Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Broken Wings of Egypt's Propaganda Machine

Since the beginning of Israel's war on Gaza, the official Egyptian propaganda machine has been working at full capacity, but what it has produced is a mixture of sheer lies and half-truths. There is a political and moral imperative to evaluate the basic arguments of that machine.

1- Hamas is responsible for the war.
Hamas was the result of the lingering Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not the cause of it. The clock of Egypt's propaganda machine, however, started ticking on Dec. 19, 2008 when Hamas rejected an extension of the truce with Israel if its unjust conditions are not amended, particularly the lifting of the blockade imposed on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel's aggressive intentions need no elaboration; it had fought the Arab world five times (in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982) and occupied the land of four Arab states (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt) before Hamas even existed. Today's offense is reminiscent of the invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and the West Bank in 2002 waged to demolish the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority respectively. Israel's target has always been the obliteration of Palestinian resistance, irrespective of the banner it raises.

The moral and political responsibility of the current aggression lies primarily on Israel, whose war machine has brutally bombed civilian quarters in total disregard of international law and human rights conventions. Moreover, it is highly questionable that Israel would not have carried out its attack had Hamas agreed to extend the ceasefire. Besides, the current aggression is an extension of the so-called truce, during which Israel had turned the Strip into the biggest concentration camp on earth, and deprived it of basic food and medicine supplies.

Nevertheless, Egypt's extremely insolent propaganda machine blames the victim and is satisfied with directing meek condemnations at the assailant who would have carried out the attack in all cases, driven by a military doctrine premised on aggression and expansion, and internal political ambitions that thrive on Palestinian blood.

2- Egyptian diplomacy is doing its best to stop the Israeli aggression.
Egypt's diplomatic reaction to the war on Gaza has been, at best, cold. It is interesting to note that on the day following the start of the Israeli offensive, the Egyptian President contacted one foreign head of state: the King of Bahrain Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. If the conflict-rich Middle East resembles a jungle, then Bahrain – the smallest Arab nation -- would be the jungle's harmless ant; and ants do not have any leverage over elephants.

Any student of international politics knows that any serious diplomatic effort to stop the aggression would have approached Washington, and major European and Arab capitals that can make a difference in the Middle East. Egypt remained aloof for the first days of hostilities. President Mubarak's first statement came on the fourth day of aggression and its diplomatic effort commenced only after Israel had started its ground operation.

Furthermore, Egypt has not been enthusiastic about the idea of convening an emergency Arab summit. One could also wonder why the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel continues uninterrupted. Verbal condemnation and humanitarian relief is all what Egypt could do in the face of the slaughter in Gaza. An article appearing in The Middle East Times a few years ago carried the title: "Egypt Slips from Powerbroker to Event Planner." Inspired by the current crisis, the title could be rephrased to "Egypt Slips from Powerhouse to Ambulance."

3- The Rafah Crossing is subject to an international treaty that Egypt must respect.
In response to mounting popular pressure on Egypt to guarantee permanent opening of the Rafah Crossing, Egyptian top officials contend that the treaty signed in 2005 by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to regulate the Rafah Crossing is binding to Egypt. Thus, the gate will remain closed, except for the treatment of humanitarian cases.

Contrast the Egyptian regime's absolute adherence to this insignificant treaty that it did not even sign with its domestic disregard for the constitution, laws, and basic principles of human rights. Contrast that posture also with the number and intensity of Israeli violations of international law, human rights conventions, and Security Council resolutions over six decades. In the period between 1967 and 2000, for example, Israel had been the subject of 138 Security Council resolutions. Most of these resolutions called on the Jewish state to end its occupation of Arab land and to act in accordance with the basic principles of international law. Israel flouted them all.

The reason why a treaty that encroaches upon Egypt's sovereignty and that aggravates the human tragedy of Gaza's population is so revered by Cairo is political, not legal, namely destabilizing the rule of Hamas in Gaza and emboldening its rivals in Ramallah.

4- Hamas is totally under Iran's control.
Hamas receives political and financial support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that does not necessarily mean that the former is a stooge of the latter.

First, Iranian financial support to Iran has been minor. Shaul Mishal, professor at Tel Aviv University, says: " I don’t really see Iran stepping forward and filling the gap for Hamas as far as money is concerned, and whatever assistance is provided will certainly have many strings attached – perhaps too many to make it worthwhile, for the amounts of money we would be talking about."

Secondly, sectarian differences and Hamas' inclination to ward off outside influence propelled her to put Iran at arm's length. Anat Kurtz, a scholar of Hamas at the Israeli Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies explained that Hamas is, first and foremost, "a nationalist organization – it is Palestinian before being radical Islamist. Too close an affiliation with Iran could undermine its goal of establishing itself as the leading actor in the Palestinian political scene.” Another Israeli scholar, Meir Litvak, argued that Hamas "might like some kind of beneficial partnership [with Iran], but subordination ― never."

5- Egypt has always served the Palestinian question.
Egypt staunchly supported the Palestinian cause in the few decades following the loss of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. But when Egypt's rulers saw a contradiction that could not be reconciled between its national interests and its pan-Arab commitments, they opted for the former. The product was Egypt's separate peace treaty with Israel in 1979 that neutralized the strongest and most populous Arab country, thereby depriving the Palestinians of their only stalwart Arab ally.

The argument that "Egypt has always served the Palestinian question" is clearly used to tickle chauvinistic feelings, but it is not scientifically accurate. Obviously, to thwart supra-state identities (such as Islamism and Arabism), the Egyptian state has opted for reviving nationalist Egyptian feelings.

6- The Egyptian officer killed by Hamas militants is a martyr.
Perhaps. But what about the Egyptian soldiers who were killed by Israeli fire across the Egyptian-Palestinian border? In the period between 2004 and 2008, at least eight Egyptians were killed along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip. They were buried in silence, no reverence, no attention. In contrast, heroes are made of the Egyptian victim of Hamas; prime media time is generously offered to highlight the agony of the deceased's loved ones and a military funeral is held in honor of 'the brave officer who was safeguarding Egypt's sacred land'.

In other words, Egyptian bloodshed at the hands of Israeli Apachi helicopters and F-16s is cheap and neglected. But hostile Palestinian bullets are an opportunity to legitimize Egypt's antagonistic stance toward Hamas and mobilize people against it. Double-standards reveal hypocrisy and reflect policy too; the crimes of Israel are forgiven because Israel is an ally, Hamas is a foe. No wonder the Israeli commentator Zvi Bar'el wrote in Haaretz that following the Egyptian media gives the impression that the real war is between Egypt and Hamas, not Israel and Hamas. President Mubarak spelled out his intentions when he told a European delegation that "Hamas must not be allowed to win."

The bloodbath on Egypt's doorstep is a reminder that Israel comprises the real threat to Egypt's national security, not Hamas. But the strategic calculations of the nation have been overshadowed by the narrow interests of a ruling elite.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on January 15, 2009.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Egypt's Pathetic Foreign Policy

Three years ago, an expert on Egyptian politics argued that Egyptian foreign policy "sometimes seems like an aging movie star." Last month, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, confirmed this argument by emulating aging celebrities who blame others for their loss of glamor and attention. The Iranians, he said, are trying "to impose and spread their own ideology in the region" by using the card of the Palestinian question. He warned Hamas and other Palestinian factions of coming under the influence of the Iranians who "provide nothing for the Palestinian cause, save hollow speeches and unfounded allegations."

Apparently, there is always someone Cairo blames for the ineptness of its foreign policies. The protraction of the Lebanese crisis in 2006-8 was blamed on Syria, the unfriendly decision of the US Congress in 2007 to freeze $200 million of US aid was blamed on the influential Jewish lobby, and the collapse of the Palestinian reconciliation talks is now blamed on Iran.

The pointing-fingers discourse could be reflective of the kind of planned propaganda campaigns without which political processes rarely function, but it is a dangerous sign when rhetoric replaces politics or is considered synonymous with politics.

In Lebanon, Egypt contentedly remained in the spectator seat, leaving the playground to a myriad of international and regional players, such as the United States, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the sheikdom of Qatar. Egypt gave the Saudis a carte blanche to meddle with the crisis on behalf of moderate Arab regimes and focused on shouting anti-Syrian slogans. Likewise, Egypt's stance toward the rival Palestinian factions is biased and inflexible, therefore more conducive to failure than success.

Perceptions of power and legitimacy are important to any country's foreign policy, but the Egyptian leadership is keen on losing both. First, blaming other parties is a self-defeating approach because, in essence, it admits that important matters are controlled by these parties thus exposing the helplessness of oneself. So when Egypt accuses Iran of sabotaging national reconciliation in Palestine, it implicitly acknowledges that any development on the Palestinian file would not be achieved without the latter's acquiescence.

Secondly, legitimacy in the Arab state system is derived from championing Arab causes and standing up to the nemeses of the Arab world. Egypt willingly forfeited both since it had opted for the go-it-alone approach with Israel and the rapprochement with the United States. In the 1980's and 1990's, Egypt tried to regain its legitimacy by returning to the Arab fold and mediating to solve the Palestinian question, but the commitments of its strategic alliance with the US exposed her acute legitimacy deficit more than once. Joining the US in a military alliance that attacked a sister Arab country and blocking humanitarian relief from reaching the Gaza Strip, which Israel had turned into a big prison, are two cases in point.

Egypt's legitimacy coffers are today emptier than ever. Serving narrow state (or regime) interests, there is no 'patriotic' role it can boast of on the national level. And just like a bankrupt merchant would re-check his accounts in desperate search for an old, unsettled debt that would balance his financial records, Egypt does nothing but reminding others of its 'past' sacrifices for Arab causes, imprudently revealing her current policies' lack of legitimacy.

Syria's Assad can boldly preach Arab nationalism and can call some Arab leaders "half men" because they colluded with Israel while his Lebanese protégés courageously withstood the offense of the mighty Israeli war machine in 2006. And the Iranians, who offer the Palestinians nothing but "hollow speeches and unfounded allegations," can take pride in developing 'Islamic' nuclear capabilities, and resisting the 'malicious designs of imperialist powers', thereby risking an imminent American/Israeli attack. On the other hand, the best the Egyptian regime can do is brag about the majestic grace of permitting – infrequently, of course -- the entry of basic foodstuff into the besieged, poverty-stricken, Gazan territory, now under barbaric attack.

Minor blunders could be beautified but sheer failures are resistant to cosmetic surgery. Mubarak or Aboul Gheit's warning that "Egypt cannot accept outbidding over its stance on the Palestinian cause" is tantamount to George Bush's insistence that invading Iraq was politically wise and legally sound. Both statements are funny and pathetic; funny because they are so out of touch with reality and pathetic because the marriage of poor policies with poor rhetoric deserves nothing short of resentment and scorn.

In international relations, power can survive without legitimacy, and legitimacy can survive without power; lacking both is disastrous. Hence, what other than blaming Hamas could one expect from Egypt in response to Israel's brutal war on Gaza?

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on January 2, 2009.