Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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David Miliband: revolution v extremism

 
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By Osama Diab

Britain’s former foreign minister David Miliband has high hopes for the Arab revolutions.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

David Miliband is not just the former British foreign minister, but is also a man who is genuinely interested and highly opinionated on issues relating to terrorism, political Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab revolts. As Britain’s foreign secretary at just 41, Miliband has been a strong critic of the so-called War on Terror and also called for a “coalition of consent” with the “Muslim World” in which Britain’s foreign policy should focus on building relations with Muslim societies, rather than with regimes that are unpopular among their people.

He has also been a strong advocate of a Palestinian state and listed “Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders” as one of the prerequisites to peace in the Middle East in 2009, during his time as the man in charge of Britain’s international relations.

From his office overlooking the nearly thousand-year-old Palace of Westminster, I tried to gauge as much as I could David Miliband’s opinions on the major issues facing the world today.

Knowing that my time in his office was limited, I was prepared for the interview to be short, possibly cold and to the point, without taking offence. However, Miliband unexpectedly started by jokingly requesting to be asked a question about Ahmed al-Muhammadi, an Egyptian footballer recently signed by Sunderland Football Club, which Miliband vice chairs. Even though his joke took a few minutes of the time I was allocated, it gave a much-needed charm ahead of the yet-to-be-discussed critical issues related to the emergence of Arab democracy, Arab revolts and how it might impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the decade following the 9/11 attacks.

The world 10 years after 9/11

You famously said before that there are circumstance in which terrorism is justifiable, what, in your opinion, are these circumstances?

DM: That isn’t quite right. I was asked whether the actions of the African National Congress in the 1970s and 1980s should be denounced as terrible acts and I said no because of the political system under which they were living. The question I was asked was specifically about apartheid South Africa.

So if people are denied political avenues, is it justifiable for them to act violently?

DM: I think the classic case for Europeans is always “if you were in France in 1942, would you have joined the French resistance?” and of course the answer is “yes”. But fortunately these circumstances don’t exist very often. I think the non-violence that has marked the Arab revolts has been very powerful.
It’s no secret that the 9/11 attacks did a lot of harm to the Muslim-West relations, and that also includes the relation between Muslim communities in the West and their societies. Ten years after the vicious attacks, does the tension caused by 9/11 still persist?

DM: The attacks on 9/11 were vicious. They killed Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews and people of no denomination. They were an abomination for people of all religions. I think that the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 which is now approaching is an important moment to take stock. I think one of the remarkable things about this country (the United Kingdom), which I know better than others, is that the last 10 years have not seen the tension and the hatred that maybe you are referring to. One of the remarkable things here after the 7 July 2005 bombing in London was to hear Muslim friends of mine say “look, we felt more British after this, not less British.” Now, one mustn’t avert one’s eye from the fact that there are tensions, there can be tensions, but often they exist over housing or economic issues more than international political issues. So I think one needs to be careful in saying that 9/11 was the cause of tension between the West and Muslims and the Arab world.

But the consequences of 9/11 were two wide-scale wars.

DM: A lot of people disagree with Afghanistan and Iraq, and disagreement doesn’t have to mean inter-religious tension as opposed to political debate. I think the prism from which the West is seen in many parts of the Arab world is obviously Israel and Palestine. That was not the justification that was used by al-Qaeda in 9/11, and it was obviously not the motivating factor on the streets of Egypt or the streets of Tunisia or anywhere else.

I think the remarkable thing about the Arab revolts is that they have been driven by domestic concerns. They were driven by the search for dignity and the search for national pride.

I think it’s been a very challenging decade. I call it “a decade of disorder”. But not only because of 9/11. It’s been a decade of financial crisis, it was a decade of shifting economic power between the West and emerging economies. A lot has been going on and I don’t think it’s right to just call it a decade of Muslim-Western tension.

You wrote before that “The call for a ‘war on terror’ was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share.” Was Osama bin Laden that single shared enemy, and what do you make of his killing?

DM: I think the War on Terror was announced after 9/11. It was a concept that went much further than the so-called “Axis of Evil”. I think it was a great mistake because it united a series of grievances under the al-Qaeda banner, which in a way played their game, so I think that the notion of a War on Terror was not well-founded because it aggrandised al-Qaeda in a way that is almost the opposite of what was needed. They were attempting to unite the Muslim world under a single revolutionary banner. The best strategy to take that on would’ve been to fragment and then deal with the concerns individually. I don’t support the notion of a War on Terror. I think that was not sensible. What I support is a notion of a drive against injustice.

In that light, do you consider the killing of Osama bin Laden a victory?

DM: I think the weakening of al-Qaeda, which has been done in a range of ways, some of them militarily but most of them were by Muslims rejecting al-Qaeda, is a very good thing for the whole world.

So do you think the killing of Bin Laden did weaken al-Qaeda?

DM: Yes, I do. I think that he was a symbol as well as a guiding mind, so in balance, of course, it weakens them. I am persuaded by scholars who write in the Arab and Muslim world that certainly after the bombing of a wedding in Jordan in 2005, there’s been a growing rejection of revolutionary jihad in the Muslim world, and an embrace of various forms of political Islam. I think that the notion of a “call to arms” has been rejected in favour of political engagement.

Some of the Arab uprisings were against leaders who were part of the War on Terror, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Abdallah Saleh of Yemen, but some were seen, especially by the West, as helping terrorism, such as Qaddafi and al-Assad. Do you think the “Arab Spring” and challenging Arab dictatorships would help contain extremism or maybe spread it?

DM: I think the first thing to say is that the authors of these revolts are Arabs not Westerners. These are Arab revolts, not Western-inspired or directed revolts. It was a call for personal dignity, a call for personal and national improvement, and in Egypt it was a call to restore national pride in a 6,000-year-old civilisation that seemed to be in decline in the Mubarak years.

So I think the best way to contain extremism is to include people in the political process. What you need is inclusive politics. President Mubarak lost legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. He lost legitimacy because of corruption, kleptocracy, broken promises and a lack of mandate. He lost legitimacy because he wasn’t listening and there seemed to be no national path for Egypt.

There’s no question that his lack of legitimacy corroded the reputation of the West. We were in alliance with someone who in the eyes of his own people had growing disrespect. Violent extremism needs to be taken on politically and in security terms. Societies have to defend themselves against violence, but the best way to do that is in alliance with an open political system.

There is always a fear of instability. But Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, now has a democratic government. Turkey, which is a rising power of 80 million people, has a version of political Islam which I don’t see as a danger to Turkey’s democracy; I actually see it as part of Turkey’s democracy.

People like me mustn’t be naïve and pretend that decades of repression and autocracy are overcome overnight, and that the path to stable orderly democratic rule within international norms is going to be smooth, but I think it is better than the alternative.

Now each country in the Middle East needs to find its own path to legitimate, accountable government and respect for the dignity of people. That does not mean that every country is going to be a liberal democracy overnight, but that is something the countries would have to chart in their own way, and the monarchies in the Arab world are in a different position from the republics. I think a country like Egypt seems to be set on a very clear democratic path even in the medium term. I am confident about that. What I would say to you is that stable democracies are about much more than just votes; they are about independent institutions and civil society: media, judiciary, academia, and business that are able to hold accountable the abuse of power.

What’s your assessment of how disastrous the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were for the UK’s foreign relations with Arab and Muslim countries and what were the challenges the wars raised for you as foreign minister?

DM: There were very profound challenges raised. I think that Britain’s relations with the Arab world was strong and respectful in my period as foreign minister. I think that there’s some shared challenges that we are working on. I think the Afghan war can only be ended by political settlement, and the Arab and the Muslim world need to be part of that.

The uneasy birth of Arab democracy
How is Libya different from Syria in the eyes of the NATO. In other words, why did they choose to interfere in Libya but not Syria, even though civilians are under an equal threat in both countries, if not more so in Syria?

DM: There is a pressing humanitarian need in both countries. But in Libya there was a military option with limited geostrategic dangers, whereas in Syria there isn’t a military option and the geostrategic dangers are high.

You called for the West to adopt a “Coalition of consent” approach with Middle Eastern countries, how would that play out if the people of Egypt, for example, choose to be governed by a form of government that is unpopular in the West, like what happened in Gaza when Hamas was elected in fair elections?

DM: I believe that you live and let live, until the assertion of someone else’s rights interfere with your rights, and that’s true in our personal relations. I respect your rights to live your life in the way you see fit until you try to interfere with my life as I see fit.

What applies to people also applies to nations. Nations should be able to decide how to govern themselves, but there need to be international norms to make sure that the way they [govern themselves] doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights. In a crowded neighbourhood like the Middle East, that is especially important.

What would you have you done differently to the current foreign secretary in relation to the Arab revolutions if they happened during your time as the man in charge of Britain’s foreign policy?

DM: I’m not seeking to make partisan points. But what I think is very important about foreign policy around the world is that it’s multilateral not just bilateral and I think it’s got to be about more than commercial diplomacy; it’s got to be about the full range of political engagement. So I think that’s the sort of foreign policy I would like to run, and that’s the sort of foreign policy I will advocate.

Do you think the war in Libya will be as disastrous and lengthy as Iraq and Afghanistan?

DM: No. I don’t. I think Libya is a very different case. I think stalemate is better than slaughter, but It’s very important that the military arm and the political arm know what the other is doing. The decision of the Arab League to call for intervention in Libya was very significant in the West, but Arab countries need to take responsibility because Gaddafi was a problem for you as well.

Do you think democracy is more sustainable if driven by the people or imposed by foreign powers?

DM: It must be driven by the people. Sustainable solutions are always driven by a sense of ownership that people have of their own lives.

Do you think then the situation in Egypt or Tunisia is more promising than in Iraq?

DM: That’s obviously the case because it’s driven from below and driven by a sense of ownership. I think one has to be respectful of the difficulties that lie ahead. This is a long process not a short process. It involves building durable institutions, such as free media, independent judiciary, etc. I do personally think that next year the economic situation will be very important. Egypt needs productive investment. It needs wealth creation because it’s still got massive inequality – one of the legacies of the Mubarak years. But over the medium term, I am confident that Egypt is a country whose people can make their own way and make a positive contribution both for themselves and the wider Middle East.

Hopes for peace and a Palestinian state
The US threatened that it might stop its funding to the UN if the general assembly voted in favour of a Palestinian state in September. Do you think the US threat is legitimate?

DM: I think the current administration have made good faith attempts to further some shared goals in the Middle East, including a Palestinian state that live alongside Israel. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I think Israel has the right to exist but I think Palestinians also have a right to a state. I think it’s very important for the whole international community to support something like that. So I don’t think that’s a time for talking about retribution, but that’s a time for talking about positive constructive engagement.

How do you think the political changes in the Middle East might affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or peace negotiations?

DM: I think Arab states with democratic mandates will be better able to advocate for the Palestinians. Egypt, as an Arab democracy, will be a far better ally of the Palestinians.

This article first appeared in al-Ahram Online on 22 July 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Ending apartheid in sport

 
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By Khaled Diab

The case of Caster Semenya is not about racism. Rather, it has highlighted the need to end gender apartheid in sport.

 26 August 2009

The jubilant reception and heroine’s welcome Caster Seminya received upon her return to South Africa might provide the unfortunate athlete with some consolation following her humiliating submission to a “gender verification” test following her 800 metres gold medal win at the World Championships in Berlin. 

Personally, I don’t think Semenya’s gender is in question, as she was clearly raised as a woman. If anything is in doubt, it is her sex. I can imagine how difficult it must’ve been for her growing up looking so manly, and the amount of teasing and mockery she may have been exposed. In their bid to rally around her, South Africans made a point of emphasising her gender, calling her our “golden girl” and “Caster, you beaut”. 

Based on tests that revealed that Semenya had three times the amount of testosterone in her body as would normally be expected in a female sample, there are unsubstantiated rumours that she has been taking high dosages of steroids, which could explain her appearance. 

Dubbed “our first lady of sport” by the South African media, her case soon became embroiled with the country’s post-Apartheid politics. Drawing on the legacy of the struggle against Apartheid, Winnie Madikizela, Nelson Mandela’s former wife, said: “We’ve had difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us… because if you dare, we will do it again if those who want to challenge us continue to insult us using our own people.” 

But, in this instance, accusations of racism are unfair, as plenty of white athletes have been made to take sex tests in the past, and track events are dominated by black people. Internationally, the segregation we need to be fighting in sport is gender apartheid. 

Big, powerful women like Semenya have, like men, an unfair physical advantage in women’s events, but what is often overlooked is that petit, slender men have an unfair disadvantage in men’s sport. The solution could be to mix the sexes and introduce some new criteria, such as weight or height, to even out the playing field. Moreover, in some team sports, where physical size is less of an issue, why not introduce mixed teams? 

The main justification for separating the sexes in sport is that men’s larger and stronger bodies give them an unfair advantage. However, it is also a hangover from a bygone age when sports were for men, and the only way for women to get in was to demand their own events. It’s time to rethink our antiquated attitudes to sport. 

 

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