Release Hossam Bahgat
UPDATE: Hossam Bahgat was released from detention at midday Cairo time on November 10. It is uncertain whether the charges against him are still pending. We will post further updates as warranted.
We are alarmed and dismayed to learn of the arrest of Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s most intrepid journalists and defenders of human rights. Bahgat is a regular columnist and investigative reporter for the independent newspaper Mada Masr and a contributor to Middle East Report.
On November 5, according to Mada Masr, Bahgat was told to report to military intelligence headquarters in Cairo. He arrived there on November 8, and was interrogated without a lawyer, as is common practice for the Egyptian security apparatus. He was then transferred to the custody of military prosecutors, who did allow him to see his attorneys. Since then, however, he has been held at an unknown location.
Bahgat is charged with disseminating false information that harms the Egyptian public by inciting disorder and panic. Articles 102 and 188 of the country’s penal code prohibit the publication or broadcast of such information and provide for draconian penalties including thousands of Egyptian pounds in fines and jail sentences of unspecified length.
These bogus allegations, Bahgat’s lawyers and Egyptian colleagues believe, are prompted by his latest major story for Mada Masr, “A Coup Busted,” dated October 14. In this article, Bahgat revealed the secret conviction of 26 military officers on charges of plotting with members of the Muslim Brothers to overthrow the regime of President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights notes that military prosecutors “ordered Bahgat’s detention for four days pending interrogation on charges related solely to his writing as a journalist, despite the fact that Article 41 of the Press Law prohibits pre-trial detention in publication-related crimes.” Keeping Bahgat incommunicado is also in violation of both the Egyptian constitution and various covenants of international law to which Egypt is a signatory.
Bahgat has a long, distinguished record of investigative reporting and an abiding concern with the promotion of human rights and greater democracy in Egypt.
In 2002 he founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. During his time there Bahgat rose to prominence as a human rights advocate and an analyst of Egyptian current events. He was frequently quoted in the Western press throughout the popular uprising, elections and eventual reconsolidation of military rule during the period 2011-2013.
We join Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations, as well as our Egyptian friends and colleagues, in condemning Hossam Bahgat’s arrest and demanding his immediate release. All charges against him should also be dropped at once.
Iran's Unfair Nationality Laws
At an October meeting of young Iranian-American leaders at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, I asked Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about the country’s unfair nationality laws. By these statutes, no Iranian woman married to a non-Iranian man can pass on her citizenship to her children, whereas an Iranian man can pass it on not only to his children, but also to a non-Iranian wife.
Much to my surprise, Zarif said redress of this imbalance is highly important to him. He expressed disappointment and frustration that just the week before Iran’s parliament, the Majles, had voted down a bill that would have given Iranian women the right to pass on citizenship. Forty-nine signatories presented the bill in late September, and by a margin of 140-36, the deputies agreed to put the measure to a vote in less than a week’s time. Despite the seeming urgency, and despite reports that the reform enjoyed majority support, in the end, only 74 MPs voted in favor of the bill, with 84 votes against and 12 abstentions.
If the draft law had such firm backing, what accounts for the sudden about-face?
Iran’s nationality law long predates the Islamic Republic—it was enacted under the Pahlavi monarchy in 1929. For the duration of Pahlavi rule, women were not allowed to pass on citizenship, and the Islamic Republic kept the restrictions in place. In 2006, out of concern for an estimated 120,000 children born in Iran who are not citizens, the Majles amended the civil code. The amendment sought to clarify the conditions under which children born in Iran to an Iranian woman and a foreign man could attain Iranian citizenship. It was only a tentative step forward. The 2006 law does recognize such a right for Iranian women, but not across the board. Its biggest drawbacks are that 1) it applies only to children born in Iran and 2) it does not account for children (even Iranian-born) who are born into unregistered marriages, out of wedlock or to a stateless father.
Iranian women inside Iran, as well as the adult children of those born to non-Iranian fathers in Iran, have been pushing to change the nationality laws for decades. In 2015, however, there was a new groundswell of support for reform, because the wives of Iranian diplomats swung behind it. These women have befriended others living in the diaspora, especially Iranian women married to diplomats from other nations. Through these relationships, they have witnessed the bias in the law, as their friends are forced to apply for visas for their children at the embassies where their husbands work in order to visit family in Iran. As the wife of one Iranian diplomat who had spent time in various East Asian countries told me, “All of us could see how frustrating it was for our friends to go through these extra hurdles to get their children to Iran. This law is not fair and it needs to change.” Another woman whose husband was stationed in Latin America said, “God knows there are many laws in Iran in relation to women that need changing, but this is one that sticks out and seems to have an easier fix than the others. There is no real reason why this law should continue to exist today.” The wives of Iran’s diplomatic corps have exerted pressure on both their husbands and lawmakers back home.
And yet the bill failed to pass. One of its main foes was President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy interior minister, Hossein Ali Amiri. He delivered a speech on the day of the final vote, stating his opposition in terms of national security, with reference to the wars not far from Iran’s borders. “This plan will lead to an increase in immigration and illegal marriages in the country,” he declared. Another major concern for opponents of reform was that some 400,000 to 1 million people in Iran do not have citizenship despite having Iranian mothers. The majority of these undocumented men and women are the offspring of Afghan fathers in mixed marriages. In 2010, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs estimated that in addition to the 30,000 registered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men, there are roughly 32,000 additional unregistered marriages in the country. Most of the unregistered couples are poor, adding to the government’s fear of the costs of granting these children citizenship rights, which would make them eligible to receive benefits under social welfare programs. The talk of economic and “national security” masks the massive discrimination in Iranian society against Afghan refugees and their children.
Despite the defeat in the Majles, Zarif stated in New York that there is critical mass in the political echelons of the Islamic Republic to change the law, particularly given the many Iranian women in the diaspora who have married non-Iranians. It remains an open question, and a crucial one, whether whatever reform is achieved will include the children of Afghan refugee fathers in Iran.
LGBT Rights in Iran
Over the last two decades, issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity have gained significant visibility and attention across the globe. The case of Iran is particularly fraught, and has received plenty of coverage due to the work of international non-profits.
One such organization, OutRight Action International (formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), convened three interrelated experts on October 13 to discuss some of the theological, legal and social issues facing LGBT-identified people living in Iran. The panel was hosted by the Political Science Department at City University of New York, Brooklyn College and moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, regional program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at OutRight Action International. It came on the heels of two rounds of meetings held in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2012 and 2014, in which OutRight Action International brought together lawyers, human rights activists and academics for a roundtable on the situation of LGBT and queer people in Iran. The results were published in a report titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Iran: Analysis from Religious, Social, Legal and Cultural Perspectives.”
The panelists presented a bleak picture of the social lives of sexual and gender minorities in Iran and the limited legal remedies available to them in cases of injury or rights violation. During the question-and-answer session, however, the panel noted many positive changes that seem to be taking place in the “mentalities” of religious scholars, medical professionals and the public at large, underscoring the shifting terrain of queer and trans acceptability and visibility both inside and outside of Iran.
One pertinent theme is the role of Islamic law in administering justice to sexual and gender minorities. According to panelist Arash Naraghi, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Moravian College, traditional Islamic law has taken a harsh view toward sexual minorities—an approach that has often included cruel and inhumane application of the death penalty. At the same time, the injustice faced by gender and sexual minorities has been questioned and challenged by Muslims themselves. Reforming Islamic laws that relate to the treatment of homosexuality in Muslim-majority countries like Iran requires both a religious reformation and a theological intervention. The latter means making the crucial, though often elided or forgotten, distinction between fiqh and shari‘a in Islamic jurisprudence. Shari‘a contains all the guidance communicated by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the text of the Qur’an, as explicated by Muhammad in word and deed. Fiqh, on the other hand, consists of rulings reached by scholars through the reading of those divine sources. As a human-made discipline, fiqh is subject to change, criticism and error in interpretation. Therefore, if it can be demonstrated that there is “no morally sufficient reason” to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, then such discrimination is unjust from a theological and legal standpoint. As Naraghi pointed out, a few Islamic scholars have adopted the second approach in the past decade. This development could have immense consequences for gender and sexual minorities in countries such as Iran.
The particularity of the Islamic religious and legal bases for discrimination and justice intersects with the goal of developing a universal standard of human rights, enshrined in many of the institutions and documents of the United Nations. The increasing visibility of LGBT identities, movements and discourses has led to a proliferation of international human rights organizations that have become attuned to documenting and addressing violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity across the world. The second panelist was Rose Richter, special assistant to the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. She placed the UN’s work on incorporating LGBT rights into its agenda for the past two decades in the context of social movements that have moved beyond challenging patriarchal norms as sources of discrimination and bias. Instead, these movements have progressed into “an ideational and social sphere where gender and sexuality are negotiated, defined and expressed,” prompting the UN to be more inclusive in its approach to human rights by recognizing gender and sexual orientation as important sites of discrimination and violence. The UN has faced some challenges in consistently documenting these violations, mainly due to underreporting and the gap between the kinds of protections that these human rights mechanisms can offer.
According to Richter, two recent studies undertaken by the Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, document a range of violations by state or official actors such as restrictions on access to information, violations of the right to assembly, police harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual harassment and assault, forced marriage, pressure to undergo sex reassignment procedures, and subpar medical treatment associated with such procedures. Other major struggles faced by LGBT groups in Iran are social in origin, such as being bullied in school or disowned, beaten or raped by family members or feeling compelled to run away from home, a phenomenon known in most parts of the world, including the United States. These abuses are often not reported to authorities due to the threat of additional violence from officials themselves. Security officers often raid the parties and other gatherings of LGBT Iranians, sometimes leading to arrests and detainment.
One way that LGBT people are targeted is through Internet entrapment in which security agents pose as gay or trans people interested in “meeting up.” The third panelist, Mani Mostofi, an Iranian-American human rights advocate and director of Impact Iran, identified the transformative power of Internet access. The Internet and social media provide forums for positive information about LGBT identities, images and rights. Moreover, the interactive nature of the Internet creates spaces through which communities are formed and communication and discussion occur. The interstitial nature of the online and offline worlds was highlighted as affording opportunities for individuals to socialize, provide support, build movements and engage in information-sharing techniques of survival. At the same time, the Internet in Iran has limitations, as the Iranian government blocks websites that it deems politically, religiously or morally dangerous. Many people in Iran do, however, have access to anti-filtration software that allows them to circumvent the censors. In this vein, Mostofi suggested that the international human rights community should be concerned with a bundle of rights that can empower the LGBT community in particular, but that can also create broader change in Iranian society.
English-language media have given much favorable attention to the availability of gender confirmation procedures for trans people in Iran—one of the few Muslim-majority countries where such medical treatments are legal and available. Since the law recognizes transsexuality, those desiring access to hormones or various surgeries and medical procedures can get it. As Iranian law and bureaucratic rules recognize only a strict male-female binary, trans people are able to change their gender designation from one to the other on various identity documents, including birth certificates. Individuals are often able to receive a permit that attests to their trans status, on the assumption that they are following up with state-designated hormone therapy and subsequent surgeries.
While wide-ranging, the October 13 panel could have provided a fuller picture of the social realities of gender and sexual minorities in Iran. The lack of a voice of an LGBT Iranian at the event was glaring—especially given that international NGOs often stress the high number of LGBT Iranian refugees who attempt to reach European or North American countries through Turkey. NGOs are by definition built around expert knowledge of legal, human rights, social, political and economic realities. This framework often does not allow the target populations of NGOs to tell their own stories, which may or may not correspond to the overarching universal discourse of human rights.
This panel’s focus on the legal and rights-based challenges of gender and sexual minorities in Iran, while informative and important, was self-limiting in its expository power to depict the lived lives of the very people it takes as its object of intervention. Gender and sexuality are always constituted and articulated at the intersection of religious, cultural, medical and legal regimes of truth and control. A privileging of rights-based discourse in this case leaves little room not only for nuances and complexities of lived experience, but also for the agency of sexual and gender minorities in shaping, contesting and “living through” the religio-medico-legal regimes of disciplinary power. Presenting a narrative that refracts the lives of gender and sexual minorities through a legal or human rights lens can only conceive of those individuals as suffering victims.
While victimization does occur at various levels of family, society and the state, ethnographic studies such as the one done by Afsaneh Najmabadi in Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013) illustrate how gender and sexual minorities in Iran have opted to approach the Iranian bureaucratic order through the discourse of “needs” and not “rights.” That is to say, LGBT individuals use the fractious Iranian bureaucracy to their advantage in order to shape the various rules and regulations that will give them access not only to medical resources, but also to spaces of relative maneuver through which they can create livable lives. As Najmabadi demonstrates, instead of attempting to change laws through Parliament, for example, gender and sexual minorities in Iran work with the Welfare Organization and other state bureaucracies to create the changes they need.
Ultimately, theological and legal questions with regard to homosexuality and transsexuality are important and need to be addressed. A rights-based discourse, however, cannot fully capture the subjectivity and agency of sexual and gender minorities and will only center the authority, expertise and knowledge of the West-based subject that often imagines itself as universal. It is thus imperative that we raise the question of which narratives are privileged and which are silenced.
“Think Again, Turn Away”…from Lousy Public Diplomacy
CIA black sites. “Extraordinary rendition.” The PATRIOT Act. Massive NSA surveillance. The 2003 invasion of Iraq. Abu Ghraib. Torture. Religious and racial profiling. FBI entrapment. Drones, “kill lists” and civilian casualties. “Terror Tuesdays.”
Whatever the successes of US public diplomacy since the attacks of September 11, 2001, they pale in comparison to the cavalcade of scandals. And all these foreign policy “missteps” or manifestations of “imperial hubris”—take your pick—predate the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, the latest fixation of State Department attempts at counter-radicalization through messaging.
Against the backdrop of blunders, the State Department’s anti-ISIS campaign is woefully anemic. “Think Again, Turn Away,” the social media platform for public diplomacy, maintains accounts on popular sites including YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, Ask.fm and Twitter. Not simply counterproductive, this social media engagement manages to combine the worst features of post-September 11 foreign policy—ignorance, arrogance and refusal to engage with legitimate grievances.
The ask.fm page displays a stunning lack of coherence that is unintentionally hilarious. In this social networking space notorious for travel advice from ISIS affiliates, the State Department’s account boasts a whopping 40 “likes,” and appears to have been abandoned in January. Among other cringe-worthy answers to anonymous queries, the page routinely responds to mundane questions such as “What language do you speak?” and “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” with photos of desserts coated in the American flag, and a screaming eagle meme that only Stephen Colbert could love.
Answers to more substantive questions suffer from the same approach. A user points out the widely shared perception of Western hypocrisy as a driver of radicalization, citing drone strikes and blind support for Israel. Rather than confront the merits of such points, “Think Again, Turn Away” recycles the standard evasive charge (or schoolyard insult), “Liar!” “They [sic] best recruiters for the jiahdis [sic] are the lying media propagandists they have hired, who in their own words have lied to gain supporters: ‘They will follow anything you tell them. Their brains are washed, we talk to them about religion, paradise and virgins.… Almost all of it was lies, exaggerations. For example, we claimed other groups raped women. That wasn’t true.’ But as the world has already seen in Mosul and elsewhere, the people ISIS is ‘liberating’ want nothing to do with that terrorist organization.”
“Think Again, Turn Away” is not just embarrassing but terrifying in the scope of its failure. Its extensive Twitter profile consists mostly of headlines culled from tabloids and government outlets. Digital outreach consists of the trolling of extremists—with the latter term lumping together such organizationally and geographically distinct groups as ISIS, al-Shabaab, Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. The common denominator is Muslim radicalization—no doubt lending credence to the perception that America is at war with Islam. As with ask.fm, the Twitter account managers regularly adopt the assumption that negative comments indicate sympathy for ISIS and like-minded groups—and could not possibly come from anyone else.
The Twitter account, in addition, often features horror stories that have been debunked—such as reports that ISIS began to mandate female circumcision within the territory under its control. Regardless of ISIS’ demonstrable brutality, the failure to fact-check such allegations gives the public diplomacy campaign an appearance of unseemly titillation, if not outright propaganda. Worse are tweets such as: “Dutch #ISIS suicide bomber targets Iraqi police station—another foreigner terrorizing locals.” Issued by the very same government that sought to subdue Iraqis through “shock and awe,” this phrase portrays the United States as downright detached from reality.
Recent posts to the Twitter feed highlight clerical rulings—from the Saudi Arabian establishment—that condemn ISIS as sinful and illegitimate. But since the anti-Soviet jihad in 1980s Afghanistan, state-sanctioned religious leaders have commanded little respect among extremist militants. Although both ISIS and al-Qaeda have solicited “friendly” religious scholars for favorable fatwas, ISIS propaganda videos of late have far exceeded Osama bin Laden’s group in laying claim to independent interpretation of one’s “obligation” to fight—going so far as to argue that a believer should “forget everything” and simply “read the ayat [verses] of jihad.”
It’s difficult, in fact, to locate a nation in the Muslim world with religious spokesmen more openly despised by jihadi sympathizers than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yet irony dies another death for those of us who are far from well-disposed toward ISIS: Here is the State Department arguing by the authority of a close ally that executes religious minorities by crucifixion and beheading against a terrorist group that executes religious minorities by crucifixion and beheading. Throwing this juxtaposition into a truly surreal light, female ISIS members resident in Iraq and Syria riposte with photographs of vehicles, driver’s licenses and captions mocking Saudi Arabia’s notorious driving ban: “Jealous, Saudi women?”
The State Department’s pathetic efforts at countering extremism online somehow prove worse than no messaging whatsoever. The disastrous performance recalls the short-lived tenure of advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who spearheaded the Shared Values Initiative in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Intended to “sell America,” the Initiative provoked a backlash across the Muslim world and was discontinued barely a month after launch. “Think Again, Turn Away” should also be yanked from the shelves for flaws in manufacture. As any marketing expert can attest, a product that does not fulfill the advertising pitch will ultimately fail to find a consumer base. Perhaps it’s time for Brand America to consider a recall.
Nobel Nota Bene
From Little League banquets to honorary doctorates, it may well be in the nature of award committees to tilt toward hyperbole. Elevating the legacy of the recipient is, among other things, an affirmation of the importance of those who can recognize importance when they see it. The committee that selects the recipient of each year’s Nobel Peace Prize unquestionably evaluates a slate of tremendously significant nominees, but even this august body fits the exaggerating profile in the language of its encomia. And with stakes higher than many, the Nobel’s fulsome praise can be faulted in recent years not simply for its overstatement, but also for its timing.
In 2011, I wrote about the Nobel award to Tawakkul Karman, Yemeni activist and (then) the youngest woman to have received the prize. While recognizing the genuinely novel and powerful role that Karman played both within her party—the broad Sunni Islamist grouping, Islah—and as a bridge between a partisan opposition and a post-partisan popular movement, I was critical of the committee’s downplaying of her Islamist commitments, as well as the way in which the award language presupposed that her activism represented a straightforward advance for Yemeni women.
What I should have been more concerned about is whether Karman would live up to her award. As with President Barack Obama in 2009, the award to Karman was a forward-looking intervention, an attempt to create what it purported to describe in the midst of an unfolding political struggle. Or, as Benoit Challand has argued in an excellent piece at Public Seminar about this year’s honors to the Tunisian Quartet, the Nobel Peace Prize risks being seen as “more attuned to wishful thinking that its award will have a positive future effect, rather than giving due recognition for a really significant past achievement.”
Now, as in 2011, Karman is both a cause and an effect. Four years after receiving the Nobel, she signifies a deteriorating Yemen in crisis. Targeted personally by Houthi militias as a symbolic early step in their unfolding coup in 2014, she has been a polarizing figure, her earlier pluralistic commitments giving way to the kind of unrepentant sectarian rhetoric that has underwritten the ongoing war. Some of this retrenchment is an understandable reaction to a climate of fear. Other centrist Islahis, like Muhammed Qahtan, have been “disappeared,” and still others murdered. And yet Karman’s own incendiary speech in the months before the Houthi coup cannot be discounted, contributing as it did to substantial hostility between two groups—Islah and the Houthis’ Ansar Allah—that disagree on many things but for many years have espoused some overlapping views. Today, such convergence is unrecognizable, buried beneath the drawn-out destruction of war and blockade that Karman herself has endorsed and in which the Muslim Brother-affiliated faction of her party has been a principal actor.
Tunisia, of course, is in no such dire straits, and the achievements of the Quartet are rightly lauded. But as Challand warns, there are ongoing forms of contestation—particularly around economic issues—to which the labor federation UGTT, a Quartet member, is a direct party, and to which other Quartet members, like the business grouping UTICA, will doubtless be called to respond. Ian Hartshorn has a new piece for Jadaliyya mapping Quartet members UGTT’s and UTICA’s place at the intersection of partisan and organized labor politics that offers a sobering portrait. In particular, Hartshorn argues, “The UGTT’s internal revisions since 2012 have brought more militant and rank-and-file members to positions of leadership, but they have been forged in the fires of political intrigue, not by the prosaic concerns of contract and labor negotiations.” Awarding the Nobel to the Quartet—in language that may elevate its institutional coherence—will not stop the clock.
Given that this award was given to the Quartet as an institution, however, and not to its individual members, perhaps such uncertainties are irrelevant. The Quartet deserves to be celebrated for its accomplishments. But to the extent that this year’s choice is (also) an effort to affirm a particular politics for the future, an analogous consideration of the career of Tawakkul Karman might give us reason to pause.
Ahmed Mohamed, Liberal Rhetoric and Obama Administration Propaganda
Most readers will know by now that a 14-year-old kid named Ahmed Mohamed was recently arrested in Irving, Texas for, well, for making a clock while Muslim. Ahmed, an aspiring engineer and a robotics enthusiast, had built a simple digital clock and brought it to his ninth-grade high school classes, hoping to impress his teachers. Instead, one of them called the cops on him, and with the consent of the school principal, five police officers arrested him and took him to a detention center in handcuffs. Ahmed has reported that one officer he’d never seen before looked at him and said, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” All charges were soon dropped, and the police admitted that Ahmed had not sought to frighten or harm anyone. But the truth of the matter is not that Ahmed’s invention was mistaken for a bomb, but that his black Muslim body was taken for a bombmaker’s.
What followed is also now well known. Ahmed’s story began to circulate over social media and on the news, and got a huge boost when President Barack Obama tweeted: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” Obama’s comment was quickly retweeted more than 438,000 times, and within the next couple of days, Ahmed’s new Twitter account accumulated close to 92,000 followers, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed reaching 1.2 million tweets. Ahmed also received expressions of support from other high-profile politicians, celebrities, and industry figures, including Hillary Clinton, Shonda Rhimes and executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google and Ebony magazine. Liberals and progressives largely celebrated this support, citing it as evidence of the enlightenment of the Obama administration, in stark contrast to the Islamophobic, regressive and paranoid politics found in Texas and in the Republican Party. Texas became the foil for Washington: While Texas was mired in anti-Muslim bigotry, Washington was cast as above that.
While Ahmed of course deserves the groundswell of support he has received, hailing his invitation to the White House obscures the fact that the Democratic Party, with President Obama at its helm, is scoring easy political points off of his story. Ahmed is ultimately a popular cause for Obama to align himself with and use to appear levelheaded and magnanimous to his liberal base. (Remember that after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, even President George W. Bush regularly said things like, “Our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people” and “There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know—that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.”) More significantly, Obama’s gesture against Islamophobia obscures how his own administration, and the Democratic Party more broadly, has fostered the anti-Muslim and racist political climate that makes stories like Ahmed’s arrest not the isolated work of the bigoted right, but a downright inevitability.
Obama’s words of support for Ahmed stand in sharp contrast to the violence that his administration has unleashed on brown and black and Muslim and poor people domestically and abroad. Besides continuing to bomb Afghanistan (35 US drones struck in August 2015 alone) and direct the longest war in US history—now entering its fifteenth year—Obama has dramatically expanded the geographical scope of US military strikes, using drones and other weapons to bomb Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. According to even the conservative calculations of the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, there have been nine times more drone strikes under Obama than under his predecessor. And in Pakistan alone, more strikes were launched during Obama’s first year in office than during both terms of the Bush presidency. We know that thousands have been killed, and that many have been civilians.
And this is to say nothing of the Obama administration’s pivotal role in the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, a dispossession which would be impossible without continuous US military aid amounting to $3.1 billion per year. Or the fact that Obama is not only continuing to detain over a hundred Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay—most of whom are suffering their fifteenth year of imprisonment without having been charged with any crime—but is currently directing government lawyers to block efforts by human rights attorneys to release a man like Tariq Ba Odah, who was officially cleared for release years ago and is now “on the precipice of death.” Tariq’s skeletal 74-pound body has been on an unbroken hunger strike for over eight years, during which he has faced excruciating force feedings through nasal tubes twice a day, every day.
Nor does it include the fact that Obama has directed government lawyers to block any legal accountability for the torture of Iraqi civilians by private military contractors working with the US military during the Bush administration.
Nor does it include the fact that for the last six months Obama has authorized political, military and logistical support to the Saudi-led military coalition that has been bombing Yemen, killing over a thousand civilians with its airstrikes, and contributing to what may be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people in need of urgent assistance. Human rights activists, Oxfam America and Doctors Without Borders are among the groups criticizing the Obama administration’s ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Human Rights Watch has suggested that Saudi-led airstrikes on residential areas in Yemen constitute war crimes. But none of this clamor is deterring the Obama administration from finalizing a new $1 billion arms agreement with Riyadh. Grotesquely, the State Department is instead welcoming Saudi Arabia’s new position as head of a key UN human rights panel.
What this litany of violence suggests is not just that Obama and the Democratic Party have trampled on the lives of brown, black and Muslim people much like Ahmed Mohamed, but that their belligerent policies rely on and fortify the anti-Muslim and racist climate that make stories like Ahmed’s arrest unsurprising. We know that if a US drone had sighted Ahmed making his clock in large parts of Pakistan instead of in Texas, he might well have fit the criteria for “signature strikes” that continue to target individuals the government does not know, but determines are behaving suspiciously. The American media might then have followed its pattern of tepidly discussing the merits of such a strike—if details about it had ever emerged. By contrast, we know that it would (rightly) be considered beyond the pale to even discuss the merits of dropping a bomb on Paris or London to kill someone suspected of intending to commit a crime. The same hierarchy of life that allows for this contrast rendered Ahmed presumptively guilty and subject to arrest in Texas.
Of course, there is a relationship between US foreign and domestic policy—and the types of people who are criminalized and targeted abroad are also criminalized and targeted inside the United States. Under the Obama administration, this is evident in FBI entrapment cases like the notorious Newburgh Four case, which involved the government using an agent promising huge sums of money and consistent psychological manipulation to lure four desperately poor, black, Muslim men in an impoverished neighborhood to go along with a fake plot for a fake crime that could never be realized without the government agent himself. It’s also clear in the Tarek Mehanna case, wherein overly broad material support statutes were used to prosecute a young Muslim American man for exercising his First Amendment rights to political speech. He is now serving 17 and a half years for a thought crime. It’s evident in the FBI surveillance and criminalization of Muslim communities, and the NSA surveillance program leaked by Edward Snowden. It’s also evident in the way mass incarceration works in the United States. If President Obama was serious about confronting structural racism in the United States, he could start by calling off his district attorneys from petty drug offenses that disproportionately focus on African-Americans despite the fact that drug use is the same across white and African-American populations.
While the Obama administration has hypocritically used the fact of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest to score political points, the least the rest of us can do for Ahmed and the many others who risk experiencing the violence and inequity of the state is to recognize and reject government propaganda and the accompanying media spin that encourages sentimentality toward a power with so much blood on its hands. Obama has said that he takes a “stand with Ahmed” in Texas. And it’s understandable that Ahmed, who is a child, has reacted to the president’s support with enthusiasm. But we owe it to Ahmed and to others like him to remain unimpressed with the rhetoric of power, however charming, and to always align ourselves with those on the receiving end of its might.
Where Is Israel in the Refugee Crisis?
Last week, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum and Mayor Talal Al-Krenawi of the Negev Bedouin city Rahat issued a joint statement offering the absorption of 1,000 refugees from Syria, who would be supported by employment at the new SodaStream factory in nearby Idan haNegev. The statement came after recent headlines on the closure of the factory in the West Bank settlement Mishor Adumim, hailed as a victory by proponents of BDS, and signaling the fall of another domino in the company’s neverending public relations nightmare. As SodaStream’s stock price dropped to a low of $14.48 in early September, some remarked that Birnbaum’s offer is little more than a cynical ploy for good press, with little chance of actually being executed.
That may be the case—and certainly the likelihood of such a plan is next to nil—but to focus on SodaStream alone is to miss the larger question here. Where is Israel in the debate on Syrian refugees? Why is it that countries such as Hungary have faced harsh criticism in light of their opposition to absorbing a slice of the growing refugee population, while Israel—which not only shares a border with Syria, but even overlaps that border in a 48-year occupation—appears to bear no such responsibility? What makes Israel exceptional?
Israel is not simply exceptional; it is the exception. Israel has a long history of violating or ignoring international law, most notably, war crimes in its continued attacks on Gaza and the expansion of civilian housing in West Bank settlements. And then there is its own, ongoing refugee crisis: the ever growing population of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948, including Palestinian refugees who remain in Syria today.
The body of international law that both protects refugees and regulates the behavior of states in times of war and occupation was produced in response to the horrors of World War II and the mass murder of Jews and other political prisoners and minorities. Indeed, our entire language of human rights emerged from that historical moment that also saw the violent creation of the State of Israel. Europe’s support for Israel as a project and as a solution to its own refugee crisis was founded on the same logic that guided the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also in 1948. From this historical conjuncture, Israel became the constitutive exception to human rights and international law.
The Holocaust, then, serves as the historical precedent both demanding the intervention of states on behalf of refugees, and also exempting Israel from this responsibility. Within Israel, the parallel between the historical plight of Jewish refugees and the growing regional refugee crisis has not been missed. For Holocaust survivors and their families this connection may be deeply personal, as expressed by Birnbaum in the SodaStream press release: “As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I refuse to stand by and observe this human tragedy unfold right across the border in Syria.”
And Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog echoes the sentiment: “Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven.”
Yet, when it comes to Israel, Syrian refugees are not merely refugees. Crossing the Golan Heights, the haggard body of the refugee is transformed into an infiltrator, traversing a boundary still defined by an ongoing state of war between the two countries. The question of absorption is not even on the table because it cannot be on the table; it is a question of giving a legal status to a population of enemy combatants.
It is with this logic that Netanyahu tempered Herzog’s sympathy: “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
The figure of the infiltrator thus encapsulates both of these categories—the illegal migrant and the terrorist—because the body of the infiltrator is necessarily illegal, necessarily the seed of terror. The threat of the infiltrator outstrips these categories because she doesn’t have to steal a job out of the hands of a citizen or to wire herself to a bomb. It is the body of the infiltrator itself that threatens the demographic stability of the Jewish state.
Of the two “depths” of Netanyahu’s remark—demographic and geographic—only the former is relevant. It is not that the country is so small it can’t absorb additional populations, but that the sustenance of a Jewish and ostensibly democratic state is a firm Jewish demographic majority. Thus, while Netanyahu claims Israel is too small, the state maintains an active policy of encouraging Jewish immigration.
The refugee issue strikes at the tension at the heart of the Israeli state: demography versus democracy. One thousand Syrian refugees would not upset this balance. But the problem of refugees in the Middle East is not new, and among those who have been recently displaced are Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for the last 67 years since the 1948 war. Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency in Syria, approximately 480,000 remain, with the rest largely in Lebanon or Jordan.
And so, in the unlikely scenario that Israel was to grant (temporary) residency to Syrian refugees, the question would remain as to who these “Syrian” refugees would be. One possibility is that Israel would offer to absorb a limited number of Druze refugees. That course of action would reflect a larger policy of distinguishing between Druze and Muslim or Christian Arabs, most notably through the practice of military conscription. But more to the point, does Israel accept Syrians, while excluding the Palestinians in their midst? Does the state allow temporary status to Palestinian refugees, only to displace them for a second time from their homeland?
When the Palestinian Authority recently asked Israel to accept Palestinian refugees from Syria into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they reminded Israel that the responsibility to such refugees goes beyond immediate humanitarian aid, but represents “a right for all Palestinians living in exile and in refugee camps.” The Syrian refugee crisis could make a crack in the dam holding back the return of Palestinian refugees.
And there is the ultimate reason why no one takes suggestions like Birnbaum’s seriously. We would leave room for the possibility that the SodaStream CEO, more than a plotting capitalist villain, may be sincere in his concern for Syrian refugees. But this earnestness (or not) is marginal to the demographic concerns of the state. The problem of refugees, if anything, points to Israel’s own precariousness: For all its lofty claims of democracy and equal rights, the Jewish state is threatened in the face of a mere thousand refugees.
The GCC Needs a Successful Strategy for Yemen, Not Failed Tactics
For the last 45 years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has tried to mitigate its Yemen problem through short-term tactics, rather than construct and give resources to a strategy for solving it. That policy has failed repeatedly. A bold and lasting transformation is needed, not the same ineffectual meddling.
Traditionally, the attitude of most GCC members toward Yemen has been fond but standoffish. The Gulf states have been fairly generous in funding projects and providing aid, but held populous Yemen at arms’ length, for reasons both demographic and ideological, the latter being fear of Marxism and republicanism.
Saudi Arabia has always regarded Yemen as a direct threat. King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz is reputed to have warned his sons that “the good or evil for us will come from Yemen,” and so to keep it weak and divided. It is unclear exactly what the Saudi royal was wary of: Yemeni intentions of taking over the entirety of Saudi Arabia; efforts by Yemen’s Hamid al-Din dynasty to defeat their Al Saud rivals; or merely attempts by Yemen to recover the three provinces of ‘Asir, Jizan and Najran that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had captured from Imam Yahya in 1934. But the king’s advice was taken to heart, and has been implemented ever since. “The Saudis want a moderate government in Sanaa—on a short leash,” Michael Van Dusen, a long-time senior staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in 1982, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual disbursements to both the Yemeni government and Yemeni tribal leaders. Those payments now total several billion dollars per year, and go to individual officials and security men as well as the original recipients. Those on the Saudi payroll run the gamut of Yemeni politics. This policy “degrades the authority of the central government” in Sanaa, argues a descendant of Imam Yahya, ‘Abdallah Hamid al-Din. “In what other countries do citizens receive a salary from a foreign government?” In many ways, the Saudi approach in Yemen is reminiscent of Iranian policy in Iraq, which is castigated as interference by nationalist Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, and by the Saudis and their Western friends alike.
In addition, and as it has done in many Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia subsidized the export of puritanical Wahhabism into a nation that traditionally was Shafi‘i Sunni in the south, and Zaydi and Isma‘ili in the north. This state-sponsored evangelism was perceived as a threatening political encroachment on Zaydi space. It also grated on many Yemenis’ national sensibilities, something the Wahhabis should have known, given the words of the Prophet: “The people of Yemen have come to you, most sensitive in their souls, softest of hearts! Belief is from Yemen, wisdom is from Yemen! Pride and arrogance are found among the camel owners; tranquility and dignity among the sheep owners.”
The 2011 uprising in Yemen brought millions of people into the streets, protesting against precisely the elite corruption and autocracy that Saudi Arabia (with Western backing) had worked to entrench. Saudi policy toward Yemen since the popular revolt is almost certainly an attempt to maintain the status quo ante. Indeed, the GCC initiative that claimed to break the political impasse has been seen as an effort to achieve an apparent transition of power while ensuring, sub rosa, that the same coterie of Saudi clients remain in place. Certainly, the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm is an attempt to reinstate ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to the presidency. Yet Hadi was President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s long-term vice president, his clique shows traits similar to the deposed Salih’s, and a terrorist-traced salafi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, has reportedly been appointed as Hadi’s “adviser.” Many Yemenis will see Humayqani as a Saudi-placed eminence grise.
Not only is this policy expensive, but it also doesn’t work to keep Yemen docile: “The Saudis have really gotten very little for their money,” according to Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador in Sanaa. One reason, as the scholar Maria Eleftheriadou notes, is that many of the tribal leaders on the Saudi dole “became ‘city sheikhs’ having moved to Sanaa,” where they steadily lose “their moral authority, their power of persuasion, especially among the younger generation.” All of these problems come at a time when Saudi state incomes are falling (and likely to remain low) while domestic costs are rising (and likely to keep going up).
The “kinetic” approach of Decisive Storm is equally ineffective. The Israelis, and to a lesser extent US administrations, have adopted the tactic of “mowing the grass”—periodic military operations to keep perceived security threats manageable. Sixty-five years have shown this policy to be not only financially and morally ruinous, but also actively counterproductive: It generates ill will among the population, and encourages the salafi jihadism it aims to remove.
The GCC states could continue doing the same thing but expect a different result—Einstein’s definition of madness—or they could try a different way of achieving the desired end state of a non-threatening Yemen. The dying King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s admonition has always been interpreted negatively. “Beware of Yemen; it is your Achilles’ heel,” as Van Dusen paraphrased it in 1982. Yet the king left equal the possibility of good coming from Yemen, too. So, how could that be achieved?
Europe spent much of the last thousand years wracked by war after bloody war, with various nations trying to subordinate, or at least weaken, neighbors and “allies,” to no good effect. Only a decision to move to a strategy of mutual benefit finally achieved a peaceful Europe, and led to the prosperity (and gridlocked democracy) of the European Union. A prosperous, truly federal Yemen would be no military threat to the GCC as a whole or to Saudi Arabia individually. Indeed, were a federal Yemen admitted to the GCC, it could again supply cheap labor, but the remittances would also increase the consumer base for GCC goods and services. The only conflict would be for contracts.
The GCC fears that the Zaydi Houthis are a fifth column for Iran, and claims they receive a copious Iranian weapons supply. In fact, the Fiver Shi‘a—with their founding doctrine of resistance to an unjust ruler—are an ideological threat to the Islamic Republic’s theory of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), and were mostly armed by Salih. The Gulf states could regard the Zaydis as a cherished Arab ally against the Iranians, whose Safavid antecedents destroyed the first Zaydi state. Instead, GCC policy is driving Zaydis into Iranian arms.
This problem is not new or theoretical (nor are Persian hegemonic pretensions). As an Athenian politician advocated 2,500 years ago: “When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises, as is only natural…we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea.”
The GCC tactic of divide, bribe and rule is a consistent failure. A new strategy is urgently needed, one based on the European model of building mutual advantage. It’s time to change.
A truck cruising down Qasr al-‘Ayni Street dressed as a blue papier-mâché boat. A belly dancer clad in a silver lycra dress and a blonde wig, upper body undulating out of the window of a white sedan. Tahrir Square, lit up like a local wedding, crowded with thousands, their faces painted red, white and black, sounding horns and waving flags.
These jubilant scenes filled downtown Cairo on August 6, a national holiday marking the opening of the New Suez Canal, actually an expansion of the existing one, a project heralded as “Egypt’s gift to the world.” In the record time of a single year, a team of engineers shook sky and earth to dig a new channel that allows ships to pass through at a faster rate. Prior to the grand opening, the media featured coverage of widows parting with wedding gold and children breaking their piggy banks to buy Suez Canal bonds. Ordinary citizens, many of whom are not wealthy, bought these symbols of nationalism, thus contributing an estimated 64 billion Egyptian pounds (over $8 billion), according to the Central Bank of Egypt, or 88 percent of the total project cost. Promising 12 percent returns in five years, the bonds sold out in two weeks. Signs plastered around the country, and even as far away as Times Square in New York, reminded Egyptians of their achievement. They had changed the map of the world. The canal’s revenue would more than double by 2023. Egypt would be great again.
Economists, however, have their doubts. The Suez Canal is not operating at full capacity. Shipping companies welcome the reduction of wait time at the locks from 18 to 11 hours, but they are not as enthusiastic as the government claims. Plus, doubled revenues are contingent on major increases in global trade, something that the new waterway cannot create by itself.
So why, then, are people celebrating? The August 6 parade seems like an absurd victory for statist propaganda in the “new Egypt” of President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. It is easy to dismiss the celebrants as brainwashed masses, high on nationalist opium, descending into the streets to rejoice over a dubious feat funded with money that they might lose, for how or whether the government will make good on the bonds is particularly unclear. Critics of the state project suggest that the money would have been better spent improving the education or health care infrastructures that are in disrepair.
In light of these criticisms, we decided to get an on-the-ground sense of what people were celebrating. Walking through downtown Cairo from ‘Abdin to Tahrir, we asked Egyptians—men and women who were carrying flags or signs, or wearing face paint—“What makes you so happy today?”
One woman we talked to on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, grandmother of a girl around 7 and a boy around 10, both with their faces painted in Egypt’s national colors, toed the party line. She said that she is happy because the new canal project will shower Egypt with blessings. The grandmother added, “I am happy so long as Sisi is my president.” She was pleased with the presence of police in full force in Tahrir for the celebrations and called them “beautiful.” The boy, however, cautioned us to stay on the periphery of the square and away from gatherings of males, indicating his knowledge of the possibility of sexual harassment and assault.
Other interviews also elicited responses that hinged on hope for a better future. A young man in his early twenties, from the working-class neighborhood of Sayyida Zaynab southeast of Tahrir, beamed with pride. “The whole of Egypt’s population is standing with its president,” he boasted as he waited tables at a local fish shop. “No one could have done what Egypt has done in a year.” The waiter stressed the economic benefits to Egypt—the canal would bring in more tourists and greater income, generating job opportunities, so that the country could stand on its feet again. He only wished that the fees for passing through the canal would be collected in Egyptian pounds rather than US dollars. He said his excitement was in line with the opinions of 95 percent of Egyptians. He called the remaining 5 percent “terrorists” who were unhappy about Egypt’s success.
For another woman, walking with a couple of other women and several children near the McDonalds in Tahrir Square, the potential for economic success was deeply personal. “I’m a head of household,” she explained, using the feminine pronoun. “Perhaps the wealthy don’t know my struggle,” she said, but “products have gotten expensive.” She is happy today, she explains, because economic growth means a better life, if not for her than for her children. We were interrupted by her adolescent daughter who, with shining eyes and a radiant smile, chanted, “Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna!” (“We have progressed! Progressed! Progressed!”)
Perhaps most revealing, however, was an exchange between two older men sitting in front of a print shop across the street from ‘Abdin Palace. We stopped to ask about a poster on which was written, in bold, red Arabic letters, “Masr bi-tifrah” (Egypt Rejoices). In response to our question—“What makes you so happy today?”—the shop owner explained that he was happy for his children and that the canal project is something that his generation is passing on to future generations. The man sitting to his right scoffed. Pointing to the garbage piles in the street, he said, “We’re right around the corner from the district office,” alluding to the lack of interest in infrastructure shown by the authorities. He continued, “Nothing has changed. State mismanagement is still the same.” Instead of projecting prosperity, he worried that the economic situation would continue to worsen. The shop owner called his friend a pessimist.
The hope and concern juxtaposed in this conversation reflect an ongoing debate around the meaning of the canal. While the young waiter, the concerned mother and the print shop’s owner see the canal as ushering in a bright future, the minority voice of dissent questions to what extent this new era is a departure from the past. The shop owner’s friend insisted that, like always, it’s the businessmen who stand to benefit the most. He explained that the logisticians for this project and its overseers are the same as those during the overthrown Husni Mubarak’s time, and that they are the ones who will reap its rewards. Meanwhile, no one is picking up the trash.
Seemingly far from these concerns, a young mother walking with her son in Sayyida Zaynab told us that in these difficult times Egyptians are looking for something to make them happy. “I am happy when I see you happy” was her immediate response to our question. Karima was much less preoccupied with short- or long-term economic gains, promises of political stability, renewed diplomatic relations with other countries, or any number of other benefits that the canal expansion is purported to portend. Instead, when we asked her why she was celebrating, she responded simply with “bi-nitlakkik” or “we’re looking for any excuse.”
Even though the street parties seemed over-the-top and strange, the motivations are familiar. People want their children to be able to make a living, their country to be prosperous and their fellow citizens to have something to glory in. While it is questionable that the current government’s means will advance these ends, on August 6 many Egyptians reveled in the dream of a better tomorrow.
Sisi and Suez
On July 26, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. With this action, the young Egyptian president was catapulted to world prominence as a recognized leader of the Arab nationalist and Non-Aligned movements of the time. The nationalization secured for Nasser a reputation for resolute anti-imperialism and commitment to national autonomy. It also dealt a devastating blow to what was left of British and, to a lesser extent French, hegemony in the Middle East.
Since 1956, the Suez Canal has carried great political weight in Egyptian discourse. Soon after the nationalization, the French, British and Israelis conspired to seize the canal from Nasser by military force. While the three powers won on the battlefield, they were routed in international public opinion. Then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing that such a transparently imperialist venture would encourage newly independent states to side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, forced the withdrawal of British, French and, eventually, Israeli forces from the Canal Zone. Nasser hailed the retreat as a great victory over outside aggressors, elevating his personal status and further convincing Whitehall that he posed an existential threat to British interests in the region.
Nearly 60 years later, another Egyptian president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, is seeking to channel the charisma of Nasser, and the discursive power of the Suez Canal, to strengthen his position in domestic, and perhaps regional, politics. The sycophantic fanfare that has flooded Egyptian media is eerily reminiscent of the pandering seen in Nasser’s time, but the analogy ends there.
The latest expansion of the Suez Canal (there have been several enlargements before) is neither economically nor politically equivalent to Nasser’s nationalization in 1956. Moreover, while state-encouraged propaganda was relatively new and effective 60 years ago, today it speaks more to the weakness than the strength of the government. The canal hype may begin to sow doubt among fence sitters who see a government celebrating victory while the day-to-day hardships of ordinary Egyptians grow rather than dissipate.
The increasingly over-the-top theatrics meant to cement in the eyes of the Egyptian people the great import of this latest national project have largely reduced the canal expansion to an object of international ridicule, causing a degree of discomfort to many Egyptians. Seeing supposedly independent newscasters wearing sailor suits or camouflage headscarves and saluting a stream of ship-shaped cakes hurts the credibility of any attempt at a sober account of the expansion’s potential benefits.
In reality, while the government’s wildly optimistic revenue forecasts are unrealistic, the expansion likely will protect if not expand the Suez Canal’s market share in international shipping. The 9 percent annual growth projections are almost certainly impossible. The Panama Canal is undertaking a decidedly more studied expansion to allow larger container ships to pass through in the hope of stealing traffic from Suez. That Egypt has widened and deepened its canal may, however, erode Panama’s ability to lure shipping companies away.
The more important question, however, is this: Given the enormous challenges facing Egypt and the country’s financial straits, was this expansion the right use of over $8 billion? Probably not. Given the dilapidated state of public hospitals and the abysmal quality of public education, it’s difficult to doubt that Egypt has many higher priorities.
What’s perhaps most frustrating, though, is that this question was never publicly debated before the decision to expand the canal was taken. Indeed, the lack of transparency in decision-making has been the problem with a regime dependent on strongman politics ever since the days of Nasser. A “president,” with deep roots in the military, has a self-aggrandizing vision. He works to realize it, often with little or no advance study, and the makers of Egyptian opinion rally behind him. The clairvoyance of the leader is to be trusted without question.
Now more projects are being announced without serious and public discussion of whether they fit Egypt’s priorities. The failure to settle on a parliamentary elections law that could provide Egypt with an independent legislature to review and debate the president’s decisions is a gross disservice to Egypt and its long-term interests. Without a national assembly, Egypt continues to be ruled by decree with no one in the position to exercise oversight or demand accountability.
This lack of thorough planning is a key reason for the shambolic performance of government in Egypt over the course of several decades. To stir up excitement for the economic conference held in Egypt earlier this year, the government announced plans to build an entirely new capital city in the middle of the desert between Cairo and ‘Ayn al-Sukhna. An interview with Dan Ringelstein, director of urban planning and design at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the company given the new capital portfolio, revealed that his team had come up with their scheme in a mere two months. Such a grandiose project should not be greenlighted without a great deal more research. Moreover, all of the planning happened in secret. There was no open conversation about the wisdom or the feasibility of the idea.
In the end, the memorandum of understanding with the Emirati company that was meant to bankroll and build the new capital was canceled. Now a new deal is being negotiated with an entirely Egyptian group of companies whose source of financing is thus far unknown.
With the overwrought ceremonies inaugurating the latest expansion of the Suez Canal, President Sisi is attaining neither Nasser’s prominence nor his significance. He is, however, following very carefully in Nasser’s footsteps of haphazard and opaque authoritarianism. There is no shortage of research on the consequences of that trajectory for Egypt.