Saturday, June 7, 2014

What is the future of the Palestinian national movement? Ghada Karmi, Ilan Pappe, Ali Abunimah and other experts discuss the unity deal and failure of negotiations with Israel.

Nabeel Rajab: The problematic success of 'human rights' in the Arab world

Is there space for dialogue with the government in Bahrain?

By Mark LeVine

Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was recently released from jail [AP]
Nabeel Rajab is an honest man. When he makes a promise, in my experience, you can count on him keeping it.
So I, along with almost everyone else who knows him, was a bit surprised when upon his release from jail on May 24, he said he "had no interest in politics". Much closer to form was his tweet not long after that he'd meet with the king to resolve the political situation if asked. By the time he tweeted that Bahrain has become a "dictatorship kingdom" four days later, it was clear that two years in prison have done nothing to cow him.
Rajab is back. But for how long? When I spoke with him recently, he felt it may not be for too long.
"Several government-controlled papers just published stories saying I'll be back in jail if I don't stop speaking," he told me. This is apparently how Bahrain's government warns the country's leading dissident voice to shut up or pack his bags again for prison. He got the message. But he has no plans to be silent. Like the artist-activists El Haqed in Morocco and Ramy Essam in Egypt, and so many other activists across the region, the worse the political situation gets, the more defiant the most courageous human rights actors become.
The question is: who can and will support them as they continue playing the role of David to their governments' Goliath?
"To many people, I'm the only one speaking frankly and straightforwardly about the situation. So I have either to keep quiet or leave country or be in jail. But I know I only have one choice: keep speaking no matter what the cost and sacrifice. Otherwise, no change will come."
Even as human rights become the currency of the realm so to speak, the game continues to be being played on the government's terms.
Rajab is speaking in the context of the number of prisoners doubling since he entered prison in 2012. Many Shia families have at least one member who is either in exile, in prison or dead. The government's policies have become even more violent. In Bahrain, the number of riot police, the vast majority of Sunnis imported from foreign countries such as Pakistan and Jordan have doubled. And, he lamented, this has led at least a dozen Bahrainis losing all hope and turning to violence against the police and state.
Human rights and oppressive regimes
The main problem is that the government today has almost no incentive for serious dialogue.
"Parliament is in its hands and so it can legislate repressive laws that turn the country into a dictatorship without headaches. Its PR machine has effectively normalised the situation so that it faces no threat of consequences from its main international allies, while the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries actively support its repression," says Rajab.
Most importantly, the government "is in control of the street now. Protests can be contained". He adds: "It's very close to Palestine. In jail I was thinking this. Now we have total suppression, like South Africa and Israel, of all housing and other forms of cohabitation, the government both controls and surrounds the local population. And the government depends on foreign patrons and PR the same way Israel does to maintain its policies on the ground."
Also similar to the difficulties facing Palestinian human rights advocates, even someone with the stature of Rajab has a lot of trouble having much of an impact with European governments, never mind the United States.
"It's complicated" was the best a State Department spokesman would say last time he was imprisoned. The Europeans, particularly the British, are completely unwilling to jeopardise ties with Bahrain, and by extension, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy GCCl countries, in order to support real movement towards democracy.
One crucial development is how the use of a human rights discourse has become, in a tragic way, an enabler of continued, and even increased, oppression. The manner in which a heavily watered down set of recommendations from the so-called Independent Commission of Inquiry was accepted by the King of Bahrain with great fanfare, only to be completely ignored, is a good example of this process. Even as human rights becomes the currency of the realm, so to speak, the game continues to be played on the government's terms.
Many long-term Arab human rights activists in fact see this paradox as central to the problem of human rights in the region today. Indeed, at a Lund University workshop for senior Arab human rights practitioners and researchers which I was attending, I spoke with Rajab, and Bahraini researcher and advocate Alaa Shehabi who explained that the adoption of human rights language by the government simultaneously empowers and co-opts, politicises and is depoliticises such struggles: "A clear ceiling is placed on what you can say, so it is okay to talk about violations and torture, but it is not okay to point fingers at those responsible and call for their accountability. The king can always feign ignorance and promise to do something, which never gets done."
Real action
As with the Oslo "peace" process, real action is permanently deferred; maintaining the appearance of addressing or at least thinking about addressing key concerns is good enough to take care of any pressure from in or outside.
Bahrain, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia ... worst of all, Syria. Most Arab countries beside Tunisia have seen an aggravation of their human rights situation since the uprisings began in late 2010. Yet for the long term, advocates gathered in Lund as well as their younger colleagues, there is reason for hope. Governments can still co--opt human rights discourses and imprison activists who push for substantive structural change, but human rights, and the attched universal norms are now an indelible part of political subjectivities, discourses and rights across the region.
Even those who don't typically support a liberal interpretation of human rights know that when the chips are down, it is the human rights community who will come to their aid. In Bahrain, as in so many other countries, the government seems to have succeeded in factionalising society, but new coalitions cutting across gender, class, age and other forms of identity are emerging that are globally connected and empowered and pose a real challenge to present governments.
Whether it is activists such as Nabeel Rajab, or artists like El Haqed, Ramy Essam or numerous other imprisoned artists and activists, the threat of prison or even death is no longer enough to silence people. Silence is no longer an option. Innumerable struggles at grassroots level across the region, from remote tribal areas of Yemen to poor fishing villages in Egypt and working class towns in Morocco, have since before the Arab Spring been the sites of struggles that governments will find increasingly difficult to co-opt or repress, especially if they continue failing to deliver either development or democracy to their peoples.

Blame the state for sham Arab democracy

 une 07, 2014 12:12 AM
By Rami G. Khouri
The recent string of “elections” across the Arab world raises profound questions about the Arab world’s apparent difficulty in adopting institutions and practices of liberal pluralistic democracies.
But is the problem really about the ability of Arab social values to accommodate democracy, or is there a deeper problem related to the clumsy nature of statehood that has emerged in this region during the past century?
The “elections” I refer to include spectacles in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese presidential election-selection that was not even held on time due to political bickering among the country’s sectarian leaders. The Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian cases repeat the ugly legacy of the modern Arab tradition of family-run security states and dictatorships that put on a show of voting to secure approval ratings of 87 or 93 or 97 percent, complete with adoring crowds of supporters of the “Great Leader.”
Why do Arab autocrats try to legitimize their life-long rule, despite the total lack of credibility of the “elections” they hold? Nowhere in the normal world do elections result in victories of such magnitude as routinely occur in Arab “elections.” But parliaments in these lands have little substance, because real power is vested in the family or soldiers who run the country. (The only comparable unnatural phenomenon I know of is the almost unanimous support for pro-Israel resolutions in the U.S. Congress, which probably reflects a similar dynamic at play, in other words you vote “yes” for the Arab president or the pro- Israel resolution, or you lose your seat.)
The Lebanese and Iraqi cases are different, but equally problematic. Iraq’s elections resulted in a more natural distribution of gains among the competing political parties. The problem here is that the electoral system initiated by the U.S.-run transitional authority after the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003 has been built on a foundation of deep sectarianism, so the election results in parliament mirror the sectarian tensions, mistrust and cleavages in Iraq. Consequently, the Iraqi parliament and government as a whole have been largely dysfunctional institutions that have struggled for the past decade to provide services and security throughout the country, often without success.
The Lebanese case is also a fascinating example of electoral institutions that allow citizen participation in governance, but do not, in fact, impact deeply on decision-making. The sectarian-based Lebanese system has operated for some years now on the principle that a broad national consensus must be reached on major policy decisions, and a simple majority in parliament is not enough. Such consensus is usually generated at late-night dinners at the homes of sectarian leaders who also head political groupings in parliament.
This is a modernized version of traditional tribal councils that have defined collective decision-making in the Middle East for thousands of years. Tribal leaders engage informally to iron out their differences, do some horse-trading, and finally achieve a consensus, which citizens dutifully applaud. If there is no consensus, one or more parties would usually boycott governance institutions and send the whole system into hibernation, as happens in Lebanon routinely, when the country lacks a cabinet, a president, a functioning parliament or some other vital institution. Yet life goes on more or less normally, because real power is not vested in these institutions, but rather in the informal meetings of heads of sects (or of tribes in places such as Jordan, Yemen or Libya).
So it is simple enough for most of us to just ignore the elections taking place in the region. Yet we have had glimpses of democratic transitions that include more credible elements, such as the Tunisian elections in recent years, or the 2012 Egyptian presidential election that saw one candidate win by just a few percentage points.
We also see credible elections taking place all over the region in professional associations or student groups. So the idea that Arabs cannot behave democratically and electorally is nonsense.
What is the problem, then? The continuing insult of Arab presidential elections such as we have recently witnessed in Algeria, Egypt and Syria suggest to me that the problem is squarely in the nature of state configuration and the exercise of power. When citizens have no say in how to shape and define their state and its institutions of decision-making, power remains almost exclusively in the hands of a family or elite at the top that controls the state budget and enjoys the support of the armed forces, in other words that controls the guns and the money.
Citizens across the Arab world have risen up in revolt against this pattern of rule, which nevertheless has endured in Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria, among others.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Exclusive: Egypt turns to Western advisers, signaling possible reforms - sources

(Reuters) - Western advisers are drawing up plans for reshaping the Egyptian economy, sources said, with the apparent blessing of president-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who so far has spoken only vaguely in public about reviving the state's finances.
The driving force behind the consulting project is the United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait has showered Egypt with billions of dollars in aid since Sisi removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power last year, sources familiar with the exercise and businessmen told Reuters.
If Egypt were to accept reforms proposed by U.S. consultancy Strategy& and international investment bank Lazard, this could be used as a basis for reopening talks on a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund which ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi failed to seal, unwilling to impose unpopular reforms.
Gulf allies opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood have extended a lifeline exceeding $12 billion in cash and petroleum products to help Egypt stave off economic collapse.
The hiring of Lazard and Strategy& - formerly called Booz & Company - suggests the Gulf states want to ensure aid is spent efficiently in a country where past leaders with military backgrounds have often mismanaged the economy.
"UAE are involved in the process, as they are among the country’s lenders. Lending money is not enough in itself. You also need to make sure the government has the means to identify what needs to change and execute it," said one of the sources familiar with the situation.
An IMF deal could help to inspire confidence among foreign investors who have been unnerved by three years of turmoil and a range of other problems ranging from costly energy subsidies to a lack of transparency in economic management.
It's unclear if Sisi, who stood down as military chief in March before winning a presidential election last month, has met the Western consulting companies. But advisers to the man who has been de facto leader of Egypt since Mursi's fall have almost certainly been closely involved in the project, which has been underway for several months.
The discussions are the strongest indication that Sisi may restructure an economy suffering from corruption, red tape, high unemployment and a widening budget deficit aggravated by the fuel subsidies that cost nearly $19 billion a year.
Officials forecast economic growth at just 3.2 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1, well below levels needed to create enough jobs for a rapidly growing population and ease widespread poverty.
The consultants have assigned sector teams to look at issues such as privatizations and other reforms, said the source.
The toughest problem will be the energy subsidies. Raising fuel and electricity prices could provoke unrest in a country where street protests have helped to depose two leaders in three years.
"This should be changed but that's a political decision. Lazard and Booz can only make recommendations but in the end the government will decide," said the source.
Interim president Adly Mansour suggested in April that Egypt was open to resuming privatization of state firms, a policy pursued by President Hosni Mubarak before his fall in 2011.
Timing of the announcement of any reforms was "a political decision," the source said, adding that it was not clear whether the government would announce anything before parliamentary elections expected later this year.
A spokeswoman for Strategy&, which was acquired by Price Waterhouse Coopers in April, said she could not comment. A spokesman for Lazard also declined to comment.
However, UAE minister of state Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who handles aid to Cairo, said his country is "providing Egypt with technical support for the development of an economic recovery plan".
In a statement emailed to Reuters, he said the assistance the UAE had provided included work by "world-renowned consultancies", without giving further details.
The Gulf allies have indicated they will continue to support the new government, withSaudi Arabia hosting a donor conference shortly after Sisi takes office on Sunday.
During his election campaign, Sisi did not spell out how he would steer Egypt's economy.
But businessmen who have met Sisi say his calls for "hard work" were a signal he was willing to consider the kind of austerity measures [Raping Egypt by the IMF!] that past leaders have avoided.
The project began well before Sisi's election. "Booz has been working for the past seven months on a reform plan in collaboration with the Egyptian military," said Tarek Zakaria Tawfik, deputy chairman of the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI), who said he talked with the consultants this year and met Sisi in May.
Although Sisi won strong public support for removing Mursi, failure to revitalize the economy could quickly strip away his popularity and bring Egyptians back onto the streets.
The military, which has a budget shielded from public oversight, has accrued a businessempire ranging from bottled water to petrol stations. It is regarded as effective in implementing large-scale projects such as those funded by the UAE since Mursi's overthrow.
An army spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
One businessman who met Sisi twice before the election said the incoming leader knew about the consultants' activities. "(Sisi) will be the one to announce the plan. He's well aware of (the consultants)," said Tamer Abu Bakr, chairman of Mashreq Petroleum, who discussed energy policy with Sisi.
No one on Sisi's staff was immediately available for comment.
Other prominent businessmen consulted about the plan told Reuters that the international advisers were working with officials from Egypt's central bank and ministries of finance and trade, industry and investment.
One businessman said he met the consultants this year at the request of a government official, discussing changes he hoped to see in licensing regulations.
A spokeswoman at the central bank declined to comment. The finance ministry and the ministry of trade, industry and investment could not be reached immediately.
Businessmen are encouraged by hints of economic reform that could help Egypt to secure an IMF loan, unlocking billions of dollars more in foreign aid and investment which dropped off after the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
"If Sisi had intentions of maintaining the status quo regarding the unbalanced economic situation, he never would have entertained Booz," said Salah Diab, an Egyptian tycoon familiar with the consulting project and met Sisi last month.
"Booz is preparing the Egyptian side ... If we are going to sit with the IMF, we would be prepared to have an intelligent argument," he added.
Mursi's government failed to secure a $4.8 billion IMF loan after several rounds of talks, which analysts attributed to its unwillingness to impose austerity reforms as a condition.
Proposed steps included cutting fuel subsidies, raising the sales tax on goods and services, and taxing flotations on the stock exchange.
Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF's Middle East-Central Asia department, told Reuters the Fund had not yet been approached by Egypt about restarting loan negotiations, but was open and eager for that possibility.
UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said his country would welcome partners including the IMF to participate in a plan it has to revive Egypt's economy.
Tawfik, of the FEI, said he supported the strategy the consultants were drafting which he learned about at a meeting with them to discuss reforms of the agro-industrial sector.

"We saw eye-to-eye on almost everything ... I feel very comfortable that what they are recommending is what needs to be done," he said.

اعتقال عنصريَن من "حزب الله" باليمن بتهمة "تدريب الحوثيين"

خاص ــ العربي الجديد
6 يونيو 2014اعتقال عنصريَن من "حزب الله" باليمن بتهمة "تدريب الحوثيين" علم "العربي الجديد"، أنّ السلطات اليمنية ألقت القبض، قبل أيام، على عنصرَين من "حزب الله" اللبناني على الأراضي اليمنية، بتهمة "تدريب عناصر من أنصار الله"، أي "الحوثيين"، وذلك قبل إبرام اتفاق عمران لوقف المعارك الدائرة بين "اللواء 301 مدرع" من الجيش اليمني من جهة، ومقاتلي الحوثيين من جهة ثانية.
وتصرّ السلطات اليمنية على التعاطي مع الموضوع بسرية مطلقة، بعيداً عن الاعلام، علماً أنّ التسريبات عن اعتقال مسؤولين إيرانيين في اليمن، بتهمة تسليح وتمويل وتدريب الحوثيين، تتكاثر في الآونة الأخيرة، من دون أن تصل تلك التسريبات إلى درجة القطعية، تأكيداً أو نفياً.وفي السياق ذاته، تردد في السنوات الأخيرة، أن تدريب مقاتلين "حوثيين" من قبل "حزب الله" كان يتم في سورية، وذلك بالتنسيق مع ايران مباشرة، وتحديدا مع "الحرس الثوري" الايراني. وتؤكد معلومات ناشطين سوريين، ان مجموعات من "الحوثيين" الذين تدربوا في سورية، شاركوا في القتال على الأراضي السورية، إلى جانب "حزب الله". - See more at:

From Azmi Bishara's Facebook Page

أ وب حول عبثية الانتخابات 

أ‌. شيء يحيّرني.
ب‌. حيرني معك!
أ‌. لماذا ينظم الناس انتخابات؟
ب‌. لانتخاب ممثل عنهم، أو سلطة عليهم لفترة زمنية محددة.
أ‌. ولكن لكي يكون بالإمكان انتخاب الممثلين أو السلطات نفسها لفترة زمنية محددة، ينبغي أن يكون نقدها ومعارضتها متاحين، وكذلك يجب أن تكون صلاحياتها محددة. فالسلطة المطلقة عكس الانتخابات.
ب‌. صحيح.
أ‌. فإذا كان نظام ما يمارس سلطة مطلقة ويقتل من يعارضة، أو يزجه بالسجن، ويعرضه للتعذيب.. فلماذا ينظم انتخابات؟ ما الهدف؟
ب‌. للتظاهر أن الناس معه.
أ‌. ليس التظاهر مهما بالنسبة له، فهو يكذب على كل حال وثمة من ينقل أكاذيبه لأسباب طائفية أو مصلحة أو لجنون، لا أدري... هو يكذب لا لكي يصدقه أحد، بل لكي يتظاهر البعض بتصديقه وهذا يكفيه، أو لكي تختلط الحقيقة بالكذب. ليس هو من يتظاهر، بل على الآخرين أن يتظاهروا أنهم يصدقوه، وأنهم يدعموه.
ب‌. صحيح هو يرمي الأحياء المأهولة بالبراميل المتفجرة ومن يدافع عنه لا يهتم لذلك، ومن يثور ضد نظامه لا يريده بسبب ذلك، وعلى الرغم من ذلك.
أ‌. إذا هو ليس بحاجة للتظاهر. لأنه نظام دكتاتوري قمعي، وكفى. من يؤيده يؤيده على الرغم من ذلك، ومن يعارضه يعارضه بسبب الاستبداد والفساد، وعلى الرغم من القمع. هو نظام دموي في حالته اليومية، وفي حالة الثورة يصاب بجنون الدم، ويدمر كل ما حوله.
ب‌. حسنا، سأهمس لك بفكرة. أنت قلت أنه يعذب معارضيه في السجن.لماذا يفعل ذلك.
أ‌. ليستعرض قوته كقوة غير إنسانية، أو لكي يندم المعارض على معارضته، أو ليعترف بمؤامرة حتى إذا لم تكن ثمة مؤامرة.
هي هذه الفكرة الأخيرة. مثلما يعذب الناس ليعترفوا بما لم يفعلوه، فإنه ينظّم انتخابات ليعترف الناس به حتى لو لم يريدوه. فهذه مظاهرة قوة. لا يهمه إذا كانوا يحبونه أم لا، يريدونه أم لا. المهم أن يصرّحوا أنهم معه ولو رغما عنهم. يريدهم أن يخافوا، وأن يظهروا الخوف أمامه... أن ييأسوا من تغييره، وأن يظهروا هذا اليأس أمامه... يريدهم أن يستسلموا له، ليس حبا، بل خوفا أو عجزا. لا علاقة لهذا كله بالانتخاب والاختيار، إنها لعبة أخرى لعبة الاعتراف بالخضوع.
أ‌. مهرجان كذب.
ب‌. طبعا كذب، ولكن منذ متى يهمه هذا النظام الكذب. الجديد أن الغالبية لم تعد تقبل بهذا.
أ‌. ما قلته يصح بالنسبة للانتخابات الغريبة العجيبة التي كان ينظمها في السنوات السابقة. ولكن الأكثرية لم تعد تقبل حتى أن تتظاهر بالخوف والخنوع أمامه. فكيف تصح الانتخابات الآن والغالبية لم تعد تخاف؟
ب‌. يقول النظام للجميع باق حتى لو زالت البلد ورغم إرادة الأغلبية، فأغلبية الناس لا تهمني، ما يهمني هو أغلبية من معي، أو من ما زال يخاف بما فيه الكفاية لكي يتظاهر أنه معي. الشعب هو من معي. ومن ليس معي ليس شعبي، بل ليس شعبًا أصلا.
أ‌. انتخب النظام له شعبا. فليفعل البقية على كل حال لا تريد أن تكون شعبه، ولا تعتبر نفسها شعبه.
ب‌. انتخب شعبا بالقتل والتشريد، ومن بقي في المناطق التي يحكمها، بما فيها مناطق خارج دولته، يجب أن يكون معه أو يتظاهر أنه معه على الأقل. فهو مدين له بحياته.
أ‌. كيف؟
ب‌. كل من هو حي في مناطقه يجب أن يدخل في وعيه ويقتنع بأنه حي لأنه قرر أن لا يقتله.

Clueless in Cairo

How Egypt's Generals Sidelined Uncle Sam

by Dilip Hiro and Tom Engelhardt, June 06, 2014
Speaking to the class of 2002, Bush conjured up an epic struggle without end (that certain neocons would soon begin calling “the Long War” or “World War IV“). It would be global, Manichaean, and unquestionably victorious. “We must uncover terror cells in 60 or more countries, using every tool of finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. Along with our friends and allies, we must oppose proliferation and confront regimes that sponsor terror, as each case requires. Some nations need military training to fight terror, and we’ll provide it. Other nations oppose terror, but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror – and that must change. We will send diplomats where they are needed, and we will send you, our soldiers, where you’re needed.”
It was Bush’s initial foray into the dream of a subjugated Greater Middle East and a planet destined to fall under the spell of a Pax Americana enforced by a military like no other in history. It was visionary stuff, a genuine Bush (or Cheney) Doctrine. And the president and his top officials meant every word of it.
Twelve years later, the results are in. As President Obama pointed out to the class of 2014, some of those “terror cells in 60 or more countries” have by now become full-scale terror outfits and, helped immeasurably by the actions the Bush Doctrine dictated, are thriving. In Afghanistan, a long-revived Taliban can’t be defeated, while neighboring Pakistan, with its own Taliban movement, has been significantly destabilized. Amid the ongoing drone wars of two administrations, Yemen is being al-Qaedicized; the former president’s invasion of Iraq set off a devastating, still expanding Sunni-Shiite civil war across the Middle East, which is also becoming a blowback machine for terrorism, and which has thrown the whole region into chaos; Libya, Obama’s no-casualties version of intervention, is now a basket case; across much of Africa, terror groups are spreading, as is destabilization continent-wide.
Facing this and a host of other crises and problems from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea, and “pivoting” fruitlessly in every direction, Obama, in his second trek to West Point, put together a survey of a no-longer American planet that left the cadetssitting on their hands (though their parents cheered the line, “You are the first class since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan”) and critics from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times bored and dismissive. It was, all agreed, the exhausted speech of an exhausted administration addressed to an American public exhausted by more than a decade of fruitless wars in an exhausting world.
If that commencement address had just been visionless words offered by a rudderless president, it might not have mattered much, except to the nattering class in Washington. As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear, however, in a magisterial look at where the Arab Spring ended up in Egypt, it isn’t only unfriendly states or stateless terror groups that aren’t cooperating in the organization of an American world. The former “sole superpower” of planet Earth that the president (with “every fiber” of his being) insisted was still both “exceptional” and “indispensable” seemed to be losing its sway over former allies as well. If there is no Obama Doctrine, it may be because the world of 2014 is in a state of exceptional and indispensable entropy. ~ Tom
How Egypt’s Generals Sidelined Uncle Sam
By Dilip Hiro
Since September 11, 2001, Washington’s policies in the Middle East have proven a grim imperial comedy of errors and increasingly a spectacle of how a superpower is sidelined. In this drama, barely noticed by the American media, Uncle Sam’s keystone ally in the Arab world, Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has largely turned its back on the Obama administration. As with so many of America’s former client states across the aptly named “arc of instability,” Egypt has undergone a tumultuous journey – from autocracy to democracy to a regurgitated form of military rule and repression, making its ally of four decades appear clueless.
Egypt remains one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid, with the Pentagon continuing to pamper the Egyptian military with advanced jet fighters, helicopters, missiles, and tanks. Between January 2011 and May 2014, Egypt underwent a democratic revolution, powered by a popular movement, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. It enjoyed a brief tryst with democracy before suffering an anti-democratic counter-revolution by its generals. In all of this, what has been the input of the planet’s last superpower in shaping the history of the most populous country in the strategic Middle East? Zilch. Its “generosity” toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.
Given how long the United States has been Egypt’s critical supporter, the State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies should have built up a storehouse of understanding as to what makes the Land of the Pharaohs tick. Their failure to do so, coupled with a striking lack of familiarity by two administrations with the country’s recent history, has led to America’s humiliating sidelining in Egypt. It’s a story that has yet to be pieced together, although it’s indicative of how from Kabul to Bonn, Baghdad to Rio de Janeiro so many ruling elites no longer feel that listening to Washington is a must.
An Army as Immovable as the Pyramids
Ever since 1952, when a group of nationalist military officers ended the pro-British monarchy, Egypt’s army has been in the driver’s seat. From Gamal Abdul Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, its rulers were military commanders. And if, in February 2011, a majority of the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) abandoned Mubarak, it was only to stop him from passing the presidency on to his son Gamal on his 83rd birthday. The neoliberal policies pursued by the Mubarak government at the behest of that businessman son from 2004 onward made SCAF fear that the military’s stake in the public sector of the economy and its extensive public-private partnerships would be doomed.
Fattened on the patronage of successive military presidents, Egypt’s military-industrial complex had grown enormously. Its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP), though a state secret, could be as high as 40%, unparalleled in the region. The chief executives of 55 of Egypt’s largest companies, contributing a third of that GDP, are former generals.
Working with the interior ministry, which controls the national police force, paramilitary units, and the civilian intelligence agencies, SCAF (headed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, doubling as the defense minister) would later orchestrate the protest movement against popularly elected President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. That campaign reached its crescendo on June 30, 2013. Three days later, SCAF toppled Morsi and has held him in prison ever since.
The generals carried out their coup at a moment when, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 63% of Egyptians had a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, 52% approved of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and 53% backed Morsi, who had won the presidency a year earlier with 52% of the vote.
Washington Misses the Plot
Remarkably, Obama administration officials failed to grasp that the generals, in conjunction with Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, were the prime movers behind the Tamarod (Arabic for “rebellion”) campaign launched on April 22, 2013. Egyptians were urged to sign a petition addressed to Morsi that was both simplistic and populist. “Because security has not returned, because the poor have no place, because I have no dignity in my own country…,” read the text in part, “we don’t want you anymore,” and it called for an early presidential election. In little over two months, the organizers claimed that they had amassed 22.1 million signatures, amounting to 85% of those who had participated in the presidential election of 2012. Where those millions of individually signed petitions were being stored was never made public, nor did any independent organization verify their existence or numbers.
As the Tamarod campaign gained momentum, the interior ministry’s secret police infiltrated it, as did former Mubarak supporters, while elements of the police state of the Mubarak era were revived. Reports that cronies of the toppled president were providing the funding for the campaign began to circulate. The nationwide offices of the Free Egyptians – a party founded by Naguib Sawiria, a businessman close to Mubarak and worth $2.5 billion – were opened to Tamarod organizers. Sawiria also paid for a promotional music video that was played repeatedly on OnTV, a television channel he had founded. In addition, he let his newspaperAl Masry al Youm, be used as a vehicle for the campaign.
In the run-up to the mass demonstration in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on June 30th, the first anniversary of Morsi’s rule, power cuts became more frequent and fuel shortages acute. As policemen mysteriously disappeared from the streets, the crime rate soared. All of this stoked anti-Morsi feelings and was apparently orchestrated with military precision by those who plotted the coup.
Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times provided evidence of meticulous planning, especially by the Interior Ministry, in a report headlined “Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi.” They quoted Ahmad Nabawi, a Cairo gas station manager, saying that he had heard several explanations for the gas crisis: technical glitches at the storage facilities, the arrival of low quality gas from abroad, and excessive stockpiling by the public. But he put what happened in context this way: “We went to sleep one night, woke up the next day, and the crisis was gone” – and so was Morsi. Unsurprisingly, of all the ministers in the Morsi government, Interior Minister Ibrahim was the only one retained in the interim cabinet appointed by the generals.
“See No Evil”
Initially, President Obama refused to call what had occurred in Egypt a military “coup.” Instead, he spoke vaguely of “military actions” in order to stay on the right side of the Foreign Assistance Act in which Congress forbade foreign aid to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Within a week of the coup, with Morsi and the first of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers thrown behind bars, SCAF sidelined the Tamarod campaigners. They were left complaining that the generals, violating their promise, had not consulted them on the road map to normalization. Having ridden the Tamarod horse to total power, SCAF had no more use for it.
When Morsi supporters staged peaceful sit-ins at two squares in Cairo, the military junta could not bear the sight of tens of thousands of Egyptians quietly defying its arbitrary will. Waiting until the holy fasting month of Ramadan and the three-day festival of Eid ul Fitr had passed, they made their move. On August 14th, Interior Ministry troops massacred nearly 1,000 protesters as they cleared the two sites.
“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” said Obama. However, in the end all he did was cancel annual joint military exercises with Egypt scheduled for September and suspend the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian air force. This mattered little, if at all, to the generals.
The helplessness of Washington before a client state with an economy in freefall was little short of stunning. Pentagon officials, for instance, revealed that since the “ouster of Mr. Morsi,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had had 15 telephone conversationswith coup leader General Sisi, pleading with him to “change course” – all in vain.
Five weeks later, the disjuncture between Washington and Cairo became embarrassingly overt. On September 23rd, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters orderedthe 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood disbanded. In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly the next day, President Obama stated that, in deposing Morsi, the Egyptian military had “responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn.” He then offered only token criticism, claimingthat the new military government had “made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy” and that future American support would “depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path.”
General Sisi was having none of this. In a newspaper interview on October 9th, hewarned that he would not tolerate pressure from Washington “whether through actions or hints.” Already, there had been a sign that Uncle Sam’s mild criticism was being diluted. A day earlier, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden stated that reports that all military assistance to Egypt would be halted were “false.”
In early November, unmistakably pliant words came from Secretary of State John Kerry. “The roadmap [to democracy] is being carried out to the best of our perception,” he said at a press conference, while standing alongside his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy during a surprise stopover in Cairo. “There are questions we have here and there about one thing or another, but Foreign Minister Fahmy has reemphasized to me again and again that they have every intent and they are determined to fulfill that particular decision and that [democratic] track.”
The Generals Axe the Secular, Pro-Democracy Movement
Fahmy and Kerry were looking at that democratic “track” from opposite perspectives. Three weeks later, the military-appointed president, Adly Mansour, approved a new law that virtually outlawed the right to protest. This law gave the interior minister or senior police officials a power that only the judiciary had previously possessed. The minister or his minions could now cancel, postpone, or change the location of protests for which organizers had earlier received the permission of local police. Human Rights groups and secular organizations argued that the 2013 Protest Law was reminiscent of Mubarak’s repressive policies. Washington kept quiet.
Two days later, critics of the law held a demonstration in Cairo that was violently dispersed by the police. Dozens of activists, including the co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, Ahmed Maher and Muhammad Adel, seminal actors in the Tahrir Square protests against Mubarak, were arrested. Maher and Adel were each sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Following the coup, the number of prisoners rose exponentially, reaching at least16,000 within eight months, including nearly 3,000 top or mid-level members of the Brotherhood. (Unofficial estimates put the total figure at 22,000.) When 40 inmates herded into a typical cell in custom-built jails proved insufficient, many Brotherhood members were detained without charges for months in police station lockups or impromptu prisons set up in police training camps where beatings were routine.
The 846 Egyptians who lost their lives in the pro-democracy revolution that ended Mubarak’s authoritarian regime were dwarfed by the nearly 3,000 people killed in a brutal series of crackdowns that followed the coup, according to human rights groups.
The sentencing of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement – which through its social media campaign had played such a crucial role in sparking anti-Mubarak demonstrations – foreshadowed something far worse. On April 28, 2014, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters outlawed that secular, pro-democracy movement based on a complaint by a lawyer that it had “tarnished the image” of Egypt and colluded with foreign parties.
With this set of acts, the post-coup regime turned the clock back to Mubarakism – without Mubarak.
Setting the World’s Mass Death-Penalty Record
On that same April day in the southern Egyptian town of Minya, Judge Saeed Elgazarbroke his own month-old world death-penalty record of 529 (in a trial that lasting less than an hour) by recommending the death penalty for 683 Egyptians, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. The defendants were charged in an August 2013 attack on a police station in Minya, which led to the death of a policeman. Of the accused, 60% had not been in Minya on the day of the assault. Defense lawyers were prevented from presenting their case during the two-day trial.
Elgazar was a grotesquely exaggerated example of a judiciary from the Mubarak era that remained unreconciled to the onset of democracy. It proved only too willing to back the military junta in terrorizing those even thinking of protesting the generals’ rule. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called the judge’s first trial “unconscionable.” But as before, the military-backed government in Cairo remained unmoved. The Egyptian Justice Department warned that “comments on judicial verdicts are unacceptable, be they from external or internal parties as they represent a serious transgression against the independence of the judiciary.”
When the second mass sentence came down, Kerry murmured that “there have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system, that have raised serious challenges for all of us. It’s actions, not words that will make the difference.” A defiant Nabil Fahmy responded by defending the verdicts as having been rendered by an independent judiciary “completely independent from the government.”
One predictable response to the military junta’s brutal squashing of the Brotherhood, which over the previous few decades had committed itself to participating in a multi-party democracy, was the swelling of the ranks of militant jihadist groups. Of these Ansar Bait al Muqdus (“Helpers of Jerusalem”), based in the Sinai Peninsula and linked to al-Qaeda, was the largest. After the coup, it gained new members and its terror attacks spread to the bulk of Egypt west of the Suez Canal.
In late December, a car bomb detonated by its operatives outside police headquarters in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura killed 16 police officers. Blaming the bombing on the Muslim Brotherhood instead, the interim government classified it as a “terrorist organization,” even though Ansar had claimed responsibility for the attack. By pinning the terrorist label on the Brotherhood, the generals gave themselves carte blanche to further intensify their ruthless suppression of it.
While SCAF pursued its relentless anti-Brotherhood crusade and reestablished itself as the ruling power in Egypt, it threw a sop to the Obama administration. It introduced a new constitution, having suspended the previous one drafted by a popularly elected constituent assembly. The generals appointed a handpicked committee of 50 to amend the suspended document. They included only two members of the Islamist groups that had jointly gained two-thirds of the popular vote in Egypt’s first free elections.
Predictably, the resulting document was military-friendly. It stipulated that the defense minister must be a serving military officer and that civilians would be subject to trial in military courts for certain offenses. Banned was the formation of political parties based on religion, race, gender, or geography, and none was allowed to have a paramilitary wing. The document was signed by the interim president in early December. A national referendum on it was held in mid-January under tight security,with 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen deployed nationwide. The result: a vote of 98.1% in favor. (A referendum on the 2012 constitution during Morsi’s presidency had gained the backing of 64% of voters.)
The charade of this exercise seemed to escape policymakers in Washington. Kerry blithely spoke of the SCAF-appointed government committing itself to “a transition process that expands democratic rights and leads to a civilian-led, inclusive government through free and fair elections.”
By this time, the diplomatic and financial support of the oil rich Gulf States ruled by autocratic monarchs was proving crucial to the military regime in Cairo. Immediately after the coup, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) poured$12 billion into Cairo’s nearly empty coffers. In late January 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE came up with an additional $5.8 billion. This helped Sisi brush off any pressure from Washington and monopolize power his way.
The Strongman as Savior
By then, huge photographs and portraits of General Sisi had become a common fixture on the streets in Cairo and other major cities. On January 27th, interim president Mansour promoted Sisi to field marshal. Later that day, SCAF nominated him for the presidency. A slew of stories started appearing in the state-run media as well as most of its privately owned counterparts backing Sisi and touting the benefits of strong military leadership.
Sisi’s original plan to announce his candidacy on February 11th, the third anniversary of Mubarak’s forced resignation, hit an unexpected speed bump. On February 7th, Al Watan, a newspaper supportive of the military regime with longstanding ties to the security establishment, printed an embarrassing front-page story placing Sisi’s worth at 30 million Egyptian pounds ($4.2 million). Within minutes of its being printed, state officials contacted the paper’s owner, Magdy El Galad, demanding its immediate removal. He instantly complied.
Sisi continued to place his henchmen in key positions in the armed forces, including military intelligence. On March 26th, he resigned from the army, declaring himself an independent candidate. Nonetheless, as Alaa Al Aswany, a prominent writer and commentator, revealed, senior military commanders continued to perform important tasks for him. There was nothing faintly fair about such an election, Aswany pointed out. Most other potential candidates for the presidency had reached a similar conclusion – that entering the race was futile. Hamdeen Sabahi, a secular left-of-center politician, was the only exception.
Despite relentless propaganda by state and private media portraying Sisi as the future savior of Egypt, things went badly for him. That he would be crowned as a latter-day Pharaoh was a given. The only unknown was: How many Egyptians would bother to participate in the stage-managed exercise?
The turnout proved so poor on May 26th, the first day of the two-day election, that panic struck the government, which declared the following day a holiday. In addition, the Justice ministry warned that those who failed to vote would be fined. The authorities suspended train fares to encourage voters to head for polling stations. TV anchors and media celebrities scolded and lambasted their fellow citizens for their apathy, while urging them to rush to their local polling booths. Huge speakers mounted on vans patrolling city neighborhoods alternated raucous exhortations to vote with songs of praise for the military. Al Azhar, the highest Islamic authority in the land, declared that to fail to vote was “to disobey the nation.” Pope Tawadros, head of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church whose members form 10% of the population, appeared on state television to urge voters to cast their ballots.
The former field marshal had demanded an 80% turnout from the country’s 56 million voters. Yet even with voting extended to a third day and a multifaceted campaign to shore up the numbers, polling stations were reportedly empty across the country. The announced official turnout of 47.5% was widely disbelieved. Sabahi described the figure as “an insult to the intelligence of Egyptians.” Sisi was again officially given 96.1% of the vote, Sabahi 3%. The spokesman for the National Alliance for the Defense of Legitimacy put voter participation at 10%-12%. The turnout for the first free and fair two-day presidential election, held in June 2012 without endless exhortations by TV anchors and religious leaders, had been 52%.
Among the regional and world leaders who telephoned Sisi to congratulate him on his landslide electoral triumph was Russian President Vladimir Putin. No such call has yet come in from President Obama.
For Washington, still so generous in its handouts to the Arab Republic of Egypt and its military, trailing behind the Russian Bear in embracing the latest strongman on the Nile should be considered an unqualified humiliation. With its former sphere of influence in tatters, the last superpower has been decisively sidelined by its key Arab ally in the region.