The Baradei Effect

By: Ayman Ismail

As the grass root campaign to nominate El-Baradei in the 2011 Egyptian presidential elections grows, and along with it the speculation whether this could happen or not, it is important to recognize three significant contributions that he has already delivered to the stagnant Egyptian political scene. He has already shattered, or at least cracked, three entrenched beliefs that are widely held by many Egyptians, and are among the reasons for the stagnant political climate.

First, he shattered the “who else?” myth. For many years, the regime has propagated the idea that there is nobody else who is capable and qualified to lead Egypt. And whenever someone who is capable and qualified started gaining popularity, whether within government institutions or elsewhere, he is often attacked, marginalized, threatened or co-opted. And in absence of active political parties, it becomes hard to create the name recognition that enables alternative leadership to evolve. This has been the core challenge behind the “who else” myth: you need someone who is capable and qualified; not tainted or part of the current ruling clique; and has a strong name recognition. Those who satisfy the first two conditions do not have access to the media or political institutions that may enable them to build their name recognition. And those who already have the name recognition are often part of the current ruling elite. El-Baradei is the first case where a potential opposition leader can claim these three qualities, primarily because he developed his name recognition abroad, and by being an outsider to the political process he has maintained his integrity and independence.

Second, he’s attacking the myth that “social and economic reform is not linked to political reform”. One of the mantra’s for Mubarak’s 30 year rule is that Egypt needs to focus on economic development, and that political development can come at a later stage when people are “ready” for it. Political reform is messy; it creates uncertainty and chaos, and can delay economic reforms. People care about bread, medicine and jobs, rather than parties and elections.

One of the most insightful statements that I recall President Mubarak making in one of his interviews describes how he felt about political parties. He described the pre-1952 political process in Egypt as highly fragmented, leading to the rise and fall of many governments, and eventually leading to the 1952 coup. This image of a fragmented political process led him to believe in the ultimate need for a single dominant party that controls the political life and prevents it from descending in chaos. And this is what he has always strived for: a dominant political party (NDP) and a number of weaklings that give legitimacy to the system.

For the past week, El-Baradei has strongly argued that “the path to getting a loaf of bread passes through a democratic political process.” This argument is critical in mobilizing the broad silent majority that has been suffering economically, but has never connected their daily suffering to the abstract political process. If this message is internalized by the broad silent majority in Egypt, it is likely to help politicize a segment that has been mostly politically apathetic and disengaged.

Third, he is quickly cracking the myth that the Gamal Mubarak transition project is a “done deal.” The proponents of the Gamal transition project, which started more than a decade ago, have worked hard to promote the idea that it’s a done deal. Their strategy has been simple: publicly and officially, they deny everything about the transition project, while presenting Gamal as the de facto president, policy maker and leader. By creating a sense of fatality about the transition they are deterring potential opponents and growing acceptance among the different government institutions. They are also using tactics that present the Muslim Brotherhood as the only other alternative opponent to Gamal, and by doing so, attempting to gain the support of broad and influential segments of the Egyptian society that vehemently opposes the potential rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The entry of El-Baradei as a credible and popular opponent is shattering this myth. He is providing Egyptians with a very attractive centrist candidate. He is advocating civil liberties and a civil state, while publicly endorsing the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to participate in the political process, which is an attractive proposition for the secular and Coptic minorities but still appealing to the strong Islamist base. He is supporting a free market economy, while advocating welfare policies of European social democrats, which is comforting the domestic and multinational business interests, while creating support among Egypt’s impoverished lower middle and poor segments. He is also taking an Arab nationalist streak, while maintaining Egypt’s commitments to peace with Israel and other critical American interests. By positioning himself as a pragmatic, centrist, nationalist candidate, he is creating a broad support base for his political and economic agenda that is likely to grow over time.

By catapulting into Egypt’s political scene and introducing himself as a credible and popular centrist candidate, he is shattering the myth that the Gamal transition project is a done deal.

The implications of these three contributions could be powerful. As the doubts on the Gamal Mubarak transition project grow, President Mubarak is more likely seek a sixth term in office in 2011. In such a scenario, the big question facing Gamal Mubarak will be “you have seeking the presidency for more than ten years, and have not yet been able to build a strong power base or gain real acceptance from the people or government institutions – can you really do it?” If the perception that Gamal has failed to position himself as a credible candidate despite more than ten years of trying, it might help brand his campaign as a failure, and push other influential institutions to seek other candidates.

Regardless of what happens in the next days, weeks and months, El-Baradei has already started to crack some of the deeply-held myths that influence the Egyptian political behavior.

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On the Palestine Papers

With the final release this week by Al Jazeera of more than 1,600 documents spanning nearly a decade of negotiations between the PLO and Israel, the backlash within Palestine is now starting to be felt. The Al Jazeera leak was accompanied by ongoing commentary that was, at times sensationalist, and at others, analytically incorrect. Within minutes of Al Jazeera’s reporting, PA supporters decried the Qatari government and uploaded their Facebook profile pictures with images of the Al Jazeera logo superimposed on the Israeli flag. But a very different response emerged from others, particularly from the Palestinian Diaspora, who demanding transparency, democracy and equal rights for all and cannot be easily classified as supporters of the Qatari regime. For these Palestinians, the documents and the allegations by Al Jazeera represent proof of the PA’s ongoing collaboration with Israel.

One such example is that of the assassination of a Palestinian activist in the Gaza Strip. While the Al Jazeera documents reveal a request from an Israeli minister to kill a Palestinian activist based in the Gaza Strip, Al Jazeera concludes that his assassination by Israel several months later must have been coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. Yet there is no direct evidence, merely circumstantial evidence of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that spanned many years and involved mass arrests and torture of “peace process” dissidents and Israel or Palestinian Authority critics.

Established in 1995 as a temporary measure, the PA had two primary goals: to provide jobs to thousands of Palestinians to wean them from the Israeli labour market, and through the establishment of various Palestinian security branches, to employ thousands of Palestinians that, in effect, provide security to their occupier. The theory was that, by policing their own people, the PA would prove to Israel that Palestinians are “partners for peace” capable of running their own state. Within years, the PA had the largest security force of any entity in the world and with it, the budget of the PA was largely geared towards endlessly beefing up the security sector. The PA’s security services did virtually everything demanded of them, in the belief that the fabled “security first” approach would provide Israel with the comfort it demanded as ransom to finally end its decades long rule over Palestinians. The approach worked – temporarily. From 1996 to 2000, Israel had the “safest” years of its existence and while it shamelessly doubled its settlements in the West Bank, the nascent and eager-to-please Palestinian Authority crushed opposition to Israel’s unconscionable colonial practices.

By 2000, however, Palestinians had had enough. With no breakthrough in negotiations, Palestinians took to the streets in protest. But rather than pressure Israel to end its military rule, the United States and its European allies, soon pressured the PA to become more repressive against Palestinians, in an effort to lure Israel back to the negotiating table. The perverse result was that rather than becoming the key to end the occupation, the PA became a vehicle to continue the occupation.

Whether by carrying out a repressive crackdown against Palestinians in the mid-nineties, or by engaging in the type of “security co-operation” with Israel that involved the mass arrest and torture of dissidents leaders of the sort recently revealed in the Al Jazeera leaks, the PA’s security services today continue to operate as the security subcontractor to Israel’s occupation, even in the face of Israel’s legion and widely condemned illegal actions. While Israel continues its policies of subjugating Palestinians and stealing more of their land, the Palestinian Authority is cast in the role of ensuring that Israel is allowed to continue to do so quietly and with the PA as the occupation’s proxy subjugator. Protests against the Palestinian Authority are routinely quashed as armed protests against Israel’s actions with those actions the massacres in Gaza or ongoing demolitions. The Palestinian Authority does not serve to protect Palestinians from Israel’s violence but merely to shield Israel, including its settlers and soldiers. Indeed, scores of Palestinians have been killed this month alone). Yet the international community seems oblivious to the obvious contradiction of an occupied people providing security to their occupier. Rather, the success of the Palestinian Authority is measured not by the level to which it is democratic and transparent, but by the level to which its security forces are seen as strong. Similarly, the appointed (not elected) prime minister is seen as a hero in the West and is lauded for his “institution building” but the only institutions that are being built are those of the repressive security apparatus. And, while Palestinian leaders speak of the need for “political solutions,” he and his government willingly continue their repressive policies without regard to Israel’s ongoing occupation and suppression of Palestinians.

And herein lies the problem: national liberation has never been achieved with the occupied serving as the security subcontractor to the occupier, whether that subcontractor is in the form of the Palestinian Authority or in the form of the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip. This is not to advocate a return to senseless killings and violence. Rather, what is desperately needed is the establishment of a national Palestinian resistance movement, similar to that movement that swept and liberated South Africa from apartheid and designed to directly confront Israel’s racist and repressive policies, not to protect them. For if there is one lesson that the international community should learn from recent events in Tunisia, it is that the repression of a people at the hands of any government will last only for a short period of time, before people turn against it, rise above it and overthrow it.

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When the People Rise Up: Egypt's Massive Protests and Their Unpredictable Outcomes

Until last month, a typical protest in Egypt was really easy to portray. It usually featured a few hundred people standing in one of the known protest spots in Cairo downtown surrounded by a few thousand security officers. After an hour or two some people are arrested and both sides get tired and leave. The majority of Egyptians would never consider joining such a protest, knowing this scenario and the possible severe consequences. However, after the Tunisian uprising, it seems that things are changing in the Middle East. For the first time in decades, tens of thousands of Egyptians, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, have overcome their fear of security officers and responded to the call for the January 25 protest or “The Day of Anger.” And again, as we have seen in Tunisia, it is a protest led by today’s Arab regimes’ nightmares: Facebook and Twitter. No political figures, parties, or religious movements are leading the people. The protests are taking place everywhere in the country simultaneously, ignited by the same motives: poverty, unemployment, corruption, and social injustice.

The Tunisian experience makes the outcomes of today’s protests in Egypt hard to predict. A possible scenario could be further escalation resulting in more people joining the protests and gradually putting pressure on the regime to accept dramatic changes. This scenario cannot be excluded, considering the thousands of people who are spending the night in public squares and calling for a nationwide strike tomorrow. It is really hard to predict the scale of change in this case, though I expect it will not reach the president. Another possible scenario could be the use of excessive force by the police to end these protests which would definitely lead to casualties. As time goes on, and considering all the international media attention these protests are now attracting, using force is becoming difficult unless the state issues a nationwide curfew. A third possible scenario is for the government to leave things as they are, hoping that anger will gradually subside, and that people get bored and leave. This might take days, during which the government would make some conservative offerings and try to distract people by some other events. This scenario strongly suits the character of the Egyptian regime and I personally believe that they will lean towards it, although the outcomes might be unpredictable.

The next few hours will reveal the seriousness of these protests and whether they will be able to effect major change in the country. However, it is clear that, regardless of the outcomes, some change will take place in the country. It is just a matter of time.

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When the People Rise Up: Lessons from Tunisia

A few weeks ago it was hard to imagine that Tunisia would experience this massive uprising. Compared to other countries in the region, Tunisia is relatively well off, socially and economically. It has a broad, well-educated middle-class and ranks well in education, health, literacy, and women’s rights, compared to neighboring Arab states. The regime had kept a very tight grip on media, political parties, and security. However, a relatively minor incident managed to trigger an uprising and overthrow President Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali who had been ruling the country for 23 years. It all started with Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old college graduate and street vendor who set himself on fire after being beaten and insulted by the police. Bouazizi would have never imagined that his action would lead to a revolt that forces the president to flee the country.

What happened in Tunisia sends multiple alarming messages to many regimes in the Middle East. First, it emphasizes that revolts don’t necessarily need major incidents to get sparked. People’s anger accumulates and it could be ignited for the slightest of reasons. Recognizing the importance of public satisfaction in many Arab countries is now more critical than ever. Second, the Tunisian revolution was neither initiated nor led by any political, religious, or even foreign leaders. In fact, opposition parties didn’t join the revolt until its last day. This emphasizes that the continuous attempts by many Arab regimes to hinder the influence of opposition figures and religious movements don’t necessarily secure their reigns. It might actually lead to spontaneous revolts that are much more difficult to control. Third, it became clear that no matter how good the relations between these regimes and Western administrations are, the latter will not offer support to overthrown leaders. After fleeing the country, the former Tunisian president was denied permission to land in many countries, including by his strongest alley, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

It is hard to assume that the Tunisian revolution could be exported to other neighboring countries. However, it seems that it has inspired people across the region. During the last few days, protests have emerged in Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan, calling for political and economic reforms. Several desperate individuals have been emulating Mohamed Bouazizi and setting themselves on fire. It remains to be seen whether those actions will lead to similar results to what happened in Tunisia.

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Tunisia's Wikileaks Revolution?

Events in Tunisia are moving very quickly, so that nothing I or anyone else says to contextualize events is likely to have a lot of long-term currency. Yet, as someone who has followed this government for a while, and came to the conclusion a few years ago that its staying power could be limited, I’m certainly fascinated by what’s going on.

Here are some initial points:

(1) I do believe that the rapid move from protest to presidential departure in Tunisia shows the brittleness of Arab “secular republics” these days. This is in line with a post of mine a few months ago about the sort of model the Gulf state represents as a contrast. Ben Ali’s quick trip out of the country he has ruled for decades, I believe, is evidence that monarchies with a foot, or at least several toes, in Islamic legitimacy, have had a much better shot at allowing gradual political liberalization than largely military-based secular republics like Tunisia.

(2) For this reason, I think, Algeria and Egypt are definitely worth watching, although I would suspect there to be less of a possible spillover effect into Morocco.

(3) It’s very interesting that Wikileaks cables may have had an effect on political mobilization here. Of course, Tunisians know all about, and have grudgingly tolerated, the amount of corruption that has taken place at high levels of the political system. But I agree with Elizabeth Dickinson that the specifics of the leaked cables, and, more, their sober-headed, rational tone, probably did matter to some Tunisians, even if socioeconomic discontent and the clarity of the state’s repressive apparatus were even more significant.

(4) Clearly, Ben Ali’s recent “re-election” only furthered his unpopularity, rather than bolstering his legitimacy in any way. This can’t be making Hosni Mubarak in Egypt rest very well, after the firestorm his recent “re-election” generated.

(5) Sadly, the level of repression of civil and political rights, and credible opposition, that Ben Ali’s regime resorted to in order to stay in power has left little clear pro-liberalization prospects in Tunisia. This is ironic given that Tunisia has certainly been a home in the past for a lot of sophisticated lawyers, academics and activists committed to democratization and the rule of law. Still, the speed of Ben Ali’s move,s first to pledge he wouldn’t stand for re-election in 2014, and then to leave the country, are something unprecedented in recent Arab political history. This could well mean that there is space for concerned Western governments (hello US, but especially BONJOUR LA FRANCE) to work hard and behind the scenes to try to prevent a purely military government for anything but a short time. Indeed, events in Tunisia should give hope to those who believe that gentle pressures for Arab military “elected presidents” are potentially useful.

(6) This said, of course, the typical Western governmental dynamic will be to favor some sort of stability over the fear of disorder, and, particularly Islamism. Yet this is an important time to acknowledge that order without at least a certain amount of either political legitimacy or political rights, even in a relatively highly-performing economy, holds real risks in Arab countries today.

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Hindering and Undermining

Every week, it seems, I hear a constant refrain: “(fill in the blank with Israel’s illegal actions) is (destroying/undermining/hindering) the peace process.” Though I scour the news every day, I’ve started to believe that maybe I was missing something. Is there really a peace process going on that I don’t know about?
I’m sure that I am not the only person who has this question, particularly after reading all of the Western accounts of Palestine these days. From US officials to influential journalists we Palestinians hear about just how “great” Palestine is these days, with a purportedly booming economy and transparent leadership. But then reality hits; just as it has all this week (and every week) in Palestine, as we continue to live under an unending occupation and racism while the world looks at economic indicators as signs of progress. So here is an (incomplete) run down of just some of Israel’s actions since January 1st – acts that cannot be “undone” by the opening of new café or chic restaurant in Ramallah:
• The Israeli army killed Jawaher Abu Rahmah of Bilin by firing tear gas at her during the weekly demonstrations in Bilin in protest of Israel’s illegal wall. Her brother, Bassem, was killed two years earlier when a tear gas canister hit him in the chest.
• The Israeli army killed 66-year old Omar Salim Qawasmi of Hebron after firing 13 bullets in his head. Israeli military officials later claimed that it was a case of “mistaken identity.”
• The Israeli army killed 25-year old Khaldoun Sammoudi of Al-Yamun.
• The Israeli army killed 21-year old Ahmad Maslami of Jenin after riddling him with bullets.
• The Israeli army kills 2 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the Israeli-defined “buffer zone”.
• The Israeli army demolishes part of the Shepherd Hotel to make way for the construction of a 20-unit, Israeli-only illegal colony. (More on this later).
The response by the international community is now part of the same “peace process” refrain. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton chimed: “[There is] no alternative to a negotiated deal” while US Secretary of State Clinton sings the demolition “undermines peace efforts to achieve the two state-solution.” Absent from the refrain is one word: occupation. Why? Because the “peace process” is not designed to address the occupation; it is designed to give us the semblance of forgetting it. Instead of focusing on real issues – demolitions, executions, land theft, Jewish-only roads and housing, deportations, imprisonment and so on – the peace process asks us to focus on the ethereal – borders, security regimes, trade agreements and so on. In the Clinton/Ashton world, there is no occupied or occupier; no right and no wrong; no legal or illegal; just a “peace process” that is “undermined” or “hindered.”

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Observant US Muslims more politically active: survey

By: Sharmila Devi

NEW YORK // Karam Dana, a Palestinian-born academic who has produced ground-breaking research on the political identity of Muslim Americans, often gets angry when he watches the US media.

“The media portrays Muslims and their places of worship as breeding grounds for terrorists and I end up thinking: are they crazy?” Mr Dana said after a 19-year-old Somali-American’s arrest on terrorism charges in November.

Undercover US federal agents had provided Mohammed Mohamud with a fake bomb to attack a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon in November. After his arrest, the Corvallis mosque he attended was firebombed. “The media don’t examine the psychological state of the young man, which could be a possible explanation,” Mr Dana said.

His frustration about the stereotypical image of Muslims being drawn into terrorism at mosques stems from the fact that he was one of the first US academics to produce empirical research proving the opposite.

He found that the more American Muslims attended a mosque, the greater their participation in US civic life. This central discovery is examined at length in a book to be released later this year by Mr Dana and Matt Barreto, his research partner, called Muslim and American: How Islam Shapes Political Incorporation in America.

The two men were the principal investigators in the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (Mapos), the largest survey of Muslims living in the United States to study the patterns of social, political and civic life. Conducted under the auspices of the University of Washington over two years starting in 2007, the survey interviewed 1,410 American Muslims in 22 locations across the United States.

The idea for Mapos came after Mr Dana, 31, noted the rise in Islamophobia in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001. He moved to the United States when he was 17, leaving his birth city of Hebron to pursue his studies. He now divides his time as a Dubai Initiative research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and teaching Middle East history and politics at Tufts University. The Dubai Initiative is a joint academic venture between the Dubai School of Government and the Kennedy School, which share their knowledge and resources.

Mr Dana said his knowledge of Islam combined with Mr Barreto’s expertise in statistics and experience researching the Latino community made a perfect partnership in Mapos. Their aggregate skills were needed to find and then examine the Muslim-American community, which is diverse in its ethnic, racial, and linguistic origins.

“American Muslims immigrated here at different periods and for different reasons. As a group, they are extremely professional and have a high socio-economic status without the typical immigrant story, although you can find it,” he said. “There’s no typical neighbourhood where you can find American Muslims. Some are African-American, some are converts.”

Most other polls are telephone surveys and find Muslims using names such as Mohammed or Ahmed. “That’s fine but they don’t find John Anderson who converted to Islam three years ago or many African-American Muslims who have ordinary names like many other Americans,” Mr Dana said.

He went to Eid holiday gatherings to find large numbers of American Muslims and interviewed them using a questionnaire.

“Eid is the one time when all Muslims come together and hang out regardless of their religiosity or how many times they attend mosque the rest of the year,” he said. “Eid was a mechanism for capturing the diversity of the community.”

Imams and Islamic community centres were contacted up to a year in advance to seek their co-operation. There was much mistrust, with Mr Dana saying he was sometimes asked whether he was from the FBI.

Respondents were asked 40 questions on topics ranging from their view of the compatibility of Islam with participation in the US political system to whether they registered or voted in the last election.

Mapos found that sectarian differences among Muslims living in the United States tended to erode with time. While Shiite Muslims tended to have a high level of political participation regardless of mosque attendance, Sunni Muslims became more engaged politically the more they went to mosque.

“Over time and with greater mosque attendance, the gap between Shia and Sunni in terms of political participation narrows and virtually disappears,” said Mr Dana.

But he was also troubled by the 28 per cent of respondents who registered nothing for their political affiliation, not independent, Democrat or Republican. This contrasted with the 2000 presidential elections, when American Muslims voted overwhelmingly for George W Bush.

He expected American Muslims to become more engaged with the US political process in the coming years and to see a correspondent recognition by politicians of the importance of American Muslims as a voting bloc. “There is a lot of talk about how we’re living in a post-racial society but the fact that a mosque relocating near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan can become a massive issue of national debate is problematic,” said Mr Dana, who was referring to the proposed Islamic centre and mosque near the World Trade Centre site in New York.

“As a society, we still need to talk about the other and our differences.”

The author of this article, Sharmila Devi, can be reached at

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