Of succession and lobbying

[Ed. note: This post contained numerous typos and has been edited to correct them.]

This piece by David Roberts of The Gulf Blog about a looming succession crisis in the emirate of Ras al-Khaima is one of the most interesting pieces on a part of the Arab world I don't know well I've read in a while. Like my previous post on Tunisia hiring lobbyists in DC and other posts on lobbying efforts by Arab government I've done before, it illustrates the extent to which these governments (each their own variation of grotesque) have completely internalized the need to appeal to and cajole US politicians, the American public and Washington, DC power brokers for their own internal strength.

It starts off with a classic succession battle in one of the emirates you rarely hear about (at least outside the UAE) between Sheikh Saud, the Crown Prince and son of the Sheikh Saqr al-Qisimi, the emirate's dying leader, and his half-brother Sheikh Khalid (formerly the Crown Prince and now in exile):

What is different in this case is the 21st century manner in which Khalid has gone about resuming his place in line to the throne. Much like the Emirates’ economy is described as a ‘rentier’ in nature with their income (or rent) largely derived from oil and gas with an exceedingly heavy reliance of foreign workers, this appears to be a rentier coup. Specifically, Khalid hired Californian Strategies, an American public relations firm to devise a plan to return him to power. Some members of the PR staff even reportedly get a $250,000 bonus if they succeed.

Cognisant of exactly what will grab the attention of America and the world at large, the PR agency — paid some $3.7 million to date according to The Guardian — began to formulate an image of Khalid as a Western-orientated, modern, pragmatic, facebook and twitter-friendly leader. They even arranged meetings and photo opportunities with, for example, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Saud, in stark contrast, was depicted as either fostering or at least harbouring terrorist elements including Al Qaeda. The decision of the America’s Cup yachting team not to stop off in RAK due to alleged terrorist concerns was one strand of this ploy. Moreover, RAK’s close links to Iran and their Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) were highlighted. RAK was portrayed as an offshore sanctions-busting Mecca for Iran; a ‘rogue state’ within the UAE.

The PR agency collated these charges into a report (with similar visual similarities to official US Congressional Research Service reports) which opens with the line “Closest to Iran and furthest from UAE central authority is the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, which lies some 60 miles from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and enjoys excellent deep-water ports.” From the very beginning, therefore, insinuation and nefarious implications abound.

This blog has over the years made much of the disinformation and simply bad information that is bandied about in the US media about this part of the world. Some of it, and I'm beginning to think more than I previously thought, may be attributable to paid disinformation agents, propaganda, and PR firms who are able to take advantage of a media environment with fewer and fewer experienced foreign correspondents and budgets for oversea travel.

But coming back to my pain point, it's quite sobering to see that, in these succession crises, the pretenders to the throne see it as an essential part of their strategy to spend money on lobbying the Americans. Remember how Muatassim al-Qadhafi launched a major lobbying and PR initiative when his brother Seif was estranged last year. 

Which brings me to introducing a new website, which I believed in the most polished Egyptian government site out there: www.modernegypt.info. The contact section says it's been put up by the press and information office of the Egyptian embassy in Washington. Which is headed by Karim Haggag, the press attaché at the embassy. And what did Haggag do before that?

He was Gamal Mubarak's personal secretary.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Now that would be change I can believe in

Via Coteret, a great blog translating from the Hebrew media, this piece in today's Yediot Ahronot:

The lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and permission for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip freely through Israeli border crossings. These are the unequivocal demands that President Barack Obama is expected to make during his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the White House in two weeks.

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NYT: Nostalgia for (Jewish) terrorism

The NYT's Deborah Solomon interviews Tzipi Livni and reveals her fondness for the Irgun:

Your parents were among the country’s founders. 
They were the first couple to marry in Israel, the very first. Both of them were in the Irgun. They were freedom fighters, and they met while boarding a British train. When the British Mandate was here, they robbed a train to get the money in order to buy weapons.

It was a more romantic era.

Now if the NYT has interviewed a Palestinian leader and the reporter had called, say, the 1970s era of plane hijackings or Abu Nidal's 1980s acts like the Achille Lauro hijacking, "romantic" do you think the editors would have let that fly?


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Links for June 22-26 2010

  • Mohammed ElBaradei, Egypt’s wake-up caller - The National

    How true: Egyptian society is prone to “a lot of myth and very little contact with reality”, he says.

  • Is Israel right to complain that Hamas has denied Red Cross visits to Gilad Shalit? - Ali Abunimah

    Technically, not really.

  • Crown Center - THE IRAQI ELECTIONS OF 2010—AND 2005

    Kanan Makiya on Iraqi elections.

  • The Muslim Past - NYTimes.com

    Max Rodenbeck on Bernard Lewis: "The quaintly missionary idea of “bringing freedom” to benighted peoples may simply betray Lewis’s age: he was born in England in 1916, in the already waning glory of the British Empire. But the shrill alarmism jars with his repute as a historian whose most notable contribution has been to chronicle the relative decline of Islam in the past three centuries. It is a fair judgment to say that the four-fifths of the world’s people who are not Muslim appear in no immediate or even distant danger of extinction at the point of a scimitar." Contrasts Lewis nicely with Fred Donner, whose book "Muhammad and the Believers" is praised.

  • LRB · David Bromwich · Diary

    "Obama sees himself as the establishment president. If a populist insurgency on the right presses hard against his legitimacy, if disappointed supporters stop giving money or knocking on doors, still he has the confidence of a leader whose standing is buoyed up by corporate leaders, by a famous general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, by a decent preponderance of Wall Street, and by the mainstream media, whose resources he deploys and channels with a relentlessness no other president has approached."

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    The meaning of Khaled Said

    Soha Abdelhaty of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (one of the most dynamic Egyptian NGOs around) has a good piece framing the Khaled Said murder in context of Egypt's emergency law over at FP's Middle East Channel

    The Khaled Said case has offered a graphic demonstration of the emptiness of the pledge by the government of Egypt when it renewed the country's decades-long period of emergency 'aw that it would limit its application to terrorism and drug-related crimes. Khaled Said's brutal murder is a chilling reminder of what emergency law -- and Interior Ministry impunity -- means for Egyptians. Frustration with that impunity is what leads protesters to take to the streets.

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    Tunisia's apologists

    I've covered the lobbying efforts of Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt in the past. But here's an interesting tidbit about the poor excuses for human beings that lie for Tunisia in Washington, DC:

    Tunis Lines Up Top PR Team; Washington Media Group, Washington

    Maghreb Confidential

    June 10, 2010

     Does Tunisia suffer from a poor image abroad? The country's communications minister, Oussama Romdhani (who is also boss of the powerful Agence Tunisienne de Communication Exterieure) signed a contract with the American lobbying and PR firm Washington Media Group on May 1. Tunisia's account will be handled by lobbyist Gregory Vistica, a former journalist, and a public relations specialist, John Leary. In return for an annual fee of USD 420,000, WMG will work to burnish Tunisia's image in the United States but also in France and elsewhere in Europe. Apart from translating certain official web pages into English, the firm will work at "modifying" Wikipedia's reports concerning Tunisia, keep an eye on social networks like Facebook and "optimize" search engines in order to focus on favourable content on Tunisia. Identifying media outlets that could provide more positive coverage will equally form part of the package.

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    Sonallah Ibrahim, taking stock

    Sonallah Ibrahim in his home, June 2010 (Victoria Hazou)

    I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Egyptian man of letters Sonallah Ibrahim. The interview--and discussion of his novel التلصص (Stealth), recently translated into English--was fascinating. Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most formally interesting and politically uncompromising writers and although there was a melancholy note to a lot of our conversation, he is a kind, charming and funny man. 

    Also as it turns out, Stealth--an affecting, autobiographical novel that deals with Ibrahim's unusual childhood--is a story he has been turning around in his mind for the last forty years. 

    It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey, the never-finished forerunner of what would become Stealth. After his release, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less painstaking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”

    You can read the piece here.

    When I went back a few days after the interview, with photographer Victoria Hazou, to take Ibrahim's pictures for the article, I brought along the Proust Questionnaire to entertain us while Victoria snapped away. We got through most of it. 

    What is your favourite virtue? Telling the truth.

    What is your favourite quality in a man? Tolerance towards women.

    What is your favourite quality in a woman? Beauty (laughs)...and mind. 

    What is your chief characteristic? Being very fond of women. And persistence. When I start something--whether it's washing the dishes or writing a novel--I  have to finish it.

    What do you appreciate the most in your friends? That we can understand each other quickly and laugh together.

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    Cheer up, Israel

    The international community has imposed an “emotional blockade” on Israel that has prevented the world from sympathizing with Israeli citizens, according to France’s Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Zimeray.

    “World compassion has not gone to Israel,” said Zimeray, noting that both Israelis and Palestinian have suffered as a result of the conflict. “The world does not realize how intense this [Israeli] suffering can be.”
    Quick, quick, let's have something that'll cheer up those Israelis. I can only think of the following as adequate to the task — its sophistication and elegance mirrors that of the arguments of Israel's apologists:
    Incidentally, having listened obsessively to the above masterpiece for the past week and done quite a lot of digging into the careers of the incomparable Delfin, the sultry Tigresa Del Oriente and undeniable prodigy that is La Pequena Wendy, I must report that this video is not their work alone. If you're a Spanish speaker you will have noticed that the video starts with Delfin's lament that Israel is not accurately portrayed on television. (As any Delfin afficionado will tell you, every Delfin video starts with an ugly truth revealed by the tube, like in his first hit, the tasteful commentary on 9/11 that is Torres Gemelas.) But the production quality of this song — En Tus Tierras Bailares, or "In Your Land I Will Dance" — is actually far above their previous hits. Yes, yes, that includes La Tigresa's unforgettable Anaconda and Wendy's classic ode to beer, Cerveza Cerveza.
    The simple reason for this is that it is produced by the quite talented Gaby Kerpel, a Jewish Argentinian folk musician. Why did he decide to recruit Ecuadorian and Peruvian Indians specializing in Andean trucker music for this piece of hasbara? Who knows. I don't even know whether it's exploitative or actually deeply subversive. But I think we are all deeply in his debt.

    Lynch on Berman

    Marc Lynch has a fantastic essay review of Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals up on Foreign Affairs. He goes on at length on how Berman misses the point of what Islamists like Tariq Ramadan are about:

    Berman gets Ramadan's struggle backward. Ramadan's primary adversaries are not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe. For Salafists, a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood is too political, too accepting of civil institutions, and insufficiently attentive to the formalistic and public rituals of Islam. They urge Muslims to separate from Western societies in favor of their own allegedly pure Islamic enclaves. The Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace. The Salafists, meanwhile, want women at home and strictly segregated from men. True liberals should prefer Ramadan because he offers a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.

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    The Hyksos

    Very early this morning I put up a post about this story on the use of radar technology at Tel al-Dabaa. I mistook that place for Dabaa, which is about 300km further east and the site of Egypt's future nuclear power plant, and so my post made no real sense and I took it down. In case you saw it, forget what you saw. If you didn't, good. And thanks M. for pointing out my error!

    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

    Khouri on the flotilla

    I am quoting from most of this Rami Khouri column, because it is so on the money:

    The experience of the Free Gaza Movement over the past few years, which sent half a dozen boat expeditions to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans, suggests to many that in-your-face confrontation is the most effective way to challenge Israel and force it to change its policies. Israel’s reduced siege of Gaza is the fourth example of its changing a policy under pressure. The three other cases were the withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza’s heartland in the face of Hizbullah- and Hamas-led resistance, and the partial suspension of some settlements for 10 months last year in response to American government pressure.

    So the question now is: How will people and states in the Arab world and nearby lands, like Iran and Turkey, react to the latest lesson in challenging Israel with forceful action, over making only meek pleas? 

    Israel is already initiating two new aggressive acts that will quickly test the mettle of both its friends and foes. It will destroy several dozen Palestinian Arab homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build an Israeli tourism facility, and it will initiate work on the ground to build another 600 homes for settler-colonial Zionists in the Jerusalem area.

    The fascinating issue today is not whether Israel is making any major changes in its policies: it is not. Its changes are only cosmetic, to ward off foreign pressures. The really important new development is the growing Arab and international realization that the criminal and inhuman excesses of Zionism – colonialism, discrimination, collective punishment, racism, siege and starvation, murder on the high seas, mass incarcerations, and more – can best be confronted using the same tactics that finally brought down the two major examples of racism and inequity in modern times: the civil rights movement that broke the back of official racism in the United States, and the anti-Apartheid movement that forced the white minority government in South Africa to accept a fully democratic system.

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    Links for June 20-22 2010

    Your humble correspondent's efforts at procrastination when facing important deadlines know no bounds, hence the new yellow sidebar. Anyone hate it? Anything you'd like to change in the design of this website? Let me know.

    Here come the links:

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    That Rolling Stone article on McChrystal

    I'm no Afghanistan or military policy expert, but since everyone is talking about it, I thought I'd put out my own non-specialist two cents on the McChrystal Affair. That's the point of a blog, after all.

    Quite aside from its immediate political consequences and the fact that McChrystal might lose his job over it, the article and its fallout raises several interesting questions. Michael Hastings, the journalist who wrote it, is definitely an anti-COIN person. But he does raise valid points about the Achilles' heel of McChrystal and other advocates of COIN strategy in Afghanistan: they lack confidence in the potential for success of their strategy, always adding caveats and saying it's going to be a long and tough affair, but rarely think this alone is ground for rethinking the usefulness of COIN. I would echo, and mirror, the points made by my friend Andrew Exum, a very thoughtful and reasonable COINdinista:

    As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan. And that is a legitimate argument to make. We just need to be honest about the risks both courses of action carry with them.

    Obama decided to take up that policy, which some in the military and think-tanks aggressively fought for. At this point, the pro- or anti-COIN debate has taken such importance that there are high political stakes, not just for Obama but also for COIN advocates who see themselves as some kind of vanguard — which is exactly the way McChrystal's gang appears in the article. 

    And we should not forget another point Exum makes here:

     In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people. What, pray tell, is Hastings' alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about -- or even discuss -- the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.

    I'm not qualified to even start thinking about suggesting alternative military policies, but like any American I can express a simple distaste for prolonging a military adventure indefinitely and not particularly care for expending treasure and blood for the future of Afghanistan. Let Afghanistan's neighbors take care of it, and just ensure the country does not become a base of operations for transnational terrorists again. I'm not even sure to what extent Afghanistan was crucial to 9/11 anyway, aside as a place where Osama Bin Laden could spend his time in relative safety. Surely the Hamburg cell was more important.

    One last thing: to me, the most striking thing is that the offensive comments made by McChrystal and his teams speak not necessarily of insubordination, but a besieged groupthink mentality centered around protecting a charismatic leader — McChrystal himself. I don't particularly care about the loudmouthed camaraderie around McChrystal, and in fact I find much of it rather funny. But one gets a rather worrying sense that these guys are not just doing their job, but have a grander sense of mission and a point to prove. And that makes me feel uneasy.


    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

    Garbage Dreams

    Last night, Ursula and I went to see Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander's documentary about Cairo's trash collectors (and recyclers), the Zabbaleen. I had wanted to see this movie for months, but it was impossible to obtain on DVD, there were no screenings in Cairo and no one had put it up online — even though it won over 22 awards and, judging from the overflow crowd at Darb 1718, the great cultural center in Old Cairo where it was being shown outdoors in stifling weather, there is much demand for it.

    Garbage Dreams follows the lives of a few boys from Mokattam, the hill East of Cairo near which many of Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen live and work handling the city's prodigious garbage output. The story of the Zabbaleen is a familiar one, so I'll just briefly repeat here for those who won't know it: they are a mostly Coptic Christian community of dispossessed peasants from Upper Egypt who settled in Cairo in the late nineteenth century and, as a community, became the trash collectors for about 60% of the city. Originally, contracts for trash collection were actually controlled by Bedouins who subcontracted the work to the Zabbaleen. In recent years, not only have they continued to collect trash, but they have also made additional cash from recycling what they collect, impressively reusing about 80% of the trash after sorting it. They live in filthy conditions, amidst their work, but with dignity and, until recently, regular income.

    In recent years, the government began contracting foreign companies to use modern trash collection methods. These take Cairo's garbage to landfills and recycle much less of it — only 20% according to the film. This has eaten into the income of the Zabbaleen and is threatening their community, even if some of the workers for the company have been recruited from it. This is an interesting story, but unfortunately Iskander does not tackle it with sufficient diligence: we are given plenty of the Zabbaleen's side of things, but no explanation from the government or the companies about their strategy (which, I'm fairly sure, would have been even more incriminating — the ridiculousness of needing foreign expertise for trash collection is pretty self-evident.)

    But perhaps this doesn't matter that much. The heart of the story are the lives of Adham, Nabil and Osama in the context of this threat to the community. They give poignant testimony about their awareness that they are at the bottom of the social ladder, there desire for both mundane and grandiose improvements to their lives, their attachment to their community and pride in its essential work. There are some pretty hilarious scenes, too, such as when the boys are taken to Wales in a NGO-funded trip to look at recycling methods in Europe. In their almost cruel exposure to a clean, green and prosperous Wales (hardly the reputation the country has, say, in London) they see ideas to take back home, but also great waste — there's a great scene in which Nabil lectures the operators of recycling center that they need to be more thorough about separation — essentially by doing the type of manual sorting done in Cairo that is simply impossible under European labor and safety regulations. "Here they have technology, but they don't have precision," he finally scoffs.

    The greatest laugh of all for the Cairene audience came when one boy turns to the other at a road crossing, and says with wonder: "Did you see that car? It stopped to let people cross!" That is one other meditation on why Cairo came to be such a badly run city, saved from the total chaos by the hard work and good humor of its underclass.

    You can now get the DVD on the film's site or soon on Amazon — highly recommended.



    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

    Review: A Mosque in Munich


    My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

    For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

    As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler’s movement. The Brothers’ anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group’s top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

    There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson’s understanding of Islamism – which he defines early on as “not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism.” Just as Central Asian refugees’ nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna’s rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa’eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

    One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit “moderate” Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa’eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa’eda’s Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the “Crusaders”. But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe – where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience – he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.

    Did the Freedom Flotilla work?

    Israel announced today that it will allow civilian goods to enter Gaza and loosen restrictions on freedom of movement:

    Senior cabinet ministers on Sunday approved steps toward easing Israel's land blockade of the Gaza Strip, days after Jerusalem had issued a non-binding declaration supporting such a move.

    In a statement released following the cabinet vote on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office emphasized that the change would not counter Israel's policy "to defend it citizens against terror, rocket fire or any other hostile activities from Gaza."

    The PMO said that Israel would release "as soon as possible" a detailed list of goods that would not be allowed into the Gaza Strip, which would include all weapons.

    "Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks toward Israel and its civilians," Netanyahu said. "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."

    Israel's new policy will allow an inflow of construction material into the Gaza Strip for projects approved by the Palestinian Authority or under the auspices of international supervision, including schools, health facilities, water treatment and sanitation, the statement said.

    Israel also said it would keep the right to ban "dual-use" construction materials that could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons and to rebuild its military facilities.

    The change in policy is also aimed at improving economic activity in the coastal territory, said the PMO. The new policy was also to allow humanitarian aid to be brought into Gaza in a more effective way and to ease movement in and out of the coastal territory, said the PMO.

    Israel would consider further easing its siege as the situation on the ground improved, said the PMO. It would also continue to inspect every item brought to the Ashdod Port bound for the Gaza Strip.

    The PMO emphasized in its statement that its defense regime along the Gaza border would remain in place and that Israel still sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.

    Many reactions to this. The first is simply that it took the courage and lives of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla to make this happen. The lesson to retain here is that confrontation works, it is not only effective, but necessary. Nothing will be given, you have to take it.

    The second is that you have to treat anything that comes from a government that has lied and weaseled its way out of its treaties and international obligations for decades with a grain of salt. The devil will be in the details, such as the list of allowed goods Israel still has to publish and the character and length of the border procedures for people and goods moving in and out. It's crucial to wait to see what this means and how it's implemented.

    That, in turn, will influence a bunch of other things. Assuming this does mean a general relaxation of the blockade, but not its lifting altogether, what are the larger consequences?

    First there's the political fallout. This might not entirely be a popular move for the Netanyahu government considering the strong backing for collective punishment policies among many Israelis. For Hamas, they have arguable gained very little and potentially lost much face, since they are neither responsible for the blockade being lifted (the Freedom Flotilla and the international community achieved that) and now are back at being isolated but with less obvious ways to play the victims here. Likewise Fatah and the Palestinian Authority really appears ineffective here, and the recent decision by the PA to postpone municipal elections is hardly a sign of confidence.

    For the Palestinians and especially people of Gaza, this will be hopefully bringing much relief and enable the reconstruction of the terrible destruction wrought by Israel's Operation Cast Lead. It still leaves impunity for Israel for its actions during that war, and efforts to get the Goldstone Report and other attempts to hold it accountable should be redoubled. But some of the basic rights of the Palestinians, such moving within their country (that is, between the West Bank and Gaza) are still curtailed. They now all have unrepresentative governments that have outlived their mandates, and a leadership that not only appears reluctant to reconcile but may be actively prevented from outside powers from doing so.  

    For Egypt, which was again destabilized by the renewed attention to the Rafah border, this will come with some relief. But I wonder for how long — this issue is not going away for long, and a continued spilt Palestinian polity and the unlikeliness of a peace deal makes it ever more likely that Gaza will be dumped on Egypt.

    And for the Obama administration, which put out a press release (reproduced below) welcoming the Israeli decision without even a cautious wait-and-see approach, perhaps it means that an embarrassing moment may be over — for now. But while the White House is finally encouraging relieving the blockade and allowing traffic of goods and people between the West Bank and Gaza, it is still ignoring Hamas and Palestinian reconciliation. The name of the game is still West Bank First. It may take another crisis to abandon that policy.

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    Links for June 15-20 2010

    By Flickr user Marek Wykowski

    Look! Here are the links:

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    Defend Israel, defend the white man

    Among the many reasons for staunch Western support for the Zionist project in Palestine — from the Balfour Declaration to today's contortions to defend the indefensible in Gaza and elsewhere — is a pretty basic racism. The Zionists, after all, were mostly Europeans, and even as second-class Europeans, they ranked a notch or two above the natives of Palestine. This has long been an implicit part of the Western posture towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Middle East in general.

    In the last decade or two, this has become more explicit, with rallies to Israel's defense being made for the sake of Western civilization against the Mahommedan hordes and much talk about "Judeo-Christian" values among the conservative pro-Israel community, particularly in America. As in for instance in this latest project by a smattering of European right-wingers called the Friends of Israel Initiative, in which the first point is:

    1. Israel is a Western country. With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations. 

    Normal Western countries don't have religious laws and don't restrict immigration to a single religion. Nor are they occupiers of other people's lands and conduct wars of collective punishment with their immediate neighbors. But they care about this point so much they basically repeat in point four:

    4. Israel is on our side. With this in mind, we must be clear in recognizing that Israel’s fight is our fight. Western democracy will not prevail unless we recognize and assume the Judeo-Christian cultural and moral heritage which first gave rise to those institutions and the values which initially inspired them, and strengthen them. The assault on Israel is itself an assault on Judeo-Christian values. Israel stands on the front line, but we are next in line. If Israel’s right to self defense is questioned in the Middle East, our right to self-defense will be questioned when fighting similar terrorist enemies in Afghanistan, and at home. If principles of human rights and universal jurisdiction are to be turned into weapons against Israeli democracy, what makes us so sure they will not one day be used against European and North American democracy? Israel’s future is our fate. 

    Being partly of European background, I have to say I don't see much that's Judeo-Christian in European values. Christian, yes, definitely, although today there are as much if not more secular and even anti-religious values. But the idea that the West has always cherished "Judeo-Christian" values is rather odd, considering it persistently practiced anti-Semitism in various forms for hundreds of years. There was no deep-rooted respect for Jews or their values in Europe aside from the Christian interest in the Old Testament — history since the Inquisition makes that pretty clear. This new trope of Western conservatism is a recent invention.

    Today's Europe, despite the minaret-banning and some religious revival in the Eastern countries, has at its core values Enlightenment ideals and their postmodern extension in the Frankfurt School and elsewhere. It is an identity in which universal human rights is a core value (even if the reality in Europe is obviously still far from that). Ultimately — and we've seen this trend grow since the end of the Cold War — European values are at odds with a theologically grounded, ethnically-based colonial state. 

    And by the way: one of the signatories, David Trimble, was appointed by Israel as one of the two foreigners in the commission to investigate the Freedom Flotilla massacre. Enough said.

    Bibi satire

    This is quite funny:

    Moshe Yatom, a prominent Israeli psychiatrist who successfully cured the most extreme forms of mental illness throughout a distinguished career, was found dead at his home in Tel Aviv yesterday from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. A suicide note at his side explained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been his patient for the last nine years, had “sucked the life right out of me.”

    “I can’t take it anymore,” wrote Yatom. “Robbery is redemption, apartheid is freedom, peace activists are terrorists, murder is self-defense, piracy is legality, Palestinians are Jordanians, annexation is liberation, there’s no end to his contradictions. Freud promised rationality would reign in the instinctual passions, but he never met Bibi Netanyahu. This guy would say Gandhi invented brass knuckles.” 

    [. . .]

    Yatom was apparently working on converting his diary into a book about the Netanyahu case. Several chapters of an unfinished manuscript, entitled “Psychotic On Steroids,” were found in his study. The excerpt below offers a rare glimpse at the inner workings of a Prime Minister’s mind, at the same time as it reveals the daunting challenge Yatom faced in seeking to guide it to rationality:

    Monday, March 8

    “Bibi came by at three for his afternoon session. At four he refused to leave and claimed my house was actually his. Then he locked me in the basement overnight while he lavishly entertained his friends upstairs. When I tried to escape, he called me a terrorist and put me in shackles. I begged for mercy, but he said he could hardly grant it to someone who didn’t even exist.”

    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.