Links 14-16 November 2010

Over the last couple of days I experimented with some new ways to link, and launched our own short link url (arb.st) for use on Twitter. This meant that some recent links don't appear here — so remember, do look at the sidebar or follow Arabist on Twitter for a lot more links, retweets and commentary than appear on this site (at least until I find a way to integrate it all.)  

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Obama's offer to Israel is a national humiliation

Hitchens on Obama's offer to Israel:

This is a national humiliation. Regardless of whether that bunch of clowns and thugs and racists "approve" of the Obama/Clinton grovel offer, there should be a unanimous demand that it be withdrawn.

The mathematics of the situation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for any talk of a two-state outcome to be even slightly realistic, there needs to be territory on which the second state can be built, or on which the other nation living in Palestine can govern itself. The aim of the extreme Israeli theocratic and chauvinist parties is plain and undisguised: Annex enough land to make this solution impossible, and either expel or repress the unwanted people. The policy of Netanyahu is likewise easy to read: Run out the clock by demanding concessions for something he has already agreed to in principle, appease the ultras he has appointed to his own government, and wait for a chance to blame Palestinian reaction for the inevitable failure.

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The Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights

We, the signatories to this call, as politicians, intellectuals and civil society advocates, believe that the achievement of democracy and the embodiment of human rights in the Arab world is an absolute necessity and requires a broader engagement of all citizens and political and social forces. We observe, with great concern, the dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world, due to several structural obstacles since the beginning of the new century. We hereby appeal to all parties concerned with the future of democracy - governments, civil society institutions, political organizations, trade unions, and the media - in the belief that the achievement of real and effective reforms is the responsibility of all parties.
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Sarrazin against the Saracens

The Saturday Profile - Thilo Sarrazin - NYTimes.com:

THIS quiet, orderly man, who lives in a quiet, orderly house, in a very quiet tree-lined neighborhood has caused a huge public stir here with his volatile book arguing that Muslim immigrants in Germany are socially, culturally and intellectually inferior to most everyone else.

With the certainty of an accountant adding up rows of numbers, Thilo Sarrazin has delivered his conclusion in a book that has sold over one million copies, forced him to quit his job at the German central bank, may get him kicked out of his political party and for the first time since World War II made it socially acceptable in Germany to single out a particular minority for criticism.

By former Cairo correspondent Michael Slackman, incidentally — so that's what he's up to! He has some some great quietly devastating passages in this piece, such as:

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Links 11-12 November 2010

On Michel Houellebecq

I have a review of Michael Houellebecq's latest book, La Carte et le Territoire, which just won the 2010 Goncourt, out in The National. I discovered Houellebecq late in life, and consider him one of the best living French writers. This is an appreciation, although it's tinged with a note of disappointment that he didn't win the Goncourt for his 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island, which I think is his best work. 

I don't particularly care about Houellebecq's private life or his provocative opinions, including his rather thoughtless comments on Islam, which is pretty much the only tenuous connection I can find to the usual fare on this blog.

An Egyptian test for Obama

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm: An Egyptian test for Obama | Al-Masry Al-Youm. It's on the recent meeting on promoting democracy in Egypt at the National Security Council. You might also check out this piece by my fellow columnist Bahey el-din Hassan, a veteran human rights activist, and Steve Cook with a more cautious take.

The whole issue of US pressure on Egypt is pretty complicated, involving many variables and much that is unknown — most notably what Hosni Mubarak is thinking. Over the next few weeks, time permitting (I'm swamped right now), I'd like to go into more depth on this issue that is not just important, but a recurrent feature of bilateral relations.

Foreign Aid for Scoundrels

Foreign Aid for Scoundrels by William Easterly | The New York Review of Books:

The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.

. . .

In any case, dictators have received a remarkably constant share—around a third—of international aid expenditures since 1972. The proportion of aid received by democracies has remained stuck at about one fifth (the rest are in a purgatory called “Partly Free” by Freedom House). As for US foreign aid, despite all the brave pronouncements such as the ones I’ve quoted, more than half the aid budget still went to dictators during the most recent five years for which figures are available (2004–2008).

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Criminalize the settlements

It may seem very difficult to convince the Israelis to stop settlements expansion and give up the settlements they've built over the years, but there is another idea worth pursuing in the West: to criminalize any activity that encourages the settlements or transmits money to them.

Governments would not need to engage in any discussion with the Israeli government over this; they would merely be required to enforce international law and recognize the illegality of settlements, and therefore ban any promotional efforts for them among the Jewish diaspora and their financing from abroad. After all, this has been a, if not the, major contribution to the last two decades mushrooming in West Bank settlements. Just read this post on Mondoweiss to understand how groups like the Jewish Agency act to perpetuate and expand the settlements:

Just this past June, the Jewish Agency hosted a real estate expo in the Times Square Marriott, where property on both sides of the Green Line was for sale—with no mention of the 1967 borders in sight.  Notice how the Anglo-Saxon real estate agent in the video has an American accent? She's probably from New York. 

I'd love to see not only fund transfers criminalize, but also the very fact of living in a settlement. Life should be made impossible for this people, and those who fund them.

The plot against America, the sequel

One of the consequences of the Republican / Tea Party victories in the US midterms may be that they will start taking the likes of these people more seriously:

WASHINGTON, DC: In a press briefing announcing the publication of the 370-page Team B II Report, Shariah: The Threat to America, four members of the Team will discuss the book's ground-breaking findings about the totalitarian politico-military-legal program mainstream Islam calls “shariah.”  They will illuminate the role shariah is playing in both animating the violent attacks being mounted against this country and in insinuating– through stealthy, “pre-violent” means– this unconstitutional legal program into the United States.

After all, one of their principals is Frank Gaffney, whose Wikipedia entry for instance states:

In October 2008, Gaffney questioned whether then Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is a "natural born citizen of the United States" and his legal eligibility to be the President of the United States.[16]

In a February 2009 Washington Times column, Gaffney accused President Obama of "embracing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood," a political organization banned in several countries in the Middle East.[17]

In April 2009, Gaffney appeared on television and accused President Obama of using coded language to indicate that America would submit to Sharia law.[18]

In a June 9, 2009, Washington Times article Gaffney wrote: "With Mr. Obama's unbelievably ballyhooed address in Cairo Thursday to what he calls 'the Muslim world' ... there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself."[19]

Of course it must be pure coincidence that the above press release is carried by a Israel lobby organization and that Gaffney was was of the signatories of the Project for a New American Century program written for Netanyahu that became George W. Bush's foreign policy manifesto in the Middle East.

For a while now a part of the Israel lobby has been fanning the flames of Islamophobia — look for instance at the core activists against the Park51 project. I'm not sure what's scarier: the damage done to inter-faith relations in the US, or the reality that these nutcases have a proven track record of influencing government policy.

Inequality, not just under-development

Brian Whitaker notices something important in the latest UN Human Development Report:

Behind the headline figures, though, there's a more disturbing picture. This year, for the first time, the UN has tried to take inequalities into account, and it's an area where the Arab countries, taken as a whole, perform especially badly. In the inequality-adjusted index, Arab states suffer a loss of 28%. "Only sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had greater losses due to inequality in general," the UN says, adding: "The Arab countries collectively had the highest overall loss of any region in the education dimension: 43%." This is largely due to gender inequality. Only 32% of women in the region over the age of 25 have completed secondary education, compared to 45% of men, the report says. University enrolment however, shows the reverse pattern, with 132 women for every 100 men. The Arab states also perform far worse than any other region of the world in terms of gender inequality in the labour market (table 5.5).

 

What's happening in Western Sahara?

One of the most under-reported stories in the Arab world at the moment is the camp protest taking place at Gadaym Izik, near Laayoune, in Western Sahara. Over 8,000 tents have been set up, gathering at least 10,000 people, to protest economic inequality and Morocco's control of the territory's resources (phosphates and fishing for the most part.) Interestingly, though, the protest does not seem to be Polisario-led or to be making direct requests for self-determination or independence. Talking to people familiar with the protest, it seems to be beyond the control of either pro-Moroccan or pro-Polisario Sahrawis and even local activists (who are mostly pro-independence, even if they retain a degree of independence from the Polisario).

Something has been brewing for several years in Western Sahara, reflecting the local population's dissatisfaction with economic governance, and to some extent its expectation that the government should provide jobs and redirect revenues from local resources to the population, partly due to the longstanding Moroccan practice of providing subsidies and various forms of rent to Sahrawis to secure their support. How this relates to the Polisario movement is very ambiguous — on the one hand the Polisario is recognized in international law as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawis (which even Morocco recognizes since it negotiates with it), on the other the Tindouf leadership has become relatively alienated from the Sahrawis in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. But today it seems the major new dynamic is not coming from Tindouf, which makes all of the political actors involved nervous.

Beyond its relationship to the conflict, this protest has some interesting ramifications. If Western Sahara, as Moroccan wants, is to be an autonomous province inside Morocco, should it continue to benefit from such subsidies that are not available to Moroccans elsewhere? Considering that Morocco spends a considerable amount of money on subsidies (never mind the military), what is the balance between how much is extracted from the region and how is spent? Is this question besides the point if the main question should be whether the Sahrawis want to be Moroccan or independent?

You won't find much discussion of all of this, though. This week's Economist has a story on the conflict overall ahead of the resumption of talks in New York next week, and the best coverage of the Gadaym Izik protest has been by Ignacio Cembrero of El Pais (search for "marruecos" for the latest). Most journalists have been blocked from covering the protest, and al-Jazeera was recently banned from Morocco over its coverage. There's a nice Flickr set of the camp here, that accompanied a Rue89 report. But the lack of information, and access to the camp, only serves to suggest that Morocco has something to hide.

 

Electoral manipulation in Egypt: revisiting 2005

There's a little bit of pointlessness in commenting on Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections — not much suspense there — but as a veteran of three major electoral cycles in Egypt it's worth pointing a couple of things out.

There's a rhythm to the People's Assembly elections in Egypt — the only ones where the opposition has a narrow window of operation — that traditionally starts by throwing a bunch of Muslim Brothers in jail the month beforehand. Usually this never involves their candidates, but rather the candidates' campaign organizers and supporters. The idea is to cripple their ability to run a proper electoral machine.

I am reminded of going to see a senior Brotherhood figure on the eve of the 2005 elections, who told me: "For the first time in my life, there is not a single Brother in jail before an election."

That was, of course, before the first round of voting had taken place. In the second and third round of voting (elections were staggered then) there were plenty of arrests and other forms of security interference. And this month there have been by now nearly 400 arrests — you can keep track on the Brothers' website.

I hope this makes clear once and for all the reason the MB performed well in 2005, grabbing 20% of seats for the first time: because it was allowed to. I don't think there can be any argument anymore that the Mubarak regime deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the Brothers to do well in order to drive home the point to the Bush administration (and domestic audiences) that it's either them or the Islamists. 

There's no need to do that anymore, since there isn't any substantial pressure from Washington. Time to put the Brothers back in their box for the regime.

However, there is a second point worth making. This election is not taking place over three rounds, with time to gauge the Brothers performance. It's taking place in a day, which must be an administrative problem for the Ministry of Interior. Even as the NDP insists that it will be a clean election, the regime has a choice to make: heavy interference before the elections against the MB (no one in the West will particularly care anyway), which is already taking place, but also heavy interference on election day itself. The extent to which things get heated on election day itself may very well determine the way the election is seen domestically and abroad. There is a lot of potential for things to get ugly, or even worse for this regime, out of control.

We'll see how it works out.

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