This week's window on the Middle East - December 10, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Brothers in the hood: Egypt’s soft powers and the Arab world

  • Brothers in the hood: Egypt’s soft powers and the Arab world
  • Regime/opposition: throwing the dice for Syria’s future
  • Tunisia: economic pressures threaten the regime‘s survival
  • Who to blame and what to hope for
  • Tunisians caught between the crowd and the political scene
  • Sudan: why the deafening silence?
  • Brothers in the hood: Egypt’s soft powers and the Arab world

    By Amro Ali

    A Jordanian Islamist recently expressed his disappointment: “Egyptians are not giving President Mohammed Morsi a chance!” I responded, “Would you be this forgiving had Hamdeen Sabahi, a secular Nasserist, issued a decree that gave himself exceptional powers?” Silence. Irrespective of Morsi “rescinding” those powers, the continuing theatrics matters to a larger, if at times, unacknowledged, constituency.

    Across the Middle East, Islamist offshoots are carefully watching the political manoeuvering of Morsi and their spiritual progenitor, the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, so are a great proportion of Arab governments, elites and societies. The question riding on the chaos being played out – from the burning offices of the Freedom and Justice Party to the squares of Egyptian cities to the palace gates of power – is how will all this shape future trends throughout the Arab world?

    As the centre of gravity of the Arab world, Egypt, due to its complex social structure, dynamic agencies, popular arts and the intellectual seat of Sunni Islam, pushes ideas and principles into the international system that shape the preferences of Arab populations, and to a lesser degree, Muslim ones. The success or failure of Egypt’s political actors, narratives, and the popular mobilisation behind them, has a spill-over effect that can move their equivalents in the region.

    Protesters in Tahrir Square on election day
    Protesters in Tahrir Square bearing Arab country flags / European Pressphoto Agency

    Key groups, among them the Brotherhood, Salafis, and the recently stitched together National Salvation Front that has brought into its fold a large swathe of society including Muslims, Copts, secularists, liberals, revolutionaries, even Hosni Mubarak’s regime remnants, are battling it out with each other, with a military repositioning itself again, in a sacred drama in which the outcome could very well determine the regional terrain for the next 50 years.

    For almost two years, the stage has seen the clash of various strands of infectious nationalism, authoritarian-leaning Islamism and a somewhat liberal pan-Arabism. Despite the differences across the political spectrum, and regardless of a weak economy, a common denominator binds them all on the vaguest of foreign policy fronts: to eventually reassert effective Egyptian hegemony (be it political, cultural, and/or religious) through the Arab world.

    At the engagement level in the public space, this is evident. When Egyptian liberals complain of Islamist protesters waving Saudi flags in Tahrir Square, it needs to be pointed out that this is not so different from when liberals wave Tunisian and revolutionary Syrian flags. One has a conservative pan-Islamist agenda, the other a revolutionary pan-Arab one – both with an Egypt at the head.

    Even Islamists can espouse thinly veiled (at times blatant) nationalist/pan-Arabist sentiment at the expense of “the Caliphate.” When translating earlier this year for an Australian journalist at the Alexandrian home of a senior policy-maker from the Salafist Al Nour Party, she asked him “Many observers say you are influenced by Saudi Wahhabism.” He understood the question well enough to break out of the Arabic (thus bypassing me) and flatly told her in English: “Egypt teaches, it is never taught!” At a debate I attended last year between liberal Amr Hamzawy and Brotherhood Sobhi Saleh, the latter who started off on a Quranic platform could not resist by ending his speech by invoking Egypt’s ancient Pharaonic glory and its central role in world history and trade – to the frenzy of the audience.

    Inherent in the popular Egyptian ‘worldview’ is that Egypt has been robbed of its prestige and leadership role of the Arab world, due to its defeat in the 1967 war, but more so due to Anwar Sadat shifting course onto a state-first policy, and the unimaginative Mubarak bludgeoning the country’s aspirations for 30 years.

    In the 2000s, the term soft power (coined by Joseph Nye) – meaning the power of attraction, as opposed to the power of coercion (hard power) – entered Egyptian public discourse. The expression “loss of Egypt’s soft power” was invoked by intellectuals and commentators following every crisis when Egypt was at a disadvantage, in negotiations and peacemaking, such as the Iraq War, Nile Basin talks, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

    Originally, soft power accompanied the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Nasser acquisitioned pan-Arabism (as conceived in 1930s Syria) and propagated it throughout the Arab world. Michael Barnett states, “Nasser helped define what counted as an Arab state in good standing, the types of norms to which it should adhere, and how those norms might relate to the desired regional order.” In fact, the dangerous precedent Nasser set (and encouraged) were military coups in Arab states, and worse, the authoritarianism, centralisation of government and undermining of institutions which Syria inherited from its botched brief union with Egypt (1958-1961). The end-result of this is the heavy price we are seeing Syrians paying today.

    There was another dark element to Egypt’s social soft power when it laid out the ideological foundations of radical Islamism, no thanks to the country’s oppressive prison system and torture chambers. Like the abused who grow up to be abusers, the Brotherhood exhibits such strains; while not the worst of Islamist organisations, recent events have indicated that they are disturbing enough.

    The argument for Egypt’s soft power often committed the vehicle fallacy, that soft power was something that can be possessed by an agent, inferring that it was a resource rather than a feature of a relationship. Therefore soft power was translated as a tangible that can be created, curtailed, or squandered. All power is relational. Egypt’s future relationship with the Arab world will depend on how it is accepted by the recipient of that influence. To give a close example, there has been talk of Qatari soft power, but this confuses resources such as Al-Jazeera for power. Qatar’s ability to influence was due, in part, to the Gulf peninsula’s positive or neutral relationship with other Arab societies, the satellite station being a feature in that relationship. Once Qatari foreign policy started to influence Al-Jazeera (Arabic) towards a pro-Muslim Brotherhood slant it angered many Egyptians in the process. The result? the recent burning down of the channel’s office in Cairo by the revolutionary camp and viewers shunning the station in droves – a sight unimaginable two years ago.

    The stakes involved in Egypt’s outcome are high enough to ensure that each group has their external elite and social backers and cheerleaders: Saudi Arabia backs the Salafis, Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood franchise throughout the Arab and Islamic world that looks up to Cairo’s Brotherhood ‘mothership’. Egypt’s liberals/non-Islamists/Christians are applauded, ideationally at least, by their very (the largest) counterparts in the Arab world. Finally, the wildcard, the Egyptian military, and their US/Israel/Gulf backers (See my last month’s piece The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations).

    While none of the Arab uprisings were calling for the demolition of borders (the demands were mostly domestic). The overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the subsequent cascading effects illustrated that Arab populations operate on a transnational identity-based and media-fuelled shared narrative of fate and destiny. Egypt amplifies a certain narrative and eventually makes it the norm.

    Arabs are watching and taking notes. It is pertinent that Egypt sends the appropriate cues by getting the democratic experiment right and puts in check the authoritarian encroachment of the Brotherhood and ensures the ink on the draft constitution does not dry. While Egypt’s democratic transition can have the opposite effect of increasing regime repression like what has been witnessed in the Gulf States. An Egypt transformed into an Arab democratic model will enable other Arab countries to move in a progressive direction, otherwise they would be reluctant to take the risks of reform and further dispirit key democratic actors. Egypt’s current opposition, and the democratic camp in general, will need to augment their appeal in inter-Arab relations by articulating and framing their argument as anti-authoritarian and avoid the identity politics that is the lynchpin of Islamist groups.

    In 1932, the then infant Brotherhood knew that to alter the trajectory of Egyptian society, they had to move out of the rural areas and bring their message to Cairo. This was not only because the city was Egypt’s political, economic, and cultural capital, but as Steven A. Cook noted that, “Movements, ideologies, knowledge, and culture tended to reverberate from Cairo in concentric circles to the rest of Egypt then to the Levant and to the Persian Gulf beyond.”

    Despite over 80 years of experience, the legitimacy of the Brotherhood is rapidly being undermined day by day. A once-fragmented opposition is gradually gaining ground. A military is redefining its relationship with Egypt’s new political actors. After the dust settles and the tear gas clears, only time will tell which Egypt is to be groomed for the Arab world of the twenty-first century.

    Regime/opposition: throwing the dice for Syria’s future

    By Rita from Syria

    In the countryside east of Hama – the heartland of the uprising against the Syrian regime, Abu Nawwar a leading security official in the region, was kidnapped by members of an FSA battalion. He was released unharmed after 12 hours, suffering only the ignominy of having been captured in the first instance plus the loss of his car.

    According to local residents from his village, Abu Nawwar's tight interlocking relations with each of the parties to the armed conflict and the overlapping interests of their respective leaderships meant that he didn't have to pay a single penny to be set free. After less than a month, he was appointed as mayor of an important province – a post with wide-ranging powers and considerable influence.

    The week before, three officers from a security centre in rural South Damascus were on their way back to the capital when a group of combatants stopped them. They were taken to a nearby farm where they were interrogated. The Alawi officer was executed while the others were detained and tortured. As a response, regime forces imprisoned dozens of women and children from the same area as hostages.

    Firas, one of the kidnapped officers – himself a Christian – lost all hope of staying alive after watching his colleague killed before his eyes. However, a compromise was reached between the FSA combatants and the security forces, so that the officers and the civilians were released at the same time. The compromise was mediated by a senior pro-regime figure widely understood to be a corrupt member of the ministry. 

    These incidents may well be individual or limited, but they contradict declarations made by the FSA leadership, which denounce every kind of communication or dealings with the regime. At the same time, for the majority of fighters on the ground, having any official or even unofficial channels of communications with the regime's security apparatus is enough to de-legitimise any opposition group – as was the case with some members of the national coordination committee, along with many other traditional opposition figures who maintained now ‘suspicious’ links with the regime.

    But how is it that the FSA accepts deals with the regime from their leaders of the militias, but won’t tolerate the slightest sign of any such communication in the lower ranks? Is it all about keeping people’s loyalty intact? Mohammad, a combatant in Al-Forqan battalion, south of the capital, considered this a natural outcome of the complicated situation in Syria: "we have many detainees and hostages in the regime's hand, and we can't sacrifice them all so we are pushed to concede. Exiled opposition leaders are not living the war but rather a luxurious life. We are not to be compared!" Despite what he said, Mohammad went on to deny any kind of connections between his battalion and the regime.

    We have here in front of us a paradox. So, is the FSA practicing this policy of double standards for political or authoritarian reasons?

    We can look at this issue from two different perspectives. First, certain leaders in the FSA are exploiting their powers for the sake of personal interests; disregarding their own statements or the principles that the FSA was founded on. This is an inauspicious omen heralding a type of corruption which could easily continue after Assad's fall, under new names and guises.

    The second possibility is that it is a strategic necessity to have such connections with the regime, especially where kidnapping and hostage exchange is concerned. In this respect, these dealings are more to do with the what is happening on the battle front than normalization with the enemy. In both cases, transparent investigations need to be carried out in public; providing clarification. 

    The same seems to be happening on the part of the regime, with lots of innocent people being detained by the security apparatus on trumped up charges. Some officials have climbed their way up to positions of importance despite their well-known connections with the revolutionary fighters. If anything this shows the fragility of the ideological masks worn by both sides. Alarm bells also sound as some segments of the FSA leadership begin to veer away from the principles of the revolution.   

    Similarly, there has been increasing chatter about the nomination of many of the high profile defections from the regime as part of the forthcoming transitional government which is being established by the so-called ‘united’ opposition. Whether true or merely a rumour, the news has been met with much indignation by the Syrian street who deem the entire farce as wholly unacceptable. How is it possible for those who have lived in the lap of opportunism and are by nature predatory suddenly to transform themselves into honest revolutionaries. Can they be trusted to build Syria anew or will they fall back on what they know – how to plunder. Old habits die hard.

    There is something new in the air; like the smell of jasmine in the spring, an overwhelming optimism about Assad's imminent downfall has permeated right across Damascus. Even his supporters feel the same – especially in the light of a succession of victories achieved by the FSA in the battles of Darayya and Damascus airport.

    However, the de-throning of Assad doesn't necessarily spell the end of the battle, but it will mark the start of a long weary road to weed out corruption. In a future Syria, the presence of mutual interests between those who fancy themselves as opposition leaders and regime remnants will threaten our dream of truly attaining democracy and equality.

    There are no borders to separate wealth from power and politics. When the time comes we must be vigilant. The coinciding interests of remnants of the regime and so-called opposition figures cannot be ignored. Such an alliance may come about thanks to opportunists on both sides along with the absence of a constitutional reference point.

    Families of martyrs and displaced Syrians will struggle to find meaning for their loss if all we achieve is the continuance of the corrupt practices of the old regime but this time dressed in the garb of the people's revolution.

    Tunisia: economic pressures threaten the regime‘s survival

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    Recent protest in the town of Siliana has destabilized the government and triggered a nationwide criticism of the performance of the new rulers - the brutality of the police was the only immediate answer to the grievances of the protestors. As many as 200 demonstrators were injured at the hands of the police during protests held last week over poor living conditions in Siliana which is about 120km (75 miles) south of Tunis. The UGTT (the General Union of Tunisian Workers) Tunisia's main labour union, which has a membership of 500,000, led the protest in the impoverished town of Siliana.  The police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to disperse the angry protestors, shaking the faith of some Tunisians in the government’s genuine commitment to a rupture with Tunisia’s brutal past. 

    Pro government groups clashed with the labour union leaders in retaliation for the latter‘s backing of riots and strikes in the interior regions, on the day of the annual commemoration of the assassination of Farhat Hachad, founder of the (UGTT) Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail.  The UGTT ‘main union headquarters in the capital were targeted by an angry mob calling for “the cleansing” of the Union from the corrupt figures. "UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country," the protestors chanted.  On the other hand, hundreds of labour Union adherents chanted slogans calling for the downfall of the government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party.

    This clash echoed the May Day demonstration that took place in Habib Bouguiba avenue, a symbol of the revolution, when the Ennahda supporters chanted “with our soul and blood we will defend you, our government” and opposing demonstrators chanted slogans and held banners which reminded the government of the core demands of the revolution, “bread, freedom and social dignity”. The only difference between the two dates is that the May disagreement was bloodless. The colours red and white, symbols of the Tunisian flag embellished the streets of downtown.  A few days ago, the disagreement between the two camps turned violent and The UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) has now decided that a general strike will take place on Thursday, December 13, across Tunisia, a rare call, actually the third to be made by the powerful UGTT since its foundation in 1946.

    The discontent with the poor regional development programmes surfaced in several Tunisian towns before exploding in Siliana. A few months ago the town of Sidi Bouzid went on strike to denounce the incompetence of the local governor and the arrest of protesters demanding the improvement of their economic conditions.  Disenchantment over the slow pace of progress is a common thread that weaves through this transition period in Tunisia. The inability of the troika government to restore security and deal with such crises has further complicated the situation.

    In the opinion of some government supporters, targeting the leaders of the UGTT and intimidating them will mute protests against the authorities. Ironically, they have miscalculated the consequences of such a "show of strength" and regional calls for protests on Thursday in the town of Sidi Bouzid(where the wave of protests started 2 years ago, Sfax (the capital of the South) and Gafsa have since received a huge support from the people of those regions. The success of the general strike called for next Thursday will be very telling: it may very well be considerable.

    The event will take place at a time of deep disillusionment among the Tunisian people with those they entrusted and voted for in the elections. Will the position of those who govern us be intact after the strike? The president Moncef Marzouki seems to be favouring a cabinet reshuffle in response, whereas the Prime Minister is reluctant to make any concessions to the widespread anger in the Tunisian streets. At the very least, the general strike will be a wakeup call for the government and a reminder that the people have their own demands, demands which have been called for repeatedly.

    Who to blame and what to hope for

    By Refaat Mohamed

    There are two things that I have seen from the beginning of the revolution, and was never able to comprehend, or digest - celebration and supportive marches.

    I might sound negative or pessimistic, but I think that I am just realistic. I didn’t celebrate on the day that Mubarak stepped down: I thought it was too early to celebrate, plus I believe marching in the street makes sense only when it is registering opposition.

    “With freedom comes responsibility” - I strongly believe in that. And I think everybody was well aware of that, even Omar Suleiman was aware of that when he uttered his famous quote, “ But when?” So being forced to regard the Muslim Brotherhood as enemies, is shocking, and sad, and something that I never wished, or wanted to happen, but it is not going to be the first or the last obstacle to face the revolution.

    It is just like a videogame. We keep having a new obstacle, or nemesis, at every different stage of the revolution. First it was Mubarak which was the barrier, then came the SCAF, minor clashes with MB, and Salafists, and then Ahmed Shafiq, and most of the revolutionary movements, and forces supporting the MB, and Mohamed Morsi, not out of love, but for the sake of not reviving Mubarak’s regime. What is unique and difficult about this new chapter in the developing saga is that it is the Egytian people fighting each other.

    All of the previous stages, and clashes since the beginning of the revolution were directed mostly against the regime, as it was represented by its vigilante militias, police forces, and military forces. This is the first time that major, severe clashes have broken out with fatal injuries as a result, between two flanks of the Egyptian people, both of whom have revolutionary credentials – despite the false claims of the MB and FJP that those who oppose them are remnants of Mubarak’s regime.

    I blame the MB, and the Islamist forces for the sticky situation that we are in right now, for two main reasons. Firstly, all of the liberal forces warned everybody about the dire consequences of having political parties based on a religious footing - not just because it gives the religion-based parties an undeserved and unfair leverage in the political scene, but also because of the division and polarization that has lately shown its ugly face to the whole world. Second, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the force in power at present, didn’t ensure a healthy democratic atmosphere for an opposition to operate in. Instead they fiercely attacked the opposition and accused them of many thing, like being Mubarak remnants, spies, and similar libels, that I never imagined I would hear someone say about respectable figures like Dr. Mohamed ElBaradie among others.

    The Muslim Brotherhood chose to clamber on board the raft while leaving the rest of the Egyptian people to drown. If they allow this general situation of the political scene in Egypt to continue, they will be the first to feel the fall-out. The revolutionary forces are in for a new challenge. It is a hard one, but I believe that Egypt is going to overcome this peacefully.

    Tunisians caught between the crowd and the political scene

    By Kacem Jlidi

    It is fascinating to see how any everyday conversation in Tunisia cannot escape politics. I recently had one, which began with comparing eastern European revolutions to the Tunisian one, which is largely agreed that it is far from being accomplished.

    Some think that at the time, Eastern Europeans had a clue of what they wanted when they revolted against the system. By contrast, Tunisians, have no clue what ‘good’ looks like and that’s what is slowing down the hoped-for democratic transition, or even preventing it from happening. 

    ‘Why Tunisians have once again taken to the streets’ is an easy question to answer – one element  of the answer being the drafting of the Country’s new gender-sensitive Constitution that respects human rights conventions and declarations and provides a base for economic growth. Instead, we come across an endless circle of disagreements and accusations within the political circle that are systematically channelled into what remains stubbornly an impoverished society.

    A democratic principle implies that it is desirable to have the people actively involved in decision making, as it makes them more informed about the public affairs affecting their lives. This is desirable under one condition: the people’s involvement is positive and constructive; according to La Presse editorial.

    However, in the Tunisian case, this principle when applied in practice is leading to serious dissociative and violent effects. Tunisian society, weakened by unemployment, rising costs of living, deep inequalities and injustices is faced with the political elites disagreements which pushes them from unity into adopting different camps, religion or secularism, parity or the limited participation of women, and more recently people are torn between choosing whether the Labour Unions and the Leagues protect the revolution or whether it is the Ennahda Islamist party who should be trusted to lead us.

    At the end of the day, most of the political sphere disagreements are not of any importance to the ordinary Tunisian and they ought to be resolved away from the public sphere without calling for the crowd’s support, which distracts efforts to meet the revolution’s goals.

    Building confrontational camps can only lead to more violence and insecurity and is in no way supportive of the country’s economy. The constant but increasing rate of people going on strike is one symptom of a potential crash waiting to happen between ordinary Tunisians asking for a stable life and the politicised camps motivated by religion and various other electoral agendas.

    Sudan: why the deafening silence?

    By Maha Elsanosi

    It was a short-lived feeling of triumph, this Sudan Revolts. For roughly a month or a month and a half, anger and fury over decades of injustice blanketed the streets not only of Khartoum, but numerous states in Sudan as well.

    But it all ended before it even began, yielding hundreds of tales of mass arrests, abductions and expatriation. And I do not wish to dwell on the causes of this sudden cessation; because it is a never-ending discussion that entails philosophical justifications that bore me half to death. I have had this conversation one too many times with one too many people, and though the responses from one person to the other may vary, the fact remains the same: there is always an excuse.

    Yes, the people's protests against the Sudanese regime initially promised something so auspicious, yet terminated so prematurely. But I only care to know why the deafening silence of apathy and indifference has gone and infected the rest of the population?

    I am eager to know why, after news broke out that the notorious Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) has murdered yet more Darfurian students this month, no one as much as blinked or moved a muscle. Apart from a few murmured condemnations here and there.

    It is popular belief that there is not much the Sudanese civil society is able do. In March, a woman who hails from the Nuba Mountains, Awadiya Ajabna, was shot dead in front of her house by the holier-than-thou Public Order Police. Today, her killer roams free and her family is silenced. Another Nuba Mountains activist, named Jalila Khamis, was kidnapped from her home in the same month. To this day she remains in detention.

    I can write a book about the human rights violations committed by the Sudanese government that I know of over the past year alone. True, we the people are outraged, but why do we not manifest our rage in a form that could bring about tangible results? I am perplexed and appalled by our silence.

    The National Congress Party (NCP) came to power in 1989, and since then it has brainwashed and desensitized the masses to the point of no return. They now think of things like war, torture and death as mediocrities; like they are just a given. The NCP has done an excellent job in dividing the people to the extent that injustice and abuse no longer brings them together.

    My words may seem cynical, yet I am a hopeful. I will always keep romanticizing ‘Sudan Revolts’ because I believe in it and I believe in our people, and I will wait for its backlash to come to fruition for as long as I have to... even if it takes the generation of my future grandchildren to make it happen.

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