’Business as usual’ in Middle East
One of the most glaring ironies of the Middle East conflict is the righteous indignation displayed by the region”s leaders toward each other”s policies. In a region where violent and oppressive rule is the norm, leaders have no trouble pointing out each other”s flaws, often menacingly.
And so Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister whose government shows no sign of ending one of the world”s longest and most brutal occupations, rails against the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.
For his part, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, calls Israel “the most cruel and oppressive, racist regime,” even as his government continues to persecute members of the Baha”i faith, jail journalists, torture students and sentence women to death by stoning.
On the other hand, friendly governments are quite prepared to ignore each other”s less savoury policies, with far-reaching costs to the agenda of peace, justice and freedom most governments rhetorically support.
The recent Durban II conference in Geneva took note of this problem directly in its Draft Outcome Document, which stressed that “democracy and transparent, responsible, accountable and participatory governance at the national, regional and international levels … are essential to effectively prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”.
Had Washington participated in the conference, the White House may have taken note of the above point and applied it to the way Barack Obama, the US president, should be reshaping US foreign policy toward adversaries and key allies alike in the Middle East.
Lack of resolve
As Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, prepares to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia, one wonders if he will press Arab leaders for democratic change.
However, recent US overtures to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, offer the clearest and most troubling evidence of the Obama administration”s lack of resolve in demanding democratic reforms from its allies in the region.
At a press conference following consultations on Egypt”s role in the peace process, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, said: “The US president believes, and I believe, that a comprehensive peace in the Middle East will be possible only as a result of the leadership of Egypt, President Mubarak … and the whole [Egyptian] government.”
On the one hand, if it accurately represented his views, then it betrays a wholesale ignorance on the part of Mitchell and his superiors, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, as to the realities of Mubarak”s undemocratic rule in Egypt, and how his hold on power – 28 years and counting – has long been intimately tied to his role in ensuring the long term management rather than resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Perhaps worse, however, would be if the statement was in fact not an honest reflection of Mitchell”s assessment of Mubarak”s role in the peace process.
In this case the statement is disingenuous, and based on the assumption that Americans, as well as Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians, and other citizens of the region, either do not know or do not care about obvious links between authoritarian rule, corruption, occupation and the overall lack of democracy across much of the Middle East.
If the peace process is one of the most important priorities of the US administration, and its successful conclusion can “only” occur with Mubarak at Egypt”s helm, then the clear message to the Egyptian president and his people is that he has a green light from Washington to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power, regardless of the cost to Egyptians and the possibility of tangible democratic change in the country.
Either way, Mitchell”s remarks can only be read as a slap to the face of the many brave Egyptian activists for democracy, who continue to be harassed, jailed, and often tortured for pursuing the dream of genuine democratic development that Obama”s election has symbolised for the world.
Indeed, just before Mitchell”s arrival in Cairo in April, Egyptian security forces questioned well-known blogger Wael Abbas after he and his mother were assaulted in his home by police.
Two more bloggers were detained in late February. Blogging is quickly becoming the lifeblood of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, and is – in the words of Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy – “chipping away at the authority” of political, economic and religious elites.
The majority of bloggers are equally critical of Mubarak”s corruption and lack of democracy internally, of his close relationship with Washington, and of his role in enabling the Israeli occupation to continue unfettered through the close security co-operation between the two countries and their US sponsor.
The three issues cannot be separated. Mubarak knows this, which is why those movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement (led by teenagers and twenty-somethings whose members have suffered beatings and arrests for attempting to fly kites along the beach in Alexandria in support of higher wages) or Kefaya (a pro-democracy movement), who highlight the link are perceived as dangerous.
Blind eye to Gaza?
And just as the Egyptian government tries to silence its own bloggers, it also is quite wary of allowing Gazans to offer unvarnished views of the conditions in which they are forced to live, in good measure because of the regular restrictive border closing by the Egyptian government and its intelligence co-operation with Israel.
At roughly the same time that Wael Abbas was assaulted, the Gaza-based blogger and journalist Laila El-Haddad was detained at Cairo airport upon her arrival from Washington, where she was kept in detention for over a day with her two young children before being expelled from the country and sent back to the US, despite having written permission from the Egyptian consul-general in Washington to cross the border into Gaza.
In the context of this struggle Mitchell”s remarks send a signal, both to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and to the peace activists in both communities struggling desperately against their policies, that business will continue as usual under the Obama administration when it comes to Egypt, Israel, the occupation, and the larger geopolitics of the region.
Status quo unchallenged
Aside from a periodic mild criticism, the US will continue to support the status quo, whether it is authoritarian, corrupt and violent rule in Egypt, or an ever-deepening occupation in the West Bank.
In this context, for the Mubarak government the link between pro-democracy bloggers at home and pro-democracy bloggers passing through to Gaza is clear.
Both are a threat to the regime”s power and stability, two qualities which, ironically, the Obama administration seems to think make Egypt a crucial partner for peace in the region.
But if there is a lesson in the rise of bloggers in Egypt, Palestine and across the region, it is that sclerotic governments focused only on their own perpetuation are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with a rising tide of activists who in 147 characters or less can inform the world about the latest affront to democracy and human dignity, as Laila El-Haddad did when she tweeted repeatedly from her detention cell.
Obama needs to choose sides soon.
Perhaps he could have Gates send Mubarak, Netanyahu and their regional colleagues a twitter letting them know that their services are no longer needed.
That would be a much better way to reach Islam”s next generation than another round of shuttle diplomacy by out-of-touch diplomats who think authoritarian leaders can bring peace and prosperity to the region.