should offer a viable alternative to what Hamas and Hizbullah offer, and a good move will be opening the crossing to reduce the effect of the war and siege on Gaza.

© Copyright Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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