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Inconvenient History: tales of lesser discussed history of Egypt & Israel

As Egypt's relationship with Israel takes central stage for both countries, a look at some interesting little known historical facts ...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Saving Sudan & Darfur …..The Muslim Silence and the American Paradox

Sudan has been tearing itself apart for many years now. The war between the SPLA (Sudan’s People Liberation Army) and the Government was relatively well understood by the world outside. The South Sudanese who are predominantly Animist and Christian agitated for independence from an increasingly fundamentalist Islamic state that sought to impose its will on the whole country. As would be expected various outsiders with own agendas and interests weighed in to provide aid and weapons to the SPLA and the Government. Finally after decades of horrible suffering and destruction some sort of peace has finally been reached.

Few days ago an announcement was made about a peace accord reached between the Sudanese Government and the Eastern Sudan rebels; the conflict in the east has received less media attention even though it appears to have intensified prior to Darfur. While the on-going conflict in Darfur has recently been receiving considerable amount of media coverage, there remains a high degree of ignorance of the conflict both in Islamic countries and in the West. Many assume that the conflict is of Arabs against Africans or Muslims against non Muslims; both assumptions are false. This is a conflict of black Africans tribes against other black African tribes and both sides are Muslim. The news media often quotes “Janjaweed, the Arab militias” but there is little Arab about them to support their own claim of Arabness. In fact in the Arab Peninsula they would be referred to as Africans and more often “abeed” or slaves. In the West post 9/11 the terms Arab, Muslim and Terrorist conjure up similar images so Arab Militias carries a lot of emotions and feed the ignorance. Yet the name “Dar Fur”, itself is Arabic for the House of Fur and warring tribes to outsiders are indistinguishable much as the case was in Rwanda with the Hutos and Tutusis.

Another major struggle that is hardly mentioned in the news is what is happening in the Sudan heartland starting with Khartoum itself. Here the brutal fundamentalist regime has for many years been employing harsh suppression measures against its opposition ranging from murder and torture to, at best, exile and house arrest. Some of the victims are also Muslim fundamentalists who oppose with the regime, others include moderates, secularists, leftists etc.

A question that must be asked is why is the relative silence in the Islamic World about the on-going atrocities in the Sudan and in particular Darfur and what can the West and in particular the USA do to stop the carnage in Sudan. The relative silence of Muslim on Muslim massacres continues to be a source of shame and sadness for me. The Darfuri rebel groups receive assistance from pro Western sources. Christian, including Evangelical, and Jewish Charities have allegedly been active in helping the victims in Darfur. Could this be the reason enough for the relative indifference in the Muslim World? The history of the US and particularly French involvement in Northern Darfur dating back to 80’s is murky with the West arming some groups against others to outbid effort by Libya’s Ghadafi to expand his sphere of influence, could this be a factor in the silence of the Muslim World? Is there a tinge of racism? Isn’t the life of a black African Muslim worth the same as that of an Iraqi or a Palestinian? Is Darfur another front in the conflict between America and Islamdom? Are the people of Darfur naive to allow themselves to be used by the West? Do they have it coming? Why is the silence? Why is Darfur not a cause for Muslims and Arabs in the USA and the West? Whose action or inaction is complicit in the killings of hundreds of thousands? Many questions ….few clear answers!

Many observers have been talking of the US loss of moral authority and credibility since the War in Iraq. This is much more the case in the Middle East and the Muslim World, where the US silence on the suffering of the Palestinians and its unwavering support for Israel (right or wrong) makes the US completely disbelieved. The causes that the US advocates are viewed with suspicion and the default position is, virtually always, the anti American position. It is indeed tough for the US to label the death of 400,000 people in Darfur genocide when the numbers of Iraqi war dead are now estimated by some to be even higher …... What can the US do now?

I guess the answer must start with the US Government recognizing the reality that America is no longer viewed as the beacon of freedom and justice it once was, and that the US is viewed with suspicion and fear. It seems that the US, just by merely speaking on behalf of the people of Darfur, contributes to the antipathy and the indifference of many Muslims towards them. So paradoxically as the US tries to intervene to save Muslims from a horrible carnage its efforts boomerang and the Sudan Government is seen as a victim standing up to the US Imperialism and its crusades. The US is in tough position indeed, engage and risk more rejection by Sudan, the Arab League and much of the Muslim World or turn the other way and let genocide unfold into the killing of millions.

As an American Muslim I feel that the US must remain engaged in the effort to save the people of Darfur but it should be done through quite diplomacy and multi lateral organizations such as the UN. The US must refrain from lecturing and from the grandiose rhetoric of condemnations. The US must act and speak in manner that recognizes that it is no longer viewed as a moral authority; a new level of modesty in foreign policy will do more to help the people of Darfur than the big accusatory pronouncements. The US must also accept the limit of its power to shape the agenda in Sudan and elsewhere in the Muslim World. Direct and indirect financial and military aid for different groups by the US will most likely damage the interests of the US in the long run; the US has simply not been successful in this sort of effort for so long. The US may wish to re-direct some of its efforts through Muslim charities from the US and elsewhere and honestly and truly focus exclusively on the human suffering without attempting to gain an edge or advance a foreign policy objective apart from saving the people of Darfur.

Will this be enough to save Darfur and the rest of Sudan? Could this be a start to rebuild the US tattered image in the Muslim World? Could this prompt more voices to speak up against the horrors inflicted by the Sudanese Government?.....…at the very least it would be a start in the right direction!

October 15, 2006

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Not quite modern day Maqrizi but nice effort


Book Review:
Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?: Changes in Egyptian Society from 1850 to the Present
by Galal Amin


The social history of Egypt in the Middle Ages is well documented by the legendary historian Al Maqrizi who wrote volumes of fascinating history of Egyptians, their rulers, classes and habits. In the last few hundred years starting with Lane writing the social history of Egypt became dominated by the Orientalists who brought their own baggage and prejudices and often supremacist attitudes to the task. Few rare exceptions such as Cairo City Victorious defy the traditional orientalist narratives.

Galal Amin wrote a light hearted, mostly easy to read book about the massive changes that occurred in the Egyptian society since the 1952 military coup aka The Revolution. Amin attributes much of the change in Egypt’s society to a massive expansion of the middle class started under Nasser but accelerated under Sadat with the Open Door policy and the massive demand for Egyptian workers (including unskilled and semiskilled) in the oil rich Arab countries.

Amin used a number of personal but very interesting yard sticks to track the changes in the society. He contrasted his university professor salary with that of the house servant. The gap narrowed significantly after 1952 and much more so after 1972 and started to widen again in recent years. Amin also addressed the role of women in the society and contrasted the changes from his mothers, to his sisters to his daughter. Remarkable change has occurred and Amin’s admittedly non scientific findings correlate closely with those of Leila Ahmed (Women & Gender in Islam). For many women in Egypt the headscarf is a tool of liberation not oppression. Also interesting is Amin’s demonstration of the reduced dependence on the state comparing the days of his father (the famous Egyptian Writer & Professor Ahmad Amin) to the generations of his kids and nephews and nieces.

Overall it is a really nice easy to read book, it is a compilation of different articles and research papers that mostly mesh in nicely to form a reasonably coherent whole

Monday, October 02, 2006

On the Eve of the Anniversary of the Yum Kippur / Ramadan War and the Cold Peace between Egypt & Israel

Normalization would have been a good example to defeat the rejectionist ideology of both sides

The last time the first day of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah coincided was thirty three years ago; that was the year of the “war to end all wars” according to Anwar el Sadat which started on Yum Kippur or the tenth of Ramadan. I celebrated the first day of Ramadan this year at the house of Jewish friends joining them for their Rosh Hashanah dinner to break my fast. On the way back from dinner I was reflecting on an Al Jazeera TV news program that I saw a while back which showed images of Sadat’s first moments visiting Israel and then the famous pictures of Sadat, Begin and Carter and their big hand shake. The Jazeera program focused on the failure of the normalization between Egypt and Israel and had two guests, the former Israeli ambassador to Cairo and an Egyptian writer. The anchorwoman did not hide her delight at the failure of normalization; the Israeli guest did not seem to have much coherent to say and was not allowed to say much anyhow. The Egyptian guest was full of solidarity with the Palestinians and rejection of the peace process, full of slogans from the Nasser era about Egyptians never forgetting their Arabism. There was really no debate, an Israeli complaining about the Egyptian Government failure to push normalization and an Egyptian complaining about the Egyptian Government for pushing normalization.

The anchorwoman failed to challenge the Israeli ambassador over the early days of the peace between Egyptians and Israelis when ordinary Egyptians welcomed Israelis visiting synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria with applause and when, much to the dismay of most Palestinians and Egyptian Arab nationalists and religious fundamentalists, the overwhelming sentiment in Egypt was pro peace with Israel. It was the Israeli suppression of the two intefadahs, Israel’s continued brutality and injustice against ordinary Palestinians and the rising wave of religious intolerance in the region that eventually led to the shifting in the views of ordinary Egyptians. The anchorwoman also failed to challenge her Egyptian guest over his secular Arabist rationale which is clearly out of step with the Islamic identification that dominates the Egyptian street nowadays. Further she failed to challenge him over the successful normalization in sectors such as Sinai tourism and the number of Egyptian workers in Israel.

There is little doubt that peace between Egypt and Israel is cold and normalization has largely failed. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for the Palestinian cause, which the anchorwoman and her Egyptian guest clearly support, is the question at hand. Watching Al Jazeera, one feels that the default position is that to reject Israel is to be more supportive of the Palestinians.

However, when you have a recipe that has not worked for some 60 years is it perhaps worth re-examining it? Could the venting of hate and anger at Jews, Israelis and their supporters by Arabs and Muslim commentators, who clearly only want the best for the Palestinians, constitute an act of self indulgence and intellectual laziness that can no longer be indulged? Does commitment to the Palestinian cause and solidarity with them prevent their supporters from taking a more analytical approach of the merits of normalization?

Many Arab and Muslim Americans blamed Sharon for the collapse of the prospects for peace over the last 6 years. Could a more successful normalization between Egyptians and Israelis have made Sharon’s case more difficult? As someone who has actively engaged in promoting peace and dialogue in the Middle East for many years I am amazed at how many Israelis actually believe that the Jews of Europe came to mostly empty land in Palestine and the deep rooted hate for Jews and anything Jewish by Arabs and Muslims is what led to the conflict over the last hundred years. Israelis are fed a version of history full of the suffering of the Jews, the massacres of Jews in Hebron in 1929 and in Baghdad in 1941 and again 1969 etc. These events, in the long shadow of the undeniable horrors of the Holocaust, feed a version of history where the wars of 1948 and 1967 are seen as self defense. Even the 1956 Suez war, now fully confessed to by Israel’s co-conspirators as a war of aggression on Egypt, continues to be taught in Israel as a campaign of self defense.

Most Arab and Muslim commentators including many here in the USA appear to have standardized on a language that absolve the Palestinians from blame for electing Hamas. The argument goes something like this: … the Palestinians really wanted the Fateh agenda for peace with Israel but Fateh is so corrupt and incompetent domestically and Hamas has been helping people on the ground. The argument goes on to voice respect for the legitimacy for the Palestinian choice and democracy. Some more sophisticated commentators blame Bush and Sharon for their rejection of Arafat and for their failure to deliver results to his successor Abbas as Israel continued with its violence against the Palestinians and continued to expand settlements and to grab more land from the Palestinians in the West Bank and especially around Jerusalem. While all these points are may indeed be legitimate, here too I would argue that the Palestinians now have made a huge mistake and have chosen their leaders poorly at a crucial point. Democracies make mistakes and Democratic elections that produce legitimate governments can be described legitimately as mistakes. Stronger nations can afford to make mistakes; the Hamas election has proven an expensive mistake for the Palestinian people everywhere.

Should the Arab and Muslim Americans who are strongly committed to supporting the Palestinian people refrain from criticizing the Palestinian choice and refrain from describing Hamas as a terrorist organization? Should we continue to defend the view that an elected Palestinian Government can move back on recognizing Israel and prior “peace” agreements. Should we stay in silence watching the Palestinians inflict self damage with their new elected leaders incompetently presenting the case for Palestine? Should we too take the line of Al Jazeera that normalization is bad business? Should we too buy into describing those who get themselves killed while attempting to kill some random Israeli civilians as martyrs? Should we too here in the US use the Israeli war crimes and their decades long oppression of the Palestinians as a legitimate excuse for everything? Will we be helping the Palestinian cause more by keeping quite and hoping that the new Israeli Government with the party Sharon established at its helm will, out of its own sense of justice or its desperate need to be recognized by the Hamas led Government, actually do something for the Palestinians?

As of today the Palestinians and the Israelis are now ruled by those who reject the possibility of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in any meaningful form. It is highly unlikely that the real peace prospects for Israelis and Palestinians will move forward in the near future. I would argue that for those who advocate real, just and lasting peace on both sides it is important to speak out now and it is vital to find ways to prove that normalization does work and there is no genetic pre wiring hatred of all things Jewish in the hearts of all Muslims. It is tough to speak out in the middle east except in support of the corrupt Governments, discredited Socialist Arabism or of course the more fashionable narrow Islamic fundamentalism; those of us in the West and particularly in the US should not shy away from speaking out for peace even in such dark times.

Thirty three years ago fasting Muslims and fasting Jews fought one another on a massive scale in the desert of Sinai and on the Golan Heights, for the sake of the memory of the thousands who lost their lives in that war and all the other Arab Israeli wars let’s overcome the hatred and work towards reconciliation; neither side has the option of prevailing by force. Only through dialogue, building trust and understanding the conflicting narratives will there ever be justice and peace in the Middle East.

October 1, 2006