The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight - and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Syria and the scent of nostalgia

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In Oh My Sweet Land, the kitchen acts as the stage where events in Syria are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are cooked up. 

Oh my sweet land Friday 9 May 2014

Going to the theatre has always been an event that got my mind, emotions, and senses racing, but never before has a play enabled me to ‘smell’ the atmosphere and plot. This  all changed during the one-woman show Oh My Sweet Land which introduces a new format of war reporting through an hour-long monologue by the vibrant yet nameless half-German, half-Syrian woman who informs the audience that she will cook a traditional Syrian dish of kubah the way her grandmother’s used to, which was her only connection with Syria.

Although she admits that this is her first stab at the recipe, she narrates, while cooking, how her journey began in Paris in search of her married lover, Ashraf, continued to Lebanon, Jordan and eventually Syria, meeting refugees along the way with their various tales. Oh My Sweet Land is directed by the Palestinian theatre-maker Amir Nizar Zuabi and conceived and performed by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, who explore the Syrian civil war through words, as the audience is encouraged to imagine the stories that are being narrated: the brutal bombings, the killings, the torture, the escape and the endless tears.

The kitchen where the play is set acts as the world stage where events are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are, quite literally, cooked up. We hear about Ashraf, the narrator’s love interest who had fled Syria out of fear of what the security and intelligence services would do to him, but when things back home got worse, he opted to return and be near his people rather than watch helplessly from a distance.  As Ashraf’s tracks grow cold, the narrator is gripped by the urge to travel to Syria to find him. She heads off in search of her lost lover, only to encounter thousands of Syrian refugees who are suffering far greater losses: each one has either lost a home, family member, friends, a part of their body, or, Syria, their country lost in civil war.

This technically rich and powerful play reveals that Zubai’s intention is to focus on the humanitarian crisis rather than the political situation. The Syrian people are the symbolic “meat” in the fridge that is being cooked and shaped to the chef’s will, like the kubah and if the kubah does not turn out as it was intended, then it is chucked into the bin, because there is plenty more meat in the fridge. The scent of the chopped onion or simmering meat, which at one point is burnt, gives the audience the chance to experience the ‘smell’ of war through the meat that is no longer usable.

Being an Arab who has followed the Syrian situation from the start, the play failed to shock me or reveal anything new, maybe because our world is dominated by visual media and the conflict in Syria has a guaranteed daily news slot. In addition, very few if any actors can manage a whole show by themselves. Although Jaber’s performance was exceptional as she progresses through her emotional journey, 35 minutes into the play, your attention starts to slip away and all you are left with are the olfactory stimuli and the question of what will happen to the food that is left onstage.

Jaber’s own transformation is one of the more positive aspects of the play, as we observe her grow gradually more connected with Syria, a place she’d had no real longing towards, apart from the nostalgic memory of her grandmother. Her relationship with Ashraf changes this to passion, and her travels turn it into love and regret for a revolution that was hijacked by outsiders.  In that one hour, we witness a slow transformation, from a naïve, half-Syrian expatriate who is clueless about Syria and its revolution, to a more experienced and bitter woman. When the play ended, one lady in the audience commented that it deserved a wider audience, as the theatre was only half full. The ideas contained in Oh My Sweet Land are quite challenging and so might not be appreciated by the masses.

Zubai and Jaber were successful in bringing back the old simple way of ‘reporting’ the solo narrative voice of someone retelling the stories they were told without being an actual witness to them, symbolising the reality of Syria’s situation: everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they know best, yet no one is really fully aware, nor are they all blameless.

“They call it a civil war but there is nothing civil about it,” says the narrator in anger, which makes you question the role of the people as well as the ones in power. This is echoed further through one of the encountered refugees who wonders if one day we will forgive one another, maybe God will forgive us. We, the audience, are left pondering that same notion: can Syria return to its glory with people forgiving one another to coexist once again in a united country?

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Gaza’s forsaken and forgotten people

 
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Gaza’s humanitarian disaster and the rising tensions there are forgotten by the world. Principle and pragmatism demand an end to the blockade.

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rockets. Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound arms shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It has also uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which says could’ve been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40%, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80% of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

Personally, I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it.

The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide iron-cast assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas.

But Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous 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.

Besides, even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

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 on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel and Egypt’s security he concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”. “I also want to make a strong appeal for export to resume because the lack of export is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, 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”.

If the  status quo stays in place, the ever worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in The National on 2 April 2014.

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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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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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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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Egypt’s revolution in the breaking

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although Egypt has been eclipsed on the Western media radar, it remains caught in a deadly bind between popular jingoism and religious demagoguery.

Monday 14 September 2013

No news is good news, the adage tells us. But just because something does not make it on to the evening news that does not mean the situation has improved, as demonstrated by the US-sparked civil war in Iraq, which continues to exact a heavy toll.

Though the situation is nowhere near as bad, Egypt, too, has been eclipsed in the United States‘ and much of the Western media by the ongoing carnage in Syria, and by the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory gestures and charm offensive towards the West, not to mention the weekend’s US raids in Somalia and Libya.

But it is still very much news for us Egyptians and those who take a deep interest in the future of the country. In fact, as my four-year-old and I embark on a trip home to his “fatherland”, I am plagued by worries and dogged by questions.

How much further will the violence escalate? Where will the clash between pro-military jingoism and divine demagoguery lead the country?

Borrowing from the neocon American lexicon once so despised in Egypt,General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror” has, like its US counterpart, mushroomed into a war of terror, as reflected in the recent death of at least 50 people during pro-Morsi protests.

That is not to say there hasn’t been terrorism. There has been plenty of it. Not only have prominent Muslim Brotherhood members incited violence, but their sympathisers have torched churches across the country, and are mounting an insurgency in the already restive Sinai.

In addition, while pleading “legitimacy” and “democracy” abroad, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have falsely accused Christians of being behindMohamed Morsi‘s downfall. This has fanned the flames of hatred towards an already vulnerable minority, leading even as far as murder.

But the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a monopoly on demonisation and false accusations. Though I am a secularist to the core and, being an “infidel”, am vulnerable to the Islamist project, I have been distressed and alarmed by the fever pitch that mainstream hostility towards Brotherhood sympathisers has reached.

For example, the idea that they are all terrorists and that the Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp was a terrorist den, which goes against the evidence of my own eyes, has gained a surprising amount of traction. Besides which, the situation in Sinai is far more complex than the official narrative allows. The local Bedouins have been sidelined, forgotten and neglected for decades, leading to a lot of grievances that Islamists can exploit; and the military has allegedly targeted civilians, not just militants.

Then, there are Egypt’s rebels who lost their cause. The Tamarod movement did a great job of highlighting Morsi’s loss of legitimacy and channelling public anger at his dictatorial ways. Yet, the movement today sounds like a cheerleading squad for the military and its man of the moment, al-Sisi – even going so far as to defend the military trialsagainst civilians it once opposed.

Little wonder that the revolutionaries who have not taken leave of their senses and principles are despondent. As Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, said: “We are at square one as a revolution.”

What can America do, some might wonder? Probably not that much, in light of Washington’s squandering – by propping up dictators and engaging in military misadventures – of what remained of the goodwill and credibility it once enjoyed, long ago.

There is one trump card Washington holds, though. It can threaten to cut off military aid if the army does not end its crackdown, release political detainees, and implement serious reform rapidly. (In fact, I would argue that Washington should also make military aid to Israel contingent on reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.)

But the truth is that the situation is in the hands of the Egyptian people.

At a certain level, I understand why Egypt has reached this point. For me and other desktop revolutionaries outside the country, it’s easy to talk ideals when we’re not confronted with the bitter daily reality. After nearly three years of revolt, with precious little to show for it, Egyptians are suffering a sort of revolution fatigue.

Nevertheless, if Egypt does not change course, all the blood, sweat and tears Egyptians shed in their quest for freedom may prove to have been for nothing. Morsi and the Brotherhood peddled the illusion that they had a divine, magical solution to all Egypt’s problems. Instead, they proved to be a bearded version of the Mubarak regime. They talked democracy, but they walked theocracy.

But it is a grave error to believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The army may have learnt to speak democracy, but autocracy is still in its blood. Six decades of military dictatorship, a disastrous first transition following Mubarak’s ouster and a campaign that seems bent of purging Egypt of the Brotherhood – which could push Egypt over the abyss into civil strife – are not promising signs.

More troubling still, al-Sisi has become a cult hero, with campaigns petitioning him to run for president and polls showing he would win, if he ran. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a man of integrity, the temptations of excessive power and popularity could potentially doom Egypt to decades more of dictatorship.

For that reason, I hope Egyptians reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and reject violence, no matter whom its target is.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 9 October 2013.

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Syria needs joint Arab action to end violence

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is up to the Arab world to stop the bloodshed in Syria – unlikely as this may sound, and despite Arab League failure so far.

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan’s third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Thursday 19 September 2013

Like back in 1958, Syria is again the volatile battlefield of a medley of rival local, regional and international actors. But unlike then, Syria has not managed this time to edge back from the brink. Instead, it has become embroiled in a bloody and devastating civil war – not to mention a proxy war – that shows no sign of letting up.

When the tyrant insisted on making peaceful change impossible, he ended up making violent change inevitable. What had started as a non-violent social uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship quickly escalated as bloody repression led disgusted army officers to defect and take up arms against the state’s increasingly violent repression.

Divisions within the Arab world over Syria are rife, as they are among the major international players, between hawks and doves, ideologues and pragmatists, humanitarians and power brokers. Bizarre allegiances have formed and shifted. Currently backing the Syrian government are Russia, Iran, China and Hizbullah, with the opposition supported by the US, the UK, France and wealthy Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey has gone from being an ally of Damascus (early in the conflict) to headquartering the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Egypt is shifting towards a more pro-Assad position, on the back of the threat of US air strikes against a fellow Arab state, a public sense of grievance against Washington for its perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Islamist sentiment which has turned many Egyptians against everything toppled President Mohamed Morsi stood for.

As each state and non-state player competes to advance or safeguard its own “vital interests”, few of the active players seem to have an interest in the well-being of Syrians and Syria. And it is the conflict mongers who are enjoying the upper hand, with arms flooding into Syria, escalating the fighting further.

At the United Nations, it looks like a sequel of the Cold War is at play, with the United States trying to preserve its dwindling hegemony in the Middle East, and Russia struggling to claw back some of its lost influence. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama both seem to be suffering from chronic irony deficiency, the symptoms of which are a severely inhibited ability to see the plain hypocrisy of their rhetoric and the destructiveness of their positions.

 The UN should have been the right address for defusing this conflict from its earliest days, but such is the nature of this world body that when it is most needed, it is usually at its most impotent.  This has to do with its faulty architecture, which concentrates real power, including the dreaded veto, in the hands of just five countries.

Even today, it is not too late for the United Nations to redeem itself. The permanent members of the Security Council can decide to set aside their narrow self-interests and, for a change, agree to pursue the greater good of humanity by deploying tens of thousands of blue helmets with a robust mandate to end the violence. But given the ongoing deadlock, despite the relative breakthrough on chemical weapons, this seems highly improbable.

But with the international community fixated on chemical weapons but in paralysis over action to stop the plentiful non-chemical killings, it must be time now for the region to pull up its bootstraps and pitch in to sort out this mess, depressingly unlikely as it may seem – and that means action by the Arab League.

Like with many other crises before, the Arab League’s efforts, genuine as they were at some points, have amounted to nothing. Even the Arab League’s daring act of suspending Syria and imposing sanctions on the Damascus regime did little to intimidate Assad, underscoring just how little leverage Arab countries seem to exercise over each other.

Like the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine, the Arab League peace plan  for Syria lies on the shelf collecting dust following the withdrawal of its monitors from Syria in January 2012 owing to “a harsh new government crackdown”, in the words of Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

These failures do not encourage optimism, especially in light of how divided the League is over the way forward and how some of its members in the Gulf are actively sending arms and funds to the rebels.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Although the civil war in Syria is far away for members of the UN Security Council and so does not immediately challenge their security, the Arab League cannot afford to be so complacent, especially given the danger that the conflict can spill over into the wider region in an unpredictable and unexpected ways.

The Assad regime, now that it has turned much of the country into rubble and displaced millions, may be suffering from war fatigue, and could be looking round for an exit strategy. The rebels are at a military disadvantage and are in deadlock in their efforts to dislodge the regime militarily, and so may also be looking for a return to more peaceful means. This may make Arab mediation efforts more fruitful this time around.

Moreover, Arab League efforts are likely to be seen as more legitimate by the regime and the main rebel factions, not to mention the wider Arab world. In fact, the eventual prospect of returning Syria, where the ideology of pan-Arabism was born, to the Arab fold, could be used as a carrot to draw Damascus towards a negotiated solution.

So what can the Arab League do? The top priority upon which everyone should be able to agree – even those helping to bankroll the conflict – is that the violence needs to stop, both for humanitarian reasons and for pragmatic self-interest.

Taking a leaf out of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and its peacekeeping efforts across the continent, the Arab League can work towards negotiating a ceasefire and deploying peacekeepers from Arab countries that do not have a direct stake in the conflict. In fact, the Arab League needs to forge its own mutual security mechanism, in light of the growing likelihood of armed conflict within and between states in the region, while success could help pave the way to more enduring regional integration once this specific volatile period has passed.

Once the guns fall silent, Arab League mediators can help hammer out an interim agreement for the peaceful transition of power.

Although this seems like an unlikely scenario, especially in light of the Arab League’s reputation as an ineffectual talking shop, largely due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce its resolutions, there are precedents. Arab mediation efforts successfully stopped Black September in Jordan from turning into a full-blown civil war and, eventually and after too much bloodshed, helped end the Lebanese civil war.

Today, the stakes are arguably far higher, as Syria is a more pivotal state in a region which is already far more volatile, making it in every Arab state’s interest to take action. Whether they will step up is a very open question. For example, the Gulf states, who wrongly think they are far away and who have for decades seen Syria’s secular pan-Arabism as a threat, are trying to use their petrodollars to hold back the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions or to give them a conservative, Islamic hew, may feel less inclined to join efforts to end the conflict.

But ultimately, when fellow Arabs are being slaughtered and their country turned to dust, allied Arab action is the human and humane action to take.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 September 2013.

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