This week's window on the Middle East - November 26, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week on the democratic rollback which has ignited Egypt's streets: The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations

  • The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations
  • The Syrian conflict through a Libyan lens
  • Innocent till proven guilty in Tunisia
  • Two Tunisian detainees die after hunger strike
  • Ashura in Qatar
  • Jordan getting chastised: another take on the protests
  • The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations

    By Amro Ali

    In 2007, Mohammed Morsi, then chairman of the Brotherhood’s political department and member of the Executive Bureau, complained of the inability of Washington to match its rhetoric on promoting democracy in Egypt. He said that Israel had no interest in a democratic Egypt as it, “would do more to support the Palestinians.” Now Morsi, having brokered a Gaza ceasefire has shown that his policy on the Palestinians is no more imaginative than Mubarak-era policies and, partly as a result of US approval, has undertaken a democratic rollback that has ignited Egypt’s streets. 

    Morsi has inadvertently, and in part, fallen victim to the trilateral logic of Egypt’s bilateral relationship with the United States vis-à-vis the 1979 Camp David treaty.

    This was defined by Stephen Cook in his book, The Struggle for Egypt: from Nasser to Tahrir Square, as the dubious strategic relationship between Egypt and the US that is accompanied with the informal requirement of good Egyptian-Israeli relations – a requirement which, “built into these ties from the very start meant that Washington would almost always view Cairo through the prism of Israel.”

    Such a premise, not surprisingly in its close proximity to the Gaza saga, has a strong tendency to foment illiberal domestic policies, as Morsi has done, with a nod from the US and IMF backing, by abrogating the role of the judiciary to render his decrees immune from appeal, simultaneously protecting his Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly from dissolution by the judiciary or anyone else.

    Protesters in Tahrir Square on election day

    This is not so different from the Mubarak era in which, despite human rights abuses, the relationship with Israel was the trump card that would always sway the White House and mute the US congress. Year after year, the 1.3 billion dollar aid would come rolling in, – just about providing international, diplomatic and financial cover for the regime.

    It is this deal that has caused what Khaled Fahmy labels, the “Israelisation” of Egyptian foreign policy: this that has helped to strip the Palestinian problem of questions regarding international law, right of return, Gaza siege, land theft, reducing it to a security concern. The Israel portfolio is disturbingly not so much in the hands of Egypt’s foreign ministry as it is in the hands of military intelligence - an organ that operates in a parallel universe above oversight and grossly detached from the prevailing Egyptian discourse and public that is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel due to its subjugation of the Palestinians.

    The spirit (whatever that originally meant) of Camp David was quashed from its early days when two consecutive bombing raids were conducted by the Israeli airforce, one on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in early June 1981, and the other in mid-July on Beirut in which hundreds of civilians were killed. Both incidents happened within 48 hours of face-to-face meetings between Sadat and Israeli leader Menachim Begin. Most observers argued the timing of both events were intended either to make the Egyptian leader look complicit in the bombings or like a fool. Yet the Sadat regime's unwillingness to respond in any meaningful way set a dangerous precedent that was swiftly digested by elite actors, foreign and domestic, and taken for permanent Egyptian acquiescence. Sadat did not want to do anything to jeopardise the return of the Sinai, yet such aloofness had longer term consequences.

    The paradox of Camp David

    It is one of the paradoxes of Camp David that, while it brought (cold) peace between Egypt and Israel, it exacerbated the region’s tensions. The removal of Israel’s greatest strategic threat has enabled it to pursue hawkish policies, leading to the invasion of Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and a ruthless occupation maintained in between border skirmishes, incursions, attacking Iraq, bombing Syria, entrenching its hold over the Golan Heights, and fuelling and increasing exponentially settlement activities in the occupied territories, while declaring a “completed and undivided” Jerusalem, and last but not least, killing or jailing untold numbers of Palestinians, the recent Gaza bloodbath being only the latest in many violent episodes. All this while Egypt has not played any significant part in counterbalancing or altering the rules of engagement to ensure that the region is guided to peace. Instead, Egypt has sat on the sidelines and ineffectively protested at Israeli violations.

    Moreover, Camp David skewed Egyptian foreign policy so as to make it align with US/Israeli interests such as, for example, taking on the Iran nuclear threat when one would be hard-pressed to find Egypt’s public or intellectual discourse prioritising an Iranian threat over Israeli settlement-building and extra-judicial killings. This is not to mention what Cook highlights – that is, “the U.S.-sponsored modernization of Egypt’s armed forces has been purposefully slow and has emphasized a defensive military posture.”

    More than three-quarters of Egyptians have called for a revision of Camp David in order to redress the loopholes and one-sided effects of the treaty. It would not only be in Egypt’s best interest, but Israel’s as well. Yet three-quarters of Egyptians are being too optimistic.

    Recent events should set alarm bells for the Egypt-first isolationists as a reminder that their country is intertwined with the region’s geo-strategic politics, and some external actors want more of the Mubarak days for Egypt as it served their interest so well – this ranges from Israel to even the Gulf states. It is not enough for Egyptian apologists for the trilateral logic to call themselves “realists” to the detriment of their country’s security, the Palestinians, and the entire region.

    The late Ismail Sabri Abdullah, Sadat’s Minister for Planning, lamented “If we [Egypt] wanted to have a good relationship with the United States, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.” Now once again, Egyptians, will be spending the night (and nights) in Tahrir to tell the Morsi government that, first and foremost, a good relationship comes from a subservience to the people, not to themselves, let alone to foreign capital.

    The Syrian conflict through a Libyan lens

    By Rhiannon Smith

    It should come as no surprise that, having overthrown their own dictator, the Libyan people feel a great deal of empathy towards the Syrians in their struggle against Bashar Al-Assad. Libya suffered through a nine month civil war during which many lost their lives, but it could have dragged on for much longer. The view from inside Libya is that had NATO not intervened, then the rebels would still be waging a bloody, drawn-out battle against Colonel Gaddafi today, with thousands more lives being brutalised or extinguished completely.

    The current situation in Libya is far from perfect, but the majority who fought against Gaddafi see Libya as a better country today than it ever was before, because they have their freedom. That Libya is often used as a reason not to intervene in Syria baffles and angers many. Far too often Libya is portrayed as the latest Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is just not the case. Libyans asked for assistance during the revolution and they received it. On the other hand the Syrian opposition has been asking for international assistance for eighteen months yet has received little or no response.

    There is of course recognition that Syria and Libya are different; Libya is a sparsely populated, politically isolated country with a largely homogenous Muslim population whereas Syria is a key Middle Eastern player geographically, politically and religiously, whose population is made up of a myriad of different sects. However the end result in terms of human tragedy is no different. The Libyan rebels had support when they needed it and as a result they feel they have a responsibility to help their brothers in arms in Syria, especially when few others will.

    Since the end of the Libyan conflict in October 2011 and the escalation of violence within Syria, Libyans have been channelling their support to the Syrian rebels in the form of funds, weapons and fighters. Most Libyans I have spoken to about the Syrian conflict mention friends or neighbours who have gone to fight there, and indeed many express their desire to go themselves if circumstances allowed.

    On a government level, Libya is the only country to have officially recognised the Syrian National Council (SNC) and according to a report released by the SNC on 1 November 2012, Libya has been its main funder since it was founded back in October 2011, donating over $20.4 million to the organisation. With the recent shake-up of the Syrian opposition, it remains to be seen whether Libya keeps supporting the SNC or the newly created National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. But either way there is no doubting official Libyan support for Syria is significant and not only on a symbolic level.

    Some commentators have highlighted the religious aspect of such support, arguing that Libyans only feel solidarity with the Syrian rebels because the majority are Sunni Muslim (like Libyans). This is further compounded by increasing reports of foreign ‘jihadists’ joining the ranks of the Syrian rebels, of whom it is claimed many are Libyan. However while there are most probably Libyans fighting in Syria for purely religious reasons, I would argue that it is empathy on a human level which motivates the majority of Libyan support for the Syrian cause, whether that support is physical, material or financial. Libyans have experienced firsthand the effects of conflict and civil war. They understand the destructive toll it takes and want to help Syrians achieve what they have taken baby steps towards achieving; peace, freedom and democracy.

    Innocent till proven guilty in Tunisia

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Tunis Carthage Festival is one of the cultural events that luckily did not get cancelled this year due to security concerns, mainly blamed on the Salafist groups. Cinemas and theatres in Tunis filled up more seats this week than they usually do and the festival also had a different flavour.

    One of the movies I attended was really upsetting. A short documentary based on political activists’ testimonies of all the torture and the ill treatment they and their immediate and extended families and relatives have been subject to under the former regime.

    I was deeply touched by these personal stories not only as a way of looking at the prison situation under Ben Ali, but because we must ask ourselves, has anything really changed?

    Despite the attempt to calm us down with the soothing declarations of the Ministry of Justice to the effect that the judicial system is independent and transparent, the latest is that two Salafists, Mohamed Bakhti and Bechir Gholli, accused of being involved in the attack on the US embassy in Tunis that took place on 14 September, died last week after nearly two months (58 days) of a hunger strike to protest their arrest, claiming their innocence and denouncing their conditions of detention.

    Though some might felt relieved that these group leaders, known for spreading radical conservative values and disrupting law and order as in the Manouba school incidents, are dead - their deaths must raise much more difficult questions.

    It is reported that under Ben Ali, no prisoner died on hunger strike – some prisoners died under torture. This is a first. For two Islamists to lose their lives under the rule of an Islamist Government claiming reform and transparency raises serious questions about the severe prison conditions which have not changed, and the painfully slow process to bring justice about through fair trials. Isn’t 58 days a very long period of time for someone to go on hunger strike?

    Then again, the Government led by the Ennahda Islamist party, is also being criticised for not being firm enough in applying the law against the criminal actions of Salafist groups. They sometimes seem to abuse freedom of expression with impunity, to the extent of physical attacks, such as those on the showings of the Persepolis movie, the attacks on the art gallery and lately the US embassy, in a frenzied response to the ‘innocence of Muslims’ movie.    

    Two more detained Islamists also said to belong to the Salafist movement got transferred in the middle of this week to a hospital in Tunis according to the Ministry of Justice as a result of deterioration in their health. They are on the same hunger strike protest: against being held for a long period with no charges or trials.

    In fact, unverified high numbers (100 - 200) of Salafists are reported as having been arrested. No trials are being processed. Is this the Government’s best stab at addressing the situation, by abusing a group’s human rights?

    The situations remains unclear, but the Ministry is losing it’s credibility and there are increasing calls for the Minister to resign. This seems unlikely to happen.

    Two Tunisian detainees die after hunger strike

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    The death of imprisoned Mohamad Backhti and Bechir Gholli after almost two months of hunger strike to protest over the conditions of their detentions marks a further embarrassment to the coalition government led by Ennahda party.

    Mohamad Backti, a leading figure in Tunisia‘s Salafists circle died last Saturday after refusing food for nearly two months following his arrest for the attack on the US embassy in Tunis sparked by an offensive film made in the United States. Bechir Gholli, another adherent to the Salafists movement died on Thursday also after fasting for nearly two months to denounce his arbitrary arrest. More than 100 people - Salafists and common prisoners - in detention today follow the footsteps of Backti and Gholli through refusing food until their release, a move which may bring more deaths.

    Recent protests at the US embassy in Tunis rendered the Tunisian government tougher and less patient with the Salafist troublemakers in Tunisian society.There have been a number of violent incidents caused by hardline extremists: the attacks on the headquarters of the TV channel Nessma for broadcasting Persepolis, the shutdown of La Manouba university because of disagreement over the ban of niqab, the June art gallery exhibition which turned into a bloody riots when a group of extremists attacked the painting exhibition for allegedly humiliating Islam.

    The justice system in Tunisia should be reformed and the prosecuted should enjoy the right to a speedy trial and should also be detained in humane conditions. The Tunisian people who took to the streets almost two years ago were motivated by disillusionment over the abuses inside the Tunisian prisons and prolonged detentions without trial, especially when it came to political dissidents.

    As it happens, the leader of Ennahda party was caught on a controversial leaked video counselling such representatives of the Salafist movement that they could change the model of the Tunisian society gradually in the direction of their declared goal of implementing sharia law in Tunisia if they did not provoke violence. But when the upheaval went beyond the domestic affairs, that is -  when it came to threatening the American interests in Tunisia, the government showed that it can use its iron hand to satisfy the west. So not much has changed when it comes to prison conditions.

    "It's a shame that Tunisians die in prison after the revolution," Bhakti’s lawyer, Anouar Aouled Ali, told Reuters. The revolution that was triggered by an act of suicide seems to be unable to give life back to Tunisians. Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation in response to his humiliation seems to be replicated once again under the rule of a legitimate government that came to power through the ballot box.

    One of the mechanisms of a democratic transition period is an independent and transparent judicial system along with humane treatment of inmates in the prisons. One remedy to ensure a fair trial for the detainees is to give access to information to human rights monitors and national watchdog groups to ensure transparency and fairness in the trials. There should be an independent investigation into the true reasons of death of the two salafis. Those who were found responsible must be held to account, starting from the prison officials and including the Ministry of Health who may not have provided adequate medical care. And we should ask why Tunisians are seeking an end to their lives after the revolution of dignity.

    Ashura in Qatar

    By Michael Stephens

    Qatar is not known as a country with a history of engagement with Shi’ism. The religious life of the country is dominated by a conservative waqf that, although not strictly salafi in orientation certainly skirts the boundaries of it. The most well known religious figure in the country is Yussuf al Qaradawi the famed Egyptian Sunni cleric and quasi-spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. So great is his influence in the Arab world that Qatar has undoubtedly achieved a degree of flexibility in dealing with Muslim Brotherhood movements not yet achieved by other Gulf countries.

    To write about Ashura (the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s Grandson Imam Hussein) in Qatar would seem to most observers somewhat odd; indeed many are probably not even aware of the presence of a local Shia community in Qatar. It is an understandable ignorance. Shia in Qatar are virtually indistinguishable from their Sunni co-citizens; they dress the same, speak the same (unlike in Bahrain or Saudi where there are sometimes noticeable differences in dress and accent) and on the whole buy into the same lifestyle and culture that has characterised Qatari appearance and social life in the past decade.

    Unlike other countries in the region where Shia vocally and demonstrably exhibit their grief during Ashura, Qatari Shia are much quieter, and there are no street processions or visual displays, though the authorities have no problem with commemorations spilling out onto local streets. In many ways the mode in which they express their faith is very Qatari; quiet but sincere. But Ashura is where this small community, comprising no more than about 8-10% of the population, asserts its identity in a way which shows its own unique blend of Shia Muslim faith and Qatari identity.

    In a matam (gathering hall) in the quiet neighbourhood of Al Hilal away from Doha’s bright lights around 1500 Shia gathered to celebrate the festival. Most were Qatari but there were some Iranians, Bahrainis and Pakistanis. It was particularly crowded because two other matams were not open this year due to lack of finding a suitable Imam to guide the ceremony. Many Qataris still wore their characteristic shiny white thobe though a considerable number chose to wear black thobes as an outward sign of mourning for Imam Hussein.

    ‘This is Ashura lite’ said one friend of mine, implying that what was about to happen really didn’t match up to Karbala, Mashhad, or Beirut. Certainly more extreme expressions of grief are not welcome here. You will see no whips, chains or swords, and bloodletting is not tolerated. Shia from Qatar support the teachings of either Ayatollah Sistani or Ayatollah Fadlallah, both of whom expressed their opposition to the more gruesome rituals that occasionally accompany Ashura rituals. Furthermore, whipping and cutting is just not very Qatari. The thought of ruining your two thousand riyal thobe and fifteen thousand riyal diamond cufflinks by covering them in blood does not make an awful lot of sense in the materialistically infused world of Doha.

    The lecture and recounting of the death of Imam Hussein is not particularly different or unique in Qatar, but it is certainly a moving experience, reducing grown men to tears and creating an atmosphere of mourning and grief. Even those who only attend the matam for this one night of the year were visibly moved. The Imam acted as a conductor of an orchestra might, heightening his voice and wailing mid-sentence then returning it to calm before inducing another climatic sense of collective grief, his hand rising and with it the cries and yells of the attendees.

    More interesting is the section following the sermon, the Latmiyya (elegy) to Imam Hussein in which the men rhythmically beat themselves on the chest for hours while a radud (reciter) sings the mournful poetry through loudspeakers. Here it is fascinating to watch different cultures within Shiism perform their own style of latam, a circle of Iranians and a separate circle of non-khaleeji Arabs formed close to the radud, their latam particularly violent and forceful, while the Qataris with the exception of two or three maintained a much more reserved stance preferring not to jump and beat their chests in quite so animated a fashion. Similarly the reaction of different communities to different latmiyya was also noticeable; Qataris tended to prefer slower more rhythmic Arabic poems, in contrast to Iranians who preferred much faster energetic chants with Persian lyrics.

    That all cultures were present under one roof is a testament to the laissez-faire attitude of the Qatari authorities and the diversity of Shia Islam. This was a unique brand of Shia expression unlikely to be found anywhere else in the Arab world; an infusion of modern Qatar and tradition, quietly expressed away from the main hustle and bustle of Doha. The no frills approach of Qataris towards Ashura may not offer a spectacular show as in Iraq and Lebanon, but equally it comes with none of the sectarian baggage and infusion of politics of those parts of the Arab world.

    For a country whose main mosque is dedicated to the founder of Wahhabism, Qatar seems to have managed the bargain with its Shia community relatively well, tolerance and a strong sense of inclusion made this Ashura a cultural expression by Qataris who happen to be Shia, and not Shia who happen to be Qataris.

    Jordan getting chastised: another take on the protests

    By Munir Atalla

    Last Friday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced a suspension of  the subsidy on all fuel products including gas, kerosene and petrol.  Although stoves were cold, the streets were on fire with the largest protester turn-outs since the summer of the Arab Awakening.  Within days, people were speculating whether or not the Jordanian regime was reaching its expiry date. 

    This was premature for a number of reasons.  Many pointed to the entrenchment of the Jordanian regime, the majority of people who prefer the King to an Islamist alternative.  Others pointed to the fact that the government proposed a cash compensation of up to JD600 a year for low-income families to make up for the lack of subsidy.  Still others discounted the protests as nothing more than a bout of opportunism by the Islamic Action Front - piggybacking on public anger to regain lost territory in the realm of public opinion.  Protests died down in no small part due to the supreme management of the Police Forces and the authoritative prowess of the Police Chief.  All of these reasons are legitimate and explain a large part of what is taking place in Jordan, but not quite all of it.

    Jordan's debt is in the billions.  Its economy rests, "almost entirely on external aid to finance expenditures" according to economy analyst Saleem Haddad.  Those who control the intravenous drip of this aid play a big part in determining how anaesthetized the population is - namely, the United States and Gulf donors.  For months now, the Gulf along with the west have cut Jordan off, plunging the country into painful withdrawal.  The reason is unclear, but not financial.  A billion dollars in aid is not a particularly taxing sum for Gulf powerhouses.  What they seem to be doing is holding Jordan out over the ledge, showing the government the steep long fall, twisting his arm until he says "uncle". 

    From this point on in the story, one can only speculate.  There is no way to know what negotiations have taken place behind closed doors.  Al-Quds newspaper suggests that this power play is Syria-related - that the unspoken allies of the Free Syrian Army want Jordan to deploy a military presence into Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid, but that the Jordanians have refused.  Others postulate that the issue has more to do with a so-called "Final Solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The bombardment of Gaza has a lot to do with it.  With Hamas gaining legitimacy via Egypt, the Palestinian Authority is looking increasingly outdated.  Could the west be looking for someone to who could hold onto the West Bank in its stead?  Jordan's donors are flexing their muscles, and what could Jordan be scared into doing?

    Time will tell who is manipulating whom.  Regardless, there are several courses of action possible for Jordan.  The most desirable would be for Jordan to start a steady transfer of power to an elected Prime Minister.  It must be made clear to the west that the government is accountable not only to the IMF and his donors, but also to their people.  Whoever he is, he must make sure that the people's disgruntlement is utilized constructively to build a nation.  Last week, protesters in Jordan were shouting facetious slogans that were unthinkable only years ago.  Jordan's allies have turned up the heat. The kettle is whistling, but has not boiled over.

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