Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

In addition, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or prospects for peace. 

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 25 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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News of revolution (part I): How the nascent print media gave birth to Egyptian nationalism

 
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By Osama Diab

The spread of print media in the 19th century played a profound role in shaping modern Egyptian nationalism and its quest for full independence.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

A page from the revolutionary 19th-century Egyptian newspaper Abu Naddara Zarqa.

From its very inception, modern Egyptian nationalism was defined by its struggle against foreign influence. The Albanian military commander who became the Khedive Muhammad Ali is widely believed to be the founding father of modern Egypt, and also the founder of its bureaucratic establishment, which prompted a growth in the native urban Egyptian middle class, or the “effendis”. The middle class up to this point had largely been confined to Ottomans and Europeans, while the vast majority of native Egyptians focused on farming in this highly agrarian society.

This rise in literacy and the wave of modernisation led to an explosion of print culture, which was also central to Muhammad Ali’s plan. Many newspapers and periodicals were founded in the 19th century. Education and migration from the countryside to urban centres brought Egyptians into contact with Europeans and Ottomans in the workplace and the same neighbourhoods. This made the striking injustice in this ‘caste system’, things such as a separate a judicial system for Europeans known as capitulations, more obvious and glaring by the day.

Adib Ishaq, a Syrian-Christian journalist and writer who lived in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century wrote: “Not a day goes by but we hear that such-and-such Italian or Maltese stabbed an Egyptian national with a dagger. The wounded victim is carried to the hospital,whereas the assailant is delivered to the consulate, and put in a luxurious room where he eats gourmet meals. He is released almost as soon as he arrives.”

The American historian Juan Cole describes Ishaq as one of the first in Egypt to write extensively on ideas of liberalism, constitutional monarchies and democracy, but was never given enough credit for it. “His technical interests as a journalist led him to support freedom of speech and free criticism of government policy. His [Free] Masonic ideals of service to mankind, his vaguely Young Ottoman political culture, and the patronage links he established in Egypt reinforced these interests,” explains Cole.

Cole argues that the rise of ideas about freedom and democracy in Egypt could be traced back to the emergence of cultural salons and political clubs, such as those belonging to the Free Masons (which Ishaq himself belonged too), the Young Egypt and Young Officers movements. All these had a number of goals in common: they strove to bring an end to European hegemony and to reform Egyptian society into one based on the ideals of equality, liberty and democracy.

The development of the print media, postal service, telegraph lines and the extension of the railway network under Khedive Ismail, allowed dissident organisations to recruit and coordinate with members in other cities.

Cole describes print culture as the most significant means of communication between like-minded people who could not meet face to face. This echoes Benedict Anderson’s theory that print-capitalism laid the foundation for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print languages capable of dissemination through the market”. It was easy then to form what Anderson calls the “imagined community”  – a community whose geographical boundaries extend beyond that daily face-to-face interaction of its members – a prerequisite for national consciousness.

The first Egyptian newspaper was published in 1828 during the Muhammad Ali era, although Al-Waqa’e Al-Masreya (Egyptian News) was only circulated among government officials and military officers. In the 1840s, Islamic reformist Rifa’a al-Tahtawi became the newspaper’s editor and used it as a platform for his reformist ideas, which proved so unpopular with the new ruler, Khedive Abbas I, that Tahtawi was exiled to Sudan.

Another major revolutionary publication of the time was Abu Naddara Zarqa (The Man with the Blue Spectacles), which was founded in 1877 by Egyptian Jew and Free Mason Yaqub Sannu. It was a platform for the newly-born Egyptian nationalism and its political cartoons were critical of the political and economic situation of the time. Because it was perceived as too revolutionary, Sannu was, like Tahtawi, also exiled, but this time, to France, in 1878, after publishing 15 issues of the magazine.

Cole wrote that, being a Jew and a Mason, Sannu promoted religious tolerance among Egyptians, but was still willing to use Islamic rhetoric against European exploiters of the country. He continued to produce the magazine from France and the controversial publication was reportedly smuggled into Egypt and widely read despite the ban.

The emergence of an educated middle class with such ideals and the imposition of higher taxes on the peasantry due to Egypt’s financial hardship led to discontent and anger which took the form of continuous protests in 1879 against Khedive Tawfiq. Tawfiq replaced his father, Ismail, who was more of an inspiring and accomplished leader.  Khedive Ismail, who was deposed by the Ottoman Sultan at the insistence of Britain and France, was angry at growing European influence due to Egypt’s inability to repay its debt, and called on Egyptians to rise up against the Europeans.

Led by the legendary Egyptian army general Ahmed Orabi, this uprising drew the support of both the liberal middle-class and the struggling peasantry, and towards its end, Orabi was in complete control of the military, and some argue, the country as a whole.

This struggle against foreign influences and the unjust social reality is believed by many scholars to have marked the beginning of the construction of modern Egyptianism as a cultural and intellectual movement. For a long time prior, Egypt was defined as a state within larger empires and its identity had revolved around its ruling dynasty. For the first time in modern history, Egypt started having a personality independent of its rulers. The Orabi movement led to dramatic changes and promoted ideals which still define Egyptian identity today.

But what defined the first version of Egypt’s modern nationalism? As Cole argues, revolutions against informal empires typically appeal to native symbols, and the most obvious one in the case of the Orabi movement was local religion: Islam. This is why another Western historian Alexander Schölch claimed that the Orabi revolt was not a French secular type of revolution.

It is true that Orabi did not revolt against the religious establishment like the French revolution did, but this could be because the struggle was against a foreign nobility not a local one, as was the case in France. Although Orabi’s Islamic tendencies were unmistakeable and his role in Islamic education in his exile in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is evidence of that, the focus of his discourse was social justice and freedom, and his dichotomy was Egyptians versus foreigners, not Muslims versus Jews or Chrisitians. This is apparent in one of the revolution’s slogans “Egypt for the Egyptians”, which drove people like Ishaq, a Syrian Christian, to abandon the revolution after initially supporting it.

The Orabi movement was so successful that the Khedeivite regime seemed to be on the verge of collapse when Tawfiq escaped to Alexandria and the popularity and power of Orabi was on the rise. However, this all changed when British forces conquered Alexandria to thwart Orabi’s revolutionary project and save Tawfiq Pasha. The British military invasion of 1882 succeeded in defeating the Orabi forces in the famous Elkebir hill battle.

The occupation resulted in Orabi’s exile to Ceylon and the restoration of Khedive Tawfiq as the ruler of Egypt, but, as Egyptian nationalism was largely based on the struggle for independence, the British presence did nothing but boost it.

This is the first part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part II will focus on the role of the media in moulding pan-Arab nationalism and Nasserism.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Why Mubarak shouldn’t stay until September

 
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By Osama Diab

If Mubarak’s security apparatus tightens its grip on power, Egypt will turn into a North Korean-style dictatorship.

9 February 2011

The recent apocalypse-like incidents in Egypt will cast a shadow on the Egyptian people for years to come. The psychological impact of this state of anarchy and lawlessness will change Egyptian identity for ever. The Egypt that existed before 25 January has changed irrevocably.

For the thousands standing in Tahrir Square, the last 10 days were a mixture of peaceful expression, optimism, frustration and fear, of both turning back and what will happen to the country if they give up. Desperate to hold on to nine more months of power, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime showed the world his dark, ruthless capabilities – a brutality long familiar to the Egyptian population – which left behind 300 dead and 5,000 injured in less than two weeks, according to Egyptian ministry of health figures.

The important question now is what Egypt would be like if Mubarak succeeds in tightening his grip on power again, after the most serious challenge to his rule since he took power in 1981.

During his 30 years in power, Mubarak has been known as a benign dictator who has given his people a margin of freedom and expected them in return to be grateful, and careful about misusing it to speak out against him.

In contrast to his fellow dictators in nearby Libya, Syria and Sudan, the president was respected by world leaders for keeping peace with Egypt’s historical enemy, Israel, and sometimes going the extra mile to defend Israel’s interests with even more passion than Israel would show in protecting her own interests. This made him a good friend of the United States. US support of Egypt has, however, been criticised. The US was constantly accused of backing up dictatorships as long as they applied a World Bank economic agenda and were kind to Israel.

This made Mubarak a soft dictator compared to his Arab nationalist, socialist and anti-Western friends in Libya and Syria. His partnership with the United States, as well as Egypt’s increasingly integrated economy, based on a World Bank agenda, forced the regime to carry out some (mostly cosmetic) reforms. Within the narrow margin of liberty allowed by the regime, however, political dissidence grew and voices calling for change and democracy became louder each year. As Mubarak’s promises of reform proved empty, pressure on the US by the Congress and pro-democracy activists increased to stop funding one of the world’s 20 worst dictators.

Political pressure on Washington peaked in the aftermath of the events of 25 January, when President Barack Obama started actively calling for Mubarak to step down. Mubarak’s need for Washington’s support is a major reason why his regime was relatively gentle to his internal opponents or criticism. Now that Cairo and Washington are not the best friends they used to be, there is little incentive to halt the violence and censorship that security forces imposed during the past week. The first sign of this was the regime’s crackdown on foreign journalists, for long believed to be untouchable by the Mubarak regime. The attack on them took place immediately after Obama’s request for Mubarak to step down.

Now Egypt is at an important crossroads. If the revolution succeeds in overthrowing Mubarak, the people of Egypt will be able to orchestrate a peaceful and smooth transformation to a truly democratic political system, including a new civil constitution and locally and internationally monitored free and fair elections. The country will experience the end of emergency rule, and the arrival of a civil, non-theocratic and non-military political system. Of course there will be some hurdles along the way, but Egyptians paid too huge a price in their struggle for democracy, enduring previously unmatched horror for almost two weeks, to give up on it easily. Their new and hard-won democracy will be protected vigilantly by the people to ensure it does not slip into a military or a religious dictatorship.

But if Egyptians fail to remove the Mubarak regime, which seems an increasingly unlikely scenario, it is possible that a North Korean-type dictatorship – or worse – will take hold if the president manages to tighten his grip on power again. This fear is why many protesters do not not trust his promise to step down in September, especially coming from a man who is known to have left a long trail of empty promises behind him.

Always one to learn from his mistakes, Mubarak, it is likely, will disperse even the smallest protests in the future, rooting out any dissent. The operation of foreign media is likely to become tightly controlled by the state. New social media – one of the catalysts for the revolution – will be subject to larger scrutiny, and probably more activists will end up in prison. In short, the ruthlessness of the regime will increase as it stops chasing American approval and financial aid.

This is why many of the brave protesters continue to gather by the millions around Tahrir Square at the heart of the Egyptian capital: the impending so-called chaos that Mubarak warns of if he leaves office is far less harrowing than the restrictions and brutality that await Egyptians if he does not. Unluckily for Mubarak, many of the demonstrators see it as a choice between freedom and the leader rather than chaos and the leader.

The recent developments will affect the country’s collective identity for decades to come. A new Egypt is born, but its features are still undefined. The next few days will decide what Egypt and the region will be like decades from now. Until then, all fingers remain crossed and all eyes remain on Tahrir Square.

This article was first published in The New Statesman on 7 February 2011. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Deserts, desolation and development

 
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Amid the sweltering heat and omnipresent dust, Andrew Eatwell discovers Sudan’s hospitable and friendly face – and its rapidly developing capital.

13 October 2010

“Good luck,” the Egyptian immigration official said with a wry smile as he stamped me out of Egypt at the port in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. I was heading for Sudan – a 20-hour ferry ride south across Lake Nasser and a place where relatively few Western travellers dare tread. Given everything you read in the international media and on Western governments’ websites about Egypt’s war-torn, Islamist-ruled neighbour, I felt certain at least a little luck would be needed.

My fears – and those of friends and relatives who worried I would be caught up in one of Sudan’s myriad conflicts or taken hostage by Islamist extremists – proved unfounded. They started to dissipate on the ageing, overloaded passenger ferry that shuttles people and all manner of cargo once a week between the two countries. Crushed in between washing machines, satellite dishes, cutlery sets and the odd metal detector, my travelling companion, Dan, and I quickly got talking to Sudanese travellers and traders. Some were returning from visiting relatives in Egypt, some were there for business, but almost all were bringing something home with them. “Everything is too expensive in Sudan, that’s why we go to Egypt,” one man told me as we sat in the shade of a lifeboat.

We spent the night in that same spot. Two white westerners – a Brit (me) and a New Zealander (Dan, friend and fellow Arabic language student from Cairo) – and a dozen Sudanese guys lying in a row, our backs on the hard, hot metal deck, our legs dangling over the edge of the ferry as the waters of Lake Nasser glided blackly passed. Every square inch of space was taken – filled with cargo or people sprawled on the open deck or on benches or the floor in the stuffy seating areas below. Going to the toilet or the canteen in the dark involved navigating an assault course of human limbs.

We both found the genuine, friendly curiosity of our fellow Sudanese passengers refreshing after months spent in Egypt where decades of mass tourism and too many touts sometimes leave you with the unpleasant feeling that the locals view every Westerner as a walking wallet.

Wadi Haifa

Stepping off the ferry at Wadi Haifa. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

The ferry’s arrival in Wadi Halfa was as chaotic as its departure. People rushed ashore and cargo was hauled overboard onto the small concrete dock before both – almost interchangeably – were loaded onto trucks and busses for the short trip across a patch of barren wasteland to the immigration and customs offices. I was prepared for the worst: a thorough grilling by the immigration police and a full search of my backpack – Britain is not exactly on good terms with the Omar al-Bashir regime. Instead, we were waved through customs with barely a hitch. Our Sudanese visas, acquired equally painlessly at the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo for $100, were checked and the immigration officer stamped us into the country before jovially quipping: “Welcome to Alaska!” as we walked out of the warehouse-like office into near 50-degree heat.

Heat, dust and hospitality

Wadi Halfa, a few kilometres inland from the lake, proved to be a foretaste of every other Sudanese town we would visit. A few dusty streets, a dusty central square, a few dusty cafes and a couple of lokandas – cheap, basic hotels with, yes, dusty rooms and even dustier bedding. Heat and dust are the two defining elements of northern Sudan in summer – air so hot you can feel your lungs warming with every breath and dust that gets into every bodily crevice. Removing it is almost impossible, in part because water is in short supply and a shower – unless your definition of one involves a jug and bucket of brown liquid – is almost unheard of in many places.

Even at night, the heat can be unbearable and joining the locals in hauling your bed outside into the sandy courtyard of the lokanda to catch a slight breeze is often the only way to get some sleep and avoid drowning in your own sweat.

Road to Atbara

On the "road" to Atbara, 150km from anything, except sand and some trees. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

From Wadi Halfa we travelled south through the Nubian Desert to Dongola, then southeast to Karima and Atbara, tracing, as best we could, the course of the Nile and encountering progressively bigger but no less dusty, ramshackle towns.  At times, amid the sand storms that frequently blew up in the afternoons, driving through vast expanses of desert, crammed into the back of a bus, car or minibus, could best be described as voyaging through the insides of a vacuum cleaner. And in that desolate desert environment, there is certainly a sense of being in a vacuum – nothing for miles, eerie silence and no signs of life, or sporadically, life that once was in the form of cattle and camel carcasses slowly decaying by the side of the road.

The fact there were paved roads at all surprised me. From the research I had done on northern Sudan, I had expected gruelling, bone-jarring journeys on dirt tracks through the desert. Instead, we encountered new black tarmac everywhere – the results, locals were only too happy to tell me, of Chinese investment in the last couple of years.

In most towns, at least as far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners and the locals were genuinely curious about why we were there. A tea or coffee – and it is good coffee! – at one of the numerous street stalls run by brightly clad women frequently resulted in long conversations with our fellow drinkers, usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, and almost always about football. More than once, however, politics came up: they asked about America, the embargo, and about the West. Some said they wanted to emigrate, others blamed the West for Sudan’s problems. No one ever mentioned al-Bashir by name, nor did they want to talk about Darfur or the south. Many, a little surprisingly, said that the situation was improving, that they were struggling less now than in the past to live. In northern Sudan, at least, I came away with the impression from what I saw and heard that things were gradually getting better – though I very much doubt people in Darfur or South Sudan, which I have yet to visit, would say the same.

Begrawiya pyramids

At the foot of the Begrawiya pyramids. Smaller than their Egyptian cousins, but impressive. Photo: Andrew Eatwell.

South of Atbara, about a third of the way to Khartoum and just off the main Khartoum-Port Sudan road, the Begrawiya pyramids rise from the desert. Built 2,500 years ago by the Meroitic Pharaohs when the area was arable and verdant, the cluster of tombs sit half-buried by the sand. Though dwarfed in scale by their more famous counterparts in Egypt, they are just as impressive in their own right – helped by the fact that they are not thronged by tourists. We were the only visitors that day and the sense of desolation and of a civilisation lost was overwhelming as we sat staring out at the bleak desert in the shadow of the ancient tombs.

Khartoum: where the rivers and cultures meet

Stuck without transport in the middle of nowhere, we managed to finally flag down a road train after a waterless hour standing in blistering heat on the side of the road. Six hours later we rolled – slowly, painfully slowly – into the Sudanese capital. After saying goodbye to the affable, talkative truck driver, a Moroccan with a Sudanese wife transporting UN food aid from Port Sudan to South Sudan, we checked into a rundown hotel near the city’s main souq.

The area, like much of the capital, felt like an oversized version of every other Sudanese town we had visited, albeit livelier and more cosmopolitan. The shops bustled with activity during the day and the street cafés were alive at all hours. Along the Nile, not far from where the Blue and White Niles meet, new glass-and-steel office buildings were under construction and from the hostel window we could see a more upscale hotel: the Plaza, its rooftop sign written in Chinese.

We spent several pleasant days between central Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital’s more conservative sister city on the other side of the river, wandering the streets, browsing the souq’s stalls, soaking up the atmosphere over spiced coffee and fresh juices (alcohol is illegal), oh, and rediscovering the luxury of a shower.

For the first time since entering Sudan, in Khartoum I got a feeling that we were leaving the Arab world and entering sub-Saharan Africa. In the cafes, South Sudanese from different tribes sat in groups alongside Arab Sudanese from the north, Christians shopped and drank alongside Muslims. It seemed that in the more cosmopolitan, business-oriented atmosphere of the city, the divisions that have put Sudan on the world map for bloodshed and violence could easily be forgotten – perhaps too easily.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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More to Sudan than meets the West’s eye

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.

24 September 2010

Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.

Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.

“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”

The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.

While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.

Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.

In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.

Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.

In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.

Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.

“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.

Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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Religious freedom at stake in Egypt

 
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By Osama Diab

If you don’t fast during Ramadan in Egypt, lie about it; hide it. Otherwise, you might land in jail.

26 August 2010

Tarek Elshabini, a 21-year-old engineering student, is Muslim, but only according to his personal ID card. Every year when Ramadan comes, he faces a dilemma: he doesn’t fast because he’s an atheist, but everyone, including police officers, expects him to fast because he was born to a Muslim family.

In order to avoid any possible clashes between Elshabini and his family due to his non-religious credos, he decided to move away for a while until they are able to live with this new reality. Most families, in what was called the most religious country in the world by Gallup, would find it bitter to swallow the fact that their son does not believe God exists.

Elshabini managed to find a job in Hurghada as a bar tender in a night club to make his getaway, and on his second day in the Red Sea tourist city, he had to go to the police station to acquire the certificate of good conduct required by his new employer. After a few hours of struggling with governmental bureaucracy, Elshabini got his clean criminal record and was out of the police station at noon.

To kill his thirst, Elshabini stopped at the kiosk across from the police station for a soda. He stood there, bought a can of soda and lit a cigarette. Elshabini had no idea that last Ramadan at least 150 people were arrested in Aswan and Hurghada, where he just arrived, for eating, drinking or/and smoking in broad daylight during Ramadan. This was new and it was the first time it had occurred in Egypt.

It wasn’t the last time though. This year, two micro-bus drivers were also arrested in Cairo for the same reason. A Ramadan crackdown was also carried out by police officers in Hurghada to arrest those who eat, smoke or drink publicly before sunset.

While Elshabini was smoking his cigarette and drinking his soda, a plain-clothed officer came up to him and asked what his name was before he invited him into the police station. “At this point, I thought that I might have forgotten something inside while getting my papers, and this very nice man was going to help me get it,” explains Elshabini.

The officer knew from his middle name, Ahmed, that he was a “Muslim”.

In Egypt, personal ID cards state the citizen’s religions. The government of Egypt only recognises the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Therefore, atheists like Tarek, have to state one of these religions in their ID cards.

The officer then told Elshabini he was arrested on the charge of “public breaking of the fast” and locked him up in detention. For three hours, no one would talk to him or tell him what was happening until the officer who arrested him came back. “I kept telling him I was sorry, and that I forgot that it was Ramadan and that I was fasting; anything just to get myself out of this,” says Elshabini.

Heba Morayef, a Human Right Watch researcher, explains that there is no such crime as “public breaking of the fast”. “The arrest of people for smoking in public during Ramadan is illegal under both Egyptian and international law. These arrests are arbitrary in the absence of any legal provisions under Egyptian law,” says Morayef.

After three hours of begging, Elshabini was finally released. “I’ll believe you this time, and I’ll let you off with no police report. How’s that for a favor?” Elshabini says the officer told him.

Morayef also believes that these arrests seem to be occurring as a result of initiatives of individual police stations rather than a top-down policy by the ministry of interior. She believes, though, that this does not absolve the government of the responsibility for these illegal arrests. “The government must clearly issues instructions that its security officers do not have the right to arrest people who appear not to be fasting,” she adds.

“Ramadan is the time of year that I would very much like to disappear from the face of the earth. Everybody is badly infected with this mass religious hysteria, and people start to interfere in other people’s business,” says Elshabini.

The story of Elshabini shows how Egypt’s relatively secular police is becoming increasingly intolerant when it comes to freedom of religion. It also demonstrates the government’s failure to acknowledge that there are people who might not believe in Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Egyptian law still does not address this issue either. Until last year, members of the Baha’i faiths had to write Muslim on their ID cards because the law does not recognise the Baha’ism as a religion. Last year, the court allowed Baha’is to choose to leave the religion field blank.

These arrests also show that freedom of religion and belief is in danger in Egypt which has always been known for its relative religious tolerance, especially in contrast with more theocratic regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf countries, Sudan and Iran, but for a second year in a row, this seems to be changing, at least on an unofficial level.

“After three of the most humiliating hours in my life, I couldn’t believe what was happening. At some point, I thought that this was a TV show or something; that this was a trick, but unfortunately, every part of what happened was real,” says Elshabini.

However, many Egyptians are against these arrests. A facebook group called ‘Egyptians from all beliefs are against the arresting of non-fasters in Ramadan’ attracted some 800 members in just a few days. “Respect expected by people who fast should be based on personal choice,” says Hany Freedom, the creator of the online group who chose to go by his Facebook name. “Otherwise, how would the faster know if others are considerate out of conviction or only because they are forced to.”

This article first appeared in The Staggers blog of The New Statesman on 23 August 2010. Republished here with the author’s permission. Read comments on this article here. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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The ICC and Darfur

 
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By Tom Kenis*

The ICC indictment of Sudan’s leadership merits a balanced appraisal.

September 2008

In July 2008, the International Criminal Court submitted, upon the request of the United Nations Security Council, charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, having already done so for Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Muhammad Harun and a local militia leader. None have so far been brought into custody, nor is this likely to happen in the near or even remote future.

“Politically motivated,” cried the Sudanese government. “Double standards, and neo-colonial bullying,” charged African, Arab and many European commentators. The tacit welcoming of the ruling by America, itself not a signatory and fierce opponent of the ICC, surprised few, given Sudan’s oil-laden geology. This, in turn, explains the eerily quiet wind blowing from China, which meets close to seven percent of its oil imports from the regime in Khartoum. (Credible) conspiracy theories aside, many analysts fear a Sudanese backlash, a hardening of positions, undermining a tenuous peace process, and turning out more harmful in the end to the very people the court ruling is supposed to rush to the aid of.

All of the above is true. The ICC, set up in 2002, has picked out small fry, a sitting leader of an Arab state at that, the adverse connotations of which have not gone unnoticed in the region. In many ways, the ICC merely ups the ante, shielding behind the cloak of internationalism self-interested policies and the chess game of jostling powers that weaker states have historically been victims of and at best spectators to.

And yet we cannot dismiss the notion that the voices raised against the ruling, and hence in defence of a government that at best utterly fails to act in defence of its own citizens, with horrible consequences, are all but devoid of ulterior motives. The court’s ruling is indeed a heavily politicised one, but so would a now hypothetical decision to the contrary. At one extreme, currying favour with the regime in Sudan inculpates one to the charge of wishing to secure access to the nation’s natural resources, while proponents of the ruling are accused of wishing a regime change for the sake of gaining a toehold to those same resources. Concurrently, some advocates of the court’s decision aspire to divert attention from their own misdeeds in the human rights arena, while detractors fear the legal dire straits such a precedent might put them in. Worse infringements occur in other places, so why intervene here? Indeed, arguments and ammunition are easily found in support of either position.

To those with no material stake in the imbroglio, the question then boils down to one of inclination, optimistic or pessimistic, as to the ability of the mechanisms hitherto employed to alleviate and ultimately solve a question of extreme human suffering. Do the actions of the ICC represent something new, or should such an instrument be seen as merely the sum of its constituent parts, a continuation of old policies, lorded over by self-interested nation states? Can the ICC transcend the balance of powers? Is the ICC, in plain English, capable of saving lives? The wider question should, but perhaps given the inchoate state of the institution, cannot easily be disentangled from the concrete case of Darfur before it.

International bodies are only as effective as their participating countries allow them to become. A prime example is arguably the United Nations, once paralysed by the Cold War stalemate, somewhat invigorated since, but stilly hamstrung by its veto-wielders’ reluctance to reform and adapt to changing international relations. Perhaps the ICC, an organisation that is legally speaking not part of the UN, can play a reinforcing, complementary role, hand-in-glove with the trend of expanding international laws. Whether the challenge of justice-over-the-weak v justice-for-all can be overcome, only time will tell.

The shifting of the balance towards universal success v a quick demise of the ICC will take place in the penumbra of smaller nations, between ardent supporters and stern detractors. Those countries seeking an advantage in opposing the court now, might one day find themselves in need of more robust international policing. The inverse, one should add, will arise just as easily. The clear choice for governments here and now is between short-term self-interest and its long-term variant. The difference is significant. Today, two very passionate foes of expanded international jurisprudence, Israel and the United States, already find themselves applauding the court’s ruling on Darfur. A verdict according to double standards will only serve to accentuate those double standards and increase the pressure to address other, more complex, even more intractable conflicts. Alas, small fry first.

The ruling appears not yet to have unleashed the feared deterioration on the ground, despite one senior Sudanese official reacting furiously, threatening to turn Darfur into a graveyard. On the contrary, the initial response of the Sudanese government has been one of increased responsiveness, at least in tone, to international pressure. With perhaps a cynical stretch of the imagination, white faces, too, will soon pop up in the dock at The Hague. If we include the ad hoc tribunal for Yugoslavia this has already happened. Of course, all gains, especially as modest as these, can be reversed. However, one must also recognise even modest gains for what they are: timid beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless.

*Tom Kenis is a Belgian NGO worker. Published with the author’s permission. ©Tom Kenis.

This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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Foreign hegemony or repressive self-rule?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world may debate the merits of external occupation versus repressive self-rule, but neither are acceptable.

24 February 2010

The al-Jazeera debate programme, al-Itijah al-Mua’kes (Opposite Direction), is well-known across the Arab world for tackling thorny, controversial and offbeat issues. Earlier this week, the show got stuck into the taboo question of whether Arabs, after decades of self-rule, were better off under the oppression of their current regimes or whether the yoke of the former imperial powers was preferable.

At one point, the programme’s moderator Faisal al-Qassem described the modus operandi of Arab leaders as a form of internal imperialism and said that some were of the view that home-grown colonialism, which consumes the body from within, was tougher to combat than foreign occupation, which behaves more like an external parasite.

As is the format of al-Itijah el-Mua’kes, the two guest panellists had opposing views on the topic. One, a member of an Arab parliament, was of the opinion that no matter how bad local rulers were, they were preferable by far to a foreign occupier whose sole concern is the pillaging of a society’s resources and the subjugation of its people. In contrast, local leaders ultimately have the interests of their society – or at least parts of it – at heart and, with reform, self-rule can be made to work.

 The other, a lawyer with the International Criminal Court, argued that the European powers brought the Middle East into the modern age and set it on the road to progress. In some cases, he opined, there had not been much progress since. As an example, he referred to the railways in Sudan, which were built by the British but have not been improved by the Sudanese.

 Despite the eccentricity of these views, they seem to have a certain resonance with ordinary Arabs. Surprisingly, some two-thirds of respondents to an online poll conducted by al-Jazeera were of the view that their countries had been better off under colonial rule.

 Of course, polls of this kind are unscientific, the make-up and demographic spread of the respondents are unknown and the sample size was too small (6,808). Nevertheless, the result is an interesting one, and it speaks volumes of the frustration felt by ordinary Arabs, caught as they are between the rock of repressive rule and the hard place of foreign hegemony. 

Long gone, it would seem, are the days of heady, post-independence optimism in which Arabs believed that, after shaking off the shackles of centuries of European and Ottoman rule, a new golden age was about to be born. 

So, which is better? Well, as with most things, the issue is neither black nor white because the track records of both imperialism and self-rule have been patchy. In addition, the diversity of imperial and post-independence experiences are enormous. Moreover, even within a single empire, performance changed dramatically over time and the colonial experience in each country was marked by key differences. 

In the Arab world, the early centuries of Ottoman rule, for example, were relatively benign, tolerant and prosperous, but the latter period was increasingly repressive and stagnant. In their favour, the European powers brought in ideas of modern science and the Enlightenment, helped abolish slavery and sparked Arab interest in modern technology.

 On the negative side, they often stripped countries of their resources, put in place repressive colonial power structures which were perpetuated by local rulers, and, intentionally or unintentionally, planted many of the seeds of the internal and cross-border conflicts that plague the region to this day.

 Algeria, for example, is still staggering from the wounds of having once been annexed by France, with the mass displacement of the peasantry and the marginalisation of the urban professional classes that this involved. In addition, the roots of the bloody north-south conflict in Sudan, and the massacres in Darfur, can be traced back to the destructive period of Anglo-Egyptian rule.

 The record of self-rule is also difficult to assess and compare, partly because the Arab world of today is so very different from that of colonial times. On the plus side, self-rule has led to massive improvements in such areas as education and healthcare. In addition, a number of post-independence regimes embarked on huge and ambitious programmes to industrialise, with mixed results.

 On the negative side, most domestic regimes have been as oppressive in their handling of the population as the former colonial powers, and human rights abuses in many countries are rife. An extreme example of this would be Saddam Hussein and his murderous rule. But, then again, those who dream of a return to colonial rule would do well to examine the case study of contemporary Iraq, where the US-led occupation is giving the country’s former dictator a serious run for his money in terms of destructiveness and malignancy.

 In fact, the question posed by al-Jazeera is perhaps the wrong one, since, in many ways, colonial rule has not ended. Although direct rule stopped more than half a century ago, with the exception of Iraq since 2003, indirect rule never ceased. In broad terms, the region’s regimes fall into two general categories: those who have accepted the role of client states and those who have opposed it and been punished and “contained” for stepping out of line. Then, there’s the privatisation and franchising of imperialism to multinationals.

 So, in reality, today’s Arabs are living under the crushing burden of domestic and foreign imperialism. To my mind, the issue is not which one is better but how to bring both to an end.

 This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2010. Read the related discussion.

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The power of false reporting

 
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 By Osama Diab

Reckless journalism is held responsible for the violence and tensions following the Algeria-Egypt World Cup playoffs.

24 November 2009

If I try to include a statistic or a quote without properly citing it, the article will immediately bounce back to me with the editor politely asking for a proper citation and source for the information.

It is sometimes frustrating to spend hours, and sometimes days, searching the internet and making phone calls to track down sources, studies or reports to back up information that you are already sure is accurate, but it’s the responsible media’s role to respect the reader and go the extra mile to provide them with absolutely correct information.

The Algerian newspaper Echorouk decided, for God knows what reason, to report that eight Algerian fans were killed (the story has since been pulled from their site) on the streets of Cairo during their stay in the Egyptian capital to attend the decisive World Cup qualifier game. There’s no evidence anything of the sort occurred and it’s unclear how the newspaper obtained such information.

The reaction to this report was quite extreme. Thousands of Algerians took to the streets to damage all things Egyptian as revenge for their fellow compatriots who were allegedly “killed”, according to the Algerian daily. Death threats were sent to Egyptians living and working in Algeria and Egyptian businesses were bombarded and set on fire.

In a press statement given by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire who owns Algeria’s mobile operator Djezzy, he said that, according to preliminary estimates, losses could be as high as tens of millions of dollars. Egyptians are fleeing Algeria in large numbers.

The violence and madness was not confined to Algeria. In Marseille, Algerian youths set fire to boats, smashed shop windows and clashed with the police right after the game.  

Unfortunately, both North African teams had to play again four days later. Thousands of Algerians flew to Khartoum full of rage with an unwavering determination to seek revenge for the lives of their brothers that they believed had been cut short by the Misraelis, a portmanteau combining Egypt and Israel in reference to the peace treaty signed between the two countries three decades ago and which is still thought of as a source of disgrace by numerous Algerians and other Arabs. Echorouk referred to Egyptians as Misraelis and the Zionists of Arabia on several occasions.

The Algerian government sent more fans than the stadium could accommodate in the hope of scoring a political victory. For its part, the Egyptian government sent thousands of members of the ruling National Democratic Party, led by the president’s sons Gamal and Alaa, to attend the game along with a vast number of celebrities. Both Egypt and Algeria were hoping for a victory that would divert people’s attention from the chronic domestic problems plaguing their countries, and used every method possible to achieve such a triumph, even recruiting the local media to help.

Egypt lost the game and Cairo, the city that never sleeps, turned into a quiet, sad and empty place. Egyptians were on tenterhooks awaiting a victory against the people they had branded “barbarians”. After the loss, the Egyptian media reported that that at least 20 fans were injured, and that Algerian fans were roaming the streets of Khartoum hunting for Egyptians.

The unfortunate incidents in the Sudanese capital were witnessed by the Egyptian president’s sons. Egyptian celebrities were also hiding from fuming Algerian fans in the office building of an Egyptian advertising agency in Khartoum.

Numerous television shows and newspapers in Egypt devoted intensive and exaggerated coverage to the aggression towards Egyptian fans and celebrities. This led to thousands of Egyptians staging a protest in front of the Algerian embassy in Cairo chanting, “You either kill us or let us in,” to the police guarding the embassy. Three days later, demonstrators were still demanding the departure of the Algerian ambassador.

Egypt now wants to restore the country’s lost “pride” and compensate for the humiliation Egyptian fans, politicians and celebrities experienced in Khartoum by calling for the severing of diplomatic ties with the North African “enemy”. Some went as far as to call for military intervention in Algeria to save the threatened Egyptians residing there. Egypt also threatened to freeze its football activities if FIFA does not react to the Algerian assaults.

This could all have been avoided if the Algerian daily had been more conscientious in its reporting.

Published with the author’s permission.  ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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