Bringing the Middle East Back In: A New Era of Global Politics

March 6, 2011

Since 9/11, if not earlier, at least five generalizations have permeated practically all representations of the Middle East allowing for spurious claims to justify unjust, cruel and illegal acts against the people, politics, culture and history of the region. These generalizations have been exposed as myths by the nature of the popular protests that erupted in North Africa and Middle East in late 2010 and have made the first quarter of 2011 a period of significant changes. In this short price, I want to list the myths that are no longer valid and posit that wiping out these false representations may prove to be the most positive and lasting impact of the months of revolt that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The first of these myths to be exposed as bogus, is the widespread belief in the inertia of the Arab masses. If the images of the Tunisian people’s challenges to the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali were not enough evidence of the political power of Arab societies then the scenes of millions of Egyptians, women and men, challenging Hosni Mubarak’s right to rule should dispel any misconceptions that Arabs are bound by a tradition of fatalism and despotism. Libyan, Bahraini, Moroccan and Yemeni protestors only serve to further wipe away the idea that the Middle East is unchanging and historically static.

Secondly, the idea that Islamists monopolise political opposition in the Middle East is impossible to sustain in the face of the secularism on display in Cairo, Tangiers and Benghazi. However, many reporters and Middle East “experts” seem to remain wedded to the notion that behind every event in the Arab world lurks the evil hand of radical Islamists. This notion should now be put to rest as Arab secular voices have not only drowned out the Islamists but shown the lack of relevance of Muslim politics in the shaping of the protesters demands. These secular voices have called for social justice, employment, food, and an end to the regimes corrupt activities, including privatization, austerity programs and the dismantling of the welfare states. It was jobs and dignity that drove people to the streets definitely not shar’ia or holy war.

Thirdly, the belief that “western” approval for the policies of Arab leaders automatically translates into popular appeal can no longer be taken for granted. While Arab dictators such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were popular in the White House, London, Paris and the IMF, events of the last two months have shown how despised they were in their own countries. The fate of Colonel Gaddafi now rests with his own people and not with allies in London, Rome or Washington. It should now be clear that supporting policies that promote the interests of western powers and international investors might bring Arab leaders international approval, but that such policies are highly unpopular at home and be the cause of mass uprisings such as those we have witnessed over the last month. International stability comes at a price and the Arab masses are demanding payment.

Fourth, there must no longer be serious doubts about claims of the “trickle down” associated with economic liberalisation in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan. The countries that have experienced the largest, and angriest, mass protests have been exactly those countries that have followed the advice of the IMF most closely and received the highest acclaim from international financial institutions and the leading proponents of market fundamentalism in the developing world, namely the U.S. and the EU. Tunisian and Egyptian unemployment and poverty rates are startling when held up against the praise that these two countries have received for their economic management.  Clearly, its time to move beyond the idea that economic growth alone can address issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Holding these myths, and others I haven’t had time to explore, up to scrutiny at this critical time, will not only show that the Arab people only seek to share the same democratic and human rights that we dearly protect, but also provide political space for “us” to rethink our own conceptualizations of the region and its people, and in doing so, dismantle the artificial barriers that so often it is believed have come to exist between Arabs and the “west”.  Tearing down this barrier will allow Arab voices into global discourses on human rights, democracy, social justice and gender rights enriching the lives of Arab people and also will enrich those discourses as well. It is this aspect of the recent events that have rocked the Middle East that will have greatest impact.

Noah Bassil

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Back to the Future: Tunisians and Egyptians and Pan Arabism

February 13, 2011

Much of the “western” media hype over the last month has been focused on the threat of radical Islamism in the Middle East. Almost ad naseum, media commentators have continually returned to the topic of the threat of Islamist parties when reporting on the protests in Tunisia and Algeria and have shown almost total disbelief when they have been confronted with evidence, whether images and reports from the scenes or expert commentary, proving the secular credentials of the uprisings.

What events in Tunisia and Egypt is clearly showing is that this threat holds a significant place in the western imaginary of the Middle East, as much as camels, flying carpets and harems. This despite the reality that it has not been Islamists who have dominated the scenes in Tunis and Cairo.One journalist who has picked up on the weakness of radical Islam in the Middle East is Paul McGeough (http://www.smh.com.au/world/alqaeda-lost-on-the-arab-street-20110204-1aguj.html).  And despite my general agreement  with Paul MacGeough’s overall argument that current Middle East protests show how much ground Islamists have lost amongst the youth in the Middle East, I think that his assertion that youth have chosen Ipods, Starbucks and McDonald’s over Islamic terrorism may technically be correct but still far short of the reality. Sure, young people in Tahrir Square prefer surfing the net to strapping themselves with explosives and bringing down a airliner, or a Big Mac to beheading  unbelievers, but this doesn’t tell us much at all. Rather, what we should be examining is the slogans of the protesters, and in the void that is often called journalism not much of this has been done in the reporting over Tunisia and more recently, Egypt.

So fascinated is the western media with the Islamist angle that they have all but missed the undercurrent of the pan-Arab nationalism which has been at the forefront of the protesters banners and chants. They have missed that what people in the Middle East are protesting for is not for their states to vanish, as wishful conservative and neo-liberal advocates would want, but that they want their states to protect them from the inequality and alienation that the market creates.  Tunisia and Egypt are certainly not Islamist revolutions, but they maybe somewhat red in colour, at least “red”  in the sense of the social democratic principles of the 1960s and of the era of Nasserism.

While the west focuses on the illusion of Islamism, something potentially more dangerous to the post Cold War Pax Americana is emerging from Tunis and Cairo.  This Pax American which has been based on free market fundamentalism and on the ideal that social welfare and distributing wealth should be the responsibility of markets and not of governments is under siege from a number of directions and the Arab uprisings add another volatile front in the struggle against US imperialism in the form of neo-liberalism.

These are very exciting times, not only because of the monumental changes that have resulted from the forced resignations of two of the world’s longest serving dictators, both very close allies of the supposedly pro-democracy “west”, but because the Arab revolutions are symbolic of the mounting global resistance to a system that promotes inequality, alienation, and marginalisation. Freedom is the only promise that neo-liberalism has delivered to most people around the world, that is a freedom to be unemployed, hungry and homeless. For the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square the revolution begins not with overthrowing Mubarak but with unravelling the “economic miracle” (IMF actually awarded Egypt with the title of the best reforming economy in the world) that has left 40% of Egyptians earning less than $2 a day. Time will tell how much reform of the neo-liberal economy Mubarak’s successors will allow but irrespective of what happens in the coming days, weeks and months in Egypt, the winds of change are blowing, and the struggle for social democracy has begun.

Noah Bassil


BDS VICTORY – UK GOVERNMENT BOYCOTTS ISRAELI DIAMOND MOGUL

March 5, 2009

Adalah-NY: The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East

UK Government Boycotts Israeli Tycoon
Lev Leviev over Settlement Construction

Decision a Victory for Coordinated Campaign in Palestine,
US, UK and Israel

New York, NY, March 4 – The government of the United Kingdom has decided to
boycott Israeli diamond and real estate mogul Lev Leviev over his companies’
construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in the Occupied West
Bank, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz Daily (1) reported today. The decision

by the UK government followed a coordinated advocacy  campaign by human
rights advocates in New York, the UK, Palestine and Israel demanding that
the UK government end plans to rent the new UK Embassy in Tel Aviv from
Leviev’s company Africa-Israel.

The UK’s Tel Aviv Ambassador notified Leviev of the decision by letter,
following a British parliamentary debate, and inquiries with Leviev’s
company Africa-Israel over its activities in the West Bank,  Ha’aretz
reported. According to Ha’aretz, “The embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed the
details of the story.”
Read the rest of this entry »


More on the Free Gaza Movement

August 20, 2008

Following the previous post concerning the Free Gaza Movement I received this article that I also thought worthy of publishing. It is written by Stuart Littlewood who is the author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. What Littlewood outlines in the following article are some of the divisions amongst Palestinians, particularly the PA who do not seem to be supporting the efforts of volunteers trying to break the siege in Gaza.

When the Boats Arrive in Gaza
Stuart Littlewood, 15 August 2008

Is the Palestinian Authority for or against the siege? While others put on a show of solidarity with the brave ‘freedom’ voyagers as they set sail to break the siege of Gaza, where is the voice of the PA?

The siege has been going on for more than 2 years but here in the UK I have heard the Palestinian Delegation speak only once of the injustice, suffering and devastation. As far as I know, these ‘official’ representatives of the Palestinian people have said nothing in the media about the freedom boats, which potentially present the most important challenge to the Israeli occupation for a very long time.

Volunteers are doing in their small way what the EU – if it had a shred of moral decency – should have done massively with cargo ships, helicopters and the necessary armed escorts when this offence against every code of humanity was first committed. The slightest interference by Israel, or attempt to re-seal Gaza’s borders, should have resulted in the EU-Israel Agreements being torn up and consigned to the wastepaper basket of history. Read the rest of this entry »


Free Gaza Movement

August 19, 2008

Just received the following info about a human rights campaign being run by an Israeli activist and thought it was worth publicizing…

PROGRESS REPORT
on Free Gaza Campaign

Israeli Government Recognizes “Humanitarian” Mission to Break the Siege of Gaza
19 August 2008

NICOSIA, CYPRUS (18 Aug. 2008) – In a letter today to the Free Gaza Movement, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged that the group of international human rights activists attempting to break the siege of Gaza were “humanitarian,” and stated that the Israeli government “assume[s] that your intentions are good.”

Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of the Free Gaza Movement stated that, “Since the Foreign Minister’s office responded to our invitation to join us, and said that we have good intentions, we now fully expect to reach Gaza.”

According to recent reports in the Israeli media however, the Israeli military is preparing to use force to stop the nonviolent campaigners from reaching Gaza. It’s not clear if the letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signals a change of policy, or is simply an attempt to open up an official dialogue between the state of Israel and the Free Gaza Movement regarding the current blockade.

The Free Gaza Movement is preparing to sail two ships into Gaza carrying 40 human rights workers from 17 different countries. They will also deliver hearing aids for children who have lost some or all of their hearing due to Israeli sound bombs and sonic booms. Read the rest of this entry »


Palestine coverage through 3 August 08

August 4, 2008

The most momentous development of the week — at least according to the English-language press — in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the announcement by Olmert that he plans to step down after the Kadima party selects a new leader. In reality, the more important events may have taken place in Palestine — whether in the explosion last Friday (7/25) in Gaza that killed Hamas personnel and a 6-year old child and set off the worst intra-Palestinian fighting in a year (pushing factional talks of national unity back to square one), or in the escalation of violence by the IDF attempting to force nonviolent Palestinian protesters in Bilin and Nilin to a tipping point that will trigger the collapse of nonviolent protest.

The nonviolent protests of Palestinians, at any rate, generally receive no coverage unless the Israelis shoot and kill children at them. So it is that Nilin made the news this week when the IDF shot live ammunition at an 10-year old boy, killing him with a head wound. The Israeli response to this atrocity was to also fire live ammunition at his funeral and then to barricade the village itself. Also today, in an unexceptional parallel, Haaretz is reporting that Israeli settlers hurled a brick injuring a 7-year old Palestinian girl.

The selection of press coverage below reflects more comment on the Olmert resignation and its implications for the “peace process” than anything else, since the only significant commentary in English on the situation this week had that focus. There are also pieces giving an overview of the pretenders to Olmert’s throne — Shaul Mofaz and Tzipi Livni — neither of whom is the least bit desirable as the articles below make clear. Still, it remains a telling characterization of the PA leadership that they appear to be the only ones willing to mourn Olmert’s passing from the Israeli political scene (according to one piece below, the PA negotiators see Olmert’s departure as a “heavy blow”).

Finally, in a week when Obama — fresh from his rock-star reception abroad — has engaged in further back-pedaling on his positions of “principle” (some offshore drilling is acceptable; the military option against Iran must remain on the table, etc.), the selection closes with a fitting analysis from Al-Ahram Weekly that the Candidate of Change represents nothing but the status quo. Read the rest of this entry »


In memoriam: Dr Abdelwahab El-Messiri

July 4, 2008
Dr Abdelwahab El-Messiri, April 2008

Dr Abdelwahab El-Messiri, April 2008

Thursday morning, July 3, 2008, Dr Abdelwahab El-Messiri passed away after a long bout with cancer. Dr El-Messiri was from the small Egyptian town of Damanhour in the Nile Delta, but when his brilliance was discovered by teachers in high school, they helped him to apply for a Fulbright fellowship to attend Columbia University, where he received a masters degree. He went on to complete a PhD in comparative literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He returned to Egypt to teach literature at Ain Shams University.

He is most famous in Egypt for writing the many-volumed “Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism.” Anyone who has traveled in the Arab world knows that for many Arabs, hatred for Zionism all too easily shades into a thoughtless anti-Semitism.  But El-Messiri actively fought against this and his work clearly repudiated nonsense like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  He never allowed anyone to utter a disparaging word about Jews or Judaism in his presence, reminding them of the clear difference between Judaism and Zionism.

El-Messiri’s attention turned to politics more recently when he signed on, in 2007, to be the coordinator of Kifaya, a grassroots pro-democracy movement in Egypt.  But he maintained his active interest in literature, and he recently published an illustrated bilingual English-Arabic edition of his magnificent translation of Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Read the rest of this entry »