Saturday, July 29, 2006

Blair disses Algerian democrats

It should come as no surprise that I don't accept the global Islamist evil conspiracy theory which is all that Bush and Blair have left to persuade their ignorant constituents that power is in good hands. But viewers and listeners with the slightest memory of recent history should have wondered at Blair's 'lecture' in the White House about all the evil things those Islamists have done in the last few decades. Here it is in all its glory:

Before September the 11th this global movement with a global ideology was already in being. September the 11th was the culmination of what they wanted to do. But, actually -- and this is probably where the policymakers, such as myself, were truly in error -- is that even before September the 11th, this was happening in all sorts of different ways in different countries.

I mean, in Algeria, for example, tens and tens of thousands of people lost their lives. This movement has grown, it is there, it will latch on to any cause that it possibly can and give it a dimension of terrorism and hatred. You can see this. You can see it in Kashmir, for example. You can see it in Chechnya. You can see it in Palestine.


For the record, Algeria sank into civil war after the army cancelled elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was about to win in a sweeping victory. You can argue about the long-term commitment of FIS to the democratic process, if you find that useful or interesting, but the lack of commitment of the military was transparent and instantly verifiable. And these are the guys lecturing us on the Middle East on the virtues of democracy!
As for the other cases of conflict -- Kashmir, Chechnya or Palestine, wouldn't it make more sense to take a stand in favour of justice than walk away on the grounds that a few extremists have taken advantage of the victims' plight and desperation? Blair is increasingly a despicable worm, a man of shallow intellect and perverted conscience.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Craven American Journalist

The journalist called Matt who traveled to Latin America with President Bush last week set a new standard for blind obedience when Bush spoke to reporters on his plane. Here's the exchange:
One more. Yes, Matt.
Q Mr. President, you're likely to cross paths with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at this summit. How should Americans think about this President, who has said many hostile things about you and your administration?
Since when, for heaven's sake, did the press ask an imbecile president what the public should think?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Al Wasat Party Decision Postponed

The Arabist Network rightly notes the significant postponement of a ruling in the case of Hizb al-Wasat, the 'Islamic heritage' party which could be a serious threat to the Mubaraks, if it ever wins recognition. Just as I predicted earlier in this blog (or perhaps in some private communication), al-Wasat won't be able to fight the parliamentary elections as a party, though individual members can stand. I haven't had a chance to discuss it with Wasat leader Aboul Ela Madi, but I understand from newspapers today that he intends to dispute the delay through the courts. There's something truly pathetic about a system which gives judges of dubious independence a strangehold over the rules of the political game, instead of allowing people to organise themselves and allowing the electorate a real choice. But as government officials in several Arab countries have told me over the years: "That would be anarchy. There have to be rules, rules, rules (preferable invented by us)."

Washington in Robot Mode

After Karen Hughes (I missed the chance to make fun of her trip to Saudi Arabia, where she was surprised to find that women are human beings and can speak) and then Liz Cheney, there was Condoleezza Rice going through the motions at Princeton University of pretending to have a Middle East strategy and of really caring for the future of 300 million Arabs. I was amused at her homage to Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of the best think-tankers in the United States and a frequent and sound critic of Bush's surreal worldview. 'Constructive instability' reared its ugly head again and she made another attempt to sell the preposterous theory that the death of Arafat and the succession of Abu Mazen opens the door to peace. On Egypt:
For years, the topic of reform was not even a part of our dialogue with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But President Bush insisted on having these difficult discussions with our two oldest friends, in private and in public. Both countries are now taking steps to greater political openness. Saudi Arabia held imperfect municipal elections earlier this year because women did not vote. But they have promised that they will vote in the future. Egypt held flawed but landmark presidential election this summer in which there was, at least, vigorous debate of the options before Egyptians. And they will turn to parliamentary elections next year. Democracy, however, is more than a matter of holding elections. And we therefore expect both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to begin reforming the political institutions that are the key to lasting success for any democracy.
So no new thinking there. Oddly, she gave the wrong timing for the Egyptian parliamentary elections, which are in November and December. Someone should tell off her speechwriter for sloppy research.

Another gem from Karen Hughes on her appearance at a Saudi diwan:
I thought it was kind of an odd situation that the president of the journalists’ association was giving me his opinions on the situation. It was just sort of an odd one. It was sort of awkward, because at lunch, at our table, he was sort of "I want to make sure you know this, and you know this, and here’s what I think."
Oh my God, a journalist with opinions of his own and willing to share them! So unlike the ones we have in Washington, where they just write down my words and regurgitate them for public consumption. Who said Saudi Arabia was 'backward'?

Old Guard New Guard

The annual conference of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party was such an inconsequential affair that hardly anyone even bothered to write about it. I see that the French news agency AFP had to fabricate a story for want of anything else to say. Young Gamal did not 'stamp his authority' on the party nor claim that his group had triunphed over the old guard. In fact, Gamal was no more prominent than at last year's meeting and, far from claiming victory, he specifically denied the existence of any old guard or new guard in the party. In an interview with Al Masry Al Youm last week, 'old guardist' Kamal el-Shazli certainly didn't sound defeated in the least and sensible commentators are saying that Shazli and party secretary-general Safwat el-Sharif are here to stay, at least for a while. From Gamal Mubarak's point of view, the presidential elections did not prove decisively that his 'modern' way of running a political party is more successful than that of the dinosaurs. On the contrary, it was the dinosaurs who brought out the vote and stuffed some ballot boxes, saving Daddy from a humiliating turnout which could have been as low as 10 percent (compared with the 23 percent which the election commission announced).

Meanwhile, the skulduggery against Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour reached new lows on Saturday when expelled party members held their separatist 'general assembly' to go through the motions of ousting Nour as leader. They brought in employees of a company owned by the Mustafa Moussa family, as well as women from a literacy eradication class, to pose as Ghad Party delegates and vote in favour of Moussa Mustafa Moussa as new party leader. They found it hard to find a venue, given the dubious legality of the proceedings, but state security eventually persuaded the syndicate of tatbiqiyin (a category of professionals unknown to the English language) to lend them their premises. State television covered the event and took at face value the absurb pretensions of the organisers, who must now rank among the lowest form of human life existing on the planet, along with police informers, grave robbers, backstreet abortionists and U.S. Republican politicians.

Nour produced at a press conference on Sunday one of the company employees who refused to take part in this charade and had the courage to go to the nearest police station and report that something fishy was happening. The guy, Mohamed el-Awadi, said he had never had anything to do with politics and didn't plan to do so in the future, after this surreal experience. I mean, how would you react if your boss put you in a minibus, took you to a conference centre and told you to pose as an official of a party you knew nothing about? No guesses for what happens to that police report!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Max Weber and the 'Evil Ideologists'

Rereading Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism after a gap of many years reminded me of the misguided methodology of the 'Evil Ideologists' -- those who believe that the world's troubles have their roots in a 'jihadist' ideology which has suddenly and inexplicably descended on the Muslim world and infected the brains of thousands of young men, driving them to take up arms and bombs against 'Western civilisation'. Weber is rather more subtle, of course, and he qualifies his theory enough to protect himself from any charge of naivety. The thrust of his argument, in case you are not familiar with it or have forgotten it, is that the spirit of capitalism sprang from Protestant Asceticism, which combined the essential elements of frugality and sustained dedication to a 'calling' in the practical world, regardless of whether the combination led to great individual wealth. With time the religious element receded, leaving as its residue the Protestant work ethic, which holds that man's duty in this world to do a job well, invest and take advantage of economic opportunities that arise.

The link between Protestantism and acquisitive capitalism of the bourgeois kind which dominates the developed world is almost indisputable, but Weber fails to explain convincingly why Calvinism, or more generally Protestant Asceticism, became so widespread in the early modern period. He presents early capitalism as an accidental consequence of an ideology which started out as a means to secure eternal salvation, or at least which gave the adherent the illusion that he had a better than average chance of eternal salvation.

But in the real world, people have a vast range of ideologies to choose from, and their choice depends less on what is currently available in the marketplace of ideas than on what suits their economic, political and social interests at any given moment. The ideology of frugality and dedication to hard work has always been available, but few people adopted it before the 16th century and even then mainly in the most advanced economies of Europe -- England, Holland and parts of France. What we need to look at is the motives of the individuals who chose Calvinism over Lutheranism or Catholicism and try to establish what practical benefits it offered them in the real world, where most people live. Is it not more likely that, once economic and political circumstances made it possible for individuals without special privileges to accumulate capital through hard work, those individuals chose and adjusted a religious philosophy which justified their abandonment of traditional economic morality? I think so.

Similarly, versions of militant Islamism have always been available in the repertoir of variants of Islam (historically represented by the Khawarij, the Qarmatians and Ibn Taimiya, for example) but large numbers of Muslims were not inclined to adopt those ideologies until the circumstances of the real world made them attractive. The social, political and economic conditions came first and the popularity of the ideologies followed.

Intervention? What intervention?

I apologise in advance for harping on U.S. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes but her encounter with students at the American University in Cairo on Monday gave a revealing glimpse into the mindset of the people who are trying to run the world. They have the historical insight of newborn children and a level of cultural empathy unique to monoglots brought up in provincial America. Here's the exchange:
QUESTION: Why do the first world countries, or at least most of them, insist on interfering in the third world countries' affairs instead of just offering help and guidance?

UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: Are you referring specifically to America?

QUESTION: Just developed countries in general. Many of them --

UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: What type of interference are you talking about?

QUESTION: They interfere in most of the third world countries' affairs -- political, economic, not just helping them or offering help and guidance.

UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: Well I think what you maybe referring to are the millennium development goals -- is that what you're referring to? -- where most of our countries feel like in order to help this development we need to make sure countries are taking steps that lead toward good governance, toward getting rid of corruption, toward--in other words -- we believe that it is important to reward and respect those countries that are doing the right things to help make lives better for their citizens, not countries that are siphoning off money to corruption or money to enrich leaders or money that is not actually getting to worthwhile projects that help the people.
Not exactly, Ms Hughes. I hesitate to speak for the anonymous Cairene student, but here's a short (not exhaustive) list of interventions you might start with:

Overthrowing Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953
Military intervention to support Lebanese President Camille Chamoun in 1958
Helping install the Baathists in Iraq in the 1960s
Military intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s, again on the side of a minority Christian government, in this case in support of Israeli interests
Supporting Egyptian Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak from 1977 to the present, in return for protecting Israel's southern flank
Supplying valuable intelligence and other forms of military assistance to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war
Invading Iraq in 2003, on false pretences and in violation of international law
Ensuring Israeli military superiority over all potential adversaries for the past 40 years, at a cost of several hundred billion dollars to American taxpayers
And that's just a cursory selection from the Middle East, leaving aside South East Asia, Latin America and Africa

And then you bring up the Millennium Challenge Accounts?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Too Hard on Juan Cole

Issandr El Amrani is much too hard on Juan Cole's piece in Salon. Let me take up a couple of points:

On Saadeddin Ibrahim: Whatever the truth about the independence of the judges on the Court of Cassation, the government has a hundred ways of manipulating the legal system. They could easily keep the case out of the Court of Cassation, for example, if they felt that the judges there might not cooperate. I see no reason to doubt that Saadeddin was imprisoned mainly for suggesting that Mubarak was preparing a dynastic succession or that international intervention helped secure his eventual acquittal.

On the Ayman Nour case: The trial of Ayman Nour has resumed this week and we haven't seen any evidence that the charges against him are serious. In fact, all the evidence suggests this really is a trumped-up case driven solely by motives of political revenge and harassment. As Ayman Nour has repeatedly stated, the alleged crime would have been completely without motive. Nour could easily meet the requirement for endorsements when he set up Ghad and had no interest in forging extra endorsements beyond the legal limit. It is also most implausible that Nour, as a lawyer with an intimate knowledge of the obstructionist procedures of the Shoura Council Parties Committee, would have risked his party's status in the way alleged. The fact that one of the defendants has repudiated his confession must raise doubts about the soundness of the case. Who has more power to influence witnesses -- the security services or Ayman Nour? The government (or someone in the government) clearly has an interest in making life difficult for Nour, while Nour had no interest in forging signatures. Case closed.

On the boycott: Here I must agree with Issandr. Apathy far outweighed the call for a boycott.

On the middle class: Any attempt to analyse Egyptian politics in the 2000s in terms of class is bound to fail, because levels of political participation are so low. Issandr is right in saying that the urban middle class does not vote at all, so their party preferences must remain largely unknowable. But it is also true that al-Ghad draws its support from the middle classes in the private sector. The Wafd less so, because in some areas it also draws support from peasants loyal to traditional Wafdists. The vast majority of Egyptian voters are people susceptible to financial or professional inducements or pressures, such as public-sector workers who vote en masse, peasants mobilised by local political bosses or urban drifters who have nothing better to do on election day but vote (for a small fee or a free meal). Analysing their political choices is a waste of time.

The Truth about U.S. Intervention

The closed lunchtime meeting today between Karen Hughes and a selection of Egyptian intellectuals (the U.S.Embassy is never very imaginative in its choice, by the way) turned out to be fairly inconsequential, according to the accounts I have heard from several of the participants (you didn't know I was so well connected, did you?). The participants, all for their own good reasons, could not agree whether they should be talking about Iraq and Palestine, or about the influence the United States has on domestic Egyptian politics.

If you're interested in improving Washington's image (but frankly why should the participants care to do that?), then Iraq and Palestine are the obvious places to start. But if you're interested in improving the lot of Egyptians, it might make more sense to harangue Hughes on the way the United States deals with the Egyptian government, or free trade, or how it disburses U.S. aid. Several of the participants set out to sell Hughes their pet projects, in some cases on the spurious grounds that these held the key to salvaging Bush's reputation in these parts.

Maybe I haven't spelled this out in sufficient detail before but my views on the matter are very simple: the less U.S. intervention in the region, the better for the Middle East as a whole. This requires restraint by the United States and I have no illusions that this is likely to happen until the United States ceases to be a superpower with major interests in the region. That might be sooner than we expect.

What would this new approach entail?
Firstly, it would redress the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, which U.S. diplomatic support and military cooperation have tilted so heavily in favour of Israel. This would accelerate the search for a compromise and open the door to a recourse to independent legal arbitration, which the United States has repeatedly prevented for the past 40 years or more.

Secondly, a reduction in U.S. purchases of Middle Eastern oil (yes, even buying oil is form of intervention) would redress the imbalance of power between the governments and citizens of Arab countries with large oil reserves. The governments would be more responsive to popular demand and civil society organisations independent of the governments would have more space in which to operate. That could pave the way for peaceful transfers of power. Talking about democracy is pointless when the United States (and Europe) by their actions entrench the existing elites in their positions of power.

Thirdly, withdraw U.S. forces from all Arab countries and abandon the practice of rewarding Arab governments for the military facilities they offer in secret -- the use of bases, overflight rights, passage through waterways such as the Suez Canal, rest and recreation facilities for U.S. military personnel, and so on. At the very least, all such arrangements should be published and open to public scrutiny.

Fourthly, stop using democracy demands, human rights and weapons proliferation as sticks with which to beat Middle East governments which do not cooperate with U.S. geostrategic objectives, while ignoring abuses by government which do cooperate (commonly known, quite rightly, as the double standard). At the very least, if you want to reward democratic governments and punish undemocratic ones, do so with an even hand. That means taking a tough line against Israel's nuclear weapons programme and Israel's race-based discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens. Hopefully, if and when the previous conditions have been fulfilled, this fourth step would be superfluous.

Fifthly, restrict U.S. aid to purely humanitarian projects, without using any political criteria.

That's a tall order, of course. But my point is this -- it's intervention in the Middle East that gives the United States a bad name. Intervention, except within the strictest humanitarian limits, always distorts the regional and domestic balances of power, alienating large numbers of people. You can organise as many student exchanges or new television stations as you like, but as long as you are intervening, you're asking for trouble. Amen.

Happy (Palestinian) Families

For the last few days, I was tired of indignation. All it took was a visit by U.S. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes to revive that sentiment within me. In Cairo on a mission to improve the image of the U.S. government, she showed that she still has no understanding of why Arabs and Palestinians can be so angry. Here she is trying to persuade the media that the Bush administration really has the best interests of the Palestinians at heart and empathises deeply with their aspirations:
Sometimes with policy decisions there are two sides to the coin, and you have one set of views in one place and a different set of views in another. Take, for example, the Palestinian issue. The goal of our United States policy in Palestine is that the Palestinian people might have the opportunity for a better life, that young people growing up in Palestine have an opportunity to be educated and to have a job. I remember meeting with someone who told me who told how many Palestinian young people, because they don't have an opportunity to have a job, don't feel that they can afford to be married and to have children, and have the experience of having children and families. And that's what we want for the Palestinian people. That is the goal of our policy. When you hear sometimes the discussion of our policy here in the Middle East, that's not the version that you hear. But that is the goal of our American policy.
How about this, Karen, if you're listening? Palestinians want back the land that was stolen from them in 1948, again in 1967 and every year since then, land stolen under the cover of racist laws, military decrees and arbitrary fiats, but still stolen. Land stolen to make space for immigrants from Russia, the United States and all over, land stolen by brute force without recourse to any legal system. Happy families are great but first let's come clean about the roots of this conflict. In fact, some Palestinians have shown they are willing to go without marriage and children for the sake of their community's rights. Until Karen Hughes and her likes come to terms with this reality, they are wasting their time. So cut the crap about helping Palestinians have children, and bring some justice to this conflict.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Khawaga Writes Hilarous Review of Adel Imam Film

I hope the editors at the New York Times read this because they really should know what a nincompoop they have sent out to Cairo for the past few weeks. Michael Slackman's review of the Adel Imam film Al-Sifara fil-Imara (The Embassy's in the Building) is so completely misconceived that it's hard to know where to start. First of all, it's clear that Slackman didn't understand a word of the dialogue and whoever briefed him on the content seriously misled him (deliberately, perhaps?). Having taken hold of the wrong end of the stick, Slackman then proceeds to twist what fragments he has to match the preconceptions he started out with. Take this:
The director, Amro Arafa, uses comedy to try to get Egyptian audiences to consider a most serious point: that peace with Israel is in Egypt's own interest.
Now, Egyptians in general don't favour war with Israel, not by a long way, but that's mainly because they know they would lose and their parents have bitter memories of the hardships that war brings. But the film has nothing to do with war and peace; it's about normalisation of relations with Israel and the presence of an Israeli embassy, which is an entirely different matter. The consensus on that is entirely negative and the film accurately reflects, even endorses, that feeling.

When the state security agent says: "We have signed peace with this country.. This is our country's policy, and it is for our interest. Do you want to be against the country's interests?", Slackman clearly didn't catch that the director isn't endorsing this attitude. On the contrary he is portraying state security as complacent, as collaborators without principles.
"We do not have a problem with the Israelis or the Jews; we have a problem with the Israeli government," said Mr. Arafa, the film's director, repeating a semantic distinction that was once popular among Egyptians but was dropped altogether after the second intifada heated up in 2000.
That's just a semantic distinction! Well, I never. Making a distinction between Jews and the Israeli government is rather more than that -- it's the same as the distinction between racism and justice. So Slackman thinks that after the intifada the Egyptian people turned racist? I would like to see his evidence for that.

Now I don't know what Tarek el Shenawy said, because I wasn't present, but if he said that the protesters (in the film) neither called for the embassy to leave Cairo nor demanded the end of relations with Israel, then he was clearly watching a copy of the film different from the one I saw. I distinctly remember banners saying "No to Normalisation" or "Go home, ambasaador" and the like.

By the way, the film does make fun of some leftists, but in the final scene, the Adel Imam character, after years of indifference towards politics, realises the justice of the Palestinian cause and joins the leftists in the protest.

Then there's this:
Whether Mr. Imam can make people laugh is not in doubt. But on the question of whether his comedy can help promote a more moderate view toward relations with Israel, the jury is still out.
Who said anything about "a more moderate view towards relations with Israel"? Ah, now I understand, Slackman (great name) had a brief to test whether Egyptians are becoming more friendly towards Israel. From the point of view of New York Times readers, I guess, that's what Egyptians are for. All their other attitudes are irrelevant.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fisk at his Best

Hurray! Robert Fisk has rediscovered his voice. Not ranting, just speaking truth to power, as he was meant to do.

Standing Ovation for Nour

Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party was on top form today at the party's general assembly at the Cairo International Conference Centre and he deserved the many standing ovations he received from the 900 or so party members who gathered at two days' notice from all over the country. The aim was to give him a vote of confidence after all the disinformation in the state media about rifts in the party. They gave it to him -- 831 v. 13 by secret ballot. Even after the expulsions and suspensions of the agents provocateurs who tried to oust him (about 20 people, I believe), that's a fairly hefty endorsement from the base. The Ghad has achieved something close to a miracle -- 540,000 votes in presidential elections after one year in existence.

Watching Nour today, I finally understood why he has gone so far. Egypt doesn't have many politicians of his calibre. He spoke for two and a half hours without notes and struck just the right tone -- the right mix of formality/informality, toughness/generosity, leadership/humility. He handled demands from the floor adroitly, listening carefully, answering sensibly and silencing people politely when they were wasting time. After a moment of silence for the people who died in the Beni Suef fire, someone started shouting "Down with Mubarak" -- Nour put an end to that. He even put to a show of hands the question of whether the leadership should be harsher or more merciful in its treatment of people who violate the principle of party solidarity (harsher won by a narrow margin).

A master stroke came towards the end when he nominated two people to share the honorary title of 'party personality of the year'. The first was Ayman Barakat, his lawyer friend who has been detained in another fabricated case. The second was an unknown party regular by the name of Ahmed Abdel Waddoud Said. He turned out to be a cripple in a wheelchair who attends every party event he can. They carried his wheelchair up on the stage and placed him next to Nour, who introduced him. Said spoke too, with some difficulty because he has a slight speech impediment, and it was clear that this was a memorable occasion for him. Said repeatedly made a strange idiosyncratic victory gesture with his crippled right hand and grinned like a cat -- a performance symbolic of triumph over adversity. But not a trace of tokenism or maudlinness. Nour appeared to show genuine affection for Said and I saw why he has such a following in Bab el-Shaaria. Imagine Mubarak doing such a thing! Impossible. I saw tears in the eyes of many.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Juan Cole takes on Wall Street Journal

Hearty congratulations to Juan Cole for his article in Salon, answering the very convenient Wall Street Journal fantasy of an Arab Spring. I've said much the same before, and made appropriate fun of Condoleezza's feeble attempt to keep the myth alive. But Juan says it very well, so cheers to him. I'm also glad to see that Hitchens spread Juan's fame by ignorantly attacking his academic credentials, which are impeccable.

Juan ends eloquently:
Egypt watchers may as well take a nap for a while, since Mubarak is unlikely to permit much change anytime soon, Bush or no Bush. A people who figured out how to get rid of Napoleon Bonaparte within a year is hardly flummoxed by a mere Texas poseur. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal will be so kind as to wake us up when spring comes.
But I hope he's wrong on that -- there's plenty of scope for excitement in the two or three years to come, especially if Mubarak tries to install Gamal halfway through his six-year term, as some expect. Then there's the small matter of the life expectancy of 77-year-old Egyptian men, even ones as well preserved and well tended as His Majesty.

Poachers and Gamekeepers

The state media have been making cryptic references to a campaign against corruption, driven by no less than HM Hosni Mubarak. Ibrahim Nafie, the man who ran al-Ahram for 27 years and allegedly left his post with 3.5 billion pounds (close to $600 million) just a couple of months ago, is one of those under investigation. I'm not usually one for gossip but I did hear that Nafie left for Paris with many suitcases the day after his first interview with the public prosecutor. But the idea of a serious investigation into Nafie doesn't make much sense. The presidency must have known for years what was happening with al-Ahram's finances and, apart from getting a little old, Nafie does not appear to have committed any blunders.

But do I detect that some senior members of the ruling party are feeling uncomfortable? Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieldin, who's rather a maverick, told an illustrative anecdote at a World Bank event on Sunday morning. He said that after he mentioned the campaign against corruption in public at last week's Euromoney conference (presumably to reassure foreign investors), he was approached by certain unnamed people who complained he had been talking about them in their absence!! Tell us more, Mahmoud. Anyway, businessmen Ibrahim Kamil, the very same who hinted at how Gamal Mubarak might become president and who was also at the World Bank event, tried to change the subject with a dismissive "The level of corruption in Egypt is the same as anywhere else in the world". Transparency International, which monitors corruption around the world, does not agree -- it ranks Egypt 77th, below Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Some Arab countries are substantially cleaner -- notably Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which rank a fairly respectable 29th equal, above Italy and Cyprus.

Payback Time for Nour

It's been a tough week for Ayman Nour, the candidate who mounted the strongest campaign against Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian presidential elections this month. Mubarak's National Democratic Party, sensing that the world has lost interest and has broadly accepted that Mubarak 'won', has reverted to its old practice of undermining troublesome opposition groups by trying to divide them against themselves. In other words, it's dirty tricks and payback time for Nour and his Ghad Party. I can't say exactly what methods of persuasion they use (blackmail, bribery and promises of favours come to mind) but they certainly seem to be working. The state media has gone along with the pretence, portraying the group of 'dissidents' inside Ghad as honourable men with genuine grievances rather than as the unscrupulous opportunists they appear to be.

First the public prosecutor floated a story that Ayman Nour was somehow implicated in the case of a businessman who paid another man to assume his identity and serve jail time in his place (would anyone really believe that such a thing is plausible?). The prosecutor said he would ask parliament to lift Nour's immunity to answer questions about the case. Then a group of party members, including deputy leader Moussa Mustafa Moussa, tried to prevent Nour from holding a General Assembly, which would undoubtedly endorse Nour as leader. In parallel, using powers of attorney they received at the time Nour founded the Ghad Party last year, they rustled up enough leading members to pass a resolution ousting Nour and the other party members who were most active in the election campaign. Not surprisingly, Moussa and his associates did almost nothing to help Nour in the campaign, which confirmed the party as the most serious liberal opposition force. Also in parallel, Nour and his group persuaded the party's council of wise men to expel the troublemakers from the party.

The validity of all these resolutions is in doubt and both sides in the dispute have submitted their decision to the Parties Committee of the Shoura Council, the upper house of parliament. The committee, which regulates political parties, is chaired by Safwat el-Sharif, the secretary-general of the National Democratic Party and a past master in the art of inciting opposition politicians against each other when any one of them causes trouble for the regime. In some past cases, Safwat has engineered internal disputes in such a way that the party has been paralysed for years.

Nour has called a General Assembly for tomorrow, Tuesday, and it should be interesting to see whether he manages to beat off this entirely transparent attempt to wreck his party. Nour's supporters say they believe the motive for this assault on Ghad is Nour's refusal to recognise the results of the elections and congratulate Mubarak on his victory.

On top of all this, Nour goes back on trial next Sunday on the forgery charges for which he was detained in January. No reasonable person believes the charges have any basis in fact, because the alleged crime had no possible motive.

The obvious conclusion from these machinations is that either the elections did not weaken that wing of the ruling party which believes in dirty tricks or that the split in the ruling party was a charade to give the world the impression that there were limits on the freedom of action of those who posed as reformers. Watch this space for future developments.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

King Abdullah and the Ulema

King Abdullah of Jordan is a big disappointment, so shallow and eager to please the people who keep him in palaces and expensive German automobiles. His speech to the United Nations World Summit plumbed new depths for shallowness and sycophancy. My rule is be very suspicious of people who pose as cultural liberals and then claim to know the truth about something as vast as Islam -- whether they are George Bush, Tony Blair, Tony Blankley or King Abdullah. Here's what the diminutive dauphin said:
Our country, our region, and the world, are all affected by the prospects for peace. One critical step is to ensure zero tolerance towards those who promote extremism. Jordan has worked with the international Muslim community to oppose extremist interpretations of Islam. Jordan wants true, moderate, traditional Islam to replace fundamentalist, radical and militant Islam, everywhere in the world, for every single Muslim.

In November of 2004 we issued the Amman Message, which sought to clarify the true nature of Islam – what it is, and what it is not. Then, last July, over 180 scholars met in Amman. They represented 45 countries, and were supported by fatwas from 17 of the world's greatest Islamic scholars. Together, they achieved, for the first time in history, a unanimous consensus on a number of critical issues.

First, the declaration recognized the legitimacy and common principles of all eight of the traditional schools of Islamic religious law. Second, it defined the necessary qualifications and conditions for issuing fatwas. This exposes the illegitimacy of the extremist fatwas justifying terrorism, which contravene the traditional schools of Islamic religious law and are in clear violation of Islam's core principles. Third, the declaration condemned the practice known as “takfir” (calling others apostates) – a practice that is used by extremists to justify violence against those who do not agree with them.
The trouble with the King Abdullah school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is that it is so reactionary, so supportive of the status quo, but what can you expect from a monarch whose main claim to ascendancy is a spurious descent from the family of the prophet Mohammad? If Abdullah and his party had their way, we would have an Islamic thought police, banning fatwas by people who have not passed some official test. One of the virtues of Islamic religious culture is that the political authorities have rarely been able to impose any kind of orthodoxy. They have tried hard, especially in recent times (with the 'nationalisation' of al-Azhar, for example) but they have never fully succeeded. Interestingly, several of the opposition candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections proposed reintroducing the old system whereby senior ulema choose Sheikh al-Azhar by election, setting it free from the state. Advocates of this change are the true liberals, while King Abdullah's proposal works in the opposite direction. His ideas are a recipe for permanent stagnation in religious thinking and can only further discredit and compromise the religious authorities. Innovation requires risk -- the risk that some fatwas will not suit George Bush -- but in the end the battle will be fought in the marketplace of ideas, not through the imposition of controls. So just to show the little king what he's up against, I hereby issue a fatwa of my own: "Extremism in defence of the right to issue fatwas is no vice; moderation in pursuit of conformity is no virtue" - the Sahih of Abdel Bari Goldwater.

Saadeddin Mandela

I found the Galloway-Hitchens transcript here in the end and read the whole thing. Turns out, of course, that when they sat down together they agreed on many points -- Saddam bad, Saudi rulers bad, Mubarak bad and so on. The points of disagreement: was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein worth all the death and destruction? is resistance to the Jaafari/Talabani government legitimate? Reasonable people could argue both sides of the argument.

But it was striking how Hitchens raises Egyptian sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim to the status of a liberation icon. Read this:
The moral leader of the Egyptian democracy movement, the man who has been begun to break open the argument in Egypt, and he's suffered a long period of imprisonment during this time and was written to by Nelson Mandela as Egypt's equivalent, has told me, and for quotation, that in his opinion, this new mood in the region would be unthinkable if it was not for the removal of the single worst tyrant who was present there. That's not nothing, in point of testimony, that's from deep within the bowels of the Egyptian prison system, the man who is the moral hero of the democracy movement. He says, and I agree with him, and he is echoed by Anwar Ibrahim as far away as Malaysia, who is the Malay equivalent, and by the leader of the Socialist Party of Lebanon, Mr. Jumblatt, have all stated publicly, uh, that this for them is the beginning of the end, the fall of the wall as they put it.
For the record, no Egyptians consider Saadeddin to be the moral leader of any democracy movement. Some consider him to be a brave academic, others as someone of dubious patriotism because of his dual nationality and close ties to Washington. Saadeddin did not suffer a long period of imprisonment by the standards of this part of the world (about one year compared to Mandela's 27 years), and I very much doubt he ever descended to the bowels of the Egyptian prison system, where very bad things can happen. If Saadeddin had stood in free and fair elections this month, he might have won one percent of the vote. Besides, Saadeddin's view that the removal of Saddam shook up the political status quo in the Arab world (that's hard to dispute) is not incompatible with the widespread view that the cost was too high and that Bush's intentions were tainted. Next time I see Saadeddin I will ask him exactly that -- was it worth it?
Remember, so far all this talk about democracy in the Arab world is just that -- talk. The elections in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine and now Egypt did not lead to any transfer of power. What happened in Lebanon was a geostrategic shift from Syrian influence to American/French influence, accelerated by Syrian bungling and foreign intervention. The Lebanese people played a prominent part, but Lebanese politics is so mired in sectarianism that democracy means little in this context.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Hitchens-Galloway Debate

Damn! Nowhere can I find a full transcript of the debate between George Galloway and Christopher Hitchens. How strange that these two white British men should be standing in for 'us' and 'them' in this conflict which, whether we like it or not, will decide the future of the world. I can't disguise my feelings -- I see Hitchens as just about as close to a traitor as I could ever consider anyone. But since I'm still a tolerant guy, I'd be happy to have a drink and an argument with him. Galloway, well, after his performance in the Senate -- speaking truth to power, and making such fools of power -- I'm willing to overlook his faults. If words are power (and they are), these two guys outrank George Bush and Osama bin Laden.

Being a man, I want to know who won. Judging by the buzz, Galloway had the edge, since everyone's quoting his lines:

"What Mr Hitchens has done is unique in natural history, the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly into a slug... I mention slug purposefully. The one thing a slug does leave behind it is a trail of slime."

"Hitchens, you're a court jester ...not at Camelot, like other ridiculous former liberals before you, but at the court of the Bourbon Bushes."

I know it's childish but I want to read the whole thing.

Sorry, No Good Headlines Today

That Condoleezza Rice interview with the New York Post has stacks of other fascinating material about the Middle East, especially on the Arab Spring myth. An indication of how successful the Bush administration has been in lulling the U.S. media into euphoria about the way the Middle East is changing is this question from the editorial board, more royalist than Queen Condi:
But why don’t more Americans appreciate all the gains that we made in terms of the democracy movement? But are we too focused on violence and how do you overcome that? Is there more than the Administration was doing to overcome the focus on the negatives, the violence, the suicide bombings and focus more on the accomplishments that you can talk about?
With ignorant stooges like that on the editorial boards of mainstream newspapers, the Bush administration doesn't need to do much more spinning, does it? Rice's answer:
When we did have the drama of the Lebanese in the streets, Iraqis voting, Palestinians voting, people took note. That was that period of time, February-March, you might remember where everybody noticed what was happening and it was palpable around the world. It’s been supplanted – it’s almost as if its shelf life expired and now people are again focusing on the violence and the fact that it’s really hard. And the problem that we have is that when you’re in the middle of big historic transformations, they’re messy and they are violent and they are tough. And you don’t make progress everyday...
So how you communicate the extreme complexity of what is going on as this region is changing dramatically, I mean, it’s like a cauldron right now of change out there and it’s affecting every corner of it. But it’s not tidy and it’s not a story that you can write a good headline every day about what’s going on. And I think that’s essentially the problem we have.
But things are happening! Saudi Arabia has a new king! -- he's the same guy who's ruled the place for the last 10 years, but Condi thinks he will "make some changes". "Places like Jordan and Bahrain and Morocco are, you know, sprinting along" - not quite sure how but it sounds good.

Here's my advice -- hold some more elections! More and more elections! It doesn't matter if they're just the same old characters playing the same old games, with the same winners, but it looks so good! Go out and vote, Arabs!

At Least He Campaigned!!

Condoleezza Rice looks at the bright side of the Egyptian presidential elections in this interview with the New York Post editorial board. She also stretches the truth a little to show how successful she has been in 'promoting democracy' in these parts. The positive aspects which she cites:
At least he (Mubarak) campaigned!
He went to two places in Egypt every day! (More like one place every two days, unless you count the presidential palace as a place to go. Anyway, a tribute to his mobility at the age of 77.)
He talked about how he’s going to overturn the emergency law! (And probably replace it with an equally draconian law)
Now consent matters in the Egyptian system! (What were all those referendums about - in 1981, 1987, 91993 and 1999?)
Unemployment was on the front pages! (What does she think al-Wafd and al-Ahrar have been publishing on their front pages for the last 15 years?)
People questioned all kinds of things about the presidency and about the succession! (What were the answers?)
The Egyptian state news agency MENA has its own spin on the interview:
"U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the presidential elections which took place in Egypt recently were the cleanest she has seen."
What Rice really said: "I will not tell you that these were the most perfect elections I’ve seen." But hell, what's a negative between friends!

Israeli Fears are News

This story by CBS/AP should never have seen the light of day, at least not in this form. Let's make this clear -- people's alleged fears, unless substantiated by some shred of evidence, are not in themselves news. Besides, study it closely and find a single direct quote from an Israeli saying he is afraid (Regev's remarks don't meet that test). Oddly the only person saying he's afraid is Abu Mazen aide Rafiq Husseini, although another Palestinian official dismisses those 'fears' as baseless. Note the hyperbole generously sprinkled throughout the report -- "Israel is worried about mega-terror on its soil and the Palestinian Authority fears that it could be toppled and replaced with an Iranian-style regime", "Gaza is being flooded with weapons". To spice up this insubstantial report, Berger adds this:
Islamic militant groups, some claiming connections with al Qaeda, have been active in northern Egypt but there has been no indication they've infiltrated Gaza, which until this week has been tightly sealed.Its operatives are prime suspects in a triple bombing that killed at least 64 people in July at Egypt's popular Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik on the southern tip of the Sinai.
Now for the facts:

* Unknown groups claiming affiliation with al Qaeda have claimed to be operating in North Sinai but there's no evidence that these groups even exist, let alone have a presence in North Sinai

* The operatives of those groups, which may not even exist, are NOT prime suspects for the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings. All the available evidence points to an independent group of Sinai Bedouin, possibly with some Palestinian members.

The CBS/AP does however serve a purpose. It perpetuates the idea that Israelis live under constant threat from ruthless and wily 'terrorists' who will jump at any opportunity to attack and that the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities will do nothing to prevent them.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Arabs and Kurds Drift Apart

The interview which Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari gave to the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram this week is a sad reflection of the abysmal state of relations between Sunni Arabs from countries like Egypt and the new Iraqi government. In many ways, the questions are more telling than the answers. Zebari is a Kurd, of course, so why should he feel any sympathy for the interviewer's horror at the idea of the new Iraq diluting Saddam Hussein's commitment to Arab unity, Arab 'solidarity', Arab nationalism and the Arab League? The sad truth is that too many Arabs (outside Iraq) don't recognise Kurdishness as an authentic identity. From lack of exposure to Kurds in education and the media, too many Arabs imagine them to be merely perverse Arabs, probably speaking an Arabic 'dialect' (a tell-tale word in itself) and insisting on their separateness only under American or Israeli influence.I hear the same attitude when Sudanese northerners and southerners argue. It's as if the northern Arabs were saying: "Maybe you're not Arabs like us, but surely you WANT to be Arabs?" It's more naivety than racism, because the Arabs want to assimilate them, not exclude them, but are puzzled by the reluctance. The occasion for the discussion in the interview is the decision by those drafting the Iraqi constitution to omit any reference to Iraq as an Arab nation, substituting a reference to Iraq as a founder member of the Arab League, a historic fact which the Kurds do not attempt to deny. Here are some condensed extracts for those of you who don't read Arabic:
QUESTION: Mr Minister, how did this new and strange concept come about when the Arab constitutions all say the 21 states (in the Arab League) are Arab countries, when Iraq comes out with a new concept that it is a founding member of the Arab League, instead of the concept of Arab identity?
ZEBARI: Every country has its own circumstances and composition... In Iraq there are non-Arab citizens who number millions. The Kurds for example are eight million and more... Why should we join the Arab nation and abandon our Kurdish nation of 20 million and more? The Turkoman too say: 'We are an extension of the Turkish nation.'
QUESTION: As an Arab citizen, my fears for Iraq and the neighbouring countries and the region is that the citizens of other countries will demand the same and we'll be surprised to find a Kurdish state, and a Shi'ite state and a Turkoman state?
ZEBARI: We assert the national unity of Iraq. The Kurds are Iraqi citizens. Previously, before the fall of Saddam, they had an independent status and they have conceded their rights and agreed to live in one state. What happens in other countries is their responsibility...
QUESTION: Mr Minister, quite frankly, do the Iraqi people want the Arabs or do they have a feeling of, I won't say hatred, but of distance and alienation, do they feel they can dispense with the Arabs, after the neglect that has taken place...
ZEBARI: Unfortunately, this is a feeling that some people have because of the alienation. The neglect (of Arabs for Iraqis) has created an Iraqi reaction and we are working to prevent this leading to a rift between the Arabs and Iraq.
QUESTION: Mr Minister, why do some people yearn for the days of Saddam Hussein?
ZEBARI: In Saddam Hussein's time there was security through the security services but there wasn't social peace. Now the picture is reversed. We have peace with our neighbours and with the world but security is threatened by Saddamist and Baathist groups which do not aim to take part in power but to destroy the current government. In the face of that we are waging a political struggle and it will last for a time.
QUESTION: Mr Minister, on what basis did the saying arise that the Sunni minority ruled for the past years over the Shi'ite and Kurdish majority? Do you have accurate statistics in Iraq for the size of each sect and ethnic group?
ZEBARI: We don't have any statistics...

Zoellick cites Malaya

After all the discussion about the 'lessons' of the Malayan Emergency, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick brought it up en passant in an interview with Al Arabia. This is what he said:
So if you look at the history of insurgencies, for example, the one that took place in Malaya, it took many years to deal with because you can have a relatively small number of people that are still committed to violence and suicide in this case, that can disrupt a society. So I think the benchmarks are whether Iraqis are able to seize control of their own future, do so in a way that builds support among the public and eventually turns back those that are committed to violence, as opposed to solving problems through democratic debate... It's much harder to do if your neighbors are the vehicles for sending people across the borders that are committed to suicide bombs.
What he's trying to say, I think, is that the Iraqi government really can defeat the insurgency if given enough time. But he doesn't sound very convinced, or convincing. The point about the success of the British (not so much the Malayan government) against the ethnic Chinese insurgents in Malaya was that the insurgents DID NOT have significant support through neighbouring countries and certainly didn't use suicide bombs regularly. Zoellick also doesn't mention the British/Malay strategy of removing hundreds of people from their villages and isolating them from the insurgents. My conclusion is that Zoellick is just showing off his profound knowledge of 20th-century insurgencies, without having a point to make. For an American, merely saying 'Malaya' rather than 'Malaysia' shows that he's done his homework. President Bush thinks it's in southern Africa, next to Zimbia.

By the way, I wonder if Zoellick ever apologised for his outburst against those Cairo-based reporters in July. He said it was 'cynical' to doubt that the Egyptian authorities would make a decision about international monitoring of elections until the elections began. History proved him wrong. They decided about two hours after voting started, and set conditions that no one could meet before it ended.

'Terror' reinfects Bush brain

Bush is back on the 'terror' path, judging by the frequency with which the word or its derivatives occurred in his UN speech on Wednesday. It's a record for recent times and is very high by any standards:

President Addresses United Nations Security Council, Sept 14 -- 15 terrors in 457 words: one for every 30 words uttered.

President Discusses Hurricane Katrina Relief, Sept 8 - 0 terrors in 1,109 words

Speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, August 31-- 15 terrors in 3,655 words: one for every 244 words uttered

Radio address, August 27 -- 10 terrors in 724 words: one for every 72 words uttered

Address to military families in Idaho, August 24 -- 45 terrors in 4,409 words: one for every 98 words uttered.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Egyptian jailers?

The future of the border between Gaza and Egypt is something to watch in the coming days and months. We've already seen some fairly dramatic events there, at least for the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza. It's easy to forget that many of these people, especially the younger ones and those the Israelis don't like, have never in their lives left the strip, which measures about 140 square miles (about twice the size of the District of Columbia). If the Egyptian border opens, it will be like flinging open the door of a large jail. Many thousands of Palestinians left into Egyptian Sinai on Monday, many of them just for the adventure of it -- the sheer exhilaration of GOING SOMEWHERE ELSE and SEEING SOMETHING NEW. I wish I had been there. The Egyptians, to their credit, turned a blind eye, maybe out of sympathy, maybe because they didn't relish the idea of holding them in by force. "We do not intend to be alternative oppressors," a senior Egyptian official said. Many of them just went shopping or visited friends and relatives. Some of them haven't seen each other for many years. It's hard to imagine the trials and tribulations Palestinians have faced going back and forth across this border for the simplest things -- going to university, visiting sick relatives or whatever. If they were lucky enough to get a pass from the Israelis, they risked long delays on each crossing. Sometimes hundreds of Palestinians spent days, even weeks, at the border for reasons entirely beyond their control, usually at great financial expense.

How is that going to change, if at all? The Egyptian government has promised to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza and has started to deploy 750 border guards along the eight-mile stretch to perform this function, essentially protecting Israelis from possible attack by Palestinian groups. That's a big responsibility and could be a source of serious conflict. What happens if Israel says the Egyptians have been negligent and it intends to redeploy along the border, reimposing the prison conditions of recent years? Egypt and Israel have an agreement covering such points but inevitably they are not publishing the details, which could be highly embarrassing to the Egyptians. But what about the movement of people? Egypt, a poor densely populated country with high unemployment, is not about to give Gazans unrestricted access to Egypt, because too many would choose to stay. Life in Cairo is a good deal more attractive than life in Gaza. For many months, until they see how the system is working, Israel plans to maintain control on their movement anyway, by insisting on an Israeli presence at the only approved crossing-point.

The tragedy is that the promise of easy access to the outside world will probably turn out to be a false one for many Gazans. Until they have a country they can call their own, open to the world as a whole, this window into Egypt is likely to be very narrow.

Linguistic Interlude

My fledgling linguist of a son sends out an appeal to any passing linguists who may be able to throw light on the nature and articulation of the emphatic voiceless lateral fricative which existed in proto-Semitic. I've tried to help. I've even given my best demonstrating the voiceless lateral fricative with occurs in modern Welsh (as in 'Llandudno'). I'm quite versatile but the emphatic version is outside my phonetic repertoir. I understand 'emphatic' in this context to mean what most Arabists called 'velarised' -- that is articulated with the tongue spread laterally and raised at the back. But this one is beyond me. Help.

Monday, September 12, 2005

'Burn Mosques to Survive' Says Tony Blankley

Some American rightists are saying some truly alarming things these days. If I was George Bush or Dick Cheney, I might speculate that they are in their last throes or that they're hitting out in desperation in the knowledge that their cause is lost. I'm not so optimistic and I sometimes fear for our communal future. Some of the racist commentary thrown up in the wake of Katrina has been really ugly, as though the hurricane gave thousands of closet bigots an opportunity to vent their rage. But Tony Blankley of the Washington Times (again, alas) takes the biscuit for this piece of vile incitement against European Muslims, which might have been written about Jews by one of Hitler's propagandists in the 1920s. Remember, this is not some marginal rag but a newspaper read over breakfast by many Republican leaders. Take this, for example:
The public anger (at the murder of Theo van Gogh), which included the burning of mosques in traditionally tolerant Holland, is evidence that the European instinct for survival has not been fully extinguished.
Western civilisation in danger!! Fifth column penetrates Europe!! Multiculturalism, political correctness endanger civilisation!! Many ('ordinary') Muslims share 'religious convictions' of jihadists!! Streets will run with blood!!

It gets worse and worse. Listen to this:
The radical Islamists are able to rationalize concessions to modernity with ancient-sounding mumbo jumbo while still sounding like authentic fundamentalists, the only true voice of Islam. The Nazis overwhelmed German society with these methods 70 years ago. There is building evidence that the radical Islamists are moving ever more successfully down the same path...
How to respond, other than to suggest Blankley keep his morbid and paranoid fantasies to himself? Since when was fundamentalism 'the only true voice of Islam'? Who is Blankley anyway to say what is the true voice of Islam? It's the old 'true Scotsman' argument with a vengeance. A. 'Sheikh al-Azhar doesn't believe in jihad by European Muslims against their Christian compatriots.' Tony Blankley: 'He's not a true Muslim then!'

Blankley's doomsday comparison with the rise of Nazism does contain one especially glaring flaw, deliberately overlooked to save his argument falling flat on its face -- the fact that the non-Muslim people of Europe are not fertile ground for jihadist recruitment. The Nazis reached back to German mythology and the supposed Aryan origins of the German people, but if the radical Islamists reach back to the founding ideas and myths of their religious culture, they won't find many Germans signing up.

He suggests that European governments "lead the struggle for European cultural survival" but does not say what exactly they should preserve. Christianity? - few Europeans are committed Christians anyway. Aryan supremacy? - doesn't sound like something worth preserving. Democracy? - fine, but the proportion of European Muslims opposed to democracy is even smaller than the proportion of Americans opposed to racial equality, evidently much smaller. Thank you, Tony, but Europe doesn't need your help.

Down with Flag Fetishism

If Egyptian television plays again that slick videoclip of Egyptians of various ages, classes and genders proudly displaying the national flag -- on balconies, desks, bicycle handlebars and in every other conceivable location, I think I will puke. The central scenario -- each scene in the drama interspersed with other kitschy flag 'moments' -- is a group of youngsters carrying a vast rolled-up flag, maybe 15 metres wide and many times longer, to one end of the October 6 bridge (I think) in central Cairo and then rolling it out across the bridge. I assume this is computer-generated, unless they closed the bridge one day for several hours and no one told me, which seems unlikely (word travels fast in Cairo). It would also be a huge waste of fabric (maybe they later had it sewn into thousands of galabias). I've asked around and Egyptians just don't care for their flag. It means nothing, full stop. Just a piece of coloured cloth that flies over public buildings. There's probably a law against flying it from your balcony but only a lunatic would think of doing that anyway. I share their indifference. Flag fetishism of the American variety (or Danish variety, I might add) is a sad ailment and I resent any attempt to spread this perversion to a part of the world so far immune to it.

Who's behind it and why? It's clearly linked to last week's presidential elections but I'm baffled to see the connection. Egyptian television, taking its cue from CNN and other U.S. stations, ran a fluttering Egyptian flag in the bottom left corner of the screen for weeks before the elections, with the legend 'Presidential Elections' attached. If the idea was to persuade people to vote out of patriotism, then it seems unlikely it would succeed. If the flag doesn't evoke any emotions, why would it persuade anyone to do anything? Most people refused to vote because they don't have any confidence that their vote will be counted, or else they didn't like any of the limited selection of candidates on offer. The idea that it's a patriotic duty to waste a few hours taking part in an exercise to give Mubarak a spurious legitimacy is a disgrace to patriotism, a sentiment which may occasionally have some positive aspects. Less than one in 10 Egyptians voted anyway, but we can't easily judge whether it would have been even less without the flag gambit. At the results announcement news conference, there were dozens of these flags behind the speaker, who made such pompous opening remarks that the company I was among laughed at him. Even Ayman Nour had a flag behind him in his post-election news conference.

The U.S. occupation authorities have been trying to impose flag fetishism on Iraq but they got a rude awakening (remember?) when the Iraqis rejected the hideous new design they proposed, preferring the old one amended by Saddam (adding the words 'Allahu Akbar' between the stars). But the Iraqi flag campaign continues.

Just what is the idea? I suppose in Iraq the aim would be to reinforce a sense of national unity (hard when the Kurds already use their own flag), but in Egypt??? Egypt is not about to fall apart, as far as I know.

The only explanation I can come up is that one of the ruling party campaign managers, having studied political sciences in the United States, decided that Egypt too needed a dose of good ol' American-style flag fetishism. If anyone can throw any light on this, drop me a comment. Or if any Egyptians want to rebuke me for my iconoclasm and pledge allegiance to their rag, also let me know.

Gamal Mubarak for President

If anyone ever had any doubts that one of underlying aims of the constitutional amendment this year was to enable young Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father through elections, Al Masry Al Youm's interview with businessman Ibrahim Kamil should put them to rest. Kamil is a businessman and member of the ruling party's policies secretariat, which is chaired by Gamal. Here are the relevant sections:
Question: Has the inheritance question gone away completely or is it still there to some extent?
Kamil: What do you mean, inheritance? Do we have a system called inheritance? If I want to put my son in my place, I wouldn't be able to do that. But if my son works in political activity and is able to stand in presidential elections in the light of the new amendments and the constitutional amendments which will take place in the future, that would not be inheritance.
Question: But would he come when his father is still president or after he leaves power and then it's his right to stand, as in Syria?
Kamil: It's wrong to compare the presidential elections which took place (in Egypt) with what happened in Syria. We, under the present system, if President Mubarak decided not to stand in the current elections and I came, as a member of the general secretariat (of the ruling National Democratic Party), and nominated Gamal Mubarak for the presidency, would that mean I am nominating him because he is the son of the president? That would be wrong, because it would be because he's a young man in his early 40s who has obtained a superior political training which 20 million other young men in Egypt have not obtained. He's well-educated and very well brought up, but the difference is that he's the son of the president.
Question: But he obtained that education and political training because he is the son of the president?
Kamil: Yes, that's true, so we say that the recent period during which the son of the president embarked on party work inside the National Party gave him a background inside the party and in the framework of the policies committee and through the supreme policies council. Let the dialogue remain open inside the National Party and let the young members of the party learn from it.
Question: Do you expect Gamal Mubarak to rise higher in the coming period to become secretary-general of the National Party?
Kamil: I hope that Gamal Mubarak is promoted within the party.
Question: You hope or you expect?
Kamil: I hope because it's not my decision. President Mubarak said that the question of inheritance is not for discussion now.
It's not much of a surprise, but it's certainly bold of Kamil to air such ideas so soon after the elections. By the way, remember that if Mubarak died or retired any time in the next two months, the ruling party would choose ALL the candidates in the presidential elections to replace him. That's because no opposition candidate would qualify unless at least 65 members of parliament endorsed him, and the opposition in parliament, even if united around one candidate, could not muster 65 members. Unless one of the opposition parties wins at least 23 seats in parliament in November, plus other seats in other subsequent elections later, this extraordinary state of affairs could continue until the next parliamentary elections in 2010.

Kamil just about sums up the self-perpetuating nature of government in Egypt for the past 50 years:
Question: What is the legitimacy of the current system based on?
Kamil: It's based on the existing constitution, and on the basis that the current system, whether we disagree or agree, supports the current government.
Of course, he makes light of electoral abuses, saying they are of the kind that happen in every country in the world. No interest in investigating specific violations or holding anyone to account, God forbid!

Condoleezza on Egyptian elections

Condoleezza Rice's statement on Egyptian presidential elections is interestingly lukewarm. It doesn't explicitly recognise Mubarak as the winner, for a start, nor does it recommend any changes in the constitutional arrangements behind the elections. It's easy to say that the campaigning brought "freer debate, increased transparency, and improved access to the media" when there have never been any previous presidential elections with which to compare. The statement tries to fit the elections into the "Arab spring" mould which Washington likes to propagate ("one step in the march towards the full democracy..."), overlooking the possibility that these elections were an ad hoc adjustment to unusual circumstances early this year. It portrays "universal suffrage" as a novelty, when in fact women have been voting in Egypt since the early 20th century and minorities have never been excluded from politics. It doesn't reprimand the government to failing to allow international monitors but says they would be a good idea in the parliamentary elections in November. The statement expresses solidarity with "Egypt" -- an entirely meaningless sentiment when the country is divided over what should happen next.

All in all, the United States is interested in Egyptian democracy mainly as a prop to sustain the ideological framework it has constructed around its Middle East policy (the "freedom on the march" theme), not as an end in itself, certainly not as a way to obtain an Egyptian government more representative of public opinion.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Keeping the Iran Option Alive

You would think that New Jersey Republican Jim Saxton, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism and Unconventional Threats (what a title) has enough on his plate dealing with the disastrous occupation of Iraq and the consequent strain on the resources of the U.S. military. But that doesn't stop him from exploiting the anniversary of September 11 to take an ill-informed and gratuitous swipe at the Iranian government, whose influence in Mesopotamia has grown considerably thanks to the Bush administration's adventurism.

Writing in the the Washington Times, the favourite newspaper of Washington Republicans, Saxton argues in favour of an alliance with 'nontraditional partners' inside Iran, apparently to overthrow the government and remove the alleged threat to the United States from Iranian weapons of mass destruction. This is what he says:
Iranian influence is felt deeply throughout the Middle East and, to some extent, around the world. It is evident the ayatollahs have used surrogates to create regional destruction and mayhem. Terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are actively and fully supported by Iran, often through Syria in an attempt to avoid fingerprints. For this reason, I believe the U.S. needs a renewed Iranian policy with both traditional and nontraditional partners, inside as well as outside Iran. We must be innovative in our response. This need not include a military component but must take to heart the severity of the Iranian threat.
What is alarming about his drivel is not that the Bush administration is likely to launch a military campaign in Iran, but rather that such influential people can write such idiocies without fear of ridicule. It's absurd to suggest that Iran has deep influence throughout the Middle East. In fact its influence is confined to Iraq (especially through the government backed by the United States) and in Lebanon (where Hizbollah restricts its military activities to a small area of Israeli-occupied Syrian territory). Iran has hardly any influence anywhere from Egypt to Mauritania, precious little in the Gulf either.

Saxton deliberately tries to implicate Iran in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq when even he must surely know that the active insurgency is almost entirely Sunni-based and hostile towards any Iranian influence in Iraq. It's equally ridiculous to imagine that Iran's nuclear programme, assuming the aim is nuclear weapons, is directed at the United States or that Iran would ever risk leaking weapons of mass destruction to any small group. Saxton knows this, so what's his game?

Saxton of course is a great enthusiast for Israel's Likud Party and has sometimes given Likud preference even over his own party and the White House. He once sponsored a congressional resolution saying: 'United States foreign policy with respect to the Middle East peace process should not include an attempt to require Israel to make concessions which Israel does not believe to be in its self-interest, including concessions which would jeopardize the security of Israel'. In 2003, he received an award from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, one of the groups which sold the invasion of Iraq to the clueless Bushies. Surprise, surprise, at the same ceremony JINSA gave an award to Major George Thiebes of U.S. Special Operations Command for is role in securing the "surrender" of the Mujahideen El Khalq in northeastern Iraq after the U.S. invasion (amusingly, JINSA calls them Muhajadeen -- I guess the word 'mujahideen' is just too much for their delicate stomachs). Of course the Mujahideen didn't really surrender at all. They just lay low for a while and some people, including Scott Ritter, believe the United States has reactivated them to carry out sabotage missions inside Iran. So that's what Saxton is talking about. Makes sense to me.

Pathways to Liberty

The Nation has an interesting article on the way American history textbooks for schoolchildren are treating the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. In my experience, American textbooks are much more balanced than one might imagine on Middle Eastern matters, given the low standard of public discourse and of media coverage of the area. One of the textbooks, The American Promise, by James Roark et al., contains this:
"High levels of poverty ignored by undemocratic and corrupt governments provided bin Laden a pool of disaffected young Muslims who saw the United States as the evil source of their misery and the supporter of Israel's oppression of Palestinian Muslims."
You could easily quibble about the validity of the 'poverty' factor (hijackers were not especially poor, and so on), but it's not a bad effort for a school textbook, especially as it comes close to presenting 'Israel's oppression' as an established fact. Why 'Palestinian Muslims', I wonder? I'm not sure many Arabs distinguish Palestinian Muslims from Christians when they talk about the conflict -- just as the Israelis are equal-opportunity oppressors. The trouble is that Americans receive only a tiny fraction of their information on the Middle East from school books -- television is a much bigger influence, accounting at a guess for more than 90 percent of the input.

But American textbook authors should watch the titles they attach to their works. "The American Promise" and "Give Me Liberty" are too Hegelian, teleological for my taste. You don't have to write American history as though 'promise' and 'liberty' are central themes, even if you write it from a leftist point of view, in other words documenting the struggles of minorities and the poor. If you're intellectually honest, you shouldn't write it as though it's moving in any particular direction, towards any particular goal.

Bush terrorometer - update

We've been keeping track every now and then of how frequently President Bush uses the word 'terror' or its derivatives. There was a dramatic slump after Hurricane Katrina caught him napping, but the anniversary of September 11 is bringing it back up again: Here's an update:

Radio address, Sept 10 -- 3 terrors in 783 words: one for every 261 words uttered

President remembers 9/11 Heroes, Sept 9 - 5 terrors in 1,315 words: one terror for every 263 words uttered

President Discusses Hurrican Katrina Relief, Sept 8 - 0 terrors in 1,109 words

Speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, August 31-- 15 terrors in 3,655 words: one for every 244 words uttered

Radio address, August 27 -- 10 terrors in 724 words: one for every 72 words uttered

Address to military families in Idaho, August 24 -- 45 terrors in 4,409 words: one for every 98 words uttered.

Back to the Eurocentrism debate

After a surfeit of Egyptian election blogging, which was really very dull, it was a relief to come across this anti-Eurocentric article in the Boston Globe. It makes several points I was not aware off, for example, that Pedro Pizarro recognised the 'contribution' that disease made to the defeat of the Incas, that the Incas operated large offshore vessels in the Pacific (300 miles from home port), that the native Americans of the northeast coast also took to coastal shipping, after acquiring European vessels, as well as many other details. He makes the point well that early European handguns were not much of an improvement on the older technologies. The author, Charles Mann, has written a book on the subject -- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, -- and that looks very promising. Perhaps it should be read in conjunction with Francis Jennings's The Invasion of America, which was remarkable for treating the indigenous peoples as participants in a political struggle, not as passive victims of a game played over their heads.

Not Ukraine

Big demonstration in central Cairo this evening, with Ghad Party, Kefaya, Popular Movement for Change, Labour Party (Islamists) and a few others. They had a little success in drawing people from the pavements to join, but this was not Kiev. The Egyptian people are not about to rise in protest. I noticed some of the protesters trying to persuade others to join but the group of bystanders I overheard did not seem to know about allegations of electoral abuses and they certainly did not care enough to take a stand. It brought some of the main shopping streets to a standstill for half an hour at a time, but the police were very restrained. Perhaps they assume that the protests will die out now that Hosny is safely installed for another six years. The police even held back a group of zealous ruling party thugs who were raring for a confrontation. Ayman Nour was there some of the time, but I did not see him. So was his wife Gameela Ismail, plus Saadeddin Ibrahim for a while. Kamal Khalil was grinning away and leading the chants -- he's irrepressible. The best parts were when they moved down narrow streets and the chants echoed off the walls, and when they passed a poster of Mubarak and shouted "There's the thief, there's the thief." Maximum turnout 2,000, I would say -- not enough to start a revolution.