Tag Archives: Egypt

Escape from Freedom?

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

As Passover approaches, I have been reading the psychologist Erich Fromm’s 1941 work, Escape from Freedom. Writing when Nazi Germany was at its height, Fromm sought the reasons why so many people felt their freedom to be “an intolerable burden” that they wished to escape. The questions he raised are still vital.

We often think of people who live under tyrannical regimes as helpless victims. This neatly avoids the problem that even the most monstrous regimes enjoy some level of popular support, without which they could not continue to function; and even worse, that a people granted the vote may freely elect a dictatorship, as happened in Germany in 1932 and as appears to be happening in Egypt today.

Why does this happen? In the case of Egypt, we can begin with the failure of the old regime’s ideology of “pan-Arab nationalism” as championed by the wildly popular dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970. Nasser’s enmity to Israel was later abandoned by his successor Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, although not before launching a devastating war of his own, the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

After Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists bitterly opposed to the treaty, the dictator Hosni Mubarak came to power and ruled for almost three decades, preserving the letter of the treaty with Israel while discouraging “normalization” and encouraging anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media, most notoriously in a 2002 TV series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” which was based on the anti-Semitic fantasy “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a text originally composed by the secret police of Czarist Russia but now ubiquitous in the Muslim world. While he was far from being the Arab world’s most vicious dictator, Mubarak mismanaged the Egyptian economy while allowing corruption to flourish, leaving an impoverished and deeply religious people vulnerable to the slogan “Islam is the answer” (which begs the questions, which Islam? whose Islam? Questions the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more extreme “Salafists” have already answered, and woe betide anyone who draws different conclusions.)

Hatred of America and Israel, already encouraged by Mubarak despite the billions in U.S. aid he received, is at the heart of today’s political Islam, whatever the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremely canny spokesmen may pretend to gullible Western reporters. The Middle East Media Research Institute reports that, “In addition to antisemitic content, articles on the [Brotherhood’s] site also include praise for jihad and martyrdom, and condemnation of negotiation as a means of regaining Islamic lands. Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the September 9, 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo – which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.” So how surprising is it that we are now witnessing the slow death of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty? In case any Egyptian harbors doubts about the wisdom of a new anti-Jewish jihad, recalling perhaps the disastrous wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70 and 1973, MEMRI reports that state-owned TV is again showing “Horseman Without a Horse.”

The Torah teaches us that while the yearning for freedom is innate, so is the yearning for a Pharaoh who tells us what to do while “benevolently” providing for our needs. This is what our ancestors demanded in the wilderness to which they had escaped from Egyptian slavery, driving Moses and even God Himself to the verge of despair. What terrified the Israelites was the prospect of freedom as a barren wilderness; that is, a negative freedom consisting of the removal of all restraints. It is what today’s Egyptians, beset by poverty and violent crime, think they are glimpsing as well; and so two-thirds of them have turned for answers to Islamists who claim to have a direct line to God Himself. What these dangerous people have to offer is not a return to the medieval Islamic caliphate, but a religion-infused version of the twentieth-century totalitarian political movements that claimed tens of millions of lives. We have to start telling the truth to ourselves as well as the people of Egypt: that what they are building is not freedom, but a bridge into the abyss.

Egypt on the Edge

By Adina Rosenthal

Tensions in the Middle East have sadly reached a familiar high.  Recently, Gaza militants ambushed Israeli vehicles in southern Israel near Eilat, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in three years. In addition to this premeditated act of terrorism, militants launched more than 150 rockets and mortars into Israel—despite a ceasefire—killing one, injuring scores of civilians and inciting panic throughout southern Israel.

While such hostilities at the hands of terrorists are a tragedy, unfortunately, they are not an anomaly. When news breaks concerning violence against Israelis, the word “Gaza” usually seems to follow closely behind. Despite the recent events being perpetrated by Gaza militants, the backdrop behind the atrocities should also raise some eyebrows.

Despite the difficulty in entering a heavily guarded Israel, the Gaza militants were able to travel through a lax Egyptian border to commit their atrocities. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty, thereby ending the war that had existed between the two nations since Israel’s inception in 1948. Though a cool peace, the treaty has kept tensions between Egypt and Israel relatively quiet for three decades.

But since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office last February, much has changed in the discourse between Egypt and Israel. Over the last six months, there have been five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline compared to “zero successful attacks” since the pipeline opened in 2008. Such actions have deprived Israel of gas and Egypt of foreign currency. Last June, Egypt lifted its four-year blockade on Gaza, which arguably contributed to the terrorists’ ease in committing last Thursday’s attacks. Moreover, such a political move may even highlight a shift in Egyptian policy and power, according to Evelyn Gordon in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, as the “cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it.” Such inaction is particularly surprising, as the violence also resulted in the deaths of Egyptian soldiers. As Gordon also points out, “The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.”

Although last week’s attacks were clearly initiated by Gaza terrorists, Egypt blamed Israel for the deaths of its border policemen and demanded an apology. According to Haaretz, the IDF stated that its soldiers had “returned fire ‘at the source of the gunfire’ that had been aimed at Israeli soldiers and civilians from the area of an Egyptian position on the border…and at least some of the Egyptian soldiers were killed by the [Popular Resistance Committee’s] terrorists’ gunfire and bombs.” Though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately apologized after the attacks, adding that they “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Egyptians were not satisfied and popular sentiment amongst Egyptian quickly became apparent. Angry Egyptians responded with protests outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the “Egyptian Spiderman” scaling the 21-story building to take down the Israeli flag. The Egyptian government also threatened to recall their ambassador to Israel, though they later revoked their decision.

Clearly, tensions between Egypt and Israel are high, and a shaky relationship has become even more precarious. Such contention not only affects Israeli concerns with hostile Palestinian neighbors. Now, Israelis realize that their relationship with Egypt has changed in a post-Mubarak era, with popular sentiment growing more vocal and antagonistic against the Jewish state and, subsequently, a future Egyptian government reevaluating peace with Israel.

With tensions mounting daily and popular sentiment coming to a forefront, how can relations between the two states remain cordial?

According to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities, Egypt’s stocks fell to the lowest in two weeks as “The negative global backdrop and the killings on the Israeli border’ are driving shares lower…The main fear is the escalation.” Even more worrisome for Egyptians should be that there has been talk in Washington about cutting the $2 billion in their annual aid if the country backs out of its peace treaty with Israel. As Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee told the Jerusalem Post, “The United States aid to Egypt is predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and so the relationship between Egypt and Israel is extremely important.”

If the mutual interest of keeping peace walks, the hope remains that money talks.

We, the (Arab) People

By Aarian Marshall

Like many people my age, I watched the Arab Spring on CNN, from my university’s Student Campus Center. Sometimes, someone would change the channel—March Madness was on, and basketball involves a crowd of people screaming plus the satisfaction of a conclusion in 90 minutes. And Egypt felt so far away, its people so different and its struggles so foreign. Though historic, it was difficult to identify with what was happening in a world so far removed from my own.

Underneath all the talking heads’ discussion and analyses, one consistent allusion stood out: “the people” of the region. “The people” of Tunisia and Egypt need to take change into their own hands; “the people” of Egypt and Tunisia need a little bit of help; the wants and needs of the Egyptian military don’t necessarily dovetail with what “the people” want.  New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled a recent column “It Has to Start With Them”, arguing that when “the people” of the Middle East own an initiative, they will be push themselves forward.  But who’s “them,” Thomas Friedman? Who’s “they”?

In the United States, “the people” is a clear signifier, something that used to demarcate this country from the rest of the world. Even if you don’t know a word of the Constitution, you’ll know “We the people.” It is no wonder, then, that in an Arab Spring discourse dominated by notions of democracy, “the people”—these shadowy, non-specific people—show up everywhere.

In a lovely column by film director Mohammad Ali Atassi, the former Syrian president’s son writes: “Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.” Those words are stirring, and they touch upon those golden keywords—freedom, aspire—that our American souls are drawn to. And yet, without the detail, the preciseness, it’s difficult to conceive of “the people” of the Middle East as actual human beings.

Perhaps my discomfort is synthesized best by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) in an article for The New Republic entitled “They the People.” The piece is outdated, published in March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. But it seems as if Nafisi’s words, written to another America in another time, apply today. The problem with America’s attitude towards the people of the Middle East, she writes, is that we

…seldom differentiate between the people of the ‘Muslim world’ and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors.

In Tunisia and Egypt, we hope that those oppressors are gone. Still, the problem of orientalism, of believing in the (often false) assumptions that gird the West’s ideas about the East, has not entirely gone away. There is “cultural baggage,” American historian Douglas Little writes, “that Americans carry with them,” even in a post-Arab Spring world. In other words, we insist upon boiling those who live in a Middle East down to a common denominator, albeit a bit differently from the way we boiled them down in the past. The issue, in Nafisi’s words, is differentiation, and I don’t hear that happening in policy discussions nearly as often as I would like.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the debate played out by three experts, who gathered in Washington, DC’s Academy for Educational Development to discuss the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, argued that economic reform is an essential companion to the social change that has already begun in Egypt and Tunisia, and warned that the work needed to become a democracy is “difficult and detailed.” The people of those countries, she argued, need to be ready for the long road ahead. Robert D. Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs at the Department of State, made similar economically based claims. Free markets and free societies, he told the audience, are inextricably linked. But it was Edward Walker, former Ambassador to Israel, the UAE and Egypt, who struck the most foreboding note. He argued that the U.S. is “limited in what [it] can do to shape the Arab summer”—an effective impetus, he said, can only come from the people of the region themselves. And most depressingly, he pointed out that things might not have changed that much in Egypt and Tunisia—perhaps the revolution is not so revolutionary after all.

As Clark pointed out during her talk, if the Arab Spring has confirmed anything, it’s that “the people of the Middle East are as interested in human rights and freedom as anyone else in the world.” We are one step closer, then, to understanding that those in that region are perhaps more similar to us than we ever could have thought.

Israel Next on Arab Revolutionary Agendas

By Gabriel Weinstein, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

Yoram Peri, seated, and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler. SHFWire photo by Gabriel Weinstein

On January 1, no one would have predicted protesters in Tahrir Square would oust Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi’s iron grip over Libya would start slipping away. Could an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement be the next game-changing event in the Middle East?

According to Professor Yoram Peri of the University of Maryland and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, the revolutionary fervor sweeping the Middle East could present an ideal opportunity to finally settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peri said that, although the uprisings in Arab world focused on domestic issues, it is only a matter of time before the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes the focus of the greater Arab world.

“If things will continue it won’t take much—weeks—that the Israeli-Palestinian issue will become the focus,” Peri said at a forum sponsored by the Middle East Institute Wednesday.

But the recent re-emergence of negative Arab stereotypes in the Israeli media and the infusion of religious emotion into the context of the conflict will prevent Israel from pouncing on the opportunity. He added that in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Israel has crafted its Palestinian peace strategy around a worst-case scenario instead of mounting a serious attempt at peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demonstrated Peri’s argument last week in a speech on the future of Egypt and the Palestinian peace negotiations when he said, “I cannot simply hope for the best. I must also prepare for the worst.”

“That’s a very typical way of thinking by most Israelis when they look at their future,” Peri said.

He said it is unlikely the government will take “a very brave step” desired by more liberal Israelis because of the increasingly conservative tint of the Israeli ruling coalition and a potential election looming.

Wexler echoed Peri and said that, although the stage seems set for finally resolving the conflict, it will most likely not happen if the world relies on Israeli and Palestinian leadership to take the initiative. Both at the forum and in a recent editorial in Politico, Wexler stressed the United States must intervene as quickly as possible to end the conflict. He predicted that if diplomats continue to wait for the crisis to resolve itself, “some catastrophic event will occur” in the West Bank or Gaza that could thrust Israel and the Palestinians into another conflict. He said he is not confident Netanyahu or Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will lead a diplomatic charge.

“The unfortunate reality is the decision rests here in Washington,” Wexler said. “And it rests with the Obama administration.”

Wexler said the recent events in the Middle East have made it the best time to rekindle peace talks. He called on the Obama administration to partner with Great Britain, Germany, France and other European countries to mediate talks between the two sides.

Peri agreed with Wexler’s call for international intervention. He said Israelis and Palestinians’ perception of the conflict as a zero-sum negotiation has prevented substantial progress from being made in the past. He said American intervention helped propel the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty because both sides were promised generous American military and economic aid.

“A third partner, and it only can be the United States and not Europe, can change the structure of the conflict to a non-zero-sum game. And therefore without…American support it will not be achieved,” Peri said.

The continued idleness of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will escalate the costs of the conflict. Both sides know what the basic outlines of a peace treaty will look like and need to muster the political will to strike a deal.

“To negotiate a half meter here, half a meter there that’s not the topic.…The issue is the will,” Peri continued. “The question is the price. Now what will be the price for not achieving an agreement.…Perhaps by showing both Israelis and Palestinians the price today is much higher than it used to be, that might change the perspective.”

Accept Friend Request?

by Amanda Walgrove

It’s Complicated between Israel and Egypt. After Israel Unfriended Turkey last year, she has only had one longstanding friend remaining in the Middle Eastern Network. Last month, many Egyptians responded that they would be attending what some have deemed the “Facebook Revolution” in an effort to overthrow Hosni Mubarak’s regime. An event invite that was scheduled to begin on January 25, 2011 continued through February 11 as Israel watched, anxiously reloading her News Feed and fending off other friends’ frustrating requests to buy sheep on Farmville. Although Egypt’s account was briefly Deactivated, the revolutionaries eventually hacked Mubarak’s Page and gave his password to the Muslim Brotherhood. The world watched nervously as Egypt’s Profile Picture changed from a stunning frame of Mubarak to a chaotically crowded scene pervading Tahrir Square. When Israel logged in and was prompted to answer, “What’s on Your Mind?” she was faced with conflicting emotions. Would this revolution mean a possible transition into a democratic system, or a dangerously anarchic period in which Israel would be thwarted by radical Islamists and inevitably Unfriended by Egypt?

Israel needed to take a stand if she wanted to provide support to her Middle Eastern Friend. It would be a brash move to click the “Like” button on Egypt’s most recent Status Update: “Mubarak no! Democracy now!” After all, she could always go back and Unlike the status later if need be. Unfortunately for some, namely Hosni Mubarak and ’tweens disenchanted with Justin Bieber’s new haircut, Facebook has yet to offer a Dislike button. Although the Camp David Accords remained the highlight of Israel and Egypt’s Friendship Page and they can publicly share “Democracy” under their Common Interests, relations have recently been tenuous and now looms the possibility of beginning a dangerously Open Relationship.

One assertive action that Israel took during the tumultuous revolution was to open her doors to twelve American study-abroad students whose Education Info used to boast Egyptian universities. These students were invited to continue their Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, representing another way in which the youthful constituent played a role in this historic event.

As of now, the relationship between Israel and Egypt remains Complicated. While recent Facebook developments now provide them with the ability to publicize that they are in a Civil Union or Domestic Partnership, it’s a good guess that neither of those options will be acted upon. Egypt will, however, be carefully monitoring any Wall-to-Wall exchanges between Israel and Gaza. Other pages, such as those of Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority will have to be sufficiently stalked in order to stay abreast of new developments. Who knows what might be surreptitiously discussed on Facebook Chat? Overseas, Israel and America are tightly linked, but as America fumbles with its foreign policy, Israel may be prompted to begin sending out new Friend Requests. Plenty of Notifications are expected to pop up in this continued period of dangerous unrest in the Middle East. In the meantime, Israel is hoping that while Egypt is in a transitional state, they will avoid creating problems with international allies. With any luck, unnecessary Poking will be kept to a minimum.

Let My People Vote!

By Steven Philp

Egypt may lack a president, but it is not bereft of direction. Meeting two primary demands of pro-democracy protestors, Egyptian military leaders have dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and set a schedule for drafting a new one ahead of September elections. As the Washington Post details, this is one of the first steps towards civilian rule following the resignation of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. The ruling council has communicated that these changes will remain in effect for six months until presidential and parliamentary elections can occur. In the meantime a committee is being formed to amend the constitution, and provide a vehicle for popular referendum to approve these changes.

What is remarkable about these changes is their genesis within the citizens of Egypt. As noted by columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, one of the mantras of the protestors sums it up: “The people made the regime step down.” This revolution occurred without the explicit endorsement of major world powers, the United States included. Rather support was not offered until after the conclusion of the protests, marked by the cessation of the Mubarak regime. Friedman notes that if – “and this is a big if” – the transition to democracy can successfully occur, it will resonate throughout the Middle East. This is not a model of government imported from the West – like the distinctly American institutions established in Iraq and Afghanistan – but one “conceived, gestated, and born in Tahrir Square.” Contingent on the success of the constitutional committee, it is one that will be shaped by the will of the people. This is a democracy that can be emulated throughout the Arab world, one that has refused the banner of the West while also rebuking the call of Islamists. When Iran issued a declaration compelling the protesters to label their movement an “Islamic revolution” it was the Muslim Brotherhood itself who resisted, noting that their focus is pan-Egyptian – which includes Christians and Muslims.

Although finding its origin in popular revolution the success of the nascent democracy should not rest on the people alone, but is the responsibility of the wider international community. It is in the best interest of the Egyptian people and foreign parties alike that this transition occurs. Several countries – including Israel – have issued statements of support for the pro-democracy movement. According to Haaretz, Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed hope for Egypt; speaking at the resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Peres offered his support to the budding democracy saying, “We bless the Egyptian people in anticipation that its desires for freedom and hope be met.” This comes only a week after Peres had offered an impassioned defense of Mubarak, on the grounds that his regime had been characterized by stability between Israel and Egypt. Although the transition to democracy is tenuous, the potential of improved relations between the two nations is tangible; yet it is important to note that the foundation for this relationship will be built now, necessitating immediate Israeli and Jewish support of the new regime.

This commitment to democracy will be tested further as the Egyptian revolution resonates across the Arab world. Already protests have begun to occur in Bahrain, Iran, Tunisia and the neighboring Palestinian Territories. According to the New York Times, officials in the Palestinian Authority responded to the toppling of the Mubarak regime by announcing presidential and parliamentary elections by September. The following day, the cabinet was dissolved until it could be appointed by democratic process. The Palestinian people have not participated in an election since 2006, when Hamas won a majority in the parliament. Following civil unrest in June 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization asserted authority over the West Bank. Currently, Hamas has rejected the call for a national election. This is an important moment for Israel, and the larger Jewish community. Rather than withholding our support – as we did with Egypt until the revolution succeeded – it would behoove us to stand with the P.L.O. on the side of freedom. Letting the people speak may lead to surprising results, including the emergence of a true democracy – one that emulates the Egyptian revolution, refusing Western models while also shedding the burden of the Islamist ethos.

A Revolution By Any Other Name

By Niv Elis

For the Czech Republic it was Velvet.  For Serbia, it was a Bulldozer.  For Iran, it was distinctly Islamic.  But nobody has yet settled on what the freshly minted Egyptian Revolution will be called.  Will it be floral, like Tunisia’s Jasmine, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulips, Georgia’s Roses and Portugal’s Carnations?  Will it be woody, like Croatia’s Log and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolutions?  Perhaps it will be colorful like Ukraine’s Orange and Iran’s failed Green one, or maybe, like the bloodless overthrows in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the revolution will be a Singing one.

Some have bandied about Papyrus as a descriptor for the Egyptian popular uprising.  Other suggestions might include the Pyramid revolution, the Mummy revolution, the Tahrir (liberation) Revolution, the Facebook Revolution or, in a tribute to the Bangles hit, simply “Revolt Like an Egyptian.”  Ultimately, the only thing that will matter to Egyptians is whether the newly empowered military will bring about a democratic change for the country that has so long suffered dictatorship.

What are your suggestions?