The Jews-Only State

All par for the course in "the only democracy in the Middle East" (from The Guardian):

A controversial bill that officially defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been approved by cabinet despite warnings that the move risks undermining the country’s democratic character.

Opponents, including some cabinet ministers, said the new legislation defined reserved “national rights” for Jews only and not for its minorities, and rights groups condemned it as racist.

The bill, which is intended to become part of Israel’s basic laws, would recognise Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalise Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and delist Arabic as a second official language.

In Translation: Belal Fadl on Egypt becoming "A Nation of Snitches"

Belal Fadl, an Egyptian screenwriter and columnist who has continued to speak his mind on the brutality and hypocrisy of the country's military regime, has published a five-part series with the news site Mada Masr on the history of domestic espionage in Egypt. Our good friends at the professional translation service Industry Arabic have translated the final installment in the series; the earlier ones are available in Arabic on the Mada site. 

Egypt: The Nation of Snitches Makes a Comeback. Is Sisi Fulfilling Nasser’s Dream of Turning All Citizens into Informers?

When a ruler depends solely on the power of oppression and completely impedes rational thinking, he no longer concerns himself with ensuring that there is an informant for every citizen.  Rather, he seeks to drive each and every citizen to become an informant of his or her own volition.

Some weeks ago, Abdel Rahman Zaidan, coordinator of the Revolutionaries Front in East Cairo, published a testimony on his Facebook page that soon became widely shared.  In this testimony, Abdel Rahman states that as he was riding a microbus [shared taxi-van] home, he was surprised to hear a middle-aged woman begin to fiercely criticize Sisi, the current government, and the Interior Ministry, much to the shock of those riding in the microbus with her.  One of the other passengers, encouraged by what the woman was saying, joined her in openly attacking Sisi, the government, and the Interior Ministry. Before Abdel Rahman could join the discussion, the woman suddenly asked the driver to pull over next to a church along the way.  As soon as the microbus stopped, the woman stuck her head out the window and called to the church guards, shouting, “Save me! There’s a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist in the microbus!” The guards rushed over, began beating the young man who had criticized Sisi, and pulled him from the microbus. The woman also got out of the microbus in order to accompany them and to testify to the heinous act that the young man had committed. She shot a sharp glance back at the other passengers, as if defying them to intervene, and stated proudly, “We’re cleaning up this country!” The remaining passengers, shocked at what had happened, sat frozen in their seats as the microbus drove away. Abdel Rahman concludes his testimony by advising his colleagues – who are busy defending their comrades who are among the students who have been detained, providing for their needs, and publicizing their cases – to refrain from talking about politics on public transportation in order to focus their efforts on what is most important. He urges them to avoid falling into this new security trap, set to ensnare anyone who expresses opposition to what is happening in Egypt.

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Price tag of Erdogan’s new palace revealed: $600m - FT

A decade ago it could easily be argued that Erdogan did a lot of good for his country. With every passing day he looks more and more like a crude mafiosi dictator:

The controversy over a new 1,000 room palace for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has deepened with a government acknowledgment that the complex costs more than $600m, nearly double previous estimates.

Mehmet Simsek, finance minister, said the complex, which dwarfs the White House, the Elysee and Buckingham Palace, would cost a total of TL1.37bn, ($616m) of which TL964m had been spent so far from the budget of the prime minister’s office. This compared with previous reports estimating the cost at $350m.

Mr Erdogan sees the palace, built in protected forest land in contravention of a court decision, as a symbol of a new, more vigorous Turkey. But his critics denounce it as the excess of an ever more authoritarian and powerful leader.

“The so-called sultan has built this for himself in a country where 3m people are without work,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican Peoples party, in a speech on Tuesday, citing court of accounts figures suggesting contractors were overpaid. “You cut down hundreds of trees to build yourself this palace.”

The complex, opened last month, incorporates Turkey’s traditional Seljuk and Ottoman architectural styles, and features a majestic tree lined interior hallway, an underground bunker and a park.

Lunch with the FT: Sir John Sawers

Says the man who relentlessly cozied up to Mubarak wih his chum Tony:

Sir John, who was British ambassador in Cairo between 2001 and 2003, says the Arab spring shows that revolutionary change is impossible to manage and will normally end up worse for western interests and values. “We saw it in Tehran in 1979, and we’ve seen it in Egypt over the past few years.”

On the so-called Islamic State

Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism. 

But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy. 

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

Links August 2014

Clearing the holiday backlog...

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"Palestinians Live What Israelis Fear"

The emails filling my box about Israel function as a remarkable document. They are a record of seemingly reasonable people who have completely lost track of basic moral reasoning. And that represents itself nowhere more consistently or powerfully than here: treating what could possibly happen to Israelis as more important than what already is happening to Palestinians. It’s such a profoundly bizarre way to think, that only this maddening issue could bring it about.

“Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist!”

Indeed– and Israel not only denies Palestine’s right to exist, it has achieved the denial of a Palestinian state in fact. What kind of broken moral calculus could cause someone to think that being told your existing state should not exist is the same as not having a state of your own?
— The Daily Dish

“I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”

Alaa Abdelfattah decides to go on hunger strike:

Statement from the Family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Alaa is on Hunger Strike: “I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”.

At 2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday August 17, Alaa visited his father, Ahmad Seif, in the ICU Unit of Qasr el-Eini hospital, after Seif had become unconscious.

Three days earlier we’d been on our latest visit to Alaa in Tora Prison. His father’s health at that point had been relatively good. Since then there had been no way for us to inform him that his father had gone into crisis. And so Alaa arrived at the hospital in the small hours of Sunday happy to be visiting, carrying flowers, looking forward to talking with his father. He found him unconscious in an ICU cubicle.

That spectacle crystalised matters for him. By the end of the few-minute visit Alaa had decided that he would withdraw co-operation with the unjust and absurd sitution he had been put in – even if this cost him his life.

For context, Alaa had previously taken the view that he would cooperate with the judicial process and authorities, hoping for an eventual acquittal on a retrial (since his conviction was the result of an absurd trial he was not allowed to attend.)

His family's full statement is here.

Links 1-30 July 2014

A long overdue link dump. From the first link:

“In all the suffering and death,” wrote a friend from Gaza, “there are so many expressions of tenderness and kindness. People are taking care of one another, comforting one another. Especially children who are searching for the best way to support their parents. I saw many children no older than 10 years old who are hugging, comforting their younger siblings, trying to distract them from the horror. So young and already the caretakers of someone else. I did not meet a single child who did not lose someone – a parent, grandmother, friend, aunt or neighbor. And I thought: If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

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Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."

The baltaga state

Andrea Teti, writing for the indispensable MERIP, gets it – this is precisely how I see the Egyptian state and its actions:

The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.

. . .

Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do.

Egyptian nationalists don't like to hear it, but the leadership of their beloved military – whatever the merits it once had – has devolved into a mafia, no more, no less. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding what is happening in Egypt, and the risks it entails considering the region's other mafia states were the Assads' Syria and the Husseins' Iraq. And look where they are now.

Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

Finkelstein: The US and Egypt one year after the coup

Norman Finkelstein his usual acerbic self:

The first thing to note is the oddity of a democratic transition that begins with an anti-democratic coup. It’s not every day that the overthrow of a democratically elected government, the jailing of the democratically elected president, and the mass slaughter of the unarmed supporters of the democratically elected governing party constitute stepping stones to democracy.

. . .

To assess Egypt’s recent election, it might be useful to conduct a simple thought experiment. As is well known, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted among the American people. A majority do not approve of the job he’s doing, and many among them positively detest him. Let’s imagine if the Republican party, capitalizing on this popular discontent, orchestrated an army coup to remove Obama from office, slaughtered his unarmed supporters in a series of bloodbaths, declared the Democratic party a terrorist organization, banned it and jailed its leading members, then arrested the other opposition leaders and prohibited any and all public dissent. Finally, to appease international opinion, Republicans held an “election” in which the only other candidate was Jesse Jackson. 

Jesse Jackson? Surely one would choose a unelectable Republican rather than an unelectable Democrat – Ron Paul perhaps?

It's a pretty shallow piece but US policy certain gets the skewering it deserves. 

Must watch: Egypt's lost power

Al Jazeera English does a great first dig into the EMG gas deal between Egypt and Israel –theft from the Egyptian people involving many who are still in power in Egypt today, and with the blessing of the United States. It underplays the extent to which Hussein Salem was a key member of the Egyptian intelligence establishment, close to Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (Mubarak's chief rival in the early 1980s) and granted some protection from the Reagan administration after being caught in one of the scams in the US-Egypt military aid relationship. It's a story at the heart of how corruption, power, and strategic interests interact in the Middle East – very much worth watching.