Posts Tagged Arab World

Why do they hate Mona Eltahawy for speaking about Arab women?

Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has a piece in this month’s Foreign Policy on the problems faced by women in the Arab world. This is a very important article and I would encourage you all to read it, but I want to highlight the central point in her thesis — which has been proven overwhelmingly by the response that has exploded literally hours since her article went online (the print edition is not even out yet).

Eltahawy begins her essay with the point that when anyone normally brings up the issue of Arab women, they are shouted-down with problems women face in the West. As if this is a reason not to speak about something far, far worse.

This is the third-worldist cultural relativism that I have highlighted a few times. It is the insipid prejudice of low expectations — using “cultural differences” to justify holding others to a lower standard. It’s hard to even imagine the outcry that would follow a white, American pastor coming out in support of female genital mutilation — yet one of the leading clerical celebrities in the Arab world does so unashamedly and no one blinks. He even gets invited to hang out with London Mayoral candidate and career antisemite Ken Livingstone.

If no one says anything, nothing will ever get done about this. Good on Eltahawy for standing up to the cultural pressures trying to crush her into silence. Elections in Egypt will not bring democracy so long as female candidates cannot even have their faces on electoral material.

Why Do They Hate Us? – By Mona Eltahawy | Foreign Policy.

So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.

But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either. …

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women.

Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.

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If only the rest of the Arab world had Tunisia’s problems

There is a genuine confrontation going on between pro-Government protesters and the State media.

That means the State media is actually not controlled by the Government and has been reporting on flaws in Government policy. Even Al-Jazeera, which everyone keeps heralding as a “democratic force” is suspiciously silent on the leaders of the Gulf states(/often just putting out Qatari propaganda when it reports on the Middle East).

These protests in Tunisia are a sign that the country may actually pull through and establish democracy. Long may they continue.

THE DAILY STAR :: News :: Middle East :: Tunisian TV journalists in shouting match with protesters.

TUNIS: Journalists of Tunisia’s state television Wataniya had a shouting match Monday with protesters who have staged nearly two months of sit-ins outside its offices accusing it of backing the ousted Ben Ali dictatorship.

Shouting “Media of Shame!” the protesters brandished brooms and bottles of chlorine and demanded the “cleansing” of the national broadcaster, while Wataniya employees massed on the other side of the perimeter fence vented anger over the disturbance. …

Relations are strained between state media and Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that won elections in October and now leads the governing coalition.

Wataniya is regularly accused of denigrating the work of the government and even of plotting to overthrow it. On the other hand, many in the media suspect Ennahda of wanting to keep them in check.


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Israel must cease brazen disregard for international law (and other stories)

Commenting on the Gilad Shalit deal, Louis René Beres gives a new spin on an old theme:

Schalit deal makes mockery of int’l l… JPost – Opinion – Op-Eds.

No modern government has the legal right to free terrorists in exchange for its own kidnapped citizens, military or civilian. Terrorism is a criminally sanctionable violation of international law that is not subject to manipulation by individual countries. In the United States, it is clear from the Constitution that the president’s power to pardon does not encompass violations of international law. Rather, this power is always limited precisely to “offenses against the United States.”

In originally capturing and punishing Palestinian terrorists, Israel acted on behalf of all states. Moreover, because some of the terrorists had committed their crimes against other states, Israel cannot properly pardon these offenses against other sovereigns.

Freeing hundreds of murderers in exchange for one soldier is definitely a questionable decision, but a violation of international law? Not sure how that would hold up in court. For those of you who are interested, Isis Liebler gives a much more convincing argument against the swap.

On a more positive note, the Israeli High Court is continuing to brazenly enforce human rights. Yesterday, they ruled that forced segregation of men and women in the public streets of an ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood is illegal.

High Court: Take down gender-separation … JPost – National News.

At a hearing of the High Court of Justice on Sunday, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch ordered the police to remove the separation barriers and also ordered the police to remove private security personnel enforcing the gender separation.

… “Succot has arrived and once again there is illegal segregation [of men and women],” Beinisch stated during the hearing. “There has been a takeover of public places by a minority in the neighborhood… The private-security personnel and the canvas partitions should be removed now and beginning at the end of Succot, and from then on, there should be no segregation in Mea She’arim [in the future].”

… “It began with buses, continued with supermarkets and arrived in the streets. It’s not going away – just the opposite,” she said.’

Now I’m not normally one to mention “Israel” and “Apartheid” in the same sentence lightly (or at all), but the imposition of segregated buses, supermarkets and roads does smack of a certain 20th-century South African regime, or at least pre-Civil Rights America. Good on the Israeli Court for ruling against it. If people want to live in the Middle Ages, they should be entitled to do so in the privacy of their own home, but they should NOT be allowed to force others to follow suit.

Speaking of breaking down gender Apartheid, a genuine actual female was just elected to the top advisory council in Oman. Yup, 1/84 of the people elected to advise Oman’s dictators are now women. This is a watershed moment in the Arab world and creates an important female voice for the rulers of Oman to ignore.

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Palestinians used as political playthings by Arab dictators

Continuing a long-standing tradition of escalating the hardship of Palestinians and exacerbating tensions with Israel in order to distract from problems at home, it looks like Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been behind the recent riots on the Syrian border in which Palestinians haves been killed whilst trying to break into Israel. There were reports quite soon after that the Syrian regime had been paying the protesters, however it seems that the Palestinian terror groups that Syria harbours have now been clamping down on any opposition.

Fighters Shoot Protesters at a Palestinian Camp in Syria –

According to WAFA and other reports, the fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is backed by Syria, clashed with mourners in the Yarmouk refugee camp after funerals for Palestinian protesters who were killed on Sunday at the border between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

The shootings on Monday took place after mourners accused the organization of sacrificing Palestinian lives by encouraging protesters to demonstrate at the Golan Heights, Reuters reported. Reports also referred to divisions in the camp between those who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and those who sympathize with the Syrian opposition, which is seeking expanded democratic rights.

I remain hopeful that 60 years later, the Arab world will finally see through these charades and realise that Israel is not the sole cause of the Palestinians’ plight (or, for that matter, of every other problem that the Arabs face). I’m still amazed that no one focuses on the horrible treatment that Palestinians receive in Arab states, why isn’t the so-called “Palestine solidarity” movement going to Lebanon to demand that Palestinians are allowed to work, own property and live outside of designated areas? That is Apartheid if I ever saw it…

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Was Bush right after all? Iraq vs Libya

Brookings’ Shadi Hamid has made a good point here – there was an Arab democratic upsurge in 2005, although it was quickly stifled as Islamist groups were elected into power.

The Struggle For Middle East Democracy | Brookings Institute

In 2011, the Middle East witnessed the second ‘Arab Spring.’ The first—now somewhat forgotten—took place in 2005. President George W. Bush had announced in November 2003 a “forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East.” In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, he declared: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

The Bush administration cited democracy promotion among the reasons for its invading Iraq and toppling dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. As dubious, cynical and inconsistent as they may have been, Bush’s policies helped produce an otherwise unlikely outcome. The year 2005 saw the largest outpouring of pro-democracy activism the region had ever seen up until then. On January 31, 2005, Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast meaningful ballots for the first time. In Bahrain, fifty thousand Bahrainis—one-eighth of the population—rallied for constitutional reform. And there was, of course, the Cedar Revolution, which led to a removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory. The Iraq war frightened Arab regimes into thinking that President Bush was serious about his democratizing mission.

However, after a succession of Islamist election victories in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, the United States backed off from its aggressive pro-democracy posture. With a deteriorating security situation in Iraq, a rising Iran, and a smoldering Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Arab democracy came to seem an unaffordable luxury. This was not a time for unsettling friendly Arab autocrats. Their Islamist competitors, known for their inflammatory anti-Americanism, were, at best, an unknown quantity. American policymakers shared an instinctive distrust of Islamists and made little effort to understand how they had changed. At worst, Americans feared, the Islamists would use their newfound power to roll back U.S. influence in the region.

So here’s a question: why is Libya so different from Iraq? Why is it ok for the US to intervene when Muammar Gaddafi is slaughtering his own people, but not when Saddam Hussein is doing it (which he had done many times, by the way)? Some peopled will talk about Arab League support, but surely intervening to save civilians from a despotic ruler isn’t reliant on assention from a group of other dictators, who would not hesitate to do the same to their own people if they deemed it necessary.

So again, did the Iraq war actually help the Middle East move toward democracy?

I did have one issue with what Hamid was saying:

There was no need to follow a sequence—economic reform first, democracy later—or meet a long list of prerequisites. Arabs, it turns out, did not have to wait for democracy. More importantly, they didn’t want to. The hundreds of millions of dollars in civil society aid had been rendered beside the point. America’s caution, hedging of bets, and fetish for gradualism—previously the hallmarks of hard-headed realpolitik—proved both foolhardy and naïve. Of course, Americans always said they knew this: freedom and democracy was not the province of one people or culture, but a universal right.

Everyone is getting way ahead if themselves here. Look at the lesson outlined above from 2005 – democracy requires more than overthrowing the dictators. As I’ve said before, the Arab states have a long way to go before they can be called “democratic”.

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The language says it all on Libya

A friend of mine recently argued to me that Egypt showed that police power is not enough to prevent a revolution, therefore the Arab countries that have not yet seen widespread protests must be doing something right. Not so my friend – Egypt and Tunisia were very different cases to the rest of the region.

Tunisia is the most modern, and most secularised Arab country, with the highest level of economic development out of all of them. Egypt has a 6,000-year history as a proud nation and the Egyptian army is made of Egyptians, who are patriotic and love their country, their people and their nation. This is why Egypt’s military response to the protests was muted, despite Mubarak’s best efforts; even though he was a military leader originally, he did not have the sufficient influence over his army to make it brutal enough to stamp-out the unrest that his country was seeing.

Contrast this with Libya. Gaddafi was not a patriot and he was not about making his country great, he has always been concerned with power and power alone. He changed the flag and changed the army – relying less on Libyan recruits and more on imported mercenaries to make-up his military and his secret police. These are not loyal Libyans serving their country; they are career thugs, loyal only to the man who pays them. This is why they have few qualms about firing indiscriminately on “their” own people and why more is needed than just protests to take Gaddafi down.

It is obvious now that “people power” was not enough to depose Gaddafi, and those opposing him have realised this. Having taken a significant chunk of the Libyan coast, they have begun forming and training a militia in order to pose a challenge to Gaddafi’s private army.

Subtle details in the media’s language says everything in a story like this. Originally, the Libyans filling Benghazi’s centre were “anti-government protesters” or “demonstrators”, similar to Egypt and Tunisia, as well as Bahrain, Yemen and all of the other countries seeing unrest. One month on, the Egyptians and Tunisians are “revolutionaries” – having protested their governments down. In Libya, they are now “Libyan rebels”.

Obama to Appoint Special Representative to Libyan Rebels –

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he would appoint a special representative to Libya’s rebel leaders and that the Treasury Department had placed sanctions on nine more family members and friends of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in an effort to force the Libyan leader to resign.

What’s the significance of this? Revolutions have revolutionaries, and Libya is no longer seeing a revolution. Rebels belong to a different class of event: a civil war. The “demonstrators” have become a bona fide militia and are now battling Gaddafi’s forces for territory, taking the country city-by-city and struggling to hold on to what has been gained. Unfortunately, people power is not enough to overcome a true dictatorship – what has yet to be seen is whether or not the West needs to step-in and help drive Gaddafi’s forces out of Tripoli*.

*Or if you’re Paul McGeough, whether the Zio-Crusader Empire is going to occupy Libya like it did Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine…

Photos: from this awesome photoessay in The Atlantic.

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Where the real battle for sexual equality is and why it matters

Women could be the saviours of the Arab World

The Australian media this week has been intently focussed on how many women we have on corporate boards, why there aren’t enough and how to solve this. There was even an odd slip-up from shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, who in a complete break from the Liberal Party’s usual position, promoted the idea of gender quotas for corporate boards on ABC’s Q and A (this was subsequently rejected by Tony Abbot).

For the record, I am completely against the idea of quotas – I believe that it is dangerous and counter-productive. People promoted in order to fill a quota know that this is why they were chosen for the position and so do their colleagues. Not only is it extremely patronising to be told “we’d like to bump you up to management because we’re trying to put more [minority] there”, but the person will likely struggle with a position that they are not qualified for and they will be resented by their colleagues who had to work harder to get to the same place.

So now that I’ve finished that little rant, here’s a more interesting point. I was sent this article ages ago, but only just got round to reading it – it’s an interview with veteran Middle East analyst Bernard Lewis by David Horovitz for the Jerusalem Post. Lewis reaffirms a lot of what I’ve been saying about democracy in the Middle East, particularly the Western fixation on elections, but he adds some great insights. One thing worth reading the article for is his idea of consultative rather than electoral democracy as a model that would work in the Middle East.

The other thing that stuck out was what he said about women:

A mass expression of outrage against injustice.

There’s one other group of people that I think one should bear in mind when considering the future of the Middle East, and that is women. The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West?

He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.

It goes further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance.

I’ve heard this argument before and it makes a lot of sense. The Middle East is being run by men who were raised by uneducated and subjugated women, in households where their fathers were unquestionably in charge. It does not require a huge amount of imagination to see how this would result in an autocratic culture.

The exclusion of women in the work force also leads to the extremely high fertility rate that is really the cause of all this Arab unrest – there are constantly more and more youth reaching working age and less and less jobs to acommodate them; this led to the anger that we saw exploding so vividly.

Arab economies lag rest of world, despite oil and natural gas.

Growth rates are consistently too slow to keep pace with the population, and little space remains for private entrepreneurship. In its 2009 Arab Human Development Report, the United Nations found that, as of 2007, the Arab states as a whole were less industrialised than they were in 1970, with governments using revenue from oil, gas and other outside receipts to maintain the large public workforce and cheap goods.

It feels really ironic that there has been such an outcry in a country with a female prime minister and a number of women in very high-profile positions. Obviously Australia has a lot to work on, but really we’re lightyears ahead of some parts of the world. Consider the problems we’ve been debating in our newspapers with the debate in Saudi Arabia. For example, Samar Fatani for the Arab News:

Empowering women the biggest challenge – Arab News.

Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs of the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the work force is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. Therefore, it is crucial now to mobilize a more effective national program to tap women’s talent, enhance their skills and provide them with career opportunities so they may contribute equally in our nation’s social and economic development.

Women have every right to be provided with a healthy, civilized lifestyle more in tune with the 21st century way of life. We need to see women in the council of senior scholars or as advisers to the grand mufti to address their needs and grievances and have a say in decisions that affect their lives and their families. Women face injustice and discrimination because many judges and senior ulemas are unaware of the suffering.

Cultural limitations and tribal laws rather than religious rulings are the impediments that are strangling our country. It is time for the educated to boldly counter the vicious campaign of the extremists — men and women — who continue to attack progress. It is ironic how these “medievalists” so resistant to change adopt the Internet and modern media to attack the educated calling for the empowerment of women in Saudi society.

Of course, this isn’t absolutely true across the Middle East. Lewis points to Tunisia as the notable exception and Fatani also praises several of the smaller Gulf states, such as the UAE and Kuwait. Nevertheless, there are not only tribal regions and societies, but entire countries in the Middle East where a 7th century view on human rights, as well as women’s rights, is seen as the ideal – with social norms and legislation reflecting this. This attitude is detrimental to the whole society and is one of the key reasons for the backwardness of the region in relation to the rest of the world. If women take a leading role in these revolutions that are happening everywhere, there may be a chance of genuine progress in the Middle East.

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The shit hit the fan: massacres in Libya, allegations of genocide and the UN is useless as always

This stuff in Libya is really getting serious. Qaddafi does not want to quit, there are reports of soldiers firing on protests from helicopters and warplanes, missiles being fired into crowds and soldiers being burned alive for refusing to kill civilians.

Qaddafi is rumoured to have hired mercenaries from other African countries to come and help slaughter his people. It’s all hard to really tell, because there is not much communication going in or out – the internet and mobile phones have been shut down, as have the regular phones in most areas, and people risk their lives by stepping out of their houses. Most of the reports come from relatives of Libyans, who apparently have managed to reach their families.

Of course, this means that most reports are not confirmed and no one really has a clear picture of what’s going on.

Dozens of bodies reported on Tripoli’s streets after Gadhafi crackdown – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

Ali, reached in Dubai, and the Tripoli resident say forces loyal to Gadhafi shot at ambulances and some protesters were left bleeding to death. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The difficulty in getting information from Libya made obtaining a precise death toll impossible. Communications to Tripoli appeared to have been cut, and residents could not be reached by phone from outside the country.

The most amazing thing is that, even in the face of this, the people apparently are not giving up. I’ve been watching the Facebook page of a Libyan friend as he posts updates and calls-to-arms.

We have just heard that the military ships are bombing an area in Tripoli and many people have been killed although we don’t know how many at the moment because people have just called to tell us it is happening.

I have had calls from people in towns and cities all across Libya. Those in the east can not get out but those in towns and cities in western Libya, everybody is saying: “We are going to Tripoli.” The plan is to come from everywhere and go to Tripoli to sack the city, for the finish.

– Salem Gnan National Front for the Salvation of Libya

This makes what happened in Egypt look like a playground scuffle. For all his eccentricities and funny titles like “mad dog” and “king of Africa”, Muammar Qaddafi is a serious dictator, a genuinely evil person.

Leading on to my next point, here is another status update from my friend:

In Libya more than 500 shot dead in the protests against Gaddafi’s 42 years dictatorial regime, they use live ammunition, machine gun and last night security forces started using anti aircraft guns Jet fighters flying over and tanks on the ground! they even brought snipers and foreign mercenaries to kill people! internet is down & no foreign media allowed, it’s a genocide!

Again, this is terrible, but it is NOT a genocide. The use of “genocide” here actually came from the Libyan mission to the UN:

“We find it impossible to stay silent,” Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told reporters. “The Libyan mission will be in the service of the Libyan people rather than in the service of the regime.” He accused the regime of “genocide.”

I take a huge issue with every inhumane act being referred to as a “genocide”. Genocide’s greek roots mean “genus murder”; it is a very specific crime, with a very specific meaning:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Qaddafi is not trying to destroy any group based on nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. He is trying to destroy a group that pose a threat to his rule. That is definitely a crime, but it’s not genocide.

The UN in general has gone through all the usual motions when a “crime against humanity” is committed.:

LIBYA 11:45 p.m. ET, 6:45 a.m. local: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Libya to immediately stop the “unacceptable” attacks on anti-government demonstrators.

“Like you and many others around the world, I have seen very disturbing and shocking scenes, where Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from warplanes and helicopters,” Ban said from Los Angeles. “This is unacceptable. This must stop immediately. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

LIBYA, 11:22 p.m. ET, 6:22 a.m. local: At the request of Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations – who earlier today called the crackdown in Libya a “genocide” – the U.N. Security Council scheduled a Tuesday morning meeting on Libya. This will be the first time the council has held consultations over any of the revolts that have swept Arab nations since January.

If there was anything funny about this situation, I’d be laughing at this. Particularly Ban’s tone, it sounds like something a school teacher would say about a student who had been chewing gum.

I fully expect the UNSC to issue a particularly angry statement, calling for the killings to stop. I then expect absolutely nothing whatsoever to change. And if Qaddafi does manage to cling on to power, the UN and the Arab League will most likely forget about this whole “business” overnight, once oil prices start dropping again. I mean, it’s not like the UN had an issue with the last few massacres Qaddafi committed. In fact, they rewarded him for it – apparently, he was worthy of sitting on the peak human rights body…

The UN’s Libya failures

In 1996, an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the space of a few hours in Tripoli’s infamous Abu Salim prison. The victims’ bodies were reportedly removed from the prison in wheelbarrows and refrigerated trucks and buried in mass graves. To this day, the Libyan authorities refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these graves. It wasn’t until 2004 that Gaddafi admitted that the massacre had taken place.

…The HRC [UN Human Rights Council] has in the past five years issued some 50 resolutions that condemn countries; of those, 35 have been focused on Israel, and not one has been issued against Libya. Even as of Monday evening, as protesters were being shot down in the streets of Libya, no emergency session of the HRC had been called by its members, which include the US and the EU.

Indeed, instead of being condemned, Libya has been lionized. In May 2010, Libya was, absurdly, elected as a member of the HRC, a move that was not blocked by the Obama administration (as Iran’s bid for membership was). This was the culmination of a steady ascendancy to every important diplomatic body at the UN – including the African Union chairmanship, the UN Security Council and the presidency of the UN General Assembly.

So much for “international human rights law”. This sums it up quite nicely:

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What a riot: unrest in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood and why Obama just doesn’t get it

I’ve been concentrating on other endeavours over the past three-or-so weeks, however with the aeroplane-based wifi that American Airlines seems to provide, I now have time to comment on the dramatic events that seem to be changing the face of the Middle East as I type. As everyone will be aware, this began with mass popular protests in Tunisia resulting in the as yet relatively benign ousting of long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The reality here is that in the greater Arab world, Tunisia is one of the least volatile countries. As outlined by John Thorne in The National, Tunisia has an extensive recent history of forced secularisation, allowing for a minimalist Islamist presence:

Islam came to Tunisia in the 7th century with Arab armies sweeping across North Africa, and cities such as Tunis and Kairouan became centres of Islamic learning. French colonialism from 1881 injected secularist ideas into Tunisian society.

That set the stage for the policies of Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence in 1956 and believed that Islamic tradition impeded the building of a modern state.

During Bourguiba’s three-decade rule, a new family code was enacted that gave women equality with men in key areas, the hijab was restricted, and Islamic schools and courts were shut down.

The lack of extreme sentiment in Tunisia is what allowed the revolution to maintain such a positive and peaceful atmosphere (at least so far). This is VERY different from the situation in other Arab countries.

The events grabbing the most headlines, of course, are the protests in Egypt – which look likely to end the 30-year reign of dictator Hosni Mubarak. What a lot of people, particularly the Obama administration, fail to grab is that Egypt is not Tunisia. At all.

It is understandable that, after realising that Arab dictators are not absolutely invulnerable and that mass popular actions can topple autocratic regimes, the people of Egypt decided to give this a shot. Mubarak’s ailing health had been the topic of headlines anyway, and widespread speculation that he was grooming his son Gamal for office had led to a lot of discontent amongst Egypt’s masses. The problem is that Mubarak for years has been a stalwart of Western policy in the region and has led one of the two most powerful Arab countries into clamping-down on extremists and minimising conflict in the region. We may not be so lucky with his successor, who could be:

Gamal Mubarak

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Hammer did some excellent coverage last year of this year’s planned presidential elections in Egypt, which explains the different parties and their positions.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Gamal Mubarak, and the race to succeed Hosni Mubarak : The New Yorker.

Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as a symbol of nepotism and privilege. “A lot of Egyptians don’t like the perception that there is a dynastic process here,” the Western diplomat said. “This is a republic.”

Hammer goes on to explain that while a gifted economist, Gamal Mubarak’s “trickle-down” policies have led to an increasing rich-poor divide in Egypt and the view that he is only interested in furthering his own privileged class.

Mohamed ElBaradei

The other major contender is formar International Atomic Energy Agency president and Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei – who has been sending mixed signals about his candidacy. While his achievements, particularly with the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear program, are undeniable, he does look less than ideal on a number of levels. In particular, he displayed a reluctance to aggressively pursue Iran over its nuclear program; his departure last year from the IAEA allowed the US to dramatically step-up its attempts at imposing sanctions on Iran. Also, extremely worryingly, he had this to say about Israel and the Palestinian resistance:

Palestinian violence [is] the only path open to the Palestinian people, because “the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence.”

(As I have previously observed, the Palestinian resistance has a far, far superior path open – state building.)

These attitudes certainly raise certain doubts regarding ElBaradei’s foreign policy plans. Despite being a seasoned diplomat, it appears that he has a tendency to appease extremists and that he is not too friendly towards Israel. This means that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty could be in jeopardy. This treaty, formed several years after the last war between Israel and it’s more powerful neighbours, began the era of relative peace between Israel and the Arab world and continues to be possibly the single most stabilising factor in the Arab/Israeli conflict – there is apparently an Arab saying that goes “you cannot make war without Egypt”. It’s dissolution would be extremely dangerous and could lead to an unprecedented war in the region.

ElBaradei has been a little evasive on the issue, saying:

…again, the whole issue of peace in the Middle East is an issue which everybody – nobody wants to go to war, Fareed. Nobody was – not want not to have peace in the region, but as you know, the (inaudible) the credibility is not really whether you are supported by a dictator here. It’s whether you have a fair-handed policy, vis-a-vis the Palestinians. And that is really the question. The criteria is not the reaction of the Egyptians. And you’ll get the same reaction under Mubarak, under a democracy. The people feel they are unfairly treated. There is a double standard vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue, and that will continue.

But if you want to have Egypt and the rest of the Arab world have into policy as recognition of Israel, well, you need to review your policy. And however, you know, whatever, what – whatever is going to happen, you know, I am confident that dialogue, negotiation between democracies is much more effective than dialogue between dictators who are in no way representing their people.

Also, as noted here, he may not even last long as a leader as he does not seem to possess the strength that is required of Egyptian rulers, who had a habit of being assassinated before the ruthless policies of Mubarak came into effect.

Muslim Brotherhood

Speaking of these assassinations, the big elephant in this room is, of course, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. For those of you who don’t know, Egypt was the cradle of the Brotherhood – the movement that began modern Islamism as we know it. Their brand of politicised Islam eventually led to Al Qaeda and all of the other Islamic terrorist groups and individuals we know today; however, they also now exist as an arguably non-violent political group (very arguable – they did assassinate the last two Egyptian presidents) with the goal of transforming Muslim states into Islamist ones. As Hammer notes:

Parliamentary elections were also held in 2005, and one opposition group performed significantly better than expected: the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that supports Sharia law and has engendered such violent offshoots as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. (The Brotherhood renounced violence in 1970.) Although the organization has been officially banned since 1954, independent candidates who openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions were allowed to run for Parliament, and won eighty-eight seats—a fifth of the total. Many Brotherhood candidates portrayed the Mubarak regime as corrupt. The ruling party still controlled three hundred and eleven out of four hundred and fifty-four seats, but the strong showing of the Islamists was a shock.

This shows that the Brotherhood has a large popular support base and regardless of who takes over in Egypt, will wield considerable power. As noted here, the brotherhood, which is the parent organisation of Hamas, is already unequivocally calling for an end to the peace treaty with Israel. There is also a considerable concern for Egypt’s minority Christian group, which has been under attack in recent months.

The key question is: how much power will they have and how will this affect Egypt’s policies? Whichever way you look at it, the outcome is grim. The Muslim Brothers are a powerful force and every regime in the Middle East is struggling to contain them. If ElBaradei or anyone else takes over, it is unlikely that they will be strong enough to crush them and so will have to appease them in some way – most likely by cooling relations with Israel and America and turning the strongest Western ally in the Middle East into something a little less reliable. The problem is that by trying to nudge Mubarak out of power, Obama has guaranteed that Mubarak will not be as friendly as he once was if he does cling to power. I am very concerned for the future here…

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