North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - January 31, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Is Israel building up for an offensive against Gaza? 

Arab Awakening
31 January 2014
  • Is Israel building up for an offensive against Gaza?
  • Best of the Arab Awakening blogs 2014
  • Coercion and social change: the case of the Egyptian revolution
  • Does Jordan need nuclear energy?
  • Kafr Batna, Syria
  • Presidential elections: key step in Egypt’s roadmap
  • Egypt: church and state
  • Is Israel building up for an offensive against Gaza?

    By Abdulrahman Murad

    Gaza. Demotix/Anas-Deeb. All rights reserved.

    Demotix/Anas-Deeb. All rights reserved.

    A rush to exercise

    In November 2013, the Israeli military for the first time ever hosted a multi-national military exercise; Greece, the US and Italy arrived to carry out the Blue Flag 2013 drill in the Negev simulating a ground incursion into Gaza. The move was described as the largest-ever aerial manoeuvre shared by international forces. A similar drill was also jointly organised by Israel and the US in July 2013.

    Mounting threats

    I have received two inquiries from oversees friends during the past few days regarding the high-pitch Israeli threats against Gaza, and Hamas in particular. The last one was asking for a confirmation of Israeli TV channels warning foreigners in Gaza to immediately leave, in anticipation for military action. The people here are accustomed to such intimidations; however, the explicit statements of Israeli officials, the latest of which is Netanyahu’s ‘to teach Hamas a lesson very soon’ threat, drew their attention to the prospect of a war targeting the unarmed, before proceeding to the armed citizens of Gaza.

    Both Israel’s 2008-2009 and 2012 offensives were said to be aimed at removing the threat of the firing of crude rockets into Israeli territory. However, this goal was never achieved: on the contrary, the assaults only resulted in the majority of the casualties being civilians. Up to 82% of the 1,400 and 103 out of the 156 Palestinian deaths killed during Operation Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense respectively were civilians.

    Drones

    The low-flying Israeli drones are a permanent source of fear to the Gaza population. Israel, as it did in Operation Cast Lead one year ago with the extrajudicial targeting of Hamas’s armed wing leader Ahmed al-Jabari, may launch a new offensive with a drone-propelled attack. Many here consider that a drone locally known as ‘Zannana’ (which means the buzzing [plane]) is more than just a spying machine, but an everyday teaser and TV watching ‘spoiler’ as satellite TV signals are jammed. Nowadays, they are ‘buzzing’ in an increasingly abnormal fashion; reminders of previous Israeli wars, where drones relay the code sound over the smoky patches of the Gaza skies.

    Iron Dome repositioning

    Moreover, deploying the rocket-intercepting Iron Dome system brings the bunker mentality to mind, characterizing the state of Israel in any approach to aerial warfare. A month ago, Israel redeployed three missile batteries near the southern cities of Beersheba, Sderot and Ashdod, part of the military’s "preparation for a possible escalation,” according to the Israeli defense minister. However Hamas, who govern the Gaza Strip, has recently asked Palestinian factions to maintain the Egypt brokered cease-fire agreement secured in November 2012 after Israel’s eight-day offensive.

    War campaign

    Effectively, internationally campaigning for an upcoming war against the blockaded Gaza Strip, Israel is attempting to humiliate Hamas, by blaming certain Gaza factions for the escalating wave of violence. This is notwithstanding its condoning of the killing of six Palestinians from Gaza since December 20 - when Israeli troops shot a Palestinian who was near the northern Gaza border dead, allegedly in retaliation to Palestinians’ launching of a mortar round that hit southern Israel - which marked the start of the current unrest.

    As usual in the meantime, Gaza’s militancy is being inflated as being on a par with Israel’s. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, recently complained to the Security Council and to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon over two Gaza rockets that haphazardly hit the Negev causing no physical injuries or damage.

    The people of Gaza - isolated

    To Gazans, the year-long rule of Egypt’s deposed President Mohamed Morsi, constituted a kind-of breather in the midst of a suffocating seven-year-long blockade.

    Restrictions were eased on the Rafah crossing, an undreamt-of move that Gazans enjoyed, albeit temporarily and not fully. I myself enjoyed travelling outside Gaza just 30 days before Morsi’s ouster. I was a member of a delegation of three professors and some 30 youths who were selected for a training course in teaching Arabic for non-Arabic speakers, part of the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) programme in Al-Arish city in northern Sinai.

    Before we headed to Egypt, the coordinator of the course told us that as a Gaza delegation - it was a miracle to get the approval to enter into and stay in Egypt for a week. However, on the day of our departure, we had to wait five hours at the Egyptian passport administration for our passports to get stamped. We were eventually permitted to pass, but an IUG professor was turned away; ostensibly for security reasons.

    Under Morsi’s rule, some 50,000 Palestinians born to Egyptian mothers, mostly from the Gaza Strip, enjoyed being granted Egyptian citizenship, while 3500 others were on the list. Those who did acquire such nationality were exceptionally ecstatic, after having felt underprivileged with the Palestinian passport, not a treasure to be in possession of, especially when it comes to travelling to Arab countries. However, the joy was short-lived; with the rise of a new authority in Egypt, they were stripped of their Egyptian citizenship, and the feeling of rejection was redoubled. 

    Stricken economy

    After the ousting of Mubarak, the uninterrupted flow of smuggled goods and basic materials like fuels and building materials, allowed for a relative uptick in the economy and a sense of normalcy in the lives of the Gazans. When the military seized the reins in July 2013, the tables turned again. Seven months have passed now, many jobs have been lost and the unemployment rate is expected to rise further. 

    Gazans trapped in politics

    Above all, the once cordial Hamas-Morsi relations didn’t benefit the status quo in Gaza. Aside from Hamas’ outspoken statements denying interference in Egypt’s affairs and the unrest in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt cannot help but point fingers at Hamas, only adding to the woes of  the non-partisan people of the beleaguered enclave.

    The Arab people’s focus on their own political upheavals has added to the Gazans’ fear of being trapped in a new Israeli military escalation.

    Best of the Arab Awakening blogs 2014

    By Emma Pearson

    Beyond the Bombs Blog

    Ashley Lohman’s Beyond the Bombs is a multimedia collection focusing on a Middle East that refuses to be defined by violence. Through a wide array of written, video and audio features, Beyond the Bombs sneaks up sideways to the politics of the region through discussion of its business, music and poetry. The stories cover a great deal. Everything from the experiences of a translator and English teacher shocking her students with suggestive Kurdish poetry, to the difficulties of a popular Syrian actor forced to flee the civil war, or the artistic initiative of six Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, producing a play in the hope of communicating their gruelling reality to the public around them. The colourful design of Beyond the Bombs reflects its multimedia content and the site is pleasant to navigate around, though not to be attempted with a slow internet connection. In all, an excellent resource for varied personal stories. While not at all disconnected from the harsher political realities of the Middle East, it has a focus on the optimism and spirit of its storytellers.

    Jadaliyya

    Jadaliyya has long been a go to point for political analysis of the whole Middle East region, and it has now launched a new section of its site, called ‘Critical Currents in Islam’. With the purpose of deconstructing the idea of a one-dimensional unchanging religion, Critical Currents investigates all aspects of Islam, highlighting in particular the surprising, the new and the contradictory. From a detailed look at the changing fortunes of the Salafis in Egypt to a discussion of the engagement of the Iranian religious establishment with a high prevalence of plastic surgery in the country, this site shows great promise even in its current infancy. One to watch as it expands in the future.

    Global Voices

    Global Voices is a spectacular resource for keeping abreast of citizen journalism across the globe. It’s particular selling point is that bloggers and contributors do not just submit their own writing, but collect or link to their picks of citizen reporting on a daily basis. So if searching for #MiddleEast on Twitter every morning seems a little daunting in terms of the endless list of search results, Global Voice’s highlights from the Twitter- or blogosphere may be the place to go. One particular feed worth following for Middle East affairs is that of Amira al-Hussaini. Raised in Bahrain and the former editor of an English language daily there, she posts regularly on everything most current in the region, particularly drawing together tweets thematically and sharing pictures that have relevance for the day’s news. The brevity and immediacy of Hussaini’s posts allow her to post often. As such, it is an excellent place to start for a daily overview and her links to websites with more in depth political analysis, such as Jadaliyya, allow you to easily continue your investigation along a particular theme.

    Coercion and social change: the case of the Egyptian revolution

    By Maged Mandour

    The eruption of the Arab revolutions, with the disappointment and disillusionment that ensued, has pushed me as well as many other observeres and participants into a soul-searching process, to which there is no apparent end in sight. This process has posed fundamental questions about the nature of revolutions, the role of civil resistance and coercion in social change - questions that may tell us more about the past than the future.

    The term revolution appears to have been casually deployed by a number of people, especially in the Arab world. But this poses a very important question: does the Egyptian uprising classify as a revolution? Did it have so-called “revolutionary goals”? Theda Sckopol, in The State and Social Revolution, makes a distinction between political and social revolution. She defines a political revolution, as a revolution that aims to alter the political system within a particular polity, without striving to make wideranging societal changes. The English civil war is used as an example of this type of revolution; where the nature of the English political system was changed by the use of arms, without being accompanied by wideranging societal structural changes. On the other hand, she defines social revolutions, as mass societal upheavals that aim at altering societal power structures, leading to wideranging societal structural changes; a process through which one social class replaces another as the dominant force in society; the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions are her examples.

    Within this classification, where does the Egyptian revolution fall? What were the demands of the thousands of protestors who poured into the streets? Was it simply a movement pushing for reform? The Egyptian revolution was not preceded by a longterm ideological struggle in the realm of civil society, and the movement lacked a unitary central character that would allow it to disseminate its ideological hegemony within the realm of civil society, to lay the ground for revolutionary action. Instead, the revolutionary movement was rejectionist in nature: it knew what it did not want. This makes the task more difficult in terms of determining the nature of the movement. One can plausibly argue, that the Egyptian revolution was a revolt against the military/crony capitalist alliance – the ruling class – that dominated the Egyptian political scene, that aimed to replace the regime with another dominated by the middle class. Thus, one could argue that the Egyptian revolution was a revolutionary ‘situation’ that failed to materialize into a full blown revolution; it was steered towards reform. The protests were against the head of the regime, rather than against the regime itself; hence, the aim was to reform rather than dismantle the regime.

    This poses another question; why did this ‘situation’ not explode into a fullblown social revolution, at least with regards to the demands? One answer comes from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who examined the French revolution. He argued that a "Jacobin Spirit" pushed the French Revolution from its early reformist nature to a full blown social revolution that changed the face of Europe, and the world, as radicals were able to hijack the process of change and push it beyond its original limits. This “Jacobin Spirit” is lacking in Egypt, even among the most ardent revolutionaries, which in turn has pushed the revolution away from its demands towards accommodating the existing elites. This gave space for the counter-revolution to regroup and launch a vicious attack that decimated the already divided revolutionary forces, in effect, degrading the revolution to a reform movement aimed at pressurising the existing elites, rather than eliminating their power base, or significantly altering the societal structures that support their political power.

    This brings me to my second point, about the role of coercion in societal change. Note, that I do not use the word “progress”, in order actively to avoid the positive connotations associated with the word. The question is, can wideranging societal change, especially if it is revolutionary, be introduced by governing social forces without significant levels of coercion, if not outright violence? One only needs to look at the history of capitalist development to understand that wide ranging societal change can only be introduced with significant doses of coercion.

    As E.P Thomson illustrated in his brilliant Making of the English Working Class; the industrial revolution caused extensive suffering among the artisans of England, as their traditional way of life was decimated. At times, the Luddite movement bears witness to this necessarily violent struggle against a nascent capitalist system. Another example would be the Enclosure Acts, which converted the common holding of English villages into private property, again devastating the traditional way of life of English peasants in the name of “private property” and “progress”. This, for better or worse, is an example of extensive use of coercion where new social systems were establishing themselves. Another good example is the Meiji restoration in Japan, which in the name of modernity decimated the Samurai class, ending their social privileges and forever altering the power structure within the Japanese polity.

    Based on the above, one could argue that in order for a new system to establish itself, the use of coercion against other social forces seems to be inevitable. In Egypt’s case, the revolutionary forces were never in a ‘coercive’ position against their opponents; in fact the transition period was entrusted to the same elites who should have been the object of such coercion. It is also    important to note that the revolutionary movement’s focus was not directed towards such courses of action. For example, the notion of confiscating or seizing the military’s economic empire has not featured in Egypt's revolutionary rhetoric since the eruption of the revolution in 2011, except as deployed by the Revolutionary Socialists.

    This lack of a 'Jacobin spirit' means that revolutionary forces were not radical enough to eliminate the societal power-center that’s capable of opposing it; the aim was to pressure the existing regime to be more inclusive, rather than to introduce wider social change.

    Please note that I have not used the word violence, in the hopes of broadening the scope of the argument, and to highlight the notion that a revolution can be peaceful while at the same time it is highly coercive. Coercive in the sense that it radically re-structures societal power relations and eliminates the power of its rivals. For example, the agricultural land reform enacted by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which effectively destroyed the societal power base of the old land elites, was a peaceful, nonetheless, highly coercive move. 

    Additionally, the economic structure of the Egyptian state as a rentier state, reduces the pressure on the state to become more inclusive. Charles Tilly, in his study of the development of the European state, argues that the growth of representative institutions within a state is dependent on the needs of the wielders of coercion that extract capital from different classes inhabiting their domain. This involves a bargaining process that should make the political order more inclusive, where the wielders of capital extract concessions from the wielders of coercion. In the case of Egypt, the economic power of the military, and its ability to extract rent from the United States, international financial institutions, and now other powers in the region, insulates it from the need to bargain with the other classes that inhabit its domain. Moreover, there is no clear distinction between the wielders of coercion and capital in Egypt; the military is the largest wielder of capital, creating significant barriers for a more inclusive state.    

    Finally, what is the nature of the revolutionary struggle? How can such a struggle be won? The revolution is not simply about societal change; it is also a revolution against oneself, the feeling of inferiority that the oppressed experience. This was brilliantly captured by Franz Fanon in his master piece The Wretched of the Earth, where he analyzed the Algerian Revolution from a psychiatric perspective; he argued that it is only through struggle that the oppressed can re-construct their own identities and overcome the feeling of inferiority that inhibits their societal participation. The disappointments of the Egyptian revolution and the failures of the revolutionary movement have only acted to compound these feelings. The first step of the revolutionary process, according to Fanon, has not materialized.   

    I see these as the failures of the Egyptian revolution. However, it is important to note that the situation is not hopeless. As argued elsewhere, if General El Sisi runs for president and wins, it will open up new possibilities for the continuation of this struggle. However, the nature of the struggle will be different this time, due to attempts to centralize an already de-centralized power structure. The military cannot rule alone. A renewed 'Jacobin spirit' among the revolutionary forces could push the movement towards its logical conclusion, namely the introduction of wide-ranging societal changes in Egypt.     

    Does Jordan need nuclear energy?

    By Nikita Malik

    With greenhouse gases increasingly accumulating in the atmosphere, finding ways to produce power cleanly, safely, and affordably is a pressing issue for many governments. Accelerated by the discovery of 70,000 tons of uranium deposits in 2007, Jordan has opted for nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs. In time to come, it will be important to monitor the effect of Jordan’s decision to adopt nuclear power on shifting regional alignments, the evolution of geo-political and country-level risk, and the environmental, economic, and safety repercussions that are likely to result from this choice.

    On October 28, Russia’s Rosatom Overseas won the contract to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant. Many have angled the choice of Rosatom as one of a good fit: the company meets costs according to prerequisite demands by the Jordanian government [1], and has several functional prototypes around the world, reducing potential hidden costs and learning externalities. This outcome was influenced, in part, however, by the automatic exclusion of the United States, which was unable to bid for a tender because of Jordan’s decision to retain the right to enrich uranium. Under terms of the current US – Jordan agreement; Jordan can mine the uranium ore, but not convert it into fuel for nuclear power. Such a pact is unique to dealings with countries in the Middle East, given the United States signed a modified nuclear agreement with Vietnam in early October 2013.

    It is hoped that the nuclear plants will shift Jordan’s position from one of dependency on its regional neighbors for oil, to one of self-reliance. Jordan’s profits would be two ended: the first in meeting demand, and the second in meeting supply. On the demand-side, the Hashemite Kingdom would commercially mine and export uranium to its regional and international neighbors with reactor plants, currently, western uranium production (37 kTU) is about half of current consumption (62 kTU)[2]. On the supply-side, Jordan will supply electricity regionally, by delivering highly enriched uranium to fuel reactors, and by providing electricity directly. Jordan has a regional grid connection of 500 MWe with Egypt, 300 MWe with Syria, and is increasing links with Israel and Palestine.

    Moreover, the expected expansion of jobs to explore, mine, and regulate uranium in the Hashemite Kingdom is likely to reduce fiscal costs and increase economic growth. Uranium mines also generate royalties: in comparison, Australia obtains AUS$21 million in uranium mining royalties every year. Though it is hoped that Jordan’s nuclear fuel-cycle program will render it less dependent on foreign aid and subsidies, these hopes must consider the potential threat that the spread of nuclear energy infrastructure could have on the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a politically unstable regional backdrop. 

    In the future, it is likely that the Jordanian government would regulate the sales process itself, with a possible role for Russia as a strategic partner. In order to reduce uncertainty for the public, the energy companies, and the investors, King Abdullah has relied on the premise that Jordan is a peaceful country that has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP), and a country that desperately requires economic advancement. It would be worthwhile, however, for the Jordanian government to explicitly state how it will keep material out of the hands of would-be proliferators, perhaps by giving the nuclear waste to a third country to destroy. It could also create further safeguard agreements to make sure civilian programmes do not mutate into military ones. For example, Jordan could insist that customer countries sign additional bilateral safeguard treaties that are even more vigilant than the NPT.

    It is clear, however, that power-generation programmes are a pressing need in Jordan, given the linkage between protest and the rising price of basic goods such as electricity. Jordan spends more than a fifth of its GDP importing fuel, and cuts in Egyptian gas and globally unstable oil prices have negatively impacted Jordan’s energy situation. Sources of thermal power, such as the Aqaba thermal power plant, the largest power station in Jordan, have a total generation capacity of only 656 mW. Wind and hydro power are becoming increasingly widespread in the nation, in the form of the Ibrahimyah and Hofa wind power plants, at 0.32 mW and 1.12 mW, and the Jordan river dam. However, their intermittent and variable supply makes them poorly suited for large-scale use. In comparison, the nuclear reactors will produce a combined supply of 2,000 mW of energy. Jordanian officials say the nuclear project will lower electricity costs by 70% and bring domestic energy output from 3% to more than half the of the nation’s needs.

    The steady supply of energy is necessary to maintain Jordan’s national security. In 2014, a 5% increase will be levied on domestic subscribers whose monthly consumption is above 1,000kWh, according to the new tariffs. Such a move is likely to increase mass protests, polarization, and populism. It is possible that improving economic growth would reduce the appeal of radical political parties prevalent in Jordan and the region, but high unemployment and rising prices will sustain the demand for political alternatives in the nation. To combat this risk, Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding with China in September 2013, to build a $2.5 billion oil shale-fired power plant in the Kingdom that will produce 900 megawatts of electricity. While this move has brightened prospects of efficient gas-burning power, the plant will be subject to the volatility of natural gas prices, and will still release large amounts of carbon dioxide.

    The capital and safety costs involved with implementing nuclear power plants are considerable. Whether these costs can be accurately forecasted remains doubtful, given that a capital intensive and complex technology is at stake. Reactors implemented in Finland and France have run billions of dollars over budget, and public concern about radioactive waste is significant, with no country having a functioning system of disposing of it yet. The implementation of the nuclear reactors in Jordan comes with considerable learning externalities, and it is hoped by proponents of the scheme, such as Toukan, that observing other countries’ experiences will lead to lower construction costs.

    In the future, Jordan faces a dual challenge to its nuclear power plants in the form of cost and safety. Waste management disposal, coupled with proliferation risk, in a region marred with political conflict, are significant factors that the government must address to earn public trust. It is possible that high-level cost forecasting, including these hidden and monitoring costs, will paint an accurate picture of the financial risk that is to be expected. Moreover, up-to-date information on plausible accidents can be incorporated into design requirements for nuclear reactors, thereby reducing safety concerns. If the benefits of nuclear power are to the realized in the Hashemite Kingdom, each of these hurdles must be overcome.


    [1] Atomstroyexport (ASE), Rosatom’s international arm, will finance 49% of the project, and Jordan will pay for the remaining 51%, taking a controlling share.

    [2] http://www.nirs.org/neconomics/brussels.pdf

    Kafr Batna, Syria

    By Emily Reid

    It started with a general awareness of what was happening in Syria – the knowledge garnered through reading the news and seeking out information about the current goings on in the Middle East. But through a friendship made in Egypt over the summer, I have gained a disturbing insight into the unseen realities of life for ordinary Syrians. As the fighting has raged on for close to three years, the international media has become bored of yet more desolate images of a country going through civil war. 

    I met Emad in Nuweiba, East of the Sinai Peninsula. He spent a brief spell at the farm I was working on and opportunities occurred for us to meet again, stay in contact and become good friends. A few weeks ago, Emad made a humanitarian appeal on behalf of the people of his hometown, Kafr Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus. This neighbourhood is under control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but is subject to government blockades and tactics intended to ‘starve out’ the opposition. As a result, basic necessities are being denied to the civilian population: there is a dire shortage of bread, other food supplies, and medicine: nothing is allowed in. A black market exists but who can afford the skyrocketing prices? Bread costs $20 USD for 1 kilogram. People are hungry and cold. The plummeting temperatures are adding to an already dismal situation. Images of refugee children whose families have fled to surrounding Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are seen playing in the snow and ice. In the background, frost-covered tents and figures with haunted eyes huddled around fires burning in metal bins belie the hard actuality of these people’s escape and current existence. In Syria itself, the once stunningly beautiful cities of Homs and Damascus are tragedy exemplified under a dusting of white. Buildings are ripped concrete and shattered glass. Streets are erupted tarmac sniper-runs. Entire neighbourhoods are the shooting ranges of the FSA and regime forces. 

    This is the general picture of Syria: the cruelly stroked canvas that is painted by the main media outlets. If given a glimpse beyond that narrow window, what you find there is seared into your conscious. My glimpse was obtained through the story of Saleh Zeno.  

    Emad went to school with Saleh and fate has brought them in these last years to two very disparate points. Taken into custody on the 1 January 2011, Saleh Zeno is but one among the many civilians arrested without charges being brought against them. Taken to Harasta Air Force Intelligence prison in Ghouta, and following an error by the officer registering prisoner names into the computer, Zeno was left to languish in jail for almost two years. Saleh only emerged after having starved to death on the 12 November 2013. His body was discovered in one of the basement systems of Harasta in a state of severe malnutrition. Tim Damascene, of East Ghouta, was also imprisoned for seven months in the Harasta branch of Air Force Intelligence – he met Saleh there and has given evidence regarding the conditions of the prison. Each single cell was one metre by one metre (maximum 1m x 2m).  In Room 2, the ‘water room’, dripping water is used as a method of sleep deprivation. 

    For the first seven months of Saleh’s imprisonment, he was in Room 4; however, he was then transferred to solitary confinement for a week. In this time, Saleh developed a neurological condition and was put in the courtyard of the prison. Reputed as the ‘courtyard of breath’, it reportedly houses more than 300 prisoners. A typical daily diet was breakfast of bread and olives or uncooked potato with an evening meal consisting of semi-cooked rice or bulgur. ‘Once a week they fed us meat but we were always sick from it – we don’t know why. All our food was without salt. During my time as a prisoner, I never tasted sugar’ reported Damascene. 

    Emad first learned of his school friend’s death through the delivery of Saleh’s emaciated corpse: the body was found close to the line of fire separating the strong holds of the FSA and regime forces. Weighing 30kg, Saleh Zeno is thought to have been sent as a message to the Free Army: tactics of trapping and starvation have not been spoken about from anyone within the regime ranks. Normally the victims of these circumstances are put into unmarked mass graves. Saleh’s body, in being given back to the family, suggests some pointed motivation by the regime. 

    Saleh Zeno is a tragic – and tragic in the true sense of the word – example of the kinds of injustice that are being inflicted on the people of Syria every day. War is raging on and civilians are paying the price. Emad feels that nothing can or will be done, that people are numbed to such images of pain and suffering, and that the political powers have the unchallenged capacity to command the fates of millions. Maybe to an extent this is true. But I want to believe, have to believe, that when people learn of what is truly going on, when they hear the story of a man such as Saleh, they will want to act. To stop, and acknowledge that this is happening. Perhaps then we can move to some tangible change and work towards a global society where these things are not widespread yet unreported horrors.

    Presidential elections: key step in Egypt’s roadmap

    By Nader Bakkar

    Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi

    Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi

    With the announcement of the results of Egypt’s 2014 constitutional referendum, the curtains were brought down on the first stage of the July 3 roadmap. According to the consensus on the roadmap, Egyptians should now be readying for parliamentary elections. However, all indicators point to a change in the agreed upon sequence of events, in which presidential elections will most likely come next. 

    As a matter of principle, I have many concerns regarding amendments or changes to the roadmap. This is not due to personal convictions regarding staging parliamentary elections before electing a president, and neither is it due to inflexibility or persistence. Ultimately, the roadmap, which is the result of human decisions, is not immune to changes or amendments. Rather, there is the concern that if the door for change is opened once, it can't be closed again.

    Looking back on July 3 itself, without a doubt, presidential elections should have come first, before anything else. This is what the Nour Party called for on July 2, and sought from former president Mohamed Morsi. Early presidential elections were a key demand among the many Egyptians who took to the streets en masse starting on June 30, prior to Morsi’s removal. With the dramatic change of path, early presidential elections, however, were no longer an option. 

    As the roadmap moved forward, one of the most significant issues confronting a lack of national consensus was also key to adhering to the predetermined progress of the roadmap. The members of the constituent assembly tasked with amending the constitution were unable to come to an understanding on the electoral system to be used in the next parliamentary elections, after which the entire process was to be sealed with free and fair presidential elections, restoring Egypt’s democratic path.

    In order to prove, at the very least, a commitment to the partners of the roadmap, the interim government must take steps to restore a healthy political life in Egypt. At the same time, it cannot be denied that Egyptians are in desperate need of a resolution regarding the presidency. This is precisely what strengthens the argument among those who are calling for early presidential elections.

    Going one step further, I can say that among the people who participated in the referendum on January 14 and 15, it is likely that the majority who voted ‘yes’ were voting in favour of the roadmap first, before voting in favour of the constitution. They implicitly voted for early presidential elections, with many even voting implicitly for one specific candidate who has gained public support since July 3. Posters everywhere campaigning for a yes vote bearing General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s photo are a perfect example of the conflation of presidential elections and the referendum, and an indication of support for his candidacy among some.  

    It is worth noting that presidential elections, regardless of their specific timing, have been a major concern for many Egyptians since July 3. It is an overarching demand, preceding concerns over terrorist attacks, poor governmental performance or continuous chaos caused by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is probably in large part due to the persistence of the media in keeping any news of the presidential race, front and centre. Talk of potential candidates, and which political parties have chosen to support them, has been widely purveyed in both private and state media, alongside exaggerated talk of magical solutions for all of Egypt’s problems, should Sisi run for president. 

    In this regard, people who are keen on the democratic political process in Egypt share certain convictions as to who should fill the presidential role, and these convictions have become stronger than ever. The number of people sharing these convictions has even increased after the disappointing performance of Morsi’s regime. One of these convictions is that a military man should run the country, or at the very least, he should come from one of the security institutions. As a result, the coming president will not clash with one of those vital security institutions while trying to implement reform. At the same time, this is the only way to guarantee harmony with security institutions, and key among them is the military institution and the respect it demands from the president. In practical terms, this means imposing stability, avoiding the turmoil and disagreement among institutions that Egypt has witnessed during the last year.    

    This conviction limits the competition over the presidential seat, theoretically, to four names. Three of them are from the military institutions: the current minister of defense, Colonel-General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, former chief of staff under Mubarak, Lieutenant-General Sami Anan and former presidential candidate and Mubarak’s last premier, Colonel-General Ahmed Shafik. The fourth name on the list is Major General Murad Mowafy, the former head of Intelligence under Mubarak. When it comes to Sisi’s candidacy, this conviction is multiplied by specific factors. Whether due to statements by journalists or businessmen in the media, there is an entrenched belief that Sisi is the only candidate able to address Egypt’s economic and security needs.  

    The belief that charisma, a firm hand, and an ability to make decisions are qualities sufficient for a leader disregards key factors: a political and economic vision or a leader’s ability to present creative solutions to Egypt’s ongoing troubles. A diverse presidential team assisting him is also key, within a democratic system that values institutionalism and reduces individualism.

    On the contrary, expectations of Sisi have been raised to an unrealistic level, with people hoping for dramatic changes from day one of his possible presidency. This makes his likely decision to run for president akin to gambling.

    This piece was first published by EgyptSource on 23 January 2014.

    Egypt: church and state

    By Mina Fayek

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    In November 2012, Pope Tawadros II was ordained as the new head of the Coptic church after late Pope Shenouda III, who had been the head of the Coptic church from 1971 through till 2012. Many had high hopes for a new and fresh phase for the church. It didn’t take long before major reforms took place, such as the restructuring of the Holy Synod and the return of some theology professors, who had been excluded previously because of their controversial thoughts, to the Coptic theological college. Yet the most anticipation gatehred around the propsect of recasting the relationship between the church and the Egyptian state.

    For more than 30 years the state has dealt with this church on the basis that it was the political representative of the Coptic community; a win-win situation given long-term political stagnation. The state vowed its loyalty to the Christian minority by allegedly protecting Christian establishments from radicals and extremists. Of course, there were ups and downs, yet the situation as a whole suited both parties. However, the discrimination against Copts in government institutions and the attacks of extremists on churches never ended. In fact, sectarianism kept rising, which demonstrated that the unspoken agreement between the two parties was rather counterproductive in its effects, only swelling the suffering of Copts.

    In April 2013, when asked about the use of religious publicity in elections by Islamic parties, Pope Tawadros answered: “If religion enters politics, it (religion) becomes ‘polluted’... and this applies to any religion". For once, it appeared that the church was going to take a different stance and disengage from politics, which was was very promising. However that changed quite quickly. Eight months later, the Pope shockingly appeared in a video to urge people to participate in the constitutional referendum. Had he stopped at encouraging people to participate, this would have been understandable. However Pope Tawadros urged the Coptic community to vote ‘yes’ because a yes vote would bring “blessings and welfare”. The video was followed by a publication in Egypt’s flagship newspaper Al-Ahram of a hand-written article by the Pope emphasizing the call for a ‘yes’ vote. The Pope’s statement sparked widespread outrage on social media, and especially between those who believe in the January 25 uprising.

    Evronia Azer, a member of the ‘No to Military Trials for Civilians’ campaign, wrote on Facebook: “This (church interference in politics) has proven to be a failed policy after everything the Christians have suffered from lately. Politics should be left to those who understand and are involved in it and the same applies to religion.”

    Others compared, sarcastically, the teachings of Christianity with the Pope’s word. Bassant Maximus, a design student wrote: “Jesus said: let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’, but the Pope just added his touch to that, saying that a 'yes' will bring welfare.” Later she asked: “We’re not supposed to feel depressed yet with the battle of reforming the Church, right?”

    Defenders would argue that the Pope was only expressing his opinion as a citizen. Indeed the Pope, as a citizen, has every right to do so but what effort did he make to confirm that this was indeed his personal opinion and not that of the head of the Coptic church? The answer is none. In fact, he expressed his opinion within a religious discourse that promised, “blessings and welfare.”

    “When mosques were used in political publicity we denounced that, now we made the same mistake”, said Karim Momtaz, a 24-year-old software developer. “The Church can participate in drafting the constitution and encourages people to participate but it should not influence people’s choices”, he added.

    Fr. Matta El Meskeen (Matthew the Poor), a once prominent monk who had disagreed with Pope Shenouda’s strategy towards the state, wrote a book titled “The Church and the State”. In his book, Fr. Matthew laid down a foundation for the relationship between the Coptic church and the state, as well as the role of clergy. He wrote:

    "The church ought to give full freedom for the Christian citizen in fulfilling his national duties so it doesn’t become responsible before the state for any dereliction committed by its children.”

     

    “The church should not order its clerics to discuss [publicly] any but ecclesiastical topics so it would not be questioned before a temporal authority.”

    At one point, the teachings of Fr. Matthew tackled the concepts of liberation theology, which emerged in Latin America amid the revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s, to oppose the propinquity of the church to corrupt regimes, in addition to a redefinition of the role of the church in society.

    Hopefully, as his students return to the Coptic Theological College, his legacy and teachings will be perpetuated. As for now, it’s promising to see that the Coptic youth have reacted to the Pope’s actions. Even my pious and devout friends who have always defended the church are expressing displeasure with the stance the Pope took with regards to the constitution.

    This is one change the revolution of January 25 facilitated that can’t be undone.

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