Title VI and Middle East Studies: What You Should Know
In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.
What is Title VI?
Title VI of the Higher Education Act, or HEA, provides federal funding to support teaching of foreign languages and area studies at US universities. The law has been on the books since the Cold War. Its purpose is to facilitate the training of experts in fields of study deemed relevant to US foreign policy. Russian language centers were some of the first programs funded under the HEA. Today, Title VI funds many Middle East studies programs in addition to international studies and language programs for every region of the world.
What are the claims made about Middle East studies centers with Title VI funding?
The Brandeis Center, along with a coalition of similar groups, has launched a campaign to police scholarly work and teaching in Middle East studies departments across the country. The principal tactic of this campaign is to equate any criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, and thereby declare that entire Middle East programs are intrinsically biased against Israel. Their end goal is to influence the political outlook of academic work on US campuses, applauding work that takes an unquestioningly positive view of Israeli state policy and censoring or sanctioning work that is critical of the acts or policies of Israel. That attempt to impose orthodoxy is a project antithetical to the mission of an academic institution, which should be committed to wide-ranging research and analysis unbounded by the political agendas that often dictate government decisions.
As part of this political campaign the Brandeis Center recently issued a “white paper” advancing three main arguments:
- Middle East studies programs at several universities are filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias;
- Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires funding recipients to provide a “balanced” view, at least of Israel. “Balance” essentially means inserting more sympathetic views of Israel; and
- Congress has previously concluded that Middle East studies programs are “biased” against Israel, and thus should implement a grievance and investigation procedure for the reporting of such bias.
What does this campaign demand?
The AMCHA Initiative, Brandeis Center and allied groups demand either that Congress cancel all Title VI funding of Middle East studies programs, or that it mandate that the Department of Education establish a mechanism to receive complaints of “bias” and then investigate academic centers in order to coerce those centers to promote pro-Israel viewpoints.
They suggest the formation of a committee to oversee all Middle East studies programs and search for “bias.” This committee, they suggest, should include “academics from Israel studies programs.” They want academics perceived to be sympathetic to Israel to oversee programming in Middle East studies.
Is there evidence of “bias” in Middle East Studies programs?
The Brandeis Center relies heavily on a “study” published by AMCHA about UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES). The study contends that 93 percent of CNES programs related to Israel are “biased” and that the programming has a “disproportionate” focus on Israel.
The study is plagued with problems, not least of which are overly broad and unreasonable definitions of “anti-Israel bias” and “anti-Semitism.” Anything straying from narrow pro-Israel orthodoxy is automatically judged to be “biased,” as in the case of the following events:
- A film about diverse perspectives on Israel within the Jewish community, in which the Jewish filmmakers interviewed people from groups as different as Stand With Us and Jewish Voice for Peace
- An event on a variety of Jewish perspectives about Israel-Palestine, including binationalism, that was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program
Thus, AMCHA’s definition of “bias” is so expansive that it includes events sponsored by J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, and the Jewish Studies Program at UCLA.
AMCHA’s study also fails to place its analysis in the context of CNES programming about countries other than Israel-Palestine. It is typical for scholars to criticize aspects of the nation-states they study. Does UCLA’s CNES shy away from exposing problems in the policies of other Middle Eastern governments? The answer is clearly no, if events like “The Persistence of the Past: How Violence and Genocide in Ottoman Turkey Affect Our World Today,” “Stopping the Nuclear Threat from Iran,” “Egypt: Stillborn Revolution?” and “The Constitutional and Legal Status of Non-Shiites in Iran” are any indication.
AMCHA’s claims of “anti-Semitism” in CNES events fare no better when subjected to scrutiny. For instance, AMCHA’s examples of “anti-Semitic” activity at CNES include statements by speakers that Israel “den[ies] the absolute basic inalienable human rights of Palestinians,” that Israel “was created through colonialism” and that “colonialism and settler-colonialism are both inherently and unequal and unjust systems.” These statements are judgments about the history and policies of the Israeli state and government, and express no animus toward Jewish people because of their religion or ethnicity.
As an open letter from professors of Jewish studies concludes, AMCHA’s definition of anti-Semitism is so broad as to render the term meaningless.
These and other problems prompted the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom-North America to publish an open letter calling on AMCHA “to withdraw [its] report and to apologize to all those whom it falsely and tendentiously accuses of anti-Semitism.”
CNES at UCLA has now issued its own detailed rebuttal of the accusations made by the AMCHA Initiative and others.
Does Title VI require “balance”?
The Brandeis Center’s report claims that when Congress amended the language of Title VI of the Higher Education Act in 2008 to refer to “diverse perspectives” in federally funded programs, it intended to require all programs to provide a “balanced” treatment of all subjects. While the Brandeis Center admits that the phrase “diverse perspectives” has never been defined, it suggests that the Department of Education can and should define it.
The report’s characterization of the HEA, however, is inaccurate. In 2008, Congressional Republicans tried, but failed, to include an evaluation of “diverse perspectives” as a criterion for assessing applications for Title VI funding. Rather, existing law simply requires applicants to explain how they intend to provide “diverse perspectives,” not that diversity of perspectives is a condition of funding. The law is clear that Congress considered and rejected a “diverse perspectives” criterion as a condition of Title VI funding. (See “Selection of Certain Grant Recipients: Selection Criteria” section [20 USC §1127(b)].)
Congress correctly rejected the position now taken by the Brandeis Center report because it would place the Department of Education in the impossible and constitutionally suspect position of policing Middle East studies departments for “diverse perspectives” -- an imprecise and subjective standard that, if applied, would pose a substantial threat to academic freedom.
How does this campaign threaten academic freedom and dissent?
Constitutional protections of free speech are critical to the missions of universities. In fact, in Shelton v. Tucker (1960) the Supreme Court said that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Consistently, from Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) to Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (1998), and in other instances, federal courts have prohibited government interference with the content of speech in educational institutions. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (1943), the Supreme Court clearly affirmed that there are no circumstances under which the government can legitimately determine what is “orthodox,” whether in politics or religious beliefs: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”
Congress clearly understood this matter when, as part of the 2008 amendments to Title VI of the HEA, they included the following qualification: “Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction.” (20 USC §1132-2: Rule of Construction)
This section is explicitly referenced in the grant application form for National Resource Centers and Foreign Language and Area Studies Programs. Thus, both Congress and the Department of Education have specifically acknowledged that they do not have the authority or the intent to prescribe to institutions of higher education what they must teach.
At the same time, universities are already obligated to eliminate discrimination against students on the basis of race, color or national origin, among other identity characteristics. (See 42 USC. §2000d et seq  and 20 USC. §§1681-1688 .) There are ample mechanisms on the federal, state and local level that protect students from discrimination in higher education. Most prominently, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme to address discrimination, including anti-Semitism. In fact, the Brandeis Center and its partners, including the Zionist Organization of America and the AMCHA Initiative, among others, have used this process to file complaints against at least four universities asserting that Palestine activism creates a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. Four such cases were dismissed after burdensome and lengthy investigations determined the claims were unfounded and that the expression in question was protected under the First Amendment.
The Brandeis Center now seeks to duplicate the existing avenues for redress of cases of anti-Semitism by imposing a “diverse perspectives” requirement and enforcement mechanism in the Title VI funding structure. Existing law is more than adequate to deal with real instances of anti-Semitism on campuses. The reforms urged in the Brandeis Center report will create new opportunities for non-governmental, politically motivated organizations to misuse federal power to censor speech at universities that is critical of Israeli state policy or sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians. In so doing it would impose a political orthodoxy in a way that would threaten academic freedom and the vitally important role that academic inquiry plays in the exploration of complex notions of identity, belonging, dispossession, statehood and citizenship in the Middle East.
Is the Brandeis Center’s white paper a reliable source?
Finally, it is worth noting that the Brandeis Center’s report is filled with inaccurate citations and misrepresentations of the Congressional record. These are more than simple typographical errors. The Brandeis Center has claimed that a Congressional hearing, along with the head of the subcommittee itself, have already concluded that Middle East studies programs are biased, and have attempted to prove this claim by citing to the record. Referring to a hearing held by the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in June 2003, the Brandeis Center writes:
Thus, the committee concluded that the “Department of Education has no way of assessing whether the [outreach programs conducted by Title VI-funded Middle East Studies centers] give a fair, historically accurate and balanced view of the subject presented and thus fulfill the statutory purpose of providing not only language instruction, but ‘full understanding of areas, regions and countries in which such language is commonly used.’ (pp. 11-12) [Emphasis added]
This quote refers not to a committee conclusion but to testimony provided by the American Jewish Congress, as is clear in the record. (Even the citation for the report on the June 2003 hearing, “Id. at 164 (quoting the statute)” referring to “H.R. REP. NO. 804-811, at 163 (2005),” is incorrect. The first three digits of any House of Representatives report should refer to the Congressional session, which are numbered biannually. Congress has not been meeting for over 1,600 years.)
The Brandeis Center report also cites a statement by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) on the need to “update programs under Title VI to reflect our national security needs in the post-9/11 era” as being made at the same hearing in June 2003. But Rep. Hoekstra was not present at the hearing. His statement actually comes from a debate on the House floor of HR 3077, which failed to pass the Senate. (Congressional Record, October 21, 2003) This bill was the first concerted attempt by precursors of AMCHA and the Brandeis Center to create a new mechanism for preventing “anti-Israel bias” in Middle East studies programs.
What’s the bottom line?
The Brandeis Center, as well as AMCHA and other organizations, are seeking to stifle legitimate protected speech on college campuses and restrict the free speech and academic freedom rights of those with whom they disagree. In addition to pressuring universities to punish students and academics for their advocacy for Palestinian rights, they are relying on shoddy “studies” and a misinterpretation of the law to convince lawmakers and officials at the Department of Education that Middle East studies programs are in need of regulation or defunding because of their “biased” content.
The truth is that these organizations have presented no credible evidence of bias in these programs and no legal basis for demanding that the government monitor and regulate the content or curriculum of an academic institution. In the distribution of funding, Congress and the Department of Education must abide by the strictures that the First Amendment places on the government’s ability to dictate the content of academic speech, despite what some lobbyists might claim.
Academic institutions and associations that wish to express concern about the proposals to monitor Middle East studies programs and dictate their content can contact the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, at 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327) or 1-202-401-3000 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Palestine, Adrift at the Met
Opera is dying in New York. Or at least it was until last month.
Plagued by the aging of the fan base, New York’s last standing opera house is struggling to keep the art form alive and relevant. One year after City Opera closed its doors, the Metropolitan Opera was on the brink of shutdown this season until unions and management reached a last-minute agreement to lower costs.
Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see the city abuzz this fall over an opera. But, then again, nothing rouses New York elites so much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the opera in question, American composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by a fringe Palestinian group and the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Charging the opera with anti-Semitism, opponents began lobbying the Met to cancel the production before it had even premiered. Based on their reading of the libretto, these opponents claimed that the opera legitimizes terrorism. Though the Met rejected picketers’ demands to cancel the production -- no doubt a costly proposition -- it still bent over backward to appease its critics. The centerfold of the opera’s program contained a letter of opposition from the Klinghoffer heirs. And despite receiving a “not anti-Semitic” stamp from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met canceled its Live in HD simulcast of the opera, a service it offers to make opera more accessible to people who live far from Manhattan or can’t easily afford tickets. That decision, lauded by the ADL, came in deference to concerns that the opera could stoke anti-Semitism, especially in Europe where attacks on Jews spiked during Israel’s onslaught upon Gaza this past summer. It was a bizarre concession. If the opera is not anti-Semitic, why cancel its broadcast?
What is really threatening about The Death of Klinghoffer is that it offers a basic history of Israel that many Americans are unfamiliar with. The prologue features a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians who tell the story of their displacement in 1948. The idea of a people forced from their homes, murdered and disenfranchised by foreign settlers tends to elicit sympathy. The opera thus entertains the idea that Palestinians have legitimate grievances. Klinghoffer director Tom Morris said, “My ideal response is that people think about and reflect on the crime that the opera dramatizes and -- if they choose -- the circumstances which might have led to it.”
So perhaps opponents worry that the opera will prompt viewers to see the conflict in less black-and-white terms, a shift that dancer Jesse Kovarsky, who plays a hijacker named Omar, described experiencing himself: “As someone who’s been raised pro-Israel, who’s a Jew, who grew up in a country that is pro-Israel, I never knew anything about Palestine or Palestinians. And to be invited into this opera and encouraged to study that history, I’ve been exposed to a world that I totally…. I’m confused by my own upbringing in terms of how I see the conflict, how I see it now.” The idea that an opera can change a person’s perspective on a topic that has been front-page news for decades suggests how one-dimensional American understanding of the conflict is.
Klinghoffer sets the context in which the hijacking of the Achille Lauro took place through two choruses -- one of exiled Palestinians and another of exiled Jews. The Palestinians, dressed in drab gray robes that recall the grim reaper, are angry, destructive and violent. The Jews, in modern European garb, are calm and peaceful, singing of their attachment to the land and bearing olive trees.
Later, a Palestinian hijacker tells of how his love for the gun was born when he was just five years old. Although the hijackers relate atrocities committed against them by Jews, strangely the Israeli narrative is totally demilitarized. The casual viewer would not know that military service is a rite of passage in Israel or that militarism is valorized as a part of Jewish national identity. Guns are ubiquitous and openly brandished in the streets, and tourist shops display “Uzi does it” t-shirts to celebrate the Israeli assault rifle. The Israel Defense Forces is so beloved an institution that during last summer’s war on Gaza Israeli women mobilized in support of the troops by posting photos on Facebook of their scantily clothed bodies painted with the words “I heart IDF.”
Tom Morris’ production uses costume and set design to tie the opera’s events to the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. A massive floor-to-ceiling illuminated backdrop displays the separation wall in various degrees of relief throughout the performance. The first scene opens with the year 1948 displayed on the canvas; as the chorus advances the years marking successive wars flash onscreen, while the landscape alters and the wall gradually takes starker form until reaching 2014, when an opaque, towering concrete barrier is all that stands. Next enters the Chorus of Exiled Jews, suitcases in hand. At the end of the first act the two groups of exiles take the stage together, their voices intermingling and overlapping. As the chorus chants, “No one bothers to look up from their work,” the audience sees the words “Apathy kills” prominently displayed among the wall’s Palestine solidarity graffiti.
Librettist Alice Goodman could not have imagined such a production when the opera was first performed in 1991. The decision to tie the events of 1985 to the present reinforces the fact that the purview of the opera extends well beyond the hijacking incident. Morris, who worked in Israel in the early 1990s, says he hopes the opera will help people better understand the conflict. So it makes sense that he would use set design to tie the events of 1985 to all that has happened since. But the liberties he takes with time and context are at times careless and even harmful.
Palestinians, already portrayed by the chorus in an ominous ghost-like manner, appear trapped in time. Some of the women wear the abaya (a loose cloak) and niqab (the full face veil), even though such attire is uncommon among Palestinians. They wave solid green flags, redolent of an undefined Islamic affinity, yet not a single Palestinian national flag is unfurled throughout the opera. The Islamic depiction of the Palestinian struggle is perplexing because the hijackers of the Achille Lauro were part of a secular leftist group, and in 1985 Islamism was a marginal political force among Palestinians.
Klinghoffer’s Islamic representation of the hijacking is not confined to its visual attributes. The hijackers’ lines suggest they are motivated, at least in part, by an ideological clash of civilizations. One hijacker attacks Western culture for its “idolatry” and tolerance of “sodomy.” The libretto intimates that the hijacking is a suicide mission led by men so fanatical they desire their own death. Mahmoud (the libretto uses a non-standard spelling of his name), one of the hijackers, sings, “We don’t worry as we want to die. It is you, it is they who desire to live.” Omar, too, expresses a wish to be martyred. A woman, perhaps a vision of his mother, dressed in the baleful clothing of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians sings his aria. In place of his words from the original libretto, “My heart will break if I do not walk in paradise in two days,” Omar’s anima sings, “My heart will break if you do not walk in paradise within two days.” Coming from a mother-like figure, the line perpetuates dehumanizing Israeli propaganda that Palestinian mothers breed merely for the sake of the national cause and purposely sacrifice their sons.
That is indeed how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended the premiere, interpreted the line. “There is one very dramatic scene of a Palestinian mother raising this child. His toy is a gun from when he’s five years old, and she’s raising him so that he will one day do a very brave act that will result in his own death and then he will go to paradise,” she said. “It was chilling.” In fact, Justice Ginsburg conflated separate stories of two hijackers: Mahmoud sings of his early love of the gun and the woman standing in for Omar sings of desiring death. But together the general message is the same: Palestinian children are taught to hate and to devalue life. In this light, the Leon Klinghoffer character’s words during his bold and righteous broadside resonate: “We’re human. We’re the kind of people you like to kill.”
In actuality, the hijackers’ goal was to achieve the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, an objective the opera mentions in a hijacker’s verse. In other words, the hijackers hoped to use the hostages as leverage in a negotiation, not to perpetrate a bloodbath. It was a botched operation, with the four hijackers left directionless at sea and unsure how to proceed. The suggestion that the hijacking might have been a suicide mission makes little sense on the opera’s own terms because, as it depicts, the hijackers arranged an escape, abandoning the ship and their hostages.
Despite these historical inaccuracies, Klinghoffer projects an appearance of being well researched. The production takes pains to provide the audience with historical information that appears on a sidebar-like screen beside the stage. The audience is apprised of behind-the-scenes negotiations to free the hostages and Syria’s refusal to allow the ship to dock in Tartous. But these tidbits of information, known only retrospectively, add little to the audience’s overall understanding and could have been more skillfully incorporated into the libretto. Instead, the opera seems littered with explanatory footnotes. The effect is heavy-handed, with stuffy storytelling stifling emotion.
It is hard to imagine how The Death of Klinghoffer could be construed as anti-Semitic. It is true that some of the hijackers’ lines are anti-Semitic, but they are uttered to offer a portrait of the hijackers as depraved and maniacal, not to persuade the audience that Jews are less than human. The opera humanizes the hijackers in the sense that it gives them a voice, a backstory and a face. But, on the whole, Klinghoffer perpetuates stereotypes of Palestinians as violent, death-seeking religious fanatics. Klinghoffer might depict two sides to the conflict, but the portrait it paints of Palestinians is one that Palestinians themselves would struggle to recognize. What is most threatening about the opera for the Zionist narrative is that it recounts some of the less known and less savory aspects of Israel’s history: ethnic cleansing, massacres and apartheid.
Image: The separation wall near Bethlehem. (Ted Swedenburg)
Losing Hope in Iran and Egypt
The decision to leave your country, especially when you leave for political or ideological reasons, can be gut-wrenching. My parents made that decision for me when they left Iran in my early adolescence. Unlike some Iranians forced to flee, my parents were not members of a persecuted religious minority. Nor were they high-profile political activists at immediate risk of arrest. But as people who had demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship, and had hoped that the 1979 revolution would bring democracy and social justice to Iran, witnessing their country plunge into authoritarianism and turn into a theocracy was more than they could bear. It was like the country they knew and hoped for no longer existed. Add to that the fact that, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran, igniting a cruel war that would last eight years, and my parents felt that the best option for them, my two sisters and me was to build a future elsewhere. It was a decision that tormented them as they made it, and continued to occupy their thoughts for years after emigration.
Of course, my parents are not unique. Following the 1979 revolution and throughout the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iranians fled into exile and became part of a diaspora that is scattered all over the globe.
And though the Iran-Iraq war is long over, and though the extreme brutality of the first years following 1979 has given way to oscillating periods of calm and unrest (the most famous episode being the mass protests after the 2009 presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into office for a second term), Iranians continue to leave Iran, for a combination of ideological, political and economic reasons. Not in the same large numbers, but in a constant trickle.
During a recent trip to Iran, practically every young person I met (and some not so young) had a question for me about migrating. These are not political activists at risk of detention. They are people tired of living with a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that their talents and abilities are going to waste in a country where advancement through merit has become a joke, a premonition that nothing will change for the better. This hopelessness became particularly acute after the protests following the 2009 elections were crushed. Many of the activists left Iran. The US-led sanctions, which have had far-reaching, devastating effects on the economy, are also fueling the desperation.
The overwhelming desire to leave is painful to see each time I am confronted with it. It is upsetting that some 30 years after the events that propelled my parents’ departure, the situation in Iran remains dire, and that young people in particular have lost faith in a better tomorrow.
I am also confronted with these sentiments in Egypt, the country I have called home since 2005. The January 25, 2011 uprising that led to Husni Mubarak’s resignation brought with it an incredible optimism. One activist described feeling at the time that everything was possible. The succeeding events -- the transitional period of army rule, the elections that brought the Muslim Brothers to power -- may have been seen as setbacks for many of the activists who were driven by a desire for greater democracy and social justice in Egypt. But most of my Egyptian friends who had spent days protesting in Tahrir Square felt that the setbacks were inevitable and indeed necessary on the long road to true political transformation. It was unrealistic to think the Brothers would have no role in the new Egypt, they would say, even as they were disappointed and at times enraged by the Islamists’ tactics, refusal to compromise and, in many instances, clear hypocrisy. The Egypt my friends wanted was still possible and still worth fighting for. And fighting was still possible, in spite of everything.
Everything seems to have changed since then. The protests of June 30, 2013, the army coup that removed Muhammad Mursi from office, the massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brother supporters in August 2013, the lack of accountability, the support for the massacre drummed up by state media, the drafting of a constitution that is supposed to enshrine the rule of law at the same time that the most basic principles of humanity are flouted, the elections that brought ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to power, the jailing of journalists, the mass death sentences issued for Muslim Brothers, the draconian anti-protest laws, the threats looming over NGOs, and numerous other developments, big and small, have sunk these same once hopeful, bright-eyed friends into depths of depression.
And so, one by one, we hear of departures. Some of the same people who returned from overseas to take part in the shaping of a new Egypt have decided to leave again. Some have decided that now is the time to pursue an advanced degree, a job, a fellowship -- anything that will take them away. Some journalist friends, terrified by the imprisonment of their colleagues, are seeking postings elsewhere. Some who work for NGOs are bracing for a crackdown, due to restrictive NGO legislation, and have moved their operations elsewhere. Some, visiting friends who are behind bars for violating the protest law, fear that remaining in Egypt will only bring the same for them. They are thinking of leaving.
In short, what I am witnessing in Egypt now, the conversations I am having, evokes memories of Iranian friends and acquaintances going into exile. Once again, I watch some of a country’s best and brightest unable to bear the pain of coping with a “tomorrow that never came.” And, with their departures, that tomorrow becomes more and more distant.
An Interview with Mohamed Elshahed
Mohamed Elshahed is a young, dynamic architect and researcher who is documenting changes to urban space in Egypt at his highly popular blog Cairobserver. Elshahed completed a doctorate in Middle East studies at New York University and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. He also holds a MA in architecture studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation is titled, “Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967.” It argues that 1950s urban and architectural development associated with Nasserism refashioned preexisting architectural production in the service of “necessary transitional authoritarianism” in Egypt.
What is Cairobserver and why did you start it? How is it different from other publications and websites on architecture and city life?
Cairobserver started in April 2011 as a personal blog about architecture, heritage, urbanism and other aspects of life in the Egyptian capital. Since then the site has evolved into a platform for reflections on the urban condition of Cairo, as well as other cities in the Middle East, posted by me and guest bloggers.
Perhaps what sets Cairobserver apart from other sites that deal with issues related to architecture and urbanism is that it is anchored in Cairo, a city that hasn’t been at the top of the list when it comes to architecture and urban studies. International (read, English-language) sites continue to look at European and American cities with a bit of interest in Asia, particularly the rapid urbanization in China. When it comes to the Middle East, coverage has been almost entirely focused on Dubai and other Gulf cities.
In 2010, when I had moved to Cairo to conduct my dissertation research, I realized that very little online speaks to the urban reality of Cairo. The plethora of websites about cities reproduces very similar themes -- star architects, sustainability and green architecture, what are dubbed as global urban trends, such as gentrification. While all these topics are interesting, Cairo wasn’t a place where contemporary architecture with a capital A was a prime concern. Nor was it a place where gentrification, pedestrianization or wholesale neoliberal takeover of urban heritage were happening, at least not in ways similar to the case studies on sites such as CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities). In the occasional coverage of cities from the global south (mostly South Asia or Latin America), the focus would typically be on topics such as slums and urban resilience. These broad-brush strokes did not really provide a useful toolbox for someone sitting in Cairo and interested in urban issues. Cairobserver was my humble attempt to fill the gap.
Cairobserver also comes out in a beautiful print edition. What made you go in that direction when most publishing seems to be going online?
My desire to create a print publication was partly influenced by my doctoral research. I had been collecting print material from the 1930s-1970s, ranging from booklets and pamphlets to magazines and journals. These sources form the backbone of my project, which looks at how architecture and the city were not only built but also mediated during the middle of the twentieth century. I realized that in 50 years a similar project about our present time would be nearly impossible. By comparison to the rich print culture of the early and middle twentieth century in Egypt, including specialized journals and magazines dealing with architecture, today the options are slim. There isn’t a single newspaper or magazine in Cairo that facilitates the circulation of ideas about the city, its history and development, and that can act as a bridging medium between professionals, policymakers and residents. Similarly, while Egypt was home to the first Arabic-language architectural journal, established in 1939, there simply isn’t one of that caliber today. There had been several attempts over the past couple of decades but with serious drawbacks related to content and design.
For these reasons I thought it would be a worthwhile experiment to create a paper version of Cairobserver. The first issue was bilingual but I’m moving toward making the print version exclusively in Arabic since it is printed and distributed in Egypt (as opposed to the bilingual but mostly English online version which reaches both a local and an international audience). I also wanted to invest in the print edition’s design so that it appeals to a variety of readers and makes a contribution not only to the conversation about the city but also to the production of print culture in Egypt today. The second issue came out in January 2014.
I think the turn from digital to print is not as unusual as it may seem. There is a resurgence of print culture around the world with more do-it-yourself magazines than ever before. In the Middle East there is also a resurgence, with many new magazines, such as The Outpost, Brownbook, The Carton, Portal 9 and WTD.
Unlike the blog, the print edition costs money to produce. For the last issue I launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised the $5,000 to cover the design, copy-editing and printing costs of 1,500 copies at 44 pages each. There were two successful launch events in Cairo at Megawra and Nile Sunset Annex. The distribution is informal. The issues are distributed for free.
I have made a call for contributions for two new issues, one themed #University and the other #Downtowns. The idea is to widen the scope of voices represented by opening the magazine and blog to students, architects, social scientists and interested residents. A crowdfunding campaign for these new issues will launch in November 2014. I’m also open to finding other ways of funding the print edition such as sponsorship and grants.
In what way was Cairobserver shaped by the political upheaval in Egypt over the past three years?
In 2010 there was a sense of frustration in Cairo. For me the city was itself a source of frustration because its governing logic was clearly not meant to make it a better place for people. Trees were cut down randomly by the same authorities who failed to collect garbage; infrastructure was extended to secluded new cities in the desert with no population while crowded areas were underserved; public transport was not maintained and private cars were encouraged; public spaces were intentionally made uninhabitable. There was a need to talk about the day-to-day use of the city but there was no venue to do the talking. Given the stagnant political situation, it seemed that little could change, anyway.
Then January 2011 happened. By April Cairobserver was online because for once I thought there might be a chance to talk about things like the cities we live in, and actually make some change. There were other initiatives that deal with architecture, urbanism and heritage that were established after 2011 such as Megawra and Cluster. The Tarek Waly Center for Architecture and Heritage also started to produce its triannual newspaper starting in 2011. So I would say that for many, the possibility of imagining a better future, including a better urban future, was ignited by the events of 2011.
What specific changes in architecture and urban space, or understandings of these, have you witnessed following the uprisings?
I think there have been immense changes not only to the spaces of Egyptian cities but also in the perception of urban spaces and the ways in which certain actors engage with specific sites within various cities.
The physical changes to cities have unfortunately been for the worse: There is the sometimes temporary but often permanent encroachment on public space, particularly around police stations and other kinds of government buildings that might be associated with the army or the Interior Ministry. Entire streets have been blocked off, as well as sidewalks, to create security buffer zones. Trees have been cut down to create lines of sight for snipers and surveillance cameras and snipers. All in all, there is a militarization of Egyptian cities in ways we haven’t seen or felt before, at least not to this degree. This militarization is now taking on legal cover. The president just announced that all civilian infrastructure will now be governed by military law. Other major physical changes are the rapid destruction of heritage and the expansion of speculative real estate development, particularly in the informal market.
Perceptions of the city and engagement with its condition have also changed, especially with civil society initiatives (many of which will be affected severely by the new NGO law) and private capital initiatives such as the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival. There has also been a surge in entrepreneurship catering to the upper class with many new establishments such as streetside restaurants and cafés. Of course, these ventures are limited to pockets in the city, but I think it is as an odd, even counterintuitive development that amidst the political circus of the last three years there are five new burger shops opening in Zamalek.
In the meantime, the great majority of city dwellers are still paying the highest price for the uneven distribution of services and the terrible governance, particularly on the municipal level.
What do you think of the Cairo School of Urban Studies?
The Cairo School of Urban Studies is a great idea, as Cairo is still a generative laboratory for studying urban processes and subjectivities. I think, however, that besides the edited volumes Cairo Cosmopolitan and Cairo Contested there hasn't been a consistent effort to bring the concept of the “school” to its full potential.
Diane Singerman, along with Kareem Ibrahim of Takween Integrated Development, established Tadamun, an initiative that picks up where the Cairo School of Urban Studies left off. Tadamun is an initiative with consistent output of new knowledge about the city and it is grounded in the city. Its output is easily available online in Arabic and English and they hold events and workshops in communities.
So I think the Cairo School of Urban Studies, which remains a concept, can benefit from Tadamun’s experience over the past couple of years. The “school” needs to take shape as a real space in Cairo in which events and talks take place, knowledge is produced and disseminated, and experts, scholars, activists and Cairenes meet. The downtown campus of the American University in Cairo is a possible place for such an institution to take root.
What are your plans in the near future?
In the near future I’ll be working to produce the two issues mentioned above. There is also a possibility for a special print issue supported by the Arab Council for Social Sciences. In December I am organizing a film program in collaboration with Zawia, an independent art house cinema in downtown Cairo. The theme will be “Life in the City” and the program will include documentary films that highlight particular aspects of life in Egyptian cities.
Life and Death in the Graves of Mecca and Medina
On September 1 The Independent published a piece by Andrew Johnson detailing plans by the Saudi state to move the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad from the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina to an unmarked grave in the nearby Baqi‘ cemetery as part of an ongoing scheme to expand the mosques of the two holy cities.
The article relies primarily on a summary of an academic study published by the Saudi Authority for the Affairs of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid al-Nabawi that had been provided by Irfan al-Alawi, head of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Contrary to Alawi’s summary, the author of the study did not call for disinterment and reburial of the Prophet, but rather the construction of a wall to separate the Prophet’s tomb from the prayer area and the removal of all decorative motifs from the mosque, thereby preventing undue veneration of the Prophet rather than God. (See pp. 225-226.) Even so, Alawi’s reporting, most recently on the destruction of historical sites in Mecca and Medina, has circulated widely in the Arab, Iranian and Pakistani press, resonating with many Muslims who see the move as evidence of a broad “Wahhabi” assault on Islamic history, popular devotional practices and even the person of the Prophet.
While the Independent article may be exaggerated in its details, the concern for the sanctity of the Prophet’s body, the fear that it could be buried in an unmarked grave, are products not of timeless “Wahhabi” doctrine, but of a much more recent history of state formation in Mecca and Medina. It is worth reflecting on an earlier moment of destruction in Mecca and Medina, which highlights the particular political logic of the Saudi transformation of the urban devotional landscape of these cities and the attention directed at the Prophet’s grave. The armies of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Sa‘ud (d. 1953), the founder of the Saudi state, conquered the cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924 and 1925, respectively. Early the next year, the state systematically destroyed the domed mausoleums of the Mu‘alla cemetery in Mecca and the Baqi‘ cemetery of Medina. Both housed the tombs of the Prophet’s family and companions, but Baqi‘ had been held in special reverence due to the interment there of the Prophet’s daughters, wives, aunts and, in a particularly ornate mausoleum, several of the Shi‘i imams. The graves of Baqi‘ were the object of visitation (ziyara) for both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims, and were especially frequented during the hajj season. The Prophet’s grave in the Masjid al-Nabawi was damaged, but left intact. In all cases, the practice of visitation was vigorously policed by the committees of public virtue to ensure that pilgrims did not pray to the dead or confer on them powers reserved only for God.
But underlying the debate over the (im)permissibility of visiting tombs were two markedly different concepts of death held by a broad community of Muslims, on the one hand, and the scholars of the Saudi state, on the other. The practice of visitation and the direction of invocations and requests to the deceased, both of which were forbidden by the Saudis due to their seeming conferral of divine powers on the dead, were dependent on a particular view of death shared by many Muslim communities that assumed a continuous and affective connection with the living. Members of the South Asian Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama‘a, for example, argued that the prophets, martyrs and even many pious lived on corporeally in the grave, reciting prayers and listening to the entreaties of living Muslims who visited them. Indeed, for many, the dead in the grave could feel physical pain and pleasure, not only that associated with the terrors of the grave, but also that derived from the felicitations (or insults) of the living. In this state of qualified corporeal life, in the realm of barzakh (the state between death and resurrection), the dead could act as mediators between the living believer and God, through the practice of tawassul or intercession.
Contrary to this view, the view of the ‘ulama’ aligned with the Saudis argued that although the prophets’ corpses (including that of the Prophet Muhammad) may not decay in the ground, they were unable to hear the supplications of believers and were incapable of effecting benefit or harm in the living world, powers reserved exclusively for God. Indeed, with the destruction of the tombs at Baqi‘ and the subsequent policing of religious practices by the Saudi committee for public morality, death came to be defined primarily in biological terms. The state of barzakh was understood as pertaining to knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb) and beyond the limits of human understanding. Even the Prophet himself was considered but a corpse in his tomb.
This understanding of the finality of death was not merely a juridical position authorized by the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (or one of “Wahhabi” doctrine), but the result of the formation of a new type of Saudi governance, one that increasingly took the management of biological life (and death) as its target. It is no coincidence that the same year the mausoleums of Baqi‘ were demolished the first Saudi public health authority was established with its headquarters in Mecca and under the direction of the Syrian physician Mahmoud Hamdi. Its primary purpose was to oversee the management of public health and hygiene in the holy cities, especially during the pilgrimage season. The establishment of hospitals, dispensaries and regulations for public sanitation followed, including strict laws for recording and tending to the dead and the dying. That is, beyond regulating the ritual life of Muslims in the holy cities, the nascent Saudi state also targeted the biological lives (and deaths) of its subjects. Moreover, this new politics of life was intimately and inextricably intertwined with the government of religious belief and practice. Care of the body was now to be a common spiritual-governmental exercise overseen by the institutions of the state.
In short, reference to a rigid “Wahhabi” iconoclasm rooted in a literal reading of the Prophetic tradition provides little insight into the events of 1926 or 2014. Rather, we should look at the formation of a common economy of biopolitical and legal/theological power. Most importantly, this means asking how doctrine and the regulation of the body in life and death come together in the everyday practice of government.
The expansion of the Masjid al-Nabawi is after all only one part of a massive urban development plan that calls for the construction of new ring roads, high speed rail, apartments and flats for permanent and seasonal residents, and the expansion of public services in the city. Much of this project, couched in the language of modernization and development, is devoted to the state management of populations -- their lives, movement and security. In such an urban landscape, Baqi‘ and the Prophet’s grave will always stand out as sites at which this biopolitical order is brought into question.
Southern Yemen After the Fall of Sanaa
The mysteries in the September events in Sanaa loom large. Who decided that security forces should not try to stop the Houthis from entering the Yemeni capital? Why didn’t Hashid tribes, closely tied to the political elites of Sanaa, stop them? These are questions that southerners are asking when trying to make sense of what happened on September 21 when Ansar Allah, the militia of the Houthi political group, stormed the largest city in the north.
What many believe is that the Houthis were used by former president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih to dislodge Maj. Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a long-time player in the Yemeni political elite and his former righthand man, and to weaken al-Ahmar’s political affiliate, the Islamist party known as Islah. For decades, the Sanhan tribe to which Salih and al-Ahmar belong has monopolized power in Sanaa, excluding not only the Houthis but also the biggest tribal confederation, the Bakil. These tensions have hindered state building in northern Yemen since the 1960s, but have very little to do with the south, where the hirak, a movement for autonomy from the capital, continues to build momentum.
Southerners received the news of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa with mixed feelings. Some are optimistic that the sudden change opens up the possibility of breaking the overall political deadlock that men such as Salih created. Others see the country dragged more deeply into the great game between the Saudis and the Iranians for regional hegemony, a message that satellite channels from the Gulf repeat evening after evening. For still others, the Houthis are just hicks with no manners. Rumors spread through qat chews and social media that while the Houthis presented acceptable views on women’s role in society at the National Dialogue Conference, at home their wives have no rights whatsoever. More than ten years of disinformation in Yemeni state and independent media has borne fruit: Houthis are seen as the ultimate other. Their leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s assurances that the movement will meet the southerners’ demands are not believed. Instead, some prefer to follow the call of the Southern Military Council to seize control of southern cities. Headed by Muhammad Salih Tammah, this new body gathers together southern officers who were expelled from the army after the 1994 civil war to supervise the formation of a southern military force. Towns are falling outside the control of Sanaa; after Sanaa fell to the Houthis, the governor of Aden, Sanaa-nominated Islah party representative Wahid Rashid fled Aden and left his office to a deputy. It is evident that he expected Aden to be next to fall into the hands of anti-government forces. In Aden his escape was received with amusement.
The only southerner participating in Sanaa’s endless power game is President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. He may have learned the main lesson from the 30-year tenure of his predecessor Salih: Make your enemies fight each other. That the Houthis are attacking Islah party offices and homes of prominent Islahis such as Tawakkul Karman certainly indicates that he has. To southerners, it makes no difference. Hadi is seen as just as culpable as his predecessor in the assault on the south in the 1994 war and afterward.
Southerners have reacted with little enthusiasm to Hadi’s move, following the peace deal with the Houthis, to replace his political adviser with a hirak representative alongside Houthi man ‘Ali al-Sammad. The nominee, Yasin al-Makkawi, is an Adeni intellectual and hirak activist but hardly represents the movement as such. Older southerners remember that another Makkawi acted as political adviser to the British when Aden was a Crown Colony.
Local organizations loosely attached to the hirak, political parties and the mighty tribal groups of Hadramawt are busily holding meetings in Aden, Mukalla and Cairo. At issue is the search for a common leadership to shepherd the south toward successful disengagement from Sanaa. As an Adeni hirak leader put it to me, “Unification of the hirak under one leadership is a must.” While some politicians, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party’s northern wing, still believe in federation, others, including the party’s southern wing, are moving toward backing full independence.
The problem facing the hirak is to secure the cooperation of the tribes in oil-rich Hadramawt and the area further east, al-Mahra, which abhor any outside ruler. The Hadrami tribes’ meeting included local political parties and issued a call to remove the Yemeni army from Hadrami territory. But, as for autonomy from Sanaa, the meeting simply pleaded with Hadi to visit for talks about the future of the area.
The “southern peaceful revolution,” as the independence movement calls itself, is a grassroots movement. On the surface, some of its activities seem apolitical, such as efforts to restore historical monuments or demands to reopen the Sira brewery, which ran three shifts per day before it was hit by bazooka fire during the 1994 civil war. On a daily basis, though, the hirak is building up an alternative to the rule of Sanaa. Even if the hirak fails to unite as a credible political force representing the entire south, grassroots action will continue to keep Sanaa out. As tribes are capable of closing roads and seizing oilfields, there is little that Sanaa can do to regain control of the alienated south.
Airstrikes Against the Patriarchy
The media sometimes has trouble conjuring a feel-good story out of an airstrike, but not now. In the last few days, news outlets across the world have fallen all over themselves to champion Maryam al-Mansouri—the first female combat pilot in the United Arab Emirates—who flew in a nighttime sortie over Syria on September 22. An Arab woman bombing ISIS! Pew, pew, pew! There she goes, shooting down the patriarchy, one missile at a time.
The story is an American war planner’s dream come true. War against the so-called Islamic State, often known by the acronym ISIS, has proven an easy enough sell on its own. The group’s fundamentalist dogma and brutality happens to match the picture of jihadi terror the US has been painting for decades. And this time around, the “coalition of the willing” is comprised entirely of Washington’s regional clients. Lest anyone have lingering doubts about the prudence or justice of this military operation—backed as it is by governments with views of women, minorities and apostasy almost as retrograde as the enemy’s—look, there is one woman involved.
Individual stories of triumph can be compelling, and al-Mansouri’s achievement in a fantastically unequal society is, indeed, a (small) step toward legal equality for Emirati women. She is, however, one of four women in the UAE air force, all of whom have been flying since 2008. So the interest in al-Mansouri now springs from the pathological interest in the plight of Arab and Muslim women, real and perceived, that attends US military engagement in the Middle East. It used to be, in the imperial imagination, that brown women had to call on white men to liberate them from brown men, but now a pioneering Muslim woman has signed up to save her sisters (and her country).
Al-Mansouri’s participation in the airstrikes seems to be the sole justification for a five-minute segment of Morning Joe featuring the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yusuf al-‘Utayba. Straight out of the imperialist feminist playbook, the conversation pits “moderate” non-democratic Arab regimes against fundamentalist non-democratic Arab regimes, and, in this case, a fundamentalist militia with state-like ambitions. As host Joe Scarborough put it, “In some countries, women can’t drive, and you guys are, like, putting ‘em in charge of fighting missions.” (Never mind that the implied foil here, Saudi Arabia, is also part of the coalition.) Al-‘Utayba swings hard at that softball: “The whole campaign and coalition on ISIS—and extremists in general—boils down to, ultimately, this: Do you want a model or a society that allows women to become ministers in government, female fighter pilots, business executives, or do you want a society where if a woman doesn’t cover up in public, where she’s beaten, or she’s lashed, or she’s raped?”
The problem is, Mr. Ambassador, that rather disquieting forms of gender inequality remain entrenched in the UAE. In its most recent World Report, Human Rights Watch notes that violence against women is legally permitted when it occurs within families, and that women who survive sexual assault are vulnerable to criminal charges for extramarital sex. Emirati women who marry foreign men without state approval forfeit their citizenship, as well as that of their children with non-citizen fathers. As for pressure that might be brought to bear on the issue of women’s rights by powerful allies, the report notes that the US mutes criticism of discrimination and state repression of political dissent because it is “seeking multibillion-dollar fighter jet contracts” with the government. The UAE also has the distinction of being one of only three states (along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) that recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, despite international campaigns about their treatment of women. And it is likely that early support for ISIS in Syria came from donors in the UAE and other Gulf states. Needless to say, Scarborough didn’t bring these items up.
Much easier and morally satisfying to repurpose al-Mansouri’s story to promote a military campaign that, yet again, is poised to rescue damsels in distress from forces of darkness. Much easier, certainly, than investigating how well women’s-liberation-from-10,000 feet has gone in Afghanistan or Iraq. And much more morally satisfying than contemplating how low the bar sits for Arab women’s equality.
The Arab Bank and Washington’s Protectorate in the Levant
One stated justification for US strikes in Syria and Iraq is to protect the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Indeed, the status of the Hashemite monarchy as Washington’s protectorate has a long history. And while Jordanian society certainly feels the impact of regional insecurity, whether to the north, west or east, the more persistent and serious threats to Hashemite rule have been internal and generally socio-economic. It was mobilization by opposition parties and professional associations in the 1950s that led a young King Hussein to disband Parliament for decades. It was a sudden currency devaluation and impending economic collapse in the late 1980s that compelled him to bring Parliament back. And since then, episodic public protest and unrest in the southern parts of the country have centered on socio-economic grievances that show few signs of abating.
It was curiously ironic, then, that on the day before the US commenced bombing Syria, a federal jury in New York held Jordan’s most important financial institution, the Arab Bank, liable for supporting terrorism. The penalties, to be determined in separate proceedings, threaten the survival of Washington’s close ally in Amman.
Understanding why requires a bit more background on the Arab Bank. Established in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, the Arab Bank quickly evolved into one of the region’s most respected financial institutions. Its Palestinian founder, Abdul Hameed Shoman, had first tried to establish the Arab American Bank in New York City but failed. By the end of his career in the 1970s, Abdul Hameed was an icon in Palestinian and Jordanian societies and one of the region’s most highly regarded bankers. His biography is entitled The Indomitable Arab.
The old quip in Jordan is that sons of the East Bank elite went to work for the state, while the scions of the Palestinian elite went to work at the Arab Bank. Yet in economic and political terms, the Arab Bank transcended these dividing lines of identity in the kingdom. With headquarters in Amman’s tony Shumaysani neighborhood and fast-expanding regional business, the Arab Bank became Jordan’s most important economic institution by the 1980s. It was hardly aloof from regional or domestic politics, as attested to by the close relations between the Hashemites and Abdul Hameed and his heirs. The bank’s financing operations in Iraq figured in tensions between Jordan and Iraq when the latter country was under the rule of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority. Today, the Arab Bank represents nearly one third of Amman’s shaky stock market. There are no recent direct measures of the Arab Bank’s contribution to Jordan’s economy. But given the critical importance of banking to the services sector, which comprises nearly 70 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product, informal estimates suggest the Arab Bank’s investments and activities constitute at least one third if not one half of Jordan’s total economic output.
Today, Jordan weathers one of the highest levels of debt in the world with 18 percent of GDP in external debt and over 85 percent of GDP in public-sector debt. The unemployment rate is among the highest in the region. Thus, the penalties in the New York case have the potential to create havoc in an already tense country. Reputational costs aside, the verdict erodes Jordan’s already poor ability to attract productive investment. And it puts numerous obstacles in the way of integrating regional economies, another long-standing goal of Washington’s policy toward Amman. An appeal may be successful or the US government could weigh in to reduce whatever damages are awarded by the next court.
For the moment, in the midst of the Obama administration’s complex, contradictory policies toward the Arab world, the Arab Bank case has a low profile. It does, however, lay bare the failures of America’s protection policies and the pretense of two sovereign allies working to stabilize the region.
Sisi at the UN
This week ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi paid his inaugural visit to the United States as president of Egypt. The occasion was the annual meetings of the UN General Assembly. We asked some veteran Egypt watchers and MERIP authors for their reactions.
More significant than what ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi says before the UN this week is what his presence signifies. His first address to the “international community” caps a year-long effort to normalize his seizure of power on July 3, 2013 and banish the taint of putschism that clings to him like a noisome aroma. Sisi’s metamorphosis from plotting general to pontificating president has not been seamless, but neither has it encountered the widespread popular resistance one would have predicted in a country undergoing tectonic political shifts.
Sisi’s authorization of unbridled state violence against opposition in the first three months after his coup saw to it that most Egyptians were too cowed or too worn out to decry the state-orchestrated killings of their fellow citizens. Even relatively tiny enclaves of rhetorical dissidence were not ignored, but instead were steamrolled by a propaganda machine hailing “the return of state prestige.” Just as Tahrir is now a global byword for people power, so haybat al-dawla is the Egyptian contribution to the world’s stock lexicon of counter-revolutionary statism. Order, work and inequality are the three pillars: The state will reestablish order. The people should get back to work and overlook how inequitably the fruits of production are distributed.
Sisi and his fellow generals are not alone in recasting the Egyptian revolution as a regrettable episode of instability and chaos. A constellation of domestic and international actors is eagerly providing moral and material support for glossing over the military takeover of Egypt’s politics. Key here is the age-old tactic of changing the subject from politics to economics. Days before Sisi’s arrival in New York, the world’s economic mandarins lent him their seal of approval, lauding his fuel subsidy cuts and advertising his summit in February seeking foreign donors beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council states. With no irony, The Economist characterized Sisi’s assumption of the presidency as a “strong electoral win,” declaring that he has “brought hope to Egyptians wearied by years of political turmoil” while tastefully tsk-tsking his “reliance on heavy-handed police to silence dissent.”
There’s no surprise in the global embrace of the fiction that ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s elected president, embarking on a promising path of economic recovery. And it’s tedious to rehearse the cynicism and hypocrisy of framing mass killings, arrests and death sentences as mere unfortunate occurrences. But one can still register wonderment at how swiftly the world fell into line with the military regime’s facts on the ground. It’s a sobering reminder that exterminating the Egyptian democratic experiment is an international affair.
To prepare for ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to the UN, the government of Egypt launched a public relations blitz paid for by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In Times Square, an electronic billboard proclaimed “the New Egypt” as the words “Peace, Prosperity and Growth” rotated underneath the red, white and black colors of the Egyptian flag. The glaring irony is that the actual new parts of Sisi’s Egypt, such as repositioning the armed forces as guardians of the prestige of the state (haybat al-dawla) and epic levels of state violence, aren’t being talked about.
Sisi said all the right things in his speech before the UN General Assembly. He supports the US government’s newest war against the so-called Islamic State and vows toughness in Egypt’s domestic anti-terror fight. He says that Egypt has suffered the scourge of terrorism since the 1920s -- a direct reference to the Society of Muslim Brothers, which was founded in 1928. He wants to shore up the US-Egyptian relationship with more American-made military hardware delivered to Cairo. He claims to have found the silver bullets that will, at last, dispatch Egypt’s economic woes to memory. He wants a Palestinian state to be established on the June 5, 1967 borders. All this he called “the New Egypt,” the product of two revolutions in 2011 and 2013. And yet we’ve heard it all before. Every leader since Nasser has called for a Palestinian state, however faintly, cast political foes as terrorists and embraced some cockamamie scheme for development.
The hard truth, however, is that Sisi’s speech was a sideshow. The real purpose of the former field marshal’s visit was to secure recognition and encouragement from the US establishment for violent political engineering in “the New Egypt.” Sisi met with many world leaders but it is telling that he dined with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. He spoke with former President Bill Clinton and probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He spent time with lawmakers from both parties and is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday before returning to Cairo. While the US and its allies in the region never really masked their support for revanchist agents in Egypt, at this point Sisi’s visit looks like an international counter-revolutionary party.
It’s also worth pointing out that two years ago, when an Egyptian president with a slim electoral mandate, Muhammad Mursi, came to the UN, Obama declined to meet him. Rather, Obama took time out of his schedule to say that the US considered Egypt neither an ally nor an enemy, suggesting that the jury was out on Mursi and the Muslim Brothers. The verdict is in regarding Sisi, if any doubt remained, and US and Egyptian political elites are dancing the night away while everyone pretends that tomorrow won’t eventually come.
With President al-Sisi at the UN, Egyptian newspapers remained preoccupied with the gap they perceive between the national and regional support for the ouster of popularly elected president Muhammad Mursi and the international coolness toward that move. The Egyptian political class, as well as the state-owned and private media, is still stinging from denunciations of the excessive violence the Egyptian state used to deal with its opponents in August 2013.
Sisi backers represent the mass protests of June 30, 2013 as a second revolution in which the army, headed by the former field marshal, saved state institutions and the territorial integrity of Egypt from plans by the former president, his Muslim Brothers and regional (Qatar) and international (US) actors to give Sinai to Hamas or abandon it to jihadi elements, allow Sudan to take over Halayib in the south and split the rest of the country into two states.
At the Jidda meetings to line up regional support of the US-led war against the so-called Islamic State, Egypt’s foreign minister, Samih Shukri, tried to link the Brothers with this war, describing them as the “the source of all Islamist evil.” In the absence of plausible evidence, there is no international support for the declared goal of liquidating the Brothers. Sisi’s trip to New York and enlistment in the war against the Islamic State may only be small steps toward diminishing Western criticisms of Egypt.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi devoted most of his time to the imperative of fighting terror and extremism across the Middle East. Invoking counter-terrorism has been his preferred tactic, not only for justifying his government’s domestic repression, unsurpassed in Egypt’s history, but also for seeking license -- from the Egyptian public and regional and international powers -- to continue on the same course of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and killing, as well as other draconian measures that restrict basic freedoms.
But Sisi’s fearmongering does not change the fact that, more than one year after the 2013 coup, he has failed to consolidate a new regime based on broad and sustainable political alliances. In fact, Sisi has shown little interest in reaching beyond the most entrenched institutions of the state -- including the army, the police and security apparatus, the judiciary and the media -- to build a wider coalition with civilian partners. He has not invested in any of the existing political parties, even those that support him staunchly, nor has he bothered to make the upcoming parliamentary elections timetable transparent. Politics seems an afterthought. Insisting on preserving the state (or the “state’s prestige,” as Egyptian conservatives like to repeat) over building a political system may be his regime’s greatest weakness -- albeit one it can live with for the time being.
Since Sisi’s opponents are more fragile and fragmented than the regime, such failings do not pose a substantial threat to the old-new order. Nor is the climate inside Egypt likely to foster a serious democratic challenge to state elites in the near future. Over the last 15 months, the counter-revolution has systematically crushed the contentious political landscape that was brought into being by the 2011 uprising. The contours of Egyptian politics have been redrawn once again around a polarized conflict between military authoritarianism and political Islam. The suppression of that pluralistic space, which thrived for a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster and accommodated a multitude of voices and visions, is perhaps the greatest loss for the revolution.
"Libya Is Not Safe for You If You Want to Speak Your Mind"
Hassan al-Amin is a long-time activist for human rights in Libya. He left Libya in 1983 under duress from the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In his London exile, al-Amin founded the dissident website Libya al-Mustaqbal (The Future Libya). He returned to his native city of Misrata in June 2011, in the midst of the rebellion against Qaddafi. Al-Amin was subsequently an independent member of Libya’s first elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), from Misrata and a member of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee. He fled Libya again in March 2013. Later that year he was given Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism. Anjali Kamat spoke to him on August 29, 2014 and transcribed the interview.
Why did you resign from the GNC and return to exile?
I left Libya because I reached the conclusion there was no way I could work with the GNC. I left because the GNC reached a point where it was so divided that someone who is independent like myself could not survive. Most of its members were either militiamen themselves or had strong ties with the militias. The GNC collapsed into several different entities.
I was also one of the very first to speak loudly and clearly against the militias, against these so-called revolutionaries and their abuses of human rights.
So I started getting threats, and I left because I no longer felt safe in my country. It became exactly as it was during Qaddafi’s time. For me, a country is a country where I can live with dignity and safety. Once those two things are gone there is no reason for me to be there. I reached the conclusion that I could do more for my country from outside, speaking my mind, telling the world what is happening, especially as far as human rights are concerned. I can also speak to the Libyan people from the outside without having to fear anything.
And look at what happened after I left. Look how many human rights activists and journalists have been killed: Salwa Bugaighis, Muftah Abu Zayd and ‘Abd al-Salam al-Mismari. Look at how many activists and journalists have fled the country. You will find them in Tunisia, Egypt and Malta. Libya is no longer safe for you if you want to speak your mind.
Who are the main players on the ground today?
There are so many different players, and so many different alliances being made -- but these are not based on ideology or firm principles. They are all tactical alliances that could fall apart at any time. Those who are together today might be fighting each other tomorrow. It’s a complete mess.
There are many different kinds of Islamists, ranging from the Libyan Society of Muslim Brothers to Ansar al-Shari‘a, a salafi grouping. And then you’ve got the militias, some of them coming from cities, like Misrata and Zintan, and others loyal to individual warlords, like Haytham al-Tajouri, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Kara and ‘Abd al-Ghani Kikli, better known as Ghunaywa. [These men led local brigades against Qaddafi during the uprising and then became commanders under the Supreme Security Committees, set up by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli in October 2011. – Eds.]
Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) is the latest alliance between Islamists and some of the militias from Misrata.
Then there’s Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, but to be honest, it’s not regarded as a national army. It is also a group on its own. [Haftar, a former officer under Qaddafi, came to prominence in May with a wave of attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi and the parliament in Tripoli. – Eds.]
I know people are talking about dialogue all the time. But dialogue with whom and about what? In my opinion, most of the political and military players on the ground are not capable of establishing a state. Most of them lack political experience. They emerged from the war to unseat Qaddafi, and managed to gain money and authority very quickly, sometimes supported by local and tribal interests. I cannot see any dialogue between them that can produce a meaningful settlement.
And that’s why I still insist that the main thing for Libya to do is to get rid of the arms, to get rid of these militias. Given that they exist, some try to make them into real players who you should talk to. Even the Americans are advocating this in many ways. I say no. This is not going to work. These people have committed so many crimes. They cannot be part of the solution.
What do you make of the parliament elected on June 25 that is now convening in Tobruk and the rival administration declared in Tripoli by members of the GNC? Are there two governments in Libya?
There is no state in Libya. It’s chaos.
I still think that people should rally around this fragile new parliament in Tobruk because it’s obvious that the GNC has failed completely. It’s over and done with, and it is responsible for the chaos we are in.
Nouri Abu Sahmayn (a pro-Islamist politician and former president of the GNC ) is aligned with the mufti of Tripoli, Sadiq al-Gharyani, and the militias that have taken over Tripoli, like the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room (an alliance of Islamist militias) and those from Misrata. The Islamists lost the elections this summer and they don’t want to give up power. What’s happening in Tripoli is a coup against the building of the state. That is how I see it. And they are not going to give up easily.
On the other hand, I think the parliament in Tobruk should be very careful. They issued a press release classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a and the Fajr Libya coalition as terrorist groups.
I think this is a big mistake. There is no problem with so classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a because they have made it obvious that they are against the state and against the democratic process. But to include Fajr Libya, even though I don’t agree with what they’ve done, is only going to make the situation worse. Especially when the press release states that the “national army” will deal with them. What national army? Do they mean Haftar? That would be a mistake -- it could strengthen the appeal of ideas promoted by the opposition (the Islamists) that the parliament has been hijacked by Haftar and by the eastern part of the country and the federalists. [Haftar has some support among advocates of federalism in oil-rich, historically marginalized eastern Libya, including one of his key allies, Ibrahim al-Jadhran. The former head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, al-Jadhran accused the government of corruption in oil sales and implemented a blockade on export terminals in the east in 2013. – Eds.]
How popular is Khalifa Haftar and how much power does he have?
Haftar has never been popular in Libya. He has ambition, no doubt about that. But he never really had a lot of support in the army or among the revolutionary groups. He has entered into tactical alliances with Ibrahim al-Jadhran and the al-Qaqa and Sawa‘iq brigades (from the west of the country near Zintan).
What is unfolding in Tripoli is a reaction to what Haftar has done. Haftar’s alliances send a very clear message to the Islamists and the so-called revolutionaries in Misrata: A member of the junta that launched the coup with Qaddafi in 1969, Haftar is now allying with al-Qaqa and al-Sawa‘iq, which have pro-Qaddafi elements, and al-Jadhran, who has cost the country billions of dollars in lost oil revenue. When you add up everything you can understand what’s happening in Tripoli. It’s all linked.
There are over 200 brigades in Misrata that form a powerful fighting force. The impression is that many of them are Islamists.
Most of the Misrata militias are not ideological in any sense. They are based on neighborhood, tribe and kinship. There aren’t any militias in Misrata that you could call Islamist. Those leading the political scene in Misrata have fallen into the trap of believing they are fighting pro-Qaddafi elements and protecting the revolution. The Islamists, and the Muslim Brothers in particular, have been playing on the idea of a counter-revolution and Qaddafi people returning to power. This is why you have Misratans defending them in Tripoli. So this is the game that I’ve been talking about, fragile tactical alliances that aren’t necessarily going to last. People like Salah Badi (a Misratan militia leader) aren’t that powerful on their own, but he has a large militia and is influenced by people like the mufti. The stupidity of some of the militias in Misrata is that they believe they have God-given permission to sort out problems in Libya. When Misrata started receiving dead bodies from fighting in Tripoli, the people there had no option but to support the militias’ intervention, even if they disagreed with it. And people were afraid to speak out, because they would be labeled traitors.
Who do you hold responsible for the way things have turned out in Libya?
Many different groups have made many mistakes: the NTC, the GNC, intellectuals in Libya, the international community and the militias.
We warned the NTC about the militias from early on. We suggested that they really had to prepare for these guys coming back from the front. We talked about the importance of reconciliation from the beginning. We said Libya would not be able to move forward without this process, which should be the priority. Nobody listened.
During the elections for the GNC on July 7, 2012, things were a lot better than now. It was a promising time despite everything. What happened is that the militias, and those people whose aim was just to get power, gained ground because of our failures. We missed our chance at the GNC. We could have done it in the early days if we had been brave enough. The people were behind us. They were not as confused as they are now. The militias were not as strong. It was in our hands. We almost got there. But the GNC disintegrated and there were too many people whose only interest was holding on to power. We went about things in completely the wrong way.
The GNC passed the political isolation law (that banned former members of the Qaddafi regime from participating in political life). It’s one thing to hold senior people, symbols of the old regime, accountable for what they did. But to have an isolation law that denies Libya the services of many thousands of experts in lower middle management -- that’s ridiculous.
I think the Islamists, including the Brothers, were the main group that harmed the process. They were not inclusive, and acted like they wanted all or nothing. They are not powerful in terms of numbers but they are better organized. And they are very well funded. We said to them so many times, “Please, let us agree on the rules of the game. Let us establish the state, and after that let’s compete in fair elections.” But no, they wanted to have it their own way. Nobody was willing to compromise; nobody was willing to listen to the other.
We are a very wealthy nation. This cake is big enough to be divided among each one of us, with a surplus, so what they’re doing now is complete madness.
I must also admit that the civil movement in Libya is very weak. It’s not well organized and it’s fragmented. People are working on an individual basis. We’re having difficulties getting everybody together. So the Libyan civil movement, including writers, academics and the intelligentsia, have all failed this revolution.
As for the international community, instead of carrying on its work in Libya under the banner of the United Nations, after the liberation everybody went his own way. Instead of empowering institutions, supporting the GNC or helping with capacity building, the outside powers started talking directly to specific groups and militias. They actually empowered those forces instead of the state.
Who in the international community do you blame? How influential are outside players in Libya today?
I blame them all. I blame the NATO alliance, which did not continue its task in a proper way. Each country pursued its own agenda instead of working together to support the emerging institutions in Libya. I blame them for giving Qatar a free hand in Libya. That wasn’t very useful at all. And we came to understand that regional powers, countries like Algeria, Egypt and others in the Gulf, have their own agendas in Libya.
There is no doubt that last month’s airstrikes on Islamist positions in Libya came from outside the country. I cannot really pinpoint who is responsible, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Egypt had something to do with it, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and possibly some kind of green light from the greater powers.
But, again, to be quite honest -- and I have always maintained this -- any country in the world, when it gets a chance to have influence in another country, to gain access to something or another, will do it. That is how countries work. So I don’t blame anybody as much as ourselves, our mistakes, the things that we overlooked.
Is there a way out of the current crisis?
To be quite honest, for things to get better they will have to get worse. Politically, we are at a dead end. It seems like everybody is holding his ground. Nobody wants to be flexible. Nobody wants to give an inch. The proliferation of arms among the militias is only increasing political stubbornness.
I think the people in Libya are completely disillusioned. That is the real problem, because that’s where the solution lies. But you’ve got a population that’s divided and confused about who is right and who is wrong. And the media is also taking sides. There is no neutral media outlet in Libya: They are either with Haftar or with the Islamists.
We are counting on the parliament in Tobruk to get its act together. If this parliament disintegrates, I would say it’s over. If the parliament makes dozens of committees, I don’t think they’re going to be able to do meaningful work. Its main task is to deal with the militias and the arms. Can they come up with a clear plan that states exactly what the Libyans can do and what it is they need from the UN in order to sort this out? That’s what we’re hoping for.
It must be very painful, having to flee Libya again and watching the situation there deteriorate every day.
Painful is not the word -- believe me. I am distraught. I am absolutely in pieces.
Looking back at the day when I arrived in Misrata -- the people united, the spirit, the determination, the hopes, the aspirations. And eventually we actually got rid of Qaddafi. We did everything we wanted and then we destroyed it with our own hands.
Sometimes I say to myself that I’ve done what I can for my country. Now there is a new generation -- revolutionaries, whatever you call them. OK, if this is how they want their country, fine. Take it. I’ve done my bit. My conscience is clear. I never stopped fighting for freedom and human rights in Libya. But deep down I come back and I say, “No way. No way am I going to give up on this country, after all that we’ve done and the enormous price we’ve paid.” There is no way that we’re going to leave Libya to these thugs to destroy it.