Archive | December, 2012

An Open Letter of Response to CRIF (Conseil Représentif des Institutions Juives de France)

30 Dec

An Open Letter of Response to CRIF (Conseil Représentif des Institutions Juives de France)

I am shocked and saddened that your organization would label me as an anti-Semite and self-hating Jew. It is utterly defamatory, and such allegations are entirely based on distortions of what I believe and what I have done. To confuse my criticisms of Israel with self-hatred of myself as a Jew or with hatred of Jews is a calumny. I have long been a critic of American foreign policy but that does not make me anti-American; it is freedom of conscience and its integral link with freedom of expression that is the core defining reality of a genuinely democratic society, and the robust exercise of these rights are crucial to the quality of political life in a particular country, especially here in the United States where its size and influence often has such a large impact on the lives and destiny of many peoples excluded from participating in its policy debates or elections.

It is always difficult to negate irresponsible accusations of this kind. What follows is an attempt to clarify my honestly held positions in relation to a litany of charges that have been given currency by a defamatory campaign conducted by UN Watch ever since I was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to be Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2008. What follows are brief attempts at clarification in response to the main charges:

–the attacks on me by such high profile individuals as Ban ki-Moon, Susan Rice, David Cameron were made in response to vilifying letters about me sent to them by UN Watch, and signed by its Executive Director, Hillel Neuer. The contention that Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also attacked me is misleading. She regretted the posting of a cartoon on my blog that had an anti-Semitic cartoon, but she took note of my contention that it was a complete accident and that the cartoon was immediately removed when brought to my attention;

–it was the cartoon that has served UN Watch as the basis of their insistence that I am an anti-Semite. Their bad faith is demonstrated by their repeated magnification of the cartoon far beyond what I had posted on the basis of its size on the Google image page for the International Criminal Court. As I have explained many times, I was unaware when I posted the cartoon of its anti-Semitic character, and pointed out that the post in which was inserted was dealing with my argument that the ICC was biased in its use of its authority, in this instance by issuing arrest warrants against the Qaddafi leadership in Libya. Israel was not mentioned in the post the content of which had nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism or Jews. To ignore such an explanation is to my way of thinking and to reprint the cartoon in an enlarged form is a sign of malicious intent; any fair reading of the 182 posts on my blog, including one devoted to Jewish identity would make it very clear to any objective reader that I have not expressed a single sentiment that can be fairly described as an anti-Semite. It is a grave disservice to both Israel and Jews to confuse criticism of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians with anti-Semitism.

–the claim that I am a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, actually a leading one, is false, as well. I have consistently maintained that I have insufficient knowledge to reach any conclusions about whether there is an alternative narrative of the 9/11 events that is more convincing than the official version. What I have said, and stand behind, is that David Griffin and many others have raised questions that have not been adequately answered, and constitute serious gaps in the official version that were not closed by the 9/11 Commission report. I would reaffirm that David Griffin is a cherished friend, and that we have professionally collaborated on several projects long before 9/11. It should be pointed out that Griffin is a philosopher of religion of worldwide reputation that has written on a wide range of issues, including a series on inquiries into the post-modern world and the desirability of an ecological civilization.

–The recent UN Watch letter that led me to be removed from the Human Rights Watch SB city Committee also claims I am a partisan of Hamas, which is a polemic charge and is untrue. What I have encouraged is a balanced view of Hamas based on the full context of their statements and behavior, and not fixing on language in the Hamas Charter or a particular speech. When the broader context is considered of Hamas statements and recent behavior is considered, then I believe there exists a potential opportunity to work with Hamas leaders to end the violence, to release the people of Gaza from captivity, and to generate a diplomatic process that leads to a period of prolonged peaceful co-existence with Israel. I have never insisted that this hopeful interpretation is necessarily correct, but I do maintain that it is worth exploring, and a preferred alternative to the current rigid insistence on refusing to deal with Hamas as a political actor because it is ‘a terrorist organization.’ It was evident in the recent violence preceding the November ceasefire in Gaza that leaders throughout the Middle East were treating Hamas as the governmental authority in Gaza and as a normal political entity, and this helped bring the violence to an end.

–Finally, UN Watch charges that I am biased and one-sided in my treatment of Israeli behavior, and cites Susan Rice and others for support, as well as noting my failure to report on violations by Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority. I can only say once more that I am trying my best to be objective and truthful, although unwilling to give in to pressure. I did make an effort in my initial appearance before the Human Rights Council to broaden my mandate to take account of Palestinian violations, but was rebuffed by most of the 49 governmental members of the Council for seeking to make such a change, and reasonable grounds were advanced for not changing my mandate. I have noted Palestinian violations of international law wherever relevant to the assessment of Israeli behavior, as for instance in relation to the launch of indiscriminate rockets. Palestinian abuses of human rights of Palestinians under their control while administering portions of Occupied Palestine is outside my mandate, and I have no discretion to comment on such behavior in discharging my responsibilities as Special Rapporteur.

It is my view that Israel is in control of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and is primarily responsible for the situation and the persistence of the conflict, especially by their insistence on undertaking provocative actions such as targeted assassinations and accelerated settlement expansions.

I would grateful if this account of my actual views and beliefs can be circulated widely in response to the CRIF repetition of the UN Watch attacks.

Richard Falk

29 December 2012

In Further Memory of Edward Said

27 Dec

In Further Memory of Edward Said

 

Always, always

 

That voice

remains

is gone

needed

 

What he gave

we miss

we need

we want

 

Our loss

his loss

remains

an echo

 

Sunsets bright

that shine

yet soon

depart

 

Unlike waves

that beat

on shore

remains

 

Relentless

is loss

his gift

our hope

 

Remembering

our loss

our tears

his hopes

 

Honor such a loss

clear eyes

brave words

courage

 

XII..27…2012

Responding to the Unspeakable Killings at Newtown, Connecticut

15 Dec

 

 

Once again, perhaps in the most anguishing manner ever, the deadly shooting of 20 children (and 8 adults) between the ages of 5 and 10 at the Newton, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School, has left America in a stunned posture of tragic bemusement. Why should such incidents be happening here, especially in such a peaceful and affluent town? The shock is accompanied by spontaneous outpourings of grief, bewilderment, empathy, communal espirit, and a sense of national tragedy. Such an unavoidably dark mood is officially confirmed by the well-crafted emotional message of the president, Barack Obama.

 

The template of response has become a national liturgy in light of the dismal pattern of public response: media sensationalism of a totalizing kind, at once enveloping, sentimental, and tasteless (endless interviewing of surviving children and teachers, and even family members of victims), but dutifully avoiding deeper questions relating to guns, violence, and cultural stimulants and conditioning. What are called ‘difficult issues’ in the media reduce to what some refer to as ‘reasonable gun control’ (that is, a ban on assault weapons, large magazine clips, and somewhat stiffer gun registration rules) and to improved procedures for identifying those suffering the kind of mental disorders that could erupt in violent sociopathic behavior. These are sensible steps to take, but so far below the level of credible diagnosis as to promote collective denial rather than constituting a responsible effort to restore a semblance of security to our most cherished institutions (schools, churches, family dwellings). It is ironically relevant that almost simultaneous with the massacre at Newtown there occurred an attack on children in an elementary school in the Chinese city of Xinyang in the province of Henan, approximately 300 miles south of Beijing. The attacker slashed 22 children with a knife, and significantly there were no fatalities, suggesting the important differences in outcome that reflect the weapons deployed by an assailant. Although this is an anecdotal bit of evidence, it is suggestive that strict gun control is the least that should be done in light of recent experience, with seven instances of mass violence reported in the United States during 2012. It should be noted that Connecticut was one of the few states in the country that had enacted ‘reasonable’ gun control laws, but clearly without a sufficient impact.

 

If what is being proposed by politicians and pundits is so far below what seems prudent there is fostered a societal illusion of problem-solving while sidestepping the deeper causes, and the truly ‘difficult issues.’ It would be a mistake to attribute the overall concerns entirely to the violent texture of the American public imagination, but surely inquiry must address this atrocity-inducing cultural environment. America leads the world in per capita gun possession, violent crime, and prison population, and is among the few developed countries that continues to impose capital punishment. Beyond this, America vindicates torture and glamorizes violence in films, video games, and popular culture. Political leaders support ‘enhanced interrogation’ of terror suspects, and claim an authority to order the execution of alleged terrorist advocates in foreign countries by drone strikes oblivious to the sovereign rights of foreign states, a practice that if attempted against American targets would produce a massive retaliatory response preceded by an outburst of self-righteous outrage. At work, here, is American exceptionalism when it comes to lethal violence, with a claimed right to do unto others what others are forbidden to do unto us, a defiance of that most fundamental norm of civilized peoples an inversion of ‘the golden rule’ and basic biblical commandments.

 

There are other features of American political culture that are disturbing, including the uncritical celebration of American soldiers as ‘the finest young Americans,’ ‘true heroes,’ and the like. Or of America as the greatest country that ever existed, such a claim especially in light of recent history, is a rather pure form of hubris long understood as the fallibility that comes with excessive individual or collective inability to recognize and correct one’s own faults. It is certainly true that the government is asking American servicemen to risk their lives and mental health in ambiguous circumstances that produce aberrant behavior. To undertake counterinsurgency missions in distant countries at a lesser stage of development and much different cultural standards invites deep confusion, incites national resistance and hatred in the combat zones, and prompts responses driven by fear and rage. Recall such incidents in Afghanistan as American servicemen urinating on dead Afghan corpses, burning the Koran, and random shootings of Afghan unarmed villagers. In effect, this ethos of violence against others, constrained by the most minimal standards of accountability has to be part of the violence inducing behavior that is these days haunting civic life here in America.

 

In effect, until we as Americans look in the mirror with a critical eye we will not begin to comprehend the violence of Newtown, Portland, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Columbine, Virginia Tech. No amount of tears, however genuine, can make our children and citizens safer in the future, and even gestures of gun control seem likely, if treated as solutions rather than palliatives, are likely to be no more than a spit in a national ocean of sanctioned violence. What may be most depressing is that it seems ‘utopian,’ that is, beyond the horizon of possibility, to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms or to renounce the kill doctrines associated with drone warfare or counterinsurgency rules of engagement.  Only moves of such magnitude would exhibit the political will to take measures commensurate with this disruptive and horrifying pattern of violence that has been an increasing source of national torment.

 

President Obama has called, as he has on prior occasions, for “meaningful action,” which is too vague to be of much encouragement. Almost certainly the main effort in American public space will be to explore the individuality of this shocking crime by way of mental disorder or tensions at home rather than to address its systemic character, which remains a taboo inquiry.

 

Hamas, Khaled Mashaal and Prospects for a Sustainable Israel/Palestine Peace

12 Dec

 

 

            In the aftermath of Khaled Mashaal’s emotional visit to Gaza in celebration of Hamas’ 25th anniversary, commentary in Israel and the West has focused on his remarks at a rally as ‘defiant’ and disclosing ‘the true face’ of Hamas. Emphasis was particularly placed on his dramatic pledge to recover the whole of historic Palestine, from the Mediterranean to Jordan, “inch by inch,” no matter how long such a process might take. Mashaal also challenged the legitimacy of the Zionist project, and justified Palestinian resistance in whatever form it might assume, although disavowing the intention to attack civilians as such, and denying any complicity by Hamas in the November 21, 2012 incident in Israel when a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem bus.

 

            These remarks certainly raise concerns for moderate Israelis who continue to advocate a two-state solution in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242, but at the same time, it is important to listen to Hamas fully before reaching any firm conclusions. What Mashaal said in Gaza was at a rally dedicated to reaffirming its fundamental struggle in the immediate aftermath of the recent 8 day Israeli attack (code-named Pillar of Defense), and by a leader who for the first time in 45 years had openly dared to set foot in his occupied and oppressed homeland. Mashaal is a leader who has lived in exile in several countries of the region since he was 11 years old, having been born in the Selwad neighborhood of Ramallah, then under Jordanian control. He is someone who in 1997 Israel had tried to murder in a notorious incident in Jordan in which only the capture of the Mossad perpetrators induced Israel to supply a life-saving antidote for the poison that had been sprayed into Mashaal’s ear in exchange for their release from Jordanian captivity. In Mashaal’s imagery, this return to Gaza was his ‘third birth,’ the first being in 1956 when he was born, the second when he survived the Israeli assassination attempt, and the third when he was able to kiss the ground upon entering Gaza. These biographical details seem relevant for an assessment of his public remarks.

 

            The context was also given a heightened reality by the Hamas/Gaza success in enduring the latest Israeli military onslaught that produced a ceasefire that contained some conditions favoring Gaza, including an Israeli commitment to refrain from targeted assassinations in the future. It also was a context shaped by recent and more distant painful memories that was the main trigger of the upsurge of violence, especially the assassination of the Hamas military leader and diplomat, Ahmed al-Jabari, and the May 22, 2003 killing of the disabled spiritual founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. It was after Sheikh Yassin’s death that Mashaal was declared ‘world leader’ of Hamas.

 

            The most important element of context that needs to be taken into account is the seeming inconsistency between the fiery language used by Mashaal in Gaza and his far more moderate tone in the course of several interviews with Western journalists in recent weeks. In those interviews Mashaal had clearly indicated a readiness for a long-term hudna or truce, provided that Israel ended its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and agreed to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. He made clear that these rights included the right of return belonging to the 4-5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or exile, and contended that such a right was more deserving of recognition than is the Israeli grant of such a right of return to every Jew even to those completely without a prior connection to historic Palestine. Of course, this claimed right is in its potentiality a threatening claim to Israel, and to Zionism, as it could, at least in theory, threaten the Jewish majority presence in Israel. Whether many Palestinians if given the choice would return to live in Israel so as to reinhabit their ancestral homes seems highly questionable, but the right to do so  unquestionably belongs to Palestinians, at least to those who had previously resided in present Israel.

 

            In these interviews, Mashaal was consistent about the readiness of Hamas to pursue these national goals nonviolently, without “weapons and blood” if Israel were to accept such a framework for peace. His words to CNN in a November 22nd interview are notable in this respect: “We are ready to resort to a peaceful way, purely peaceful way without blood and weapons, as long as we obtain our Palestinian demands.” The extent of “Palestinian  demands” was left unspecified, which does create an ambiguity as to whether this meant accommodation or some kind of rearticulation of a unified Palestinian entity. Also unclear as to whether the peaceful path could precede the end of occupation, or must be a sequel to the existence of a state. In the other direction, Mashaal indicated that once Palestinian statehood was fully realized, then the issue of the acceptance of Israeli legitimacy could be placed on the political agenda. His deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, in a conversation in Cairo told me in a similar vein that the Hamas Charter pledge to destroy the Zionist state had become “a false issue.” This PhD from Louisiana Tech, an intelligent exponent of Hamas thinking, echoed Mashaal’s moderate approach, and indicated that as with the U.S. Constitution’s treatment of slavery, the Hamas Charter has evolved with changing circumstance, and its clauses subject to modification by interpretation.   

 

            Along similar lines, Mashaal has spoken about Hamas as ‘realistic’ with respect to an appreciation of the balance of forces relative to the conflict, and referred to Arafat’s response to those who insisted that Israel would be at mortal risk if a Palestinian state were to be established on the West Bank. The former PLO leader had pointed out that any Palestinian move to threaten Israel militarily in such circumstances was unthinkable. It would be sure to produce a devastating attack that would crush Palestinian hopes forever.

 

            There is posed a fundamental question: what is the true voice of Hamas? There seems to be a sharp contrast between the fiery language of Mashaal’s words spoken at the anniversary demonstration in Gaza and his far calmer and accommodating tone in interviews and other statements in recent years.  The more hopeful understanding would suggest a gap between the emotional occasion of the speech and the more rational views consistently expressed elsewhere. Such an explanation is the opposite of the Western insistence that only the rally speech gave expression to the authentic outlook of Hama. In contrast, I would accord greater weight given to the moderate formulations, at least for exploratory purposes. Put differently, in Gaza Mashaal was likely expressing a maximalist version of the Palestinian narrative relating to its sense of legitimacy while in more reflective arenas, ever since the entry of Hamas into electoral politics back in 2006, its dominant emphasis has been on pursuing a political track that envisioned long-term peaceful co-existence with Israel, a sidestepping of the legitimacy issues, at least once the occupation was definitively ended and the rights of Palestinian refugees was recognized in accordance with international law.

 

            It can be asked, ‘How can Hamas dare to put forward such a claim in view of the steady rain of rockets that has made life treacherous and miserable for the more than a million Israelis living in the southern part of Israel ever since Israel ‘disengaged’ in 2005?’ Such a rhetorical question repeated over and over again without reference to the siege or Israeli violence has distorted the Western image of the interaction, suggesting that when Israel massively attacks helpless Gaza it is only exercising its defensive rights, which is the most fundamental entitlement of every sovereign state. Again the more accurate interpretation depends on a fuller appreciation of the wider context, which would include the American plot to reverse the outcome of the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas by arming Fatah with heavy weapons, the Israeli punitive blockade since mid-2007, [Vanity Fair, 2008] and many instances of provocative Israeli violence, including a steady stream of targeted assassinations and lethal over-reactions at the Gaza border. Although not the whole story, the one-sided ratio of deaths as between Israel and Palestine is a good first approximation of comparative responsibility over the period of Hamas ascendancy in Gaza, and it is striking. For instance, between the ceasefire in 2009 and the Israeli attack in November 2012, 271 Palestinians were killed and not a single Israeli. [B’Teselm report] The respected Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, has pointed out that since the first rockets were launched against Israeli in 2001 59 Israeli have died as compared to 4,717 Palestinians.

 

            The Western media is stunningly oblivious to these complications of perception, almost never disclosing Israeli provocations in reporting on the timelines of the violence of the parties, and fails to acknowledge that it has been the Israelis, not the Palestinians, that have been mostly responsible for ending periods of prolonged truce. There are further confusing elements in the picture, including the presence of some extremist Palestinian militias that launch rockets in defiance of Hamas policy, which in recent years generally limits rockets to retaliatory roles. Among the ironies of the al-Jabari assassination was that it was evidently his role to restrain these militias on  behalf of Hamas, including disciplining those extremists who refused to abide by policies of restricting rocket attacks to retaliatory situations.

 

            There is no doubt that Hamas’ reliance on rockets fired in the direction of Israeli civilian population centers are violations of international humanitarian law, and should be condemned as such, but even this condemnation is not without its problematic aspects. The Goldstone Report did condemn the reliance of these rockets in a typically decontextualized manner, that is, without reference to the unlawfulness of the occupation, including its pronounced reliance on collective punishment in the form of the blockade as well as arbitrary violent incursions, frequent military overflights, and a terrifying regime of subjugation that imparts on Palestinians a sense of total vulnerability and helplessness. The Goldstone Report also was silent as to the nature and extent of a Palestinian right of resistance. Such unconditional condemnations of Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ are unreasonably one-sided to the extent that Palestinian moral, political, and legal rights of resistance are ignored and Israel’s unlawful policies are not considered. This issue also reveals a serious deficiency in international humanitarian law, especially, as here, in the context of a prolonged occupation that includes many violations of the most fundamental and inalienable rights of an occupied people. The prerogatives of states are upheld, while those of peoples are overlooked or treated as non-existent.

 

            It is also relevant to take note of the absence of alternative means available to the Palestinians to uphold their rights under international law and to challenge the abuses embedded in Israeli occupation policies. Israel with its drones, Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter aircraft, Iron Dome, and so forth enjoys the luxury of choosing its targets at will, but Palestinians have no such option. For them it is either using the primitive and indiscriminate weaponry at their disposal or essentially giving in to an intolerable status quo. To repeat, this does not make Hamas rockets lawful, but does it make such reliance wrong, given the overall context of violence that includes absolute impunity for Israeli violations of international criminal law? What are we to do with international law when it is invoked only to control the behavior of the weaker party?

 

            It gives perspective to imagine the situation being reversed as it was during the Nazi occupation of France or the Netherlands during World War II. Resistance fighters were uniformly perceived in the liberal West as unconditional heroes, and no critical attention was given as to whether the tactics used unduly imperiled innocent civilian lives. Those who lost their lives in such a resistance were honored as martyrs. Mashaal and other Hamas leaders have made similar arguments on several occasions, in effect asking what are Palestinians supposed to do in the exercise of resistance given their circumstances, which have persisted for so long, given the failures of traditional diplomacy and the UN to secure their rights under international law.

 

            In effect, a sensitive appreciation of context is crucial for a proper understanding, which makes self-satisfied condemnations of the views and tactics of Hamas and Khaled Mashaal misleading and, if heeded, condemns the parties to a destiny of perpetual conflict. The Western mainstream media doesn’t help by presenting the rocket attacks as if taking place in a vacuum, and without relevant Israeli provocations. Of course, Israeli supporters will retort that it is easy to make such assessments from a safe distance, but what is a safe distance? “The risks are ours alone,” they will say with a somewhat understandable hostility. But what about the horrible Palestinian circumstances, are they not also entitled to redress?

 

            Is there a way out of such tragic dilemmas? In my view, only when the stronger side militarily treats ‘the other’ as having grievances and rights, and recognizes that the security of ‘the self’ must be based on mutuality, will sustainable peace have a chance. In this conflict, the Israelis missed a huge opportunity to move in this direction when the weaker Palestinian side made a historic concession by limiting its political ambition to Occupied Palestine (22% of historic Palestine, less than half of what the UN partition plan proposed in 1947) in accord with the consensus image of a solution embodied in Security Council Resolution 242. Instead Israel has sought to encroach further and further on that Palestinian remnant by way of its settlements, separation wall, apartheid roads, and annexationist moves, offering the Palestinians no alternative to oppression than resistance.  It is no wonder that even the accommodationist Palestinian Authority supported the recent Hamas anniversary celebrations, and joined in proclaiming an intention to reconcile, reuniting Hamas and Fatah under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

 

            It is possible to react to the Gaza speech of Khaled Mashaal as the definitive expression of the Hamas creed, but it seems premature and unwise to do so. Instead, it is time to give a balanced diplomacy a chance if indeed there is any political space left for the implementation of the two-state consensus, and if there isn’t, then it is time to explore alternatives, including a return to a unified Palestine that is governed in accordance with human rights standards and international law. If this diplomatic dead end is the stark reality as of 2012, then it must be concluded that the overreaching by the Zionist leadership in Israel, especially its insistence on viewing the West Bank and East Jerusalem as integral to biblical Israel, referencing the former as ‘Judea and Samaria’ and the latter as the eternal Jewish capital, has itself undermined the political, moral, and legal viability of the Zionist Project. These alternative options should long ago have been clarified, and now, by taking to heart ‘the peaceful alternative’ depicted by Mashaal, especially in the aftermath of the General Assembly endorsement of Palestinian statehood and signs of an incipient Palestinian unity, there is one last opportunity to do so, should peace-oriented perspectives on the conflict be given a chance, however remote, to guide our thinking, feelings, and actions. 

Egypt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

10 Dec

          

 

            I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.

 

I. The Overthrow of Mubarak

 

            On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant nonviolence and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. Gandhi and Gene Sharp were most often invoked as the inspirational influences, not Lenin, Mao, Castro. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less media exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that  spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.

 

            Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.

 

            Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States, and Israel, might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.

 

            There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.

 

            With respect to the MB there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed, at first, to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.

 

            The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed, even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement get rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which was in effect, meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.

 

            There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to the challenges of the next phases–managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.

 

            Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era.  In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.

 

            As for the impending electoral process, there was an emphasis on speculation about the presidency. Who? When? Among Cairo liberals who had been uncomfortable with the Mubarak past, but had long coexisted with it, there was a widespread sense that Amr Moussa would prevail. Moussa was not fully trusted even among secular liberals to advance the democratic values that were affirmed by all who had gathered in Tahrir Square and other city public spaces throughout the country. Although long prominent in the Mubarak regime, Moussa had jumped ship early enough to have mainstream credibility, and was thought to be on good terms with the military, moderate in relation to the MB, and widely known inside and outside of Egypt having serverd both as Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. There was also some enthusiasm for the candidacy of Mohamed ElBoradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. More than Moussa, ElBoradei had clean hands, having been outspoken in his rejection of the Mubarak past and appearing along side the Egyptian activists in the square. At the same time, his prospects were discounted because he lacked a national political base, was not an effective speaker or experienced as a politician, and was perceived as an outsider who had lived too long in foreign countries. The more radical voices were dismissive of this preoccupation with who would emerge as the leading candidate or how political parties would fare, believing that their kind of politics would need to discover how to govern without a government of central institutions, an inchoate vision of the need for a ‘new politics’ and a distinct lack of confidence, even interest, in the vagaries of ‘old politics’ (parties, elections, bureaucratic institutions, governmental leadership), in effect, what was being sought was a ‘human security regime’ that had never been established anywhere, ever. At the time, such dedication was at once moving and troublesome, an embrace of what Derrida called ‘democracy to come’ with a kind of trust that the modalities of enactment would be discovered in the process of struggle.

 

II. Treading Water

 

            A year later in early 2012 these divisions persisted but hardened, and anxieties seemed far more intense, and the aura of excitement that followed  the victory of the January 25th Movement had definitely receded. There was, first of all, a new sense of impatience, especially among those who needed economic normalcy if their livelihoods were to be sustained. I met tourist guides at the pyramids and storekeepers in Cairo who expressed disappointment about the results of the upheaval of a year ago, acknowledging that while they had originally been glad to see the end of the Mubarak regime, they had fared personally better back then, and seemed ready to support whatever leadership that could restore stability. Even a

 

            On a different level of perception, the far greater than expected strength of the MB in the intervening parliamentary elections, as well as the abandonment of the early MB pledge not to field a presidential candidate and the surprisingly strong showing of the Salafis, changed the electoral landscape considerably. It was evident that the folks in Cairo were out of touch with the grassroots sentiments of a conservative society imbued with an Islamic identity. This assessment was discounted by liberal critics who explained MB dominance as misleading, representing an underestimation of its organizational strength. The Salafi emergence was similarly discounted by secularists as being mainly a product of Qatari and Saudi Arabian massive infusion of funds, but also as a consequence of the fact that in the past Salafi groups had shunned conventional party politics. All in all there were widespread and growing worries about the Islamization of Egyptian political life, with threats to civic freedoms, constitutional democracy, and the labor movement.

 

            The biggest development was the definite undertaking of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to undertake the task of establishing order in Egypt, and assuring a measure of continuity with the past. Although the SCAF leadership insisted that it was only managing the transition, its autocratic style, the recurrence of state violence and torture, and its reluctance to hold Mubarak operative accountable for past crimes intensified suspicions that SCAF ambition was to control the political future of the country. The SCAF also seemed to constrain democratic choice by disqualifying on highly technical grounds several presidential candidates.

The process had gone so far that ElBoradai withdrew as a candidate, and Moussa no longer seemed a favorite to win.  Among the negative scenarios that were being discussed during this period in various forms was the idea that the MB and the armed forces had struck a deal that doomed the future of the country to an unacceptable political future.

 

III. Late November, Early December 2012

 

            Of course, lots had happened. The presidential race had run its course in two rounds. The runoff was between Mohammed Morsi of the MB and Ahmed Shafik a former air force commanding general and outspoken advocate of a ‘law and order’ presidency, the two leading Egyptian institutions with least in common with the spirit of Tahrir Square. The SCAF seemed to hesitate before finally declaring Morsi the winner in a closely contested final vote, and even then appeared determined to constrain presidential power, but Morsi struck back, retiring the top generals, and effectively asserting presidential authority. Morsi also moved to entrust the drafting of the constitution to a commission of the Parliament dominated by Islamists, and now subject to a national referendum scheduled for December 15th. Then came Morsi’s November 22nd bombshell that claimed presidential authority to issue decrees that could not be judicially reviewed, but in response to the protests, has been substantially rescinded, although sweeping powers have been asserted by Morsi to control future demonstrations and protect the polling process relating to the referendum on the draft constitution. As matters now stand, the opposition is not pacified, and repudiates the process by which the draft constitution was prepared and the substance of several provisions that give the text an Islamic slant, as well as the failure to affirm the equality of women, labor rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties.

 

 

            The anti-Morsi forces have returned en masse to Tahrir Square with an agenda that seems to demand a reversal of these recent developments, which would plunge the country into a deep crisis or an insistence on following through with the adoption of a constitution that was seen as flawed in its endorsement of Sharia law as the basis of state/society relations and by its deference to the anti-democratic demands of the armed forces (including a non-reviewable defense budget, the right to try civilians in military courts, protection of vested interests in the economy).

 

            So far there have been almost daily clashes, some deadly, in Tahrir Square and throughout the city of Cairo, and in other cities around the country. There are several lines of response to these developments: the dominant one applauds the return to the streets to renew the struggle for democracy and economic equity based on its claim that the MB has an undisclosed plan to impose an authoritarian form of Sharia on Egypt with backroom alliance with the armed forces and neoliberal business and finance interests; the opposition claims to be fighting for an inclusive and pluralistic form of democratic political order, which recognizes as stakeholders in constitution-making, the several distinct communities that together make up Egyptian society, including seculars, Copts, and liberals. Another more radical assessment is that the fundamental issue involves the utter bankruptcy of conventional state-centered politics coupled with the complaint that ‘nothing has changed, absolutely nothing.’ What seems to be happening, expressed in the fighting and the mass protests, is a new subjectivity associated with local empowerment in specific communities and among societal sectors, especially women and labor. It is striking that pictures of the confrontation give prominence to women as a major presence among opposition forces, while those that seem to be all male are taken from visual representations of the ranks of MB militants.

 

IV. A Few Tentative Conclusions

 

            In the end, there are several issues, which have come to the surface in this unfolding Egyptian drama:

 

            –a deep division as to the nature of political legitimacy in the Egyptian context, with Islamists resting their claims on the will of the majority, what in

the American 18th century context was derided as ‘the tyranny of the majority’,  while the opposition insists on stakeholder democracy that is protective of distinct constituencies that are fearful of each other and of a Sharia Egypt; in this light, both sides seem uncompromising, and resting their encounter on contradictory views of democratic legitimacy;

            –a new fear that the rise of the MB is leading to the hijacking of the Egyptian Revolution by the forces of Islam in a manner that took place in Iran in 1979; in effect, that it is unacceptable to have Egypt governed by the MB no matter what the outcome of a series of elections. This unacceptability is accentuated by accusations that the MB has made deals with the armed forces and neoliberalism, the two most resented features of the Mubarak past. In this regard, no compromise is possible so long as Morsi remains president, and the unrest will continue. This rejectionist position has been expressed by the announced boycott of the December 15th referendum, which has been interpreted as a recognition that it would in any event prevail. In this respect, the opposition is staking its future on resistance rather than democratic procedures, although a less extreme reading would stress the refusal of Morsi to delay the referendum as demanded. The opposition believes that Egyptians have lost their fear of state power, learned to say ‘no,’ and that while repression may turn to harsh measures, it will not be able to achieve legitimacy or even stability;

 

            –a few brave souls in Egypt are sharply critical of and disturbed by this polarization, insisting that common ground exists among the contending forces, and must be found to avoid national disaster. The claim is that Morsi is far more sensitive to the pluralist claims than the opposition contends, although he has made serious ‘mistakes’ by pushing the panic button that have alarmed opposition elements. In practical terms, the draft constitution is not as flawed as claimed, and that the Morsi leadership has indicated a willingness to be receptive to accommodating amendment in the likely event that the referendum is approved. Similarly, that the opposition has over-reacted, rejected the democratic mandate of the electoral process, and risks pushing the country into a civil war.

 

            

Visit to Gaza: UN Press Release

6 Dec

(I recently completed a mission to the Gaza Strip, entering by way of Egypt at the Rafah Crossing; as I am now in Doha attending the final days of the UN Climate Change negotiations, I have had no chance to write a post describing the moving and difficult circumstances that confront the people of Gaza, and the hopes and disappointments that followed the ceasefire that followed the Israeli onslaught; there are concerns about whether it will be fully implemented in accordance with expectations, and if not, whether events will move toward renewed cross-border violence. There are new hopes and complexities on two further fronts: the aftermath of Palestinian success in being confirmed as a non-member state by the General Assembly on November 29, and the new priority being accorded to reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. More than ever since Hamas assumed governing authority in June 2007, foreign leaders have been visiting Gaza, according Hamas an upgraded diplomatic status)

 

 

Israel must abide by cease-fire agreement in the Gaza Strip       

 

CAIRO (5 December 2012) – Concluding his week-long mission to the region, Mr. Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, called on Israel to abide by and fully implement the cease fire agreement that ended the recent crisis with Gaza.

 

“The initial purpose of my visit was to assess the overall impact of Israel’s prolonged occupation and blockade against the Gaza Strip, which is an integral part of Palestine,” Mr. Falk explained, “however there arose an urgent need to investigate Israel’s seemingly deliberate attacks against seemingly civilian targets during recent hostilities. We visited the sites of attacks and spoke with surviving family members. It is clear that some attacks killed and harmed civilians in a grossly disproportionate manner and thus clearly appear to violate international law.”

 

The Special Rapporteur continued, “There is a widespread feeling among Palestinians that Israel is above the law, and that Israel is likely to continue to have the benefits of impunity even when it flagrantly violates international humanitarian law.  Experience has shown that Israel fails to meet its international obligation to promptly and impartially investigate its own actions. Experience has also shown that Israel is not likely to carry out its obligations under the cease fire agreement; indeed during our visit we heard Israeli warplanes flying directly overhead and received reports of Israeli military incursions into the Gaza Strip.”

 

For the Special Rapporteur, “Sustained pressure from the international community, including both Governments and civil society, is essential to secure Israel’s the full implementation of the cease fire agreement, without which it is extremely unlikely to hold. Worldwide support for the recent General Assembly resolution that made Palestine a non-Member observer State should serve as a starting point for the more concerted international protection of Palestinian rights.”

 

The Special Rapporteur stressed that talks to clarify how certain aspects of the cease fire agreement will be implemented, in particular with regard to access to maritime and agricultural resources, must be swiftly concluded.  “Every day Palestinian fishermen and farmers risk being shot at or detained by Israeli forces. Already since the agreement was reached, Israel has detained 13 fishermen, confiscated 4 fishing boats and sank another fishing boat.  Such actions signal an Israeli intention to maintain the continuity of its coercive style of occupation rather than explore whether implementing the ceasefire, agreement might not lead toward a more relaxed atmosphere and a more hopeful future.”

 

“At the same time, Palestinians and the international community are confronted with huge challenges to address underlying problems that have been severely aggravated by Israel’s occupation and blockade.” The Special Rapporteur pointed to the urgent need for access to clean water and sanitation, productive agricultural land, and new infrastructure. “We received extensive briefs on what could be done if sufficient resources and political will are made available. One example is the construction of a desalinization plant to meet urgent water and agricultural needs, but in many such cases funding is not forthcoming as donors are reluctant to invest in infrastructure projects that Israel is likely to bomb in one of its periodic large-scale attacks against Gaza.”

 

According to Mr. Falk, “Unless these underlying problems are addressed soon, it appears that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020, as predicted by a recent United Nations report. Some of the experts with whom we spoke actually believe that 2016 is a more reasonable assessment.  This indicates the gravity of the human rights crisis in the Gaza Strip.”

 

The Special Rapporteur noted that his visit to the region consisted of meetings in Cairo and the Gaza Strip, with Governmental, inter-governmental and civil society representatives, as well as victims and witnesses.  He received helpful briefings from UNRWA and other United Nations agencies, which provided an in-depth picture of the magnitude of the challenges in Gaza and the difficulties of addressing such challenges in a situation of occupation and blockade.  He expressed his special appreciation to the people of Gaza and those international civil servants with whom he spoke for their support and engagement.

 

Mr. Falk’s next report to the Human Rights Council, which he intends to present in June 2013, will fully address the many concerns that were raised during the mission.

 

ENDS

 

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council designated Richard Falk (United States of America) as the fifth Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The mandate was originally established in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights. Learn more, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/countries/ps/mandate/index.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Occupied Palestinian Territory: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/MENARegion/Pages/PSIndex.aspx
OHCHR Country Page – Israel: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/ILIndex.aspx

 

Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council:

http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/index.htm

 

Thematic mandates: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/themes.htm

 

Country mandates: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/countries.htm

 

For further information and media requests, please contact Kevin Turner (+41 79 201 0122 kturner@ohchr.org)

 

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:

Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

 

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