Monday, December 19, 2005

Bye, Bye Sinai...Bye, Bye Egypt?

Let me begin this letter by saying that I am not the only Egyptian who has been raising eyebrows of alarm over the latest series of decisions that our government has been taking over this past year, and in particular during these last few months.

Let's begin by talking about Sinai. In August of this year, the government of Israel – after political calculations of its national security interests, and after holding a nation-wide referendum on its planned withdrawal – unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza strip. Good for Israel, and good for the freedom of the Palestinians. But what is not good for us is that immediately after the withdrawal, thousands of Palestinians broke down the Egyptian-Palestinian border at Rafah (formerly the secure Egyptian-Israeli border), and it is estimated that 100,000 Palestinians flooded the Egyptian territories in that ensuing period, and thousands of Palestinians and Egyptians continued to cross between both sides of Rafah for a week or so as if there were no border at all. The situation was left uncontrollable until the government of Egypt, initially caught off guard, reached a deal with Israel to increase the number of security personnel needed to secure our borders and it was finally closed when the new Egyptian border guards took their positions by the latter half of September.

Then finally in late November we learned from the news that the Egyptian government and the Palestinian Authority were holding a ceremony for the official and permanent re-opening of the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza. All we learned from the news was that the border would operate at a capacity facilitating 4000 border crossings a day, and that Palestinians of the age-groups of over 40 and under 18 years of age can enter Egypt without a visa.

Not one columnist in the government-owned papers, for wanting to toe the government line, expressed any doubts about what had just happened. And not one columnist that I am aware of from the opposition even mentioned the matter - for they in turn want to appear more Catholic than the Pope, and more Arabist than the Arab. And yet most Egyptians that I have spoken to about this expressed concern and confusion about what had just taken place. Something is obviously wrong here.

The Israeli premier's cabinet was probably having a field day over the embarrassment caused to our government by the breakdown of the Rafah border and the chaos that ensued. And it probably deliberately meant to catch our government off guard with its withdrawal, as a way of putting foot-in-mouth of our government spokesmen who have been so unequivocally criticising Israel over the years - when it bombs and when it is bombed. And it is not so far-fetched to imagine that the expected influx of Palestinians into the Sinai was one of the ulterior motives behind the sudden Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip...And yet the question is: How could Egypt have not expected this?

There is a difference between using rhetoric as a tactical means to achieve political ends, and between inflating rhetoric until it becomes so big, that it develops a life of its own and its own speaker becomes afraid to confront it. And yet the key thing to know here is that, despite appearances, it does not really develop a life of its own: it's only a balloon, inflated further and further only by the authors' fear to confront it. And it becomes so big until it obstructs their vision from seeing what is actually happening on the ground; in this case, the influx of Palestinians into Sinai and the threat to Egyptian national security that this represents.

One of Israel's age-old arguments since its foundation has been that the Arab world is so big that it can afford to settle the occupied and stateless Palestinians in its own territories - in this case among them, the Sinai - and in so doing, ending the 'Palestinian question' and the trouble resulting from its occupation. And perhaps the biggest reason for its withdrawal is its leaders' realistic recognition of its long-term inability to cope with the growing problems of overpopulation and poverty in Gaza. And yet while Israel confronted this situation by cutting its losses and withdrawing, the Egyptian government seems to have incoherently responded by opening its border full swing. Unlike the Israelis, we Egyptians were neither given a referendum to ask our opinion over the details of the matter, nor given a clue about what is going on - even a month after the border was officially inaugurated on the 25th of November. We do not know for sure how many Palestinians crossed into Sinai, and we do not have an idea of how many still remain on this side and have settled with their kin. We do not know what the border deal entails...again, we were told in the news that the Rafah border will be the gate of the Palestinians to the outside world, but we were told nothing about what this for Egypt particularly means.

I am sure Egyptians can only be happy for the new prospects this may entail for Palestinians, from newfound ability to travel abroad, to attracting foreign investment and wealth to the Gaza strip and creating new job opportunities for its inhabitants. But Egypt, whose unemployed population runs at 10.9 % of its labour force (and I think is a moderate estimate), or 2.25 million people, towers over Gaza’s total population of 1.3 million as a whole, and cannot afford to sacrifice critically needed jobs to its neighbours. And our neighbours of the overpopulated Gaza strip, whose borders are now freely open to Egypt, are now geographically closer and may find it easier to make it to the tourist and the less dense population centres in Sinai than can the bulk of the Egyptian population of the Nile Valley, who ironically have to go through a hell of their own of security checkpoints just to make it into Sinai themselves. Will all this in the long term spell a demographic, and even political, change in the future of the Sinai? The opaqueness of the Egyptian political process and the absurdity of both the governmental press and that of the opposition have left us in the dark over matters that are of utmost importance to the country's national security...And I, for one, am dumfounded and confused. There are probably strong immigration laws in place in Egypt to prevent such scenarios from happening, but can the bribery of local officials and Bedouin-facilitated human trafficking find their way around them? It is a tough border to control after all, as Israel failed to locate all the tunnels used to smuggle weapons across the border.

In the end I must say that I reserve my right to be wrong about these speculations, because I am left stumbling in the dark...and this anxiety of opaqueness is the biggest problem after all.

We next come to the domestic political situation in Egypt. I was recently offered the idea to meet a visiting Italian journalist and be interviewed as a normal Egyptian citizen about what I thought of our current situation in Egypt. The meeting never materialized, but I imagine if I had met her that this is what I would have said: Imagine you are living in Italy under the mercy of a government bureaucracy that is laden with cronyism and corruption from A to Z. The only available opposition party is an organization of Christian fundamentalists who aim to turn the Bible into the country's source of legislation, and establish the Vatican as the ruling power of Italy instead of the civilian democratic society in Rome. They intend to eventually do away with this concept of democracy when they come to power, because it was not mentioned in the scriptures. The (newly appointed) Pope and his High Council of Clerics will rule over all. They will effectively return Italy to the Middle Ages, and the Papal President of the Vatican will consider himself the "Prince of the Faithful", president of the Christians – not of the citizens of Italy, this absurd modern invention.

The other vocal opposition group that exists besides this one is a fascist party among the northern Alpine people of Italy, which runs under the banner of "Solidarity of the Alpine Nation of Europe". They aim not to separate their small group from the rest of Italy as you would expect, no...they intend to rule over the whole of Italy which, by the way, they would not mind renaming, as their late strongman who overthrew civilian government had done once before, when he tried and eventually failed to unite Italy with Austria because of the totalitarianism of his rule: "The United Alpine Republic" will be the new name of your country. As for the rest of you 99% + of Italians who feel your identity, history and culture is left out by the strange agenda of their doctrine, forget about expressing your reservations about this to your fellow Italians in your local press. For although their fascist party had fallen out of power over thirty years ago, with the divine demise of its leader, individuals indoctrinated with their ideology of Alpine Solidarity are miraculously still situated over, and control, every outlet of government-run press and that of the opposition. If this situation bothers you, you odd Italian-thinking individual, well tough luck then...you can die of your sorrows for all they care...Now, as a modern progressive Italian woman living in Italy under these conditions, how would you feel??

The sinister thing to know about this is that the government is probably laying back and laughing at your unenviable situation, as you are left no other choice than its own rule – the way it is, with all its cronyism, whether you like it or not – or between the existing political parties of the opposition; the dual flanks of religious and ethnic fascism that it has carefully bred on leashes to become just big enough to scare us into wisely accepting the warmth of its comparable mercy. As for a third liberal alternative, it does not exist, nor does such an outlet to express such a dirty idea.

This brings us back to the strange series of decisions that the government has been making lately. My main reason for opposing the idea of Ayman Nour becoming the next president of Egypt, was his open flirtation with the Nasserists and the Brotherhood, and my impression – based on his election campaign – that his election would only be a short transitional period that would leave the door open for the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood, as he expressed no reservation for letting them run in the next elections (Sure this can happen in the future, but not in our current circumstances where our general state of education is razed to the ground, and where we have no solid civil society, or worked-out guarantees that the MB would not overthrow it if it comes to power). Yet it appears that it is the government, and not Ayman Nour, which is doing everything it can to strengthen the Brotherhood.

The only reason why the Brotherhood did so well in these elections is because people have no other alternative to vote for than the corruption they are seeing in the government. We have no liberal party or press in Egypt. From the stifling of liberal opinions in the media, I would say that the government has done everything it can to stop such a political current from existing. In such a situation it is only expected that the Brotherhood would grow so strong. Maybe the government strategists were not as stupid as they appear, and knew that the Brotherhood would naturally score the way they did when the field would be left so open to them with no opposition[1]. Here is the catch, and keep in mind here that so far I am giving the government the benefit of doubt, and assuming that it really isn't as stupid as it seems, but instead carefully plotting its deeds with selfish Machiavellian cleverness: the government thought it would be hitting two birds with one stone: It would not only destroy a liberal candidate and make an example out of him...but by the consequential showing of the brotherhood it would also scare Egypt's liberals and the United States into line, by demonstrating to them that the Islamic state is the only other alternative[2].

Yet here is the Catch 22, and the funny part which inadvertently demonstrates the stupidity of the government, even when we initially assumed that it was clever: In the end, the government's short sighted game with the Brotherhood only 'let the genie out of the box', 'opened a can of worms'...as many of the rest of these saying go. And to demonstrate further its ineptness, during the third round of parliamentary elections it only further inflamed the fire it started instead of carefully trying to put it out, as it opened fire on voters it had blockaded from reaching polling stations, killing eight. Obviously this is not the correct solution to putting the genie back in the box because this will only create sympathy for the brotherhood as an opposition group, even among those who would not support them in different circumstances.

The government should know that it is making it increasingly difficult for even those who want to support it, or at least support the goals that it claims it wants to achieve, to do so, because what it is doing is by all means indefensible and leading to quiet the opposite of its stated goals – from maintaining a secular state, to upholding Muslim-Christian unity, to even these latest unprecedented blunders on matters of national security. I think the (new?) government strategists who had been taking these latest series of uncharacteristic decisions over this past year should probably resign, as they have fully demonstrated their recklessness, and I for one am honestly worried about what they will do next if they continue in their sensitive positions for much longer. And finally a liberal and nationalist party and press must be allowed to come into being as this will be the only hope to counter the two beasts of political Islamism and radical Arabism which the government has sponsored as its scare pets for so long.

So far in this democratic process, our government has been acting like a spoiled child playing with a toy. One who would rather throw away the toy in the river Nile than share it with the other kids. But it is time for our government to act more maturely than this and realize that our country is not a toy that should be played with in this dangerous manner, nor is it exclusively its own. And it should wake up to the realization that the only hope for us to save this country is for it to start working with more honest and sincere people who genuinely care about where Egypt is going. Most of such people really don't care about who is ruling Egypt for the time being; as long as it is being governed to the potential of this country and its people, you can easily have our votes. But when this structure - the only alternative we have, with no base to fall back on - is by all means not functioning properly, and beginning to crack under its own weight, then this is when we all have to begin to worry.

[1] And there is no need to ask why the "banned" Islamist group is so freely running in the elections in the first place, while one liberal presidential candidate is now running for his life in prison.

[2] Come to think of it, maybe this is why the authorities never did anything to prevent the banned group's famous banner of "Islam is the Solution" from ringing loud and clear in its rallies and election campaigns of its candidates. The government was sending its own clear message to the United States, that political Islamism is the only other solution.

1 comment:

Freedom for Egyptians said...

No one should arrest you, it is your inalienable right to express yourself freely and without fear.