Bastion of Islamism: Egypt and the New Middle East

25 06 2012

I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.  I lived in Egypt for four years, under Mubarak, and I never would have guessed that within a few years he would be overthrown, and the arch nemesis of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would win an election.  Yet, it has happened, and after a very long, drawn out, meticulous reading of the election results on Sunday afternoon, which I presume has served as a torture tactic in Egyptian prisons, finally the commission announced MB candidate Mohamed Morsi as the winner of the run-off, beating the former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq.  Of course, the real hard work begins now, in dealing with old and new political institutions, the religious establishment, and the demands of the revolutionaries.  Plus, external powers will have to be reassured of the preservation of their regional interests.  The status quo persistently lurks in the shadows.

In my opinion, neither Shafiq nor Morsi were good candidates for a progressive future.  The former represents the Mubarak regime, and the latter’s religious platform generates apprehension especially among many women, religious minorities (i.e., the Coptic Christians), the revolutionary youth movement, and secularists and moderates.  Morsi inherits an unenviable task and circumstance, although anyone in his shoes would have faced similar daunting challenges.

Some of the pressing priorities and challenges awaiting him are worth reviewing:

Economic challenges:

This is by far the number one priority and challenge that Morsi faces.  Tourism has been hit hard since the 2011 revolution, and businesses and industries have suffered losses.  Labor disputes have erupted, and in fact a labor dispute is what started the whole revolutionary movement (April 6th youth movement).  Getting the economic engine going and in fact getting it to surpass previous growth levels will be analogous to climbing Everest ten times.  But, that is what’s needed.  Going back to pre-revolution economic status will not be sufficient.  For this to occur, the Egyptian economy will have to open up and diversify significantly, plus simultaneous advances in education and training (including technological training) must be implemented.  Given the meager literacy rates in Egypt (males 77%; females 62%), that alone will be a formidable challenge.

Political challenges:

There is already talk about SCAF setting a trap for Morsi, especially given that the constitution has yet to be written.  The political challenges are immense, and the uncertainties regarding SCAF’s agendas are great cause for concern.  Morsi will have to tread with extraordinary political savvy, and his lack of previous political experience already renders him politically handicapped.  He will need the most politically shrewd and skilled circle of advisers around him.  How likely that is remains to be seen.

Ideological challenges:

Internal ideological challenges within the MB, but also involving the religious establishment, will create factionalism and could engender indecision and/or poor social policies.  If Morsi gives in to pressures for instituting strict Islamist policies, many aspects of socioeconomic development and human rights can be seriously derailed and undermined.  Another ideological challenge is the impact of regional developments, mainly what’s happening in Syria, which in reality symbolizes the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry (i.e., Asad’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah).  Although Morsi has already expressed improving relations with Iran, the Syrian conflict, along with a possible US-Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could escalate the sectarian tensions in the region.  In that scenario, Egypt will be compelled to side with the status quo.

Regional challenges:

Israel is the number one regional relations issue for Egypt, and Morsi’s position regarding the Camp David Accords will be greatly scrutinized especially by Western powers.  In addition, instability in Libya next door may have an impact on political and security issues in Egypt, not to mention the problems in Sudan.  Floods of refugees into Egypt have long caused pressures on the local economy, and with continuing conflicts in these neighboring states, it could worsen.  Morsi says he wants to improve relations with Iran.  Given Iran’s support for the Asad regime in Syria, this might not prove a popular stance domestically, but it is still a step in the right direction, since Egyptian-Iranian relations have remained strained for years.  Who knows, at some point maybe Egypt could play a significant role in diplomacy involving Iran and her adversaries in the region and also in the West.  If Egypt can rise once again as a major regional player, then that will truly be a huge feather in Morsi’s cap.

External foreign relations challenges:

Egypt’s relations with the US and other Western powers will be critical for her socioeconomic development.  The caveat in this is the gauntlet laid down by SCAF, much of which remains unknown, in terms of treading that path smoothly in the transition process.  So far, the US has congratulated Morsi upon his win.  But, that does not mean that he will not be viewed with skeptical eyes and heavy scrutiny.  Moreover, he risks undermining his own credibility if he starts to wave the Islamist flag a bit too fervently.  Morsi and his government will have to maintain a delicate balance between Islamism and democracy, and along those lines, the “Turkish model” of the AKP has been repeatedly cited.  Morsi and company will remain under the microscope for a long time.

Morsi will face many pressures and temptations to invoke and perhaps implement stricter Islamic rules and policies in post-Mubarak Egypt.  If he leans more towards such matters and issues, then it will be an indication of his lack of focus on the real priorities of the country, those that pertain to socioeconomic development and progress, alleviating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the quality of life for the masses.

If other Islamist parties/organizations are any indication of the direction that they are inclined to take, for example Hamas and Hezbollah, then there is every reason to be skeptical about the MB in Egypt.  Islamist groups in the region have failed miserably to illustrate a keen capability to govern effectively and uphold fundamental human rights.  In the end, the successes of Islamist parties may render the region a bastion of Islamism, but with nothing substantive to show for it.  Let’s see if they can prove the skeptics wrong.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views


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G8 Summit and Iran’s Nuclear Program

21 05 2012

The symbolism of the G8 summit members calling on Iran to “come clean” with its nuclear program has been lost.  While Iran’s nuclear program embodies both a legal right under the NPT to use nuclear energy for civilian purposes, as well as legal restrictions for enriching weapons-grade uranium for military use – the latter of which is the source of the dilemma – when eight powerful countries dictate demands to a war-ravaged (Iran-Iraq War 1980-88) and sanctions afflicted developing country, much doubt, suspicion, and cynicism pervades especially in the developing world.  Iran, in many eyes, is viewed as the underdog in this case, and the precedent of the WMD-based military campaign in Iraq 2003 has left a bad taste in the mouths of many people.

On Saturday, G8 countries meeting in Camp David issued a statement, according to Haaretz:

“’We desire a peaceful and negotiated solution to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, and therefore remain committed to a dual-track approach’,” the G8 leaders said as their summit came to a close at the US presidential retreat. 

The dual-track refers to the combination of heavy sanctions and serious talks.”

The G8 consists of France, Italy, Germany, UK, Japan, Canada, US, and Russia.

Although the case of Iran is contextually different, the policy approach to the problem resembles Iraq in many ways, especially in terms of the strict economic sanctions regime.  In Iraq, nearly twelve years of harsh economic sanctions rendered a devastating impact on the Iraqi people.

On the part of the P5+1 (permanent 5 UN Security Council members – UK, US, France, China, Russia – plus Germany), who have been involved in negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program, a certain reality must be grasped:  while there are valid concerns for Israel’s security, given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s verbal threats against Israel, there are equally valid national security threats and worries that the Iranian government accounts for when considering its nuclear program.  In order for comprehensive negotiations and resolutions to work, Iran’s national security concerns must be included in the calculus.  Only then could a viable resolution be derived.

Right now, the balance is tipped in favor of the GCC countries and Israel, with little regard to Iran’s security concerns.  Everything on the table, including missile defense systems and weapons sales, caters to the security concerns of the GCC states, Europe, and Israel, but if western powers want to give realistic incentives for Iran to cooperate and comply, they must also consider Iran’s security priorities and concerns.  These priorities pertain to hostile neighbors, including the GCC states (traditional rivals, with the exception of Oman), ensuring the rights and protection of Shia populations in the region, the presence of foreign troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Baluchistan, the crisis in Syria (Iran’s strong Arab ally), the regional arms race, and nuclear powers Israel, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia.  In addition, the ideological frictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular (representing the Shia-Sunni schism), and the crisis in Bahrain, along with recent unity plans between Bahrain and Saudi, underscore the high sensitivities pertaining to regional politics, ideologies, and security issues.

In other words, Iran is surrounded by provocations and antagonists.  This is not to say that the Iranian regime is innocent.  Of course, it engages in its own brand of provocations and antagonisms.  However, in the framework of conflict resolution, a viable solution to a problem and potential conflict cannot be reached without considering and empathizing with the circumstances of all parties involved.  In this case, the P5+1, the G8, and others must consider Iran’s national security concerns.  At the same time, in the context of these considerations, the ideal opportunity arises to press Iran to cease all verbal threats to Israel and provide assurances that it will not attack Israel.  Also, Israel would have to reciprocate with similar assurances regarding Iran.  These points should be kept in mind when the P5+1 hold another round of talks with Iran’s delegation in Baghdad on May 23.

The champion of Peace Studies, Johan Galtung, famously said:  “Peace equals ability to handle conflict, with empathy, nonviolence, and creativity.”

There is far too much at stake to fail in the simple gesture of empathizing.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.






Let’s Reward Rapists and Thugs with Our Tax Dollars

23 03 2012

It has been announced that the United States will resume military aid to Egypt.  In fact, the announcement came from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, in many public statements over the years, has claimed to uphold women’s rights.

This decision, which is contrary to the stance that Congress has taken against the Egyptian military junta (called SCAF), smacks of political expediency in the guise of “national security interests,” at the expense of human rights and democracy in Egypt.  It undermines the pro-democracy ideals and the struggle to pressure SCAF to transfer power to civilian rule.

In a recent public speech, I actually said that:  “The U.S. must wean itself from any residue of ‘Cold War’ era thinking and policies.  The slate has been erased clean.”

And, in my December 2004 interview with pro-democracy activist Saad Eddine Ibrahim, in response to my question about what the US role should be pertaining to democratization in Egypt, he unequivocally stated:  to avoid support for dictators, even if they still appear as friends.”

This decision to resume military aid to Egypt’s military junta resembles Cold War era policies.  It also conveys the message that policy makers have learned nothing from history.  Throwing money at a power broker does not translate into actual sound and sincere policies coming out of that entity.

But, what’s worse is that this is the same regime that has violated so many women, including with the atrocious “virginity tests” of detainees, and then recently acquitting the “doctor” who performed them.  Under the watch of this regime, women have been assaulted with what can only be described as gang rape.  From Egyptian women, to foreign correspondents, like Lara Logan, working for the news media, all have been victims of these vicious assaults.  And remember the young woman wearing the blue bra?  Her brutal beating and stripping was caught on video.  This regime is also responsible for the deaths of many innocent people.  This regime has also tried repeatedly to undermine the pro-democracy movement, at times in the most ominous and sinister ways.

And yet, we reward them with $1.3 billion in military aid?  That’s absurd.

Supposedly, this deal has to do with preserving the “integrity” of the 1978 Camp David Accords, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement signed between the late President Anwar al-Sadat, Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and mediated by US President Jimmy Carter.  The accords led to a cold peace, rather than warm normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel, but nonetheless, it has prevented the outbreak of hostilities over the years.  That might the key ingredient that matters most to the US and Israel right now.  The accords have come with years of US foreign aid to Israel, the top recipient, followed by Egypt.  However, it’s hard to convince me that there are no alternatives to dumping more money in the laps of the military generals in Egypt, especially in the current political climate.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy agrees.  According to Al Jazeera

“Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator who sponsored the legislation that tied conditions to aid [to Egypt], said he was ‘disappointed’ by Clinton’s decision.

‘I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message,’ Leahy said in a statement.

‘The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy,’ he said.

Now that she has taken her decision, he said, Clinton should release funds in increments as Egypt demonstrates its commitment toward democracy following the revolution that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak in February last year.”

Meanwhile, an Egyptian military court has acquitted and will release Ayman Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed Zawahiri, along with a militant convicted of planning attacks in Egypt, Mohammed Islambouli, brother of Khaled, who killed Sadat.  According to Dawn Newspaper –

“In 1998, Zawahiri and Islambouli were sentenced on charges of undergoing military training in Albania and planning military operations in Egypt.

…The trial also acquitted several other former militants, including Sayyed Imam Fadl, once the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and mentor of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But Fadl, like the others acquitted, had shunned violence in the late 1990s and engaged in a war of letters with Ayman al-Zawahiri, denouncing Al Qaeda’s use of violence.

Islambouli returned from exile in Iran after a popular uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, joining a number of Egyptian Islamist militants returning to the country after the ouster of their nemesis.”

For each baby step forward, there are giant leaps backward.  And, while militants, or supposedly “ex-militants,” are being acquitted and released, the worst of the violators of women and men continue to never see the inside of a jail cell.  This is contrary to American values of human rights and justice, and by giving the military junta money, we are sending the wrong message.  Have we learned nothing since the Cold War?

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Bibi, Can You Say that with a Straight Face? Or, Is Hezbollah / Iran Really that Stupid?

14 02 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu may have broken the nano-speed record for blaming Hezbollah/Iran for the recent attacks in India and Georgia targeting Israeli diplomats.  However, today’s incident of an Iranian national lobbing explosives in Thailand – albeit not targeting Israelis – might add to the validity of Bibi’s claims.  Still, when Israel instantly blamed Hezbollah/Iran after the attacks in Delhi and Tblisi, many people scratched their heads.  It looked all too convenient.

We probably should not dismiss all possibilities all together, though.  But, it’s hard to fathom that Hezbollah/Iran could really be that stupid, as to incite, provoke, and prod the “Grim Reaper.”  It really is not in the interest of Iran or Israel and the US to trigger a conventional war that would result in countless civilian deaths on all sides.  You will never catch me using that ugly artificial term, “collateral damage.”  It’s human loss of life.  But, why all the chest thumping in Iran and Israel?  It’s counterproductive, and could inadvertently escalate tensions into an all-out war.

According to Reuters (Feb. 13) –

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed both Iran and Hezbollah, accusing them of responsibility for a string of recent attempted attacks on Israeli interests in countries as far apart as Thailand and Azerbaijan.

‘Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are behind each of these attacks,’ said Netanyahu, who dismisses Iran denials that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. ‘We will continue to take strong and systematic, yet patient, action against the international terrorism that originates in Iran.’

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast rejected Netanyahu’s accusation, saying it was Israel that had carried out the attacks as part of its psychological warfare against Iran.

‘It seems that these suspicious incidents are designed by the Zionist regime and carried out with the aim of harming Iran’s reputation,’ the official news agency IRNA quoted Mehmanparast as saying.

Israeli officials have long made veiled threats to retaliate against Lebanon for any Hezbollah attack on their interests abroad, arguing that as the Islamist group sits in government in Beirut, its actions reflect national policy.

… B.K. Gupta, the New Delhi police commissioner, said a witness had seen a motorcyclist stick a device to the back of the car, which had diplomatic registration plates.

‘The eyewitness … says it (was) some kind of magnetic device. As soon as the motorcycle moved away a good distance from the car, the car blew up and it caught fire,’ said Gupta.

The Iranian scientist killed in Tehran last month died in a similar such attack by a motorcyclist who attached a device to his car. No one has claimed responsibility for that, although Iran was quick to accuse agents of Israel and its U.S. ally.”

 

The stakes couldn’t be higher.  Also, in many respects, both Iran and Israel are guilty of many crimes.  Let’s not forget the 1994 Jewish center bombing in Argentina, and Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmed Vahidi is alleged to have planned this heinous attack that killed 85.  Israel has bombed civilians in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon with impunity (and yes, Hamas often provokes such retaliation when it launches rockets indiscriminately into Israeli areas); and Israel also engages in both targeted killings and collective punishment.  The latest incident was the January 2010 killing of a Hamas military commander in Dubai, with operatives entering the UAE with plagiarized European passports, which angered many European countries.

The bottom line is that both Iran and Israel have bloody hands, and it’s not productive for them to continue escalating tensions that can drag a conflict-weary region into yet another devastating war.  Too many innocent civilians will pay the price for the follies and callousness of these governments.  How many times must we remind them that WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER!

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.