The thin blue line

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 31 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Between anarchy and order stand the police. Their power is derived from trust and respect. Not brutality. Remember Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist? He was beaten to within an inch of death in Police Room 61 in Port Elizabeth and expired soon after.

Remember the rhino whip found in a police locker in Sheffield in the North of England in 1963? Remember Rodney King, bludgeoned by police wielding batons in Los Angeles in 1991?

This page could be filled with examples of police violence. Every Friday and Saturday night the British police face drunken mobs in towns and cities across the UK. There are no-go areas on the south side of Chicago.

It’s tough being a cop.

Augustus organized them in AD 6 after a particularly devastating fire. The seven squads of vigiles were firemen and watchmen each 1,000 strong, responsible for keeping order in the night.

The watch committees lived on as oversight bodies. The mid to late 19th Century saw the heyday of independent local policing in the UK. Watch committees, meeting weekly, had the power to hire and fire members of their forces. Corruption was their downfall.

The origins of the Ottoman police system goes back to the early 14th Century. Turkish warriors and settlers established a Muslim border state on the Byzantine frontier in northwest Anatolia. As they expanded into the Balkans, conquered Constantinople and seized Mamluke Egypt they shed their military uniforms to manage their conquered empire.

Police forces are appointed by governments to reflect it’s internal security policies. Not to become a law unto themselves.

Egyptian society needs to consider the ramifications of the two shameful cases highlighted in recent times. The wrist tap for the two officers who killed Khaled Saeid in Alexandra is diverting attention from the crime itself.

The circumstances leading to the death of Essam Ali Atta Ali inside Tora maximum-security prison similarly could divert the argument away from discussion of a culture of brutality within the Egyptian police force.

Steve Biko’s murder was a turning point in South Africa. The brutality of policemen in Sheffield brought about the reform of police management in the UK. Rodney King’s beating captured by an amateur cameraman impelled the LAPD to face its shame and to be reformed.

The exposure of blatant brutality in the ranks of the Egyptian police is the death knell of respect for the police and could be the end of the road for the militia as a whole if they choose to turn a blind eye as usual.

Historically it takes only one incident to bring a corrupt force down. These revelations could turn very nasty indeed for former regime candidates in the elections next month.

It’s hard for their opponents to finger former office holders still at large. It’s easier to tar and feather them with clear-cut examples of the brutishness that characterized their regime.


What should be done and what could be done?

Specifically, a judicial review should be ordered to examine the verdict handed down in Alexandria that sentenced the two police officers responsible for Khaled Saeid’s death to seven years’ hard labor in jail. The review should be conducted by judges known for their probity and equally for commonsense.

The death of Essam Ali Atta Ali should be reviewed first by a panel of senior officers. They should have their chance to prove they are worthy of the public’s trust and support.

It’s no good trying these cases in the court of public opinion. It’s time to fess up and bolster confidence in the judicial system. If there’s a cover up, it should be dealt with by the public prosecutor.

Am I naïve?

The people voted with their feet for democracy, which compels openness and transparency. Now they can endorse a ballot paper.

The electorate should ignore candidates for political office who refuse to face these uncomfortable truths. If the forthcoming vote restores known corrupt figures to the People’s Assembly the electorate will be responsible for the consequences. They will have only themselves to blame.

After that the parliament will have to decide how the new constitution can recognize the essential elements of democracy.

It is not for the military to elect a government. The party with the most seats will demand that privilege. If no party has a majority, a coalition government should be formed. You can imagine the brouhaha over who becomes the prime minister.

No doubt the constitution will have a thing or two to say about the powers of the presidency. In a democracy all power cannot reside in one person’s hands. The People’s Assembly and the Shura Council should ratify decisions by the president, whose spending power should be restricted to upholding the office.

For those who fear extremists taking over consider what happened in Ireland this week. The revolutionary candidate for the presidency, a former leader of the outlawed Irish Republican Army running for the once-banned Sinn Fein party was humiliated into third place with only 13 percent of the vote.

The front-runner, with a 15-point lead in the opinion polls a week earlier, crashed out after a brutally frank TV confrontation with his rivals. He came a dismal second. The winner was a human rights activist, a poet who started his campaign with one assistant in a drafty office with hardly a penny to pay the electric bill.

‘Happy’ Higgins Wins, proclaimed the Irish Times as stunned as everyone. Labor Party candidate Michael D Higgins was immediately congratulated by his rivals. To a man and woman they declared their faith in his promise to conduct the Irish presidency completely impartial of politics as two women before him had, the independent leader of all the Irish people.

If you’d asked me a few years ago when Ireland’s centuries of conflict and war would end, I’d have answered not in my lifetime. When I covered African wars way back when I said the same about South Africa and its apartheid system. When asked about Egypt I say I am confident commonsense will win out.

The warrior strategist Karl Von Clausewitz said two qualities are indispensable: First, an intellect that even in the darkest hour retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it leads.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


Uncomfortable truths

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

Philip Whitfield

October 26 2011

CAIRO: Censorship’s logical end is when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads, wrote George Bernard Shaw. The degree of restriction on political debate before parliamentary elections in a few weeks’ time is a measure of Egypt’s freedom.

The media is caught in a conundrum. On the one hand editors understand the red lines not to be crossed: disclosing intelligence or directly criticizing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The penal code’s statutes forbid opinions that usurp national unity. Article 98, amended five years ago specifically states those exploiting religion to promote extremist ideologies to stir up sedition or endangering national unity will be imprisoned or fined.

Last week Ayman Mansour was sent down for three years for creating a Facebook wall that the judge said expressed derogatory opinions about Islam that threaten national unity.

There’s a ticklish legal point here. Should a secular court claim jurisdiction over what is and what is not derogatory to a faith?

Presumably if an Egyptian blogger started derogating Christianity he would be arrested under Article 98 for stirring up sedition, disparaging or holding in contempt a divine religion.

Thousands more might be put in the dock for exploiting religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth.

And, for all I know, vice versa. I’m sure some Christians have made a few ill-chosen remarks about Muslims.

The point is: freedom of speech laws as written should not be on the stature book after the revolution.
God forbid that anything like the Qadaffi quandary should be faced in Egypt. Pictures of Qadaffi being frog-marched out of a drainpipe, then lying dead were on the Internet within two hours of its happening.

In my reporting days the BBC would not have broken internal rules carrying the footage. 1. There was no confirmation the next of kin had been informed. 2. The images were too distressing to show an audience before the 9 o’clock news.

I faced the first dilemma when I received tip-off that Lord Mountbatten had been killed when his boat was blown up off the west coast of Ireland. With a minute or two to go before the 1 o’clock news, I was able to reassure a scrupulous newsdesk that the Queen had been informed.

The BBC did decide to carry footage of the aftermath following massacre of dozens of people after a bomb went off in the center of Belfast. Police were shown putting body parts into plastic bags.

There was uproar mainly because the footage was aired at 6 o’clock, when children would be watching.

In its own way, Egypt is wrestling with similar issues of self-censorship.

Yosri Fouda decided to take his TV show Akher Kalam off the air indefinitely to protest against what he called relentless censorship efforts. Fouda was due to host Alaa El-Aswany, a staunch critic of SCAF to comment on the interview by two Egyptian army generals, Mahmoud Hegazy and Mohamed El-Assar.

According to Al Ahram speculation was rife that Fouda was pressured by SCAF. Neither confirming nor denying, Fouda said he could not bear obligatory censorship.

It’s naïve to suggest pressure is not exerted in other societies to restrict criticism. It goes on all the time in America, Britain and other so-called free societies. American politicians are loath to upset the media fearing its clout. Recently British political leaders have been exposed cozying up to the likes of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch to curry favor.
It’s a measure of the repressive nature of societies such as China and Russia that they crack down on dissident voices. Saudi Arabia rarely grants visas to western journalists and doesn’t allow them to set up offices.

Egypt has been more acquiescent, even before the revolution. But more needs to be done, particularly in the pre-election period.

Mark Twain said censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. In plain speak, those who understand the tough issues should be allowed to chew the fat.

In 1689 England’s Bill of Rights granted freedom of speech in Parliament. A hundred years later freedom of speech was extended by the French revolutionaries in their Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, affirming the free communication of ideas and opinions to be one of the most precious of the rights of man.

In 1948 the United Nations adopted Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Those rights have passed into international law today. Freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression is recognized in international and regional human rights law.

However reinterpreted freedom of speech recognizes the arguments propounded by the author of Paradise Lost, John Milton. He said freedom of speech is a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but to seek information and ideas; to receive information and ideas and to impart information and ideas.

Rightly, freedom of speech is commonly subject to limitations, such as defamation, obscenity and incitement to commit a crime.

The philosopher, university administrator and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn who died in 1964, was an Englishman much revered in America. He said democracy would not be true to its essential ideal if those in power were able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism.

Democracy is self-government of the people by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary, Meiklejohn said.

In order to be knowledgeable, there should be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Plutocrats playing with fire

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 23 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The poor will always be with us. It’s more than an ageless sermon. It’s the reality of political change fuelling the world’s abomination of fat cats.

But what do we do with the wealthy? They’ll be around for eternity.

Sequestration doesn’t work. Nationalizing Egypt’s assets half a century ago didn’t reduce the numbers of the poor. Goons grabbed tycoons’ treasure. Morsels trickled down.

This week sees the reemergence of Egypt’s wealthy class in a familiar guise. According to the Supreme Electoral Commission a significant group of prominent former NDP cabinet ministers are among the 4,000 would-be parliamentary candidates in the forthcoming elections.

They include chairmen of parliamentary committees and prominent business people. In addition to the estimated 60 NDP-independents who have registered their candidacies thus far, several NDP-offshoot parties also intend to feature ex-NDP members on their electoral lists.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has not bowed to popular demand for former NDP politicians to be banned from running.

Most of them have registered to contest the one third of parliamentary seats reserved for independent candidates, which if precedence holds, means they’ll coalesce in a parliamentary bloc.

At the top of the list according to Al Ahram are prominent figures, such as business tycoon Tarek Talaat Mostafa, the former NDP chairman of parliament’s housing committee and brother of Hisham Talaat Mostafa, the former NDP-affiliated construction magnate sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for murder.

The list also includes Mostafa El-Said, a former economy minister and NDP-affiliated chairman of parliament’s economic affairs committee; and Abdel-Reheim El-Ghoul, former NDP-affiliated chairman of parliament’s agriculture committee.

The independents are competing for a third of the parliamentary seats. Two thirds are allocated for party-affiliated candidates. The NDP as such is disallowed from running.

They’ve set up their own party and infiltrated others. Several NDP-offshoot parties including the Hurreya (‘Freedom’) Party, founded by a business family whose godfather – Mohamed Mahmoud Ali Hassan – was a member of the old NDP elite, according to Al Ahram.

His two sons, Motaz and Mamdouh have established the Hurreya Party as an NDP bastion in Upper Egypt with at least 80 former NDP leaders in Upper Egypt on Hurreya’s candidate list.

Hurreya’s list for the Cairo governorate includes 12 former NDP parliamentarians and their Nile Delta list includes former NDP MPs.

Let’s turn now to what’s likely to be the largest group elected to parliament: the Islamists, whom Mostafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University says stand to be the largest grouping in the People’s Assembly.

Given their popular following and their financial resources, Sayed, says they are the most powerful candidates.



Ashraf Al-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University believes Islamists combined will get around 35 percent of the seats, 25 percent going to the Muslim Brotherhood and the remaining 10 percent to the rest of the Islamic groups.

Predictions of the Islamists have risen since the first opinion polls in early summer put their strength at around 15 percent. In the next couple of weeks, it will become clearer which candidate fits into which electoral slot. Punditry will become sounder.

What’s clear is that the spirit of the revolution is being doused. The small parties that reflect true democracy are being squashed. They’ve neither the funds, clout nor experience to dent the old timers’ prepotencies.

Take heart.

An article in the current edition of the New Statesman, which has a canny knack of foretelling political futures reflects on the outcomes of fallen dictators in Asia.

Autocrats ruled the Far East and South East Asia for decades after their post-independence history, One by one, however, nearly all the despots have fallen, or stepped down, or begun to open up their state’s political sphere and relinquish power.

In some countries, the change happened dramatically, as in Indonesia and in the Philippines’ People Power Revolution of 1986, which saw off Ferdinand Marcos. In others, soft authoritarians such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad voluntarily terminated long periods in office.

Democracy today may be limited, as it is in Singapore, shaky (Cambodia) or intermittent (Thailand). But principles of good governance, such as independence of the judiciary, took root so quickly in South Korea and Taiwan that both countries have tried and convicted democratically elected presidents.

Throughout the region, repression is on the wane. The cheers for democracy have been unstoppable, the New Statesman says.

There is one thing that has marked the transition towards democracy in East Asia: It has been an almost bewilderingly magnanimous accommodation with the past.

In Indonesia, several of Suharto’s top generals have been on the ticket in presidential elections; one, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the incumbent. Marcos’s widow is in the Philippines congress, and their son is a senator.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is a former member of the Khmer Rouge and was also premier of the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the 1980s. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime fell over 30 years ago, but only five senior Khmer Rouge cadres have faced trial so far, and one has been convicted.

The award-winning author Tash Aw, whose first two novels are set in Malaysia and Indonesia, said:I think it is a typically Asian way of dealing with the trauma of history: we have to ignore the ugly truth of what happened in the past in order to move forward.

The outcome of Egypt’s first democratic election is uncertain. It may dismay those who despair at the apparent slow progress.

Yet we have to hope that there will be no turning back; that the principles of justice are acknowledged.

All that Gadhafi and the Mubaraks accumulated couldn’t save them. They are vilified dead or incarcerated.

There are two types of poor people, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote. There are those who are poor together and those who are poor alone.

The first are the true poor, the others are rich people out of luck.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Weaving a silver lining

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 19 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: On the heels of the prisoner swap, a new deal is afoot. According to the New York Times the American law student Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old from Queens in New York who is also an Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt in June and charged with spying for Israel is expected to be released in the coming days in exchange for scores of Egyptians held in Israel.

What’s up?

Representative Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat from Queen says: We are extremely close in this complicated deal. Eighty Egyptians arrested over the Israeli border on drug and other charges will be exchanged for Mr. Grapel.

The New York Times said Mr. Grapel and his family have consistently denied that he had any links to espionage. A graduate of Johns Hopkins, a student of Arabic and a former paratrooper in the Israeli Army, he was wounded in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Mr. Grapel came to Cairo in May to work for a nonprofit group helping refugees, according to his family and Mr. Ackerman. He went to Tahrir Square frequently and made no secret of his Israeli citizenship. On his Facebook page, he displayed pictures of himself in Israeli military uniform.

Twice I’ve been accused of being a spy. Both based on a former life as a BBC correspondent who covered the 1973 war from the Israeli side. The first accusation led to my home in America being turned over. Checked out, I was cleared.

More recently I was subjected to house arrest for a few hours and then released. Since then my computer bears the brunt of someone’s ire.

Pish posh. The accusations are nonsense.

Like Grapel I’m no spy. Like him I have an inquisitive mind.

The exchange of prisoners was arranged in meetings at a hotel in Heliopolis with a German diplomat coordinating the discussions between Hamas and diplomats from Israel and Egypt.

He was able to iron clasp the intricacies of the swap. Eventually the paperwork secured the bargain.

As we saw everyone kept their word. The exchange went off without a hitch.

Successful bargaining means looking for positives in every possible circumstance.

If I can trade off issues that I care about more and you care about less, then we’ve been able to create value in a transaction, says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational behavior and director of two Stanford Business School executive education programs in negotiation.

That’s the silver lining, she says.

A common mistake in negotiation is when both parties want the same thing. Your boss says he wants to promote you by heading up a new team. Great, you think. I want you to go to Assiut and set up our operation there. We’ll be creating new jobs for 150 people. OK?

At home you consider the options. You can’t expect to get everything I want, so you’ll accept the compromise. Maybe your boss has someone else in mind. Perhaps he’ll hire that person and never talk to you again.

Harvard University says 20 to 35 percent of the students assume that a situation is a fixed pie and miss an opportunity to get what both parties want.

Israel was not compelled to make a prisoner swap. Neither was Egypt. Domestic issues are paramount. Egypt’s rulers are focused on preserving their credibility and providing security for the forthcoming elections.

Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization have other fish to fry. Both are languishing in a lassitude. They’ve been unable to give their supporters hope let alone economic improvement.

On the other hand, the international community sees the Middle East as a bulwark of their survival. Where else offers so much opportunity for economic improvement?

The region has the largest number of youthful aspirants demanding a better life. They’ve demonstrated their rejection of authoritative regimes that steal their money and trump up charges against anyone who disapproves.

No matter how many bullets they fire into the crowds, the protesters return with a simple demand: Give us the right to determine our own future.

They don’t have to provide evidence of their betrayal. Others are coming forward with foreign bank accounts that list hundreds of millions of dollars looted from the public purse.

Switzerland’s belated admission that the Mubaraks have a few hundred million stashed away is the tip of an iceberg. London and New York should come clean as well.

How do we do that?

Harvard suggests one way to get inside your opponent’s head and influence his attitude is to shape the issues for him, a technique called framing. If you get your opponent to accept your view of the situation, then you can influence the amount of risk he is willing to take.

In the same way that Gilad Shalit was released.

The key parties, Egypt, the United States, the EU and the Gulf States should assemble and face up to one question: Who is holding how much from the former rulers of Egypt?

Next step: ask the International Monetary Fund to examine the books. After that: Produce a reckoning.

Then Egypt can make the arrangements to transfer the money into the Finance Ministry.

If the holders, probably investment banks, baulk, Egypt can play its cards. To Britain: Let’s renegotiate oil and gas deals. To America: Let’s renegotiate landing rights for your aircraft. To the rest: Let’s up your fees to use the Suez Canal by 50 percent.

The interim Egyptian government has scored a goal with the release of hostages.

Why don’t they capitalize on their success?

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Light at the end of the tunnels?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

Philip Whitfield

Light at the end of the tunnels?

CAIRO: Credit where credit’s due. Mohannad Sabry, an enterprising correspondent for 30 or so American dailies filed a story this week describing the smugglers’ tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Above ground, the exchange of prisoners of war is equally enthralling – choreographed, clandestine and complicated.

Sabry’s millions of readers didn’t have to leave home. His eye-popping account landed on their doorsteps. Readers of California’s Sacramento Bee, The Island Packet on Hilton Head in South Carolina, the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, The Wichita Eagle in Kansas, The Miami Herald and a host of other papers learned that there are no less than 1,000 tunnels underneath 14 kilometers of border.

That’s like four tunnels crisscrossing the Center Court at Wimbledon, or two up and down my apartment.

Sabry described Rafah’s Salah Eddin neighborhood on the Egyptian side: Pickups and tractor-trailers clog the narrow streets carrying loads of almost anything: cookies, canned food, tanks of cooking gas, cement, construction steel. What’s delivered, however, leaves through a network of secret tunnels that are the major conduit for goods headed into Gaza. Their value is no doubt in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

Sabry’s tunnel marshal took him along a narrow rail line transporting carts loaded with goods. The tunnels are divided by specialties: consumer goods and construction material in some, cars in others. One car tunnel in Rafah was customized to carry Hummers a Palestinian had bought from a Libyan.

Competition is so fierce that the cost of smuggling a ton of cement has gone down from $15,000 to $700. Hamas is reported to charge $3,000 for a tunnel license.

Sabry reports the Egyptians are using explosives to blow up tunnels they uncover. In one case last week, a tunnel was filled with tires, rubble, cement and water because explosives would damage houses nearby.

It’s a rare glimpse into the realities of cross border relations. The arguments for and against the tunnels could fill a book.

At the end of the day, Egypt must emerge with some respect for its imperturbable diplomacy. Imagine yourself convincing Hamas of your credibility as an honest peace broker while blowing up the Gaza Palestinians’ ingenious home delivery service.

Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary elections, fought their erstwhile foe and has governed Gaza since. They’re classified as terrorists by the likes of the EU, the United States, the UK and Japan while being recognized by nations including Russia, Turkey and Switzerland.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. This week’s prisoner swap may signal a breakthrough. On the face of it, the deal frees more than 1,000 Palestinians for the release of one man, Sergeant Gilad Shalit who was abducted by Hamas militants from Israel in June 2006 during a cross-border raid.

The apparent acquiescence by Israel and Egypt to the arrangement is significant though not for the numbers involved. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.

Let’s look at the timing. Prisoner swaps can signal the beginning of the end game.

Peace talks in Doha between the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government focused on the rebels releasing 60 captured government soldiers and police as a goodwill gesture. The Sudanese government welched on the bargain but the tension in Darfur has been defused as a result of face-to-face bargaining.

In Columbia FARC rebels released a couple of hostages last year as a precursor to a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between FARC and the Colombian government.

The exchange of 5,600 Iraqi prisoners of war for 300 Iranians in 1998 improved relations, though it took another eight years to make good on Iran’s promises.

In 1973, the U.S. and North Vietnam came to terms on a prisoner release for 591 American POWs, including the now Senator John McCain.

In 1962, two years after shooting down Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane the Soviets exchanged Powers for their spy Rudolf Abel.

In 1961 Fidel Castro haggled with the Americans over the release of 1,000 Bay of Pigs prisoners demanding 500 bulldozers. Rebuffed, he demanded $28 million in credits, cash, or tractors, only to settle for $3 million topped up with medicines and baby food.

In 1953 Operation Little Switch was part of a United Nations effort to recover the remaining 12,500 allied prisoners of the Korean War. Some 100 prisoners were exchanged for 600 communist detainees at Panmunjom. A larger exchange coincided a few months later with the armistice agreement.

Prisoner exchanges were commonplace during the American Civil War up until 1864. General Ulysses S. Grant put an end to the practice after the South refused to treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war. The war ended the following year.

My reading is that when prisoner swaps are agreed, they’re mostly begrudging and messy. Each side puts a gloss on the outcome. But they do indicate the presence of a willingness to negotiate in favor of combat.

At the same time as Mahmoud Abass, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization is seeking recognition for nationhood by the United Nations, Israel, Hamas and Egypt are bargaining.

It’s temerarious to suggest peace is about to be declared between Israel and the Palestinians. But it does indicate willingness by Hamas to veer away from intractability gingerly towards negotiation, to relieve some of the tension between the antagonists albeit through Egypt’s good offices.

Hamas has established undeniable authority over Gaza. It has weathered hostility from the EU, the US and the UK. One way or another Hamas has favored aplomb over a bomb to persuade Israel to release a large number of prisoners from Gaza.

On the street, Gazans extol a win. Egypt, too, can take comfort that its diplomats have alleviated an intractable, delicate quandary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yielded to Israeli popular opinion to repatriate one of their soldiers.

A comprehensive settlement in this age-old conflict is no nearer to hand.

But lessened tension and dialogue could shepherd in a next-best phase in the relationship: the beginning of an understanding.

Around the corner could be a flicker at the end of the tunnel.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Deadly divide and rule

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 17 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: To cross the River Nile from the Corniche to Zamalek you would probably go by bridge. If the bridges were closed, you could take a boat. In theory if the boatman refuses you could swim.

The three strategies address the same objective: to arrive in Zamalek. In military academies much emphasis is placed on strategy.

The universally accepted objective of the revolution is to transform an autocratic society into a democracy. On the face of it the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces endorses this by laying out timetables to elect new legislatures and a president.

What’s disturbing is not the objective, but the strategies being deployed to achieve the goal. Instead of a bridge to freedom the people are enduring a tortuous choppy journey.

The path to democracy is rancorous, deadly and precarious. Protests disintegrate into fisticuffs and worse as self-righteous groups seek to overlord each another. The Bloody Sunday massacre of Copts at Maspero joins the dots of a contumelious campaign stretching way back.

According to newspaper reports, the ruling militia approved a law on Saturday that punishes discrimination offenders with a minimum three months’ jail and fines of up to EGP 100,000. Will a statute make a difference?

Anti-discrimination legislation is the bedrock for European Union membership these days. Every new EU member has to pass such a law including outlawing discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sex. Declarations of good intent are not sufficient. The European parliament has pioneered legislative action to criminalize offenders.

Unfortunately a review by a panel of legal experts last December concluded discrimination in Europe remains widespread. Member states resisted providing evidence. Even when concerted efforts were made – such as recruiting police in Northern Ireland from an equal pool of protestant and catholic candidates – the law was challenged for discriminating against the protestant majority.

Copts face an uphill struggle to live on equal terms in Egypt. The anti-discrimination law is a first step. Enforcement would prove intent. A positive discrimination law should follow. That would reflect the overwhelming desire in Tahrir Square to strengthen the foundations that have distinguished Egypt for centuries: tolerance and esteem.

At times of great strain, others have articulated the true measure of tolerance, none better than Mahatma Gandhi: A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

Esteem was the foundation of John F. Kennedy’s appeal for unity: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Neither Gandhi nor Kennedy sought to divide their nations. Both marshaled unity to conquer stubborn foes: in India, British imperialism, in America the threat of Soviet expansion.

Flicking through the clippings in the Cairo archive identifies Egypt’s failure to adhere to the revolution’s first principle: tolerance. In their Theory of Tolerance two professors of economics, Giacomo Corneo from the Free University of Berlin and Olivier Jeanne of Johns Hopkins University offer an insight.

They say intolerant individuals attach all symbolic value to a small number of attributes. They disrespect people with different ones. Tolerant people have diversified values and respect social alterity, alien cultural values such as sexuality, divorce and women’s rights.

The hairs on the back of my neck bristled reviewing their method to determine the tolerance of societies in three categories: occupation, lifestyle and religion. Re-examining the comments of the various groups that are in tension forming Egypt’s new democracy forces the conclusion that tolerance is absent.

Two recent experiences are apposite. The obituaries of Steve Jobs related the founder of Apple moving from poverty to great wealth without hindrance from the one-time stigma of illegitimacy and adoption. The American society he traversed accepted him for what he was doing for others, rather than rejecting him as a social misfit.

Listening to the president of the Royal Society, Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse unveil his upbringing revealed the extent of his achievement. Brought up by a cook and a handyman, he was in his 50s before learning they weren’t his parents. They were his grandparents. His mother was the woman he’d been led to believe was his sister. His brother and another sister became his aunt and uncle.

Yet here is Britain’s most influential scientist guiding the top echelons of policy-making with nary a care about his parentage. His peers acknowledge him as the architect of expanding gene therapy, a genius of teambuilding, eschewing academics’ egos.

The core of the problem in Egypt today is fear of change. According to professors Corneo and Jeanne, authoritarian paternalism — children guided to embrace lifestyles of their parents’ choosing — results in a society of highly complacent and intolerant people.

Alternately they say children that are encouraged to follow natural talents results in a society of tolerant people who take advantage of their economic opportunities. In a tolerant society production efficiency is enhanced. The move from intolerance to tolerance increases incomes.

What does this have to do with strategies?

To my mind those opposing significant change are attempting to divide the tolerant majority that emerged in Tahrir Square so that a self-centered cadre can commandeer the reigns of power.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Caesar and Napoleon used divide and rule as an effective strategy to hold power. Machiavelli advocated it in his manual The Art of War.

Even democrats are tempted. James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence that under certain qualifications divide et impera is the only policy by which a republic can be administered on just principles.

Dividing people to dominate them is a cynical strategy to control.

History reveals its folly. The division of the Subcontinent of India into three parts fosters enmity. Ireland’s division along religious lines is a millstone around Britain’s neck. Korea glares across minefields. Cyprus exists on baleful rhetoric.

The genius of German literature, the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1832) put his finger on it: Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is the watchword of the wise.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

A Perfect storm: Reason and faith

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 14 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: On the streets it’s observed as a contest between innocence and brutality. In the mind, however the revolution may be regarded in different lights. Is it authoritarianism’s valediction or a struggle for equality?

While it’s premature to jump to conclusions, it is dereliction to dismiss the portents of a gathering perfect storm — the swell of sectarianism, sedition and spleen.

The Arab region has bolted forward 800 years in less than one. Orthodox Arab culture isn’t exploding. It’s imploding. Today’s Arab aspiration is another pirouette of pique that emerges when society tries to segue from the safety of status quo to an unpredictable status futurus.

The 21st Century opens with America on the ropes, Europe drowning in debt and Asia mustering its Trojan horses to corral the spoils.

It’s a surprisingly quick end to imperious western cockiness. The 20th Century saw the collapse of seven empires — Mandarin China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Japan, Britain and both Tsarist and Soviet Russia.

The 21st Century ushers in the transmogrification of Islamic hegemony, the cultural dominance of its heartland.

Such change is always labyrinthine. Rome’s empire crumbled in grumbling. Troy’s lassitude surrendered its fabulous wealth to Greek pirates. America’s arrogant, edacious appetite for greenbacks spewed a spendthrift splurge of military might, dismembering its economic muscle.

Today’s actors were similarly engaged in mediaeval times. The Bishop of Cologne Albert the Great (1206 –1280) was convinced that the peaceful coexistence of science and religion was being better handled by Islam than Christianity. He admired the tremendous success of Arabic philosophy and technology, its mastery of the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and botany over theirs.
Intellectually the Arabs were light years ahead.

Then as now Europe was desperately seeking a system that worked. They learned from the Greek and Latin translations coming out of Cordova that the twin pillars of Aristotle and the Quran’s wisdom buttressed Arab superiority.

Christianity didn’t have a problem embracing Islam’s core beliefs, which were much the same as theirs. Their problem was conflating Aristotle’s theory of creation as a natural process with Genesis’ version — nascence in a nutshell.

Neither being provable, the Europeans fell back on belief to cover the cracks. The Arabs accepted a force beyond comprehension as Creation’s genius but used Aristotelian reasoning to get on with their lives.

It’s a pity Europe and Middle East scholarship couldn’t converge to hammer out a compromise. Instead, Europe took the ready-made Arab curriculum for studying chemistry, physics and botany into the University of Paris and onwards. Their naval gazing led to the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, the power of reason to reform society.

Islamist scholars declared they had enough truth to be going on with. Then as until a few months ago the Arabs weren’t interested in upsetting the applecart. The revolutionary thinkers in Paris, Rome, Athens and Constantinople could get on with their bickering — what good would it do them? As it happens, much: Europe advanced rapidly.

The establishment’s wings were clipped. Protestantism was invented, fought over and fled to America where tolerance of dissimilarity grew an affluent and apparently inculpable people worshipping the American dream — the envy of the dispossessed.

Jettisoning its ethics and principles to subjugate Iraq and Afghanistan, America wrought the opprobrium of decent people, disgraced by a vainglorious attempt to settle scores with explosive technologies misused to kill bands of insurrectionists.

America’s strength is not finesse. The plumber with only a hammer to hand whacks every joint causing a drip to cascade in floods. The seamstress too impoverished to own a sewing machine hand stitches and embroiders an even more beautiful garment for her child.

The Arab street erupted not over western conquest, as they might, but over their own leaders’ synchronicity. They saw their secret services inveigled into interrogating suspects in dungeons, bludgeoned before dubious incarceration in Guantanamo.

They reasoned if the world’s rulers could cage dissenters like animals what hope was there for them? If they arose armed, would they be snuffed out as wantonly? Their strategy to organize peaceful non-violent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was a tentative first step to test the waters.

Ironically they reverse-mimicked the 13th Century’s discourse between Europe and the Middle East. Youthful protest was to disestablish an Arab order swamped by corruption and deceit, its failure to share the spoils, the subjugation of talent, intellectual energy, resourcefulness, disavowing righting wrongs, deaf to their children’s craving for fair play and women’s rights.

Albert the Great put his trust in Thomas Aquinas, a youngster he mentored in 1245 at the University of Paris’ Faculty of Arts. When Thomas failed his first exams Albert exclaimed: We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.

Later canonized Thomas became the church’s greatest philosopher and theologian. Thomas’s eternal gift defines the goal of human existence as a union of amaranthine fellowship under God or, in agnostic Aristotle’s eyes, the source of goodness.

That’s where the revolution stands today: a tussle between tolerance and prejudice. Can the divergent groups that teeter on destroying the ethos of the revolution come together in equable debate, albeit rigorous and spirited before, during and after the people’s choice of leaders concludes?

Faiths unite in respect for creation’s wonder as Tahrir Square demonstrates from time to time. Reason can prevail when the antagonists listen to each other.
Of the 323 violent and non-violent campaigns for democracy in the past century, non-violence is winning hands down: two to one. Unfortunately, 40 percent of the non-violent campaigns ran out of steam one way or another, the post-insurgencies looking much the same as before.

A run-out-of steam scenario in Egypt would be better than a bloodbath. The omens aren’t boding well. This week’s murderous events support the growing speculation that violence will erupt during the November elections.

If murder on a grand scale is likely, the elections should be postponed.
Killing each other would not only be lamentable. It will kill Egypt’s credibility abroad and consign economic progress into the Dark Ages.

What’s required is conciliation on both sides. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should arbitrate not dictate. Their mission is to protect not to provoke. The forces for change, which represent almost everyone, should parade their credibleness instead of carping over every choice they don’t condone.

Reasoning will fathom the question eluding the nation: how to avoid hysterical disunity?

Faith trumpets the triumph of liberty, justice and freedom on a jubilant, jacquerie journey.
Philip Whitfield is a commentator in Cairo.