Saturday, February 19, 2011

West Needs Fresh Approach To Deal With New Mideast

Transition from striking deals with leaders to building relationships with Arab electorates will be a wrenching business

By Philip Stephens
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 20/02/2011

The notes and coin of western influence in the Middle East have been bribery and coercion. As the region wakes up to democracy, the west needs another currency. Autocrats can be bought and bullied. Peoples must be persuaded.

Caught unawares by the uprisings, Barack Obama's administration will be pondering how to draw the contours of the post-revolution settlement in Egypt. One immediate impulse will be an effort to load the democratic dice against the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the short term, US influence may be considerable. At this month's Munich Security Conference, the word among diplomats was that Robert Gates, US defence secretary, had been in daily contact with Mohammad Hussain Tantawi, the head of Egypt's military council. The Egyptian armed forces, reliant on US funding and equipment, seem unlikely to rebuff a generous patron.

The US president, however, should resist the temptation of those saying that now that Hosni Mubarak has gone, his country should return to realpolitik as usual. It is not for Washington, or anyone else, to map a path to an "acceptable" outcome.

One of the more obvious lessons of the toppling of Mubarak's regime was that the revolution belongs to Egyptians. The experts who assured Obama that the Egyptian president would weather the storm misread events because they saw the world as it used to be. Deals with generals are yesterday's story. The west now has a bigger audience.

Different messages

The spread of popular unrest to Bahrain, Libya and Iran carries the same message. There are big differences between each case. While the US and Europe happily cheer those on the streets of Tehran protesting against the ayatollahs, they are less comfortable about the demonstrations in Bahrain. What unites the protests, though, is a demand for human dignity well beyond the control of outsiders.

A good starting point for Obama would be recognition that the US can continue to exercise influence only in so far as it accepts it can no longer impose its will. Some of the choices made in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere will be unpalatable to Washington. Tough. Obama should offer the pro-democratic forces help that cannot be mistaken for interference.

This means addressing directly a generation of young Arabs — and Iranians — who want to shape their own destiny. The ancient regime rested on bargains with leaders. In future, Washington's ability to make itself heard will depend on what it says to civil society in the region.

After initial hesitation, Obama has seemed to understand this better than some of America's old foreign policy hands. The US has begun to sound as if it means it when it says it on the side of freedom. European leaders have been slower to respond, though Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has rightly emphasised the limits on western influence.

Making the transition from a world of striking deals with leaders to the much more complex business of building relationships with Arab electorates will be a wrenching business.

Advisers will be cautioning Obama against destabilising other friendly regimes in the region. The president's first duty, you can hear them saying, is to restore American "leadership" in the region. This role has rested hitherto on partnership with Israel and strong alliances with the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Israel sees itself as a beacon of liberal democracy in a region. Yet its security strategy has long been built on deals with authoritarian neighbours.

Mubarak's departure has removed an essential pillar of this arrangement. Whatever happens next, it is hard to imagine anything similar being put together again. For Obama, winning respect among the rising generation of Arabs may not be quite as hard as it looks. One of the striking things about the uprisings is the absence of anti-Americanism. The crowds in Tahrir Square could have raged against the US for propping up Mubarak. They chose not to.

Cultural influences

The first revolutions have come in those countries that have been most open to US and European cultural influences — and those most adept at channelling western technology to the pursuit of freedom. Sure, there have been Islamists in the crowds, but efforts to draw comparisons with the 1979 Iranian revolution have failed the test of reality.

The issue that cannot be avoided in any new discourse, however, is statehood for Palestinians. It goes without saying that the west will not (and should not) dilute its security guarantees to Israel. But it can take a more even-handed approach to the terms of an eventual settlement.

Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu has responded to events by saying how much harder they will make the search for peace. But he has long shown his disdain for serious negotiations by prioritising the expansion of Israeli colonies in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This should not prevent the US and Europe from setting out more clearly at the UN the familiar parameters of a two-state solution: borders based on 1967 with agreed adjustments, unequivocal guarantees of Israel's security, a shared capital of occupied Jerusalem and compromise over the Palestinians' right of return.

The dangerous illusion of stability in the Middle East is giving way to the messy beginnings of democracy. Only a fool would say the transition will be easy or without considerable risk. All the more reason for the west to abandon the failed foreign policy of double standards. It might then have the chance to forge a better relationship with the new Middle East than with the old.

Delirious Joy In Bahrain

When protesters announced that they were going to try to march on the Pearl Roundabout this afternoon, I had a terrible feeling. King Hamad of Bahrain has repeatedly shown he is willing to use brutal force to crush protesters, including live fire just yesterday on unarmed, peaceful protesters who were given no warning. I worried the same thing would happen today. I felt sick as I saw the first group cross into the circle.

But, perhaps on orders of the crown prince, the army troops had been withdrawn, and the police were more restrained today. Police fired many rounds of tear gas on the south side of the roundabout to keep protesters away, but that didn’t work and the police eventually fled. People began pouring into the roundabout from every direction, some even bringing their children and celebrating with an almost indescribable joy. It’s amazing to see a site of such tragedy a few days ago become a center of jubilation right now. It’s like a huge party. I asked one businessman, Yasser, how he was feeling, and he stretched out his arms and screamed: “GREAT!!!!”

Many here tell me that this is a turning point, and that democracy will now come to Bahrain – in the form of a constitutional monarchy in which the king reigns but does not rule – and eventually to the rest of the Gulf and Arab world as well. But some people are still very, very wary and fear that the government will again send in troops to reclaim the roundabout. I just don’t know what will happen, and it’s certainly not over yet. But it does feel as if this just might be a milestone on the road to Arab democracy.

For King Hamad, who has presided over torture, gerrymandering and lately the violent repression of his own people, I don’t know what will happen. Like Hosni Mubarak, he could have worked out a deal for democracy if he had initiated it, but he then lost his credibility when he decided to kill his own citizens. Some people on the roundabout were chanting “Down with the Regime,” and they have different views about what precisely that means. Some would allow the king to remain in a largely figurehead role, while others want King Hamad out.

A democratic Bahrain will also put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia has been notoriously repressive toward the Shiite population in its eastern region, and the racist contempt among some Sunnis in the Gulf toward Shiites is breathtaking. If Shiites come to rule the banking capital of the region (as well, now, as Iraq), that will help change the dynamic.

We don’t know what exactly President Obama said to the king in his call last night, but we do know that the White House was talking about suspending military licensing to Bahrain. This may have been a case where American pressure helped avert a tragedy and aligned us with people power in a way that in the long run will be good for Bahrain and America alike.

Americans will worry about what comes next, if people power does prevail, partly because Gulf rulers have been whispering warnings about Iranian-influence and Islamists taking over. Look, democracy is messy. But there’s no hint of anti-Americanism out there, and people treated American journalists as heroes because we reflect values of a free press that they aspire to achieve for their country. And at the end of the day, we need to stand with democracy rather than autocracy if we want to be on the right side of history.

Finally, I just have to say: These Bahraini democracy activists are unbelievably courageous. I’ve been taken aback by their determination and bravery. They faced down tanks and soldiers, withstood beatings and bullets, and if they achieve democracy – boy, they deserve it.

Israel's Demophobia

By Dov Waxman
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/02/2011

The spectacular downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has cast a spotlight on a great many facts about the Middle East: the contempt and hatred that the masses harbor toward the dictators of the region; the wanton brutality of police forces and regime-sponsored thugs; the deliberate manipulation of fears-foreign and domestic-about the Islamist threat; the popular yearning for democracy and dignity; and the energy and inventiveness of the region's youth.

Also starkly apparent is the dire predicament that Israel is in, largely as a result of its own doing. This predicament is not, as many in Israel and the American pro-Israel lobby fear, a growing encirclement of the country by the forces of radical Islam led by Iran. Rather, the predicament is simply that the only ‘friends' that Israel has in the region are autocrats whose support-overt and covert-for Israeli policies is deeply unpopular. As such, Israel is basically an opponent of democracy in the region, except of course when it can undermine its enemies, as in the case of the current regime in Iran.  

While Egyptians were ecstatic, Arabs across the region inspired, and millions around the world cheered by Mubarak's sudden fall from power, Israelis-more precisely Israeli Jews-were anxious and fearful. Naturally enough, they view the dramatic events in Egypt through the prism of their own concerns, and viewed in this way many in Israel believe that the Egyptian revolution is bad news for them. From an Israeli perspective, Mubarak may have been an unpopular dictator and his regime brutal and corrupt, but at least he could be trusted to keep the peace with Israel and keep the Islamists at bay.  Whoever and whatever comes to power in Egypt after him might not be so reliable.

Israelis fear a post-Mubarak Egypt. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.  They fear that Egypt will become like Iran after its revolution. They fear that the peace treaty they have with Egypt since 1979 will be scrapped. They fear spreading regional instability, especially in neighboring Jordan. They fear that Hamas will be strengthened in Gaza and in the West Bank, maybe even allowing it to gain power there as well. They fear being surrounded by hostile regimes, as they were until Egypt broke the Arab consensus and made a ‘separate peace' with Israel. 

Although it has always been a ‘cold peace' between Israel and Egypt, its strategic and psychological value for Israel is immense. Not only did it take out the strongest Arab army from the military balance of power, secure Israel's southern flank, and allow Israel to reduce its defense burden, but it also relieved the suffocating sense of encirclement that Israelis experienced for the first three decades of their state's existence, and demonstrated to them that peace is in fact attainable. To lose this now, at a time when Israel already faces a growing threat from Iran and must deal with Hezbollah and Hamas on its northern and southern borders respectively, would be a strategic nightmare and a serious psychological blow.

But is this really likely to happen? Are the dire scenarios now being imagined by Israeli officials in Jerusalem and feverishly repeated in the Israeli press credible? In short, are Israel's fears well-founded?

The bottom-line is: no. The fear that is now gripping Israel is excessive and overblown.  Certainly, Israelis have every reason to be concerned about what happens in Egypt, as well as in Jordan. They have learned from bitter experience that change in the region rarely turns out well for them, as the coming to power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza most recently testify. Their profound sense of vulnerability is not simply delusional-for all its military might, Israel is a small country with a small population and has little margin for error in its national security. Nevertheless, Israelis need to get over their longstanding fear of Arab democracy.
Israel has always proudly identified itself as the only democracy in the Middle East (an identity which itself is now at risk as the rights of its Arab minority and human rights groups in the country have come under attack from right-wing nationalist forces). Yet, it has never been particularly eager for Arab nations to join its exclusive club. Whatever the intrinsic virtues of democracy, Israelis are convinced that it is not in Israel's interests for Arabs to enjoy it. To be sure, some on the Israeli political right - including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself - have argued that true Arab-Israeli peace will only come once the Arab world democratizes, but this has been more of a rhetorical argument used against the left's attempts at peacemaking than an sincere expression of support for democracy in the Arab world (as the Netanyahu government's barely concealed opposition to democratic change in Egypt has proved). In practice, Israeli policymakers on the left and right have preferred the continued rule of authoritarian regimes to democratization in the region. The outcomes of recent open elections in Lebanon (in 2009) and the Palestinian territories (in 2006), resulting in the empowerment of anti-Israel Islamist groups (Hezbollah and Hamas) has further vindicated this preference in the minds of most Israelis.

Israeli antipathy towards Arab democracy is not just a result of recent history. Arab masses - the so-called Arab street - have long been an object of widespread fear and mistrust among Israeli Jews. This goes all the way back to the popular protests and violent attacks that Palestinians carried out against Zionist settlers during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. Although early Zionist ideologues hoped that the Zionist settlement project could gain the support of the Palestinian peasant masses, whom they claimed it would materially benefit, over the objections of the Arab landowning elite, this did not turn out to be the case. The vast majority of Palestinians were adamantly opposed to Zionism, eventually staging a popular uprising against British rulers and Zionist settlers in the late 1930s (in many ways, the first Palestinian ‘Intifada').  From that point on it was clear that the Arab masses were opponents of the Zionist project (a fact that led a small group of dovish Zionists such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes to advocate a binational Jewish-Arab state as a means of gaining Arab support).

As far as most Israeli Jews are concerned, Arabs - whether Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, etc. - remain uncompromising enemies of the Jewish state. The peace agreements that Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan are regarded as the decisions of individual rulers (Anwar Sadat and King Hussein) based upon the logic of realpolitik, not popular sentiment. In line with this view, Israelis assume that if the Egyptian and Jordanian publics had their way, the peace agreements would soon be shredded. Even worse, many Israelis fear that if Arab public opinion is allowed to determine the foreign policies of Arab states, then a resumption of Arab-Israeli hostilities is the likely outcome. Arab public opinion, according to this view, is bellicose and fanatically anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic.

Fundamentally, many Israelis continue to believe that Arabs want to destroy the Jewish state and will try to do so if given half a chance. In their eyes, what's happening in Egypt now might well give them that chance.

Such is the prevailing fear in Israel. The problem with it - aside from its reliance upon a sweeping generalization about Arabs - is that it completely ignores the fact that Egyptians themselves have every reason to maintain peace with Israel. The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protesting in the streets in recent weeks were not burning Israeli flags and calling for a jihad against the Jewish state. They were calling for freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. They wants jobs and a better standard of living, and renewed conflict with Israel is certainly not going to help them achieve this, as impoverished Palestinians in Gaza can attest. However much they support the Palestinian cause, Egyptians will not sacrifice their own futures for it. Peace, in other words, is in their interest as much as it is in the interest of Israelis.

Even in the unlikely event of a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government, Israel need not be too worried. While such a government would undoubtedly lend its support to Hamas, it would not necessarily actively arm Hamas or align itself with Iran. Its primary interest would be in successfully governing Egypt, and it would need stability and continued foreign investment and tourism in order to do that. Although it is an opaque organization with a checkered history, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda (they strongly oppose each other).

It is time for Israelis to realize that not all Islamist groups are the same. While they are all deeply and maybe implacably opposed to Israel, they are not all willing to take up arms against the Jewish state, and some may be reluctantly willing to co-exist with it. 

A democratic Egypt, therefore, will not abrogate the peace treaty or go to war with Israel. But, Egyptian policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to change.  The Mubarak regime's policy, which essentially amounted to acquiescence to Israel's continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories, was deeply unpopular among Egyptians. It struck them as fundamentally immoral and as a betrayal of Arab solidarity. A reversal of this policy is surely inevitable. 

This is likely to mean an end to Egypt's cooperation in maintaining Israel's ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, and quite possibly a refusal to continue to support the charade of a peace process between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. How bad would this be for Israel? That really depends on what Israel you're talking about. It's certainly bad for ‘Greater Israel,' that is, an Israel that continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem and keep the Gaza Strip under siege. But if Israel is willing to end its counter-productive stranglehold on Gaza, stop expanding Jewish settlements, and begin real peace negotiations with the Palestinians-as opposed to pretending to negotiate while simultaneously undermining those negotiations through continued land grabs-then a democratically elected Egyptian government would face a lot less public pressure to oppose Israeli policies.

Israelis should not assume the enmity of the Egyptian public. Although this undoubtedly exists, it is more the product of anger and frustration over Israel's actions, past and present, towards the Palestinians than the product of ideology or theology (it has also been stoked by the Mubarak regime itself which allowed virulently anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic ideas and beliefs to be widely disseminated in Egyptian popular culture). As the recent mass protests demonstrated, Egyptians have largely discarded the ideologies of the past-Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, even Islamism-in favor of concrete and pragmatic political and economic demands. This is also true when it comes to their foreign policy attitudes. These attitudes are influenced less by fiery demagogues than by what they watch on TV (especially the popular Arab satellite channels) and read in the newspaper. Accustomed to graphic images of Israeli violence and stories of Palestinian suffering, is it any wonder that Egyptians stridently oppose Israel?

Instead of immediately dismissing Arab public opinion in Egypt and elsewhere as hopelessly and unremittingly anti-Israeli, Israeli Jews should recognize that what Israel does - not simply what it is - shapes public opinion in the Arab world, and in the rest of the world too for that matter. Rather than desperately hope that somehow the rising tide of democratic change in the Middle East can be held in check, Israelis need to seriously think about how they can improve their relations with Egyptians and other Arab publics.  To be sure, this will not be easy to do. Egyptians, like Arabs across the Middle East and beyond, have a very negative view of Israel and of Israeli Jews. More than anything else, Israel's continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories is responsible for this (but it is not the only factor). By ending the Occupation, therefore, Israelis can make peace with the Palestinians and finally begin to really make peace with Egyptians as well. 

Unfortunately, Israelis now seem to be drawing the opposite conclusion. The political upheavals and turmoil in the region are regarded by many as yet another reason not to carry out any risky territorial withdrawals in the future. They are pining their hopes on the military maintaining power in Egypt, whether openly or behind the scenes, and other pro-Western authoritarian regimes weathering the storm of protest they are now facing.  

Whether or not real democratization will soon take place in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world, Israelis are counting on an unstable and ultimately doomed political order in the region. The era of Arab autocracy is coming to end and the era of Arab democracy is beginning. In this new era, Israel must make peace with the people of the Middle East, not just with their autocratic rulers. Only by doing so can Israelis truly achieve the security and acceptance they still long for. 

Dov Waxman is an associate professor in political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Egypt's Unknown Element

By David Ignatius from Cairo
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 20/02/2011

For much of the past 30 years, the shadowy Muslim Brotherhood was almost a raison d'etre for the regime of President Hosni Mubarak: Egypt needed a strong authoritarian government, the argument went, or it would be hijacked by Islamic radicals. That bugaboo went out the window with Mubarak's ouster this month. 

It's easy now, in the afterglow of the revolution that toppled Mubarak, to believe that such warnings were self-serving nonsense. The "Ikhwan," as the Brotherhood is known here, is out of the closet and doesn't look so scary. Its young militants have linked arms with secular protesters; its leaders talk of competing with other parties in a democratic Egypt; the movement actually seems to be fracturing a bit, now that it's out in the sunlight. 

The Egyptian people are making a bet that the Brotherhood won't wreck their new experiment in democracy. But as is always the case with real political change, it's impossible to be sure. The new Egypt will need a strong constitution to protect human rights, and a strong army to back it up. Even with these checks, there will always be a risk that the country could veer toward a dangerous Islamic radicalism. 

It was unnerving to see mass prayers in Tahrir Square at a "Victory March" on Friday, an image that evokes Tehran more than Cairo. But the crowd was as nationalistic as it was religious, and as soon as the Muslim prayers ended, Egyptian flags began to wave. 

To get a sense of the Brotherhood's power and intentions, I met with several of its leaders and visited a Cairo slum where militants might have a foothold. What I found was reassuring. The leaders talk a conciliatory line; more important, they don't seem menacing out in the streets. Like the rest of Egypt, the Brotherhood's members seem to be reaching for a more modern identity. 

But a caution: The rhetoric of accommodation could change. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, one of the group's more moderate members, warned me that if democracy fails, "silent cells may rise again, and we may suffer again from violence." He said that this jihadist resurgence would be "bad for Egypt and the world," and he's certainly right - but the point is that it's not an impossibility. 

Essam el-Erian, the group's spokesman, has an office on the banks of the Nile with a notice on the door that says: "Muslim Brotherhood." He's hardly an underground figure, in other words. His statements are mostly soothing: He says that the group won't run a candidate for president and isn't seeking a majority in parliament; he predicts that it will probably get 30 to 35 percent of the votes; he says that the Brotherhood will abide by Egypt's international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel. 

El-Erian knows that his world has been changed by the Tahrir Square revolution that shattered its nemesis, the Mubarak regime. The official Brotherhood leadership was actually slow to understand the importance of the protest, and el-Erian sounds a bit defensive in explaining why they were late to the revolution: "We're busy in other business. To stay and protest in Tahrir is not useful to us." 

The youth members of the Brotherhood got it, however, and they defied their elders and went to Tahrir. The moderate leader Abou el-Fotouh says that the kids were right to ignore the leadership. There is a "calcified mind in Egypt," he says, apparently including some of his colleagues. 

Abou el-Fotouh says that the Brotherhood should stay out of party politics. Its support would be only 20 to 25 percent, he predicts, and he would prefer to form a new party that would be like the ruling AKP in Turkey. This party should even reach out to other sects, he says, recognizing that "Egyptian civilization was built by Muslims and Coptics." 

Listening to these moderate Muslim brothers, you want to get a reality check out on the streets. A serious investigation would take months, but I was able to visit a poor neighborhood called Ezbet Khairallah in the hills south of downtown Cairo. This is a shantytown of unpaved streets, without sewers or water, inhabited by squatters who moved from Upper Egypt. The women all wear prim head scarves and robes. 

The slum is a breeding ground for Muslim militants, you might think. But my guide, an activist named Yasmina Abou Youssef who runs a neighborhood program here called Tawasol, said that few people seem connected to the Brotherhood. She introduced me to three veiled women who said that the Ikhwan had little influence. 

It's a roll of the dice, creating a fully democratic Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood could become a dominant force. But from what a visitor can see and hear, it's a wager the Egyptian people are determined to make - and one that deserves American support.

The New Egypt

By Abdel Mon'em Said
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 19/02/2011

Egyptians have never agreed on anything as much as they now agree that Egypt post-25 January 2011 will not be the same as it was prior to this date. There are a host of signs that attest to this fact. An entire regime, or at least the majority of it, has been toppled, and not one ministry has been untouched by this, although the armed forces continues to play their role in running the country, and the judicial system continues to recommend constitutional amendments, but is now [also] doggedly pursuing many figures implicated in corruption.
Other than this, everything has changed! It would not be impossible for the president to return, or even for us to discuss the most absurd political story in the history of modern Egypt, namely the hereditary succession of the president's son [Gamal Mubarak]. This [revolution] has left a multitude of members of the ruling National Democratic Party as soldiers without generals, whilst state-owned and official media have started to look for a new way to survive, particularly in light of the attacks they are now being subject to, internally and externally. This is truly a moment of revolution, and law and order in Egypt is still struggling to return to the scene. The revolutionaries are fighting amongst themselves to avoid a fate experienced by all revolutions throughout history which sees the post-revolutionary situation in the country oscillating between chaos and dictatorship. These revolutionaries are trying to establish an irreversible democracy achieved by a myriad of guarantees. The revolutionaries believe that a democracy such as this will protect against political and economic deviations, as well as cure all social ailments.
However the revolutionaries in Egypt are unfamiliar with the views of philosophers like Plato or politicians like Churchill on the subject of democracy and its complexities. What they have is an international reference with regards to [the implementation of] the Swiss, British or US versions of democracy after Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the provisions of the constitution are amended. This explains why the revolutionaries' demands are all focused on a peaceful transition of power, the forthcoming constitutional amendments, and the forthcoming [presidential] elections that would see Egypt entering the 21st century eleven years late.
This is an exciting scene. The new Egypt has started to unfold, but the main characteristics of the dawning era have yet to reveal themselves, in comparison to the previous era which was characterized by the president's hegemony, not just with regards to power but also the makeup of the [political] parties, newspapers, satellite television channels, and even late night [topical] talk shows. Egypt is, with great effort, walking between different [political] powers and forces who are all trying to find their footing in this new post-Mubarak era.

Just for the record, the revolutionary setting still exists. Although the revolutionaries have departed Tahrir Square, they have pledged to come back. This place has now turned into a sacred shrine holding memories of glorious days. People now frequent Tahrir Square draped in the red, white, and black, of Egypt's flag. Nothing can spoil this sense of joy and jubilation, except of course, the sight of empty hotels, dismayed factory workers who do not know when they will be able to get back to work, and worried citizens whose money is tied up in the stock exchange and who have no clue whether they will see this money again or not. However the January 25 Revolution has gone down in history, and Egypt is a different place than before. Today, this historic event is waiting to be immortalized by the historians' pens; however ironically, this revolution was not sparked by the pen, but rather by the keyboard! In any case, historians will have to examine three [political] forces that temporarily came together [to bring about the revolution], however in reality these are three separate entities. They came together in Tahrir Square at a crucial moment in Egyptian history; a moment bristling with tension, joy, hope for the future and fear of the unknown.
The first force is the power that incited this revolution and the major force behind it, let us call them the "Google" youth; they are the Egyptian middle class who are connected to the outside world, explicitly flying the flag for democracy and civil rule. This group's hatred of the old regime runs deep, and it continues to think well of other [political] forces, believing that democracy will solve all the complex problems through the magic of the free and fair ballot box. Perhaps this force has some doubts about the army's commitment to this ideal, but there is no other force but the army that can guarantee a peaceful transition [to democracy]. Other than this, the Google youth show remarkable tolerance and good intentions toward the other [political] powers out of a deep-seated belief in the concept of pluralism. This group believes that the deviations that are appearing here and there, or dictatorial inclinations that emerge every now and than, are nothing more than the product of a former regime accustomed to lying and slander.

The second political force is all those affiliated to the old [political] system. The president and his cronies may have gone, but the political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all government and public sector employees, remain in place. In addition to this, all of Egypt's major problems, as well as the country's demographic and geographic situation, also remain in place. These problems remain as unshakable mountains, and they have not budged an inch for they are the result of an enduring legacy. This second political force operates in their own way, which is not so different from the past. What is different is that each bloc or party is [now] attempting to extend and expand its own powers and influence. The [Egyptian] Wafd party are still eager to lead a liberal current, however this party's components have changed and this party will never be the same. Neo-liberals in other parties like the El-Ghad party or the Democracy Front party can do nothing more than attempt to obtain the support of more youth. As for the bureaucrats, they have managed to expand, and in just one week install approximately a million new civil servants who are enthusiastically raising the slogan of justice. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they are discussing their next move and redoing their calculations about the new powers which have surfaced overnight after they believed that the collapse of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the ouster of the Mubarak regime signified the right moment for them to reap what they had sowed. Surprisingly enough, the NDP disintegrated only to be replaced by the Google youth.

The armed forces are the third force in this equation. They have a long history of seizing power, whilst also serving as the guardians of the former regime right up until its dying moments. Now the armed forces are serving as the guardians of the new [political] system. This is because the professional Egyptian army has never belonged to any regime, but rather been the army of the state, an everlasting entity. So far the army has handled the transition process very wisely, managing to gain everybody's confidence from the first moment. At this point in time, and despite suspicions by some who believe that historically whenever the army manages to seize power it never hands it back, all political powers are aware that they must move from this revolutionary period to the next stage, regardless of the inherent risk involved. After Mubarak stepped down, power was transferred to the army which has now become the source of authority. However, the armed forces were successful in reassuring everybody that the Supreme Military Council will not be another Revolutionary Command Council seeking power, but rather a force that will implement wide-ranging reform with the minimum of pain.

The three forces mentioned above represent the new Egypt which was born from a revolution against a [political] system that, in essence, lasted for six decades. If things go smoothly over the coming six months, we will be able to see what this new Egypt looks like! Let's wait and see.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hitting Israel Where It Hurts Most

Palestinian movement seeking boycott of goods, divestment and sanctions is receiving overwhelming support

By As'ad Abdul Rahman
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 19/02/2011

On July 9, 2005, a Palestinian grassroots movement launched its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel until its government complied with international law and universal principles of human rights.

The BDS National Committee (BNC) is calling all people to join the Global BDS ‘day of action' on Land Day — March 30 — in solidarity with the Palestinian people's right to self-determination on their ancestral land.

Land Day symbolises Palestinian resistance to Israel's land expropriation, colonisation, occupation and apartheid. In broad terms, the BDS, a non-violent resistance campaign, seeks to achieve the following:

1. End Israeli occupation of Arab lands, including the West Bank, especially occupied east Jerusalem and Gaza.

2. Dismantle the apartheid wall which turned the Occupied Territories into a big prison designed to induce the Palestinians to abandon their lands under an Israeli policy of ethnic cleansing similar to that applied by South Africa during its racist regime which put black Africans into enclaves. Israel has turned such enclaves into fortified colonies in the heart of the Palestinian lands to kill any chance towards building a viable Palestinian state that can live in peace with a ‘Hebrew' one.

3. Recognise Arab Palestinians as full citizens of Israel with equal rights.

4. Fulfil UN resolution 194 which assures the ‘right of return' of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties.

Palestinian civil societies making up the BDS movement are calling on their international counterparts and people around the world to adopt boycott and divestment policies against Israel, similar to those brought against the former South African regime.

The BDS campaigns around the world have damaged Israel's image as ‘the only true democracy in the Middle East', by revealing its real apartheid essence to the world's civil societies, who are responding in droves to the boycott call.

Pension funds

Along this lines, BDS activists are intensifying their efforts to get Europe's major funds to avoid places where international law and human rights are violated. The campaign recently succeeded in getting a major Dutch pension fund to divest from almost all the Israeli companies in its portfolio.

The Dutch fund PFZW, with an investment of ¤97 billion (Dh483.63 billion), has adopted a new guideline called ‘socially responsible investment in companies which operate in conflict zones'. This Dutch fund has entered into serious discussions with Motorola, Veolia and Alstom to warn them that their investments in Israel might cause them legal complications because their profits come from illegally confiscated lands in Palestine.

In September 2009, the Norwegian State Pension Fund decided that it would no longer invest in companies that directly contribute to violation of international law.

In February 2010, the largest Dutch pension fund ABP informed the ‘electronic intifada' that it had divested from the Israeli company, Elbit Systems, in which it held shares worth millions of euros!
On June 14, 2010, the Old Grorud Borough district of Oslo, Norway, voted to boycott Israel, according to the Norwegian News Service NRK which quoted Turid Thomassen, leader of a major Norwegian political party as saying "this vote could be the start of a wider boycott movement in Norway".

The German-owned megastore LIDL has become one of Ireland's largest chain stores to stop selling Israeli farm products. Along similar lines, one news report said: "The Irish public has reacted angrily to the Israeli raid of the Gaza aid flotilla" in May 2010 leading many in a mass movement to boycott Israeli products. They have advised the Irish public through leaflets and websites to avoid purchasing products with the barcode number 729 which designates the Israeli origin of the product.

On May 22, 2010, two major Italian supermarket chains, COOP and Nordiconad, announced the suspension of sales of products from Israel, following intense campaigns waged by BDS and some of their close allies in Italy.

It is only a matter of time, thanks to ceaseless BDS efforts, for the campaign against Israel to grow into massive power. Indeed, Israel must be experiencing the feeling of being under siege by the growing clout of BDS campaigns which is generating an extreme dislike of Israel around the world and seriously contributing to the erosion of its legitimacy as a state.

The Palestinian civil society groups, which stand behind the BDS campaigns in different countries, are inspired by India's great leader Mahatma Gandhi and are following in his footsteps. His non-violent resistance campaign of boycotting British products brought about his country's liberation from British colonial rule.

Indeed, the BDS movement spares no effort in calling upon organisations and people of conscience in world countries to join its peaceful campaign, not just for the sake of Palestine, but also for the sake of world peace and justice. 

Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the Chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopaedia.

Arab Youth, Don't Lose Momentum Now

Our generation has finally rediscovered the lost revolutionary heritage of our forefathers - we must keep the dream alive.

By Abdel Razzaq Takriti
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 18/02/2011

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak resigns, Cairo, Egypt - 11 Feb 2011
Egyptians in Tahrir Square, Cairo, celebrate the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. Photograph: Keystone USA-ZUMA/Rex Features
I was born the same week Hosni Mubarak came to power. Arabs of my generation grew up with a keen awareness of two realities: that we did not have any say in choosing our leaders, and that our countries were still living the colonial present, still not free from foreign control.

Something we couldn't get hold of was preventing us from representing ourselves or defending our rights. Some dark force seemed to be imprisoning us metaphorically, while if we protested this state of affairs or campaigned to change our fate we were imprisoned in the literal dungeons of the Abu Zabal prison, or countless others police stations across the Arab world. Many of us are stuck in the much larger jail that is Gaza. Since Camp David, a very special breed of security states were built, all geared towards the direct containment of our aspirations for freedom. Our generation knew nothing other than these regimes, which to us appeared eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent.

Older generations knew things were not always this way. Sometimes they would discuss, in lowered voices, the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser when Egypt was at the helm of Arab resistance. In other moments, they would tell stories of the Palestinian revolution of the 60s and 70s. Yet, they too were bitterly disappointed at our present, feeling disempowered, unable to tell us what happened, and how it was lost.

To be sure, the past gave us a tradition of which we were proud. Yet, that tradition seemed ever so distant, its legacy of hope and achievement way beyond our reach. How many of us watched films and documentaries about this era, reading old books, all the while dreaming of being young and Arab in that extraordinary hour when Egypt launched its epic confrontation with colonial rule in 1952; or when the Suez canal was nationalised and the British, French and Israeli aggression was defeated in 1956; or at that heady moment when Algeria celebrated independence in 1962; or when thousands joined the struggle for Palestinian liberation in the 60s and 70s?

The tradition to which those moments of hope belonged was so vivid in our imagination, but so far from our reality. For the past 30 years, those who fought for freedom were imprisoned, tortured, mocked or marginalised.

Those of us who campaigned for change were ignored and brutalised. Yet, by the grace of this Egyptian revolution and its Tunisian sister, the struggles of the last decades have been vindicated and the tradition has been reclaimed. Popular movements now will begin a new chapter of legitimacy and honour in a struggle for genuine representation. We are living a dream.

Against all the odds two tyrants have so far been overthrown; and Arab youth across the world are exchanging excited messages. "Mabrouk" (congratulations) is the word of the day and 11 February 2011 will be permanently marked as an anniversary of celebration and joy, a milestone in the international history of democracy.

This Arab quest for freedom and liberation has always had powerful opponents; our dreams are their nightmares. They know as well as we do that the Egyptian revolution represents not just the overthrow of the ancien regime, but the decolonisation of the country. The first condition of true representative democracy is independence. But this is not something that the American, Israeli and other foreign governments wish for Egypt or any other Arab country, in spite of the attempts at presenting the Egyptian military establishment as a free-standing independent actor.

Yet, it may still be possible to realise our dream if we can keep close to popular consensus, which in Egypt's case has growing influence within the lower ranks of the army, who are overwhelmingly patriotic. The challenge for this generation of Arab youth is not to lose the momentum: our generation has finally rediscovered the lost revolutionary heritage of our parents and grandparents. Today, hundreds of thousands are struggling for their freedom in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine. If the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have taught us anything, it is that we organise without respite until the rest of the Arab world is also free: we carry the dream.

Iran: The U.S. Must Empower The Green Movement

By Ray Takeyh
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 17/02/2011

As Iran's streets erupt with pro-democracy demonstrations, it is all too obvious that the only option the United States has in altering the Islamic Republic's behavior is to support the Green Movement.

The clerical oligarchs have tried hard to prevent the contagion of democracy from afflicting their nation. Despite their maladroit attempt to establish a moral continuity between Iran's 1979 revolution and the recent uprising in Egypt, and their threats of violence and retribution toward those who protest, the mullahs have failed to reclaim their citizens.

It is too facile to suggest that the wave of protests rocking the Middle East was born in Iran, but it is not too simplistic to stress that Iran will not be left behind in the march for freedom.

The Middle East is undergoing one of its most momentous transformations since achieving independence from imperial rule. Although the canard of Islamist takeover has unsettled many pundits and policymakers, the bottom line is that the region has left behind its infatuation with revisionist ideologies. In the streets of Arab capitals we are witnessing the passing of the age of ideology, as neither pan-Arabism, with its promises of modernity, nor Islamism, with its pledges of authenticity, can redeem the region's autocrats. The restive youth and the overburdened middle class can no longer be tempted by faded orthodoxies and false shibboleths that conceal the reality of repression and corruption. In retrospect, the Green Movement that arose after Iran's disputed presidential election in 2009 was not so much a catalyst but a harbinger of this new epoch.

As exhilarating as the early stages of the region's political transition may be, democratic upheaval is likely to narrow the conventional options of addressing the threat of Iran's nuclear program. Great powers such as Russia and China that place a premium on stability are unlikely to agree to more economic sanctions. The Arab states preoccupied with renegotiating their national compacts will be reluctant to participate in efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. And the military option that was always unattractive has now become implausible; it would be rash to employ force against Iran's suspected nuclear installations and radicalize the Arab populace just as forces of moderation and democracy seem ascendant.

All is not lost, however. The only durable solution to Iran's nuclear conundrum was always empowerment of the Green Movement. Tehran's callous leadership, indifferent to the financial penalties of its nuclear truculence, was hardly prone to make cost-benefit assessments and constructively participate in negotiations. Although it has been customary since the disputed presidential election of 2009 for the Washington establishment to pronounce the demise of the Green Movement, the battered Iranian opposition has succeeded in de-legitimizing the theocratic regime and enticing a significant portion of the population to contemplate life beyond the parameters of clerical despotism. Citizens' disenchantment was mirrored by the steady stream of defecting regime loyalists, who have forsaken their revolutionary patrimony. The breakdown of ideological controls in Iran is bound to affect the cohesion and solidarity of its security services. Deprived of popular credibility or a convincing dogma, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may not even be able to enforce his rule through fear.

The key challenge for the United States is to find ways to connect with the Green Movement. As important as social media or rhetorical declarations may be, such measures are limited. The model of Eastern Europe is instructive, as the West managed to covertly use a range of institutions, such as the Catholic Church and labor unions, to funnel assistance to dissidents. Several parts of Iranian civil society - labor syndicates, savvy youth, clerical dissidents, liberal protesters and universities - exist in a state of perpetual rebellion; they deserve to be beneficiaries of American advice and assistance. Whether motivated by idealism or a desire to advance practical security concerns, the West must recognize that the only thing standing between the mullahs and the bomb is the Green Movement.

The demise of the Islamic Republic is inevitable. Should the Middle East move toward realizing the aspirations of its citizens, and embrace pluralism and accountability, it is hard to see how a retrogressive clerical tyranny can persist in the region. During the democratic transition, there is still the challenge of tempering Iran's pernicious ambitions, and the mullahs' penchant for terrorism must still be addressed. The chimera of a diplomatic solution should no longer blind the international community to Iran's political vulnerabilities. In the end, the most effective means of disarming the Islamic Republic and ending its reign of terror is to invest in the indomitable Green Movement.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Crackdown In Bahrain

Sectarian and hardline politics have brought protesters out into streets of this once quiet Gulf nation. And as the bodycount rises, the United States should be gravely concerned.
By Jean-Francois Seznec
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 17/02/2011
The crackdown was brutal.
At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of Bahraini riot police surrounded the protesters sleeping in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square. The security forces then stormed the camp, launching an attack that killed at least five protesters, some of whom were reportedly shot in their sleep with shotgun rounds. Thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in the square on Feb. 15, in conscious emulation of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, to push their demands for a more representative political system and an end to official corruption.
The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain's military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital "under control."
Perhaps alarmed at the recent revolutions that toppled the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain has been taking no chances against its young and mostly Shiite protest movement. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been able to overcome past troubles by posing as an enlightened autocrat, willing to show leniency. But divisions within the monarch's family, which he relies on to maintain his authority, may be forcing the king into a harsher position. And that spells trouble for Bahrain's stability, as well as the country's halting reform efforts.
The United States has a considerable national security stake in what goes on in this tiny island kingdom. Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which protects the vital oil supply lines that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz -- an important asset for the United States in the event of a conflict with Iran. Bahrain is also a key logistical hub and command center for U.S naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean.
For the past few years, quasi-Salafist and arch-conservative elements of the Khalifa family have been gaining power over more liberal members of the family, who advocate widening the economic and political involvement to all spheres of Bahraini society.
Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the oldest and richest member of main ruling clan, has emerged as the leader of these conservatives, who seek to ensure the Khalifa family's continued stranglehold over the politics and economy of the country. His resignation has become one of the protesters' primary demands.
While the successful mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia clearly inspired the protesters in Manama, trouble has been brewing in Bahrain -- which is divided between a Sunni ruling family and a majority Shia population -- for years. Skirmishes broke out between young Shia Bahrainis and police forces last March, and political dissidents were arrested in the run-up to the Oct. 30 parliamentary elections.
The growing influence of the more extreme Khalifas was on full display during the Feb. 17 police crackdown. The police force that raided the camp is legally under the control of the prime minister. The brutality with which the raid was conducted may have been a bid to create a state of emergency on the island, forcing the more liberal members of the family to side with them against the protesters.
It is not only the Sunni ruling family that is divided -- the Shia opposition parties are also split. The al-Wefaq party is the largest opposition party in Parliament, but its support among Shia has declined due to its failure to win any concessions from the leadership on the issues of increased political power and representation or economic opportunities. As a result, the more confrontational al-Haq movement has been taking to the streets to wrest leadership away from al-Wefaq. 
In the past year, reports that al-Haq members were arrested and tortured by the security forces only bolstered its popularity among the Shia youth and unemployed. According to some Shia leaders, al-Haq now is seen by a majority of Shia as the leading group of the community. The efforts of the demonstrators to reject violence -- noble aspirations supported by the majority of Bahrainis -- may represent an attempt by al-Wefaq to take back leadership of the opposition from the more confrontational al-Haq.
The October 2010 elections to the Majlis al-Nawaf -- the lower house of Parliament -- were expected to bring some stability to the country. Al-Wefaq won 18 out of 40 total seats, and the election was relatively free and fair (though some constituencies were gerrymandered to ensure that al-Wefaq did not gain a majority). What's more, the influence of some of the more extremist Sunni groups was undermined by centrist Sunni-Shia alliances.
However, these hopes were dashed by Parliament's inability to affect real change in the country. All its decisions can be negated by the Majlis as-Shura, whose members are nominated by King Hamad. And the king can also veto any parliamentary decision. The sectarian divide that has emerged in parliament over the past three elections has also meant that most issues, such as the public availability of alcohol, the segregation of sexes in schools, are framed in purely religious terms. This has led the public to see parliamentary action as mostly irrelevant to their lives, increasing the pressure for citizens to take to the streets.
These particularities of Bahraini politics aside, it is clear that the present mass demonstrations are trying to follow the nonviolent example set by their counterparts in Egypt. The current wave of protests originated from 14,000 young people on Facebook. They represent a new generation,  fed up with the impasse between the al-Khalifa clan and the older Shia leadership. The chant today on the street is: "No Sunni, No Shia, just Bahraini!"
This is a message that the Khalifa family, and the U.S. government, would do well to take to heart. Anyone who has traveled to or lived in Bahrain knows that Bahrainis -- both Sunnis and Shia -- see themselves as Bahraini first, not stooges of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Some, of course, are influenced by Tehran or Riyadh -- but by and large citizens are influenced by what happens in Manama.
The Khalifa family has skillfully drawn on Western fears of the Shia as tools of Iran, which has so far obtained unquestioned U.S. support for their continued rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mealy-mouthed statement today, in which she called for the government to show "restraint," is further evidence of this fact. Her remarks will not sway the prime minister and his cohorts, nor will they convince the demonstrators that the United States is a defender of their rights.
In the absence of real reform, the Iran threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Khalifas are not able to open up the state to their own citizens, the more extreme Shiite leaders could start to see Iran as a protector, and a curb to U.S. and Saudi influence. And a turn towards Iran would likely bring Saudi intervention in support of the monarchy. The Khalifa leadership is faced with the choice of truly liberalizing or risking outside intervention -- which would mean a grave loss of their position, and a potential catastrophe for the United States as well.

Egypt: A Difficult Road With Enemies In Ambush

By Amir Taheri
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 18/02/2011

Egyptians have always known that when a mummy encounters life it disintegrates. This is what happened the other day when President Hosni Mubarak’s regime fell apart in the face of an Egyptian people full of life and youth.
Although we do not yet know how things might turn out in Egypt, one thing is certain: the Mubarak system had reached the end of the road. It had nothing new to offer and was out of sync with a nation that it had helped change over the past 30 years.
The root cause of the regime’s troubles was that it could not turn change, inevitable under all circumstances, into a friend. Thus, change became an enemy of a regime whose policies had become mummified.
The first sign of mummification was Mubarak’s unwillingness or inability to change the top echelon of government, ending up as the head of a geriatric club.
Cabinet ministers could remain in their posts for 20 years. A who-is-who of courtiers, perhaps numbering around 100, rotated in top government positions in a nation of 82 million with great reservoirs of talent.
This led to the emergence of a medieval system in which ministers and heads of major public corporations acted as semi-independent chieftains in their fiefdoms.
Policies were also mummified.
Economic policy was still driven by the “Infitah” (opening) project launched by President Anwar Sadat in 1974.
This encouraged a Wild West-style economic system with few rules to protect public interest. Immense fortunes were made, breeding immense poverty in their wake. With high rates of economic growth, there was no reason why any Egyptian should live on less than $2 a day. But at least a third did.
One trick was to buy government-owned land at derisory prices and then sell it to people for real estate development at exorbitant ones. This drove prices through the roof.
Millions of young Egyptians cannot leave their parents’ homes and build families of their own because they cannot afford the cost of housing.
The irony in all this is that Egypt has experienced an unprecedented economic boom. This disproves the Marxist theory that economics is the foundation of politics. There was no uprising when Egypt was dirt poor. The uprising comes now that Egypt has joined the club of emergent economies.
The Egyptians rose because the nation’s political system no longer reflected their aspirations.
Education policy was also mummified.
Sadat had launched a crash programme to produce graduates in law and economics to serve in his expanding civil service. Mubarak turned that policy into another mummy.
As a result Egypt has produced a vast army of men and women with university degrees but no prospect of employment. They provided the backbone of the Tahrir Square crowd.
At the start of his presidency, Mubarak had declared a State of Emergency, for three months. Thirty years later, when he was leaving, the measure was still in force. The mummified gimmick, which banned meetings of even five people in public, was still law when public gatherings of half a million had become part of Cairo’s daily life.
In early 1990s, to counterbalance pro-democracy groups, Mubarak started wooing Islamists including The Muslim Brotherhood.
State-owned media gave much airtime to religious propaganda. Government money helped build thousands of new mosques and financed hundreds of Koranic schools and theological colleges. Though technically illegal, The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to extend its tentacles throughout society, including the armed forces and police. In the previous general election, the “outlawed” Brotherhood was assigned 80 seats in the parliament.
Not surprisingly, as the pro-democracy movement started calling for change, The Brotherhood opened negotiations with Mubarak to save the mummified system of which suited hem both.
The uprising that drove Mubarak away was, at least in part, an attempt by Egyptians to get away from the suffocating religious mummy created by the regime.
In 2004, under pressure from President George W Bush, Mubarak allowed some space for dissent. That policy, too, became a mummy. Rather than seeing it as a first step, as Bush had advised, Mubarak saw it as the end. As a result, Egyptians were allowed to criticise the regime, even in some newspapers without seeing any change in policy. The message was: you may bark, but our caravan goes on!
Foreign policy too was mummified.
Alliance with the United States became a formal arrangement under which the Americans signed cheques, gave pep talks on human rights, and deluded themselves into believing that Egypt would help achieve their objectives in the Middle East.
Egypt? With some regional allies, tried to destabilise the new in Iraq and ended up helping Al Qaeda there. They tried to reconcile the Palestinian Al Fatah and Hamas factions, and ended up consolidating the latter’s hold on Gaza.
In Lebanon, they ended up retreating when Iran, moving its Hezbollah pawns, decided to seize power in Beirut.
When Mubarak took over, Egypt was in peace with Israel. Mubarak took that peace and turned it into a mummy. He vetoed attempts at promoting people-to-people contacts and building bridges at all levels of society. When he left, there was no peace between Egypt and Israel except on the papers signed at Camp David.
Contrary to claims by his Islamist enemies, Mubarak did nothing to advance peace with Israel.

The Tahrir Square uprising was mainly about domestic issues, especially poverty, corruption and lack of freedom. However, in the filigree was a deep sense of humiliation. Egypt, the largest Arab country and one of three nations to have played a leading role in the Muslim world, had ended up with virtually no foreign policy and, hence, no influence. Instead, statelets like Qatar were claiming to lead Arabs.
With Mubarak gone, the hope is that mummified Egypt will give its place to a new Egypt that is alive and vibrant.
That, however, is still some distance away. On the road, there are many dangers with enemies waiting in ambush.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gulf Parliaments Are All About Potential

By Greg Power
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/02/2011 

Prospects for democratic reform appear to have gone up a notch across the Gulf states as the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings continue to reverberate around the region. Meaningful change, however, will depend not just on shows of popular discontent but on the representative institutions in those countries taking on a much more significant role in challenging the government on the public’s behalf. Although generally regarded as feeble by international standards, the recent history of the parliaments in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman highlights both the potential for and the challenges facing the development of participatory politics in the Gulf. 

At one end of the spectrum, Kuwait’s parliament has long been the loudest and liveliest in the region. Established in 1963, it has gradually expanded its formal powers and increasingly challenged the emir and the government. For many Gulf politicians, it was a model to be emulated; for heads of state, it was a physical warning that they should proceed with caution. 

The Kuwaiti parliament’s progress has been disrupted twice by lengthy dissolutions (in 1976 and 1986, each for half a decade), which revolved around the emir’s resistance to any further extension of the assembly’s influence. That cycle appeared to be repeating itself between 2006 and 2009, as the parliament pushed for the right to question the prime minister. After three elections in as many years, the matter was resolved when the prime minister appeared before parliament and duly won a vote of no confidence at the end of 2009.

The irony is that, although the parliament succeeded in expanding its powers to challenge the executive, it now looks like a weaker body as a result. The government agreed to the principle of prime ministerial questioning only when it was certain it had enough votes to win, and the parliament seems incapable of combating government manipulation of certain members. In a strange turn of events, the emir reportedly now believes that dissolving parliament would be seen as a victory for the opposition. Thus, these days Kuwait’s parliament might have more power but seems to have less influence.

In Bahrain the parliament has evolved against a more politically turbulent backdrop, with tensions between the Shiite population (some 70 percent of Bahrain’s citizens) and the Sunni regime represented by the Al-Khalifa ruling family spilling out into periods of civil unrest and subsequent state repression. Bahrain’s parliament had its first, brief lifespan from 1973 to 1975, followed by an unconstitutional dissolution until 2002, when it was reinstated by King Hamad as part of promised reform measures intended to defuse social tensions. That the parliament turned out to be a pale imitation of its predecessor, however, has been a source of continuing grievance around which much subsequent political turmoil has revolved.

Since 2002 the Bahraini parliament has struggled to extend its formal authority over a government that has relied on two tactics to retain its dominance. The first is a pattern of state harassment and victimization of opponents, which appears to be directly linked to the electoral cycle. The second is the gerrymandering of the voting system. Electoral districts vary greatly in size: the largest district contains over 12,000 people in a mainly Shiite area, while the smallest – largely Sunni – has only 500 voters. These steps guarantee that the Shiite population cannot win a majority within the institution. In the 2006 and 2010 elections, the main Shiite party Al-Wefaq won only 18 of 40 parliamentary seats. 

By contrast, the evolution of Oman’s Shura Council has been quiet, even by the standards of the Gulf. The country, which in 1996 became the last in the Gulf Cooperation Council to adopt a constitution, held its first popular elections in 2003 for a body that lacked legislative powers and whose influence was confined almost entirely to economic development. The turnout for elections has been relatively poor at around 30 percent, perhaps because, according to academic Uzi Rabi, the Shura resembles a “depoliticized local council.”

Yet even in Oman, politicians and civil society groups expressed concern in recent conversations that the cabinet is deliberately trying to undermine the standing of the Shura by emphasizing its ineffectiveness and the poor quality of its members via stories planted in media. One argument currently in circulation is that the Shura was more effective when it was an appointed body, because at least then its membership was drawn from the upper echelons of society.

The parliamentary institutions in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman were established to provide some legitimacy for the regime and outlets for public voice. They continue to provide some semblance of democratic representation, and have had the occasional win, but all are struggling against dominant regimes. It remains highly unlikely that they will be abolished or dissolved – as this would provide a potent focus around which disparate opposition groups would coalesce. However, the overriding message is that their activity is tolerated only within certain bounds set by the ruling authorities.

All these parliaments face two fundamental problems. The first is a failure of political organization. Parliamentarians in the Gulf voice frustration about the underdeveloped nature of political society and particularly the limited presence of political groups. But the practical effect of the fact that none of these states permit political parties is that politicians frequently lack the discipline that comes with party membership and, as such, the parliaments rarely act cohesively or strategically. As a result, the ruling authorities have found it relatively easy to manipulate the system, pick off individual politicians, and divide any opposition at an early stage.

The second is that parliaments have failed to carve out a distinctive role which demonstrates why they are invaluable to government or to the people – and are caught awkwardly between them, not fully meeting either’s needs. At present both the ruling authorities and the people believe the parliaments should exist, but the institutions are not performing indispensable functions for either one.

The parliaments need to develop positions in the administration of the state which make it impossible for governments to ignore them, and convince the public that they offer the best and most effective route to political empowerment. The potential undoubtedly exists, but if they are to seize the opportunities, the politicians will need to organize themselves better around issues of principle instead of only offering occasional resistance to the executive, and parliamentarians will have to become much better at utilizing their existing influence to secure more formal powers for their assemblies.

Greg Power is director of Global Partners and Associates, a social purpose company. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. It can be accessed online at:, © 2011, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Biology Of The Second Arab Revolt

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 18/02/2011
As the ripples from the Tunisian-Egyptian popular revolts work their way throughout the Arab world in the months and years ahead, we should keep in mind two pivotal words that capture every important dimension of the process under way: humiliation and legitimacy.

Like bookmarks at both ends of the process, they explain why the Arab region is erupting in revolts, and what needs to be done to satisfy people’s demands.

They explain what has long ailed hundreds of millions of Arabs who have been denied their birthright as human beings, their citizenship rights as nationals of sovereign countries, and their human rights as children of God and members of the human race.

They clarify the abuses, crimes, distortions and stresses of the recent past that have finally driven a few people to set themselves on fire in a desperate death cry so that their surviving family members might have a better life, and that have also driven many more people to rise up en masse against their prevailing political orders.

They also clarify the changes that must occur for the grievances to be redressed and normalcy to resume in these abnormal countries.

Humiliation is the consequence of combined material and intangible pressures on ordinary people, which include petty corruption, police brutality, abuse of power, favouritism, unemployment, poor wages, unequal opportunities, inefficient or non-existent public services, lack of freedom of expression and association, and state control of media, culture and education.

Ordinary men and women grow up in non-democratic societies feeling increasingly frustrated that they cannot achieve their human potential while, simultaneously, they witness a small group of men and women in the ruling elite grow fabulously rich simply because of their connections, rather than their abilities.

Young people in their 20s are especially prone to feeling humiliated because they obtain increasingly mediocre education and have more and more difficulty finding jobs that give them enough income to live decently, get married and start a family. They see in front of them an entire lifetime of stunted opportunities and stolen rights. When they try to speak out against the unfair and corrupt practices that define their societies, they are prevented from doing so by police and security agencies that tell them what they may and may not speak in public.

This trajectory of events pushes them onto a path of sentiments that starts with irritation and inconvenience, grows to anger and resentment, and finally reaches desperation and degradation. The end result is humiliation so severe that it causes young Arab men and women, and their elders alike, to enter into a condition of dehumanisation.

Being treated as something less than human by their society, along with the pain caused by decades of invading foreign armies and Israeli colonisers and siege masters, these Arabs become less than human. They react instinctively to protect themselves and to regain their humanity.

The revolt we are witnessing across the Arab world is not about ideology; it is about biology. It is mostly about men and women who, so brutalised by their own and foreign powers, demand above all to assert their fundamental humanity - their right to use all their human senses, and not to be denied any of them, to read real newspapers and magazines, to discuss issues in public, to express and hear a variety of views, to associate with whomever they wish, to make and enjoy music or poetry, to think freely, to debate, to agree or disagree, to propose ideas, and then many other attributes of their stunted humanity.

“Legitimacy” in the public realm is the antidote to the humiliation that the state and society, and foreign powers, have inflicted on ordinary Arab men and women who have been largely denied the substance of their humanity and their citizenship.

The changes that young and adult Arabs now demand in their societies are anchored in a powerful need for legitimate governance structures that can replace the fraudulent and corrupt ones that have reigned for many decades.

Legitimacy is a simple but overpowering concept that requires public governance institutions and decisions to reflect the will of the majority, while also protecting the rights of minorities.

The two most critical elements of legitimate governance systems in the Arab-Islamic lands are accountability and a sense of justice or equity. These can find expression in many textures and shades, including, most importantly in Arab lands, the historical concepts of Arabism, tribalism and Islamism, among others that are more modern.

Constitutions, parliaments, electoral laws and many other such concepts can be devised in many forms, but they must be legitimate in the eyes of their people above all else if our societies are finally to leave the dark tunnel of the modern Arab security state and its stultifying, corrupting, mediocratising legacy.

Legitimacy leaves little room for humiliation, and opens the door to normalcy in both statehood and the daily life of ordinary citizens. As this historic second Arab revolt works its way throughout the region and rattles one power system after another, keep in mind these two central concepts: the humiliation that drives people to reclaim their total humanity at any cost, and the elusive legitimacy that must be reestablished at the core of institutions and power relations in an Arab region that craves normalcy once again.

Protests Expose Fragility Of Arab State

Traditional support base — rural middle and lower middle classes — has been eroded by global capitalism

By Marwan Al Kabalan
This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 18/02/2011

The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have shown, amongst many other things, how troubled the relationship is between the state and society in the Arab world. They have also revealed how detached the Arab ruling elite is from reality. Most analysts agree today that the modern Arab state is facing the greatest challenge ever to its power, legitimacy and perhaps very existence.

To understand the venerability of the state in the modern Arab world we may need first to admit that it has failed to adapt itself to a rapidly changing environment. For more than six decades the state in the Arab world has employed three strategies to keep control over society.

These are: 1. total control of the economic sphere; 2. restricting the flow of information and indoctrinate the masses through massive state propaganda machine and; 3. a full fledged deployment of its security apparatus. These strategies have all but weakened in recent years. Both exogenous and indigenous factors have played against the power of the Arab state.

Arab states with a socialist way of development and under pressing economic difficulties (resulted mainly from the employment of vast bureaucracy, widespread corruption and mismanagement) and increasingly globalised economy were forced to liberalise their economies; and by the same token eroding much of their economic power.

Although the state is still the biggest employer in some Arab countries, more people are employed now by the private sector, significant part of the inefficient public sector is sold, and the age of retirement has been reduced to allow younger generation work opportunities.

Not unexpectedly, the introduction of structural adjustment policies has aroused public anger in different parts of the Arab world and their heat particularly for the salaried classes are being felt increasingly.

The traditional base of support in Arab republics — the rural middle and lower middle classes who were thought for decades to rely on the state as a patron and protector — has been eroded.

For these particular strata, the new policies were synonymous to an act of betrayal, where a widespread conviction prevailed that the state has reversed course and left them easy prey to the symbols of global capitalism: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was those who rioted in Egypt and Tunisia against and brought about regime change.

Not only that the middle class felt being abandoned by the adoption of partial but disrupting economic liberalism, but its old adversary: the national bourgeoisie, replaced it as favourite in state circles. Policies of the 1950s and 1960s which were dedicated for the destruction of the national bourgeoisie have been reversed. In Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, to name but a few, new laws are passed to win those who were once excluded and forced into exile. The state is pleading now for the old bourgeoisie to return home and bring its investment too. In brief, the economic power of the Arab state has been eroded and its financial leverage over the society has been weakened to a great extent.

The information technology has also played against the power of the Arab state. The role of the state as an educator, in the Gramscian sense, has been challenged, if not totally collapsed. Arab states are no longer in a position to select for their people the sort of news and information they need to know.

Signals of Arab and foreign, private and public satellite channels are crossing national borders without permission providing their audience the opportunity to select for themselves the sort of programmes they want to watch. And with no integrated ideology to indoctrinate the masses, the massive state-owned media machinery has become all but irrelevant.

The only sphere in which the power of the Arab state has not been challenged until recently is in the security area. The state in the Arab world still monopolises the right to the legitimate use of force. However, although Arab regimes have become increasingly dependent on their security forces which function as a shield against public anger, it is losing grip over the flow of information, and the lack of an integrated ideology to maintain its old base of support, the state could not solely rely on its security apparatus to maintain the status quo and delay badly needed change.

The total reliance on its security arm to maintain its legitimacy reflects the very weak nature of the Arab state and reveals the seriousness of the challenge that lies ahead.

This was the background against which a complete understanding of the current uprisings in the Arab world can not be obtained.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is director at the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies.