Thursday, 29 May 2014

Al-Sisi - not quite the conquering hero

        The media predictions were unanimous  – Egypt’s presidential election would be a walkover.  Ever since the overthrow of the previous administration together with its president, Mohamed Morsi, back in July 2013, a cult of personality had been assiduously fostered within Egypt around the man who had led the uprising – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  The campaign had been notably successful. His face appeared frequently on state-run TV and newspapers, on billboards and posters, even on chocolates, underpants and keyrings, and his popularity ratings soared.  A runaway triumph in the presidential election set for Monday and Tuesday, May 26 and 27, was confidently assumed by the military régime, a prediction boosted by the fact that he secured 95 per cent of votes cast in advance by Egyptians overseas.

            Then, as so often happens in elections run cleanly and in accordance with democratic principles (monitors from the European Union and US-funded Democracy International were observing the vote), the electorate failed to act as expected.  Sisi had called for record voter participation ­– a turnout of 40 million, or 80 per cent of the electorate – but Reuters reported that as voting began, lines outside polling stations in various parts of Cairo were short.

            Shaken by these early reports of voter apathy, the military-backed government launched a determined effort to get out the vote. Tuesday was declared a public holiday. Train fares were waived in an effort to boost voter numbers.  The justice ministry said that Egyptians who did not vote would be fined, and local media loyal to the government chided the public for not turning out in large enough numbers. Prominent public figures appeared on state TV to urge voters to head to the polls.

Despite these efforts, in some cases no voters at all could be seen outside some polling stations on Tuesday May 26, the second day of voting. Stations originally due to close at 9 pm were kept open for an extra hour.  Then came the announcement that the election was to be extended into the Wednesday, May 28, drawing from Democracy International the comment:  "[this] raises more questions about the independence of the electoral commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process."

In the 2012 presidential election, won by Morsi, turnout was 52 per cent.  The interim regime clearly believed that Sisi must attract a higher level of support than that if he was to enjoy full political legitimacy, and they hoped that the extension of polling would produce a more convincing result.

It didn’t.  In the final analysis turnout was not higher than 44.4 per cent of Egypt's 54 million voters, according to the judicial sources.  Predictably, government reports of the results focused entirely on the fact that, of those that did bother to vote, Sisi captured 92.2 per cent. His only rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, gained 3.8 per cent.

Victory for al-Sisi indeed – but victory with a sour taste.

What caused the election to go pear-shaped?

An examination of Egyptian public opinion in the run-up to the election might have yielded hints of the less-than-wholehearted enthusiasm of the electorate, taken as a whole, for al-Sisi. For example, an eve-of-election opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed Sisi viewed favourably by 54 percent and unfavourably by 45 percent of the electorate.

Then, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had called for a boycott of the presidential election. Despite the regime’s severe crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters in the run-up to the election (the security forces had killed hundreds of Morsi's supporters and arrested an estimated 20,000 activists), a substantial proportion of the Egyptian public retained its support for the Brotherhood, and regarded Morsi’s overthrow as illegal.

Some secular dissidents had also been jailed, often for breaking a new protest law criticised as a threat to free assembly.  As a result some liberal Egyptians, who had approved of Morsi’s removal, had been alienated.

            Sisi is the latest in a line of Egyptian rulers from the military that was only briefly broken during Morsi's year in office.  Critics fear he will become another autocrat who will preserve the army's interests, and quash hopes of democracy and reform aroused by the protests that swept Mubarak from power.  Sisi enjoys the backing of the powerful armed forces and the Interior Ministry, as well many politicians and former Mubarak officials now making a comeback. By his supporters, Sisi is perceived  as a strong figure who can end the turmoil that has convulsed Egypt since the revolution that ended Mubarak's 30 years in power, and protect Egypt from the jihadists that are seeking to overthrow the democratic process and install an Islamist regime.

            And indeed, just prior to the poll, Sisi called on the United States to help fight jihadi terrorism by resuming the US military aid, worth $1.3 billion a year, which was partially frozen after the interim government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We are fighting a war against terrorism," said Sisi. "The Egyptian army is undertaking major operations in the Sinai so that it is not transformed into a base for terrorism that will threaten its neighbours and make Egypt unstable. If Egypt is unstable then the entire region is unstable. We need American support to fight terrorism."

Sisi said the West must understand that terrorism would reach its doorstep unless it helped eradicate it."The West has to pay attention to what's going on in the world - the map of extremism and its expansion. This map will reach you inevitably."

            He is not wrong. Let the Obama administration put aside its flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood on the grounds of its illegal overthrow that, somehow, is not quite a military coup. It is to be hoped that, following his equivocal, but indubitably democratic, victory, President al-Sisi succeeds in regaining the confidence of the US.  The fight against Islamist extremism, in Egypt, in Sinai, in Syria, and around the world is unremitting, and must be pursued with vigour.

        If this is indeed President  al-Sisi’s intention, he deserves the support of all who uphold democratic values and deplore the use of indiscriminate terrorism in pursuit of political or religious ends.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 May 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 May 2014:

Friday, 23 May 2014

Pope Francis in the Holy Land

        Jorge Mario Bergolio  ̶- now Pope Francis, and the first to bear that name  ̶  is a good man.  All that we read and hear about him attests to his humanity, his humility, his spirituality.  He has no place in his life for vanity and outward show. During his 15-year tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he travelled extensively around his diocese on the subway and by bus, regularly visiting the slums that surround the Argentinian capital. “My people are poor and I am one of them”, he said more than once, explaining his decision to live in an ordinary apartment and cook his own supper.

  Elevated to the papacy in March 2013, on the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict, Francis has decided that an early priority must be a pilgrimage to what is known in the Christian world as the Holy Land ­ in other words Israel and the Palestinian territories. He will be there from 24-26 of May and, characteristically, insisted on using an open popemobile and an ordinary car on the trip, rather than the bullet-proof vehicles usually used by heads of state in the Middle East – a decision certainly causing the security services responsible for his safety a few headaches. 

In coming to the Middle East, Francis inherits a legacy from three predecessor Popes who also visited the Holy Land.  In part his pilgrimage is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the first-ever journey by a Pope to the region.  Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, made a lightning 11-hour trip to Jerusalem in January 1964 ground-breaking, because he came before the landmark Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965, which opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and because at the time the Vatican did not recognize Israel. 

Back in 1964 there were no “occupied territories” ­ at least not occupied by Israel, though Gaza was occupied by Egypt, and much of the West Bank and plenty of Jerusalem, including the Old City, was occupied by Jordan.  There was no concept then of a “two-state solution” involving a possible sovereign Palestine ­ the just-formed Palestine Liberation Organization was set on eliminating Israel altogether. Yet Paul VI during his brief stay had a formal meeting with then Israeli President, Zalman Shazar.

The ice had been broken, and in December 1993, immediately following the first Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, diplomatic relations were established between the Holy See, now led by Pope John Paul II, and the State of Israel.  Christian–Jewish reconciliation was a consistent theme of John Paul’s papacy.  His millennium visit to Israel in 2000 caused a stir in diplomatic circles, for he made a point of visiting the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.  Perhaps even more significantly, he made a speech acknowledging the tragedy of the Holocaust and prayed for forgiveness for those who had participated.

His successor, Benedict XVI, followed in his footsteps, striving to foster Catholic-Jewish as well as Vatican-Israeli relations. Indeed, on the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state in 2008, Benedict overshadowed all previous Catholic denials of Zionism by declaring: "The Holy See joins you in giving thanks to the Lord that the aspirations of the Jewish people for a home in the land of their fathers have been fulfilled" virtually a theological justification of the return of the Jewish people to Israel.

During his week-long visit to the region in 2009, Benedict followed the precedent set by John Paul II by visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, but was firm on the political neutrality of the Holy See in the Israel-Palestinian dispute. In his farewell speech he said:

"Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely."

This is the papal foundation on which Francis might hope to build during his three-day visit – the historic reconciliation between the Catholic church and Judaism, strong Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations, and a neutral stance in the apparently unresolvable Israel-Palestine impasse.  He lands in Jordan on the Saturday, then flies by helicopter to Christ's birthplace, Bethlehem, meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the Vatican - reflecting its acceptance of the November 2012 vote in the UN General Assembly recognising Palestine as a non-observer state - terms "president of the State of Palestine." On the Sunday afternoon he flies to Ben Gurion airport in Israel.

As regards the inter-faith aspect of his visit, Francis is concerned with relations between Christianity and the other two great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. He has, accordingly, invited both a Jew and a Muslim to be part of his official delegation ­ an “absolute novelty” in the words of a Vatican spokesman. The two men happen to be old friends: Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, with whom the future pope co-authored a book, and Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic.

In terms of inter-faith relations, Francis carries less baggage than any of his predecessors. As a non-European, he has no association with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, while most Muslims don’t tie him to the Crusades or the “clash of civilizations.” His record of outreach in Argentina, including inviting Jewish and Muslim leaders to join him for celebrations of Argentina’s Independence Day, is well known.

Francis will, however, also have immediate concerns to address about the state of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land.  Across the Middle East, Christians have declined from 20 per cent of the population in the early 20th century to roughly 4 per cent. The city of Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories, where Francis conducts an open-air Mass, was almost entirely Christian a century ago. Today it is more than two-thirds Muslim.

Francis is a down-to-earth pontiff with no time for irrational posturing.  So he has decided to cock a snook at all advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, by opting to fly back to Rome by El Al.  In honour of the occasion, Israel’s national airline is decorating one of its Boeing 777s with the Vatican logo – an apt token of Pope Francis's deeply-held message of inter-faith reconciliation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line on 25 May 2014 as "Pope Francis: A good man": 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 May 2014:

Friday, 16 May 2014

Iran out-manoeuvres the West

            Vienna and Jeddah are the twin theatres in which Iran's  growing self-assurance and its ability to out-manoeuvre the West have recently been on display.

   Vienna was the setting for the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Those talks are nominally a diplomatic means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. The negotiations have a July deadline by which to hammer out a final deal aimed at limiting Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, the crippling economic sanctions it faces would be lifted.

It is, however, becoming increasingly obvious that the deal being negotiated will not only enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but will allow it to develop systems to deliver them. In fact, if the testimony of James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence before a Senate Select Committee in January is to be credited, there is reason to believe that Iran is already a nuclear breakout state.

Just ahead of the Vienna meeting the UN Panel of Experts, the body which monitors compliance with the Security Council's sanctions régime on Iran, produced a confidential report which said Iran “has developed methods of concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities."  The report added that Iran had "also demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously".  Over the years Iran has pursued and procured from abroad, among other sensitive dual-use items ─ ie items which could be used in its nuclear programme ─ aluminium, carbon fibre and special valves.

"Iran continues to make extensive use of front companies to procure items for prohibited activities,” says the report. Some companies may be established solely for the purpose of prohibited procurement; others may also be engaged in legitimate business. Sometimes Iran uses legitimate enterprises to acquire key technology. The report cited an example of how Iran used its petrochemical industry as a facade to procure crucial items for its heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak.

The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is also concerned.  In their own recent report they assert that Iran is not revealing information about possible military applications of its nuclear programme, or allowing the IAEA unfettered access to all nuclear sites.

Meanwhile Iran’s so-called “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, recently said that he wanted Iran to do a better job of explaining its nuclear programme, so as to prevent "evil-minded'' people misleading world opinion.  He immediately followed this by declaring that Iran would never accept "nuclear apartheid" and "scientific segregation" by giving up its contested programme.

No wonder former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who claims to have been the prime mover in getting Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, has been expressing caution about whether a comprehensive deal can be clinched,

“I personally am sceptical that the Iranians will follow through and deliver,”  said Clinton on May 14. “The progress of Iran’s nuclear programme may be halted, but it is not dismantled.”

On May 12, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defence ministers, the first for an American defence chief in six years.  Inevitably the discussion turned very largely on the threat that Iran poses to the region, and the need to counter it.

Hegel emphasised that “the most pressing security challenges” - in other words, Iran’s perceived intention to acquire nuclear weapons -  threaten the whole region and demand a collective response. He urged the Gulf states to strengthen the GCC.  That would be the way, he said, for member nations to ensure that their collective defence was more than the sum of its parts.

The negotiations in Vienna, said Hagel, “will under no circumstances trade away regional security for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.”  US commitment to Gulf security and stability was unwavering, and “the United States will remain postured and prepared to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and that Iran abides by the terms of any potential agreement.  No one nation can address these threats alone,” added Hagel. “Our efforts must be coordinated and complementary.”

If the GCC meeting reveals anything, it is that the shadow of Iran looms menacingly over the Gulf states. The meeting specifically addressed defence issues, but was not competent to consider the fact that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are simply the outward manifestation of its wider religio-political aims.  For regional hegemony appears its long-term aspiration.

Iran’s influence extends over a wide range of regional issues. These include the ongoing crisis in Syria ─ both its direct involvement by arming President Bashar Assad, and its indirect involvement on the ground via Hezbollah; its subversive activities in the Gulf States, particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and, to cast the net wider, its efforts to reshape Iraq and Afghanistan in its own image.

The intense antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia exemplifies the age-old fault line that runs through Islam ─ the conflict between the Sunni and the Shi’ite interpretations of the religion.  Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, which is under its control, together with that part of Syria still governed by Assad, form the bulk of the key Shi’ite grouping ─ an entity dedicated to opposing the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi royals have spent vast amounts funding the spread of the Sunni Wahabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is dedicated to its own version of political Islam. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a passionate advocate of government by strict Sharia law, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.  The current Iranian dictator, Ayatollah Khamenei, regards himself as the repository of true Islam, and regards the ultimate role of Iran as ensuring that Shia Islam eventually triumphs over the Sunni interpretation and over those misguided Muslim states that espouse it. 

To achieve this apocalyptic end it is legitimate to use every means to undermine and destabilize those governments. Above all, one essential step is to transform Iran into a world nuclear power.  Nothing – and certainly not a little dissimulation, deceit and double-dealing ­­─ must be allowed to stand in the way.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 May 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 May 2014:

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Palestinian get-together

The recently trumpeted Fatah-Hamas reconciliation brings to mind the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 a totally cynical alliance of sworn enemies, conceived in the temporary self-interest of the two parties without any regard for principle, and destined to be torn asunder within two years.

What did each of the parties hope to gain from this Fatah-Hamas get-together? 

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas must have seen a tempting selection of benefits.

In the first place, it was a certain way to exit gracefully from a peace process that had clearly foundered.  As the nine months allotted to the peace talks ran inexorably out, US Secretary of State John Kerry had been turning somersaults to try to cobble together an agreement from both sides to continue talking.  Abbas saw this last-ditch effort as simply extending the stalemate into an indefinite future.  He knew perfectly well that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would never agree to continue talks with a PA that incorporated Hamas, dedicated as it was to Israel’s destruction.  So in formalizing the reconciliation with Hamas, Abbas was effectively putting paid to the peace negotiations and setting out on his alternative path to  international recognition.

His plans to by-pass the peace talks and obtain the world’s agreement to the establishment of a sovereign Palestine, in name if not in deed, were already well advanced. Even before the deadline of April 29 had been reached, he had applied to join fifteen international organizations and treaties in the name of the State of Palestine.  Although this was presented at the time as an immediate reaction to Israel’s delay in releasing a last tranche of convicted prisoners, it was an initiative that must have taken months in the planning.  One cannot overnight identify fifteen organisations, obtain their assurance that an application would be successful, and draw up the necessary documents.   At the signing ceremony PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo confirmed that this was a first step towards joining all 60-odd United Nations agencies. 

Coming to terms with Hamas suited Abbas’s book in other ways.  Ever since Hamas had taken up arms against Abbas’s national unity government in 2007 and chased Fatah, bag and baggage, out of Gaza, he had known that he had two options: beat Hamas or join them.  He was perfectly well aware that his claim to speak for all the Palestinian people was a hollow one as long as his writ did not run in what was a significant part of any future sovereign Palestine, namely the Gaza strip.

He was, moreover, equally aware that his personal position as PA President was vulnerable.  He had been elected for a four-year term in 2005.  From 2009 onwards various attempts to set up parliamentary and presidential elections to renew his mandate had been scuppered by Hamas’s intransigence.  And so Abbas had soldiered on, renewing his presidency by diktat from time to time, but clearly suffering from a widening democratic deficit.  The deal with Hamas includes the assurance of parliamentary and presidential elections across the whole of the Palestinian body politic within six months and thus solves one of Abbas’s intractable problems.  Meanwhile, he is acknowledged by Hamas as president of the PA’s interim government a reversal of its previous refusal to do so.

So Abbas and Fatah have not done badly out of the reconciliation.  What of Hamas?

The first thing that Hamas have won is an end to the peace talks a development they rejected from the outset.  Despite occasional oblique references from time to time, by this leading Hamas figure or that, to the possibility of accepting a sovereign Palestine within pre-June 1967 boundaries, Hamas has consistently opposed all negotiations with Israel and all the efforts by Abbas within the United Nations to gain acceptance for a sovereign Palestine as part of a two-state solution.  If Palestine is one of the two states, Israel is the other and the basis of Hamas’s existence is, as its 1988 charter states, that Hamas "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine".   

The Hamas leadership is well aware that its glory days are past.  A few years ago it stood tall in the world.  It had actually won a majority of the votes within Gaza in a democratic election, had used this as an excuse to renege from its agreement to form a united Palestinian government, had turned on its political allies Fatah in a bloody fratricidal coup, and seized power in the Gaza strip.

When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, and its adherent Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, Hamas’s expectations rocketed.  They hoped for the Gaza-Egypt borders to be flung open, perhaps even for a semi-autonomous Gazan state to be established with Egypt’s blessing.  Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel increased exponentially, and when Israel’s patience finally snapped and it launched Pillar of Defense – its second response in four years it was Hamas who, in Palestinian eyes, was conducting the “armed struggle” against Israel. And finally it was Hamas, as one of the two principals, which agreed the cease-fire terms negotiated under the auspices of Egypt’s President Morsi.  The result – a self-declared “victory” − greatly increased Hamas’s prestige in Palestinian popular opinion.

Building on that, Hamas made continuous attempts to undermine Abbas’s authority. Not only did it refuse to recognise Abbas as PA president, it began infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a  program called “Kutla,” which entailed spreading jihadi ideology among them, and through its “Da’wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population.

All that is past.  The Muslim Brotherhood – and with it Hamas’s prestige have plummeted.  Not only did the Brotherhood and its president lose power in Egypt after little more than a year, but it has since been declared an illegal terrorist organisation in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So now Hamas can see positive hope in the prospect of the parliamentary and presidential elections in-built into the terms of the reconciliation with Fatah.

Given the result of the last Palestinian ballot, it is not unreasonable for Hamas to expect to emerge from the forthcoming elections much strengthened.  It will then have achieved, by democratic means, the control over the West Bank that it has been seeking since 2007.  Moreover, Abbas is in his 80th year; he cannot go on forever.  With increased political power, Hamas might be able to ensure a new president more to its liking. The result? A Hamas-dominated PA, and with it a probable renewal of terrorist activity rockets emanating not only from Gaza, but from the West Bank

So the likely outcome of this Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is further Palestinian-Israeli conflict conducted diplomatically if Fatah prevails, and if Hamas does, militarily.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 May 2014: