The empire must not strike back

 
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By Khaled Diab

Nostalgia for empire in the Middle East misses two points: we’re not witnessing the “final end of imperialism” and imperialism did not bring order.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Thursday 11 June 2015

When it comes to the Middle East, nostalgia politics is in vogue. While ISIS is busy “restoring” an a-historical caliphate, others are pining for the apparently lost innocence of empire.

Robert Kaplan expressed profound admiration for the supposed benefits that empire brought to the Middle East and some other parts of the world. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” the intellectual who was named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 global thinker in 2011 declared in the same magazine.

This supposed world-beating thinker seems convinced that “the age-old clusters of civilisations” has immunised Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to the worst excesses of the current upheavals. Kaplan fails to answer why it is that, if this were so, the region’s most ancient cluster of civilisations, namely Syria and Iraq, are currently experiencing the most devastating tumult, while civilisation’s traditional backwaters of the Gulf are, at least superficially, relatively stable, for now.

At a certain level, I can understand Kaplan’s nostalgia for the Ottoman, and before it Roman, empire. After all, despite their ancestors’ painful divorce from the Ottomans, some Arabs shared in Turkey’s new sense of “Ottomania” – at least when Erdogan was still considered an Arab hero.

And at its best, the Ottoman empire was a de-centralised empire of relative local autonomy, marked by tolerance, prosperity, multiculturalism and, hard as it is to imagine today, a borderless space not unlike the modern European Union. The Tanzimat of the mid-19th century, among other things, created a common citizenship, erased ethnic and religious inequality and even decriminalised homosexuality, though they marked the beginning of more direct rule.

The Ottoman empire’s status as the “sick man of Europe” infected all its provinces and its strident and toxic form of Turkic nationalism – epitomised by the Young Turks, who introduced democracy to the Ottoman empire but then briskly withdrew it – did not lead to stability but catastrophe.

The “Three Pashas” in charge not only disastrously decided to join World War I, precipitating the collapse of the empire, they also engaged in a fit of bloodlust against the Armenians that makes ISIS look like amateurs.

The region’s new imperial management did not fare much better. Though the British and the French accelerated the region’s modernising impulse, they only paid lip service to the vaunted values of modernity, and hardly brought the stability Kaplan so values.

The great distance from and the lack of shared history with their subjects resulted in a callous disregard for their needs. This was reflected in everything from the Sykes-Picot arbitrary drawing of borders and the brutal suppression of regular uprisings to the imperial assumption that the region’s resources were the sole property of London and Paris.

Likewise, independence and post-colonial leaders promises of freedom were dashed when the foreign elites that had previously ruled were largely replaced by, in many ways, an equally “foreign” domestic elite, who looked and spoke like the “liberated” populations but behaved like their former masters.

Arabs originally saw America as an ally and kindred spirit for its apparent support for national self-determination and opposition to Anglo-French hegemony in the region. But instead the US largely replaced the direct rule of its predecessors, with the client-state model in which those who behaved could literally get away with murder, while local leaders seen to step out of line were “contained” or eliminated.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today… is really about the final end of imperialism,” Kaplan claims.

I expect this declaration to go the same way as Francis Fukuyama’s the “end of history” or George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”, i.e. into the dustbin of history. Moreover, this nostalgia for past empire, like the clash of civilisations theory, not only misdiagnoses the disease but also prescribes the wrong medicine.

“The demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organising and stabilising the region,” Kaplan writes wistfully… and wishfully.

Any level-headed analysis of the US’s decades-long involvement in the Middle East will conclude that Washington has done little to organise and stabilise the region. From its traditional role of propping up “friendly” dictators and autocrats and its subversion of numerous independence movements, to its disastrous decision to return to the era of military invasion and direct rule in Iraq, Washington has been a major contributor to regional chaos and instability.

Far from marking the “end of imperialism”, what we are witnessing today, a century after the implosion of the Ottoman empire, is its resurgence. In this new scramble for the Middle East, we are witnessing the petty sultans of the region’s crumbling states trying to hold on to their micro-empires; non-state armed groups trying to usurp them; Iran and the emerging powers of the Gulf seeking to expand their spheres of influence; and America’s longstanding hegemony being challenged by the new-old kid on the block, Russia, and newcomer China.

As the old order collapses, perhaps the Middle East does needs a new “imperial” age, but along the lines of a people’s empire. Just like the member states of the European Union decided voluntarily and democratically to unite territory that had only ever been integrated through conquest, the peoples of the Middle East could benefit greatly if the current conflicts and crises push them towards a voluntary union of equals.

However, at every geopolitical strata, there are currently too many enemies stacked against such an endeavour. But just as the EU would have appeared to be a delusional fantasy during World War II, perhaps this indicates that there is hope for our troubled region yet.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 May 2015.

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The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like in Syria and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists  are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region’s defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan-Arab cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Cairo, whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam’s holiest sites by the ISIS of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use religion (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for democracy, socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the Middle East, in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” Tony Blair, who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other’s throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.

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Netanyahu and the Middle East: The risky business of “business as usual”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s re-election promises “business as usual”. But this is an extremely risky venture on the Iranian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian fronts.

'Business as usual' following Netanyahu's re-election is a risky venture.  Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

‘Business as usual’ following Netanyahu’s re-election is a risky venture.
Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

Monday 30 March 2015

Despite the hope of change entertained by the Israeli left, the recent elections in Israel have confirmed Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party.

As Netanyahu strives to cobble together a hard-right coalition – against the earlier wishes of President Reuven Rivlin who wanted a “national unity” government – he is driving yet another nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, as the settlement juggernaut continues its unstoppable momentum, further derailing the prospects for peace.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to see more of their land disappear under the foundations of new settlements and more of their civil rights trampled under the boots of the occupation.

In Israel and Jerusalem, the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment is likely to surge in light of the clear race-baiting that occurred during the elections. One notorious incident involved Netanyahu, who tried to get right-wingers to flock to voting stations by tapping into their deepest anxieties and prejudices with his warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” Earlier, outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded like a wannabe recruit to the Islamic State (ISIS) when he suggested that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

But the massing dark clouds have contained some slivers of silver lining. Despite the grim mood in progressive circles, some Israeli leftists are consoling themselves that, collectively, the left has become a little stronger in this election and the right has weakened.

Some Palestinian commentators and observers believe that Netanyahu, with his explicit dismissal of the two-state solution and his vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, will force the West to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take more robust action to bring about a resolution.

While there are plenty of signs of disappointment, anger and soul-searching in Washington and other Western capitals – which are bound to grow in light of the latest Israeli spying scandal – it is not a foregone conclusion that anything fundamental will change. The USA and Europe may find a novel way to fudge the issues, while paying lip service to the long-deceased peace process. Another possibility is that Washington and the EU may simply disengage from the process, as they fight fires elsewhere.

Galvanised by their increasingly embattled position and right-wing efforts to sideline them politically, the long-divided Arab parties in Israel joined forces, with spectacular results. Under the charismatic and conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh, who also tried to reach out to Jewish voters, the Joint List managed the unprecedented feat of becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

With the ongoing Israelisation of the occupied territories and international inaction, on the one hand, and growing Palestinian rights-based activism, on the other, the next Knesset could mark a turning point for the conflict in which the two-state option is abandoned in favour of a civil rights struggle for the foreseeable future.

In the wider region, Netanyahu’s re-election is likely to spell “business as usual”, short of some radical, unexpected upheaval. The Middle East is caught up in other crises, such as the civil war in Syria, the continued unravelling of Iraq, Arab-Iranian rivalry, the growing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and now the war in Yemen, as well as simple survival for most of the region’s regimes.

In such a climate, Netanyahu offers Middle Eastern leaders a form of perceived stability, in the shape of the “devil you know”. Arab leaders will occasionally condemn Israeli excesses and urge Netanyahu to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, but inaction will be the norm.

However, the status quo is extremely volatile, and so “business as usual” could easily lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence and war, as witnessed last summer, which could quite easily spiral out of control next time.

Israel’s war against Hamas plays well in places like Egypt, where the once-allied Muslim Brotherhood has been demonised, persecuted, banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”. When it comes to Iran, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian hardliners, though for different reasons, find themselves bizarre and coincidental allies of convenience in their opposition to a possible nuclear deal.

Regionally, it is the Iran-Israel axis that is potentially the most volatile and unpredictable. Though both sides have thus far limited their animosity to the rhetorical sphere and proxy clashes, this contained confrontation carries the risk of spinning out of control.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a new far-right government in Israel will seek to deflect internal opposition and dissent, as well as divert Western attention, by ratcheting up the public fear quotient of the “existential threat” posed by the Ayatollahs.

Likewise, in Iran, hardliners may try to derail the cautious and conciliatory path being pursued by Hassan Rouhani, and undermine his more moderate presidency, possibly by painting him as an appeaser of America and Israel.

This is likely to happen as elections to select a new Assembly of Experts and a new parliament in 2016 loom ever closer. With the ailing Ayotollah Ali Khamenei and his latest powerful conservative ally, the new leader of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, determined to block moderates, Rouhani’s job is likely to get much tougher.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would help to reduce this pressure by giving Rouhani a visible victory and enabling Iran’s staggering economy to recover. However, this is opposed by Netanyahu and influential Republican hardliners in Washington.

It is my view that Iran can gain the upper hand and the moral high ground by abandoning its nuclear ambitions in favour of solar and other renewable energies. If the only reason Iran is carrying out nuclear research is truly to ensure its energy security and prepare for its post-oil future, then renewables are much more promising.

Nuclear power is not only dirty, dangerous and extremely expensive, investing in it will make Iran forever dependent on others, both for the supply of raw materials and for technology. With an abundant supply of sunshine, Iran can be self-sufficient in solar power. In addition, if it diverts the billions it is investing in nuclear energy to renewables, it can quickly become a regional leader in this extremely important and profitable emerging sector, and perhaps eventually even a global one.

But pride at backing down to Western pressure, paranoia, nuclear envy, and hardline pressure make this path improbable, at best.

For its part, to avoid the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, whether with Iran or an Arab country spurred to catch up, Israel should enter its own nuclear arsenal into earnest negotiations for a WMD-free region – an offer that the rest of the region has had on the table for decades.

But pride, paranoia, existential angst and the fear of being seen to back down make this scenario too extremely unlikely.

Though “business as usual” is the path of least resistance on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian axes, they are also risky enterprises as the old equilibriums shift.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 25 March 2015.

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Egypt’s centuries-old leadership vacuum

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of authoritarianism and centuries of non-indigenous rule have led to a shortage of effective native leaders in Egypt, derailing the revolution.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 25 December 2014

Hosni Mubarak, the face which launched thousands of street protests, was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters and numerous corruption charges related to his three decades on Egypt’s republican throne were also dropped.

The news of the ex-dictator’s acquittal has hit activists and pro-revolution Egyptians like a rude kick in the groin, leading to angry protests on campuses across the country. The man who symbolized everything that was wrong with Egypt in 2011 walked scot free under the auspices of the man who presides over everything that’s wrong with Egypt in 2014: Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

By walking free, Mubarak – who inadvertently gave birth to the Egyptian revolution when he stepped down – may harken the revolution’s death knell, at least for the time being.

Some believe the situation is even worse. Writing in the Washington Post, Eric Trager argued that “the ‘revolution’ didn’t die… a true revolution never happened in the first place.” Trager contends that the uprising in Egypt not only failed to bring about revolutionary change, a substantial percentage of the population did not desire it, wishing only for elusive “stability”.

What his assertion overlooks is that many revolutions fail to bring about the radical change they seek, such as the 1848 Spring of Nations revolutionary wave in Europe.

Moreover, if significant opposition is a yardstick, then many of the world’s most iconic revolutions would not qualify as such, including in America and France. Besides, if history is any indication it’s far too early to call the final outcome of the Egyptian revolution, since its French predecessor took generations before it achieved its goals of “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.

Despite Trager’s assertions, it is not apathy or the longing for stability that have foiled Egypt’s revolutionary aspirations.

In my view, it is a question of leadership and its accompanying political culture. On the one hand, there is the deep state which has robustly done everything within its power not to cede power. On the other, it is the leaderless nature of the revolution, which was a strength at first because it made it impossible for the state to control, but became a liability later when strong leadership was urgently required to give the popular uprising direction.

The immediate reason for this was Hosni Mubarak’s 30-odd years of autocratic rule, which deepened the state’s grip on power while eliminating viable alternative leaderships. This followed the preceding three decades of similar dictatorial rule, in the shape of Anwar al-Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser before him.

Some interpret this as a manifestation of some kind of ancient Pharaoh complex on the part of Egyptian leaders. But this reductionist interpretation fails to explain why most of the region’s leadership is likewise deluded, even though their countries were not part of the Ancient Egyptian tradition of the absolute god-king.

Personally, I think Egypt and the Arab world’s leadership crisis can best be attributed to centuries of foreign rule and domination. This had the dual effect of destroying or downgrading the indigenous cadre of leaders and putting in place a damaging leadership culture.

In Egypt’s case, before Mohamed Naguib’s rise to power in 1952, one must go back nearly two and a half millennia to find Egypt’s last native leader: Nectanebo II, who was overthrown in 342BC by a combined Greek and Persian force.

Though Alexander the Great was regarded as a liberator from Persian rule in Egypt – and even the illegitimate son of Egypt’s last pharaoh – and the Ptolemaic dynasty regarded themselves as pharaohs, the Egyptian political and social order was stacked in favor of ethnic Greeks and a Greek-speaking Egyptian elite, leading to numerous rebellions, including the “great revolt” of 205-186 BC.

In the two millennia since the death of the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, the legendary Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Roman rule retained the relative privilege of Egyptian Greeks while adding another layer of exploitation, transforming this fertile, rich country into Rome’s grain silo.

Even when Egypt went from being a province to being an independent imperial power, these Nile-based empires were invariably foreign ones in which the locals were marginalized and largely excluded from the corridors of power. This was the case with the mighty and largely religiously tolerant Fatimid caliphate, which established glittering Cairo near ancient Memphis in the tenth century.

The Mamluk era (1250–1517) saw the novel situation of Egypt being ruled by a caste of warrior slaves. Though Egypt thrived economically and culturally, the centuries of Mamluk rule witnessed chaotic and bloody transitions of power between competing pretenders. Despite the infighting, the Mamluks agreed on one thing: though ostensibly slaves, they were the “true lords” while the supposedly freeborn native Egyptians were their serfs.

When the Ottomans conquered Egypt, they retained the Mamluks as their vassals which, like the Roman era, doubled the tax burden on the Egyptian masses, with a share going towards subsiding the ruling elite’s lavish lifestyles and a share going to Constantinople.

In the early 19th century, Egypt was purged of its Mamluks by a commander in the Ottoman Empire who wanted the country all to himself: Muhammad Ali, who had officially come to reclaim Egypt for the Sultan after Napoleon’s short-lived and disastrous occupation.

Despite being Albanian, Ali is widely regarded as being the father of modern Egypt. Wishing to create a modern state along European lines, he realised the importance of harnessing, educating and empowering (somewhat) the native Egyptian population.

Ali not only developed an advanced industrial base for the country, he also built a modern army, bureaucracy and education system where Egyptian citizens could find opportunities for mobility beyond the farming and industry to which they were previously confined.

But Ali retained the Mamluks fixation on militarism and he was obsessed with building a European-style army to carve out an empire for his dynasty. This placed a huge burden on Egypt’s peasantry in the form of high taxation and conscription.

Given the centuries of militarism of the ruling foreign elites and how the army had become one of the few means of social mobility for the native population, it is no surprise that Egypt’s first modern nationalist leader with any real authority was an army officer, Ahmed Urabi.

Urabi’s rebellion against the vassal Khedive Tawfiq, which threatened Anglo-French interests, led the British to formally occupy Egypt, though they kept the Muhammad Ali dynasty in power as clients. Following the heavy burden placed on Egypt during World War I, opposition to British rule grew massively, leading to the 1919 revolution.

The revolution succeeded in gaining only partial independence for Egypt and resulted in a liberal, democratic parliament, though one that was largely toothless due to the combined influence of the palace and the British.

The seething dissatisfaction with this arrangement led to widespread protests following World War II, but it was only the army that proved to have the clout to dislodge the king and the waning British.

But rather than hand over power to an elected parliament as the Free Officers had promised after an initial transition, the lure of power proved too irresistible. Although Egypt’s new rulers were native Egyptians, rather than dismantle the centuries of imperial legacy hobbling their fellow citizens, they kept in place many of the timeworn instruments of repression and marginalisation, despite some reforms.

Like Egypt’s various foreign rulers, the new officer elite viewed with suspicion any contenders or opponents, crushing and suppressing rivals. Hosni Mubarak went so far as not even to appoint a vice-president.

This centuries-long legacy helped lead to the leaderless revolution of 2011. This does not mean that Egypt is void of talent that can govern the country fairly and effectively. There is plenty of that. However, Egypt’s political culture does not encourage this talent to rise and there are no mechanisms for the peaceful and smooth transfer of power.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2014.

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Israel and Egypt’s insane alliance against Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: UNRWA

Photo: UNRWA

Sunday 10 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2014.

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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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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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Sun, sand and tax “holidays”

 
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By Osama Diab

In just a single decade, Egypt has lost more than $20 billion in trade mispricing alone, not to mention other forms of tax evasion.

Courtesy of caymanislands.ky

Courtesy of caymanislands.ky

Monday 10 March 2014

Most of us know that the world’s largest buildings by height are located in Dubai, Shanghai, New York and other international metropolises. But what we know far less about is the location of the largest buildings in the world by number of registered companies.

Ugland House is a five-storey building located in the tiny Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. Despite its size, this space is home to nearly 19,000 companies.

But how do thousands of companies fit in such a modest space?

The answer is that they do not fit — not in any physical sense. Most companies registered here exist only in public records and, for the most part, have a parent company located in other jurisdictions.

The Cayman Islands have a zero-percent tax rate on all sorts of income, including capital gains and corporate taxes. The tax haven is an attractive destination for businesses around the world to register or have subsidiaries there to avoid paying taxes in their own countries.

It is difficult to know which Egyptian companies are registered in this building due to the secrecy most tax haven countries provide investors. However, Cairo-based regional investment bank EFG-Hermes, which owns many subsidiaries in no-tax jurisdictions, has at least one company among the 19,000 registered at Ugland House, according to one of the firm’s documents.

Ugland House eventually came to the attention of US President Barack Obama. “For years, we’ve talked about shutting down overseas tax havens that let companies set up operations to avoid paying taxes in America,” he said in a speech in 2009 on international tax policy reform.

“I used to talk about the outrage of a building in the Cayman Islands that had over 12,000 businesses claiming this one building as their headquarters. And I’ve said before, either this is the largest building in the world or the largest tax scam in the world.”

Despite his firm warnings, Obama seems to have forgotten that his own country is accommodating what is probably the world’s largest building by registered businesses.

The address is 1209 North Street, Delaware, a single-storey building that hosts just under 300,000 registered businesses, including big names like Ford, American Airlines, General Motors, Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The building in Delaware, a state know as a low-tax jurisdiction, also has some Egyptian companies registered there.

According to the Delaware business registry, a company called EFG Capital Partners Inc is registered at 1209 North Street. The name of the company is identical to another EFG-Hermes subsidiary registered in the Cayman Islands, which might be a possible sign of a link to the Egyptian investment bank.

EFG Capital Partners Delaware

According to the registry, another two EFG-Hermes companies called The Middle East and North Africa Opportunities Fund, LP and the Egypt Growth Fund are registered in the same building.

A request for comment to the EFG-Hermes headquarters in Cairo went unanswered for several days.

The construction and cement giant, Orascom Construction Industries, also has a registered company for its US subsidiary Orascom E&C USA, Inc, in the Delaware building.

There are numerous companies with “Egypt“, “Egyptian” or “Misr” in their name registered in the Corporation Trust Centre building in Delaware, but it’s not always easy to establish a connection with a person or an entity in Egypt.

But why would any company want to register there and fight with hundreds of thousands of other companies over this small office space?

It is mainly because shell companies, or companies with no significant assets or operations, are often used as a vehicle to shift profits to no- or low-tax jurisdictions using a variety of tactics including transfer mispricing and round tripping.

Some websites provide the service of registering these companies online in a few minutes for a small fee of a few hundred dollars.

Transfer mispricing is when a company sells a product to its subsidiaries on paper only for artificial prices to avoid paying taxes, a tactic used to maximise company profits.

It is done by making the most profits on paper in a country with the lowest tax rates usually through a shell company in a tax haven. The Washington-based organisation Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that between 2001 to 2010, at least $22.32 billion left Egypt illegally as a result of trade mispricing.

Round tripping, on the other hand, is routing your earnings through a set-up company in a tax haven so it is counted as earnings of a foreign company and, therefore, not taxable in the investor’s country of residence.

There are around 85 companies registered in the Cayman Islands investing about $2.5 billion in Egypt, according to the General Authority for Investment. Considering the minuscule size of the island, it is unlikely that these large investments are native to it. It is therefore more likely to be about routing profit through shell companies in tax havens.

“If you set up a company in a tax haven and route your money through it, your earnings are counted as earnings of a foreign company — and you only pay the tax due in the tax haven where the company is registered. That is usually next to nothing,” says Nick Hildyard, a British anti-corruption activist and the founder and director of the London-based anti-corruption organisation The Corner House.

Needless to say, lower tax revenue means less money to build roads, schools, hospitals and provide public services.

While GFI estimates that at least $22.32 billion of taxable profits left the country in an attempt to avoid taxation, this would only be a fraction of the total unpaid taxes.

With a large informal sector and a history of tax evasion, Egypt loses billions of pounds in unpaid taxes annually. Last year, Egypt collected roughly LE93 billion in taxes on goods and services. If roughly 30 percent of economic activity happens in the informal sector, and another 30 percent of businesses pay only half of what they owe, losses for last year alone would total nearly LE77 billion.

The existence of such tax havens also intensifies tax competition between countries to keep investors “onshore”, which leads to what experts call “a race to the bottom”.

This can only lead to the reduction of government spending on public and social services, and relying more on indirect, regressive taxation, or over-taxing low and middle incomes, who are unable to hide their incomes in tax havens.

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This article first appeared in Mada Masr on 5 March 2014. Republished here with the author’s consent.

 

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My enemy’s friend is… my ally

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 20th January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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